She's a woman in love and is loved in return. That is a powerful thing. – Nikita Gill, Great Goddesses: Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters

Ài[愛 – love] (whether spoken by Xiùlán or Samantha, the meaning is 'luv')]
Ai'a me – a trusted friend and unquestioned ally (Thessian – Source: CDN)
Hover Cart – A compact, short-range 3- or 4-person transport, similar in function to a present-day golf cart.
Ø7 – An allegedly discontinued vocational code in the Systems Alliance military.
· · · · The Ø designates covert operations; the 7 refers to the highest level of proficiency.
Qíngfū or Qíngrén – [情夫 – lover]
Qīzi – [妻子 – wife]

» The following events, taking place thirty-five years after the end of chapter 35, are a continuation of chapter 36 «

◦ Monday, 15 August 2225-CE ◦

As I sidled up to the big turian, I softly placed my open hand on his backplate. "Garrus Vakarian, as I live and breathe! Xiùlán told me you were here. How have you been?"

He flared his mandibles slightly as he turned towards me. "Sammy," he whispered, his flanging sub-harmonics sending chills down my spine. "It's been too damned long!" The sapphire-blue eyes twinkled in delight as he pulled me into his chest, taking care to avoid raking my unarmored back with his talons.

He set his chin on top of my head as I hugged him back, enjoying the feeling his quiet vibration of happiness provoked inside me. He finally pushed away slightly, holding onto my shoulders in order to look deeply into my eyes.

Continuing to speak softly, he said, "I will be forever grateful for all your efforts on behalf of the turian people, Sammy. In addition to securing payment for the destruction of the MSV Anixara, that you managed to arm-twist the salarians into providing us with the plans and material specs for the Atmosphere Cleansing Shroud was nothing short of inspired. Construction of the towers that formed the Shroud network, on Palaven and our colonies, allowed us to clean the atmosphere on our homeworld and on all our colony worlds; the Shrouds on each planet are still in use to this day, making hazy, dust-clouded sunshine a mostly-forgotten thing of the past, Sammy. We can truly enjoy being outside without having to wear rebreather equipped enviro-suits."

I grinned back at him with my reply. "The Reaper assault on your homeworld may as well have been a nuclear attack, considering all the pollution caused by your cities and industrial facilities being burned to the ground, Garrus." With a small chuckle, I added, "And I seriously doubt the Repositories appreciate the irony, or the humor, of having assisted your people in constructing the tower network needed to repair your atmosphere, after creating the very pollution that fouled it."

"Indeed." He drew me in for another hug, which I happily accepted. Releasing me, he raised a hand to attract the regular bartender's attention as he queried, "What are you having, Sammy?"

Replying, "I'll have a beer," while indicating my half-empty glass. "I probably should refrain from drinking much more than that. I intend to enjoy a special celebration of Xiùlán's birthday tonight, in our quarters – can't celebrate anything if I over-imbibe and fall asleep." As the young woman set a foaming glass of brew before me, along with a glass of dextro-beer in front of my rocket-scarred companion, I had another thought. "So, any chance the Hierarchy will come to their senses and appoint you as their Primarch?"

He took a swallow from his glass, then set it down and idly rotated it in the condensation ring on the bar's surface. After several moments, he flared and dropped his mandibles while slightly shaking his head. "Spirits! That's a position I have never desired, Samantha. Not to say I haven't been asked a time or two …" a small chuckle escaped him as he continued, "… many times, actually, during the past three decades, but being the Primarch's most trusted advisor—working behind the scenes—grants me all the power I desire, or will ever need." He took several more sips from his glass, an action I mirrored as he continued, "Truth be told, I'm currently the advisor to the third Primarch to hold the position since Primarch Victus; and, I began traveling frequently after I returned from accompanying Liara T'Soni on our search for Shepard's clones."

For the moment, I chose to ignore asking about his travels. "Really? I was under the impression the Primarch's position was a lifetime posting."

