Chapter 1

Another sleepless night. 0400. Two hours until watch changed and Shepard had no hope of falling asleep again before then. Damn nightmares. There were only two ways to soothe her insomnia and frustration at Earth, the Reapers, the Council, everything. One of those ways she didn't want to think too closely about doing with someone on this ship; the other was simply beating it into submission.

Shepard slipped out of bed, pulling on her shorts and zipping up her N7 hoodie over her sports bra. Looks like she'd be spending yet another night with James's punching bag, she thought as she slipped on her shoes. At this rate, she'd have to buy him a new one.

The cargo bay this morning was not the quiet place it usually was. She deflated as she heard the pounding and panting of someone already using the punching bag. They really needed a gym. It was a little ridiculous that a military ship had two observation decks but no gym.

Shepard was about to press the elevator button to go back to her quarters when she heard her name and some unintelligible words framing it.


She couldn't see him, just some hands and the bag swinging on its chain, but after all these months together she knew that voice. On silent feet, she walked to Cortez's usual console, leaning against it and watching the Lieutenant now that she could see him.

He had his broad back half-turned to her, muscles bunched under tattooed skin and sweat dripping off him with each punch or kick. The soldier in her couldn't help critiquing him. Good technique but he compensated for his lack of dexterity with pure power. The woman in her — the one she locked away for fear of doing something ultimately self-destructive again — just found it increasingly distracting to look at him with his shirt off. Hell, sometimes she found it distracting to look at him with his shirt on.

Two months ago she'd dismissed these feelings as being a product of forced togetherness. It wasn't an excuse that worked now. The surreptitious glances lingered, innocent touches became more frequent and their flirting sometimes shifted from playful to heated. She was now grasping for a different reason to explain it away. Too much variety? Impending death? The forbidden? Even when she'd had a good night's rest, she couldn't find a reasonable explanation past the obvious "I want him".

With a final kick to what would be a very unfortunate person's ribs, James stopped, reaching over for his drink bottle and taking a swig before turning. He froze, bottle halfway to his lips and eyes darting from Shepard to the rest of the empty cargo hold. What an odd reaction.


"Lola." He wiped himself down with his towel, his previous cornered look gone and easy grin on his face. "Can't sleep? You know, I can think of a few ways to tire you out."

"How about a dance?" Sometimes it was best to head him off at the pass. Sometimes it was better to head herself off before her imagination kicked in.

James chuckled. They helped each other move training mats from a stack in the corner near crates to the centre of the cargo hold. It was a testament to how easily she'd beaten him before that she didn't shuck her hoodie or shoes when they began. This'd be a good warm up before she took out the rest of her insomnia on the punching bag.

Shepard held her hands in front of her in loose fists, ready to block a punch she couldn't lean away from or counter a take down. James dropped into his boxing stance, hands up and protecting his head, light on the balls of his feet, hips twisted away to present her with as small a target as possible.

His punches were slow, easy for Shepard to duck or step around. The dance was almost lazy. As soon as her muscles were warm she'd finish it.

"Don't drop your shoulder. Fights are lost on bad defence," said Shepard, nodding at how his leading shoulder wasn't pressed up against his face to block incoming blows.

She threw a hook to make her point but James ducked under it, wrapping his arms low around her hips. This was unexpected. The world spun as he lifted her and slammed her to the mat. She wasn't on the battlefield; it was four in the morning and she wasn't prepared for this onslaught. She rolled to her hands and knees, knowing she was putting herself into one of the worst positions to be in, but she was winded and a little dazed. A second to gather herself was all she needed but James wasn't so forgiving.

His weight was heavy on her back, perpendicular to her. He wrapped his legs around her left arm, trapping it, and gripped her right arm in his own. Shit, shit, damn, shit! She knew exactly what he was going to do but it was too late to wriggle out of. He rolled back and she was crucified along his torso, arms spread and back arched as he lifted his hips to crank her neck.

