When the team’s practice is over and Merlani has finished changing back into their cadet uniform, they’re somewhat startled to see the most of their new teammates waiting for them when they open the changing alcove’s curtain.
“Hey, Ocean!” Reese waves to them from the bench she’s sitting on to tie her shoes. “You ready to go?”
“I… just need to get my bag down from my locker.” Merlani is somewhat confused by the collection of eager faces around them. They look around for the stepladder, then realize that da Silva is sitting on it. They approach him with a genial twitch of their ears. “Mind if I borrow that?”
Da Silva makes a show of hopping up from the stepladder and spinning it around on one leg. “Sure, Barker—I take it you got stuck with one of the high ones too?”
Merlani laughs. “Wasn’t much to pick from.” They take the stepladder over and climb up to get their bag. “But hey, I’m used to it.”
One of the other cadets, a thin-framed young man with deep warm-brown skin and close-cropped dark hair whose accent marks him as being from one or another of the Alpha Centauri colonies, chuckles as he swings his own gym bag over his shoulder. “Hey, Toby—I couldn’t tell earlier while the two of you were in the roda. Are you still our shortest? I need to send Josie a picture if you’re not…”
Da Silva lets out a huff of mock annoyance. “Just because the rest of you are annoyingly tall, Kouassi, doesn’t mean Ihave to be obsessed with whether people are shorter than me or not.”
Merlani comes down the stepladder and sets their bag on the bench beside Reese. They tilt their head questioningly, making a motion with their third eye towards the teasing argument that’s still going on between the two young men.
Reese laughs, seeming to pick up on what they’re asking immediately. “Yeah, they’re always like this. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”
“Ah. Okay, then.” They wave their tail cheerfully and stride over to stand beside da Silva. “Are we counting my ears?”
“—And you have to admit that—wait, what?” Da Silva seems to have forgotten what started the argument already. He whips his head around to look at Merlani.
Merlani makes a vague measuring gesture with one of their upper hands. “If you want to see which of us is taller. Are you counting my ears in the measurement? I’d guess it’s a lot closer if you do.”
Kouassi laughs. “They’ve got you there, Toby—I’d say ears should count.”
“Well… we’ll see just how close it is.” Da Silva turns his back to them with a beckoning gesture. “Come on, back to back so we can get this over with.”
Merlani smiles and goes along with it, holding their tail out of the way and lining themself up with the young human so their teammates can measure them. It’s hardly what they expected to be doing this evening, but somehow they can’t help but be amused by the whole thing.
“Hey, now, Toby,” calls Reese, clearly holding back a laugh, “play fair—off with the shoes.”
“What?” Da Silva turns around and looks down at Merlani’s feet.
They wiggle all eight of their long silver-striped toes at him. Their shoes and socks are still sitting beside Reese with their bag, after all. Merlani hopes this little exercise will be over soon; they don’t mind having bare feet for practice, but they’ve started to get cold now.
“Oh. Fine, fine. Shouldn’t make much of a difference…” Da Silva rolls his eyes and kicks his shoes off in Reese’s direction, revealing a dazzlingly stripy pair of blue, white, and pink socks. “Satisfied, Vasquez?”
Reese laughs. “Yep! Carry on!” She makes a show of picking up his sneakers by the shoelaces and moving them further away from her perch on the bench.
Once the two of them are lined back up back-to-back, Kouassi spends several intentionally dramatic minutes circling them and humming as he makes the assessment. Finally, he sets one hand on da Silva’s head, then pauses and looks down to Ocean with a vague gesture of his other hand. “Are you okay with being touched, Barker?”
“On this occasion? Yes, go ahead.” Merlani smiles at him and twitches their ears softly. “But thank you for asking.”
Kouassi nods to them and gently settles his other hand on top of Merlani’s head. It’s surprisingly warm. After a moment, he raises it up to the level of the tufts of silver fur on the tips of their ears. He laughs as he withdraws his hands. “Okay, folks, we have a verdict!”
“Finally,” says the freckle-covered young woman with bright reddish, wavy hair who’s currently lounging upside-down on the bench opposite Reese. “You took long enough, Kouassi.”
“Patience, Martins,” Kouassi chides, shooting a charming smile her way.
Martins rolls her eyes at him in response. “Just get it over with so we can be done here? Lavine says they and Katz have everything ready now and they’re starting to wonder where we are.”
“Agreed,” says da Silva, turning to face Kouassi and crossing his arms over his chest. “Well?”
“Well,” says Kouassi, grinning, “if we count from the tops of heads… congratulations, Toby. You’re not the shortest anymore!”
“Woo!” Da Silva pumps his fist in the air. “Finally!” After a moment, he seems to force himself to recover his composure, although he can’t hide the grin on his face. “Wait—And if we count from their ears?”
