How Ocean Merlani Stole their Navigator | Part 1: The People We Call Home | Chapter 4


The next Monday, Merlani returns to their flat from their afternoon crystallography class the next Monday to pick up their gym bag and finds that the common area outside their room has been filled with piles of trunks and duffel bags in their absence. They don’t hear any people, so they assume their new housemates must have dropped the mess off after they left this morning and haven’t returned yet from their own classes to unpack. Merlani had received a note from the administrators of the Campus Accommodation Lottery over the weekend to expect four people to be moving in—but true to form, that was all the information they were given.

With a shrug, Merlani makes their way through the maze to their room. They have to climb over the piles to get through the small sitting area and shove one particularly heavy trunk out of the way so they can even get their door open. They’ve been looking forward to having other people in the flat again, though, so for the moment they don’t mind the hassle.

They spent the whole summer term living entirely alone, after all, and the quiet of an empty living space has never quite settled with them. As a kitten, they’d always had Mir and Mel by their side and their Dad’s nest to snuggle in so they wouldn’t get cold at night. Even if they did have a private cabin on Starbright after their littermates left, Merlani had been right next door to both of the ship’s Nav/Quan pairs—never far from companionship and the comfortable sounds of people moving about the ship. Their old cabin had taken some adjusting to in itself, but it hadn’t been the sheer, empty loneliness of their room here after their first set of housemates had all graduated.

Merlani makes a mental note while they’re changing into their cozy white-and-amber trousers and tunic and packing their judogi into their gym bag that they should bring some muffins back with them from the mess hall on their way home so they can properly welcome their new housemates. They’re quite hopeful that these will be friendly people—perhaps even ones like Reese and the rest of their teammates who will have something or other in common with them so they’ll be more than the cordial but barely-known acquaintances the folks who lived with them before were.

As Merlani closes their door and begins to weave their way back through the maze of housemate-belongings, though, any hopes they had for a pleasant experience with their new housemates pop out of existence like soap bubbles in a cactus garden.

“Oh! Hey, there!” calls one of the four young men now entering from the hallway in a far-too-familiar voice.

“…Hello, Cadet Lewis,” Merlani replies, hesitantly. “And you too, Condrey, Maltbys.” They wave to the dark-haired, ruddy-pale young man and the twin redheads with one of their lower hands. “What are the four of you doing here?”

“We’re finally moving in, now that Commander Potts is done drilling checklists into us for the day,” says Cadet Anton Condrey cheerfully. “I can’t believe it took so long for the accommodation folks to finally have a place sorted for us.”

Merlani shakes their head. “You’re lucky. I had to bunk with the Commanders for a month last year before they finally got me a proper room.”

“Wow!” says the Cadet Maltby with the short hair—Richard, if Merlani remembers correctly from their brief introduction last week. “Glad they didn’t do that to us.”

The other Maltby twin, the one whose hair falls all the way to their lower back—Robin—plops down onto the one empty spot on the sofa and looks up to Merlani curiously. “So, Ocean, are you a friend of Cadet Barker’s or something? We saw the name on the door earlier, but we seem to keep missing them.”

Merlani stifles a laugh. “Or something, I suppose.” They swing their gym bag around to their back and head for the door. “I’ll explain when I get back, if you budding Navigators haven’t figured it out by then.”

The Maltby twins share a look, then look at Merlani’s door, then each other again. Robin turns back to Merlani with a giggle. “Okay. We think we know, but the explanation will so be worth waiting for!”

“Totally!” Richard echoes.

Merlani shakes their head again, almost looking forward to that now. They had a good impression of the twins when they first met—they both have an infectious sort of kitten-like enthusiasm. Condrey too; he’d struck Merlani as far more mature, but friendly enough.

Cadet Lewis, on the other hand? Merlani once again finds themself pushing away a sensation of annoyance at the sound of his voice.

“What’s the rush, Ocean?” Cadet Lewis asks, leaning on the open door frame so one of his arms is obstructing it. “We missed you at the social—this’d be a great time for all of us to get to know you better, don’t you think?”

Merlani holds in a sigh as they look up at him. They can’t fathom why this particular human seems to always be getting in their way like this. “I have a class to get to.”

“But you’re out of uniform.” Cadet Lewis raises an eyebrow.