"It usually is, but," he paused to take another swallow from his glass, then sighed. "Victus stepped down about three, four years after the war's conclusion – just about the time, actually, the Repositories descended on Palaven to begin constructing the towers that would form the Shrouds. I think seeing them outside every day—even if they were occupied in helping us—was just too much of a reminder of how close they had come to accomplishing the total destruction of our entire civilization." I watched him as he studied the liquid in his glass for a number of moments, lost in the memories from those desperate times; after an uncomfortably long silence, he softly added, "That, and the loss of his son on Tuchanka, took a real toll on his health."

"Tarquin Victus," I breathed, casting my thoughts back to Shepard's mission to disarm a massively powerful bomb—hidden by the turian military in the Kelphic Valley at the conclusion of the krogan rebellions. "I remember how broken his father seemed after the ground team returned from the surface, Garrus, and I'm really sorry to hear he stepped down. No parent should have to mourn the loss of a child. Unfortunately, the Reapers didn't spare anyone from that kind of grief."

"Yeah." He nodded sadly, then added, "It's certainly no consolation that millions upon millions had it just as bad, if not far worse." Finishing his drink, he again flared his mandibles, dropping them further yet in a display indicative of increasing happiness as he changed the subject. "Looking back on that time now, I do have to admit, Samantha … serving with you on the Normandy was a rare experience … one I would not have cared to miss."

I circled back to his second reason for refusing to become the Primarch. "You spoke of frequent travel – mind if I ask where?"

"Hmm-m–m—m …" The mandibles came back up and fluttered slightly, indicative of a touch of embarrassment. "It turns out that, without their thralls, Harbinger and his brethren needed a large amount of assistance from smaller, more agile … and more mobile individuals. Knowing that Legion had joined us on the Normandy to assist Shepard in eradicating the Collectors …"

"… Harbinger needed someone to negotiate with the geth, didn't he?" I interrupted. "So, what? Did he cajole you into arranging a deal with Legion to provide enough platforms to assist in construction of the towers? Is that why you needed to travel so frequently?"

"Partially. My negotiations involved a number of trips between Palaven, our colonies, and Rannoch." He spun himself around on his stool and leaned back against the edge of the bar. After a few moments spent looking about the large hall as if searching for someone, he raised an arm and motioned with his hand, then turned back towards me to explain. "Truth be told, most of what I was doing could have just as easily been accomplished on comms calls, but …" he paused to glance at me from under his brow. "I quickly discovered my trips to Rannoch provided an extraordinary fringe benefit; I was also visiting someone there … a very special someone."

Catching a hint of movement out of the corner of my eye, I turned around just in time to be engulfed in a soft, loving embrace from the beautiful—and unmasked, envirosuit-free—quarian female with whom I had shared some adventures of a lifetime. After a lengthy hug, she drew back slightly, allowing me to look at her.

I studied the lush lips with the corners turned up slightly in a nervous smile, sitting invitingly under a pixyish nose dusted with a sprinkling of freckles. Softly glowing eyes, the color of pale, purple-white opals with hints of jeweled blue and green fire around vertically oriented irises, studied me inquisitively as she waited for my reaction.

"Tali'Zorah!" I exclaimed, reclosing the slight distance between us to embrace her once more. Pushing back slightly, I held onto her wide-set hips as I whispered, "Xiùlán told me you were going to be here, Tali … it is simply smashing to see you once again! How have you been?" I gushed enthusiastically, "It's obvious you no longer need to live inside an envirosuit, so you must be doing well! How long have you been free of your suit and mask?"

She actually giggled. "It really has been quite some time since we were together, Samantha! As for how long …" She placed her hands—their warmth through the sleeves of my shirt unexpected—on my upper arms. "For most of us, it's been about fifteen to twenty-five years. The geth worked diligently to develop software for our suits that would infect us by introducing allergens into each of our sealed environments, then inoculated us against them. Once we had acclimated to the native irritants in Rannoch's atmosphere, we were slowly introduced to the environments of other worlds so we could build up immunities to them as well."

I grinned back at her. "I'm really happy for you, Tali!" I glanced at Garrus, who was splitting his attention between us. "So, you must be the special person this big bashful turian was visiting."

