Love is not a shining star. Love is not the warm glow of the sun. Love is a river. Sometimes it's shallow and other times a mile deep. It flows toward some and away from others. It's rocky, slippery, and you can drown in it if you're not careful. It creates ripples in the lives around us, and all we can hope for is to be a part of that river, no matter where it leads or how short the journey may be. — Dannika Dark, Four Days


Ài[愛 – love] (whether spoken by Xiùlán or Samantha, the meaning is 'luv')]
Irin – Pronounced similar to the girl's name 'Erin' – Zaeed Massani's shortened form of 'Iringù-Eßizkur'
Hover Cart – A compact, short-range 3- or 4-person transport, similar in function to a present-day golf cart


· The following events take place thirty-five years after the end of the preceding chapter ·


• INSIDE ŽIUK'DURMAH · DARK SPACE, NEAR FORMER VIPER NEBULA •
◦ Sunday, 14 August 2225-CE ◦

"It's been forty-seven years since we crashed into each other at the Alliance base on Luna, Sà mi, and I cannot begin to imagine how different my life would have been, had that singular event never happened. Truly, it was a new beginning – for both of us."

I studied the beaming face on my monitor for several moments before answering. "I imagine you would have done just fine without me in your life, Xiùlán, but …" I paused at the immediate change in her happy expression to one of outright denial; choosing my words carefully, I explained, "… but I do believe I would still be quite defenseless physically, and your time in the Alliance Navy would have most likely been utterly boring, even during the war."

She shook her head in mock denial before responding. "Maybe so, but I am happy beyond any words I can think of—in Galactic or Mandarin—that you've been a part of my life ever since that day, Sà mi. That we will celebrate our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary tomorrowsomething I could have never expected in my wildest dreams?along with my sixty-eighth birthday?" A brief pause, then, "You will be here in time for the party, yes?"

The Systems Alliance Navy had promoted my qīzi [妻子 – wife] to the rank of Admiral in 2212, a mere thirty-seven years after she had enlisted, and just twenty-four years after she made Captain and was given command of SSV Hong Kong. The party to which she was referring would take place at the Systems Alliance Western North American Joint Base and Headquarters in Vancouver, BC, which had been under her command since Marine General RaeLee Park's retirement in 2220.

Truth be told, there had really been no financial reason for me to continue working—her compensation and benefits were more than adequate for both of us to live quite comfortably, especially since the Alliance provided her with extremely nice living quarters on base—but I continued to work and travel within the embrace of my synthetic/organic friends, Iringù-Eßizkur and Žiuk'Durmah. Had I elected to live at a fixed base with no tasks or job to keep my mind engaged, I'm sure I would have suffered the same kind of boredom I had just mentioned to Xiùlán.

Xiùlán had quickly realized this and, bless her, insisted I continue to work at foiling the increasingly devious methods conjured up by a multitude of computer hackers—human and alien—that seemed to be a never-ending scourge infecting the galaxy's cyber-universe – hardware and software that businesses and financial institutions, large and small, depended on daily.

All of this flashed through my mind in a heartbeat as I answered her question. "Wouldn't miss it for the world, my darling. It's my anniversary as well, and …" I cocked my head slightly as I studied her image on my monitor and concluded, "the anniversary of the day you were born – an event I will celebrate until my dying day!" I paused, then asked, "Who have you invited to attend so far?"

"Some of my former crewmates from the Hong Kong, a few of your former crewmates from the Normandy, including Spectre Shepard, Lady Liara, and their personal guard team." She paused, glanced at what I assumed was an out-of-my-view datapad, then continued, "General Park, Garrus Vakarian, and Tali'Zorah vas Rannoch will be here as well." A sly grin slowly developed as she added, "I even managed to track down James Vega."

"No! Really? Where in the galaxy did you find him?"

A short chuckle accompanied her answer. "Several years after graduating N7 and causing all kinds of trouble for a seemingly unending number of pirates and slavers in the Terminus, he retired from the Marines at the rank of major and settled on Omega, where he does occasional work as hired muscle."

A bit of amazement colored my voice as I commented, "Surely he didn't have enough time in the Marines to qualify for a pension."

