"Oh, do pay the man, and let's go," Elicia snaps at her travelling companion, Merenath D'Guiss—or Mer for short. At the moment Mer's not paying her much attention; she's too busy squealing over a pair of lavender-gold earrings, and completely ignoring the poor merchant who has been trying to close his stall for the past half-hour. Now the man just flaps a resigned hand at Elicia, apparently having given up.

It is late in the evening on Emerca, the vacation planet that Elicia's been on ever since her husband divorced her three months ago. After the long days in court, arguing over the division of assets—she'd mostly gotten her way, due to the judge having no sympathy for a man who cheated on his wife—Elicia wanted nothing more than a break from life.

Such diversions are exactly what Emerca advertises. A few centuries ago, it was a backwater little plane, it's planar measurement—only half a millimetre—too small to garner it any trade. Now it is a thriving vacation resort, with restricted entrance to ensure that its allure is not undone by hordes of camera-wielding tourists. It costs a hell of a lot to get a meldwalk here, but it's worth it, in Elicia's opinion…most of the time.

Emerca is an adventure. One can walk into replicas of a hundred cultures and civilizations, complete with staff hired based on their native backgrounds, to ensure they look their part. The further one goes from the sole Planesmeld Terrace, the 'older' such civilizations get; the city around the core is the epitome of modern technology.

It is also where Elicia met Mer. Such a meeting had not been foreseen in Elicia's travel plans. In fact, she'd been working on a martini and dozing in the morning sun outside a small café when out of nowhere the other woman had simply plunked herself down and started up a conversation. On any other world, Elicia would have been alarmed—but this was Emerca, after all, and it is well-known that many of its visitors and permanent inhabitants take life and privacy far less seriously than in the larger plane worlds. After the conversation, Mer had invited her along on a sight-seeing trip around the edges of Emerca's 'capital', and since then they've been traveling together. If nothing else, Mer certainly provides a distraction from some of Elicia's more maudlin thoughts; the other woman is perpetually cheerful.

At times, this cheerfulness gets quite annoying—like now. Rolling her eyes at her friend's antics, Elicia takes out her wallet, carefully counts out some cash, and shoves the money into the grateful merchant's hands. Then she grabs Mer by the arm, and forcibly drags her away from the small kiosk.

"Oi," protests Mer, pulling her arm away and straightening her clothes primly. "What was that for?" Her strange, almost countrified accent is thick in her voice now; it always is whenever she is irritated, or trying to irritate someone else.

"You were driving the poor fellow mad, Mer," Elicia says in exasperation. "He probably has a wife and kids to get home to, you know. You owe me twenty dacrats for those, too."

"But you have to admit they look lovely, El," her friend chuckles. "I was just trying to think of an occasion when I'd get to wear them. They'll probably sit on my dresser looking lovely there, I'm afraid—it's not like there's many over-the-top balls in this area. It's too rustic here."

"I'm sure we'll run into a culture where they fancy dressing up, sometime," Elicia says, feeling a bit more good-natured now that they're at last getting away from the jewellery merchant. They've been shopping all day; she's ready for a break, some food, and perhaps a martini or two. Merenath always turns up her nose at alcohol—it's the one enjoyable pastime on Emerca that she's not willing to try—but most of the bars are also high-class restaurants, so they never have many problems agreeing on where to eat.

"It makes me sad," Elicia declares later that night, while working on her fifth martini. Mer's made no move to stop the drinking yet—the martini's here are smaller than normal—but Elicia's long passed feeling buzzed. "I mean, this place—it's so god-blessed wonderful—and then everything ends." Elicia's quite proud of the fact that she's always been able to talk fairly well while drunk; she might have a few problems putting words in the proper order, but they always come out without slurring.

"Yeah," sighs Mer, who is nursing an iced, decaffeinated coffee—which makes it not really a coffee at all, as Elicia has already commented several times. "I know what you mean. But then you can always just take another vacation."

"Have to go back to work, first," mutters Elicia. "And—then it's not the same. The…" she waves an arm vaguely, searching for a word, "The…atmosphere. It's always better the first time round. It never holds that same mystery the second time."

"You never appreciate it as much the first time, though," says Mer, looking more pensive by the minute. "The first time around you can't really grasp the significance of it all."

Elicia chuckles, and hiccups a bit. "Nonsense. That's what the…the, um…guidebooks! That's what the guidebooks are there for, to make you get the significance. And…anyway, I'll never be able to afford this again," she blurts.

Mer looks at her gently, understanding written in her eyes; understanding that Elicia would never make such an admittance if she weren't drunk, and that it isn't a plea for money or aid, but rather a regret, voiced aloud; she is wasting everything she has on this one opportunity, but she's not sure she's enjoying it—it is a retreat, but it is so expensive that she should not have spent it on a recovery from a divorce. The lack of judgement in Mer's expression is enough to make Elicia flush, even drunk.

"I think you ought to go to bed, El, if you're getting this maudlin," Mer says lightly, signalling for a waiter. "Come on, now."

