Eleven Unfamiliar planet- good. Unfamiliar cantina- ideal. Unfamiliar faces- perfection. Even the fizzing ale in front of her was foreign, left a strange tingling in her lips, on her tongue, down her throat. It was a tasty drink… too tasty for her purposes, and she pushed the mug away in annoyance while cursing the unfamiliarity of this bright place, these reveling people, their bubbly drinks that tasted good when she just wanted something hard, harsh, numbing. Suddenly, the unfamiliar faces were everywhere, suffocating her, eliciting half-forgotten sensations of panic and vertigo. Her comlink was in hand and halfway to her lips, preparing to contact her nearby squadron leader so she could rant against the medical staff who had promised she was fully recovered… before she paused and humored the possibility that the tasty, fizzing ale was responsible for her sudden disconcertion. Had she drunk enough for that? She wasn’t sure- a glance at her chrono suggested she’d been here for about an hour- but maybe the bartender had refilled her drink once or twice more than she recalled… She whipped her long, black braid over her shoulder as she turned to look for the culprit… and then whipped back around just as fast. Unfamiliar planet, unfamiliar cantina, unfamiliar faces- of course he would show up. While funneling desperate hopes towards whatever local deity might be paying attention, she calculated the direction her night would take if he had seen and recognized her. One- he would announce himself with a self-indulgent joke. Probably about dueling. Two- she would tell him to kriff off. Three- he would inquire as to her problem. Four- she would tell him to kriff off. Five- he would tell her she’d had a little too much to drink. Six- she would tell him to kriff off. Seven- he would make another joke about her obsession with the word ‘kriff.’ Eight- she would- predictably- tell him to kriff off. Nine- he would figure out who was her squadron leader and arrange to get her back to the temporary groundside lodging to sober up. Ten- she would tell him to kriff off, and then would reiterate the instruction to Commander SeToon when he showed up. Eleven- she would be reprimanded and confined to quarters aboard the Mon Casima for the remainder of her squadron’s groundside furlough. From happily alone- here, in this wonderfully unfamiliar cantina, with all these blessedly unfamiliar faces- one familiar face would land her in trouble and prevent her from seeking out that harshly numbing beverage she so craved. And that was hardly fair, but she doubted her commander would take those mitigating circumstances into consideration when she told him to kriff off. He would tell her- in that dry, oh-so-Duros tone of voice of his- that she needed to work on her brain-to-mouth filter. And she would tell him- again- to kriff off. It was actually quite astounding, how she could so vividly see the future; maybe there was more in this wonderfully fizzy, tingling drink than she’d initially realized. Or maybe… just maybe… he hadn’t seen her face, and her visions of discipline to come were simply alcohol-induced fears and- “A challenge to Cartann’s Ground Champion, Cheriss ke Hanadi, from this lowly sky-warrior?” One. “I can provide references, should my pedigree be called into question.” She drained the remainder of her drink. “You’re just as deadly on the ground as you are in the air,” she mumbled without looking up, “and I don’t duel anymore.” Two. “So kriff off, Janson.” “Whoa.” Three. He pulled the chair opposite her away from the table and sat, uninvited. “What’s wrong, Cheriss? I haven’t seen you in ages and just figured…” he paused and looked uncertain, and hope flared in her chest- maybe he had gotten the point that quickly- and then it died abruptly as he shook his head. “What am I thinking? Of course you’re happy to see me, too.” Her dark blue eyes bore with impressive steadiness into his brown ones. “Janson? Kriff. Off.” Four. Usually so good-natured, sudden concern flashed across his expression as he glanced at her empty mug. Five. “Cheriss, how much have you had to drink tonight?” “Enough to have no reservations about telling a superior officer to kriff off, Major.” Six. In an attempt to relieve the tension- wholly one-sided on her part though it was- he grinned easily and waggled his eyebrows. Seven. “You really like the word ‘kriff,’ don’t you? If you’re trying to tell me something, you don’t have to play it so hard to get.” “Maybe you should play it a little harder,” she muttered. “What was that?” “Kriff off.” Eight. Wes rubbed thoughtfully at his chin. “Hm. Who’s your CO, Cheriss? Moonlight Squadron, right?” Nine. She said nothing and instead began looking around for her server, wondering if she had time to order, receive, and down the numbing drink before Commander SeToon showed up. “Cheriss?” When she still did not answer, he shrugged and pulled out his comlink anyway, undoubtedly tapping into his higher connections in Command to get