"Your assumption is correct, Sà mi." Her voice grew contemplative. "After the war, he felt he had served long enough and didn't really care about the pension. He was certainly young enough to continue busting heads, wherever he ended up. Seeing as how he continues to be a human version of Grunt, I expect the muck sacks on Omega sincerely wish he would move on."

I had to chuckle at her term for dirt bags, and at her characterization of the man in general. Jimmy Vega had never been the type of person to suffer fools gladly, a personality trait he shared with me. Thinking about my turian and quarian friends, I asked, "Is it safe for me to presume there'll be special food and beverages for Garrus and Tali?"

"Of course, Sà mi." Her smile nearly disappeared as she added quietly, "Oh, and there was really no way I could leave Admiral Cody off the guest list, Ai. He was a major contributor in my rise through the ranks, so pleasedon't be upset with me. I simply had to invite him to attend." Apprehension shone in the dark eyes regarding my image on her monitor, and I could detect a bit of movement below the camera's field of view, indicating the possibility she was nervously wringing her hands. "The venue is quite large, so you should have no trouble avoiding him during the festivities."

I attempted to keep my facial expression and tone of voice neutral as I replied, "It should be incumbent on him to avoid me as well, don't you think?" Maintaining my even demeanor, I added, "As long as your only expectation of me is civility should he wish to converse, then fine. But just to be crystal clear, please … do not expect me to be convivial towards him, Xiùlán."

A hint of sadness colored her expression—something I instantly regretted—as she pointed out, "It has been nearly forty years since you quit working as the Shadow Broker, Sà mi. To this day, I truly regret Cody's unintentional involvement in our personal lives back then, but just look what the change in employers has done for you." She smiled with only the corners of her mouth. "Have the past nearly four decades really been that miserable for you, my darling? We've been married for thirty-five years! Your work is done in the open light of day, rather than hidden in the shadows of anonymity. Don't you think you've held onto your animosity towards him long enough?"

Nicely done, Admiral, came the thought. How do I answer you without seeming ungrateful for our time together? I managed to keep the deep-seated antipathy I held for William Cody out of my response. "Xiùlán, I would not trade our years of marriage for all the creds in the galaxy; that said, I will never forget the upheaval that húndàn [混蛋 – bastard] caused in my life – in our lives, dammit! He is not my friend … never will be. You would do well to remind him of that when he arrives."

She breathed a heavy sigh of acquiescence before answering, "It will be as you wish, my darling; I will not speak of this again or push this issue any further, and I will warn him that avoiding you is his responsibility, but it will also be your responsibility to avoid him. Don't forget how well I know you, darling and, how well I trained you."

I huffed a short laugh. "I will do my best, Xiùlán … I really do not wish to cause an altercation on your birthday, nor do I want to be remembered for fighting with him on our anniversary."

I was glad to see the smile from before slowly return to her face. "I have to sign off, Sà mi – still lots to do before tomorrow. Do you need me to send a shuttle to meet you in orbit? I'm afraid there will not be enough room nearby for Žiuk'Durmah, or even for Iringù-Eßizkur to park."

I laughed with my response. "I'll have Irin touchdown somewhere close by; I can use my personal speeder from there while she rejoins ZeeDee in orbit."

She showed her teeth in a full-fledged grin. "Okay, then. Get here as early as you can, Ai. I want us to have some private time together, before the party gets started. Wo yongyuan ài ni, Sà mi!" [我永遠愛你,撒米! – I love you forever, Sà mi!]

I responded with, "Ni shì wo línghún de lìng yībàn, Xiùlán!" [你是我靈魂的另一半,秀蘭!– You are the other half of my soul, Xiùlán!] then sat back in my chair to watch her reaction to my latest attempt—of many during the past month—at telling her in her native tongue how much I loved her. Seeing the joyful expression of loving appreciation blossom on her face sent my heart soaring.

She nodded towards me and commented, "Very well said, Ai! See you tomorrow." With a conspiratorial wink, she cut the connection, leaving me staring at a blank screen.


• INSIDE ŽIUK'DURMAH · SOL SYSTEM, LOCAL CLUSTER •
◦ Monday, 15 August 2225-CE ◦

»It pleases me that you will allow Iringù-Eßizkur to transport you to the surface of your homeworld, Friend-Samantha.« Žiuk'Durmah somehow managed to instill happiness in his electronically generated voice.

