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Clean Hands

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If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me,
For after we start we never lie by again. 
      - Song of Myself, Walt Whitman


Nobody knows what Zaeed does most of the time, and that’s just fine by him.  As soon as he stomps back aboard the Normandy, he ghosts, disappearing down into the bowels of the ship.

He won’t take a bunk, just lays claim to a bit of unused space, staking out his spot with a cot and a couple of crates of guns.  Doesn't hold onto much.  Credits come, credits go, but having a lot of shit just makes you a target for people looking to take it from you.  Just guns and ammo, some det cord and a handful of black market explosives. 

That's all he really cares about.  A trusty rifle, a decent scope, a few girlie mags, and Jesse.  She sleeps better than he does, cushioned on one of those smooth clean tables like what they've got up in the medbay.  Nothing against Taylor, but he likes his own things, his own space, and he doesn't waste time with explanations.

He's a man who likes to keep to himself, reliable as long as the credits are.  You can pay for his gun, his decades of expertise, and all the dead nerves in hands that never shake around a rifle, but Zaeed's friendship can't be bought.

It can, however, occasionally be bribed.  With whiskey, with bullets, with a pretty young face and a fresh set of ears that haven't yet heard all his stories.  With Shepard he gets all four and it's purely by accident that he starts to look forward to her hanging around his space, touching his things, asking questions.  The questions are sometimes harder than all the other shit; there's a ghost behind every locked door and words are just as easy to trip over as dead bodies.

It’s all about living in the moment.  Travelling light helps with that; the memories are heavy enough.  He doesn’t assign any particular significance to them; he’s done a lot of bad shit for someone who most of the time sleeps like a baby.  But words don’t mean a lot – unless they do, and then they mean everything.

Maybe he’s a little sentimental, on the inside, somewhere.  The book Shepard finds thrown in the corner with his boots and a handful of oily rags certainly makes it seem that way.  Soft cover, green, with actual paper that still smells like trees.  It’s a mindfuck, something that seems like it ought to “belong” to that little hacker girl Kasumi, but here it is, one forgotten thing amidst a pile of much more useful shit.

He doesn’t really know why he still has it.  He’s lived a long time, he guesses.  Long enough to look back at life and count his scars not only as bullets he’s dodged but as places where pieces of him have been sheered away. 

So why not keep this one thing?  It’s not like it takes up space, wedged into the bottom of his footlocker.  Everything else he owns is sharp and the wear and tear is obvious, pages fraying.  He’s spent time puzzling over it in the odd moment, turning words that don’t always make sense over in his head.  It’s just a thing to do when he’s on the move, during the boring slow part of ‘hurry up and wait’, and the spine is bent two thirds down the middle, opening naturally to a particular yellowing page.

He doesn’t know who the fuck Walt Whitman is, and listens only half interested when Shepard tells him about a girl named Williams who used to read her poetry.  Shepard has just as many corpses to stumble over as he does, and he had a hell of a head start.  He can’t learn all of their names, can’t remember them, but she sits down cross-legged in his floor like a child while he fiddles with the screws in Jesse’s stock and turns those pages, chin in her hand.

Shepard makes him feel old, sometimes.  They all do, even that damn Asari they pick up on Illium.  Great tits, but full up on this code of ethics that just sounds like a bucket full of bad ideas.  A lot of the time it’s like he’s a glorified nanny, running herd on biotics, mad scientists and things that go smash rather than bump in the night.  He could add them all together and still come out with a deficit of proper parenting, and don’t even get him started on that idiot Alenko on Horizon, so obviously in love with Shepard and fighting it that Zaeed just wants to hit him in the face with the butt of his rifle.

Time is precious and eventually the clock will run down, but he’s only wise enough to know that nothing he says is going to change anyone’s mind.  The only wise course of action is to tell everyone to fuck off after dinner and go and have a nice long lie down while watching the security feed in the corner.

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, 
You must travel it for yourself.

Those are the words that repeat in his head.  The rest of the poem takes on different meanings over time, depending on his mood, depending on the disaster at hand, but those two are always the same.  Better advice than he could come up with on his own, at least.

His bad eye doesn’t roll so good; when the ‘children’ test his patience and he starts to think about shooting them, he puts on a clean shirt, washes his hands, slicks back his hair and goes up to the medbay to poke at the doctor. 

Karin Chakwas is just like him, but without all the four letter words.  Everything that comes out of that woman’s mouth is smart – too smart for him, honestly, but he lives for the moments she gets really exasperated (on a good day, at someone other than him so he can really enjoy it), stiffening her upper lip in a way that says she wants to sigh for days.