a faster and more reliable answer. Cheriss briefly caught the eye of the server across the room, but he scowled in her direction, arms weighed down with drinks for another table, and went about his current task. Narrowing her eyes menacingly, she willed him to turn around again so he might be cowed by the deadly purpose in her gaze that had been the last sight of so many brave young blastsword duelists on Adumar… but he ignored her, and she resigned herself to trying to catch the gist of Wes’s conversation from his side of it. There wasn’t much she could hear above the dull roar of the damned unfamiliar cantina with its annoying and strange people, so she settled instead for glaring at him instead of the server; and when he concluded his comm conversation, she preempted his next words with two of her own, delivered with impressively clear concision given her inebriated state. “Kriff off.” Ten. He blinked and smiled again, though there was less good cheer in this one; more of a reassurance that wasn’t working anyway. “Where’s Commander SeToon?” After all, number ten wouldn’t be complete until she’d told him to kriff off as well. “With his Ex-Oh eating dinner at a tapcaf about a klick from here.” Excellent. She just might have time to get another drink then, if only that damned server would acknowledge this side of the room again… “Well, tell him to take his time.” She peered around, craning her neck to see over a tall Gran and a Wookiee separating her from the bar. “He’s not coming.” Her thunderous gaze swung back to Wes. “Well, he has to in order to complete ‘ten’ and reach ‘eleven.’” “Sorry?” She just swore and shook her head, and a light grin touched his lips. “Is this something to do with you counting aloud since I sat down?” Too many seconds passed before she registered that her jaw was hanging open; she clamped it shut and blinked dumbly. “Have not.” “Well, mouthing, really. What happens when you reach ‘eleven’? Do you blast me?” “I get confined to quarters.” She rushed to elaborate before he could interrupt. “No, you are not in any way involved with the confinement or my quarters.” “I’d never make such a presumption,” he returned with surprising sincerity. “A drink then?” A decidedly unladylike snort escaped her. “The staff here don’t seem concerned with equal representation throughout the…” she trailed off as Wes lifted a hand and beckoned the server over with a short whistle. “A refill and another mug of whatever the lady’s having?” Cheriss coughed and stuttered as she attempted to stop him. “Yes?” he asked mildly. “I… sorry,” a sudden flush suffused her cheeks most irritatingly. “Sorry. I was thinking something a little… stronger.” His eyes searched her face for a moment, and then he nodded and looked back at the server. “Two shots of Menkooro then. Doubles.” Watching him walk away, Cheriss tried to decide on an appropriate attitude to take towards the major sitting across the table from her. It took her approximately a half a standard second to settle on bitterness. “You know,” she pointed an accusing finger, “before I met you and your… your pilot buddies… I was very happy.” “No, you weren’t,” he said, “you were fighting for your life practically daily to escape the cruel servitude of working in the factories beneath Cartann, and even when you were the best duelist in the whole city- probably on the whole planet- you were unhappy because you couldn’t fly.” Well, didn’t he think that he knew everything. “Death.” His brows rose curiously, but he said nothing. “Death was… dishonorable. We did not pity the dead on Adumar. We looked on them with derision for the shame they brought on their families through… just dying…” “Cheriss?” She started and realized she’d been staring off into space. “You,” she recovered, “you and your General Antilles… all your talk about honor and sacrifice, and dying so that someone else, someone you’ve never met and never will, can live, can live in thankless, ignorant bliss because their loved ones, their homes, their planets, escape a fate they never even knew was impending…” A hand reached slowly across the table to rest lightly atop hers. “We honor our soldiers, our pilots- we remember their sacrifices and keep their memories alive on behalf of those lucky ones who never even knew about the battle fought for them.” She jerked her hand away from his and tucked it defensively under the table; Wes did not move, did not remove his hand from where it reached towards her. “Still,” she whispered, more to herself than to Wes, “death hurt less when it was a failed quest for honor; rather than an honorable quest for peace.” The server returned and set the two shots on the table. Wes slipped him a handful of credcoins, and then lifted his glass, and nodded to her to do the same. She obliged with a sigh. “To peace,” he murmured, “hope, justice, integrity… and those who give their lives for them.” She mumbled her assent, vaguely surprised at the sober tone of his toast, before his next words