She helps Elicia up, prying the martini glass from her grasping fingers, and then gives her over into the care of the understanding waitress who arrives. The inhabitants of Emerca are very good at being understanding; it is one of the qualities that make it such a wonderful vacation spots. Just as they are lax in their views of privacy, so too do they avoid judgements. What happens on Emerca, stays on Emerca—and even there it is usually not mentioned unless as a light-hearted joke.

Mer watches the waitress support her friend, leading her away. Then she walks over to the bar and orders a beer.


The next day, Elicia is very hung-over, and ends up wondering what she said to make Mer look at her so calculatingly over breakfast. Or perhaps it's just that she is very, very hung-over; the morning-after tablets that all of the restaurants on Emerca carry do absolutely nothing for her headache this time.

Tired of her grouchiness, Mer finally hands her two small blue pills, and soon after the headache is completely gone. This, of course, makes Elicia wonder what the hell was in the pills—there are banned substances, even on Emerca, and some of them are well-known 'pick-me-ups'—but she's too grateful for the relief to question her friend.

"I don't know why you do it, El," Mer sniffs as Elicia downs the unknown hang-over remedy. "Honestly. You never seem to feel any better after drinking, and you always have to take these stupid remedies the day after."

"I don't have to be logical," retorts Elicia. "That's the—oh, hello." She's staring over Mer's shoulder at a man who has just entered the restaurant, and is heading toward their table with a friendly smile on his face. "Well, will you look at that," she croons quietly, as Mer twists around for a better look.

The man is drop-dead gorgeous. Most of the people on Emerca are good-looking—either they were born that way, or can afford enhancements—but this fellow far surpasses the mean. Wavy locks of blond hair tumble down to his well-chiselled shoulders, and he moves with a panther-like grace that screams of seduction. Elicia is so busy taking in his features that she almost misses Mer's delighted greeting.

"Jasp! When did you get here?"

"Just last night," is the reply—Elicia nearly melts as she hears his voice, a charming and smooth baritone—as the man hooks a chair from a free table and sits down in it—'sprawling' would be a more accurate term. The lazy posture shows off his chest and well-toned thighs, and Elicia finds herself talking—and is amazed that she's not giggling like a school-girl.

"Mer, do introduce us," she says, somehow managing to sound friendly without sounding overly eager. The man's eyes flick to her—I've never seen a deeper blue, Elicia thinks dizzily—and he smiles. The sight is breathtaking.

Merenath starts as though she'd forgotten Elicia, but then recovers smoothly. "Oh, sorry! El, this is Jasper Derek, a—colleague of mine back home. Jasp, this is Elicia Revanan. But, come now, Jasp, I didn't know you were on vacation."

The smile turns into a mischievous grin, now directed at Merenath, and Elicia feels an irrational surge of jealousy—one that completely prevents her from noticing Mer's verbal stumble.

"I'm not, of course," Jasper drawls in that melodious voice. "Sebren wanted me to scan the real estate here—the higher-ups are interested in buying out Emerca. They asked me to come and get a feel for the place—and then when I arrived in this area this morning, I happened to look over the visitor registrar and thought I'd drop by."

"Really?" Mer says, looking surprised. "Emerca—that's a—a rather large purchase…even if it would be worth every penny," she adds with a wicked smirk.

"Buying Emerca?" Elicia is hard pressed to keep the disbelief from her voice. "Mer, you never told me that you worked for one of the corps—come, you must tell me," she adds, trying to make it sound as an afterthought, "where do you work? You've always been so vague. I must know who might be buying this darling little world." More importantly, she thinks, where does he work?

"Oh, it's one of the outer-planar prospecting companies," Mer says dismissively. "You know how they are—poor one day, overflowing in riches the next. We've had a good run so far. But, Jasp, this is Emerca," she says in a lecturing tone. "Really, if you're going to be evaluating Emerca, you have to get into the right mood. Do have breakfast with us, won't you?"

Jasper pulls his chair in closer to the table, unfolding from his sprawl and sitting up a bit straighter. "I was hoping you would invite me to join you," he smiles, and Elicia feels all gooey again—then more so when he looks over at her and asks, "Care to give me a recommendation on the drinks? Merenath is such a prude about off-world alcohol. She's probably told you she doesn't imbibe, but that's completely untrue; she's just very snobbish about it."

"I knew she had to be faking it," Elicia lies with what she feels is admirable aplomb, given that Jasper's gorgeous gaze is now fixed on her alone. "You really ought to try the martinis here—they're the best mix I've tasted yet on Emerca, and that is saying something."

"Drinking off-world gives me a headache," sniffs Merenath, looking rather chagrined, but she waves down a waiter anyway. They place their orders—Mer and Elicia hadn't gotten to the entrée yet, and Jasper declines a starter—and settle back into amiable conversation. By the time they're finished the meal, Jasper's been invited to come along with them as they continue sight-seeing.

Elicia is more concerned with working up her courage to ask him on a date.