She turned her radiant smile towards Vakarian. "Once I learned he needed assistance from the geth to assist the Repositories in replicating the krogan shroud, we met with Legion and negotiated an agreement for the consensus to provide enough platforms and technical support to get the job completed, but not just on Palaven. The human and asari homeworlds, and a number of each race's colony worlds were beneficiaries as well." She squeezed my arms slightly as she concluded, "Having Garrus visit me whenever he was on Rannoch was simply – what's that human saying? Um, icing on the cake?"

A full glass of beer appeared in front of Garrus as he added, "After you convinced the salarians to furnish us the specifications for the planetary Shroud, they were … persuaded, by members of their own STG, to make that technology available to any race that requested it … another benefit of having Rachaél Shepard uniting everyone in defeating the Reapers." He nodded in gratitude to the young bartender as she took his empty glass away. "They even included instructions for program mods required for the VI overseeing Shroud operations to restore non-oxygen based atmospheres on the volus and vorcha homeworlds."

Tali continued for him, "And since the only tower remaining on Tuchanka was destroyed as it dispersed Mordin's Genophage cure, the krogan used the plans to erect a number of new towers in order to assemble an entire Shroud to clear their own atmosphere."

I finished my beer before inquiring, "Really? They didn't ask for help?"

Garrus chuckled. "Urdnot Bakara politely declined virtually all offers of assistance from either Legion or the Repositories. She felt there were far too many males wandering around with idle hands; replacing the weapons in those hands with construction tools was the only way to keep them from killing one another." With a shake of his head and a shoulder shrug, he concluded in a tone suggesting amazement, "Building new towers kept them occupied for nearly ten years. By the time all had been completed and were powered up and operating, most of the males had awakened to the new reality that rebuilding their homeworld and settling down with the females to form families was vastly preferable, not to mention safer, than leaving Tuchanka as mercenaries for hire."

A sudden thought caused me to ask, "What about the batarians, Garrus? Khar'shan was little more than a smoking cinder after the Reapers blew through Kite's Nest on their way to Sol. Did anyone approach their rulers … offer to assist them?"

Sapphire blue eyes looked at me sharply. "I thought you hated the batarians, Sammy. After all these years, do you think there's anyone left on that planet worth saving?"

"I don't believe their entire race should disappear from the galaxy, Garrus. I'll grant you, the majority of slavers and pirates in the Terminus and Attican Traverse are batarian, but they're all males. I cannot accept that all the people on the planet, particularly the females, are anything like those we've encountered out in the void." Thinking about K'ath Din'sari, first on Omega Station, then on the Citadel, I added, "I've met a few females during the past few decades … they all felt profound embarrassment about the males' predilection for lawlessness."

Tali looked at me in shock as Garrus shook his head and replied, "The Council has been unable to discover the status of anyone still living there … or if anyone is even left alive. You must remember the nearly overwhelming numbers of batarian husks we encountered during the war. No way to know how many of them were created from females, but I would expect those numbers were quite high."

I heaved a sigh. "At war's conclusion, it was thought the remaining population was possibly not enough to sustain them as a race. I cannot speak to that hypothesis from first-hand experience, but my encounters with them have decreased significantly in the years since. Perhaps the Reapers actually did succeed in eradicating one of the galaxy's spaceflight races." I shook my head in sorrow at the thought. "It's sad to think they have been sentenced to a slow, lingering extinction."

I sent a mental inquiry through my omnitool to Žiuk'Durmah; Tali, having moved to lean against her turian, noticed the flash from my omnitool but refrained from commenting as I concluded, "I just sent an inquiry to ZeeDee. He can safely discover if there's anyone left alive on the planet."

"Does it really matter now, after so many years?" Tali asked while gazing casually around at the gathering of friends and acquaintances. "I seriously doubt anyone here today is actually concerned about the batarian's continued existence. After all, they chose to terminate official relations with every other Council race, and closed their home system to outsiders."

Nodding, I added, "That's certainly true … Kite's Nest has been a hermit kingdom since the 2160's, and I must admit to having mixed emotions concerning their future." Thinking back to my training mission in early 2180 and my Ø7 mission on Cartagena Station in 2181, I quietly offered, "I've actually killed a fair number of batarians—males, all of 'em—up close and personal; every damned one of 'em was trying their bloody best to kill me."