Merlani rolls their third eye. “I’ll change when I get there, after I’m done warming up.”

“What’s the class?” asks Condrey from across the room, where he’s shoved someone’s duffel bag out of a chair so he can sit.

“Judo,” Merlani replies nonchalantly. “And I do need to get going—I promised a classmate I’d do warm-ups with her beforehand.”

“Seriously?” Condrey almost falls out of the chair in surprise.

“Neat!” chorus the twins.

“That’s cute.” Cadet Lewis looks down at Merlani and laughs. “But really, Ocean Breeze, where are you off to?”

Merlani looks up to him with a disdainful flick of their ears and a swish of their tail to match. “My Judo class. And I’ll thank you not to call me that.”

“You can stop with the joke—It’s a good one, I’ll admit, but it’s too funny to be true. Why would a Florivan need to learn Judo, anyway?” Cadet Lewis asks, laughing again. He doesn’t even acknowledge the rest of what they’d said. “You’ll have a Navigator to protect you soon enough—and as your training partner, I’d be more than happy to escort—”

“—You’re not my training partner yet, Cadet Lewis.” Merlani takes advantage of the difference in their heights and ducks under the annoying human’s arm. “And I don’t need an escort.” They wave at the other three Nav cadets as they leave. “See y’all later, Condrey, Maltbys.”

“Bye Ocean!” Condrey calls behind them.

“Have fun at Judo!” chorus the twins.

All Merlani hears of Cadet Lewis as they stride purposefully down the hallway and slip into the elevator is confused spluttering.


***


“Phew!” Reese plops down onto the bench beside Merlani in the team’s locker room at the Athletic Center. “That was a long one.”

“You said it, Vasquez.” Kouassi steps out of one of the changing alcoves, now dressed in his casual workout clothes. “How are you holding up, Barker?”

Merlani turns their third eye up from tying their shoe. “Oh, I’m fine—everyone but you two seems to think I’m fragile or something… still feels like they’re holding back on me.”

“Don’t worry, Ocean.” Reese gives their shoulder a light pat. “They’ll figure it out sooner or later.”

Merlani smiles up at her. “Thanks. I hope so.”

“Besides,” says Kouassi, pulling his own sneakers out of his locker, “if anyone in the class is holding back on their opponents, it’s you.”

Merlani laughs. “Is that permission for me to not hold back on you the next time we spar, then?”

Kouassi grins at them. “You’d better not. I want to be able to beat you properly.”

“Good luck with that,” Reese teases.

“Hey there!” calls Lavine as they and Martins enter and set down their gym bags. “Y’all done with class already?”

“Yep!” Reese waves to them. “What are you two up to?”

“Getting in a bit of practice to clear our minds before we abduct Simon from the Engineering building and start our battle with homework.” Martins sticks out her tongue in a mock-disgusted expression. “The three of us have a group project and it’s going to be a pain.”

“You up for playing with us, Barker?” Lavine asks, dramatically pulling a large red folding fan out of their locker and waggling their eyebrows over it in Merlani’s direction. Somehow, they sound just like Merlani’s littermates always do before pulling them into some bit of adventurous chaos.

“Well…” Merlani stifles a giggle. Considering who’s waiting for them back at their flat, they don’t mind the delay in going home at all. “Sure. Just let me put my stuff back in my locker. Is what I’m wearing okay?”

“Can you move in it?” Martins looks them over curiously. “That’s all that matters for practice, really. Looks comfortable enough to me.”

Merlani stretches and makes a show of displaying their full range of motion by elegantly standing and pulling one leg up in the air so their foot can almost touch the back of their head. Flexibility of that sort comes naturally to their species, of course, but it’s still fun when they have occasions to take advantage of it. “Yeah, this is my normal workout outfit.”

Lavine applauds teasingly. “Oh, that’ll do. Now I see how you could leap circles around Toby even with your lower hands and tail out of the equation.”

Merlani makes their most graceful bow as they come out of the stretch and wave their tail in a proper acknowledgment. “It’s more fun when I can use them, of course…”

“Okay, I have to ask.” Kouassi crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow at Merlani. “Dance or gymnastics? You have to have trained in one of them.”