Kouassi laughs. “Then you and Barker here are the same height.”
Merlani stifles a giggle. “I can live with that. What about you, da Silva?”
Da Silva nods, still grinning. “Officially, we’re counting from heads… but sure.”
“All right, then, you two,” calls Martins, still upside-down but now pointing her pocket-com’s camera at them. “Strike a pose so we can show Josie and then we’re out of here.”
Merlani finds themself stifling giggles the whole time they’re posing with da Silva, halfway back-to-back again but this time with both of them crossing their arms over their chests in the most dramatic fashion possible. Merlani even curls their tail around in front for good measure.
“All right,” calls Reese once the picture has been approved, tossing da Silva’s shoes at him while Merlani reclaims their own. “Let’s get out of Dodge. You have the blindfold, Martins?”
Martins pulls a black scarf out of her bag. “I hope it’s enough,” she says, handing it to Reese. “I wasn’t expecting someone with a third eye.”
“Blindfold?” Merlani looks to Reese with a hesitant curiosity.
“Don’t worry, Ocean,” she says, reassuringly. “It’s just a silly little tradition we have. Nothing unpleasant or dangerous, I promise—Colonel Albright would have our hides if it was.”
Merlani looks between her and the other three humans for a moment, then smiles and scoots over next to her on the bench. “Okay… but this had better not be anything weird.”
“Remind me again what the Florivan definition of ‘weird’ is?” Kouassi asks while Reese is carefully fitting the scarf on around Merlani’s eyes.
“I’ll know it when I… well, hear it, at the moment.” Merlani swivels one of their ears in his direction and makes a pointed swish of their tail. “But if I get a call from any of my entiles asking what’s going on, trust me when I say you’ll be the ones who have to explain it to them.”
Kouassi laughs. “Fair enough.”
“There we are,” says Reese. Merlani hears her stand up from the bench and shoulder her gym bag. “Do you mind taking my hand so I can lead you?”
“Go ahead.” Merlani reaches over to pick up their own bag, which thankfully is still next to them, then slips its carrying strap over their shoulder and stands. They hold out both of their left hands to the air in the general direction of Reese’s voice. “Which one do you want?”
Reese’s warm, very human hand wraps around their upper-left. “Let’s go with this one. Come on, Ocean, I promise you’ll like where we’re taking you.”
“Lead the way, then, Captain Reese.” Merlani finds themself laughing as they let their new friend lead them out of the changing room and down the hall. They decide not to point out that their species has an innate sense of direction far better than that of a human. It would probably take some of the fun out of this for their teammates to know that they can recognize by sound and their sense of objects in space around them which way they’re going and what buildings they’re passing.
If they’re honest, this is already the most fun they’ve had since they moved to Earth last year. It’s worth playing along with the game to get to enjoy it for just a bit longer.
Half an hour later, Merlani finds themself sitting in the innermost spot of a corner booth table with Reese on one side and Kouassi on the other at what is arguably the last place they would have expected to be brought by their new teammates: an all-night ‘breakfast themed’ eatery a few streets over from the south end of campus. As it turns out, their ‘initiation’ as the newest member of the team consisted of little more than the blindfolded walk here and hanging out with the others while they all devour waffles. According to Reese and da Silva, the weekly post-practice meal is a core tradition of the team which presumably dates back to its founding.
It’s not at all what Merlani expected when they allowed themself to be blindfolded and led from the athletic center—not that they really knew what to expect at all. Still, it’s the best initiation ritual any humans have ever come up with, as far as Merlani is concerned. It’s certainly better than what the former darter pilots in their life have told them being welcomed into a squadron was like; they’re still not sure if they would believe Aunt Penny’s story about the childish pranks she and her wing-sisters had pulled on their Uncle Julian when he first joined the Musketeers, if she hadn’t shown them the pictures.
Waffles are far preferable to waking up to find one’s uniform boots full of marshmallow fluff.
Of course, Merlani likes waffles to begin with—and they don’t regret missing the Nav/Quan social at all now. Thesehumans are more interesting, after all, and actually have something in common with them outside of their future career path. Maybe it’s because Reese was the one to introduce them to everyone, but Merlani has found themself almost immediately at ease with their new teammates in a way that’s always escaped them with the people in their own department. They’re too caught up in the conversation going on around the waffles to really think about why that is, though.
“Okay, though, seriously,” asks da Silva, gesturing to Merlani with the bit of blueberry waffle on the end of his fork, “why do you do everything with your lower arms held behind your back?”