My admission had Tali staring at me in amazement, while Garrus simply said, "I remember you telling me a bit about your training after you attacked Edi and Liara within Žiuk'Durmah." Polishing off his beer, he observed, "Batarian males have always been their own worst enemies; most have never made any attempt to play nice with the other races. If their race finally goes extinct, …" he shrugged his shoulders in a human fashion, "… no one I know will express any regrets or shed any tears."

I glanced at each of them in turn while saying, "Okay, let's change the subject. Tali? Rannoch: What have the quarians and geth been doing since Shepard brokered the cease-fire?"

After spending the better part of two hours reminiscing with Tali and Garrus, it was now early afternoon. The vibration by my omnitool reminded me of an urgent errand, so I excused myself and casually made my way through the crowd of well-wishers to the main exit. Once outside, I opened the vid-comm on my omnitool and contacted an old friend. "Do you have them, Sandee?"

Former Master Gunnery Sergeant Sandra Patton's smiling face appeared on the small screen of my player. "I do, Sammy. We're about five out. Do you have a hover-cart at the parking area?"

I broke into a jog with my reply. "I will by the time you touch down. See ya in a few!" I shut down my vid-comm and continued to jog towards the drop-off/pick-up zone of the shuttle parking section, arriving just in time to watch Sandee ease her UT-47 down on the pavement. There were a number of hover carts in a nearby corral; I waved my omnitool past the collection kiosk. The VI released the locks on the first cart in line, which I then directed into position beside the shuttle's hatch. As it opened, I grinned in anticipation of seeing the surprise on my qīzi de [妻子的 – wife's] face at the birthday present I had managed to arrange.

Clasping my hands together in front of me, I bowed as I greeted my Yuèfù, [岳父 – father in law] Yuán Chaoxiang, and his wife – my Yuèmu, [岳母 – mother in law] Lì húa. "It is my honor and pleasure to see you once again."

They stepped forward to stand in front of me; after returning my bow, they each clasped one of my hands as Lì húa greeted me in halting Galactic. "Our ancestors have blessed us, Sà màn shā. We are most pleased to be here for your qìngdian." [慶典 – celebration] Chaoxiang nodded in agreement.

Saying, "It's a bit of a walk to the arena, so please, have a seat in this buggy while I transfer your luggage," I then helped each of them climb onto what was actually a small, passenger capable hover cart. I waved to Sandee and mouthed the words 'thank you' after moving their travel cases over. Once on board, I activated my omnitool and instructed the cart's VI to take us to the main entrance of the building; in reality, Xiùlán's parents were still physically fit for their age and could have easily walked, but I wanted to give them a little something special to remember about their trip to Vancouver. It had been nearly ten years since Xiùlán and I had visited her parents in Shanghai, and as far as I knew, this was their first foray away from home.

I sent a text to my Qíngrén, asking her to meet me at the main entrance. In less than five minutes, I had assisted Chaoxiang from the cart and was assisting Lì húa; I turned at the sound of the building's main pocket doors retracting into their recesses and watched as Xiùlán, knuckles against her mouth in an attempt to keep from crying out in joy, realized what I had done. She came up to her parents and embraced each of them in turn, whispering in Mandarin as she did so.

Turning towards me, she grinned past her tears and said, "How do I thank you for this surprise, Sà mi? I never dreamed you would have my parents brought here to celebrate with us. I love you so much!" I grunted as I received my second bone-crushing hug of the day.

"So, you don't mind that your aide secured them guest quarters near our apartment, Ai?" I grinned at her expression of surprised amazement. "Had to find someplace for them to sleep, Xiùlán." I shooed her towards the hall. "Go. Take your parents inside – introduce them to our friends while I take their luggage to their quarters."

I watched for a few moments as she happily linked arms with her father and mother and led them back to the entrance; I relocated the hover cart to the nearby apartment where Chaoxiang and Lì húa would be staying for the duration of their Vancouver visit. Once there, it only took a few minutes to transfer their bags inside. Errand completed, I released the buggy and returned to the assembly hall to rejoin the festivities; I still needed to chat with a few special people.

After visiting with me for close to an hour, General Park had excused herself in order to speak with a few other people she hadn't seen in a long time; I wasn't alone for very long – Lady Liara T'Soni, followed closely by Spectre Shepard and carrying a half-full wineglass, approached me from the bar. Out of respect for her position and our long friendship, I stood to greet her.

