Updated: Nov 11
On the final day of their first week of classes, Merlani finds themself holding back an awkward sort of frustration as they attempt to get to their locker in the Nav/Quan department’s central room.
The frustration isn’t due to the round of jump simulations they just got out of—that went well enough, particularly because it was just the “test all the new Nav Cadets over the Quantum Space intercom channels to check who can actually hear them before we assign training partner rotations” exercise that their instructors run at the beginning of each school year. There’s no point having one of the Florivan cadets paired with a human whose voice can’t reach them in the Strange, after all.
Just like last year, Merlani was able to hear all four of the humans who’ve been brought into the program as potential Navigators. They’d even been able to pick up one cadet’s voice when none of the other three un-partnered Florivans could. Granted, Kingfisher and their littermates Jay and Bunting are new arrivals to the program, younger by almost six years, and don’t have nearly as much practical experience working with different Navigators as Merlani themself does.
The fact that Merlani had been the only Florivan in the entire department aside from their Entile Wyndi who could hear Cadet Lewis is, ultimately, the source of their current frustration. The young man in question is a tall, blond-ish variety of pale human with a somewhat scraggly goatee who happens to be standing between Merlani and their locker, attempting to carry on a conversation with them that they aren’t particularly interested in having in the first place. It’s not that they dislike him, really, just that they have places to be and he’s been talking at them ever since they came out of the simulation chamber.
“So, anyway, Ocean,” he says, coming to the end of a long ramble about how happy he is not to have washed out of the program on his first day and how surprising it is that even the already-partnered Florivan cadets couldn’t hear him, since he’s so highly qualified for Nav. “It does look like we’ll get to work together, doesn’t it?” The eager grin on his face strikes Merlani as particularly grating, for some reason.
“That’s up to the Commanders,” Merlani replies. Their tail swishes with some of the frustration, although they do their best to keep their expression neutral. “They won’t post the first rotation roster for a week or two, though.”
“Still!” Cadet Lewis laughs, leaning against the lockers—and annoyingly, although they’re sure he doesn’t realize it, directly on the door of Merlani’s. “You seem neat, and you could hear me—so I like to think we’d be a great pair.”
There are a lot of things Merlani considers saying in response to this, not least of which is that it takes far more than simply being able to hear a human through the veil to make the sort of a connection a Florivan has with their counterpart work. They settle for a neutral statement paired with a flick of their ears. “Well… We’ll see how things turn out.”
Cadet Lewis seems to take this as encouragement rather than the polite dismissal they intend it as. “Great! Say, you’re coming to the welcome dinner at the Commanders’ house tonight, right? Maybe we can sit together…”
Merlani is only half-listening now; a familiar set of clicking-boot footsteps from down the hallway has caught their attention. They turn their third eye in that direction and are incredibly relieved to see that it is, in fact, someone capable of extracting them from the awkward situation they’ve found themself in. The tall, highly muscular older woman approaching from the direction of Commander Potts’ office has her tightly wound white curls pulled back into two poofyponytails at the base of her neck. Her complexion is even paler than that of the annoying young man standing in front of Merlani—the result of the same albinism which has her wearing specially modified wraparound glasses with tinted lenses to shield her eyes from bright lights and help them see correctly. She’s dressed in a Tactical Piloting instructor’s uniform, although paired with a vintage Defense Fleet Darter pilot’s jacket rather than an Academy-issue one. As with all such jackets, the short ivory garment features her surname embroidered both over the breast pocket under her pilot’s wings pin and over her squadron’s signature crossed swords and fleur-de-lis design on the back.
Merlani waves subtly to her with one of their lower hands. They couldn’t ask for someone better to show up.
“Ah! There you are, Little Ocean!” their rescuer’s crisp martian-accented voice calls to them, “Sarge told me you’d probably still be back here. You ready to go?”
“Yes, Ma’am!” Merlani turns and salutes her. “I’ll be ready as soon as I get my things out of my locker, Colonel Albright.” They make a point of sounding as formal and respectful as possible, even though this woman is, in truth, a member of their extended family. Merlani knows she likes it better when they call her ‘Aunt Penny,’ but they don’t particularly want Cadet Lewis to know who their family members are.
“Good! Go on and get it, then, we don’t want to be late. And who’s this young man?” Aunt Penny tilts her head curiously.
“Ah! Astral Navigation Cadet Bennington Lewis, Ma’am.” He nearly comes out of his skin as he scrambles to come to attention and salute as well.