“You’re the one who pointed out they’d be an advantage,” Merlani replies. “It’s the same with my tail. My first senseiwanted me to focus on learning how to do everything with them held out of the way so I could play fairly with humans.” They take a bite from their own pumpkin-and-cranberry waffle and then add with a cheeky smile, “I can use them for most techniques, I just don’t during spars, usually.”
“One of these days, Barker, we’re going to have a match where you’re not holding back on anyone and see what happens.” Cadet Lavine, the light-skinned, sandy-haired martian who had introduced themself with neutral pronouns, grins at Merlani. “It’s a pity you’re not on the Tàijíquán side of things with me and Martins—I’d bet you’d be fun to push hands with.”
Merlani stifles a giggle. “Well, I’m not nearly as proficient there… I can go through the forty-two form set pretty well now, but I’ve never done any of the competition style things.”
Martins shares a look with Lavine, who’s sitting next to her, and takes on their grin. “So… you’re going to be our practice buddy now so we can have a few more eyes on our forms? That’s what I’m hearing. Ooh! How do you feel about swords?”
“I…” Merlani hesitates, then finds themself smiling. “I’m pushing the limits of my nature as it is. I don’t know if I could handle weapons.”
“My competition jian isn’t particularly dangerous… but I guess that makes sense.” Martins makes an exaggerated teasing pouty face that reminds Merlani all too much of their sibling Miradyn. “Oh, well, it was worth a shot.”
Lavine laughs, nudging Martins teasingly. “You get to stay our token pointy thing person, I guess.” They look back to Merlani with a curious tilt of their head. “How would you feel about a folding fan, Barker? The ones we use for tieshanforms aren’t the historic weapon sort they represent, and they make the best sound when you flip them open.”
“You’ll have to show me what that looks like first.” Merlani takes a sip from their tea, twitching one of their ears to signal their amusement.
“Good grief, you two,” says da Silva, pouring more coffee into his mug. “They’ve only been on the team for what… three hours? At least give them a couple of weeks to settle in before you go recruiting them for an extra discipline.”
“You mean we should give you a chance for a rematch first, oh illustrious team co-captain?” Martins teases, playfully twirling a lock of her hair around one finger.
“Give me a break, Martins—hasn’t my pride suffered enough today?” Da Silva rolls his eyes dramatically, taking on a mournful tone to match. “You never gave Josie a hard time…”
“Josie is Josie.” Martins leans on her elbows on the table and lets out a dreamy sigh that may or may not be more of her teasing. “You’re you.”
Da Silva stares at her for a moment or two, then chuckles. “Fair enough.”
“So, Barker,” says Kouassi, midway through claiming another waffle from the sharing platter in the center of the table and arranging bits of cut fruit on top of it. “While there’s a chance, I’m just going to go ahead and change the subject before those two go getting all syrupy again—no pun intended.”
“What are you changing the subject to?” Merlani’s tail swishes curiously under the table.
“You, if you don’t mind—specifically, whether you’re ever going to explain to us how you have a human name. Are we allowed to ask about that?”
“Oh, certainly. And don’t feel bad, that’s been confusing people since I was a kitten.” Merlani can’t help but laugh. That little personal detail of theirs has been driving all of their new teammates to distraction ever since the mix-up with the roster, apparently.
“More importantly,” says Reese, pouring what must be her third helping of coffee out of the carafe in the middle of the table, “while we’re on the subject, even if we don’t get your origin story tonight, Ocean… you really need to tell us what you actually want us to call you so no one gets confused again or forgets outright.”
“You mean so you don’t forget, Vasquez?” da Silva grins at her broadly.
“Toby. I told you before, they didn’t tell me their full name when we met. And I did remember the part I knew, so unless you happen to want coffee in your lap…” It’s impossible to tell even with the wry smile Reese is wearing whether she’s serious about that threat or not.
Da Silva makes an acquiescent gesture with both hands. “Fair, fair, I’ll stop. For now.”
Merlani, for their part, is reminded quite strongly of conversations they’ve overheard between the senior Nav/Quan cadets. They’re not close to any of the upperclassmen, really, but they’ve observed a lot of the same sort of camaraderie there. They have to wonder just how long Reese and da Silva have been friends to be so close.
“Ocean is fine,” Merlani says before any more arguing or questions can redirect the conversation. “That’s my public name, same as any other Florivan has—but if you want to use my surname like you use each other’s, I don’t mind. It’s kind of nice, actually, that it’s getting used for a change.”
Da Silva groans dramatically. “See, Vasquez? There’s your answer: both. Take your pick, we all know who we’re talking about by now.”
“And do we get to know why you’re listed in the registers with a human name, or is confusing hapless fools like Toby here during roll calls part of the game?” Martins pushes one of her reddish locks back behind her ear and looks at them curiously over the edge of her coffee cup.
