Note: Updates posted first to the continuation of the story at Archive of Our Own under the name Shut_Up_Alexa, then revised back here after. Check chapter titles for tags for what is updated or totally new. Please feel free to shoot me a comment, DM, or feedback on the new chapters - anything not marked as NEW or UPDATED. I have removed the ancient versions of the fic to not cause confusion, as the rewrites have bloomed past what I anticipated I would write. DM me if you need a copy of the original. Warmly, Raptor/Alexa


The night was red.

Crimson lights etched against the limbs of a dozen species entwined in lust and desperation, as an ocean of organic life pulsed to the electric heartbeat of Afterlife. Blue skin and silvered crests, void-black eyes, sweat and tears amidst and among appendages with indecipherable names. Bodies bathed in the anonymous dark; lips and claws and forgotten sobriety, everything at once alive and asleep in the feverish dark.

It was no place for a child.

A small figure cut through through the hive of depravity; little feet in worn shoes. Each step measured and deliberate. Unknowing fingers brushed her by chance, too intoxicated to notice, but when the eye sought her she was already gone. Just a small pale face beneath a scarlet hood, evanescent in the fever. She reached the edge of the crowd. From beneath her cowl, slate-grey eyes fixed on the batarian silhouette leaned over in the furthest booth, tilted toward the sensuous forms of the Asari peelers on display. An untouched Palaven Sunrise sat perched and glistening at his hand, a cold blue cocktail named for the irradiated homeworld of the turians, carrying the code of this ill-met meeting.

She slid into the booth without a word. He didn't move his beetle-black stare from the azure bodies before him. Detached, he spoke while two small hands folded in their fingerless gloves on the gleaming table.

"The bouncers didn't give you a problem then."

"No. Krogans aren't hard to bribe."

She leaned in, her weight balanced firmly on bony wrists. She lifted her head. A ray of red light ghosted across her colorless eyes, burning beneath her hood.

"But fish are getting expensive these days. I'll be needing a charge number."

The Batarian snorted a dry laugh, not breaking his gaze on the spectacle of latex and bodies before him. "What are you, a stockbroker? Fuck off, kid."

"No, but I am somewhat of an expert in the commodities business, which you damn well know. I make it a point of being well informed."

He snorted, casting a sidelong glance at the small figure beside him. Small and underfed, she was little for her species. But of course, she wasn't quite done growing yet.

"Talk back like that to a client where you're going, and you might get your tongue taken out. I don't give a single fuck about your incidentals on the way here. From now on you'll be paid in cash. The type you'll be entertaining, as well as myself, prefer it that way."

She held her gaze on him, calculating. It gave him pause, as it was unyielding and strange against her youth; a piercing stare that weighed more than the handful of her years.

"Fine. What's your cut?"

The many-eyed alien chuckled at her naivety, eyeing her. She certainly had guts for the equivalent of a cockroach in the savage labyrinth that was Omega.

"That depends entirely on you. Call it 'performance-based compensation. Perform like shit, one-time jobs - and I take more. Snatch some well-heeled-regulars, and well, we can negotiate. Don't worry that sweet little keratin head of yours. Human girls are especially hard to come by, so you can expect to be fought over."

He turned to face her, setting all four of his glinting black eyes on her as his mouth split into a sharp yellow smirk. "You would be amazed at what certain Volus would pay even for a common blue ass, let alone something exotic, young.Fortune will undoubtedly be yours, even with my fee…That is if we can start a bidding war. I imagine you're untouched?"

She made a curt nod of her head, her eyes going elsewhere.

"You will be examined, you are aware."

"I know."

He smiled unfalteringly, the strobing light glancing off his offset teeth as he considered his words. She shifted her eyes back and glared back at him, her glance hard and unmoving, divulging nothing. Deep in her clothes, a blue stone pained her, its hard cut facets pressing against her chest. She shifted her weight.

"Now," he remarked, bouncing both palms on the table, "What say you we drink to your new life?"

