Another late night in the mess hall nearly a month into the term, and Merlani is once again sitting in their usual spot. This time, though, they have something far better than homework up on the holoscreen of their pocket-com. The long distance between star systems and differences in schedules mean that they only get to call their family over the relays once a month or so. It’s a wonderful feat of combined human and Florivan technology that allows real-time video calls between Earth and the Alpha Centauri-New West Space Station where they were raised.
Tonight is one of those special occasions when Merlani’s been able to arrange just such a call.
The ruddy-pale human man with the dark, graying beard and short-cropped hair on the other side of the call has just finished telling them about the goings-on in his little corner of the galaxy. He takes a long sip from the little cup of coffee and steamed milk he’s been holding all this time and smiles at them. “So anyway, Cinna-bun, that’s all of my gossip. How’s it going with the new Nav cadets?”
Merlani resists the urge to roll their third eye. “They’re… okay, I guess, Dad. Kinda standard-issue this year.”
“No one’s caught your eyes yet, then?” Their father arches an eyebrow at them teasingly.
“Not really… the Commanders paired me up with this really… well, enthusiastic guy for the current rotation, but I don’t have much hope for that working out.”
“How do I put this, Dad… he’s just…” Merlani struggles for a few moments to find an appropriate word. “Well, irritating. One of those ooh-I’ve-always-wanted-to-be-friends-with-a-Florivan-can-we-braid-each-other’s-hair sort of people who also seems to think he knows everything about Nav/Quan even though he just transferred in from Command… and he’s never even been off-planet before.”
“I know the type. Sounds like a challenge for the two of you to work together, then.”
Merlani makes an unimpressed face. “He’s been my training partner for all of a month and I was already sick of him after the first week—and he keeps trying to give me nicknames…”
“Well, Mer, at least you aren’t obligated to keep him.” Dad strokes his beard thoughtfully. “Hopefully one of the others will be a better fit for you.”
Merlani lets out a small groan. “That’s the thing, though. Even if I do get to switch out for one of the other Nav prospects for the next rotation, I’m still stuck with the guy.”
“Remember how I said the accommodation folks had finally placed new humans with me in the flat? This Cadet Lewis person is one of them.” Merlani twitches an ear in annoyance. “The other three Nav cadets I live with are nice, really, but he’s just… too much.”
“Seems like you’re going to have to figure out how to deal with him one way or another, then.”
“I know, Dad, I know.” Merlani sighs. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Dad shakes his head and smiles at them. “Things are going okay with your team, though?”
Merlani is more than grateful for the change of subject. “Oh, definitely! They’re really nice folks, Dad—you’d like them. There’s even a few pilots in the mix! And they’re all absolutely brilliant to practice with…”
Merlani is halfway through telling him all about the details of their first regional competition with the team when they spy Reese heading their way from the automat service line. It’s her usual time to appear from one of her late-night workouts and give them an excuse to take a break from their studies—and to share whatever sort of baked goods she’s happened to find to go with her coffee.
Merlani stands for a moment to wave to her. “Hang on a sec, Dad, I have one of them here to introduce to you!”
Once Reese is installed in the seat next to Merlani at their table, they look back to their father’s image on the video call.
“So, Reese, this is my Dad—Lt. Commander George Barker, if you want to be formal about it.” Merlani sets a hand on their friend’s shoulder. “And Dad, this is the future Fleet Captain I’ve been telling you about.”
“Yes, sir,” says Reese, smiling. “Nice to meet you.”
“Cinny here tells me you’re aiming towards tactical pilot on your way to that captaincy?”
“I am, sir.”
“Good choice! I flew darters myself, back in the day—” Dad snaps his fingers the way he does whenever he’s remembered something important. “Say, speaking of darter pilots! You wouldn’t happen to be related to a Colonel Esteban Vasquez who used to lead the 6th Squadron on SCV Gymnasio, would you?”