Merlani shakes their head. “Not any of the human forms or anything that formal… I’ll admit that my Entile Jade is a Star-Keeper and taught me the basics of our old story dances during my apprenticeship, though.” They smile at the memories. “I’m nowhere near as skilled as they are, of course, but there’s a few of the moves that aren’t all that dissimilar to what we do in martial arts.”

“That sounds like it’d be neat to see,” says Kouassi, “if you’re ever in the mood to show us.”

“Maybe.” Merlani absently runs the fluff at the tip of their tail through the fingers of their lower set of hands for a moment. “Not tonight, though. I haven’t done any of that in long enough that I’d have to practice before I’d be up for showing any of you—and Entile Jade would be disappointed if I didn’t do whatever story I was telling justice.”

They’re not sure how well they could really show their new friends such a thing at all, particularly since the stories they know best are ones which need two or three people to perform properly. Merlani’s not close enough to any of the other Florivan cadets they know to really ask them, and their Entile Wyndi might be fully trained as a Star-Keeper themself, but they’re always so busy with their work.

“Well,” says Reese, gently, “no rush or pressure on that. We just like having you around, Ocean. If you ever feel up to showing off some of your other moves, just let us know. Okay?”

Merlani looks back to her and smiles. “Okay.”

“Speaking of moves!” Lavine taps their fan on their other hand. “We have some of those to go practice.”

“Mind if we hang out and watch?” Reese gestures with her head in the direction of the practice room door. “Toby’s still in class for another hour, and Kouassi and I had plans to study with him after that for our license exams.”

“Fine by me,” says Martins, pulling a tassel-decorated sword in its scabbard out of her locker before shoving her bag inside. “Lavine?”

“Same here!” Lavine fans themself dramatically and then snaps the fan closed with a swishing flourish. “And then we can all go somewhere and eat waffles while we pretend to study!”

“Lavine.” Martins puts her hands on her hips and tosses them a teasing glare. “We have to at least try to get some headway made on our project tonight.”

Lavine sighs. “Yes, yes, fine… but only because it’s you and Simon I’m working with.”

Kouassi takes a swig from his water bottle. “And because the Colonel doesn’t like it when any of us shirk our coursework?”

Lavine shudders and then makes a point of scampering towards the practice area. “Point taken. She’s scarier than the homework is! You coming, Barker?”

Merlani laughs, then scampers after them. “I’m right behind you.”


***


Once Lavine and Martins are done practicing their Tàijíquán routines and walking through the full forty-two form sequence with Merlani, the five of them elect to head to the mess hall for snacks and studying. It’s well past the dinner service rush hour by the time they get there, meaning that much to Merlani’s delight, their favorite table in the corner is open.

This is the first time that they’ve ever had the table full of delightful humans to keep them entertained while they collate their notes from the day’s classes. Merlani finds themself comfortably squished into the back corner of the booth with Reese beside them and Martins on the aisle side. Kouassi, Lavine, and Katz have taken up the bench opposite them, while da Silva had resorted to pulling over a chair from one of the central tables when he finally arrived.

“All right, Kouassi,” says Reese, gesturing with the biscotti she’s been nibbling on, “what’s my next question?”

Kouassi flips through some pages of notes on his pocket-com’s holoscreen. “Ah. Here’s a good one. In the event you’re coming in for a hot landing, what’s the first thing you do once you make it to the ground?” He chuckles. “Assuming you don’t crash badly enough that you pass out, that is.”

“Activate fire suppression systems?” Reese takes another nibble from her biscotti before dunking it into her coffee.

“Mmm… close. Toby?”

Da Silva shrugs, leaning back in his chair so he’s balancing on just the two rear legs of it. “That was going to be my answer—wait! Don’t those activate automatically? Or is it supposed to be confirm that they’re working and activate them if they haven’t been turned on already?”

“Again, close.” Kouassi grins. “Lavine? Martins? You want to cut in and best your upperclassmen?”

“Not listening, Kouassi,” says Lavine, waving absently with one hand while they continue to tap through things on the datapad they’re holding.

“Don’t involve us in your flashcards,” Martins continues. She nudges her own datapad across the table to Katz. “How about this, Simon? It looks like it might be a decent source…”

Katz takes the datapad and skims through it, then sighs, shakes his head, and hands it back to her. Martins and Lavineshare a groan.

