A.N. So this started off as a 500 word headcanon drabble that somehow evolved into this 35-chapter fanfiction, about 10 chapters of which are pretty much finished. After playing Mass Effect 3 I really wanted to tell my Shepard's story in a way that is just impossible with the constraints of a game. I thought of all the horrible things that she goes through, all the impossible deeds that are asked of her, and I thought 'what kind of person would it take to get through all of this in one piece?' So I pieced together my Shepard, and she may be short-tempered, arrogant and emotionally stunted, but I love her, and I hope you'll love her too.

For sketches and paintings of her and others, check out my deviantart jinxiedoodle – there's a link from my profile.

Timings – this chapter takes place pre ME1, the next 20ish chapters will be in the form of flashbacks from the post-ME2 imprisonment, focusing on the development of relationships and characters and skimming over most of the story elements we already know so well. It should be pretty obvious what's what, but let me know if it ever gets unclear!

Fly By Night

Chapter 1: Escape

2171 – Fifteen years before the invasion of the Reapers

"Roll it again."

He sits in silence as the grainy footage plays, this time watching carefully for what he knows is coming. It still surprises him when a slender figure in dark clothes moves from behind a stack of crates, gun raised, and within minutes it is over. He counts the shots – twelve, a full clip. Ten bodies. She doesn't even need to reload.

The last one to die – Mr Calvern, the boss – tries to run and she shatters his kneecaps with two calculated shots. He wishes the tape had audio. As Mr Calvern drags himself back, blood trailing, he spits some words at her. She answers, and then shoots, her face hard. The picture isn't good enough quality to make out the words.

He sees her shove another clip into her gun and in one swift motion her arm arcs up and the camera goes dead. She'd seen it too late, though. This is what makes him think she can't be a professional assassin. This, and the tattoo that marks her as a member of the very gang she attacked.

The Tenth Street Reds are crippled, maybe beyond repair. In a single daring move she has wiped out the boss, five of his deputies and four high-level dealers. The police knew about the meeting – they were about to surround the place, might have actually taken them in. They hadn't seen the lone gunwoman slip past, either that or she'd been waiting inside the whole time.

He is glad they thought to tell him about her. It would be a mistake to let someone like this rot in jail.

He flicks through her file again. It's sparse. Full of sightings and question marks but very little solid information. They don't even have a name. From what they can piece together she is – was – a gunslinger for Mr Calvern, the gang leader she'd shot as he crawled away.

He stands to look through the one-way mirror, to the room where she sits, unmoving and tense and defiant to the end. She'd surrendered when the police had burst in. She'd been surrounded, and if she hadn't immediately thrown her hands in the air and her gun to the floor she'd have been riddled with holes. He thinks to himself that a self-preservation instinct like that is probably the very reason her file is so sparse.

Her gaze flicks up to his face as he walks into the room, but otherwise she is still. Uninterested. He isn't the first to interrogate her, not even today, she has no reason to think he will be different from the others.

"Hello," he says to a wall of expressionless silence. She is pretty, he thinks, but hard. Her shoulders and arms are bare and adorned with a few tattoos. They tell him she is seventeen. He has a daughter that age, but the girl in front of him has dark, hollow eyes, scratches all over her body, and looks as though she's stared into hell itself. A hard life in a cruel city, he thinks.

"So, how did you do it?" he asks at last, leaning forward on the table and weaving his fingers together in thought.

"Do what?" Her tone is flippant, like a teenager in the principle's office, and he decides that this is just the cockiness that comes with having nothing left to lose.

"Ten bodies. Twelve bullets. We have the security footage." He fires up his omnitool, and a small screen just out of her line of sight shows him her vitals, stress levels, analysing her voice for exaggerations or untruths. The screen tells him she is far more anxious than she lets on. She is seventeen, he remembers.

She shrugs slowly, indifferently, and then looks up at him, an amused slant to her lips, "Would've been ten for ten, but—"

"You took the time to shoot Michael Calvern in both kneecaps first, just before you executed him," he says, watching for her reaction, "As I said, we have the security footage."

"If you have the footage then why are you asking me how I did it?" She snaps, her dark, straight brows suddenly crashing together in irritation, "Just watch the fucking tape."

He nods, apparently satisfied. She is very much as he was told. Not an ideal candidate perhaps, but there is a spark inside her that is...salvageable. He recalls her movements, the elegant and deadly simplicity of them. He has to ask, just to make sure, "Who trained you?"

She can list a few names, she thinks. People with links to the Reds who taught her how not to be seen, to kill almost anything with her bare hands, how to weave through a crowd like a wisp of smoke. But that isn't what he means, and she knows it. Her eyes take in this man's proud bearing, the scars on his hands that said he'd seen combat. Perhaps he will understand.

"You can't train someone to do what I can do," she says, "If you could, he'd have trained the others just as well. I wouldn't have got close."

"And just what is it that makes you so special?"

"Put a gun in my hand and find out," she replies flatly, a twist to her lips that is dangerous, arrogant, laughing in the face of impossible odds, "I'm a freak of nature. I don't have to aim, I don't have to think about it. I just know. Always have. You can't train that shit."

