Souls: When two souls fall in love, there is nothing else but the yearning to be close to the other. The presence that is felt through a hand held, a voice heard, or a smile seen. Souls do not have calendars or clocks, nor do they understand the notion of time or distance. They only know it feels right to be with one another. This is the reason why you miss someone so much when they are not there — even if they are only in the very next room. Your soul only feels their absence — it doesn't realize the separation is temporary. — Lang Leav


Inamorata – A woman with whom one is in love or has intimate relations; a female lover (Italian)
Nángùn – (南棍) literally, a 'southern staff', a polished, two-meter long white wax wooden staff
NDA – Non-Disclosure Agreement, signed by Yuán and Traynor at the termination of the Ø7 program
SDU – Standard Duty Uniform
VI – Virtual Intelligence
XO – Executive Officer


• ARCTURUS SHIPYARD · SPECIALIST TRAYNOR'S RESIDENCE •

Yuán Xiùlán slowly, ever so gradually, became aware—in the way one reluctantly awakens from an extremely pleasurable dream—that she was lying on her back in bed, covered only by a thin sheet; of some surprise, although totally nude, the right side of her body felt unusually warm. Peering through slitted eyelids, she looked down and smiled; the source of the warmth was immediately apparent upon seeing the sleep tousled hair of her Inamorata. Sammy's head was nestled into the hollow between her shoulder and neck, well-developed body pressed hard into Xiùlán's side, right leg over and between her own, right arm bent at the elbow to lie across a muscular stomach, with the hand resting relaxed and open on Xiùlán's left breast.

Xiùlán turned her head to the left in order to check the time—0615—time for Traynor to wake up so she'd have enough time to get dressed and have breakfast before going to work at the shipyard. Xiùlán turned her head back towards the sleeping figure beside her and used the fingers of her left hand to gently comb through the tangled reddish-brown hair. Her heart momentarily clenched in her chest at the intense feeling of utter devotion she felt when she thought of this woman—her Xīnxīnxiāngyìn [心心相印 – Heart and soul (literally, her soulmate)] lying beside her. It was only when Samantha had cold-heartedly sent her away that Xiùlán realized how inextricably her own soul was intertwined with Sà mi's—she had been utterly broken inside, a memory that brought fresh tears to her eyes.

The head on her shoulder moved slightly under Xiùlán's fingers; soft lips pursed into a sensuous kiss on the hollow between collarbone and neck, followed by a sleepy, "Good morning, my love. How did you sleep?"

Xiùlán furtively wiped her eyes as a pair of sleepy honey-browns squinted up at her. "It was the first time I've truly slept since …" she paused, the memory of her peace overture being rejected … of being cruelly sent away by this woman … making unimpeded speech nearly impossible. Closing her eyes as a fresh supply of tears began seeping from the corners, she squeaked out, "our … disagreement."

Traynor was fully awake at this and quickly rolled to lie more on Xiùlán, cradling her face in both hands. "I am so sorry I hurt you, Xiùlán! What do I need to do to make this right again?"

With their noses nearly touching, Xiùlán breathed, "It is not possible to easily forget that level of hurt, Sà mi." She hurriedly continued upon seeing the pained expression briefly wash over Traynor's face, "Your apology has eased the pain, my darling, and I have forgiven you—unreservedly so—and I will continue to love you with every fiber of my being. It's just … the wound is still quite fresh, Sà mi. The passage of time will mend my shattered heart, especially since I can hold you close, as I'm doing now." To emphasize her words, Xiùlán captured Sammy's lips with her own, kissing her as if she was giving … and receiving … a life sustaining elixir, while sliding her hands down Traynor's back until she could massage a firm butt.

Breaking the kiss to gulp a quick breath of air, Sammy grinning wickedly as she said, "Dammit, Xiùlán. I have to go to work, and those hands are not helping me at all." Pushing herself up, she carefully moved her legs past her lover's and slid off the bed to stand and stretch, placing her body on full display for Xiùlán's enjoyment. Before a loving hand could reach her, she took a step back, saying, "Unh-uh, babe. I'm horny enough, just standing here lookin' at you. That hand touches me where you intended? I'm right back in that bed with you and I'll be in trouble with my bosses for sure. I'm gonna shower; we can have breakfast before I leave for the yard … and, since you're foot-loose and fancy free today, you're probably gonna want to visit the station … do a bit of shopping, perhaps?"

