Shepard is still wallowing in anger after their previous mission.
She doesn't have to say it, it's really fucking clear from the way she pushes into the mess hall the following morning, barely taking the time to look at what sort of food she piles up on her tray, one hand and both eyes following a long list of messages on her omni-tool. Her mouth is a taut line and her teeth are clenched. Normally she's the type of person who's controlled even when she's goddamn furious or pointing a machine gun to your forehead, but something about the past few days seems to have slipped under her skin.
As she accidentally elbows Zaeed right in the middle of his chest, she finally looks up, momentarily disoriented.
"Morning," he says, taking a step to the side.
"Yeah," she nods back as though he had asked her a question.
Shepard proceeds to a table where Garrus and Jacob are already sitting. Zaeed follows suit, mostly because his other option is the company of shrink Chambers who still hasn't given up the attempts of figuring out how a man who has seen so much destruction can be mentally healthy.
Because I'm not a goddamn psychopath, bitch.
He recalls yesterday's grand finale to what had turned into a fairly long run in and out of various geth-infested science facilities run by Cerberus. Shepard had got trapped in an advanced Virtual Reality created by the head scientist who, as it had turned out, had used his autistic brother in his experiments. Needless to say, Shepard had freaked the hell out when she learned the truth about it; Zaeed had watched her being closer the the edge of her self-control than he's ever seen her before and the second before she slammed her gun into Gavin Archer's face, he had been sure she would blow his brains out.
Zaeed would have cheered the death of that son of a bitch, but he's not sure it's a good sign that the commander is even considering that sort of retribution. Seems to run counter to her nature and annoying as that nature is he can't deny that it's worked pretty damn well for the galaxy so far.
"The Grissom Academy should be a good place for David Archer, Shepard." Garrus looks up at her, mandibles twitching slightly. Ever the goddamn nurse, Zaeed thinks. For such a self-proclaimed badass, the turian sure spends a lot of time reassuring his commander. Hero-worship doesn't even begin to describe it. "You did the right thing."
She nods at him, something in her face softening. "Yeah."
"You'd think statistically, at least some of the Cerberus facilities would have to be less horrific."
"No, then they wouldn't be Cerberus facilities," Shepard retorts sarcastically. She's finally closed her terminal and dug into her food. "My favourite thing about them is all this secrecy bullshit. You can't track any operations or do any complex data analysis. Makes for such ethical projects."
In a fluid organisation like Cerberus, Zaeed knows, information is in a constant state of flux, built on systematic misinformation and dead ends. He's tried enough times to get something useful from their networks to know that it's goddamn hopeless.
"Yeah, and here I thought Citadel security was a sordid history," Garrus says, drawing a smile from Shepard.
"Not mutually exclusive," she points out over a spoonful of this morning's porridge.
"True. But it gives you some perspective."
Perspective. Zaeed nearly laughs. Shepard aside, most of these people have no goddamn clue about perspective. When you've founded a merc company intended to be a Skyllian verge protection racket that your bastard partner gradually morphs into a fucking terrorist cell, only to stab you in the back, kill everyone who had been loyal to you and piss all over your name in every corner of the galaxy, then you bloody well learn about perspective.
But that, Zeed thinks as he finished his meal, is hardly the kind of war story he will share.
They return to the Citadel to check out a lead that apparently is meant to take them to the traitor who had shot a hole in the turian's renegade group of fighters on Omega. It's been brewing for some time, even Zaeed who doesn't exactly seek out his company has snapped up his growing eagerness to get going.
The tracking of the traitor is much like any other tracking on a place like the Citadel – tiresome and full of brainless mercs standing in their way. At least Zaeed can pride himself on not ever having been desperate enough to take whatever shitty goddamn job they had offered him, not even back when he had no reputation and no credits. He's always looked for some dignity in his work, never wanted to degrade himself chasing after just about anyone like a mindless dog. He may have shit for honour but he's not a goddamn krogan. After a while when he could pick and choose, he had selected only the best kind of bounties, the hardest missions, the ones generating the best cash and the toughest reputation. That's the only way you get by as a bounty hunter. By being considered utterly ruthless and brutally efficient, by having your name associated with bloodbaths and success – so you exaggerate every cruel killing you've ever done and keep your mouth shut about the rest. No one needs to know that while you blew up a whole fucking colony out in the outskirts of the Terminus system, the only ones left in the residential area were a bunch of slavers and some turian scouts.