"And we agree. 50,000?"

"50,000 to start. "

His eyes flicked from her unlined face to the valuable shade of her hair - their species most exotic feature, to her non-existent bustline, and down the long trail of the legs that promised a few more inches in height down the line. Long legs were good - Salarians liked that, and Vorcha found human breasts obscene. She looked starved; gamine. It made no matter. For the type that would be buying her company, they always seemed to like them that way.

"Red hair and youthful. Ideal in this business, Ms. 'I'm in the commodities business'." He leaned in and smiled so wide he could see the platinum caps on his teeth. "You're about to be the commodities business, my dear."

His four jet-dark eyes passed again to her hair. He suddenly reached out and grasped a few strands, pinching them beneath his fingers, producing a small eyepiece and zooming in to view the color in high fidelity. "If I find out this is dyed, you will be sorry."

She didn't move a millimeter, though he was inches from her face. His foul breath steamed her nose.

"It's not. Are you finished," she asked in a way that was more threat than a question. He smiled widely again, capped teeth glinting, putting his hands up and nodding as he backed away from her. "Listen, you can't blame me for asking, and this does concern your immediate wealth, my dear. All I'm saying is that the type of people that are into this….ah, market, well, they like when everything matches. And -"

His eyes flicked darkly over her.

"...certain very connected Salarians are particular about-" He looked back at her hair again, rolling over it from root to tip, surveying. She could practically see him counting the credits in his mind.

"... genetic rarities. Don't be shocked if they ask you for a sample of that. But don't you dare give it away for free."

Her eyes narrowed, observing him closely. At last she curtly nodded and averted her sight, pulling her arms into a cross at her chest.

The Batarian tilted his near snarling, smirking head abruptly to the side and snorted almost gleefully. Too easy, he thought, his ego overflowing. He turned his head, caught the eye of the bartender adjacent to them, one of his kin that he knew only too well, and nodded very quickly. Across the distance, the bartender tipped his head forward subtly and began to move his practiced hands, catching the barely imperceptible blink of his accomplices' upper left eye - the finespun sign to fix the second drink with just a slip of extra effort.

The alien interlaced his fingers tilting his head again in his oily way, drinking her in as she sat as still as stone, determined to keep her glance clean of his. "So running just isn't paying the bills anymore, eh? Got loftier goals in life, I take it. Yearning for more of a touch of luxury?" he pressed, his voice silky. She continued to glare at the blue dancers, the beat dropping low and tense. She watched as an asari with the most severe hip to waist ratio she had ever seen, dripping in glittering precious stones, climbed into an enormous cocktail glass. A tall turian woman stood beside her, statuesque and beautiful, wearing only paint and a jeweled mask cut from shining obsidian. She watched as the turian poured champagne down the asari's breasts before a crowd of stone-faced salarians, wordlessly offering up tips for more, one inexplicably taking notes. A small group of male turian officers clearly on shore leave lurked off to the side, mesmerized.

"Actually, I do. Ever since I got caught up selling Hallex off this rock, I haven't been able to leave."

"In over your head?" he chided, in a mockery of concern. Her eyes flicked to him, murderous. "Let's I don't have a lot of options for reassignment. And yes... I am tired of sleeping on floors."

Her drink seemed to appear on the table. The Batarian wrapped his fingers wryly around his glass without breaking his tensed stare with the young human, his lips still dancing in that awful smile."You want more than life can give, I take it?"

Her eyes turned and bored into him. "That's one way of saying it."

He chuckled acidly, raising his glass. "Then…to a new beginning."

She rolled those words over in her mind, looking past the bar, traveling over the writhing dance floor, through the window, and to a far-flung yellow star. Slowly, she only nodded in agreement.