Xiùlán had frowned slightly at Sammy's denial of her loving touch, but understood the feeling entirely; her own body's desires, even after the intensity of repeated lovemaking the previous evening, hadn't been completely satiated. "I guess I'll just have to look forward to having my way with you this evening, Sà mi. Go take your shower while I see what I can scrounge us up for breakfast."

Xiùlán generally kept her feelings hidden, her expression neutral, but for an instant, Traynor witnessed an animalistic lust in her sable-brown eyes; smiling, she turned and leisurely made for the bathroom, knowing her lover would follow shortly in order to relieve her bladder, wash her face and hands, then go into the kitchen to make breakfast. Samantha felt a deep sense of peace, glad that the rift with her lover had been mended.

Thinking about this while standing under the water spray, she realized just how profoundly Xiùlán had become connected to her, understanding clearly for the very first time just how deeply her misdirected anger had cut Xiùlán—a woman that had grown to love her so completely. Can never direct my anger at her again, came the thought. Dammit! What I did to her was so … wrong. I really cannot live without her love, and I bloody near threw that love away. Don't know why she took me back … By the time she finished her bath and was toweling off her body, she was reliving the previous night in her mind, thinking of how physically welcoming Xiùlán had been.

You don't deserve 'er, Sam, came the thought. She continued to think about this as she got dressed and went to the kitchen. Xiùlán turned as Traynor entered; without a word, the specialist wrapped her arms around her Inamorata, hugging her tightly as she whispered in near perfect Mandarin, "Ni de ài shi wo de shēnghuó wánzhěngle!" [你的愛使我的生活完整了 – Your love makes my life complete!]

Xiùlán was a bit taken aback by Traynor's actions, saying, "Sà mi, I feel the same towards you. Didn't we have this all worked out?"

Traynor drew back enough to kiss willing lips before replying, "We did … we do. It's just … I was thinking about how deeply I cut you with my words … my actions, and I realized how incredibly careless I was to nearly throw all of that away, and just how fortunate I am that you allowed me back into your life!" Traynor tightened her hug slightly, whispered, "I'm so sorry, Xiùlán", before releasing her to shyly ask, "So, what's for breakfast?"


• ARCTURUS STATION AND SHIPYARD · AT LARGE •

Xiùlán had accompanied Samantha to the worker's entrance for the Arcturus Shipyards; it was only a short walk from there to the transit area for Alliance personnel, where she caught a shuttle heading for the area of the station reserved for visiting servicemen—it was here that Xiùlán hoped to find the ingredients needed to prepare a traditional London meal for her and Sammy.

Taking the pedway to the shopping district gave her time to think about what she intended to prepare for dinner; she had settled on Shepard's Pie, accompanied by peas and steamed broccoli on the side, for their English dish. Stepping off the pedway in the middle of the shopping district, she walked to an international grocery market and was soon browsing the aisles, looking for the ingredients for the recipe.

Once she had all the ingredients for dinner—of no small surprise, she was able to buy fresh broccoli, grown in the hydroponics area of the station—she started back for Sammy's apartment. Before she left the shopping district, Xiùlán discovered a small store that featured a complete selection of foodstuffs aimed at the traditional Chinese palate. Tomorrow, she thought. I'll return tomorrow so I can get everything fresh. With a sigh and a smile, she hopped on the pedway to return to the transit docks. Sà mi will be so surprised when she arrives home.


• SYSTEMS ALLIANCE WESTERN NORTH AMERICA HQ · VANCOUVER, BC •

General RaeLee Park completed the access sequence on her desktop comms unit and sat back in her chair to await the connection with Arcturus.

When the unit in the local cluster's neighboring system completed its ID sequence, Park leaned forward slightly as the image of rather dignified man appeared in front of her. Saying, "Captain? I've seen the reports on the Tokyo's encounter with the batarians at Horizon. How have you been?"

The man's chuckle at Park's question had a time-lagged quality to it, almost as if the person in Arcturus was turian rather than human. "General … It's good to see you! And I'm well … quite well, thank you. Damages to the ship were not severe, but a good many sections received their share. Our DC teams managed to handle the situation and keep us flying and fighting." After a brief pause, the expression on David Anderson's face turned serious as he said, "So, I can't imagine you having the time to call me just to inquire about my health. What's going on?"

