The young woman at the front desk had told David to be careful how far he wandered. The hotel he was staying at in Budapest was in a nice area of the city, with a spectacular view of the Hungarian Parliament Building across from the Danube.
But as the kid had said, go a mile in the wrong direction and the atmostphere changed drastically.
“That’s Tenth Street,” the kid had said. “Reds territory. You won’t last an hour, dressed like that.”
Dressed nice, David figured. Although at this point, he was wishing he’d stuck with the Alliance uniform.
And a weapon.
He stepped over a figure sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk, heading back in the direction he’d come. He hadn’t wandered too far off course – the maps of the area were all dated and unreliable – and should have been able to get back on track pretty quick.
Besides, if he’d learned anything from ICT, it was how to evac from enemy territory quickly and quietly.
Pedestrians gave him wary looks as he passed. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, ducking his chin to try to blend but still be aware of his surroundings.
He didn’t belong here. To these people, he represented a different class. Wealth. Privilege. They didn’t know the whole story, of course, but appearances were everything in a place like this.
He rounded a corner – one more block to go – to find the street ahead blocked by three figures.
Kids, really. None of them could have been over twenty. Wiry, malnourished, and lacking personal hygiene.
“You lost, old man?” one of them sneered.
Old man? David could take these nitwits half asleep.
“Got a little turned around,” he explained with a grin and a self-deprecating shrug. “Just passing through.”
The kids laughed, closing ranks towards him. “That’s too bad. Still got to pay to pass, though.”
David straightened his posture, removing his hands from his pockets. That was how it was going to be, then. He could take on three punk kids.
It was the fourth one that took him by surprise, coming from behind with a bat aimed at his head. David side-stepped at the last moment, taking a glancing blow off his shoulder that caused stars to burst behind his eyelids, but was a hell of a lot better than a concussion.
He put space between himself and his attackers, analyzing the situation. He couldn’t see a weapon on any of the others, but that meant exactly squat. First order of business was disarming the wanna-be slugger.
The bat wielder’s gaze was drawn to something to his left, giving David a small window to land a strike across the kid’s jaw. The bat clattered to the ground , rolling out of reach. The other three closed in, but their eyes were on something else.
“Varga, you stupid piece of shit,” a new voice hollered. “I thought you learned your lesson by now.”
Anderson faced the newcomers. God, they were so young. Twenty at the most, probably not quite. All lean muscle bordering on too thin, though a little cleaner looking than the last group. One of them swept the bat off the ground, spinning it in the circle in his wrist. A mop of brown curls threatened to get into his eyes. His companion was about a head shorter and a tad on the bulkier side, with jet black hair pulled back with a tie.
“You were told what would happen if we found you here again,” the dark-haired man said. His voice was calmer, almost soothing.
His bat wielding companion made a tsk sound, pointing the tip of the bat in their direction.
Varga and his companions moved in closer towards the newcomers.
“Fuck you, Shepard,” the one called Varga sneered. “I’m going to fuck that pretty face of yours up so bad no one will hire you again.”
Shepard smirked, studying the bat in his hand. “You say the sweetest things.”
Varga rushed Shepard, who swung the bat in a long arc, catching him in the knees with a sickening crack. He fell to the ground, howling in pain. Anderson flinched in sympathy. That had to hurt.
He wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if it came in the form of two teenage street rats, so he joined the fray, clocking the one that had attacked him across the face and sending him to sleep.
Shepard and his companion handled the others in record time. Shepard’s hand-to-hand combat lacked finesse or training but made up for it in gumption. ‘Balls to the wall’ was a good way to describe it. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, a toothy grin on his face as he headbutted one of their attackers, breaking his nose.
The attackers scuttled away, scooping up their knee-capped companion on their way and supporting his weight as they limped away. Shepard tossed the bat to the side, huffing. His companion gave him a companionable pat on the shoulder.
Shepard returned the shoulder smack, walking towards Anderson. “Yeah, Javi, I’m good.”
Anderson rubbed his shoulder absently. Looked like a trip to the emergency clinic was in his future.
“You saved my hide, son. Thank you.”
Shepard sniffed, stepping in close to pat Anderson on the back. There was a soft spattering of freckles across his nose, only visible at close range. Shepard winked, the impish smirk back on display.
“You did pretty well yourself, for an old timer.”
With another pat, lower on Anderson’s back this time, Shepard and his companion took off in the directly they had come, further onto Tenth Street.
It wasn’t until Anderson got to the emergency clinic that he realized Shepard had swiped his wallet.
David returned from the clinic to his hotel room at nearly dawn. His shoulder felt better, but his pride was stung. Swindled by a teenager. He’d probably have known what the kid was trying to pull if it hadn’t been for the screaming pain in his shoulder.