I sighed in response, as we had had the discussion regarding my in-system trips before. My ancient companion never believed me to be safe while traveling in my UT-47, which I had originally planned to fly down to the Alliance base. After learning of the expectation for an overcrowded parking area, I had changed those plans. "Once Iringù-Eßizkur transports me down to the surface, I'll use my speeder to get to the base while Irin returns to orbit."

A tone of approval found its way into his mechanical voice. »That would be acceptable, Samantha. What will be the duration of your visit?«

I hadn't previously given any thought to the matter, so answered, "I'm not really sure. Ten days, possibly; and it's not confirmed yet, but once we leave Sol, I may wish to travel to Grissom Academy so I can visit with Jack."

»The human female previously known as Subject Zero. Her extraordinary biotic abilities are known to me.«

"Yeah, that's her … I've been told her name is actually Jennifer, but I've never been able to confirm that, nor have I been able to discover her surname … not that it really matters to her. She still prefers to be called Jack. She's been the Academy's chief biotics instructor since 2188 – she actually helped me stop an assassin during my brief time as the Shadow Broker."

»She will be visiting Terra for your celebration?

"That's the plan, but she'll only be able to stay a couple of days, and there'll be a lot of people in attendance that Xiùlán and I have not visited with in quite some time, including Kaidan Alenko and Miranda Lawson, so our time available to actually sit and visit will probably be brief."

Just when I thought the construct would remain silent, he quietly observed, »Before the war, Repositories were able to communicate among ourselves with speed of thought. It is regrettable that we are no longer able to know the thoughts of one another. All of us are now much more like organics in that aspect of our existence.«

"Your implication being that organics would be better off if we were all permanently connected mentally? I can think of nothing worse than never being able to shut the universe out of my head."

After a minute or two without a reply, I grabbed my shoulder pack and travel bag and moved to the exit hatch. Just outside was a null-grav tube, similar to the one I used when riding within Iringù-Eßizkur, except this one would deposit me on a catwalk within the enormous space I thought of as a hanger. As I exited at the bottom, a kinetic barrier instantly appeared, surrounding and suspending me in a translucent, blue-tinted energy field controlled by my gargantuan host.

Žiuk'Durmah moved the bubble through his airless interior to Irin's entry hatch; once the hatch was opened, he positioned the bubble past the opening's kinetic barrier, then dissolved it, allowing me to stand inside the pressurized compartment. It was a tried-and-true method we had employed countless times during the many years I had been living within the machine.

"Thanks, ZeeDee." As Irin sealed the hatch, I stowed my gear and moved to sit in the observation lounge, then sent a message to my companion. "Iringù-Eßizkur, I'm ready to depart." I watched on the monitor as she unlatched from her mooring and slowly drifted towards the open hatch.

When I flew in my UT-47, Irin always exited the dreadnaught-class Repository ahead of me in order to double-check the area in which we'd be flying; even after I spoke with her about the redundancy of inspecting for potential enemies in the area where ZeeDee had already checked, she insisted she be allowed to continue, and nothing I said could convince her it was wasted effort. After trying a number of times, I concluded my arguments were futile and capitulated. Iringù-Eßizkur's only consideration was my personal safety; if I was flying free in my shuttle and not within her structure, she felt there was always a chance that someone would target and destroy my shuttlecraft with me inside.

As Iringù-Eßizkur locked onto the guidance signal being sent from the base below us, I thought back to the reason she had become so paranoid concerning my continued health and safety, a concern that began with Yuán Xiùlán's close call nearly five years ago, just after she had transferred to her new assignment in Vancouver.

Unknown to either of us, Jason Joesiar had been released from prison that year; the miserable little bastard blamed all his self-inflicted troubles on Xiùlán, and me, to a somewhat lesser extent. He was determined to make us pay – with our lives, if possible. Shortly after his release, he had come uncomfortably close to putting a bullet in Xiùlán's back – his favorite method for killing anyone he feared. Having received a warning from the Shadow Broker—Griffen Buchanan—of his release from Alliance lockup and his murderous intentions towards my wife, I had barely managed to prevent him from completing his vendetta, but stop him I did … permanently.

The officious sounding voice of an air and space traffic controller intruded on my reverie. "Ahh, Repository Iringù-Eßizkur Vancouver Approach Control. Please acknowledge."

I listened quietly as Irin replied, This is Iringù-Eßizkur, Vancouver.