Reaching past my outstretched arms, she set the glass on the table, then engulfed me in an intimate, full-body embrace. Reaching under her arms, I applied my hands to her back, returning her hug with the same amount of enthusiasm. Having been greeted in a similar manner by her many times since the war's conclusion, I was still surprised by the fiery passion I felt for this beautiful asari. The intense spike of heat rising in my core forced me to—reluctantly—push back slightly.

Without lessening her own hold on my torso, she whispered, "It is so good to see you again, Samantha." With her nose nearly touching my own, the words feathered softly past my lips. "Congratulations on your thirty-five year marriage to Admiral Yuán." Her hands, fingers splayed open, gently massaged my back as I continued to hang onto her. "Goddess grant you many more years together."

Shepard, having moved to stand beside us, chuckled good naturedly and placed a hand on my shoulder. Splitting her attention between us, she observed, "Looks as if you and my bondmate have a really ardent friendship, Sammy. If I hadn't repeatedly seen the passionate love you show Xiùlán every time the two of you are together …" she focused all her attention on Liara. "… and did not share my deepest thoughts with Liara, I might be worried … maybe even a bit jealous."

I tore my gaze away from the intense, blue-eyed stare of Liara's eyes to regard the serene, sea-green scrutiny of Rachaél's eyes and stammered, "Every time we meet each other after months, or even a few weeks apart, I'm surprised all over again by the enthusiasm of her greeting."

"I cannot help myself, Rachaél." The beautiful leader of House T'Soni slowly retrieved her arms as she contemplated her bondmate. "I love Samantha as my sister … she is ai'a me, and so much more." She looked at me for a moment, then returned her attention to her bondmate and grinned. "My feelings for Sammy are not something I can easily put into words, but you always know my mind, Siame. There are many degrees of love among my people."

The Spectre relocated the hand on my shoulder; using it to reach around behind me, she pulled me in close in order to offer her own greeting. Her embrace, while nearly as intimate as Liara's, did not linger. "Congratulations, Sammy. Your steadfast loyalty to Admiral Yuán is just one of many reasons I admire you so much."

Lowering her voice to a whisper, she added, "I know that abandoning your role as the Shadow Broker in order to protect Xiùlán from Alliance blowback was gut-wrenching for you, Sammy. You chose a new direction for your life, then stuck to it. I believe that speaks to your integrity and strength of spirit; more importantly, it demonstrated an unconditional love for your soulmate."

Witnessing the expression of surprise on my face, she looked pointedly at Liara while adding, "The number of people fortunate enough to find that one special person with whom they were meant to share their life are few and far between, Sammy." Refocusing her attention on me, she concluded, "It has always been obvious to me that Yuán Xiùlán is the other half of your soul. What you have with her is every bit as wonderful … miraculous even, as is my life with Liara."

I showed my teeth in a grin. "I have never been shy concerning my love for Xiùlán, Rachaél; she is so much more to me than a soul mate – she's my kindred spirit – the one single person in the entire universe without whom my life would be empty and meaningless. There are a limited few that ever experience the feeling of utter contentment that comes from sharing one's life with a true kindred soul. My life … my very existence, is only possible because Xiùlán is part of it."

I spotted her standing nearby speaking with General Park, and felt my eyes welling up. "That is why I am so protective of what I have with her, Rachaél." Voice hitching slightly, I added, "If I were to ever lose her, I could not continue to live." I eased myself down into one of the chairs.

It was Rachaél's turn to look surprised, an expression shared by Liara. "I'm sensing a story in there somewhere, Sammy. Care to share?"

Xiùlán just happened to glance in my direction; perhaps something in my facial expression caught her attention. She excused herself, strolled across the room and stepped up behind me. Placing her hands on my shoulders, she said, "Spectre Shepard. Lady Liara. Are you enjoying yourselves?"

Liara nodded as she answered, "Very much so, Admiral … and again, our congratulations on reaching this landmark day with Sammy, and happy birthday!"