Reese laughs. “That’s one of my great-uncles, actually, sir.”
“Such a small galaxy we have here!” Dad grins. “Figured it was something like that—there’s a good family resemblance. Good man, that uncle of yours. Saved my hide a time or three back when I was a greenhorn, even. He still around causing trouble?”
“Oh, he is.” Reese nods. “Retired to the ranch just before I came to the Academy—I’ll be sure to tell him you said hello the next time I go home to visit.”
“You do that! And tell him there’s a bottle of Centauri’s finest with his name on it if he ever decides to darken my doorstep again, will you?” Dad chuckles, stroking his beard again. “I do still owe him one, I think.”
“I’ll do that, sir.”
Merlani is about to ask about this connection between their family and Reese’s that they’ve never heard about before, but a door chime on their father’s end of the call interrupts them. In a few moments, they find themself unexpectedly introducing their littermates to Reese as well. Both have appeared still in their academy uniforms; Miradyn, as usual, has a large matching bow tied behind their bright sky-blue ears, while the more grayish-blue Melbryl seems to have come from one of their secondary classes, since they’re wearing their cream-colored nurse-in-training outfit.
“So,” asks Mir, looking curiously over Dad’s shoulder from where they’ve draped themself over the back of the couch, “you’ve finally got a Nav trainee worth introducing to us?”
“You must be someone special, Miss Teresa,” Mel adds, grinning at the two of them through the holoscreen and winking their third eye at Reese. “Cinny never introduces us to their training partners.”
“Ooh, are you planning to keep this one, Cinny? Is that it?”
Merlani lets out a small groan. They love their littermates dearly, but sometimes the two of them can be entirely too much. “Sky. Storm. She’s not in Nav. Reese is my friend from Judo and the martial arts team Aunt Penny leads. I told you about her.”
“Oh? Right!” Mel imitates Dad’s snap-of-remembrance gesture with two of the light grey-blue fingers on each of their left hands. “The human girl you play warriors with!”
Reese laughs at that. “You mean the best friend they just took a regional competition record with—did Ocean tell you yet that we qualified for Earthwide?”
“They did!” says Dad, rescuing the conversation. “Which reminds me, I need to pass that on to Taimri. She’s still pleased as punch the powers that be are letting you compete, you know.”
“How’s Äiti doing, then?” Merlani asks.
“Well as ever, far as I know. Last I heard, she and River are headed your way for some headquarters thing or other. I don’t know when, but if I know those two, they’re going to make a point of dropping by to see you right when you least expect them.”
Merlani smiles. It’d be nice to see their mother and entile again for sure. “Well, I’ll keep an eye or two out for her, then.” They take a good look at their family and then ask, “And y’all have plans tonight you need to get to, don’t you?”
“We’re dragging the old man out to dinner with Joy and Merek,” Mir says, playfully messing with Dad’s hair.
“Since he only has a few more months before he’s on his own again and all—and since my poor innocent Merek is still trying to get back on his good side,” Mel adds.
“It’s not my fault that Ranger of yours is failing my class, Storm…”
“…Sure it’s not, Dad. Sure.”
Merlani shakes their head. From what they understand, Mel’s counterpart is only taking a few refresher units because he’s been on semi-sabbatical assigned to AC-NW while Mel finishes their studies and needed something to do. They’re certainly looking forward to meeting Merek again, too, when he and Mel come to Earth next spring so Mel can go through their required new Ranger training. They’ve only really talked to the Ranger in calls like this, of course, since they can’t remember all that well when the three of them were small kittens and he was a trainee assigned to their mother and entile. From what they’ve seen, though, he seems like a good match for Mel. Merlani never has figured out quite why Dad puts on such a show of acting like he disapproves.
“I’ll let you go, then,” Merlani says, somewhat reluctantly. “Wouldn’t want to keep you from a family meal.”
“All right, sweetheart. Goodnight,” says Dad, smiling that sad but affectionate way he does every time a call ends.