That's why he's hardly impressed, let alone scared, of anyone at this point in his life. Half of it is empty bullshit. At the end of the day, even the ones with the reputation of being heartless monsters will go down on their knees and beg for their lives or the lives of their family if they have to.
The racketeer who goes under the name of Fade is probably one of them, too, Zaeed thinks as Shepard and her turian sidekick kills two bodyguards to get a whiny little volus talking. If you're stupid enough to have goddamn volus covering for you, you deserve to have your alias blown to pieces.
"Harkin." Shepard's voice is dark, the word coming off more as a vicious snarl.
Zaeed glances at her. "Friend of yours?"
"Ex-C-Sec officer," Garrus fills him in in her place. "C-Sec threw him out as soon as they could without risking diplomatic turmoil."
"Anderson calls him a disgrace to our species," Shepard adds. "I'm inclined to agree."
Zaeed is utterly unsurprised to find Blue Suns mercs involved in the mission that stretches out over a couple of hours and leads them to the badly supervised Factory districts. Vido sure has branched out and drops his recruits all over the galaxy these days. Luckily for the galaxy, he usually recruits morons and cowards.
That same afternoon, Zaeed watches as Shepard lets her turian friend chase down and kneecap Harkin, which seems fitting. The pleasure on the turian's face is visible even to Zaeed who normally has a hard time figuring out what the hell the bird-people are thinking – or even telling them apart.
But then, a moment later, Zaeed also watches as Garrus joins the others among the crew who doesn't get a chance at revenge. Because of course Shepard sees through his deluded façades and speeches about wanting justice. Like Zaeed, Shepard can spot a lust for revenge when she sees one and in the end she sabotages what would have been a clean sniper shot to end a pathetic old guy's misery.
There's a moment when Zaeed is convinced the turian is going to shoot anyway. It's a goddamn unfair choice she gives him, given their history, but Shepard's a hardass if there ever was one. She'd probably fire right through her closest friend if enough was at stake and the fact that she still stands there, blocking the laser sights with her body makes something tighten in his throat.
When they walk away from the scene he gives her a long, searching glance; she meets his gaze but says nothing during the short trek back to the cab.
No one says much inside the cab either.
"We don't kick people who are already down," Shepard points out, levelly.
"We're not the law," she clarifies and Zaeed looks at Garrus who stares at the darkness outside the car.
"You've domesticated the turian," Zaeed remarks when they stand together just outside the Zakera Café. The turian in question has sulked off on his own, probably licking his wounds in private. Zaeed can't blame him.
Shepard's eyes narrow slightly. "Meaning?"
"Turians show no goddamn quarter for an enemy. They're not wired that way."
"Garrus is a friend," she says and there's a stubborn jut to her jaw. "He's not immune to advice."
Advice, Zaeed thinks, wondering briefly if she had considered letting Vido run away a valuable lesson, too. He decides to brush off the irritation.
"What was the point in sparing Sidonis?"
She shrugs, looking at the menu screen next to them. "What had been the point in killing him?"
Apart from the sweet goddamn release? he thinks but doesn't say. Instead he joins her in studying the menu, feeling the ever-present hunger stir in him as it usually does around proper human-friendly food.
"So it's some kind of personal quest for you then, getting between your crew and their targets?"
"Still bitter about Vido?" She makes it sound like a schoolboy grudge over some child game, her tone infuriatingly light-hearted even though he knows she's come to understand that whatever the hell Zaeed can be accused of, nursing unmotivated grudges isn't usually a fault of his.
"Still bitter about Cerberus?" he retorts and the sharpness in his voice makes her look at him in silence for a moment.
"Fair enough." She tilts her head in a little nod. It's the closest she'll ever come to admit that he has a point - he recognises the gesture well by now.
Around them, visitors order food and chat about their recent purchases, their plans for the rest of the cycle and their jobs. Zaeed hears their voices as a low murmur that he barely registers but it strikes him as goddamn weird how they can all walk around here, ignorant of everything going on in the galaxy. He's never been one to moralise about how the hell people spend their time but now, as they're all standing on the verge of some kind of intergalactic mass-slaughter waiting to happen, he thinks it should be expected of everyone to be at least half-aware of it.
You're turning into Saint Shepard.
She stands with her hip against the wall, a curved line of solid steel and full-blown heroism and Zaeed follows it with his gaze, searching for those invisible cracks he knows have to be there somewhere. It's like a quest in its own right, looking for them, and he has no idea why he finds it so goddamn enticing.
"What the hell is wrong with revenge then?" he asks.
