Shepard gets old before his time.
He’s old when he’s just a kid in the shelters on earth, growing up hard scrabble with no memories of being held in arms that want to hold him. When he was picked up, it was to be moved aside, put away. Left behind.
He’s old when he’s fourteen, pistol too big in his skinny hand, standing in some dirty alley waiting for Finch to close a deal inside one of the city’s filthiest clubs. Even the alley is lit hot pink in seedy neon, but if they move this red sand they can sleep under a real roof for a night or two. If they move it for the right price, they’ll be able to hit up the ramen stand on the corner and have a bowl each, with meat and vegetables and those salty fishdog slices with the swirls in the middle. If they can’t move it, they’ll take some of it, because when you were starving it was the next best thing. It made you forget. When Finch stumbles outside, grin jagged, and holds up a credit chit, Shepard’s hope sparks. He’s hungry. In that moment he’s young, and hungry.
He’s older when he leaves the Reds, knuckles bleeding and the lower half of a front tooth broken clean off. He tongues the space and knows it’s the only clean break he’ll get from the Reds. The Reds don’t forget the ones who walk away.
He looks old enough that nobody calls him out when he lies on his Alliance application form, pushing the date of birth back an extra two years. To be fair, he’s only half certain he’s lying. He’s had so many fake IDs that he’s not sure anymore which one is who he’s supposed to be underneath. For all he knows, John Shepard was the name assigned to him when he turned up with no parents and no papers on the doorstep of an orphanage sixteen years ago. But none of that matters because the attendant lets him sign up, looking past the patchy shadow of blue stubble on the soft edge of Shepard’s jaw.
Shepard thought it made him look older, back then, but he sees the same thing now all over the galaxy: rough teenagers with hard eyes and soft faces. Still young, so young underneath, that it glares through like the neon lights of the citadel wards.
He’s old in basic, and he’s old when he ships out for the first time. Akuze makes him even older, faint lines creasing his forehead whenever he looks in the mirror. No bangs to hide them, not with the fresh buzz cut he gives himself every two weeks.
He’s old when they’re hunting Saren, even if his team puts a glint in his eyes. Young for a moment with Garrus, younger still with Wrex, who acts like he’s hardass father to the whole galaxy. Young when Ash teases him, young and dumb when Kaidan almost kisses him, only once, that one missed collision by the weapons lockers before they swung out of each other’s orbits.
Old when he dies, alone in space, spinning down, down. Burning up on reentry.
When Miranda brings him back, he’s got the same face. Lines, hollow cheeks. A few new scars that stretch when he talks. The stubble darkening his jaw isn’t a shadow anymore. It’s sharp, fills in fast and wears away at the inside collars of his fatigues.
He’s old when they lock him down in Vancouver. James calls him an old dog and he feels it, even if he still spends his evenings doing push-up after push-up, grunting through it, arms on fire and stomach shivering with tension. Biotic glow builds under his palms while he thinks to himself, if I wanted to, I could walk straight out of here. Rush the doors, a biotic freight train, vanguard of his own destruction. But he cools down, and he stays. He waits. James turns up in the morning and they bullshit about protein supplements.
Shepard waits, and sure enough, the war comes. It’s been coming all along. He’s been wearing the wait on his face, and when the reapers smash their way down to earth every loss deepens the creases on his forehead. As though the set of his eyebrows is a scar.
If war didn’t make you old or kill you, life would. Shepard had been down both roads, but somehow he was still walking. Still fighting. Still young enough to believe that the future unfolded in the far off distance and that you could change it before you got there, that time and space could be bent by force of sheer will. One old soldier could change everything, with the right team and some really big guns.
Shepard is old before his time, but he’s a survivor. Born fighting, born to fight. He’d keep fighting until it killed him—again—for the chance to get a little older.
For a chance for everyone to get a little older, and to wear the fight proudly on their faces.