A/N: This was written for the Spring 2013 Mass Effect Big Bang. My extremely talented artist pairing was toxichedgie. Links to her beautiful artwork can be found in my profile. Thanks also to dismalniece, my amazing beta who put up with a story that was twice as long as I promised. Ladies, you are awesome!
Arcturus Station was cushier than James had imagined. Emerald-hued leaves rustled in the artificial breeze and the scent of flowers teased his senses. Couches littered the station and looked so comfy he contemplated stopping his daily jog to take a nap on one. Looking up at the clouds drifting across the blue expanse of the artificial sky, he could almost believe he was back on Earth. There were no birds though; back in San Diego there were always pigeons. He'd always enjoyed running through a flock of feeding pigeons.
The word snapped him out of his thoughts.
"Shepard," he replied, his voice wheezier than he'd like.
Shepard was running in the opposite direction to him but she turned on her heel and fell into the same easy-paced jog next to him.
As much as he wanted to pretend guarding her was just another assignment, he couldn't. Fehl Prime was still a wound that festered under his guilt and helplessness. Maybe if Shepard was anything like the hero he'd imagined her to be, he could at least pretend to like her. Instead, when they'd first met, she'd asked if he was a krogan-human illegal experiment and then wordlessly dismissed him when he gave her a smartass reply. The memory still made his ears flush with indignation.
James watched her out of the corner of his eye as they jogged. She hadn't broken a sweat yet, her breathing in time with her steps—three strides inhaling, three strides exhaling—and her posture was perfect. He probably looked as graceful as a volus next to her.
The only sounds between them were the rhythmic pounding of their feet and James' raspy panting.
"Are you allowed to be out of your quarters, ma'am?" he asked when the silence finally became too uncomfortable for him.
"I'm with my guard. Or did you quit?"
Ah, so he was getting difficult-Shepard today. That was fine; James could give as good as he got.
"Not yet. I'm waiting for Anderson to be in a good mood so he'll approve a transfer request."
She looked at him then, one eyebrow slightly raised and lips pursed. He was used to getting that look. He wasn't getting used to being around someone who had no sense of humour though.
"How long have you been running?" asked Shepard.
That wasn't the reply he was expecting, but Shepard had a habit of abruptly changing the topic when she felt like it.
"Uh…" He checked his omnitool. "About forty minutes."
Shepard quickened her pace, turning their lazy jog into a swift run.
"Keep up, Lieutenant. Wouldn't want to get in trouble for letting me wander unattended, would you?"
An insult that would have made his tio slap him upside the head left his mouth before his common sense could stop it, but Shepard either didn't hear it or didn't understand it. She was worse than his DI back at Camp Pendleton. They were at least sadistic to everyone, but Shepard… Shepard was a pain in the ass just to him.
She kept herself half a pace in front of him, forcing him to follow her wherever she wanted. They passed out of the prettily decorated section where guests and Alliance parliament were, into the cramped alleyways of the military base. Here, there was no artificial sky, no fake trees, no cushy places to sit and watch the bustle of the Systems Alliance's central nervous system go by. Not a single space or surface was wasted.
He had to run behind her now to let others pass. They ran by the barracks, by the warehouses, all the way to the docks. Every time she slowed, he thought that perhaps she was giving him a break, but she'd only slowed to allow people to pass with goods before she sped up again. He realised after the fourth time that she was treating this like interval training, as if she'd decided he needed to work on his endurance. The knowledge almost made him turn on his heel and go back the way he came, but duty kept him following his charge.
At a normal walk, the distance would have taken them almost an hour. Shepard had pushed them to do it in fifteen minutes. His lungs burned, and every time he swallowed, it tasted like blood had welled up in his throat. The metallic tang made his stomach heave, and he stopped midstride, hands on his knees and head down. His thumping heart drowned out the noise of those around him. He closed his eyes against the dark spots slowly spreading across the concrete floor from his dripping sweat. He didn't know if Shepard realised he'd stopped until he heard Shepard's voice coaxing him to stand up straight and take deep breaths.
He opened his mouth to say he knew how to recover from a run, then shut it. He was too exhausted to fight.
"I'm tired. Walk with me back to our quarters," she said, her own breathing heavy.
James felt like an idiot always having to walk Shepard to her door. Apart from it being Arcturus Station and perfectly safe, this was Commander Shepard: Butcher of Torfan, Saviour of the Citadel, Defeater of the Collectors. Admittedly, that last one wasn't an official title, but the point was she could take care–
It dawned on him that she wasn't tired, she just felt sorry for him. He didn't know whether he was more surprised at her generosity or offended that she felt sorry for him.
He walked beside her, listing to one side with a hand pinching the cramp just under his ribs. He was satisfied to see that Shepard had finally broken a sweat, droplets clinging to the ends of her choppy red fringe and running in rivulets down her face and neck. She still had perfect posture though; ramrod straight, chin up, and daring anyone to hold eye contact for longer than a few seconds. No one did. Technically, she'd been stood down, but higher-ups still acknowledged her with a nod and subordinates stopped to stand to attention and salute her.