"Iringù-Eßizkur, Vancouver Approach: your flight plan indicates you wish to land near Alliance Joint Base Vancouver, discharge a passenger, then immediately return to orbit. I will transmit your return vector immediately after you touch down."

Appreciated, Vancouver. I will remain in a low, geo-synched orbit until my passenger needs to depart from Vancouver.

"Ahh, understood Iringù-Eßizkur. You are cleared to land as requested. Vancouver, out."

Irin acknowledged the clearance as I leaned back in the comfortable chair. I split my attention between the city growing ever larger in the forward viewscreen and Irin's readouts of her velocity and vector for the landing area near the base, growing larger in apparent size the closer we came.

I sent a text to the base commander, letting her know I was on final approach for landing.


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

I stepped out of my speeder and raised my arms to the sky in a leisurely stretch; after pausing for a few moments to enjoy the sight of Irin ascending back towards orbit, I leveled my gaze at the approaching reason for my visit. Xiùlán looked resplendent in a beautiful Cheongsam—a classic Chinese dress known as a Qipao [旗袍]—a high-necked, closed-collar dress in bone-white under a pattern of purple-to-blue flowers that looked like orchards, silk-screened all around from top to bottom. The loose chest, asymmetrical fastening, fitted waist, and side slits showed off her natural beauty, apparent softness and modesty while enhancing the appearance of her long, muscular legs.

Her smile spread from ear-to-ear as she got close and said, "Zhōunián kuàilè, qīn'ài de! Huānyíng huí jiā!" [週年快樂,親愛的! 歡迎回家!– Happy Anniversary, (my) dear! Welcome home!] just before lifting me off my feet in a nearly bone-crushing hug. After thoroughly kissing me, she set me down and slid her hands down my back; after gliding them slowly across my butt, she continued moving them until she could lightly hang onto my hips. "I am so happy to have you back, Sà mi. Seems like forever since I could hold you, instead of just the past month or so. How was your trip?"

"Shēngrì kuàilè, Xiùlán!" [生日快樂,秀蘭!– Happy birthday, Xiùlán!] I silently studied her face for a few moments, long enough for her smile to lessen slightly.

"What? What are you looking at, Ài? What's the matter?"

"Nothing's the matter, Luv," I laughed. "Just thinking you look positively smashing! Sixty-eight years old, and your appearance is virtually the same as on the day we crashed into each other on Luna. Mind telling me the secret to your youthful radiance?"

"Wo de mìmì?" [我的秘密? – My secret?] She giggled, "There really is no secret, my dear Sà mi … it is you!" She continued laughing, the joyous sound warming my heart. "You keep me young! Your continued presence in my life is a balm for my soul." The hands on my hips slid back around, drawing me closer by cupping my ass through my skirt, until her nose was brushing mine. "Come on," she whispered. "Let's go inside." She brushed my lips in a provocative manner with her own before pressing them hard against my mouth. Pulling back to take a breath, she said, "We have a couple of hours before the party actually gets under way. Are you going to change your clothes?"

I moved back slightly and looked down between us. I had chosen my outfit—a mid-sleeve pull-over in dark blue above a mid-thigh-length black skirt over dark, opaque tights and black boots—in a conscious attempt to not stand out at a party that was being held to honor my Qīzi de [妻子的 – wife's] birthday and wedding anniversary. "I think I'm good, my darling."

She had looked down as well; after a few moments, she returned her gaze to my eyes, her soft response feathering across my lips. "I agree." She dropped one hand as she slipped the other around behind my back and turned to lead me towards our shared quarters. "We have some time before the majority of our guests arrive. Can you think of a way for us to spend that time together?"

Her tone of amorous intent instantly kindled a fire in my core as I studied the side of her face. "Actually, I can think of several things … all beginning with us getting naked."


Lying on her right side and supporting her torso on her elbow with her head cradled in her hand, Xiùlán used the fingers on her left hand to lightly trace invisible patterns on my chest, all the while teasing me by slowly approaching, then retreating from actually touching my nipples. She leaned down again to gently brush a pair of succulent lips across my own. "By my revered ancestors, Sà mi. I am so madly in love with you. It's almost as if I can never get my fill." She punctuated her declaration by pressing her lips to mine, using the velvet warmth of her tongue to aggressively plumb the depths of my mouth.