Rachaél quietly added, "Sammy was just telling us how broken she would be if anything ever happened to you, Admiral. I'm guessing there must have been a time when one or the other of you … or both, were in mortal danger?"

I looked up into a pair of caring, sable-brown eyes and minutely shook my head; she responded with a tight smile, saying, "Long time ago, Spectre. Before the war … before Sovereign." She glanced back down at me as she recalled that time in our lives; I closed my eyes and placed a hand across my mouth, then reacted with a start as Xiùlán shifted her left hand and began to gently stroke my upper arm while whispering, "I realize reliving that time is still too much for you to bear, Sà mi. I won't continue …"

I eased my eyelids open, allowing the accumulated moisture behind them to cascade down my cheeks. "Thank you, Ai," I gulped. Turning my attention to the Spectre and her lady, I explained, "It was nearly four decades ago – a self-inflicted wound, virtually healed, but still a bit raw."

I reclosed my eyes and leaned my head back against Xiùlán's body; after several moments, she slowly moved around to the side, sat in the chair beside me and gently grasped my hand. I looked at Rachaél, who was studying us with a great deal of interest. Instead of telling them about my mis-adventures on Arcturus, I began speaking of an assignment that had long been officially buried by the Alliance brass, due in no small part to Admiral Owen Fletcher's machinations. "Before my promotion and transfer to Arcturus, Xiùlán and I, along with Griffen Buchanan, were assigned to a covert mission to locate and recover a stolen artifact for the asari government."

A whispered "Cartagena Station" momentarily drew my attention to the face of my Qīzi. Nodding slightly as I returned my gaze to Shepard and T'Soni, I repeated the station's name, adding, "A batarian crewed hellhole in the Nemean Abyss. The assignment nearly cost Xiùlán her life." I went on to describe our mission, consuming a glass of beer while spending nearly half-an-hour detailing the actions taken by the three of us to recover a priceless artifact for the asari government, and what I had done in order to get all of us safely off the station.

Liara was aware the small, carved figurine depicting Janiri—residing in the Armali Palace Art Gallery on Thessia—had been recovered from the Blue Suns before the war … before Sovereign, but had never heard the specifics of how the retrieval had been accomplished. She sat mostly silent in shocked amazement during my telling of the tale, only uttering a surprised 'Goddess!' as I concluded my description of taking on—and disabling or killing—a large group of batarians in one of the docking bays, before the shuttle from the Ionsaí arrived to extract us.

Looking at Xiùlán, Shepard quietly said, "I'm surprised you didn't lose your leg, Admiral. I can understand why you were transported to Serrice for treatment."

Xiùlán lifted the corners of her mouth in a tiny grin. Looking down at her legs, covered by the material of her cheongsam, she glanced meaningfully at the Spectre. Utilizing the mid-thigh high side slit, she slid the fabric on top of her legs to the right, thus exposing the multiple scars on her left thigh. "The Alliance would have simply amputated my leg at the hip, Rachaél, severely limiting my future in the Navy. Asari medical techniques at the time were so much more advanced than our own." She rubbed her leg as she added, "The femur in this thigh is composed of carbon fiber reinforced titanium, fused to the head and lower extremity of the original bone."

As she rearranged her dress, Rachaél breathed out, "That's simply amazing, Admiral." Having apparently acquired even more respect for my abilities, she canted her head slightly as she addressed me. "Sammy, your work on the Normandy was above reproach, particularly in support of our missions dirtside, but thinking back …" her smile went slack as she thought about that time in our lives. "Many were the times I would have welcomed your abilities on my ground team."

"Thank you, Rachaél. Coming from you, that means a lot … more than you'll ever know."

Xiùlán smirked slightly; gazing at me with unadulterated affection, she addressed Rachaél and Liara. "Would you be interested in learning how I saved the life of my qíngrén hé qīzi. [情人和妻子 – lover and wife] on a training mission in early 2180?" I groaned in mock dismay as both eagerly assented, then listened in rapt awe as Xiùlán spoke about our capture by batarian slavers on Klensal in early 2180, and our subsequent rescue by Marines from the Alliance frigate Hong Kong.