"I don't believe in it, not as a principle." It's a completely serious answer, he can tell from the way her voice is calm, contained. Whether or not it's completely honest is another matter. She rakes a hand through her sweat-damp hair and smooths it back with her palm.
"What about revenge as goddamn therapy, Shepard?"
"I'm not a therapist."
"Right," Zaeed scoffs and she gives him an irritated frown.
"Look, I'm no saint. I'm definitely not religious. But if I stop believing in giving people the benefit of a doubt – in showing them mercy, I'd be no better than the kind of scum I chase across the galaxy."
"Why do you have to be better than them? Isn't it enough that you beat the hell out of them every time?"
"Right," he says again, scratching the back of his head. "Forgot that the Alliance always need the moral high ground."
"It's not moral high ground to want a bigger purpose than 'ooh, shiny explosion'. It's common sense."
He smirks. "If you say so."
And he might give her hell about it, but the unspoken thoughts in his mind aren't half as dismissive as his words. Shepard is, without a doubt, the most honourable person he can think of and the one with the firmest set of ideals. Her idealism isn't stupid, at least not all that often.
It's tainted and tarnished enough, real enough, to cut into his cynicism. Unlike most similar crap he is subjected to on a regular basis, he actually - reluctantly - buys into Shepard's. She's thought it through, churned the ideals and spat out her own versions of them instead of just repeating what she's been taught by some sanctimonious jackass. It doesn't weaken her, either - if anything it makes her indomitable because she actually believes that despite all the goddamn bullshit she encounters, there's a point in doing good deeds. There's strength in that, a hard, unshakeable strength that would make most people piss themselves if they really understood its mechanics as well as Zaeed does. There's no stopping Shepard. The universe fucks her over and she gets back on her feet with her gun loaded to fight – without losing her faith in all those larger principles that Zaeed has been told ought to matter.
He's still unsure whether it makes her crazy or really goddamn impressive, but he's willing to go with the latter.
"I have it in me, you know." She says it quietly, almost as though she doesn't intend for him to hear. Her face is turned away, her eyes following the endless boring cycle of commercials on one of the screens around them. Exciting opportunities await Alliance citizens like you on the outworld colonies. She's the one closest to the ads so it's her identification that generates the bullshit. Shepard, you've recently been dead. Don't you deserve the quality and distinction of a traditional asari burial robe? His own ads mostly babble about guns, ships and inane omni-tool shooting games which he can't remember ever having played. When she looks at him again, Zaeed spots a wry little smile playing on her lips. "Well, everyone in my position has it in them. I know that. But for most officers it's something they're trained to do. Make the tough calls. Sacrifice people. With my background... let's just say I didn't have to train for it. You know how it is back on Earth. It's eat or be eaten."
She shows no sign of having heard his attempt to interrupt, just continues; her eyes glitter with a particular kind of glow, something stony in her expression.
"I know you don't care about anyone's opinion but your own, Zaeed. But I do. I have to. I'm not a damn space pirate - I'm a Systems Alliance officer. The first human Spectre. I have my own command. Hell, people got court-martialled for standing up for me after Saren. Some of them joined Cerberus because of me." She shakes her head. "So I work my ass off every single day to be a person they can follow. Sometimes I slip. And it makes me terrified. And when I'm terrified I work even harder. So yeah, you could say I have a personal agenda."
It's a confession so damn intimate that he doesn't really know what to do with it and for a split second he feels out of his depth in a way he hasn't for decades.
"Well," he says eventually. "If it's any consolation, you're the most infuriatingly decent human being I've met in my goddamn life."
That seems to hit the right spot, somewhere beneath the composure and armour, because Shepard flashes him a quick grin that looks like her usual one, devilish and confident. He finds that he's damn pleased to see it return.
"Anyway. I figure I owe you for that cigar," she says, nodding towards the menu again. "What are you having?"
After a brief date with her shower in the captain's quarters, Shepard leaves the Normandy again that evening. Due to some new leads concerning Thane's son and a couple of other minor issues on her extensive to-do list, they'll remain docked at Citadel station for at least another few days and she's ordered most of the crew to take some R&R while she goes to visit an old friend.
The Citadel bustles with life and it's like a breath of fresh air to stand in the middle of it all; she walks slowly through the parks and recreational areas outside the nicer parts of the station, tries to pretend that she's one of the casual visitors here.
Anderson's private quarters are far gaudier and less minimalist than she'd have expected. Shepard supposes it's not a personal choice, though she can spot a few paintings and decorative objects that look like stuff her old CO would purchase for himself.