He wouldn't keep up the pressure (she hoped) but if he did it would pop every tendon in her neck. She tapped his leg, conceding victory to him for this submission. It was a flashy move that had just as much chance of failing as it did of success. It was exactly what she would expect from someone as brash as him.

"Getting slow in your old age, Lola." He flashed her perhaps the smuggest grin she had ever seen on another sentient being.

Shepard ignored his hand, an offer to help her up, and flipped to her feet. The show-boater in her wasn't going to let her stand up like a normal person after losing. Plus, he'd called her old. He'd pay for that.

"I'd watch your mouth, if I were you, James." She undid the laces of her shoes and toed them off. "I hate losing. Maybe I won't pull a punch and your pretty face can have another scar."

Shepard stripped off her hoodie and James raised an eyebrow at her. "Don't think you can distract me with some T and A, Lola."

Except it had distracted him. Shepard saw his eyes linger on her chest and bare stomach before trailing down the rest of her. A blush wanted to creep up her cheeks but she pushed it away. She wasn't a damn teenager.

"Actually, seems like it's doing a good job at distracting you." She rolled her head around to get rid of the lingering strain in her neck, a predatory gleam in her eye despite having just lost a round.

James snorted, ears going red the only sign that he was embarrassed to get caught out, and shook his head. "I've seen it all before. Same bits, different shape."

They circled each other, trying to out-stare and out-smirk each other. James feinted a few jabs but Shepard didn't rise to the bait. She continued to smile at him, waiting for him to start actually attacking. He threw a jab cross followed by a kick but Shepard had read his body and simply twirled out of his path. He'd shown his hand in the last round; she had a much better read on him now. Still, wouldn't hurt to put him off balance.

"So, what were you saying about me when you were using the punching bag?" she asked.

"You— what?" His guard dropped a fraction and that cornered look he'd had on before was back, along with a flush to his ears.

Shepard didn't dwell on it. She had her opening. If he wanted to take it to the ground, she'd teach him that weight and strength weren't deciding factors of who won or lost. He'd also learn that the simplest moves were just as effective as the showy ones. She rushed in and grabbed his leg. As he danced back to regain his balance, she moved with him, using his own equilibrium to send him to the mat.

She wrapped himself around the leg she used to drop him. Her heel dug into his hip to keep him from coming up to grab her and turn the tables. With his leg firmly in her grasp and bent against her side, she twisted. The move was simple but effective and highly dangerous. The torque to the ankle transferred up to the knee and, if he didn't tap, it was all too easy to tear the ligaments there.

"Fuck, Shepard!" James slapped her leg and Shepard gave him a shit-eating grin as she let go of his leg and stood.

"You're not a master yet, kid," said Shepard. To add insult to injury, she patted him on the head.

"Best two out of three." James mock scowled as Shepard helped him up. "I'm just getting started."

They took up their positions again, panting heavier than the last two times they'd started a round. The dance was no longer lazy. His eyes were more alert, trying to read her muscles just as her own were reading his. Good, he was learning. Shepard had no intention of losing and being subjected to his taunting again though. When she fought, she fought to win.

Things quickly degenerated. Their blows weren't as soft as they were in the previous rounds. Shepard caught a kick to the ribs. James got two to his inner thigh in quick succession as payback, right above the knee. Her chin hurt where his fist clipped it. He had a swelling lip from a calculated punch.

"Not taking me to the mat anymore, Lola?"

"Not if you're expecting it."

An overhand punch — harder than any of her last — staggered him and she hooked a foot around his ankle, throwing him to the ground over her shoulder. He'd left himself wide open for the mount and Shepard went in for the kill. A trap. He brought a knee up so she couldn't swing a leg over him. The leg wrapped around her waist and tugged her down. She lost her balance and he grabbed her upper arms, swinging her to the mat and rolling on top of her.

He pinned her elbows to the floor beside her and loomed over her. He was smirking. She must be more tired than she thought to fall for such a stupid trick. She tried to buck him off despite knowing he wouldn't budge.

"Tap?" James' voice matched the victorious grin on his face.

"You wish." Her pride was riding on this last match and tapping without a submission hold was like giving up before she'd even started.