Merlani sets their own notes aside for a moment to pour themself another cup of tea from the pot they’re sharing with Kouassi and Lavine. “It’s shutting down the maneuvering engines to protect them and prevent additional fires, isn’t it?”

Kouassi laughs. “Finally, someone gets it!”

Reese lightly smacks her forehead with the hand that isn’t holding her half-eaten biscotti. “Ack, I know that one, too. We just did that simulation last week…”

“How in the stars did you know that, Barker?” Da Silva asks, giving Merlani a curious but somewhat suspicious look from across the table.

Merlani shrugs. “Dad started out as a darter pilot, and now he teaches Tactical Flight and Nav at AC-NW. I spent my entire kittenhood hanging out with him while he graded papers and things. Don’t try to get me to fly or anything—that’s my littermate Sky you want for that—but it’s hard to forget the protocols when some of your first memories are of listening to your father drill his students on them.”

Reese giggles and gives them a playful nudge on the shoulder. “Ocean, every time we get a bit of information out of you it just gets more and more fascinating. You do know this means we’re going to beg you to help us study now?”

Merlani smiles and nudges her back with one of their lower hands, since their upper ones are still busy with their tea. “I might be enticed to take a break from my notes if some kind human or other could perhaps see if there are any more of those nice muffins in the automat and retrieve one for me?”

Da Silva laughs and bounces up from his chair, nearly tipping it over in the process. “Do you want that pot of tea refreshed too, oh great all-knowing one? I will stuff you full of muffins if it means we have a better chance of passing the license exam.”

Merlani passes the teapot down the table to him. “You three are going to be fine and have your cute little pilot’s wings pinned on you in no time even without my help, but sure. Tea and muffins, please, and I’ll hold the flashcards for all of you when you get back.”

Kouassi flicks the holoscreen of his pocket-com off and takes a sip from his own tea as da Silva leaves. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Barker. It was bad enough getting through the provisional tests last year… but considering what everyone we know who’s gone through it has said about the exam, it’s a bit nerve-wracking.”

Reese sighs, shaking her head. “I haven’t been this nervous about a test since I was taking my final classification assessment in middle school…”

“Your exam isn’t for a month or so, right?” Merlani smiles and gives their friend a reassuring pat on the arm. “You’re all studying so well for the written portion, and I know you’ll ace the practical. Colonel Albright brags about the three of you enough to make that clear. Try not to let it all get to be too big of an opponent in your mind. That just makes it harder to take down in the end.”

Reese smiles at them. “Thanks, Ocean.”

“All right,” Kouassi says, cracking a smile himself, “Barker believes in us, now we have no choice but to pass! I vote we take a break from the flashcards until Toby gets back, though.”

“Agreed,” says Reese. She turns and gives Martins a curious look, angling her head to try to read the text on the younger cadet’s datapad. “How’s it going on your end?”

Martins looks up at her with a dramatically mournful expression and a tone that betrays genuine frustration. “This assignment is impossible and we are doomed.”

“Commander Saleh is punishing us for something, I just know it…” Lavine chimes in.

Katz shakes his head, finally entering into the conversation. “They let the groups draw the assigned topic names at random. It’s not punishment for how often you’ve been late to their class, Lavine, no matter how much you want to think it is.”

“I still feel like they must have rigged it for some reason…” Lavine pokes at their half-eaten waffle.

“Simon’s their favorite student,” Martins points out with a giggle. “Why would they want to punish him just to get you?”

Merlani finally reaches the point at which they cannot hold back their own curiosity. “What’s the assignment, then, that makes it so impossible?”

“So,” Reese explains, gesturing with a new biscotti, “these three unfortunate friends of ours are in Commander Saleh’ssecond-year History, Tactics, and Theories of Command class. A full third of the grade for the class is this group project where you have to research and give a presentation on someone who was at some level of authority in the Fleet during the War. They used to let the different teams pick who they wanted to do the project on as long as it met one of the criteria on their list… but now they put all the names of acceptable subjects in a hat and make the teams draw them at random.”

“Yes, and whose fault is that, Vasquez?” Martins gives her a sideways glance and a teasing glare.

