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It wasn't that Shepard came to the Normandy's sparring nights to supervise, exactly. In fact, she usually stayed away — this kind of thing was good for morale and blowing off steam, and she didn't want anyone on the crew feeling self-conscious because the CO was around. But she did occasionally like to check on Grunt's training progress... and it seemed like a good idea to show up at least once in a while, given the potential for damage to the ship and the participants.

She made a point of hanging back behind the crowd, keeping her distance as best she could while staying close enough to see what was going on. At the moment, Grunt was on his third match of the night after decisively winning his first two. But this time he was fighting Garrus, and a third win was looking less and less likely by the second.

She was busy making mental notes for things to work on with the young krogan when she was startled by a soft touch on her shoulder. She jumped slightly, but relaxed again as soon as she saw who the hand belonged to. As usual, Thane had made no sound when he approached.

Taking advantage of the fact that no one stood behind them, he slid his hand over to the back of her neck, stroking her skin with his thumb. Heat rushed through her even from such a small gesture; things were still new enough between them that any look, any touch from him excited her.

She took his hand when he finally pulled it back. "Hey," she greeted him, squeezing briefly. "This is a surprise. You never come to sparring night."

"Doctor's orders," he replied with the faintest of smiles. "She always reminds me that I should spend more time among the crew." Even while he spoke, Thane watched the match closely, and Shepard could tell he was studying their technique. His eyes narrowed when Grunt charged at Garrus head-on.

Shepard made a tsking sound and added yet another mental note to her list. Predictably, Garrus had no trouble dodging the move and drew cheers from the assembled crew. A minute later, the match ended when Garrus used the tactical error to his benefit and firmly pinned Grunt.

The krogan left the open sparring space and joined Shepard, wearing a sour expression. She gave him a sideways glance. "So — how many times has Garrus beaten you now?"


"This is, what — three times? Four?" she teased.

Grunt glowered at her. "...four," he admitted.

"Right... four," she mused. "Well, you're improving. I'm sure you'll get him next time." Her attempt at a reassuring tone just got annoyed grumbling back from Grunt, even more so when she laughed and gave him a pat on the back.

Meanwhile, Garrus was still in the ring, waiting for a new opponent. When no one stepped up right away, he started looking around the group and calling people out.

First he tried Jack, who fired up her biotics immediately, only to be blocked when Miranda flung an arm out in front of her. They both appealed to Shepard, and for a second she saw no reason to stop it. Then she remembered that Jack had blown up half the cargo bay last time, and shook her head. Jack stood down, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like fucking cheerleader.

Garrus next caught the eye of Shepard herself and gestured into the circle: how about it? She grinned. "I would, but I don't want to hurt you, Vakarian," she threw back, to laughter and jeers from the crew.

Garrus laughed, too — but then his eyes settled on Thane, and all his good humor drained away in an instant. "Krios. Didn't expect to see you here," he said slowly. He indicated the center of the ring, making his challenge, but Thane gave him no answer.

After a moment, Garrus tried again, speaking in a strange voice. "Come on. What is it they say? May the best man win...?"

Thane stood still as a stone with his arms clasped behind his back. His face was the same mask of calm he always wore, but intense, too. He stared at Garrus and Garrus stared right back, neither one moving. The watching crowd was silent and spellbound — this challenge was different, charged somehow. It electrified the room, and everyone could feel it.

Shepard looked back and forth between them, frowning slightly. The moment drew out several seconds past too long, two pairs of eyes locked on each other. She kept expecting Thane to speak any moment now — because of course he'd decline, no doubt giving Garrus a polite excuse.

But Shepard's eyebrows shot up when instead of turning the challenge down, he peeled off first his coat, then his vest, holding Garrus's eyes the whole time. A murmur rippled through the onlookers. It was rare enough that Thane attended the regular sparring nights — his accepting a challenge was unheard of.

Footsteps jogged away behind her and she heard far off voices, then more footsteps coming back in. People shuffled down to make space for the newcomers. Somewhere to the side, she heard Ken Donnelly quietly suggest a bet. "Twenty creds on Archangel," he offered, and several people took him up on it including Gabby, who whispered back, "Oh, you're on."

After a minute, it seemed to Shepard that the entire crew had now crammed itself into the cargo bay. Even Mordin put in an appearance, joining Shepard with a nod.

There was an enthusiastic cheer as Thane stepped into the center of the room, which died down immediately when he bowed his head — centering himself, she thought, or saying a prayer. He stayed frozen long enough that Shepard's gaze started to drift, admiring his broad shoulders, bare without his leathers. Deep green stripes curved gracefully around his sides, drawing attention to the definition of every muscle in his back—

She had to drag herself back into the present when he looked up, hoping no one had noticed her wandering eyes. Thane inclined his head toward Garrus and fell into a deceptively relaxed stance. Garrus did the same, and they began circling each other, both on guard, each waiting for the other.