Conveniently, this means he’s no longer leaning against Merlani’s locker. They take the opportunity to slide the door open and retrieve their gym bag.
“Nice to meet you, cadet.” Aunt Penny smiles cheerfully. “You’re a first-year?”
“Second-year, Ma’am.” Out of the corner of one of their lower eyes, Merlani spots a timid blush spreading across Cadet Lewis’ face. “But I just transferred into Nav from Command—I read about you and the other darter development test pilots for a group project last year, actually! It’s an honor to really get to meet one of Admiral Marvin’s Musketeers in person…”
“Well, young man, you must not have paid attention since you transferred.” Aunt Penny shakes her head with a chuckle, still using her brightest and most charming teasing tone. “Try asking that Commander of yours what unit he got his wings with sometime.”
“Ma’am?” Cadet Lewis sounds utterly confused.
“Oh, trust me, cadet, Sarge has stories… and if you ever get him started telling them, you may not be able to get him to stop.” She laughs again. “Well, at any rate, I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, but we have somewhere to be. Ocean?”
Merlani latches their locker door and scampers to catch up with their aunt, who’s already striding towards the exit. “Coming, Colonel!”
Once the two of them are well away from Cadet Lewis’ line of sight, Aunt Penny chuckles and sets an arm around Merlani’s shoulders. “Well, now, he’s a high-strung one, isn’t he?”
“Thanks for the rescue, Aunt Penny.” Merlani smiles up at her, then lets out the sigh of frustration they’ve been holding in. “We just met this morning and I’ve already known him too long.”
“Oof, I know the type.” She gives them a little pat on the shoulder. “Let’s hope he mellows out sooner rather than later, then.”
Merlani nods, although they’re not sure from their first impression that Cadet Lewis is capable of mellowing out.
“Anyway!” Aunt Penny grins down to them. “Your teammates are waiting for us. I think you’ll like them.”
“I hope they like me,” Merlani says softly. Their tail swishes behind them with a mild apprehension.
“I know they will, kiddo. Half of them are from my department, and they’re pretty decent pilots, too—and we both know how well you get on with pilots!” She chuckles again, then shakes her head. “I still wish I could get your Dad to come out on an instructor exchange and show some of my seniors a thing or two, though. They’re getting too used to flying with me.”
Merlani stifles a giggle themself. “Well, maybe after Sky and Storm graduate? I think he’s pretty set on staying at AC-NWas long as they’re both there.”
“I don’t blame him one bit.” Aunt Penny gives Merlani’s shoulder another affectionate pat. “Glad you’re here with us, though, Little Ocean—especially because you’re just what I needed to shake my team up.”
“Well…” Merlani hesitates, then grins up at their aunt. “It’ll surprise them, at least.”
“That’s the fun part!”
When Merlani and their aunt reach the campus Athletic Center, she guides them into a small locker room just off of her Martial Arts Competition and Demonstration team’s designated training space. She pops open one of the lockers to retrieve her own workout clothes and then gestures to the handful of empty, open lockers nearby. “Go ahead and claim whichever one you like, Little Ocean.” She pauses, her darter pilot’s jacket now slung loosely over her shoulder, and looks between Merlani and the selection of unclaimed lockers, all of which are a foot or more above their head. “Ah. Stepladder’s in the corner there. Remind me and I’ll see if one of our folks on the lower row will switch with you.”
“It’s fine, Aunt Penny.” Merlani sets their bag down and goes to retrieve the stepladder. “I don’t mind. I’m just glad there is one of these here. It must be the only one in the building.” They aren’t particularly in the mood to have to scale a wall of lockers just to put their bag away this evening—it’s bad enough that they have to do that when they use the rest of the athletic center’s facilities because the only locker available to claim when they enrolled was on the very top row.
“Well, perks of being one of my kiddos, Little Ocean,” she calls, slipping into one of the curtained changing alcoves, “you have access to this room now. It may be small, but it’s ours. Just don’t let my stepladder wander off, okay?”
“I won’t.” Merlani smiles, sitting down on the bench in front of the lockers to remove their shoes. “Thanks, Aunt Penny. For letting me do this, I mean.”
“Hey, now, I know how hard you’ve worked to get here.” She pops her head out from behind her curtain to fix them with an affectionate but pointed look. “Don’t go thinking this is me making good on one of the favors I owed your Nida or anything—I’d have asked you to join the team even if we weren’t family.”