I employed my own tongue in a spirited jousting match before conceding and finally succumbing to my partner's relentless attack. Breaking the intensely satisfying contact with my mouth, she lifted her head slightly, sable-brown eyes studying me closely. I whispered, "That makes me happy, my darling, since I will never allow you to become sated. I'd be afraid you'd leave me." I captured the hand that had finally started teasing my nipples, by now so tightly erect they actually ached; bringing it up between us, I kissed her palm, then gently bit down on the web between her thumb and first finger.

She responded as always, groaning softly in pleasure while placing her thumb alongside my jaw and using her fingers to massage the other side of my face. "Ah, Sà mi. We should probably consider what we've done thus far this morning as a small down-payment on the promise of even more passion this evening. It's been nearly two-and-a-half hours since we undressed each other."

I relocated her hand down, placing it on the soft hair covering my pubes and held it there; she took that as an invitation to gently tease the slippery softness of my sex. "Don't know if I can remember how to get that Cheongsam back on your body," I sighed. "It always seems easier to undress you."

She slowly retrieved her hand, sat up and swung her gorgeous legs over the edge to place her feet on the deck. Looking over her shoulder at me, her eyes smoldered in response. "I'll be happy to show you," came the snarky reply. "I'll even leave my panties off … make it easier for you tonight."


I clung to her upper arm as we approached the building where we would be spending the rest of the day. "Some of our guests have already arrived." She smirked slightly as she added, "I've been told Garrus Vakarian, in particular, seems quite anxious to speak with you. Should I be worried?"

I looked at her in time to see the cheeky grin. "Not unless he brought a squad to take me into custody for some past insult," I replied. "Probably just wants to catch me up on the political scene on his home world – there's been some unrest within the mid-level ruling families. Best of my knowledge, it's simply a lot of petty squabbling."

Seemingly everyone inside the large hall turned in response to the doors sliding open to allow us to enter; smiles of recognition appeared as those inside watched us stroll in. A woman I would recognize anywhere, regardless of how she was dressed, separated herself from the small group and immediately approached us.

Stopping directly in front of us, retired General RaeLee Park looked me up and down, then held out her hands in greeting. "Sammy! It is so good to see you again!" Before I could grasp her hands, she quickly and unapologetically moved, wrapping me up in her arms and emulating the embrace with which Xiùlán had greeted me; after a few moments, she pushed back slightly, kissed my cheek, then released her hold on my torso, only to finally grab my hands. "You look wonderful, Ms Yuán-Traynor!" With a short laugh, she concluded, "I believe being married to this Admiral agrees with you – a lot!"

Being a bit embarrassed by her enthusiastic, and very public, greeting, I stammered a reply. "I, umm … would have to agree with your assessment, RaeLee … umm, General Park." I glanced towards Xiùlán for moral support; seeing only a happy grin, I countered with, "And it would appear retirement agrees with you! … very much so!" Splitting my attention between RaeLee and Xiùlán, I asked, "So, what does a retired Marine general do with all her free time these days?"

General Park looked at Xiùlán and replied with a small laugh of her own. "Retirement does agree with me, Sammy, but only because my replacement is so over-qualified for the position. I could leave without worrying that the base would implode without me sitting in that office every day."

Xiùlán rolled her eyes and shook her head with a slight chuckle. "The boots you left behind are awfully big, General … boots I'm still attempting to fill."

"And just what free time are you referring to, Sammy? I consult for the Alliance – analyzing existing facilities, consolidation plans, and plans for new ones, plus submitting recommendations on security improvements." She pulled me close again, whispering, "Everyone smiles indulgently, but they mostly ignore my knowledgeable opinions." Releasing me and standing back slightly, she chortled, "I don't know what I would do with myself if all I could do was sit on my ass and read, or watch the news vids."

Xiùlán tugged on my arm imperceptibly. As I reluctantly began moving, I told her, "Thanks. Just so you know, I'm here for a week … maybe ten days. We'll talk more later, RaeLee."

She nodded in agreement as I allowed my Qīzi to steer me towards the buffet line. "I'm hungry, Sà mi. Let's grab a bite while we can, then I'll turn you loose so you can visit with our guests."