Rachaél shook her head when Xiùlán was done, saying, "There is much about the two of you we never knew, Admiral." Looking at me, she added, "Seems as if neither of you would have survived your early years in the Alliance if not for the presence of the other. So, what of your self-inflicted wound? My guess is it was an emotional injury, rather than a physical one."

"Your guess would be correct, Spectre." I swallowed hard past the sudden appearance of a lump in my throat. Speaking softly, as if to myself, I said, "My assignment on Arcturus Station was nearly complete when I was summoned to Lieutenant Commander Garrett Sutton's office." I noticed Shepard's eyes widening in recognition of the name. "He placed a black mark—a does-not-play-well-with-others reprimand—in my personal file; you are aware of this because of my work as the Broker, before you took him down. The details of just how horribly his vindictive act affected my relationship with Xiùlán are nothing I care to revisit, even after so much time has passed."

Xiùlán slightly tightened her grip on my right hand as Liara whispered, "Oh, Sammy. I am so sorry."

I tilted my head towards her and attempted to smile, an effort which I'm sure produced nothing more than a grimace. "It's okay, Liara. It was a long time ago … before the war." I looked back to my soulmate's face. "You forgave me, Ai, but I have never really forgiven myself for the insensitive manner in which I treated you on Arcturus."

Xiùlán had her arms around me almost before I had finished speaking. "I'm sorry this subject ever came up, Sà mǐ."

Rachaél and Liara each placed a hand on my back; Liara said, "We're sorry to have asked you and Xiùlán about this, Sammy. Seems as if neither of you has completely moved on from this incident, even after four decades." Standing, she concluded, "We'll leave you two alone – I expect you both need to spend some time together in your quarters."

"Thank you, Liara … and Rachaél." I watched them for several moments as they slowly drifted off towards the center of the hall, then returned my attention to my Qīzi. "I still don't know if I will ever be able to forgive myself for the way I treated you that day."

Smiling indulgently, she replied, "It should be enough that I forgave you for your mistreatment of me, Sà mǐ. You may still believe you do not deserve my love, but you do … absolutely! I will never cast you aside, darling. My love for you has only deepened during our years together, and will continue to do so. For better or worse, Sà mǐ … was not that our promise to each other?" She placed a soft kiss on the knuckles of the hand she was holding. "The 'worse' has never arrived to torment us, and never will – I absolutely refuse to allow that to happen, míngbái? Zài women zài yīqi de suoyou suìyuè li, tā zhishì women shēnghuó zhōng de 'gèng hao'." [明白? 在我們在一起的所有歲月裡,它只是我們生活中的'更好'。– … understand? In all the years we have been together, it is just the 'better' in our lives]

I grinned at her, especially as she'd lapsed into Mandarin before her final declaration. "I am so happy to hear you say that, Xiùlán! And you must know I consider any time I am with you as the best time ever. Méiyou ni de ài wo de shēnghuó shì bù wánzhěng de!" [沒有你的愛我的生活是不完整的 – Without your love my life is not complete!] I leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on a lightly freckled cheek.

Surrounded by our closest friends, we enjoyed a quiet dinner as many of our guests danced on the main floor. During our many years together, I had become rather adroit in the use of chopsticks, to the point I preferred using them over standard utensils.

I had just placed a bit of rice-coated fish in my mouth when a large hand gently gripped my shoulder, followed by a voice from the past, drifting down from somewhere over and behind my head. "You know, I never would have believed anyone could sneak up on Samantha Traynor." After watching the invisible hand materialize in step with a cloaking generator being deactivated, I tilted my head back and looked up into a caring pair of upside-down, greenish-gray eyes.

Fixing a snarky expression on my face, I finished chewing, swallowed the mouthful of fish and rice, then answered, "Hmmmm … perhaps that's because it wasn't actually a person sneaking up on me." Setting my utensils down, I stood and turned in one smooth motion, placing my arms around the rather large torso of my former partner, Griffen Buchanan as I added, "It was actually a Shadow!" I stood on my tiptoes in order to reach up and firmly place a loving kiss on his cheek. "A very large Shadow, truth be known!" I smirked as I observed, "I must confess my surprise at your presence, Griff. Here? In the middle of an Alliance military base? You're the most wanted criminal in the galaxy. You're not concerned some opportunistic miscreant will turn you in for the reward?"