It was Garrus who made the first move, throwing several quick jabs that Thane blocked effortlessly. Rather than countering he continued to circle, offering Garrus another chance to attack. When he did, Thane dodged, barely needing to move to do it. Still, he chose not to strike back.

On Garrus's third lunge, Thane ducked under his arm and vanished. Shepard blinked, disoriented by the movement, so fast it was impossible to follow. A split second later, Garrus was staggering across the open space, only barely managing to stay upright. Thane had slipped behind him, and before anyone even knew what was happening, delivered a sharp hit to the back with an open hand, shoving Garrus forward hard.

She heard a low whistle and a buzz of quiet conversation — the crew were impressed with Thane's display of speed and agility, and rightfully so. She had sparred with Thane a few times herself, and it was like trying to fight a shadow: one second he was right there in front of her, and the next her fist or her foot would fly through empty air. It was even more remarkable to witness from the outside looking in.

They resumed circling each other, Garrus wary, Thane confident and unconcerned. "Tension release important when under heavy stress," Mordin said quietly at Shepard's side. "But should take care to avoid injury. Will prepare biologically appropriate remedies just in case."

"Good idea," she muttered back, frown deepening as she watched.

Thane had struck first this time, and the pair of them were a flurry of motion: fists flying, legs lashing out, ducking, dodging. The movement stopped abruptly when Garrus landed a hard kick to Thane's hip and knocked him slightly off balance. The crowd roared and Shepard heard Jack's shout above it all: "Goddamn right, Garrus!"

As they backed up and reset, Garrus chuckled. "So... seems like you're not invincible after all," he drawled. Shepard closed her eyes and shook her head. Taunting would not have been her first choice of responses right then.

And sure enough, Thane gave him a dangerous smile in return. "We shall see."

Shepard had seen that smile before and knew it well — it meant the gloves were off now, and Thane would no longer hold back. So far Garrus had been able to keep up, but only just, and the smile told her without a doubt that that was about to end.

Garrus crouched and kept his distance this time, occasionally striking out with a fist, attempting to use his long reach to his advantage. Thane simply stayed out of range, watching Garrus with a calculating look on his face. Trying to find a pattern, Shepard guessed, or waiting for a moment of distraction.

When he saw whatever he was looking for, Thane darted forward and attacked. Garrus turned to block, too slow. Thane grabbed his opposite shoulder and pulled, spinning him to face the wall instead of the center, leaving him unsteady on his feet. In the next instant Thane was down low, and his elbow shot out and into the back of Garrus's knee. It buckled and the turian dropped to all fours.

Everyone watching groaned in unison when he hit the ground, but there again was that buzz in the air; they were astonished by the speed with which Thane could move. The entire takedown had lasted no more than two seconds.

Garrus was pulled back upright when Thane wrapped an arm around his neck. She could see muscles flexing beneath his brilliant green scales, maintaining a grip that was safe and yet strong enough to keep Garrus from breaking free.

"Yield," Thane told him.

"No." Garrus grunted and struggled, then as a last resort he leaned forward, trying to flip Thane over his shoulder. Thane released the hold instead and hung back at the edge of the ring, giving Garrus time to get up and recover.

Then they launched at each other again, and this time Garrus was being assaulted from all sides, turning in all directions, hitting out at empty space where Thane had been half a heartbeat before. Though he kept attacking, none of his strikes managed to make any kind of contact.

Garrus swung a fist through the air hard, and Shepard winced — that one could have done real damage if it had hit. A few bruises were unavoidable with something like this, but as far as she was concerned, both of them were attacking with more power than they ought to in a simple sparring match.

"Guys, take it easy," she murmured. Mordin hummed and nodded like it all made perfect sense to him.

"Heightened aggression to be expected. Typical in males competing for the attention of a female," he said in his usual clipped voice. She turned her head sharply, but Mordin was placid as always, having simply stated what to him was an obvious fact.

"Competing for... I'm sorry, what?" she asked. He blinked at her, then repeated himself as though she just hadn't heard him the first time.

She folded her arms and sighed — Mordin was right and she knew it, even though it had thrown her to hear it so bluntly.

He was right, because she had been feeling something more than friendship for Garrus. They'd known each other a long time, had each other's backs a long time. It had meant more to her than she could say when he accepted her, unconditionally and without question, after she'd found him on Omega. She had found herself flirting with him once he rejoined the Normandy, and she was sure he'd been flirting back.