“Ooh, what’s her fault now?” asks da Silva, now reappearing and unloading a teapot and a plate full of muffins from the tray he’s carrying. “—Ah, I only pulled the ones that were marked Florivan-safe, Barker. No need to worry about hidden chocolate or anything like that. Take your pick!—Now, what did I miss and what are you blaming Vasquez for?”

Merlani shakes their head at the quick way in which he goes back and forth between topics, but happily takes a blueberry muffin from the plate when its passed down to them. It’s sweet how thoughtful their new friends are about not poisoning them by accident.

“We’re talking about the dreaded ‘Command Personalities’ project,” Kouassi supplies. “And the fact that the three of usare to blame for Commander Saleh’s change in tactics for assigning subjects.”

Da Silva laughs, plopping back down into his seat and setting the tray aside with the collection of others the team has assembled since they arrived. “Oh, that… no, no, I’ll agree that it’s mostly Vasquez’ doing. We just shoveled the manure.”

Martins and Lavine share a giggle. Kouassi rolls his eyes.

Merlani twitches their ears curiously as they look to Reese. “Do I want to know what the three of you did?”

“Well,” says Reese, cheerfully dropping sugar cubes into her coffee mug to go with the fresh coffee she’s just poured into it. “It wasn’t nearly as interesting as these two make it out to be. ‘Squadron leader’ was on the list, and one of the other teams had already called Colonel Albright… so I claimed someone I knew would actually show up if we invited him to campus.”

“Commander Saleh gives bonus points if you can document first-hand accounts of the person, or interviews with them, or if you can get them to show up to your presentation if they’re still alive,” Lavine supplies.

“Ah.” Merlani nods. “So, who did you pick, then?” They raise an eyebrow suspiciously. “One of your relatives who served with the Fleet, I take it?”

Reese grins. “Got it in one! Tió Esteban made us earn the favor, of course, just like all of the other pilots do… but hey, we got a perfect score with all of the bonus points!”

Kouassi grimaces. “By ‘earn’,” he says, making air quotation gestures with one hand for emphasis, “she means ‘spend every free weekend we had leading up to our presentation mucking out stables so the old man would cooperate with us’.”

“And mending fences. By hand.” Da Silva shakes his head. “I still say that was all a scheme so we’d get roped into helping with your chores, Vasquez.”

“Hey,” Reese protests, “we passed the class! And Tió Esteban still likes you two even if he did have to keep rounding the horses up because you kept forgetting how to latch the gates—.”

“—Who’d you draw, anyway, Lavine?” Kouassi asks, pointedly turning the conversation back to the younger cadets.

Lavine sighs dramatically. “The Fleet’s Phantom.”

Kouassi, da Silva, and Reese all wince in sympathy.

“Oof.” Reese shakes her head. “That’s a hard one.”

“Wait,” says Merlani, holding up one of their hands. “Who’s the Fleet’s Phantom? I’ve never heard of someone called that.”

“Oh,” says Martins, “That’s… more what everyone who takes Commander Saleh’s classes calls them, because it’s so hardto find information about them and they just show up in the history right before Procyon and then vanish from the records entirely when the War ends.”

Merlani gives her their most thoroughly perplexed look. “Does your phantom at least have a name?”

Katz nods. “That’s all we have at the moment: ‘Jade of Procyon’.”

Merlani raises an eyebrow. “That’s all your professor gave you?”

“Yep… Part of the assignment is that they give us a role or reference and we have to figure out who it is—one of our housemates is in the group who drew ‘Squadron Leader: 2nd Darters, SCV Athene’.” Martins giggles. “I’m waiting to see if they track down Colonel Albright on their own, or if we get to claim a favor for introducing them to her.”

“That’s why we’re sitting here combing through our textbooks for scraps of information.” Lavine sighs. “No one’s ever made more than the bare minimum passing grade doing a report on the Phantom before, even the people who picked them intentionally.”

“Like I said,” Martins groans, “it is the impossible assignment of doom.”

“Ah.” Merlani nods. “Carry on, then, I suppose.”

While the others are talking back and forth about theories and sources and getting sidetracked a dozen times, Merlaniturns their attention to their pocket-com and pulls up a palm-sized holoscreen interface with their messages. They tap through their contacts until they find the one they’re looking for. They’re not entirely sure where Starbright is right now, but if they’re lucky, their favorite uncle will be awake.