James got no attention whatsoever.
They walked in silence for the hour or so it took them to walk back to the cushy part of Arcturus. James was too tired and annoyed to even try starting a conversation with Shepard. She didn't seem inclined to fill the silence either.
"Your endurance is dismal," said Shepard once they finally reached Guest Housing.
"Wrong." He frowned down at her. "You're just a freak of nature."
She gave him that half-deadpan, half-annoyed look again. "I didn't give you permission to speak freely, Lieutenant."
James snorted. "You don't hold rank anymore."
That made Shepard pause, and James did a mental victory dance. Rarely did he feel like he got the upper-hand when he spoke to Shepard. He grudgingly admitted to no one but himself that she was smarter than a lot of the marines he was used to.
"I see why Anderson gave you this babysitting assignment when you should be out there leading squads in the Traverse," she said after a little hum of contemplation. "You're incredibly rude."
Hah! He could say the same back at her.
"I don't know about that. Guarding the Commander Shepard–"
"Oh, so I do have rank?" said Shepard as she hit the button to open the door to her quarters. "Get some rest, you look awful."
The door slid closed behind her before James could retort. He kicked the door in frustration.
"Please do not damage Arcturus Station property, or you will be reported to Command and reprimanded," came the artificial voice of a VI from somewhere up above.
With another litany of swearing, James turned and left. He wanted to go to the gym to vent his frustrations on a punching bag, but his legs felt like jelly and his cramp twinged when he moved a certain way. His own quarters were just across the hall from Shepard's, but he wanted to be as far away from her as possible. Perhaps he'd go demolish a big plate of food and not care that he was stinking up the two metre radius around him.
He stormed out of the building, making a beeline for the cafeteria. Lights flickered on in buildings and the skinny lamps on the walkway brightened as the sky darkened into the night cycle. There was no sun setting into the horizon in a riot of colour though; just light blue fading into dark blue. He missed sunsets. Omega didn't have sunsets. Fehl had sunsets, but the double moons always made him acutely aware that he wasn't home.
James groaned and turned, ready to snarl at whoever called out to him. Recognising the admiral, he quickly stood up straight, his cramp protesting, and snapped off a smart salute.
"At ease, soldier, this is a social call," said Anderson with a friendly shake of his head. "I just want to get to the chow hall before the dinner rush."
Usually, James would go back to slouching, but the only mark of informality in his body was the slight list to one side as he tried to placate his resurgent cramp. They fell into step together, heading for the large building in the distance with food advertising hanging off the sides.
"How are you finding your duties, Lieutenant?"
James gave Anderson a sideways look, wondering if he was being facetious or genuinely wanted to know how fun guard duty was.
"Permission to speak freely, sir?" he asked, and Anderson nodded. "Commander Shepard's a bitch."
"Yes, she takes some getting used to," said Anderson with a wry twist of his lips.
James sighed and rolled his eyes. "Ay dios mio, I don't want to get used–"
The sound of a blast hit them at the same time as the force knocked them forward. Instinct made James roll into cover, tucking himself behind a pot plant. A quick glance across the walkway at Anderson showed the old soldier had done the same. Glass rained down on them and James covered his head with his arms. Shards skittered along his skin, leaving pink marks in their wake. He looked up, trying to find the source of the explosion and wondering what he was going to do if this was an attack and he didn't have a gun.
Smoke and fire billowed from the second floor of guest housing.
A brief head check around the pot plant attracted no bullets; no shadowy soldiers fanned out, ready to start killing people right in the heart of Alliance territory. Anderson was already up and running, his pistol in hand, and James followed after him into the belly of the burning building.
People stumbled past him, the uninjured helping the injured out before running back in to help more. James caught up with Anderson at the bottom of the stairs.
"Find Shepard," said Anderson, handing him a portable fire extinguisher. "I'll organise the evacuation until emergency services arrive."
James nodded, stripping his sweat-soaked shirt and tying it around his face before bounding up the stairs two at a time. He sprinted down the hallway, adrenaline making his tired body work hard. People limped for the stairs and he ducked around them, almost falling on the wet floor as he skidded around the corner to Shepard's quarters. The door was blown clean off, chunks of metal embedded into James' own door. The sprinklers tried their best to douse the flames that licked out from the open door, scorching the floor, ceiling, and walls.
No one replied.
He ran his hand through his hair and growled in frustration as he weighed up his options. There was no way Shepard could still be alive if she were in the room. His eyes roved across the ruined hallway, looking for a sign that Shepard had made it out the door.
Through the smoke, he saw a crumpled body further down the hallway. Hope shoved away his anxiety and he charged through the smoke, covering his face as he ran past the flames. Shepard lay twisted on the floor, still in jogging shorts and regulation tank, with her red hair fanned out in a pool of blood.