The corners of Parks mouth turned up slightly as she thought, The man didn't get to the rank of captain by not being perceptive. Leaning back in her chair once more, she replied, "I need you to meet with me here in Vancouver, David, as soon as you can break free for a day. I have some news I need to share with you … news that cannot be sent through normal channels." RaeLee paused to let her statement sink in before continuing with, "I would appreciate you bringing your XO as well—what I have to share with you will ultimately concern Commander Tyler."

Anderson smirked as he replied, "Now I'm sure something bad is heading my way, General. I'll arrange for a shuttle, have Tyler grab her overnight pack." Looking at the dual-chronos in his display, he concluded with, "We should be there in seven hours—less if the relays cooperate—see you at 0900 local?"

"That will be perfect … thank you, Captain," Park smiled in response. "I'm looking forward to our meeting."


• ARCTURUS STATION AND SHIPYARD · AT LARGE •

Xiùlán was nearly to the transit docks when she heard a familiar voice call her name from behind her. "Yuán! Wait up a moment." Turning around to confirm the owner of the voice, she smiled and waited as Lieutenant Olivia McKenzie jogged up to her. Noting the bags Xiùlán was carrying, she said, "Need a hand?"

With a smile, Xiùlán offered McKenzie a bag as she responded, "I won't say no to a bit of help … thanks."

Olivia took the bag from her friend and fell in step beside her. "So, heading back to Traynor's place?" After taking a quick look in the bag, she snarked, "You're on leave, so … fixing dinner is what you do for fun?"

Xiùlán chuckled at the implied criticism. "Traynor has to work in the yard, so I'm keeping busy … it's better than sitting around an empty apartment. Besides, I enjoy cooking. Tonight, London; tomorrow, Shanghai. Night after, we'll be going out for dinner. So, what brings you over here?"

Olivia cocked her head as she looked at Yuán and replied, "Just came from the military equipment shops, Xiùlán … some really incredible armor for sale, not that we could afford any of it at our paygrade. Weapons are really awesome as well! Ariake Technologies has a prototype M-23 Katana on display—not for sale, dammit—instead of having to wait for it to cool down after five shots, it uses a replaceable heatsink, so one simply has to eject the overheated clip and insert a fresh one."

Xiùlán thought about this for a few moments before observing, "Sounds like a great idea, until you run out of fresh heatsinks. At that point all you have is a short club."

McKenzie grimaced in response. "Didn't say it was perfect, Xiùlán. But if all the manufacturers switched over to a replaceable heatsink design … one that could universally fit every pistol, assault rifle and shotgun made, you could simply grab clips from the downed bodies of your enemies."

"Damn, Kenzie!" came the astonished reply. "You sound like some kind of bloodthirsty ghoul."

Olivia decided to change the subject. "So, you and Traynor?" In a slightly sing-songy voice, she asked, "How's it going?" The slightly embarrassed expression on Xiùlán's face didn't go unnoticed. "She made up with you, didn't she?"

Face still slightly pink, Yuan nodded. "We … really made up, Kenzie. Whatever you said to her when you bawled her out must have really hit home. She gave me a solemn vow to never rip my heart out again." Xiùlán's body began to betray her as she thought about Sammy's physical apologies the previous evening; face flushed, she glanced at McKenzie and said. "Change of subject … do you want to come with me, share in our dinner this evening?"

Olivia's answer was immediate and emphatic. "Not a chance in 'ell, Xiùlán. Your time with Traynor will be short, and I want you to make the most of it. You don't need me there to interfere with whatever apologies Traynor feels she still needs to give you. You enjoy every minute you have with her."

"Thanks Kenzie. I intend to do just that."


• SYSTEMS ALLIANCE WESTERN NORTH AMERICA HQ · VANCOUVER, BC •

"Captain! Commander! Welcome … it's good to see you, Anderson." General Park came around her desk as Anderson and Tyler were ushered into her office by Corporal Flynn. After pumping Anderson's hand in greeting, she grasped Alicia's hand, saying, "Real pleasure to meet you, Commander Tyler." Motioning to the pair, she asked, "Can I interest either of you in a drink? As I recall, Captain, you enjoyed a scotch and soda … but it's a bit too early for that. How about coffee, or tea?"

"Coffee, black, would be quite welcome, General." Looking at his XO, the captain asked, "Tyler? Name your poison."

Thinking to keep things simple, Tyler replied, "Coffee sounds great, thank you." Following Anderson to the chairs facing General Park's desk, they stood beside them as RaeLee fixed a cup for each of her guests.