I had taken a seat at a table near the rear of the assembly hall; it was an ideal location from which to people-watch as I ate my sandwich and sipped iced tea from a tall glass. A woman with a familiar looking face slowly approached, as if uncertain that I would welcome her company. She was dressed conservatively in a high-neck, long-sleeved pull-over above a pair of dark shorts; the black mascara, eyeshadow in a subdued shade of dark blue and lipstick in a bright shade of red gave away her identity. Jack, came the thought. It appears her 'Look at me!' attitude has diminished over time.

She stopped across from me in front of my table as she spoke softly. "Damn, Traynor! You've been keeping one helluva low profile since you parted ways with Buchanan and company!" One corner of her mouth lifted in a smirk. "And you've been married for what? … thirty-five years?"

I offered my hand across the table. "Hello, Jack. I'm really surprised to see you here. Didn't think you ever left Grissom Station." I returned the smirk, adding, "And you finally let your hair grow out. Makes you look somewhat softer. I like it."

"Well, shit! Really?" She shook her head slightly. "Guess I'm gonna have to go back to the buzz cut! Don't want those children I'm teaching getting any ideas that I'm some weak-assed pushover."

I held onto her hand and pulled gently so she'd lean over the table towards me. "Don't you dare!" I said softly. "It suits you – better than having it shaved with all the tats on display. And I seriously doubt those kids will think they can put anything over on the psychotic biotic." Releasing her hand, I motioned her towards the chair beside me. "Come … sit. Have a drink with me … or two. Let's talk about old times, starting with your warning to me concerning Savina Delarosa."

"Not much to tell, Traynor. As for Delarosa, I really didn't think you'd be the one killing her."

"Neither did I. I offered her a deal, to which she pretended some interest, but ultimately," I sighed heavily in regret, "she didn't wish to lose her independence, so chose violence against Oriana and me in an ultimately doomed escape attempt." I finished my sandwich, took a swallow of tea and huffed in exasperation. "She was a true artist with her rifle, Jack. I would have rather smashed an ancient, stained-glass window than kill her, but in the end, she left me with no other choice."


After grabbing a tray full of food, Jack spent nearly an hour visiting with me while eating lunch, telling of her life on Grissom Station since we had last talked. She was finishing a dessert cup when she spotted Miranda and Kaidan walking arm-in-arm towards us. The hyper-talented biotic told me she was on vacation from Grissom Station, including all the people that called the place home, then deftly disappeared into the crowd of people that had arrived to celebrate Xiùlán's special day.

When the couple reached my table, Kaidan offered his congratulations with a brief hug and chaste kiss on my cheek; Miranda's embrace was a bit more intimate and lasted longer. With a whispered 'congratulations' in my ear, she stepped back and grinned at me. "Who would have thought either of us would eventually settle down and get married, Samantha?" She glanced at her spouse of nearly twenty-four years, then returned her violet-eyed gaze to me, adding, "You appear to be happier than I have ever seen you. Being married to Admiral Yuán must really be good for you!"

I chuckled with my reply. "Xiùlán is truly the other half of my soul, Miri. I seriously doubt I could live without her in my life." Before she could comment on that, I quickly added, "But, I don't think I'm the only one here that's found the serenity that comes from bonding with a lover."

A slight blush crept up from her collar as she averted her eyes for a moment; addressing me as she looked up to lock eyes with Kaidan, the former Cerberus agent responded, "When I left the Navy, I was completely adrift, Sammy. My trip to visit Jack on Grissom Station really opened my eyes to the possibility of forging a life for myself with Kaidan. My decision to accept his proposal was the best choice I ever made … I'm married to a man who treats me special." She leaned towards a suddenly blushing Alenko and planted a kiss on his cheek. "I couldn't be more content."

I smirked as I asked, "And the fact you possess strong biotic abilities is a bonus, right?"

Miranda's expression did not change. "I must admit, instructing potentials was not how I envisioned spending my time after leaving the Navy, but doing so brings me a great deal of satisfaction, Sammy. And Jack and I have long since made peace with each other; we meet and compare notes on a regular basis, usually over a weekend lunch or dinner."

"What about you, Traynor?" Kaidan asked, with a knowing look. "Are you still working as a systems security consultant?" Kaidan was one of the very small circle of acquaintances who knew for certain of my role in bringing the Shadow Broker back to life after the Reaper War – and that it was the reason for my resignation from the Navy.