“Good.” Aunt Penny nods and disappears back behind her curtain.
While Merlani is sorting out their own clothes, their keen catlike ears pick up the conversation that’s going on in the training area. They hear two voices, not quite arguing but somewhat teasingly exasperated. To Merlani’s surprise, one of the voices is unmistakably that of their recently-acquired friend, Teresa.
“All right, that’s everyone accounted for?” asks a masculine voice Merlani doesn’t know.
“I think so,” says Reese, “except for the Colonel.”
“Wait, no, someone’s missing… let me see… Barker? Is Cadet Barker here yet?”
“Do we even have a Barker?”
“We should, there’s one here on the roster. Must be the new cadet the Colonel said she was bringing in as Josie’s replacement.”
“Let me see that… huh. Barker, O. M.; ‘they’—Freshman, you think? I don’t recognize their name…”
“Vasquez, you’d forget your own name if it wasn’t attached to you.”
“Don’t start that with me again, Toby.” Reese laughs, but with a promise in her tone. “I can and will make you regret it, mister.”
Merlani shakes their head, giggling softly at the ongoing joke the Academy rosters have been making at their expense all week. Somehow, it’s actually funny this time. “Aunt Penny, from the sound of it, I think your team might start sparring without you…”
Aunt Penny emerges from her changing alcove wearing her loose-fitting green workout gear and stuffs her uniform into her own locker, keeping her signature jacket slung loosely over her shoulder. “Oh, they do that sometimes. Don’t worry about it, I promise they don’t ever actually try to hurt each other.” She chuckles. “Take your time getting changed, Little Ocean, I’ll introduce you properly once I’m done straightening the others out.”
As they hear her footsteps and the swinging of the door to the other room, Merlani catches the continued conversation between Reese and the teammate with whom she’s been debating the roster.
“Fine, fine,” says the voice Reese had addressed as ‘Toby’. “Either way, the Colonel is going to have a fit when she gets here if our new cadet is still missing.”
“She won’t have the fit at us,” Reese points out. “She’ll have it at this Baker person when they show up late to the first practice of the term.”
“There you go again. It’s Barker, Vasquez, we’re missing Barker.”
Aunt Penny’s brightly martian-accented voice cuts into the conversation. “Are the two of you done with your little argument so we can get down to business?”
“Colonel Albright, Ma’am! We were just taking the roll call—”
“—Heard all of it. Don’t worry, da Silva, I brought our new recruit with me.”
“…Where, ma’am?” Reese asks.
“I left them in the other room so they could finish changing. Now, is everyone else here?”
“Yes, ma’am,” says da Silva. He sounds embarrassed, somehow.
“Stellar! That means I don’t have to hunt anyone down this evening.” The distinctive sound of Aunt Penny cracking her knuckles punctuates her words. “Good to see some of you finally learned how to get here on time.”
In the locker room, Merlani is almost done tying their narrow black cloth belt on over the modified white judogi top that matches the loose trousers they’re wearing. The belt sits comfortably just below their lower set of arms. They stretch their limbs out experimentally for a few moments to make sure they have everything fastened correctly.
Somehow, despite their aunt’s reassuring words, Merlani just knows this is going to keep being one of those days where things don’t go quite right for them. They should be excited, of course, and to a certain extent they are—and honored that Aunt Penny wants them on her team, too—but at the moment they’re mostly just nervous.
They’re aware, though, that their nerves are probably less to do with the prospect of meeting the team and more to do with the fact that so far today, every interaction they’ve had with a new human has been nothing but awkward. Especially with that Cadet Lewis—he was just uncomfortably excited and over-eager about the whole thing from the moment their instructors called his name on the roster.
Merlani doesn’t know who their instructors will end up pairing them with first out of this year’s batch of Navigator prospects, but they’re not sure it’ll matter in the end. None of the bright young humans they ran sims with today particularly drew their attention, just like last year. It’s not that the new Nav cadets aren’t nice people or qualified for the role—thy wouldn’t have been let into the program if they hadn’t performed well in the trials. It’s just that for one reason or another, Merlani can’t see themself partnered with any one of the new Nav cadets any longer than they have to be.
Everyone else in Nav/Quan is off right now getting to know all of the new cadets, human and Florivan alike, at the usual welcome-to-the-department social dinner Entile Wyndi and Uncle Julian are holding at their house. Merlani, though, is here, about to meet Aunt Penny’s best students for the first time. They haven’t decided yet if they’re disappointed about missing the social—they’re waiting to see how this goes. They may still have time after the practice to make an appearance, in any case.