He doesn't need to look at the screen to know she is genuine. He thinks back to the footage of the girl in front of him as she appears from the shadows, moving so fast they have to slow down the tape to see how she tears through the assembled men as though it is nothing. None of them even get close to her. You can't train that kind of raw talent for killing, he thinks, all you can do is try and harness it however you can.

She doesn't look as though she'd enjoy being harnessed, though. He watches her as she leans back and rocks in her chair. Casual, as though she were in a bar and not handcuffed in a police station facing a life sentence.

No, he thinks, not a bar. She isn't even old enough to drink.

"What's your name?" He asks, aware that she'd so far refused to answer.

"Lilly Calvern," she replies, and he doesn't need the little spike in the line running across the screen to know that she's lying.

"'Lilly Calvern' doesn't exist. Is that the alias Mr Calvern gave you when you joined the Reds?" She shrugs in response, but her vitals say 'yes'. He looks pointedly at the red 'X' tattooed on her neck, the mark that makes this case interesting, as though a seventeen year old girl killing ten seasoned gang members isn't interesting enough. "What's your real name?" She says nothing, stares at her hands cuffed together. "I can't help you unless you tell me."

She looks up at him, clearly doubting he can help her at all. But then, to his surprise, she tells him the truth, "Jena." Maybe she's bored of the process and just wants to know what will happen to her.

"Jena," he repeats as his omnitool zips through the millions of records of missing persons and similar. It's a common enough name, but the search comes up with nothing useful. "Do you have a last name?"

"No." That isn't true, but it may as well be, and his omnitool doesn't catch her out. She stopped using it a long time ago, when the streets became her family. She still can't recall the colour of her mother's eyes, forever glazed over with a red sand storm. It didn't matter, though. She was a smart kid, even then. She knew – knows – how to survive. She's been doing it all her life.

They are silent for some time. He waits for her to give something away, she answers with a defiant glare as she takes in his posture and deep, commanding voice. He doesn't look like a cop. She wonders briefly if he is military.

"I'm curious," he says finally, changing tack, "how did you know they would be in that warehouse? You chose a time and place where Mr Calvern would be more or less alone with his generals. In three minutes you effectively wiped out the leadership of your own gang. How did you know where to go?"

"I want a deal," she says, ignoring his question. "I knew about that meeting, and I can tell you about a dozen other meetings that will be taking place right now to figure out who's taking over the Reds. I can tell you who to target, what you can arrest them for, their aliases, safe havens, all of it. You can take down the biggest gang in the city within a week." They are the most words anyone in the station has heard her string together. He is surprised at her eloquence. Mr Calvern has invested more in her than he thought.

"And why would you want to do that?"

"For the same reason I wanted to watch Calvern beg for his life." She flexes her hands, wishing they weren't cuffed. She thinks back to the last time her hands were tied together, by fear instead of cuffs, as her boss, the man that gave her this life, tells her she is nothing without him, that he has made her and that she is becoming more trouble than she's worth. A weapon, he says, shouldn't talk back. A weapon shouldn't have an opinion. That is all she is. "I want them to burn."

"What did they do to you?"

They killed the only real friend I've ever had, she thinks, remembering the heavy stone that dropped in her belly when she found out, the rage and grief and frustration just boiling over, her hands shaking by her sides as Calvern tells her to get over it. Mira was just an engineer in the Reds, sixteen, replaceable. She was pretty, too, and the word has an ugly implication. She should have known not to try to fight back, just let it happen. Then he wouldn't have had to shut her up.

It was the final straw. And when Jena broke, she broke. The man that did it had died first, bullet through his neck so he choked on his own thick blood as it spurted out onto the wall. Every one of them paid for the things she'd seen them do. Killing had never felt so good before. With every bullet there was another stain wiped from the world. And then when she came to Calvern, the boss of it all, the one that had found her, made her, she watched him crawl away with naked fear in his eyes, blood trailing on the ground. He screamed at her again, that he'd given her everything, that she was nothing on her own. She'd silenced him. And in the silence, for the first time in her life, she'd felt free.

She looks up at the man in front of her, her face hard as stone, "First you give me what I want."

At last, he thinks, we're getting somewhere, "And what's that?"

"A new ID and a shuttle off Earth."

It isn't an uncommon request. He spreads his hands, exploring this possibility, "Anywhere in particular?"

"Omega." She hears that's the place to go for mercs and drifters and misfits. She can make it on her own there. "You'll never hear from me again."

"You killed ten people," he says simply.

"No one you wouldn't thank me for killing." She is a seventeen year old girl, and she is staring him down, daring him to contradict her. It is a unique experience, he thinks, one he would remember for a while.

"That doesn't change anything."

"Yes it does," she insists, her vitals spiking with adrenaline though her voice is deadly calm, "and I'm handing you the rest of them on a silver fucking platter. You might think I'm not in much of a position to bargain, but let me explain that these," she lifts her hands, pulls the cuffs taut, "are not stopping me from killing you. The gunmen you had surrounding the warehouse weren't stopping me from escaping. The only reason I'm in this room talking to you is because I can't take what's left of the Reds down on my own. But with the information I have, you can."

