On a rather nice morning several days later, Merlani is sitting in the Nav/Quan department’s central meeting room with the rest of their classmates waiting for their instructors to appear and issue the simulation assignments for the day. They’re in their usual spot in the back row of long table-desks, thankfully alone for the moment. They have one ear swiveled to half-listen to the chatter going on in the room, but most of their attention is focused on the environmental geology homework assignment they’re working on to pass the time. Merlani always does their best to come in early so they can claim their preferred chair and study a bit while they wait.
“Here you are!” Cadet Lewis plops himself down into the chair beside Merlani. “I was looking for you in the Mess Hall earlier, since you didn’t answer when we knocked on your door this morning.”
Merlani turns their third eye over to him, resisting the urge to roll it. They keep the majority of their mind focused on the images of rock formations they’re studying. “I have a class at eight on Wednesdays.”
“Really? You never mentioned it to me.”
“Really.” Merlani’s tail twitches with subtle annoyance beneath the table. The fact that they’re not officially enrolled in the early morning beginner’s Tàijíquán class that Lavine and Martins have helped them arrange to attend so they can come into their weekly full day of Nav/Quan simulation training with a clear mind isn’t any of their training partner’s business.
“Huh. I’ll try to remember that so I can be up in time to catch breakfast with you next week, then!”
“Please, don’t feel like you need to get up early on my account.”
Cadet Lewis laughs entirely too cheerfully and makes a move as if to pat Merlani on the shoulder. “Oh, it’s no trouble, Ocey—“
“—I thought we discussed this, Cadet Lewis.” Merlani scoots their chair out of his reach just before his hand can make contact. They try to keep their tone as polite and even as possible.
Cadet Lewis looks at them with nothing but confusion in his tone. “Discussed what, Ocey?”
“Ocean.” Merlani holds back a frustrated sigh. “And I prefer if people ask before they touch me.”
“Aw, but we’re friends now, aren’t we?” He almost looks hurt for a moment, then chuckles and scoots his chair over back closer to them. “Besides, if I’m going to be your—”
“—Good morning, Ocean!” the Maltby twins call as they arrive and take their usual seats on Merlani’s other side; Richard in the chair and Robin cross-legged on the table with their back against the wall.
“Good morning, Maltbys,” says Merlani, grateful for the interruption. “Did you have fun at the mixer with the Command-track students last night?”
“We did!” says Robin excitedly. “Would have been more fun with you there, of course—that miss Vasquez of yours is an amazing dance partner.” They give their twin brother a bit of a playful nudge on the shoulder.
For some reason, this makes Richard blush.
“Well, she’s not ‘mine’,” Merlani says, smiling and making appropriate little air quotation gestures with their upper hands, “and I’ve not gone to any of the mixers to see her in action, but if she dances anything like she spars? I’m sure Reese is good at it.”
“Oh she is!” Robin laughs brightly. “Especially when they put the swing dance songs on—I let her lead when she danced with me, and let me tell you, getting picked up and twirled around in the air by someone that strong is fun.”
Merlani stifles a laugh. “I can see her doing that. Hopefully next time I won’t have a field trip going on the same evening so I can come and dance with all of you.”
“Speaking of your miss Vasquez, do you know if she likes guys who—”
“—Birdie. Please, not now…” Richard looks up to his twin with the most embarrassed look Merlani’s ever seen him wear.
“Aww…” Robin giggles, then reaches over and pats their brother on the head. “Fine, I’ll be good and wait to ask them until we get home.”
Richard groans softly, then turns back to Merlani. “Sorry about that. They’re still wound up from the mixer, I guess. How was the field trip, then?” He’s still blushing for some reason, although he seems to be recovering his composure.
“Oh, it was lovely,” Merlani replies, now flicking the holoscreen with their homework off and slipping their pocket-com back into their jacket pocket. “I’ve never seen anything like all of the bats flying out like that—and the tour we took of the caverns in the afternoon was great too.”
“It sounded neat when you told us about it,” says Richard. “Say, what if we organized something with Condrey and Kingfisher and their sibs and we could all go up there some weekend? Maybe sometime during fall break? It’d be fun for all of us ‘juniors’ to do something together for a change.”