“We love you Cinny!” Mel and Mir chorus, making their usual adorable hand-hearts. “Goodnight!”
Merlani mimics the gesture. “Goodnight, Sky, goodnight, Storm. Love you too.”
“Nice meeting you all,” Reese chimes in now that Merlani’s family has said their goodbyes.
“Same to you, Vasquez. Thanks for keeping my Little Ocean out of trouble.”
“You say that as if she’s not a troublemaker herself, Dad.” Merlani chuckles and then looks over their family fondly. “Talk again next time you get a chance?”
“Of course. Love you, Cinna-bun.”
“Love you too.”
After the call ends, Merlani switches off the holoscreen and reaches over to where they left their tea. It’s gone cold again, but there’s not much left in it anyway.
Reese is still sitting beside them. “Your family’s lovely, Ocean.”
“They really are…” Merlani finishes the remainder of their tea slowly.
Reese sets a warm hand on their lower arm that’s nearest to her. “You okay?”
Merlani nods, setting down the empty cup but not releasing the grip their upper hands have on it. “Yeah. I just miss them, you know? Especially because they’re all together and I’m… here.”
“I know.” Reese leans in and gives them one of those brief but warm and reassuring hugs she’s so good at knowing when to offer. “Want some tea and distraction somewhere that isn’t so public?”
Merlani couldn’t be more grateful to have someone to distract them from the maelstrom of feelings that always threaten to overwhelm them after they have to say goodbye.
“All right, here we are! Mi casa es tu casa.”
Merlani has been friends with Reese for a while now—long enough for them to happily allow her to claim them as her ‘best friend,’ at least—but this is the first time she’s ever brought them to her apartment. It’s small, of course, since she doesn’t share it with anyone, but it’s a comfortable sort of smallness.
Reese taps the panel by the door to turn on the lights and then gestures to a low couch covered in layers of striped blankets. “Have a seat, I’ll put the kettle on. You like jasmine tea, right?”
Merlani nods and makes their way to the couch.
To get there, they have to walk around a positively enormous blue ceramic pot holding some kind of overgrown cactus. The whole sitting area seems to be trying to turn itself into a greenhouse, really. A row of cacti of different sizes are arranged along the windowsill, each in a bright-colored pot of its own. Two equally bright-striped hanging planters take up the far corners of the room, one with a massive trailing spider plant and the other with some sort of succulent that looks like tiny strings of green beads.
Somehow, this was not what Merlani had pictured as a living space for Reese to occupy. They’d always assumed she had more utilitarian tastes, for some reason.
“Here we are.” Reese comes back into the room hands them a steaming mug of lightly floral-scented liquid. “Jasmine green tea, courtesy of Lavine and Kouassi—I don’t really drink it, of course, but I still have some on hand from the last time the team descended upon my house.”
“Thank you.” Merlani scoots a little to one side on the couch so there’s more room for her to sit down with her matching cup of coffee.
“So! Introductions!” Reese grins and gestures to her collection of plants. “The big girl here by the couch is Miranda—she’s an angel wings cactus, and even though she doesn’t look spiky she can still bite with those little white spots, so try not to get too friendly with her unless you’re ready to get prickled. The ones along the window are the old ladies—Rebecca, Doris, Karen, and Gillian—and then Charlie on the end there is my hairy old man. Up in the baskets, we have Edwin and Godfrey—Godfrey is the spider plant.”
“You’ve given them all names?” This is another delightful detail Merlani certainly didn’t expect.
“Sort of? It’s more they just came in with personalities so I found names that suited them.”
“I see.” Merlani nods. “Is that usual? I don’t really know much about keeping plants, really. My old housemates left a couple of leafy things with me, but… well, there aren’t any plants in the flat now for a reason.”
“If you like, I’ll pick you out a nice succulent for your room sometime. These don’t need all that much tending—they’re adapted to desert conditions.”