He glances at the screen in front of him. She is very convincing, but her body knows what her mouth doesn't, and he can see she is lying, trying to intimidate him even as she sits in the middle of a police station. The last past, though, is true. She wants to take them down, that much is clear, and it is a point in her favour. There are people watching from behind the screen. The kind of people that are called in when the mystery assassin who takes out the entire top tier of a gang turns out to be a teenage girl with a greater talent for killing than any of them had ever seen. They already have an idea of what to do with her.

He pushes further, "Why?"

"Could you be a little less specific?" she quips, curling her lips back in a sneer. Defensive, he thinks, but it hides her fear.

"Why develop a conscience all of a sudden?" She stiffens, and he knows he's caught her. It was the way she was adamant the people she killed deserved it. That is how he knows the girl in front of him may be a killer, a criminal, ruthless and brutal, but she is not evil, not sadistic. Bent but not broken.

"Do you think I liked the shit they started to do?" She asks quietly, recalling how many times towards the end she'd have to swallow the bile in her throat and do what was asked. The only pleasure she took came from the rush of adrenaline, the thrill of combat, the satisfaction in seeing someone realise they'd underestimated her. Even that was soured by the end. "It was different when I first joined. It was just a way to get food and a bed."

He begins to piece it together in his head, "And then Calvern found you?"

"How do you think he got to be the boss? I was his secret weapon. His little prodigy. His toy," she spits the word, and for a moment she looks her age. With her at his side, he'd clawed his way to the top. That was when the Reds became unrecognisable. That was when she started to hate him for what he made her do, for the things she had to sit back and accept. "But that's all you're getting until I see every charge against me dropped and a shuttle waiting outside." Just like that she closes off again, leaning back in her chair with her arms folded as best she can with the cuffs.

A message flashes up on the screen, hidden from her eyes. It tells him that she is indeed suitable for their programme, and that the police are willing to make a deal in exchange for the very valuable inside information she possesses. He scrolls through the details, catching her narrowed eyes every so often, watching him as though she knows this is it.

He tells her the deal. She will tell them everything, just as she said, and in return she'll get a new ID and transport off Earth. Not to Omega, though. To an Alliance training facility. They needed soldiers, the best, and she has more raw potential than he's ever seen before in someone her age. She would serve for ten years, and then she would be free to do what she wished. The alternative is a life sentence with no possibility of parole. It is a programme with a mixed rate of success, but he has a feeling it will suit her well. They've caught her early. The Alliance can't afford to let a soldier like this slip away.

She listens, and thinks that if the chair wasn't bolted to the floor she would hurl it at him. There is no fucking way she'll go to boot camp with a load of rookies just so she can learn to salute some navy asshole and swear allegiance to an army that has never done anything for her. He lets her shout and spit.

It takes time, but he explains that it is the only deal on the table. And it's a good one too. This way she can use a gun, she can fight, she can use all the aptitude bundled up inside her to do some good for once. The Alliance are the good guys, he tells her. Wouldn't it be nice to do something well and have everyone thank you, even get a medal instead of just running from the law? Wouldn't it be nice to be somewhere safe, with no one waiting to stab you in the back, where skill, not ruthlessness, was rewarded? In the Alliance, he says, she can prove herself to be the best, something he knows she already thinks. She can have everything she's ever wanted. It is only ten years, and by the time she's out at twenty-eight she will have her whole life still ahead of her.

Anything else, he says, would be a waste. She would stay in the holding facility until her eighteenth birthday, learning how to follow orders and fall in line, and then they would sign her up and ship her out under supervision.

All she has left to lose, he tells her, is her remarkable skill and sharp mind. Neither would last long in prison.

She fights it, as he knows she would, but after a while she looks up at him, teeth clenched together, and tells him she agrees. Before he leaves to work out the details, he turns back to her, her face on edge, and asks her what she'd like to call herself.

She already knows. Mia's last name, the one no one else knew because no one else had asked. It's a good name. Simple, strong. As soon as she says it out loud, she claims it as her own.

"Shepard," she says, loving the way it sounds, "Jena Shepard."

When she eventually sees the name stamped onto dogtags, it still takes her months to stop fighting it every step of the way. After a year, she finds she is a better commando than she was a killer, and she starts to wonder if perhaps it was for the best. After two, she begins to find her place and savour the chance to prove that she is better than anyone else. After three, she comes under the command of David Anderson, who always had an eye for potential. Almost five years to the day she took the name, 'Jena Shepard' is recorded in the history books as the youngest person to ever receive the Star of Terra.

Twelve years later, the man that gave her this chance would remember her when she is announced as humanity's first Spectre. Fifteen years later, he is killed when the Reapers invade Vancouver. He never lives to see the dead-eyed girl – the one they almost discarded – come back with a fleet to redeem herself and save them all.

Chapter 2: Rumours – Kaidan is called to Earth to give evidence at Shepard's trial, and on the way there he thinks back to the day she came aboard the Normandy SR-1 for the first time.