As Park brought a tray bearing three heavy mugs filled with steaming liquids, she nodded towards the conference table in the corner, saying, "Let's get comfortable … I have a great deal of information to share, and I'm sure you'll have a lot of questions for me." Setting the tray in the center of the table, she placed a mug in front of each of her guests; taking the third for herself, she sipped her drink as she sat in the chair. Setting the tea on the table, she sighed heavily before skewering first Anderson, then Tyler with an intense gaze. "Captain … Commander? While we're in this room, we can dispense with the formalities. My name is RaeLee … David, I believe you'll remember my dislike for the use of titles in an informal meeting. There'll be no recorded report of our conference … everything I'm about to tell you is for your ears only. It's information you'll both need in order to understand the capabilities and training received by one of my protégées … Staff Lieutenant Yuán Xiùlán."

The surprise written on Tyler's face was plain as her mouth fell in amazement. Glancing at Anderson, she said, "General, any information you can share concerning the lieutenant would be welcome. She's proven to be extremely talented, and it's quite obvious she's had a lot more training than can be discerned from reading her official dossier." After taking a sip of coffee, Tyler set the mug down and waited expectantly for Park to speak.

RaeLee glanced between the pair as she once again picked up her mug and sipped her tea. "To begin with, David will be leaving the Tokyo for a new assignment by the end of the month … that's why I had him bring you along for this meeting, Alicia. It will fall to you to take over as commanding officer on the Tokyo; orders will be cut in a short time, so I'm simply providing a bit of advance notice."

Anderson chuckled at the look of amazement on Tyler's face before asking, "If I may, what will be my new assignment, RaeLee?"

"You'll be moving to the new frigate being assembled at the shipyard in Arcturus, David—as captain of the ship. During the final weeks the ship is in the yard, you'll be involved in handpicking your crew. It's a combined effort with the turians and sponsored by the Citadel Council … a prototype scout frigate optimized for solo reconnaissance missions deep within unstable regions, using state-of-the-art stealth technology powered by an experimental drive core. She's already been named by the program director as the SSV Normandy, Stealth Reconnaissance-1, or SR-1. I've taken the liberty of forwarding your imminent selection and your clearances to the facility and would like you to stop in as soon as you get back … after you drop off Alicia, of course."

Anderson raised an eyebrow. "When you say orders will be arriving shortly, you mean they'll be sitting on my desk by the time we get back, don't you?"

"Not quite, David, but you will have them by week's end," RaeLee chuckled softly. "Now, seeing as we will soon have a new commander of the Tokyo with a definite 'need to know', let me tell you everything I am able to pass on regarding Staff Lieutenant Yuán Xiùlán and the training she has received..."


• ALLIANCE CRUISER SSV TOKYO · DOCKED, ARCTURUS SHIPYARD •

Soon-to-be-Captain Alicia Tyler sat at her desk to pack up the personal items within. She didn't really care if anyone asked what she was doing, as the news would be common knowledge soon enough. Anderson had dropped her off and proceeded directly to the shipyard as directed by RaeLee, promising his XO he would begin packing up his own personal belongings as soon as he returned. Glancing at her chrono as she finished up for the day, she called the Bridge. "Has Captain Anderson returned to the ship?" Receiving a negative reply, she shook her head in bewilderment. It's been hours … must be one helluva ship for him to stay that long.

She had to fight the impulse to immediately recall Staff Lieutenant Yuán from her leave. The wide gap between the woman's dossier and the information provided by General Park was difficult to process, but Xiùlán's outstanding performance during her time on the Tokyo was certainly beginning to make sense, given the new information. Shaking her head, Alicia picked up the box she had packed along with her regular administrative datapads and proceeded to Anderson's—soon to be her—office.


• FRIGATE SSV NORMANDY, UNDER CONSTRUCTION · ARCTURUS SHIPYARD •

Anderson had taken extra time following his tour of the Normandy to perform a personal favor requested of him by General Park. She had warned him the specialist would be extremely wary, so he was to open the conversation with a particular contact phrase. He initially thought it a bit odd, but changed his mind quickly when he considered the information he had received regarding Samantha Traynor being Staff Lieutenant Yuán's classmate, then mission partner, for a period of over two years. The woman approached him guardedly and saluted. "Specialist Samantha Traynor reporting as ordered, Sir."