Still, kid had spirit. A certain, un-nameable something that was wasted living on the streets.
So, David returned to Reds territory the next day, opting for daylight to be on the safe side.
He honestly wasn’t expecting to find Shepard, so when he spotted the kid with his companion from the night before, sitting at a table at a shitty out-door café, his resolve was strengthened. Something about this entire encounter felt... important.
Shepard’s companion – Javi he had called him – saw David first, nudging Shepard on the arm to get his attention. Shepard snorted when he made eye contact with David, his youthful face splitting into a grin.
“You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that.”
David hummed, slipping into the empty seat at their table and flagging down a waiter. “Comes with the job description. They got anything good here?”
“Shitty coffee. Shitty pastries,” Shepard replied, watching him curiously. What barely passed for a latte sat in front of him, the biggest dollop of whipped cream David had ever seen resting on top.
“Works for me. You can buy me a cup.”
Shepard snorted, leaning back in his seat to cross his arms over his chest. Javi’s eyes darted between him and David.
“The fuck makes you think I’ll do that?”
David smirked, placing his order when a haggard barista approached the table. “Well, you paid for the rest with my credits, didn’t you?”
Javi chuckled into his mug. Shepard shot him a withering look.
Shifting in his seat, Shepard pulled David’s wallet out of his back pocket, tossing it to him. “Like you said, credits are gone.”
David shrugged, stuffing his wallet back into his pocket. Two hundred credits wasn’t enough to get worried about, but he imagined for someone like Shepard it was.
“So, you going to call the Rendőrség  on us?”
David regarded him for a moment.
“I mean, you could,” Shepard continued, leaning forward in his seat, hands resting on the table. His voice had dropped and octave, going syrupy and warm, and the smile he shot David turned his blood to ice water. “Or... I could give a blowjob that will change your life.”
David blanched, shuffling uncomfortably in his seat. How long had he been at this? Nothing more than a kid, really. Had he been selling himself in order to survive for so long that offering it had become nothing but second nature?
“Sorry, son, you’re not my type.”
Shepard snorted, sitting back. “I’m everyone’s type.”
The waiter brought back David’s coffee. He took a sip. Not the worst cup he’d ever had, but it definitely gave some of the Alliance mess hall joe a run for its money.
“I didn’t come here about the credits,” he told Shepard. “I saw you fight yesterday. You’re resourceful, smart, fearless. Charismatic. You have the trappings of a natural leader.”
Shepard snorted, scooping whipped cream onto a finger and sucking it off. “So, you came here to flatter me?”
“You could do more with your life, son.”
One of Shepard’s brows rose to his hairline. “Could I now.”
David hummed, nodding. “You ever consider the Alliance?”
Shepard stared at him a moment, gob smacked, before a bark of laughter escaped his mouth. “Yeah, sure.”
David continued to study him. He could have gotten up to leave, told David to fuck off. But he didn’t. He just continued to look at him as if he’d grown a second head.
“I’m not cut out for the military.”
“Let me be the judge of that,” David answered.
Shepard sniffed. “Should have known you were Alliance, the way you throw a punch.”
David smirked. “N7, in fact. And I know potential when I see it. Do you really want to waste away here, Shepard? Die on these streets? Or would you rather do something? See the stars, travel to exotic places?”
“Get my ass shot off?”
“You could do that here.”
Shepard’s eyes narrowed to slits. Javi placed a hand on his forearm, his features soft, and a little sad.
David scribbled his information onto a reasonably clean napkin, sliding it across the table towards Eric. “Think about it. I’ll be in Budapest for a few more days. I’m staying at the Corinthia.”
Eric stared at him suspiciously. David tossed an extra-large tip on the table for the server, knowing most it would disappear into Eric and Javi’s pockets.
“I’ll see you soon, son.”
David didn’t hear from Shepard that day, or the day after that. He was a little disappointed, though not necessarily surprised. He’d dropped quite a doozy on the kid, after all, and he didn’t imagine Eric was the trusting type.
Still, David couldn’t help but wish he’d gotten a call or message. Humanity’s role in the interstellar community was changing, and the Alliance needed fresh faces. Special cases.
There was something about this kid that David couldn’t quite put his finger on. But the idea of him wasting his life here, dying at a young age without having reached his potential seemed like such a waste.
The kid would look good with an N7 pin on a dress uniform.
David began to sort through his belongings to pack for the trip back to Vancouver. Potential or not, he couldn’t force Shepard to sign on the dotted line, and it was starting to look like he was going back to HQ alone.
So, David was shocked to receive a call in his room on the last day of his trip.