nearly made her spill her shot just before it reached her lips. “And to Flight Officer Quin Frisel.” One blink, and the tears she’d been pushing back and burying beneath the alcohol came flooding forward, and she wiped angrily at her eyes, angry at Wes, angry at Quin, angry at herself, angry at Commander SeToon… “I’m sorry about your wingmate, Cheriss.” This wasn’t in her calculations, her logical and orderly plans for the progression of her night if Wes Janson had the gall to recognize her and dared to approach her and talk to her. This wasn’t part of her schedule upon leaving her quarters, driven solely towards the goal of numbing the pain she’d felt and held in for the past three days. “How did you know?” He looked faintly bemused. “Your CO told me just now, of course, when I commed to ask why you might be alone and drinking yourself silly.” “And… he’s not coming to drag me back to quarters?” “Give him a little credit,” Wes reprimanded gently. “Everyone in command knows what it is to lose someone close; and they all know what it is to have a commander who looks like he doesn’t care.” She blinked unsurely. “Just remember, Cheriss,” he continued, “in the middle of any action, no matter how well or poorly it might be going, your commander is first concerned with protecting what lives he can while achieving mission objectives. It isn’t until later that he or she can afford to give those who are lost the proper thought they deserve. Just because you don’t see those emotions you’re feeling in him, doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel them, too.” She sighed lightly and looked away, at anything besides Wes Janson’s earnestly compassionate eyes- at the unfamiliar cantina on this unfamiliar planet, surrounded by unfamiliar faces of beings who neither knew nor cared about the loss of her wingmate. And suddenly, it just felt cold and lonely and unbearable. Her eyes came to rest on the still-full shot sitting in front of her. “I suppose you’ll also take this opportunity to urge me back to sober up?” “No,” he surprised her again. “But I will point out that the alcohol doesn’t actually help. The pain might be marginally numbed for a night, but if you’re anything like me, it just means that it’ll hurt that much more once you’re sober again.” He paused, considering. “Of course, that could be the hangover, too.” Despite herself, she cracked a rueful smile and reached up to grip his hand briefly but tightly. “Thanks, Wes.” He smiled sadly. “They don’t tell you this kind of stuff in the recruitment vids.” “I’ve never seen a recruitment vid.” “Well, then I guess Wedge, Hobbie, Tycho, and I ought to have done better with the job description when you asked to go into the Fleet; when you were so excited about the chance to overcome your vertigo problems. Your image of pilots on Adumar was so… glorified. It isn’t about heroics most of the time. Most of the time, it’s about long hours, little sleep, cramped cockpits, smelly flightsuits, and thankless tasks.” She flashed a half-hearted grin and lifted her shot glass again; he picked up his own and tapped it against hers. “But also,” she added solemnly, “about peace, hope, justice, and integrity.” She took a small sip but left most of the Menkooro in the glass. Wes downed his shot in one swallow, shook his head and blinked, and then stood as steadily as ever and offered his arm. “Can I escort you home?; or, in this case, to the temporary facilities commandeered by the Fleet for shore leave purposes and which your squadron will vacate in another thirty-six hours to return to the Mon Casima anyway?” “I’d be honored, Major.” “Good,” he let out an overly dramatic sigh of relief. “I promised your CO that I’d see you back safe and didn’t much fancy stunning you to get you there.” “You could have always just let me keep drinking,” she pointed out reasonably. “But no, I’ll come quietly- this way will hurt less in the morning.” And after the briefest inner debate, she leaned up and kissed his cheek lightly. “Thanks for reminding me what’s important.” They left and strolled the strange and unfamiliar streets in relative silence, and Cheriss drew her cloak more tightly about her as she suppressed a shiver. It was not a long walk back to her quarters, but the sudden need for something familiar was overbearing- the familiar training rooms which would always seem a little emptier without Quin; her familiar squadmates who could share in her fond memories of her Devaronian wingmate. So maybe she couldn’t see the future; maybe ‘ten’ and ‘eleven’ were just a little different than she’d anticipated. Ten- jokester Major Janson would display extraordinary compassion after being repeatedly told to kriff off. Eleven- everything would be okay. She didn’t yet know how or when… but for Quin Frisel, and in honor of the sacrifice he made for beings who would never know him, would never know he gave his life so that they might have a better one… she would strive for peace, hope, justice, and integrity.