"Relax, Specialist." Anderson saluted in return. As they both dropped their hands, he continued, "I've recently returned from a summoning to General Park's office in the Vancouver Headquarters. She imparted some rather … interesting … information about you, and said I should advise you that speaking to me won't be nearly as bad as your time ashore from the ARS Ionsaí. She told me you were on … Cartagena Station."

No way this Captain could know about that unless … Traynor had to work at keeping the surprise from her face as she responded, "Message received, Sir. What did General Park have to say?"

"She wanted me to let you know that a judge dismissed Michael Moser Lang's case due to lack of evidence …" He paused, quickly holding up a hand to indicate he wasn't done. "And … that he was dead within forty minutes of his release … some kind of freak equipment failure at the civilian freight docks. His death was determined to be a … 'tragic and unavoidable' accident by the Yard Superintendent."

"And yet, she knows it was not an accident, doesn't she?" Traynor snorted in disgust. "I find it hard to believe we can't get enough evidence on Sutton to shut that bastard down. Excuse me Sir, but he's a goddamned traitor!"

"Sutton?" Anderson perked up at a name he recognized. "As in Lieutenant Commander Garrett Sutton, the installation commander?"

"One and the same, Sir." Traynor paused. "I suppose I've already revealed more than I should with that statement … he's responsible for forcing me out of my station posting … shifted me to this special project. On the face of it, I'm only too well aware it appears to be a great career move, and I'm grateful for the opportunity … and the challenge. But he only did it to get me out of the way and off the station. My supposedly advantageous transfer came with a serious black mark on my service record, basically stating that I'm a loose cannon who doesn't play well with others. Thing is, the commander failed to note that those others were planted Cerberus agents."

Anderson arched his brows at the mention of the black ops group. "Cerberus? Now there's a name I would have been happy to never hear again my entire career, Specialist." He looked her in the eye as he continued, "Something tells me we need to find some time to have a long … and very private discussion, Ms Traynor." He glanced at the chrono above the hatch and continued, "Right now, however, I'm rather late getting back to the Tokyo, so that chat will have to wait. Besides which, I think I also need to clear such a conversation with a certain General in Vancouver." As Anderson turned away, Traynor jumped to attention and started to salute, only to be answered by a quick, "As you were, Specialist. Enjoy your evening."


• ARCTURUS SHIPYARD · SPECIALIST TRAYNOR'S RESIDENCE •

Traynor could smell it even before she opened the door—a heavenly aroma of potatoes and beef, tinged with onion. What the hell … am I at the wrong apartment? She entered her passcode to the door lock, which responded by turning green. So, right place … The specialist opened the door and walked inside, discovering as she did so that the aroma was coming from within. "Xiùlán, I'm home."

Her Inamorata peeked at her from the kitchen doorway, saying, "Good … go get cleaned up … our dinner is ready." So saying, she disappeared back into the kitchen, leaving Sam to wonder just what had gotten into her friend. Never took her for the domestic goddess-homemaker type. Makes me wonder what's up. Her mouth watering at the heavenly smells, she moved to her bathroom, there to splash some water on her face and wash her hands. Before joining Xiùlán, she changed out of her SDU in favor of a tank top and a pair of cut-off jeans. Joining her lover at the small table she used for meals, she stared in amazement—there was a place setting for each of them, with a complete meal all laid out—it really was Shepard's Pie. Xiùlán's shy smile spoke volumes about her feelings regarding Traynor, who sat down across from her and smiled back.

"Thought I'd try my hand at cooking a meal for you … and me. Chose something you may have had while you were living on Horizon." Xiùlán paused, then continued with, "So, help yourself. I think you'll enjoy it … it tasted really great while I was waiting for you to get home from the yard. Oh, by the way, how was your day?"

Traynor's one-word response came around a mouthful of potatoes. "Long." Swallowing her food, she took a sip of wine, rolled her eyes and said, "This is absolutely delicious. What's gotten into you? I never knew you could cook."

Xiùlán took a sip of wine from her own glass and replied, "Not much to it, actually. Found all the ingredients at a market close to the civilian docks … everything is fresh. The beef actually came from Earth—closer than the colony planets." Stabbing a chunk of potato with her fork, she stirred it about in the gravy before popping it in her mouth. "Damn! That is really good, even if I do say so."

"Good? Xiùlán, after this, you may never make it back to the Tokyo. I'll just keep you here with me. My dinners usually consist of whatever I pull from the freezer first. Heat and serve, that's my motto." Applying herself to the potatoes on her plate, she quickly finished her serving, held the plate up for Xiùlán and asked, "Might I have more?"