He tilted his glass back and drank deeply. After a moment of observation, she followed suit. His many eyes contemplated her, from the many slender fingers that wrapped around the tipped glass to the small lips that pursed the rim which poured the poison into her body. She was already affected before she opened her eyes. Her small face and body flushed first with extreme heat, then quickly were overcome with paralyzing cold. She wavered in her seat, hands sluggishly reaching to steady herself amidst the spinning, blurred vestiges of her fading consciousness. The drug acted instantly and mercilessly, enacting unconsciousness in seconds.

"Shh…" He cooed, now fearless, pushing a thick brown finger against her lips – enough to push her rag doll body effortlessly against the seat. So, so easy… His stained smile twisted, filthy teeth glinting, and whispered " Don't fall now. Your kind bruises easy, and we need you unblemished."


Reality returned to her in a supine fog.

She needed only to taste the air to know she was no longer in Afterlife. Daring not to open her eyes, she only listened, drawing a map with her senses.

Oily fabric beneath her, all around the harmonic purr of a corvette-class engine, the thick scent of filth and reconstituted oxygen, a shifting ruddy light gliding over her left eyelid from what could only be a small observation window. She sensed no bindings. They had expected her to have a lower tolerance. If there was more time, she would have smiled at that. Of the great many things she would grow to learn and love and lose if life gave her any true gift, it was the uncanny ability to make the impossible, possible.

A satisfied, bragging alien voice, seven meters away, the vibrations of his words cut by what sounded like a thin steel plate wall. He was pacing, distracted, excitedly recounting the details of his quarry to an unknown voice in the comm unit housed the next partition. She lay still, mastering herself through her breath, each lungful cleansing her gut of fear and her mind of doubt.

This is it. She heard herself say, the stone in her pocket just beneath her fingers, almost in prayer.

Focus. Quiet...quiet your mind. Breathe.

Count.

Ten...

The beating drum of her heart rendered down to a controlled metronome. Something whispered into her consciousness that this would call for a very specific rhythm. Perfection, and only perfection, was essential.

Nine... Moving not a hair else, her right eyelid slid open a millimeter and her eye rolled down, sighting in the position of her captor through the wall in the eye of her mind.

Eight….

She made the movement in a soundless slip and was swallowed into shadows.

Seven….Six….

"You're going to lose your mind Kharn. I know, I know, I can't believe it either...

Five….

"Yes, as Human as they come…small; underage my friend, pure as Noverian snow…and yes. Red hair..."

Four…

"No, no it's clearly real - yes, you idiot I know they are practically bred-out in that ugly little species."

Three…

"No, of course, it's a couple of Salarians, who else? ...A couple of politicians and a doctor, I think….Yeah of course there were a few Volus in the mix, there always are...yeah...those guys. No, I don't like them either and they never pay on time…"

Two

"Are you fucking kidding me, you think I would waste this on some broke krogan? Didn't even advertise - besides, they would tear her apart. Those smooth-brained monsters render her unusable..."

One.

" Listen, regardless, we're going to be very rich my friend, very very rich …we're going to start a bidding war of unprecedented magnitude - "

But when he rounded the corner, that yellow smile slid off straight off his face, landing heavily in the now frozen pit of his gut.

The cot was empty.

"…Yeah. Let me call you back."

He rapped his omnitool violently, snapping off the transmission in mid-conversation and killing the warm orange haze of its given light. His blood had turned to ice. His eyes flicked back and forth as something ominous crept into his veins. He made a conscious effort to push that irrational feeling deep, deep down. He knows it was this cell. He knows he set her down here, drugged and unmoving. His four eyes blazed, searching, brows furrowed, nostrils flared – he whipped his head this way and that, yet he remained rooted to where he stood in the darkened room.

The girl had vanished.

He blinked all of his eyes and shook his head trying to knock sense into it. Reality was not fitting into feasibility. He looked again and yet his eyes did not betray him. He crossed the room, his boots rapping, his expression contorted into and in a flash he stormed to the cot, reaching.

THWACK.