Merlani smiles. “I don’t know how well that would go, but I wouldn’t mind trying.”
Reese smiles back and takes a sip of her coffee before her curiosity comes back. “Now, Ocean, I have to ask… your family calls you Cinna-bun? Like the pastry?”
Merlani chuckles. “I was wondering if you would remember that one. But yes, although it’s just Dad who takes it all the way to pastries. ‘Cinny’ is the nickname that stuck when we were kittens and Sky and Storm were still learning to use my public name—and you didn’t get a chance to see him in action, but Dad’s a fiend with puns.”
“Well, it suits you.”
“You can use it if you like, Reese. I don’t mind.” Merlani smiles softly. Nicknames are special, after all, meant for family and close friends—and Reese certainly qualifies for that.
“Thank you, then, Cinny.” Reese says the name with a particularly warm tone, shifting into a grin. “This one I’ll remember—It won’t be hard. I can definitely see where your dad was going with the whole cinnamon roll thing.”
Merlani shakes their head. “I never did get it, aside from him thinking it was cute when I was a kitten… but I have to say, it’s nice you got to meet them all.”
“So, why were you having the family call in the mess anyway? Even this late at night, it’s hardly the most private place.”
“Too many housemates that I didn’t want to have to introduce.” Merlani takes a cautious sip. The tea’s still a little too hot to drink properly, but it smells wonderful and somewhat purple from the jasmine.
“Ah… still haven’t come to an understanding about personal boundaries with the boys, then?”
“I thought I had, but it’s been a long day and I was stuck in sims with Cadet Lewis for most of it…” Merlani’s ears droop, but they try to force a laugh anyway. “Besides, well, you met my family. Even if the boys and Robin had behaved and notbeen awkward, Sky and Storm would have probably done something even more embarrassing.”
Reese raises an eyebrow. “So either way it would have been more uncomfortable than being in the back table of the mess where anyone could have overheard you?”
“Got it in one.” Merlani takes another careful sip from their tea.
“Sounds familiar.” She sips her coffee for a moment and then settles back into a more comfortable position against the armrest, facing Merlani and crossing her legs underneath her. “Just wait ’til you have a chance to meet some of my older cousins—they raise being embarrassing to an art.”
“If we put your cousins in a room with my littermates, then, they might create the galaxy’s first black hole of embarrassment.”
“Most likely!” Reese laughs for a moment and then tilts her head slightly to one side. “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it, but out of curiosity… I don’t think you’ve ever told me how you ended up signing to the Academy here when they’re all out at Alpha Centauri.”
“Oh, that…” Merlani pauses and swirls the tea around in their cup, considering the question for a moment. “No, I don’t mind. It’s because our mentor kept me as a provisional apprentice longer than the two of them. By the time Elder Celadon decided I was ready to release, there was an opening here and there wasn’t there… and the geology program here is better anyway, you know?”
“That explains it, then.” Reese nods and gestures vaguely with her coffee. “And why they’re both getting ready to graduate and you just started here last year.”
“Yeah. Even if I had managed to click with someone last year, I’d still be a few years behind the two of them.” Merlanitakes another small sip of their tea. “Granted, it’s just Storm that’s actually graduating; Sky’s got a two-year junior assistant post on ACS Bell Burnell first.”
“Why the difference?”
“Storm’s counterpart isn’t a Nav Cadet—Rangers have a different system, and Merek’s already fully trained anyway.”
Reese looks at them for a moment as if something incredibly confusing has just clicked into place in her mind. “Wait… so your sibling who’s a nurse is the one paired with a Ranger, but you’re the one who could actually hold your own in a fight if you had to?”
Merlani shakes their head, stifling a giggle. “Funny how that worked out, isn’t it? Apparently, Storm imprinted on him while he was recovering from some job-related injury or other in the AC-NW Medical Center… or rather, re-imprinted on him. None of us really remember much of it, but according to my parents, Storm was pretty insistent about trying to claim him back when we were kittens.”