After eating more for dinner than was her usual habit, Traynor helped Xiùlán get all the dishes and pans cleaned and put away. When her kitchen was once again squared away, she placed a chaste kiss on her Inamorata's cheek and quietly said, "I'm too full to simply sit before we go to bed … care to go for a walk? This may be a shipyard, but they do have a few amenities for the workers … some nice walking paths nearby, with real shrubs and trees." At the expression of hesitation on Xiùlán's face, she added, "I promise it'll be a short walk—no bad guys around. Come on, it'll be good for us."

Xiùlán smiled as she responded, "Okay, Specialist. Lead the way.

After leaving the apartments behind, Traynor led Yuán to a paved path bordered by grass and shrubs. Taking her hand, she said, "I met with an Alliance captain right before I came home from the yard … name's Anderson … I think you may know him?" Xiùlán remained silent as they slowly walked, so Traynor continued, "I think he's the designated captain for the frigate I'm working on—the Normandy." Sammy walked on in silence for a few moments before adding, "He met with General Park in Vancouver today, Ai … [愛 – Love (Sam's meaning is 'luv')] … she gave him … and your XO … a verbal rundown on your training … your true capabilities. Both of them are now aware of some of what you've done … what we've done … together, and what you are truly capable of. The gaps in our permanent service records still exist, but Anderson and Tyler now know just how special you really are."

They walked on in companionable silence for several moments before Xiùlán replied, "So, something must have changed that allowed General Park to divulge information regarding our training. Did Captain Anderson share any other information with you?"

"Well, the assassin that tried to murder me? Lang?" Sam's grip on Xiùlán's hand tightened just a bit as she declared, "Son of a droolin' whore is dead, Ai."

"How?" came the shocked response, prompting Sammy to relay the conversation she had had with Captain Anderson. Xiùlán remained silent for several minutes as she processed all she had just learned. Glancing at her lover, she said, "So, something major must have changed to prompt RaeLee Park to tell Anderson about me … and you. Any idea what that catalyst might have been?"

Traynor answered softly, "A suicide … upper brass, an admiral by the name of Owen Fletcher … by the look of things, he'd been selling information to Cerberus for a number of years. Sonuvabitch was responsible for the termination of the Ø7 program, responsible for the murder of Raherix Ursivus and the destruction of the MSV Anixara. I don't know it for a fact, but I believe he may have even attempted to scuttle our mission for the asari." With a huff, she added, "Bastard told Lang where to find me. Ate a bullet rather than be arrested and court-marshaled."

Xiùlán stopped walking, pulling Sammy around in front of her as she did so. "I am so sorry, Sà mi [薩米 – Sami]; it would appear this coward's death enabled General Park more latitude in providing our superiors with information concerning the training we received, even if it must remain redacted from our service records; at least something positive came from it."

Samantha reached in to plant a happy kiss on Xiùlán's lips. "It's you that will gain the most from all that upheaval. As for me …" Traynor's face took on a solemn expression as she continued, "I'll be shipped out as soon as the Normandy is declared flight ready—probably in three weeks or so. You'll be on the Tokyo, my love. We'll have to say our goodbyes before you ship out, as I don't think we'll see each other again for quite some time. Are you ready for that?" Traynor blinked rapidly in an attempt to clear the sudden onset of moisture in her eyes.

Xiùlán slowly drew the specialist into her comforting embrace, hugging her tightly as she applied a kiss to eager lips. "We will see each other again, Sà mi," she declared. "Never think otherwise, wo de ài, [我的愛 – my love] not even for a second. We'll make a point of taking all our leave time together. I love you with all that I am … never doubt that … ever." Releasing her, Yuán resumed walking as she said, "Let's get back to your apartment. I intend to fix Chinese for us tomorrow, and want to start my shopping early."


• ARCTURUS STATION AND SHIPYARD · AT LARGE •

Traynor and Yuán had spent an exceptionally pleasant ten days enjoying each other's company. Their second evening together found them enjoying an incredibly delicious meal of fresh steamed fish—Xiùlán told Sammy not to ask where the fish came from—with soy, ginger and onions. Xiùlán had even found a delightful Pinot Noir that perfectly complimented their dinner.

They had also gotten all dressed up and gone out to a couple of restaurants—one serving traditional western style meals and another featuring meals from Earth's far east. By the end of the week, Traynor was half-heartedly complaining that her pants were too tight around her waist, prompting Xiùlán to book them some time in the Alliance gym, where they could hone their skills at unarmed … and armed … combat.