“Now,” Merlani hears their aunt say as they put their uniform, shoes, and bag away in their newly-claimed locker, “since your co-captains have confirmed that everyone is here… Time for my traditional beginning-of-the-term motivational speech! Let’s see who remembers all of it.”
There’s a pause, punctuated with a few muffled groans and chuckles.
“All right, quiet down…” Aunt Penny stifles a laugh herself. “Welcome back, kiddos! You’d better have been keeping up with your practices during the summer break. If you think I’m going to let you slack off when we have our first regional tournament coming up next month, you have another think coming. Especially you seniors! You’re getting ready to graduate this year, so that slacking off rule goes double for you three. You know the drill; you don’t keep on top of your coursework, I drop you like a supernova.”
As Merlani enters the practice room, they see their aunt is now standing in front of the mirrored far wall. The six members of the team are gathered around her, most of them sitting either cross-legged or on folded knees and all of them wearing either their general athletic gear or the traditional garb associated with their discipline.
“Now, I know you’re all probably missing your previous team captain, our dear recently-graduated Midshipman Wells… but I have every reason to believe that Vasquez and da Silva here will be able to keep you all in line in her place.” Aunt Penny gestures to Reese and the cadet sitting next to her, then chuckles. “Assuming I continue to keep the two of them in line, that is.”
Reese is off to one side of the group, wearing a white judogi tied with a black belt. Her hair is tied up in a neat folded bun instead of the ponytail she’d had it in when Merlani met her. The young man beside her, presumably da Silva, is wearing loose athletic trousers and red tank top. The armholes of his shirt are wide enough to show the edges of the geometric tattoos that flow across his chest from his upper arms. He’s clearly much shorter than Reese even though the two of them are sitting, with a similar medium-tan complexion to her and a close faded style cut into his dark brown hair.
“And as far as making up our numbers goes, I think you’ll find our newest addition to the team has a lot to offer.” Aunt Penny waves to Merlani now and gestures for them to come forward. “Come up and say hello to your new teammates, kiddo.”
Merlani hesitates, but only briefly, and then walks around the other cadets to stand next to their aunt.
“You can’t be serious, Colonel.” The young man sitting beside Reese looks incredibly confused now, if not outright shocked.
“What makes you say that, da Silva?” Aunt Penny tilts her head curiously.
“You had a Cadet Barker down on the roster.”
“I did, yes. And here they are!” She chuckles and sets one of her warm pale hands on Merlani’s shoulder. “Although I believe you use the Florivan name convention?”
“I don’t really have a preference, ma’am,” Merlani says. Their tail swishes with amusement.
“All right, then.” She gives their shoulder a subtle but reassuring squeeze before releasing it and gesturing to the group of young humans sitting in front of her. “Cadet Barker; this is the rest of the team. Your co-captains here will introduce you to the others properly after practice. As for the rest of you: This is your new teammate. They’re going to be filling Josie’s spot for our Judo set and serving as an alternate for Capoeira.”
“They’re what, da Silva?” Aunt Penny arches one of her white eyebrows pointedly at him.
Da Silva flushes and then shrugs and crosses his arms. “Well… there’s no way they’re competition grade—even with the advantage from the extra arms and tail.”
Reese nudges the young man with her elbow, stifling a laugh. “Settle down, Toby, you’re making a fool of yourself again.”
“I agree, Vasquez.” Aunt Penny turns to Merlani again. “You up for giving him a demonstration, Little Ocean?”
“Which discipline, Colonel Albright?” Merlani does their best to stand at attention throughout this exchange, trying not to show any irritation in their face or posture. They’re used to being underestimated, but it still stings.
Their aunt looks back to the rest of the cadets, then grins broadly and cracks her knuckles. “Both, I think. After warm-ups, we’ll run a few rounds with the different disciplines and see where everyone is since I last saw them. You can be daSilva’s playmate in the roda, of course… and since our other co-captain has already seen you in action, perhaps she’ll be up for volunteering to be your partner in shiai?”
“Of course, Colonel.” Reese makes eye contact with Merlani and winks. “I’m looking forward to that already.”
Merlani relaxes and gives her a small nod in return. Reese probably has no idea how much of a relief her presence is to them, especially with the way the rest of their day has gone.
“There we go!” Aunt Penny claps her hands together sharply. “Okay, folks, let’s get to it!”