But then they'd gone to Illium, and out of nowhere, Thane had come into her life. Only a short time after they met it felt like a switch had been flipped, and there could be no going back for either of them. They'd both known the truth, profound and unshakeable: they belonged to each other, simple as that.

She hated that she'd gotten Garrus's hopes up, but could see no way around what she had to do. She brought it up as gently as she could and he took it well, all things considered — or so she'd thought. Now it looked like he'd just been doing an excellent job covering up his feelings.

Then again, maybe she'd just missed it. And now the disappointment, the rivalry with Thane, the hurt he'd been hiding — or that she hadn't seen — was being laid bare in the ring for all to see.

The spectators groaned again, and Shepard along with them. Garrus had just fallen flat on his back with a loud thud. Thane had feigned a punch, and the moment Garrus dodged, had used his leg to sweep the turian's feet out from underneath him. Thane followed him down, body pinning him to the ground, an arm across his shoulders.

"Yield," Thane said again, more forcefully this time, and Shepard flinched. The word carried much more weight now than it had before.

"Not on your life," Garrus growled. He wriggled and again Thane released him willingly. Garrus sprang up, mandibles clenched tight against his face. He was moving again immediately and was so frustrated that he made the same mistake Grunt had only minutes ago: he ran straight at Thane.

Thane danced out of the way, smoothly evading the charge and getting a grip on Garrus's wrist as he passed. He used Garrus's own momentum to spin him around and into the bulkhead on one side of the ring with a mighty crash.

One arm was twisted up and behind him, and between that and Thane pressing him into the wall, Garrus was pinned for a third time. He tried once, twice, to maneuver out of it, but this time Thane held fast, more than strong enough to keep even Garrus in check. As the seconds stretched on, the shouts and encouragement of the crew faded.

"Yield, Garrus," Thane finally said softly. In the silence his voice carried through the room, sympathetic and a bit sad. The true meaning was clear as a bell to Shepard's ears. "It's over."

Something about that finally got through to Garrus. He stopped fighting and slumped, admitting defeat at last. "Fine," he gritted. "I yield."

Thane let go instantly, and the group applauded, but quickly began to break up — everyone seemed to know intuitively that sparring night had come to an end. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Ken walking out, reluctantly transferring credits to a handful of his fellow engineers.

Garrus shook himself, stretching his neck and rotating his shoulder to loosen it. When the crew had cleared out of the cargo bay he spoke, eyes fixed downward. "I guess the best man did win in the end after all," he muttered pointedly.

Thane exchanged a look with Shepard before he replied. "I would rather not think of it in terms of winners and losers, Garrus. But if it must be considered a contest, then it was one between two equally good men, both of whom are equally worthy."

He extended one hand, and after a long, thoughtful pause, Garrus shook it. "Thanks."

Thane wished Garrus a good night, then collected his leathers from the bench next to Shepard. With a soft kiss and a murmured word, she sent him on his way alone — right now, there was someone else who needed her.

She walked over until she was standing in front of Garrus. "Hey," she said tentatively. "You okay?"

"Fine." He was back to staring at the floor; he wouldn't, or couldn't, meet her eyes.

"Garrus," she said quietly, and it wasn't until she touched his arm that he finally looked at her. "I'm sorry for what happened. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt you, but I know I did. And I know there's nothing I can say that will change it. All I can say is I'm sorry."

He shrugged and sighed, his subvocals resonating with pitches that sounded resigned and sad. "You don't have to be sorry. You're my best friend; I want you to be happy. Even if it won't be exactly the way I was hoping."

"You're my best friend too, you know," she reminded him. "You always will be. You're my rock, Garrus. I couldn't do this without you."

"That's... good to hear. And — likewise, Shepard."

"Good to hear," she echoed with a smile. She leaned in and bumped him with her shoulder. "And I'm still sorry."

"Still sorry?" he asked, a bit sly, a bit of the Garrus she knew sneaking back in. "Well, if you're going to keep feeling guilty, I'm going to take advantage. I can always use more mods for my rifle."

She chuckled. "Of course you can. They're all yours."

"And... maybe you could get your hands on that targeting VI for the new cannon?"

"I can manage that," she agreed.

"Oh, I know how you can make it up to me," he said, trying to sound casual and missing by a mile. "Permanent spot on the ground team."

She smiled and gave him a skeptical look. "Don't push your luck."

He hummed, amused, and she heard that harmonic in it that he only used when he was having a laugh at her expense. Normally it would have gotten him a massive eye roll or a crack about respecting his CO. This time, though, she was nothing but glad to hear it.

"We're going to be okay, right? You and me?" she asked hopefully.

He held his arms out and pulled her into a hug that was warmer than she would have dared hope for. "Yeah," he promised. "We'll always be okay, you and me."