Traynor emerged from the women's changing room before Xiùlán, and was dismayed by the seemingly large number of people that seemed to have materialized since she entered the gym. She unhurriedly moved to the exercise mat and began her warm-up exercises, ignoring the snide remarks and catcalls being made by a scattered few among the unwelcome spectators.

"Don't let them get under your skin, Sà mi," Xiùlán said softly as she walked up behind her. "Here, stand beside me." Sammy smiled knowingly as she moved to Xiùlán's left side, placing her right arm low across her lover's back, as Xiùlán draped her left arm across Traynor's shoulders. "Follow my lead," she said softly. So saying, she led Sammy down in a deep bow to the people watching. "Perfect," she whispered upon standing erect once again. She used her free arm and hand to wave to the spectators as she slowly turned, dragging Sammy along.

As they were both wearing matching exercise outfits, their sleeveless, cropped compression tops allowed their matching back tattoos to appear to be kissing. Additionally, Xiùlán's long ebony hair—having grown almost to its previous length since her encounter with batarian slavers—was pulled into a braid that cascaded down her spine, the loose ends at the tip swinging back and forth as she moved, allowing the vivid greens and golds of her dragon to seemingly hide from sight, only to be revealed when she moved her head. Traynor's soft brown locks were quite short by comparison, so the view of the brilliant shades of red that formed the unusual dragon tattoo on her back was virtually unimpeded.

Releasing their grip on each other, the pair began their centering exercises, a form of Tai Chi called Neigong, matching move for move, side-by-side. Surely they'll get tired of watching and go somewhere else for entertainment, Traynor thought. After ten minutes, the pair picked up their nángùns and began solo exercises with the polished wooden staves. Fifteen minutes in, the people remaining to see what these women would do were treated to a real show, as Sammy squared off with Xiùlán.

The pair began circling around each other, twirling and swinging their staves in front of each other, the displaced air from each staff created a fear-inducing W-h-i-r-r-r-r-r-r as each looked for an opportunity to strike. Xiùlán went on the attack first, feinting to her right before instantly banging her opponent's staff centimeters from her left hand; Traynor dodged to her right, quickly jumping straight up before planting one end of her staff on the mat as a pivot, allowing her to cartwheel away and put some distance between them.

Their duel was over almost as soon as it began—each woman was intimately familiar with the other—all the moves, attacks, parries and feints. Xiùlán finally succeeded in sweeping Traynor's feet out from under her; this dropped the specialist to her back and partially knocked the wind from her lungs.

Yuán used the large, blunt end to lightly tap Sammy in the throat just above her collar bones. Breathing hard as she stood over her Inamorata's head with her staff just touching Samantha's larynx, she huffed, "Damned if I don't think I've bested you this time, wo de ài. Seems it was me looking up at you not that many months ago … on the Ionsaí, while we were still in the Widow System.

Sammy chuckled at the memory as she offered her hands up in surrender. "Seems I was able to take a prize from that meeting. Will you desire the same prize in return?"

Xiùlán chuckled as she pulled the specialist to her feet. "Wouldn't want anything else."

Traynor grabbed a towel and was wiping the sweat from her face as a young woman, lieutenant's bars flashing reflected light from the overhead, walked up to them both. "I'd heard the two of you were rather tough as unarmed combatants, but seeing the reality of it was quite something … remind me to never get on your bad side, Xiùlán."

"Kenzie! I didn't realize you were watching!" Turning towards Traynor, Xiùlán asked, "You remember Olivia McKenzie, don't you, Sà mi?"

Traynor slung the towel behind her neck and let go the ends as she stuck out a hand. "Hi, Lieutenant," she said with a smile. "Good to see you again."

McKenzie's expression was hard to read as she asked, "So, you're not upset with me for sticking my nose in your love life?"

Sammy grasped the lieutenant's forearm and pulled her closer as she softly replied, "Water under the bridge, Ma'am. I needed someone to kick my ass for how I treated Xiùlán—glad you were there to stick up for her." Looking back at Xiùlán, Traynor said, "I'm gonna take a shower and change clothes. We have time for lunch, if you like." Looking back to McKenzie, she added, "Care to join us? It'll probably be our last chance before the Tokyo shoves off for another patrol."