She adjusts herself comfortably in one of the large leather couches that make up a majority of Anderson's lounge.
"We've received a lot of intel from you recently," he says, walking up to her and handing her a bourbon in a small, sturdy-looking glass. "Admiral Hackett has found it very useful."
"Good," she says. "That was the point."
Anderson takes a seat beside her, sipping his drink.
"You all right, Shepard? All things considered?"
"All things considered," she says reflexively because that's what she does.
He doesn't look like he believes her but lets any remaining questions hang unspoken between them, for which she's grateful.
Their entire history, Shepard thinks now, is framed by these kinds of talks – careful concessions, unspoken words and neutral, military-coated language that might be lacking information for civilians but that manage to convey more than enough for the two of them. When Anderson had first swept her up in a wave of training, examination, evaluation and expectations she hadn't been one for talking about herself. The less said the better, back on Earth. You could easily slip away if nobody could tie you to anything -anchor you to your sordid past or your bleak future. In the military, she had found, she was expected to communicate. It wasn't half as tricky as she had expected and now that she has mastered military-speak as a second language, she even takes great comfort in it.
In the military as a whole, if she's honest with herself.
It's hard to be lonely when you're surrounded by people in the exact same position, striving towards the exact same thing, controlled – and confined – by the same clumsy rules. So you get around them together, cover for each other and have each other's backs.
Everything's different now. For both of them, she suspects as she lets her gaze wander across Anderson's quarters. For as long as Shepard's known him, there has been no trace of family in his life and she can't find any now either. Of course, she hadn't exactly expected Citadel life to have had any significant impact on his personal life but even so, it's a change from most high-ranking individuals' offices.
Anderson's walls are as empty as her own as far as family is concerned.
"Have you got anyone here who's not a complete red-taped idiot?" Shepard asks, realising she really hopes the answer is yes. She doesn't want him to be lonely and there's a little sting of guilt at the memory of the Citadel, years ago, when she had vouched for him as humanity's representative. This is not how I had planned on spending my twilight years.
Anderson smiles. "I do. Not many, but enough. What about you, Shepard?"
She thinks about the Normandy as she swirls her drink around, thinks about how strange certain things are aboard her new ship that is nothing like the old one. When she had first read the dossiers, fresh out of surgery with scars still aching, she had missed her previous crew with an intensity that nearly overwhelmed her. A few cycles later parts of it have joined her and she finds that it's the unexpected free agents who work for profit, not principle, that she's taken the greatest comfort in. Kasumi. Zaeed. The amoral thief and the ruthless bounty hunter, far from Alliance material and so carefully detached from every galaxy-spanning context that they ought to be like aliens to her.
"I've got people too," she says. "Some of them more unexpected than others. Cerberus thinks outside the box, I'll give them that."
"Well, you've always had a knack for making alliances." Anderson says, reminding her of that evaluation that has followed her through her career and had been the main reason the Council had approached her, once upon a time. It feels like it happened a decade ago, to another person.
She smiles. "Excellent inter-personal skills."
It remains a puzzle to her, hearing that. She has not yet completely shed the image of herself as the trouble-maker from the streets - all tangled nerves and misdirected anger - though these days it's a well-kept secret.
"I stand by that, Shepard. You see through people. It's one of the things that make you a damn good leader."
Once, it had been Anderson and Hackett who had seen through her. Anderson who vouched for her, every time, despite initial mistakes and a hell of a lot of conflicts and Hackett - higher up in the food-chain with the gravitas to be taken seriously no matter what - who vouched for Anderson and praised his judgement in turn. If everything else falls to pieces, Shepard knows, she would still remain loyal to both of them for that alone.
She shakes her head now, still smiling. "I didn't come here to get my ego stroked."
Anderson shrugs. "Everyone needs that once in a while. Having your own command is a thankless job."
Especially Cerberus command, she thinks but refrains from pointing it out. Instead she empties her glass, shifting her position in the couch that is so soft and comfortable it runs the risk of almost swallowing her. The Normandy has no such luxury, not even the Cerberus version of it.
"I should go."
She looks at Anderson who nods, and puts down his empty glass on the table and looks at her, intently, as though he's trying to figure something out. It's not unusual; she's experienced it a lot over the past cycles. Being observed, judged: the long process of checking her against previous records to see it they match, if she still fits.
"You're always welcome back, Shepard."
Even as she leaves the room, she imagines she can feel Anderson's gaze on her; she doesn't turn around to see if she's right.