I nodded as I replied, "Yes, I'm still an independent, freelance security consultant, as well as an occasional forensic accountant." I paused before adding a whispered, "And I no longer miss my role as the Shadow Broker, Kaidan … truly." Miranda's eyes widened slightly at this, but she remained silent as I looked at her and innocently asked, "You didn't know?"

She drew close enough to place an arm around my back so she could speak softly in my ear. "I had my suspicions, Sammy – especially when you recruited Oriana to join you and Buchanan, but I never really imagined that you were actually the Shadow Broker." She looked past my face at her husband, asking him in a mock, accusatory tone, "And you never told me?"

Kaidan grinned at us. "It wasn't information I felt comfortable sharing, Miri." He concluded with a leering wink. "You must remember our dinner together on Grissom Station, shortly after I became Chief of Staff. That's when she told me of her new profession."

Miranda's expression never changed, but I heard the catch in her breathing at his wink. They must have had a really interesting evening together after dinner, I thought, as I looked into her beautiful violet eyes. "It doesn't really matter now, does it? It's been nearly forty years since I left it all behind. I have never regretted my decision to step away, even if it was a forced separation."

They both reacted by staring at me quizzically; Kaiden asked, "How were you forced out, Sammy?"

Splitting my attention between them, I explained how Captain Bill Cody had stuck his nose into Xiùlán's relationship with me, in what I perceived as an attempt to drive a wedge between us. I concluded by telling them I had never forgiven the man for disrupting my life back then.

Kaidan, who had seen the results of my 'take-no-prisoners' approach to personal conflict, winced at the implied threat in my words. "You're still carrying that grudge around after nearly four decades?" With a chuckle, he observed, "And here I thought Zaeed Massani was obsessive about exacting revenge on Vido Santiago after only twenty years!" He concluded with a slight shake of his head, "I would have thought increasing maturity would have mellowed you a bit, Sammy."

"I actually have mellowed, Kaidan … a bit, but messing around in my personal life, especially my relationship with Xiùlán, is not something I can easily forget, and I sure as 'ell won't forgive him. The only reason Bill Cody is still walking and breathing is Xiùlán asked me … begged me, actually, to not end his life. I promised her then that I would refrain from killing him, so long as he never again crossed my path."

"You do know he's supposed to be here for the party, don't you?" Miranda looked around nervously, then asked, "You're not armed, are you?"

I spread my arms wide while making a show of looking down at my attire. "I don't have my knives or sword on me, no, and no pistol, either." Holding my fists up in front of my chest for a moment, I added, "But I'm sure you know I'm never really unarmed, and I am well aware that Xiùlán invited him to attend; she is supposed to make sure he knows to stay well clear of me while he's here, and I promised her I would steer clear of him." I glanced around the room as I observed, "I haven't seen him … yet. Just as well. I really don't wish to spoil our party."

Kaidan's attention was drawn to something or someone behind me. "Looks like a gentleman that served with us on the Normandy has spotted you."

I turned just in time to see a walking mass of muscle blocking my view of the room; a pair of massive arms spread wide and engulfed me in a nearly bone-crushing embrace that swept me completely off my feet. "Hey there, Especialista … how've you been?" After spinning me around, James Vega planted a quick kiss on my cheek and carefully set me on my feet again.

I said a quick farewell to Kaidan and Miranda with a promise to see them again before they departed, then looked up at the retired Major and former Marine. "It's been a few decades, James. I'm told you're a mercenary for hire these days. Life in the Alliance too tame for you?"

His grin widened. "It was certainly a lot more fun going groundside with Shepard and pounding Cerberus soldiers and Reaper spawn into the dirt. After the war ended, everything we did just seemed so dull and … well, unexciting. There's a lot more fun to be had on Omega Station, and I don't have to go traipsing around space to find it. Well, not very often, anyway."

I grabbed his massive forearms. "You look really good, James. Being a merc must agree with you."

He used his chin to indicate the bar. "Come on. I'll buy you a cerveza … or two. We can trade stories about our lives since we left the Alliance."

I barked a laugh as I said, "I expect your stories will be a lot more interesting than mine, Mr Vega, but sure … I'd enjoy that." I released his arms and fell in step beside him. I spotted another old friend leaning on the bar down at the far end, but elected to wait until after I'd had a bit of time to visit with James; apparently, the former Marine had already visited the bar and renewed his connection with the current 'volunteer' bartender.