Blinding pain – the ceiling rushing away – falling and clatter. He boomed to the ground, leg crumpled and his head smashed into the brushed steel floor with a clang. Stunned, he tried to stand but only one leg worked - in numb shock, he looked down to blood flowing from his leg. He couldn't move, he couldn't move - and like an animal he let out a scream in bloodcurdling fear ripening to agony as he realized he couldn't move his leg below the knee to stand, blood pouring in a geyser out of his ankle.

"So."

He turned his head in abject horror. Beneath the platform of the cot came a small voice, but all he could see was the flash of a knife and a gunbarrel in his eyes.

"Batarians do have an Achilles tendon."

Like a pale demon from a fever dream, she lay wedged in the nearly impossibly narrow shadow beneath the bed, her unblinking rain-colored eyes wide open, terrifying and clear.

"Wait – NO!"

Her finger fired. At that range, the Stiletto X detonated the back of his skull in a firework of gore. The blown-out remainder of his head hit the floor like a dropped stone, the rest painting the deck crimson. She wasted not a moment tucking the still hot gun into her waist and clawing her way out of the impossibly narrow space through a warm tide of Batarian blood. In a flurry of movement, she flipped his still pliant corpse over, grabbed his arm, and ripped off his omnitool. Her small hands snaked to search him expertly, lifting identification, credits, a picture of a mistress, a small vial of contraband drugs, a ring. All valuable, all useful in their own way. From a hidden pocket, she extracted a small nondescript hacking device and unfolded it until its metal prongs were revealed, marrying it to the hard data port of his omnitool. His pathetic personal securities split open without a trace of protest. It was favorable; she had little time.

The omnitool fit her small forearm poorly, but it worked. She crossed the small room in stride, rounding the partition to his personal counsel – working as fast as her hands could move she hacked it and cobbled together a rudimentary bio-scan across the tiny vessel. Only two more slavers, Batarians again, in the cockpit. In normal circumstances, they would have heard the gunshot, but of course, the traffickers had sound-proofed their holding rooms to silence the screaming.

She quickly wiped a rivulet of blood from her face. The girl leaned back and glanced out of the window, and watched the rust-colored leviathan of Omega sliding away as the ship took relative altitude. Pulling her hood back over her hair, she scanned the ship's simple layout once more, took a sharp breath, wiped the blood from her trigger finger on her clothes, raised her pistol, and walked briskly out the bulkhead doors that opened to the next cycle of her life.

The small figure ghosted through the dark lit vessel, death wrapped in a young girl's flesh. The slavers were dead before they turned around, two point-blank shots and a cockpit full of blood. She kicked the pilot out of his seat, his body collapsing wetly to the floor. She took the ship's controls in her hands, still warm from his touch. The metal beneath her fingers humming, hot. She had flown before, but this time, the corpses aside, felt distinctly different.

She would turn the ship away sharply from Omega, vowing naively never to return, plotting a frenzied course out of the Attican Traverse as fast as she could, thinking for sure she would die as she blasted the ship through the mass relay while barely knowing the controls. The FTL field before her paused and glowed in a baptism of blinding, pure white.

She flew to Sol on stolen wings, her system, marked by the rings of Saturn and the small yellow sun that shone on the closest thing she could call a home.

It was already April there, and her birthday was coming soon. She was almost 17. In a few day's time, she would eject the bodies, wipe the deck, and guide the ship to the first Alliance base she could find, to her only option. Nothing would stop her. Not this time.

She told herself she would be the best. That she would change. That she would succeed where she was told her whole life she would fail. Survival had been against her odds since her parentless birth. Death seemed to lick at her down behind every door, so what the hell was the difference. It was the only constant in her life, better to make peace with it. She figured she might as well put her atypical education to good use.

She decided in that moment, as the star fields blended like diamonds in the endlessness before her, that she would take back her name. The batarian was right, it was a new beginning after all. Somewhere, a new day was breaking with a yellow sun soaring in dawn.

For the first time in her short life, she would come to use the name that was chosen for her years ago, when she was left to forge her own future.

Shepard.