Shepard tried to slide her body down so he'd be sitting higher and she'd have more power from her legs to buck him off. He anticipated it and clamped rock-hard thighs around her, heavy on her hips, and she made a small sound of annoyance in her throat.

"I gave you a chance. Now you have to say 'James is the combat master' to get me to let go."

Shepard laughed, breathless from exertion. "Go to hell, James."

"That didn't sound like what I told you to say."

There were a hundred things he could do from this dominant position but the smug bastard seemed more interested in gloating. She twisted underneath him, trying to unbalance him in some way so she'd be able to either buck him off or get a hand free. If she had a free hand he'd be on his back begging for mercy so quickly he wouldn't even have time to take a breath.

"You're going to hurt yourself doing that, Lola." James was serene, almost bored, in the face of Shepard's struggles. Ass.

He wasn't playing fair. That was fine — Shepard knew how to play unfair too. Her biotics flared and before James could understand what was happening she hit him with a small throw field. Really small, just enough to dislodge him. Honest.

With an undignified and very unmanly little sound, he landed ass-first on the floor and Shepard scrambled into mount. She moved to punch him in the face (she had threatened it) but he'd recovered faster than she'd anticipated. Another miscalculation. Damn. He caught her fist in his hand and redirected it away. Shepard fell forward with a surprised yelp as he yanked her hand up over his head. His free arm snaked around her waist and she could feel the shift in his body as he prepared to roll them over.

They froze at the same moment, faces mere breaths away. She could feel his heart racing as fast as hers. She was suddenly acutely aware of things she'd never noticed before. He had another almost invisible scar just under his right eyebrow… there was a strip of stubble on his chin that was lighter than the rest… he smelled of gun oil and Alliance-issue soap underneath the sweat… there was a chip on one of his front teeth… his green eyes were flecked with darker shards of hazel… his fingers were calloused where they pressed against her back.

Shepard's skin erupted in goosebumps as his hand slid up her spine and he pulled her head down for a kiss. She had expected him to be forceful, brutal even, but he was so gentle, teasing her lips with his tongue. She sighed, losing herself in the reality of something she had only imagined before. Her eyes slipped closed and she met his tongue with her own. He tasted of mint and strawberries from his electrolyte-laden drink.

It was stupid, so stupid.

Shepard trailed her fingers down his face and neck, across his shoulders and down his sides. The ridges of muscle moved under her fingers and hitched when she teased a sensitive spot. He dragged his blunt nails down her back in response and she arched into it, a soft moan escaping her.

The sound in her own ears made her eyes snap open and she pulled back, mouth agape. Subordinate. Way too young for her. Galaxy at stake. Death on the horizon. Was this what it felt like to succumb to madness? Because surely that was the only reason she was straddling him, kissing him, and moaning about it. She scrambled off him.

"I think that's enough dancing for today, Lieutenant." She tried to ignore his half-naked body and the look of hurt that passed briefly over his face. "I'm sorry. I was out of line. Just... forget this ever happened."

Shepard turned on her heel and snatched up her jacket and shoes, all but running for the elevator. She tapped the button over and over as if that'd make the doors open and close faster. It was like EDI was purposely making the elevator run slower than normal as Shepard paced the little square. She held onto the urge to ask the AI if she was interfering.

The elevator doors opened to her quarters and she slid out as soon as the crack was big enough for her to slip through. She needed to shower. She needed to sleep. She needed to go to the medbay and ask Dr Chakwas for something that would eradicate her libido. A testosterone-fuelled twenty-something year old was always frisky but Shepard was neither testosterone-fuelled nor twenty-something years old.

Stripping once she reached her bathroom, she turned the shower to scalding hot and hissed as it burned her skin. A thousand reasons for what had happened ran through her head. Tired. Stressed. Adrenaline. Hormones. Forced closeness in the six months he acted as her personal jailer. Looming apocalypse making her jittery. They were all valid reasons for her lapse in judgement, or so she told herself. Best to just forget.

Yeah… easy.