A glass full of foaming amber liquid was placed in front of me, followed by his hand reaching out for mine. "Sammy! It's been years! How have you been?" The man moved quickly from behind the bar to hug and kiss me. I attempted and failed to keep the increased moisture in my eyes contained as I enthusiastically returned his welcoming embrace.

"Steve Cortez! It hasn't been that long, and why in 'ell are you working as a bartender? Stay out here and circulate … lots of people to visit with! You still on the Normandy?"

I gulped down several swallows of my beer as he replied, "Just helping out for a few minutes, and the Normandy? Haven't been on that ship since my promotion; actually thinking about retirement, but still need a few more years to be eligible for a full pension." His eyes were alight with joy as he continued, "I don't see myself working in the Terminus as a merc or bounty hunter," he waved a hand at Vega while wiping the bar with a towel that seemingly appeared from nowhere, "unlike our well-muscled friend beside you." With a short chuckle, he added, "A transfer off the ship came with my promotion to commander several years ago. Worked a year on Horizon as head of the Alliance's Logistics Supply unit; been on Luna running the squadron's fighter repair division since then. Should make captain by year's end. It'd be a good rank from which to retire."

I grinned at him, saying, "I'm really happy for you, Steve! Saying goodbye to you all those years ago was one of the hardest things I ever had to do."

"It was just as hard for me, Sammy – we were a family! I know we had our differences back then, but even so, you were like a sister to me … a sister I lost when you left the ship." He held up a hand at my apologetic expression. "I know why you left, Samantha … why you felt like it was your only option, but it was really hard for me to say goodbye to you, especially since I thought I'd never see you again."

Vega chose that moment to set his empty glass down between us. "I could use a refill, Esteban … before the two of you begin diluting those beers by crying into your own glasses."

Cortez smiled at hearing the familiar nickname. "Coming right up, Mr Vega. Traynor? … another one for you?"

"Sounds good, Steve." I polished off the remainder of my first glass as Cortez deftly reached across the bar to the beer taps to fill two more glasses. He set the refill in front of me as Vega bumped my shoulder and raised his glass. "To Samantha Traynor! Congrats on being married for thirty-five years!" Steve raised his own glass, touching Vega's, then mine, as he said "I'll certainly drink to that! Happy anniversary, Samantha. Here's to many more!"

"Thanks, guys. It really seems like it's only been a few years." I looked at my reflection in the mirror facing the huge hall. "And after hitting the ripe old age of sixty-seven this past March, I'm still amazed my appearance hasn't changed that much over the past thirty-five years." Shaking my head in seeming disbelief, I added, "Doesn't seem possible."

James momentarily grasped my upper arm; after squeezing lightly, he said, "Yeah, and it doesn't seem possible for a woman to have a pair of arms so well-muscled, either. I definitely do not wish to repeat the dance we had on the Normandy back in the day!"

I cocked my head as I studied him for a few moments and lied, "I'd nearly forgotten all about that, James, but if I remember correctly, I believe I told you then that it was all water under the bridge."

Cortez volunteered with a slight grin, "Kind of like our own little soiree—you, me, Tali'Zorah—running around inside Žiuk'Durmah, then Harbinger, eh?"

Returning my attention to Cortez, I added with a snarky grin, "Best of my knowledge, your wrecked UT-47 score is at least two to Vega's one – unless there's another of which I'm unaware."

Vega chuckled as Steve defended his record. "One of those was from being shot down in London, Sammy – not an experience I care to repeat, ever! Damn things fly worse than a brick when the ME field dies." He took a couple of swallows from his glass, then looked at James and added, "And that UT-47 you crashed resulted from a mid-air collision with a Cerberus shuttle, which I believe makes us even at two birds totaled, each." He laughed at the thought of Vega's landing of the crippled shuttle.

I slowly drank the rest of my beer as Steve and James enjoyed a friendly argument about which of them was a better shuttle pilot. They were briefly interrupted by Lieutenant Commander Sherri Morse; after offering me a quick hug and congratulations, she joined in the good-natured ribbing going on between Vega and Cortez. Looking down the length of the bar, I saw a special turian, still sitting by himself at the far end, so quietly excused myself and walked down to join him.