“Mr. Anderson,” the front desk clerk said, sounding a little flustered. “You have a…guest in the lobby.”
The ‘guest’ replied in something the translator didn’t quite pick up, but David recognized the voice. He grinned.
“I’ll be right down.”
Shepard looked out of place in the Corinthia, dressed in a pair of faded jeans, old-fashioned combat boots with no laces, and a t-shirt that looked older than the kid himself. He leaned against one of the pillars in the lobby, giving a glare to anyone whose gaze fixated on him too long.
It was a good glare.
“I was beginning to think you were going to stand me up.”
Shepard shifted on his feet, wrinkling his nose. “Almost did. Still not sure why I’m here.”
“I imagine you have questions for me,” David replied, gesturing towards the hotel bar.
Shepard pushed off the pillar and followed behind. They slipped into seats at the bar, and a bartender greeted David almost immediately, his eyes skipping over Eric entirely.
“You have any recommendations?” David asked Shepard. “I’ve yet to try any of local drinks.”
Shepard’s hazel gaze bore into him for a moment, as if David was a puzzle he was trying to pick apart. Likely the poor kid still didn’t trust David’s intentions.
“Pálinka. Szilva .”
The bartender nodded, reaching behind the bar for an amber bottle of liquor with a small image on a plum on it.
“Plum’s my favorite,” Shepard offered as the bartender poured two short glasses and slid them across the bar. His mouth pulled down into a frown. “Javi likes the cherry, for some reason.”
“Plum is good,” David said, taking a sip. It was potent, but not bad. Shepard continued to study him, his own drink untouched.
“Look, Eric,” David said, setting the glass down. “I’m not going to lie to you. What I’m offering isn’t going to be easy. Alliance training is the best, but it’s hard. You’ll be tested, pushed to your limit and beyond, but I’ve always been a good judge of character and I think you’ll shine there.”
“Why the hell do you care so much about what happens to me?”
David shrugged. At least now they were getting somewhere. “I hate to see wasted potential. And, to be honest, the Alliance could use some new blood, instead of the same old academy graduates and Navy brats.”
“This all sounds like a load of horseshit.”
“If you really believed that, you wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Shepard scowled, but he tore his gaze away to stare at his untouched drink. “I told you I almost didn’t come here. That’s true. Javi convinced me. Said if one of us was going to get out of this, it was going to be me. Told me I’d be crazy to turn down the chance to leave here and never look back.”
“He sounds like a smart man.”
“He’s a pain in the ass,” Eric replied fondly.
David flagged down the bartender for a refill. “You could make a name for yourself, Eric. I can help you.”
Shepard’s scowl deepened, with was a feat in and of itself. “What’s the catch?”
David huffed out a laugh, taking a sip of his drink. Shepard was right about the plum. “One of these days you’ll have to learn to trust that not everyone is out to use you, Shepard.”
Shepard sniffed, one eyebrow raising to his hairline. “That hasn’t been my experience.”
“Of course not,” David concurred. “But that all changes today, if you’re willing to try.”
Eric studied him a moment more, fingers tapping against the bar top. Finally, he straightened in his seat and pinned Anderson with his gaze.
“What happens next, if I take you up on this? Theoretically.”
David nodded, taking a drink to hide his smile. “Well, we’ll need to get your birth certificate, medical records, and any educational transcripts you’ve got.”
Shepard snorted. “The orphanage I lived in shut down years ago, and anything they had is outdated by about ten years anyway.”
David smirked. “We’ll figure it out. You think you’re the first out the books kid to join up?”
Shepard’s eyes narrowed slightly, as if he was thinking ‘I haven’t agreed to anything yet’.
“Then, you and I will go to Alliance HQ in Vancouver and get you squared away. After you clear medical, you’ll sign on the dotted line and head to Luna for basic.”
“The moon, huh?” Shepard chewed thoughtfully on his bottom lip.
David hummed an affirmative. “You ever been off-planet, Eric? Hell, you ever left Budapest?”
Shepard shook his head.
David grinned, tipping his glass at him. “Lot more to see out there, even past the moon. You could train on Titan, take shore leave on Elysium.”
“Sounds like you’re saying I don’t have to come back to this planet ever again if I don’t want.”
David shrugged. “A few times, sure. But you’ll never have to live here again, if you don’t want to.”
Shepard hummed, tapping his glass against the bar top. “Nothing here for me.”
“Then let’s get you the hell out of here. Make sure you can find a place that’s yours.”
Hackett was going to think David had lost his mind when he showed up with his new protégé.
“All right,” Shepard said at length. “I’ll do it.”
Anderson smirked, clinking his glass against Eric’s.
First day of the rest of your life, Shepard.