“I’m adding that to the list of things I don’t understand, for sure.” Reese pauses for a moment and then smirks at them. “But hey, if this year’s run of Nav cadets don’t work out, we can always take a little trip up to Waco and go Ranger-hunting for you.”
Merlani can’t help smiling at that. “You sound like my Entile River. If it was that easy, I’m pretty sure my instructors would be sending me up there gift-wrapped at the end of the year.”
Reese bursts into giggles. Merlani doesn’t quite understand why until she catches her breath again.
“Sorry, Cinny, it’s just…” Reese stifles another laugh, trying to regain her composure. “I got this image in my head of you being delivered to Ranger Headquarters in a big basket with a bow tied behind your neck or something like that.”
Merlani can’t help giggling a bit themself. This is part of why they like Reese—she has just a touch more developed imagination to her than most humans they’ve met.
“Dad has a family portrait from when we were kittens like that, actually.”
Reese’s eyes go wide and sparkling. “Please tell me I get to see this someday.”
“I’ll ask him to send it,” Merlani says, laughing. “Just don’t expect me to recreate the look. Ribbons are Sky’s thing, not mine.”
“I won’t,” Reese promises. “So, going back to what we were talking about before I interrupted… it’s not as easy as just letting you pick out someone qualified that you can work with, then?” Her curiosity has returned, if it ever really left.
“Yes and no…” Merlani shrugs and takes another sip from their tea. “It’s more than just picking someone to work with, you know? I can train with anyone whose voice I can hear—I could probably run jumps for anyone who knew how to give landmarks, even, if I had to. But there’s a lot more to it than that.”
“Yeah… it’s…” Merlani turns their eyes down to their mug. They’ve never tried to talk about this with anyone before. They stare into the tea, trying to find the right words to explain it to her. “It’s trying to find someone who’s going to work with me for the rest of my life, really.”
Reese stays quiet, giving them space while they look for those words.
“There’s this whole… thing…” they say at last, “with needing to choose a human that clicks right, that you can imprint on as strong as family… because they’ll be your anchor when you’re in the Strange and that stronger imprint makes everything safer. But also because we’re all…” Merlani trails off for a few moments, still unable to find an adequate word to express the feelings. “… Alone, otherwise. Spread out. And space is cold when your family isn’t there.”
Reese sort of nods and sips quietly from her coffee. “That explains a lot.”
“Sorry,” Merlani says, “I don’t know how to make that make sense.”
“It made sense enough. You’re supposed to be a semi-eusocial species, right? I always found it a little odd that most starships only have one or two Florivans in the crew at a time, considering that.”
“There’s not really enough of us to do otherwise anymore.” Merlani shrugs. “It’s not something we really talk about much—even with the Nav prospects. I don’t think any of them really get it until someone’s already at the point of wanting to be their counterpart.”
“So that’s why it’s a problem that you don’t fit with any of the Nav cadets, then?”
“Pretty much. I’m going to be hanging out in the program until someone comes along who does work out… and so far there’s not been anyone who even came close.” Merlani goes silent for a moment before sighing and taking a longer sip of their tea and then looking to Reese again. “If I could click with the Nav folks the way I do with you and the rest of the team, it’d be a lot easier all around. I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to even begin to imprint on them… but it is.”
“Well, then, Cinny,” says Reese, nudging their leg with one of her red-socked feet, “at least you’ll have friends to keep you company for however long you end up being here waiting on your Navigator to show up.”
Merlani smiles. “I suppose you’re right.”
“And while we’re waiting…” Reese gives them a teasing grin now. “I will gladly trade ‘little Reese in a lacy fiesta dress’ pictures for ‘Cinny and sibs as kittens’ ones, if that’s not too embarrassing for you.”
Merlani sets down their tea and reaches for their pocket-com. “Deal.”