Good Evening, Uncle Rudy! Do you think you can tell me where Entile Ilmi is? I need to ask them a question or two.

After a few moments, the screen lights up with a response.

Sure, Cinny. I'll pass word to them. I think they're with Endeavor at the moment. You okay?

Merlani smiles. If he’d asked them before their Judo class, they’d have had a much different answer—but right now? They glance around the table and the animated conversation their teammates are having. Right now things are quite nice.

I'm good. Made some new friends, even! Aunt Penny has nice little pilots. You'd like them.

It doesn’t take long for their uncle to respond.

Glad to hear it! Don't let them get you into too much trouble. Have to get to work now. We'll talk properly soon. Love you, kid.

Merlani sends back one last message with a picture of their lower hands making a heart shape, then flips the small holoscreen off and turns their attention back to their teammates.

“Well, it’s not completely impossible,” Reese is saying, giving Lavine and the others her best impression of Aunt Penny’s most encouraging tone.

“Yeah,” Martins laments, “we might be able to find enough about them in the textbooks to pass…”

“Well, you’ll probably have to content yourself with a listing of all of the hearsay like Nathan’s group did when we went through it.” Kouassi pauses thoughtfully. “But if you work at it, you might be able to get a second-hand account? Maybe the Colonel met them after the Musketeers were transferred to Aegolius?”

“She’s on our list of people we might be begging for help,” Katz answers. “But considering her policies on helping us with our homework…”

“Point taken.” Reese pulls out her pocket-com. “Well, it’s a long shot, but I can get you in touch with my Tió…”

Lavine pulls a face. “No, we’ll save the manure shoveling for our last-ditch backup plan. We’re desperate, Vasquez, but we’re not that desperate yet.”

Da Silva claims a muffin from the plate and begins unwrapping it. “Well, lucky for you, you’ve got what… a month before your presentation?”

“Give or take,” Martins answers. “It’s the week before fall break starts.”

“Well,” Reese starts to say, “that’s plenty of time—”

She’s interrupted by the bright pinging chime of Merlani’s pocket-com announcing that they have a relay call coming in.

“Do we need to get up so you can go take that privately, Ocean?” Reese asks, already starting to nudge Martins towards the aisle.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting anything…” Merlani looks at the notification, then laughs when they see that the call is tagged as ‘private caller; MSS Endeavor’. “Oh! Wow, that was fast! No, no, don’t get up—this is actually for you three.” They make a vague gesture towards Lavine, Martins, and Katz with one of their lower hands while they’re tapping through to accept the call and put it up on the holoscreen they have their notes on.

“For us?” Katz asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Yep!” Merlani replies cheerfully.

When the call connects, the loading screen is replaced by the cheerful face of a lightly greenish-blue Florivan in an amber tunic and shawl who’s sitting in what seems to be the window seat under the viewport in a cabin on some starship or other. They have their long silver hair down, as if they were in the process of brushing it out before putting it back up into their usual set of looped braids.

Hello, kitten! Rudy said you were looking for me? How’s my favorite apprentice doing today?

Merlani smiles and nods their head. “I am, and I’m doing okay—I wanted you to meet some friends of mine. Is that okay? Do you have a minute?”

Entile Ilmi laughs, spreading their lower hands wide. “For you, kitten, I have all the time in the galaxy. Are your friends there with you?

“They are!” Merlani adjusts their pocket-com so it’s transmitting an image of the whole table instead of just their face. “So, this is Miss Theresa Vasquez,” they say, gesturing to each of their teammates in turn, “and these are Miss Antoinette Martins, Mr. Tobias da Silva, Mr. Simon Katz, Mx. Beck Lavine, and Mr. Paul Kouassi. They’re my friends from the martial arts team.”

It’s so nice to meet you all!” Entile Ilmi waves through the holoscreen. “It’s nice to see that Little Ocean has friends.

Merlani’s ears twitch in slight embarrassment, but then they smile. “Everyone? This is my entile, Jade Ilmi of Procyon and Elder Celadon Toreval’s line—their proper titles are ‘Star-Keeper’ and ‘Council’s Agent.’” They look over to their friends, who seem a bit stunned for some reason. “They’re the one I was telling some of you about earlier who taught me our story-dances. They’re also probably the only Florivan alive aside from the Elders who really does know pretty much all of us.”