Plus, she can drink the bionic woman under the table and fieldstrip a rifle in under 30 seconds.  If he’s ever been in love, this is it.  He doesn’t even think she dislikes him half as much as she pretends to.

It pisses him off, what happens to the Normandy when their backs are turned, piece of shit Collectors on his ship, touching his things, taking his people.  That idiot pilot does what he can, and he supposes he has that creepy supercomputer to thank as well (not that he will), but done is done and it’s too quiet after.

Even when they win it’s too quiet.

He’s been here before.  It’s just another calm after another storm, and there’s always debris.  He doesn’t always feel any particular way about it; he doesn’t get attached easily, and his threshold for acceptable loss is for most people unconscionably high, but he lies on his cot and watches the feed from the camera above the mess hall where Karin drinks cup after cup of tea.

Anybody else and he probably would have turned over and gone to sleep.  He doesn’t like tea, or talking about things, but he likes Karin and in a weird way likes that he likes her, so he gets up and groans and puts on his shoes, washes his hands and his face and slicks back his hair.  It’s only as an afterthought that he takes that book with him.

 He can’t tell if she’s relieved or annoyed to see him; she looks disapproving either way, like he’s caught her in her flannel pjs with curlers in her hair.  Not that that’s her style – she’s more a red lipstick, M-6 Carnifex kind of girl.  Probably sleeps with one under her pillow.

That right there is the proper kind of sexy.

They don’t talk (“Dr. Chakwas.” “Mr. Massani.”) but she pours him a cup of tea that he begrudgingly drinks, and when he leaves, he leaves the book on the table.  She doesn’t call after him and he doesn’t know whether or not she’ll accept his little piece of peace, but when he gets back down to his room and checks the feed, the tired green paperback is gone.

They never get the chance to talk about it.  Five minutes later the Bahak system is exploding in their rear view and he feels like a parent in a police station, snatching himself bald because his kid is starting fires.

It’s a bad time to go but Shepard kicks him off the ship, lands him on Omega as though he’d never left.  It’s not true, what they say about never being able to go back.  You can if you accept you walk different every time.  He’s heavier now.  And lighter.

They put Shepard in lockdown and there’s fuck all he can do to get her out.  But he keeps in touch.  With Garrus, with Gabby, takes Jack dancing once – and never again – after she lands that teaching position at the fancy pants biotic academy.  He starts to get his ducks in a row, starts to pick jobs that put him on the right side of what he knows is coming.  Keeps track of these little idiots through channels, old contacts that are mild enough enemies that he can consider them friends.

Forgets about Vido.  Not that he wouldn’t waste a bullet (or seventy) but for once he’s got more important shit to do than nurse a grudge like a toothless baby with bottle.

And then there’s Karin.  She’s busy too, right back to the job without a hitch.  She’s smart.  Clever.  The thing with Cerberus is just a bump under the tires and Alliance brass has her working in some lab somewhere.  It’s not medicine, she doesn’t like it as much, but she’s not being shot at or in prison, and he can always tell from the irritable way she takes his calls that she’s fine.

He doesn’t get to call much.  Doesn’t get to see her until Shepard is running free and the galaxy is going to shit.  He doesn’t feel one way or the other about Earth, in fact he lets himself laugh for about twenty minutes while he packs his things - the Alliance has always been full of stupid fucks and they should have listened when they had the chance.  Now Earth is burning, Palaven is burning, Arcturus is burning, everything is burning and they only have one person to throw at the blaze.

This shit is gonna get Shepard killed.  She knows it, he knows it, everybody knows it.  Cerberus is gunning hard, trying to correct the Illusive Man’s big mistake, and he watches her back by shooting them in theirs.

At least Karin is with her, back on the SR2 where she belongs.  The medbay is hers just like the Normandy is Shepard’s, and if anyone can hold the crew together with hitch or stitch, it’s Karin Chakwas.

He only sees her the one time, when the war comes home to the disaffected masses huddled in front of their television screens, drinking in clubs and pretending that the sound of Reaper weapons charging to fire is just a distant dream.  She’s got a few new worry lines, he’s got a few more scars, and they sit together on the only bench not speckled with broken glass on the Presidium and watch emergency crews put out fires.

Neither one of them have much to say.

She’s brought his book – her book – with her, and it sits between them on the seat.  It rests under her hand, green cover just a little more faded. 

Still, last chances being what they are, he reaches out.  They don’t quite fit, but she spreads her fingers out and his find the spaces in between and they stay that way for as long as they can.

It makes him glad he’s washed his hands.