Merlani takes a sip of their honeyed green tea. They’ve determined that they must have made a decent impression on these folks during the practice matches with Reese and da Silva—a close draw and a genial concession, respectively, but apparently enough of a show of skill and determination to win them the right to this so-called initiation by waffle. Likewise, this little set of humans has made a decent impression on Merlani. None of their classmates in the Nav/Quan department have ever shown much curiosity about their surname—it’s barely acknowledged at all, though, since their instructors are family and everyone else there knows how Florivan names work anyway.
“You know,” Merlani says, “the confusion is really more of a problem with the registry databases than it is with me. The system’s set up to take our names the normal way, but since my littermates and I have a surname too, the computers assume that’s supposed to be prioritized human-style. From what Sky and Storm told me, it was every bit as much of a mess out at AC-NW when they did their registrations—more, actually, because the two of them have the same initials and everyone gets them mixed up.”
“You are very gracefully dancing around the question, Barker,” says the final member of the team, a young man with lightly tanned skin and a short, tapered mass of loose dark curls under the small domed grey cap that covers the back of his head. This is the first thing Merlani has heard Cadet Katz say since he first provided his name. They aren’t sure yet whether he’s genuinely quiet-natured, or just can’t get a word in edgewise against the others.
Merlani dips their head slightly to Katz in acknowledgment. “Forgive me. The Elder I apprenticed under is notorious for being cryptic… I suppose a bit of that must have rubbed off.”
“So, does that mean you’re going to tell us?” asks Lavine again, liberally coating their second waffle in a layer of syrup.
“It’s not really that interesting,” Merlani admits. “My parent died when we were kittens. Their Navigator legally adopted and raised us, that’s all.”
A chorus of intrigued and sympathetic ‘oh’ sounds and similar gestures of satisfied curiosity circles the table.
“It could actually be worse,” Merlani adds with a chuckle. “If Dad had gone with the hyphenated name after he married our mother, the full thing would be ‘Ocean Merlani Barker-Hämäläinen’—and I’m pretty sure that would have broken the registry database altogether trying to sort me out.”
“Forget the registry database,” da Silva quips, “that whole mouthful would have broken Vasquez and me both today.”
Reese calmly sets one of the sugar cubes she’s been dropping into her coffee onto one end of her spoon. In a smooth, well-practiced motion, she leans around Merlani and flips the other end of the spoon, launching the sugar cube across the table so that it lightly strikes da Silva squarely on the temple.
“Hey!” da Silva rubs at the spot where the sugar cube hit him. “What was that for?”
“You were being cheeky about her thing with names again,” Lavine supplies.
“I said it would have gotten me too, though,” da Silva protests. “It’s memorable, for sure, but if I was reading it, I probably couldn’t pronounce that last bit at all without having heard it first.”
Reese shrugs and takes a swig of her coffee. “Sugar cube retracted, then. But I’m sure you’ll deserve it again later.”
“Probably,” da Silva agrees with a chuckle. “Teasing you is too much fun to resist, Docinho.” He tosses the sugar cube back to Reese, landing it with a neat little splash into her coffee just as she’s setting the cup down.
“You two keep throwing food,” Martins comments, doing her best impression of Aunt Penny’s ‘serious instructor tone’ through a stifled giggle, “and I’m going to ping Josie regardless of what time it is on the Mirzakhani and tattle on you.”
“Noooo,” Reese says, half laughing, “we’re the co-captains now! Josie doesn’t get to lecture us for acting like children anymore.”
“Just don’t start anything that gets us kicked out, okay?” Kouassi shakes his head, doing his best to stifle any potential laughter in his voice. “I like this place.”
“Who, us?” da Silva attempts to make an innocent face. “But we haven’t gotten kicked out of anywhere in months.”
“Yes,” says Katz, solemnly, “and my mother still reminds me that I’m not allowed to bring any of you home for dinner the next time we have a match up at Luna 3.”
“Don’t worry, Simon,” says da Silva. “I’m sure she’ll forgive us eventually…”
“Toby, you got all of my nephews into a noodle-flinging match in public. She’s never going to forget that.”
“What can I say?” Da Silva grins, making an imperious gesture with the bite of waffle he’s just speared onto his fork. “The noodles had it coming!”
Merlani looks between the two of them, and then turns their third eye to Reese with a curious twitch of their ears.
Reese giggles softly. “Yes,” she says, leaning over to stage-whisper to them, “we’re always like this. Great, isn’t it?”
Merlani thinks about it for a moment, then smiles, nods, and returns their attention to cutting squares off of their own waffle and listening to the animated conversation going on around them. They couldn’t be more pleased to have been accepted by this collection of humans—even if the lot of them could rival any group of Navigators they’ve ever met for delightful oddness.