Stars, kitten, you’re never this formal.” Entile Ilmi twitches their ears in amusement. “You make it sound like I’m supposed to be someone dreadfully important.” Their tail swishes into view on the screen, making a bright jingling sound from the little enameled bangles they wear on it. “Your friends can call me Jade. I’m having to deal with enough needless formality at the moment with Endeavor’s crew.

Reese is the first to recover her composure. She laughs lightly, halfway covering it with one hand. “Nice to meet you, too, then, Jade.”

That’s better! So, kitten,” says Entile Ilmi, tilting their head curiously, “Rudy said you had questions for me?

“Well, I don’t.” Merlani pours a bit of fresh tea into their cup. “But Lavine, Martins, and Katz are working on a group project for a class they’re in, and if it’s all right with you, I’d like to listen while they ask you questions.”

Oh, that does sound exciting. What’s your group project about, then?

“Well…” Lavine looks to Martins, who’s still staring wide-eyed at the screen, and then Katz, who gives them a smirk and a cheeky sort of a nod. “Um… how common is ‘Jade’ as a public name among Florivans?”

Oh, I’m sure Little Ocean could have answered that—not all that uncommon, when I was younger… offhands, I can think of maybe ten or twelve of us out in the stars right now. Why?

Lavine awkwardly rubs at the back of their sandy hair with one hand. “Well… how many of them served with the Fleet during the Novan War?”

Merlani shakes their head, stifling a giggle. They hadn’t expected their friends to be so awkward about all of this.

Entile Ilmi, of course, is fully in their ‘cheerful Star-Keeper educating the kittens’ mode now. They think about it for a moment, tapping the index fingers of their lower hands together. “Oh, I remember now. Officially there were two Volunteers: Jade Ria of Elder Aquamarine’s line and Jade Yrin of Elder Topaz’s line. They were with the starships Otusand Tyto. Does that help, Mx. Lavine?

Katz looks up from the notes he’s been tapping onto his datapad and gives Lavine a nudge.

Lavine hesitates, then nods and looks back to the holoscreen. “It means neither of them are the person we’re looking for. Are…? Well. There’s supposed to have been a ‘Jade’ who served on Admiral Marvin’s flagship, too… Is that…?”

Entile Ilmi shakes their head, their tail making another softly jingling swish. Their third eye turns to the direction that Merlani suspects their own image is being projected. “Are your friends always so nervous and quiet when meeting new people, kitten?

Merlani absently runs a finger around the rim of their teacup. “Oh, no, usually they’re all much more talkative than this—I think they’re just a bit nervous about talking to ‘the Fleet’s Phantom’, that’s all.” They make small air quotation gestures with one of their upper hands, unable to help smiling at the nickname.

Oh?” Entile Ilmi almost laughs. “Is that what the human kittens are calling me now? I’ll have to tell Nida and Rudy that I’ve been issued a nickname. I’m sure that will amuse them.

“So it is you?” Martins asks, finally breaking her stunned silence.

Yes, Miss Martins. I… hmm. ‘Served’ isn’t the correct word, but suffice it to say that I became involved in the War and spent quite a bit of time on Aegolius as a result.” Entile Ilmi takes on a particularly familiar sort of softly sad tone for a moment before brushing it away with a flick of their ears. “Now, what do you truly want to ask me? Whatever other duties I may have acquired over the years, I remain a Star-Keeper first, dears. Educating the young ones I meet and passing down the stories that have been entrusted to me is the work of my heart.

Something in Entile Ilmi’s tone and gentle bearing seems to finally set the humans at ease.

“Well, our assignment is to put together a presentation about you and your leadership contributions during the War…” Lavine begins, back now to their usual cheerful and confident self as they explain the full extent of the project.

Merlani smiles, nibbling at their muffin. They’re glad they could help their friends with their assignment in the end—and it seems they’ve made their entile happy, too, judging from their tone and expression as they answer questions from Lavine and Martins.

Even with the minor annoyance of having the Nav cadet they’re not looking forward to working with living with them, they decide this has been a good day after all.



 


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