Olivia's smile was radiant. "It'd be a pleasure to sit down with both of you, Traynor … give us a chance to speak about old times without worrying about a damned NDA."


• SSV TOKYO, READY FOR DEPARTURE FROM ARCTURUS SHIPYARD •

Xiùlán hugged and kissed Traynor one last time. "My gosh, Sà mi … these past couple of weeks have been amazing. We won't see each other for what'll seem like forever. I really hate having to leave you." The sable brown eyes regarding Sam were glistening with barely contained moisture, prompting Sam to gently pull her Inamorata's head close so she could gently kiss each eyelid.

"We'll get through this, Xiùlán. By the time the Tokyo returns here, I'll be long gone, probably to Vancouver … or London. Wherever I happen to land, I'll always let you know how to reach me, so we can talk, or just stare at each other's image on a screen. We'll focus on aligning our leave times, just as we discussed, but no matter what happens, you keep training for a captain's slot, okay?"

Xiùlán sighed. "Wo duì ni de ài tiānchángdìjiu, Sà màn shā. [我對你的愛天長地久,薩曼莎,– My love for you is as enduring as the sky and the earth, Samantha] Stay safe." Picking up her travel bag, she hugged and kissed Sammy once more, then turned and entered the massive cruiser that would be her home for the foreseeable future. Traynor stood and watched for several minutes after Xiùlán had disappeared inside before turning slowly to go back to her apartment. She already felt slightly lost, as if a piece of herself had been taken from her … a piece that wouldn't be returned to her for a very long time.


• FRIGATE SSV NORMANDY, UNDER CONSTRUCTION · ARCTURUS SHIPYARD •

It was the final week of the SR-1 project and Captain David Anderson had been on and off the Normandy a number of times, overseeing final preparations and making the last of his crew selections. While he still awaited the arrival of the last few people from their prior duty stations, including his new XO, Anderson was preparing to meet General Invectus, the turian representative, for their final selection—the Normandy's pilot. He walked into the communications area and smiled. "Specialist Traynor. A word, please?"

With most of her installations finished Traynor had been fine-tuning the programming of the various sensor suites and comms packages. Walking quickly towards the Captain, she answered, "Of course, Sir. What do you need? Is the communications terminal in your quarters acting up again?"

Anderson chuckled softly. Traynor had really gone out of her way to assist him the past couple of weeks; he felt sure it was largely due to his conversation with Admiral Hackett that resulted in Garrett Sutton being relieved of his command for malfeasance. With Traynor's assistance, it had taken very little digging by the Alliance N7 to turn up plenty of evidence proving Sutton's purposeful lack of due process; as it turned out, the station commander's failure to investigate Traynor's claims and prosecute Kelsey Winters was the least of his offenses.

"I'm sorry, Specialist. I love your attitude … I really do, but I don't expect you to welcome the news I'm about to deliver." He paused and took a deep breath before continuing, "I'm afraid I was unable to get that disciplinary warning removed from your permanent file, Specialist." He held up a hand to indicate he wasn't done. "I did manage to get it redacted from the public personnel file … and I was able to secure a fresh start for you with a colleague of mine in Alliance R&D in London. I know it's not the field work you're used to, but you're smart and talented … we need your unique skills to develop, test and improve new technologies like those aboard the Normandy."

Traynor's expression was solemn as she nodded her understanding. "Thank you, Sir. I'm sure you did your best … but, with only you and General Park truly in my corner, I honestly didn't expect you to succeed. I really appreciate your candor, more than anything else … and, of course, the personal recommendation that is likely responsible for me getting a challenging position in research and development."

"You probably won't appreciate it as much once you realize we're selecting the Normandy pilot tomorrow—you're due to ship out as soon as you get him set up with all the communications and systems protocols." He frowned at the momentary distress that washed over her features, so quickly continued, unabated. "You're due in London by the end of the week. I'm sorry I couldn't postpone your departure until after the Tokyo returns from her current assignment."

Traynor managed to smile back at him. "Xiùlán and I were prepared for this … I anticipated being reassigned before she returned, so we already said our goodbyes. That's life in the military, isn't it? We enjoy the time we have together, and endure the separations with as much grace as we can manage. I'll be fine, Sir, and I thank you for all your intervention on my behalf."

Anderson grinned at her for a moment before saying, "Right. Carry on, Specialist."


A/N: Special thanks to Desert Sunrise for contributions to this chapter. Your knowledgeable assistance is always appreciated.