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"Done?" Alysha laughed. "But Terrell, I can still see a few slices of your uniform under there."

The Tam-illee grumbled. "This is no way to treat an admiral, lady."

"You just became an admiral this week," Alysha said, pale eyes a-twinkle. "Besides, no one takes the people in Logistics seriously."

"Just wait until a convenient coffee shortage strikes when a certain UAV Stardancer is up for re-supply...."

Alysha laughed again and guided the man through the holiday traffic in the Heliocentrus Galleria. They had worked their way down to the second floor, though that had taken the better part of the day, two of several thousand people who had also decided to do their gift-buying at the largest mall in the Alliance's summer capital on Selnor. They were only differentiated from the stream of people by the austere black and dark cobalt-blue of their uniforms... and those mostly obscured by the font of packages they shared the carriage of, Terrell's frequent protestations notwithstanding.

"Can we at least eat something?" Terrell asked, his eyes drifting again toward the pretzels.

"Oh, fine," Alysha said at last, tail curling in amusement. "Go! I'll stand by the rail while you indulge."

Terrell sniffed. "Fine way to address a superior. Do you want anything, oh insubordinate one?"

"Maybe a drink."

Like a dog shedding, Terrell shook off the boxes and bags, leaving them at the woman's feet. "Done. I'll be back."

Alysha shook her head and watched him go, a smile tugging at her full lips. She turned and rested her elbows against the railing, a slim felid figure with dark hair and fur the color of rain. The festive bags at her feet glittered in stark contrast to her somber uniform, but the two seemed to belong together.

The Galleria shone in gold and silver, glass shimmering and ornaments and brass stars hanging from every rail to celebrate the Order of the Universe, the Alliance's major end-of-the-year holiday. But the Order of the Universe often coincided with other holidays celebrated by the multiplicity of species and cultures in the Alliance; the end of the calendar year was crowded with them. Rising up to the third floor and partially obscuring Alysha's view was a vast evergreen gaily decorated in stars, glass snowflakes and silver icicles, garlands of merry crimson and ivory balls and strands of fragrant nuts. Whether this tree had been intended for Christmas, as the angel on the tree's pinnacle suggested, or Yule, as some of the decorations intimated, Alysha could not decide. But the spirit of the holidays, the laughter, the bright colors and the noise lifted her mood. This joy and fierce beauty, this peace was the object of her protections as a Fleet captain. To take part in it was a privilege.

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