"There's a reward? How much am I worth these days?" Buchanan laughed at the double-meaning of my description of him as he earnestly hugged me back. "I really wasn't sure I would make it here in time. How have you been, Sammy? You're looking really great for an old married woman – I guess Xiùlán is still treating you well?" … half question, half statement.

"She is, although I'm only here about a week or week-and-a-half outta each month." I glanced around quickly before asking, "Oriana?"

"We split up. She wants to visit with Miranda, so went looking for her."

I chuckled. "Who's minding the store? Not really a place you can leave unattended, is it?"

"Chinami'Taelas is taking care of business." He grinned widely at my look of surprise, adding, "When we return to the station, she plans on taking two or three weeks off so she can travel to Rannoch, visit with friends and relatives." Before I could pose the question, he offered, "We've asked her numerous time over the years, but she always declines to leave us – she really enjoys her job. You recruiting that little quarian when we first set up the station has made a huge difference in our abilities, Sammy."

"That's nice to hear. Be sure to tell her hello for me when you return to the station."

"Count on it." He glanced over at the buffet and said, "Now, I'm going to grab some food before it's all gone. If you'll excuse me?"

"Of course. Bring yourself back here and sit – we can talk about old times while you eat."

With a quiet "Sounds good," he eased his rather large frame past a number of people and joined the line of guests filling their plates at the long buffet. I sat back in my chair, sipped from my glass and happily thought about the roads every one of us had traveled in order to have successfully arrived at this point in our lives.

◦ Monday Evening, 15 August 2225-CE ◦

Wearing only her short sleepshirt above a pair of skimpy panties, Xiùlán padded barefoot into our bedroom. Knowing I already occupied our bed, she dimmed all the lights, then crawled under the covers to join me. "Sà mi, ni hái xingzhe ma?" [薩米,你還醒著嗎?– Sà mǐ, are you still awake?]

I groaned slightly before answering. "Hold me, Xiùlán, please? … like that first time in my compartment on Earth's moon. I need you to wrap your arms around me and simply … cuddle me? It's been a really long day, my darling. Just … hold me? Qing?" [請 – Please?]

"Of course, Sà mi. Whatever you need from me." I felt cool air caress my nude backside as the covers were lifted for a few moments; the sensation was quickly followed by the warmth radiating from her lithe body and legs sidling up behind me. My heart clenched at the welcome pressure of her body spooning me, as she gingerly wrapped a pair of loving arms around my torso and placed her palms on my chest. The warm exhale from her nose tickled for an instant, before she applied a tender kiss to my neck at the hairline just behind my ear. Muscular arms momentarily tightened about me as she asked, "How's this feel?"

"Like I'm protected, and loved. It's as if I'm in the embrace of the Goddess, wo de baobèi. [我的寶貝 – my darling] Unlike us, cuddling in this manner will never grow old, no matter how many additional years of life we are granted." I captured a hand and brought it up to my face in order to kiss the pulse point of her wrist, just as I had done many times in the past. "Your continued presence in my life fills me with a profound sense of peace, Xiùlán; Wo huì ài ni zhídào shíjiān de jìntóu. [我會愛你直到時間的盡頭。– I will love you until the end of time.]

The tiny chuckle with which she delivered her cheeky rejoinder sent a shiver of longing straight through me. "Only 'til then, huh?" Her voice took on a silken tone as she continued in her native Mandarin. "Ni jiāng yongyuan yongyou wo de ài, Sà mi." [你將永遠擁有我的愛,薩米。– You will always have my love, (literally, you will have my love forever), Sà mi.]

Although nearly asleep, I roused myself just enough to respond in a soft whisper, "Ni ràng wo de shēnghuó wánzhěng, Xiùlán." [你讓我的生活完整,秀蘭 – You make my life complete, Xiùlán] I felt the arms holding my torso tighten and loosen slightly in silent acknowledgement of my statement.

Being the recipient of this woman's love meant everything to me; I vowed to myself once again, as I did whenever we were together, to never take her or her love for granted. Ni jiāng yongyuan yongyou wo de ài, Sà mi. Her words echoed around in my mind as conscious thought faded into sleep. It was good to be home.