Merlani finds themself smiling. Aside from their training partner, they do like the idea of getting to know their classmates better. “I wouldn’t mind that, if you don’t mind listening to me babbling about rocks the whole time.”
“Ooh!” Robin interjects, “You could invite your miss Vasquez to come with us, Ocean!”
“Robin.” Richard lets out a dramatic groan and covers his face with both hands. “Why must you be like this?”
“What? I didn’t say anything…” Robin tries to put on a pouting tone, but they’re trying too hard to stifle giggles for it to come out that way.
“I’m sure she has more important things to do,” says Cadet Lewis, with an edge on his voice for some reason that Merlanidoesn’t quite understand. “Isn’t Cadet Vasquez one of the graduating seniors or something?”
“She is,” Merlani replies, confused still by his tone of voice. They’ve never heard a tone like that from him before. “But Reese did grow up in this region, and from what she’s told me she does like hiking and outdoorsy stuff.” They shrug and turn their eyes back to the Maltbys. “Plus, she’ll have her full pilot’s license by then, so if she wants to come with us it makes transportation a lot easier—and I won’t be surprised if some of my other teammates want to come too.”
“Even better!” says Robin. “I’ve been hoping to meet your friends properly ever since we came to watch your team’s demonstration at the Academy expo.”
Merlani twitches their ears in amusement. Robin’s enthusiasm for the world could rival most kittens, sometimes. “Well, we’ll see about that.” They pause thoughtfully for a moment. “You know, we could ask Commander Cerulean if they want to come along as a chaperon, in any case. They’re a proper caver and everything.”
Both of the twins’ eyes widen. “Really?” they ask in unison.
Merlani stifles a laugh. “Yep. It’s their hobby. They took me with them a few times last year as their caving buddy, since Commander Potts doesn’t like being underground.”
“That’s so neat!” says Robin. “I vote we ask them!”
“Wait. You want to take one of our instructors on a trip with us?” Cadet Lewis asks, raising an eyebrow. “I mean, we’re all adults now, aren’t we? I wouldn’t think we need a chaperon for something we’re organizing ourselves.”
Merlani is about to say something, but the timely appearance of their instructors interrupts them.
“Good morning, cadets!” Uncle Julian crows, knocking loudly on the wall near the door to quiet the chatter in the room. “Raise your hands if you had a bit too much fun at that mixer with Command last night and need me to lower my voice.”
A handful of the senior Nav cadets raise their hands, as does Condrey as he slinks into the room and flops down in the empty seat next to Kingfisher in the first row. He’s wearing sunglasses, for some reason. Kingfisher gives him a comforting pat on the hand instead of their usual bouncy hug of greeting. He reaches up and ruffles their bright blue ears in return.
“See?” Cadet Lewis whispers to Merlani, nodding his head in the direction of their classmates, “are you just the only Florivan in the galaxy who’s not tactile-affectionate or something, Ocey?”
“Shh,” Merlani hisses as quietly as they can. “And stop calling me that.”
“—Those two are counterparts. It’s different.”
“Is something the matter back there, Cadet Ocean?” Entile Wyndi calls, looking up in Merlani’s direction to the back row where they’re sitting.
“No, Commander,” says Merlani, flushing lightly with embarrassment.
“Okay, then… See that it stays that way.” Entile Wyndi’s tail swishes in a gesture that’s more sympathy than amusement before they turn their eyes back towards the rest of the room. “Now that you’re all settled down, I have a stack of simulation assignments for you! Seniors first, you know the drill—come up and get your data chip for the sim computers as I call your names. Cadets Indigo and Nghiem?”
Halfway through their entile’s calling of pairs of upperclassmen, Merlani feels their pocket-com vibrating with a silent message notification. They ignore it, since they’re officially in class now, grateful that they remembered to set its pings to silent this time when they first arrived in the meeting room.
“Mist and Perkins?”
Merlani feels another message notification in their pocket. Again, they ignore it.
“Raindrop and Nolasco?”
A third notification, then a fourth.
Merlani finally glances over with their lower two eyes to see that, as usual, Cadet Lewis has his message interface out under the table. He looks to them expectantly.
Merlani sighs and shakes their head.
“Okay, and now for our first-year pair and training pairs: Kingfisher and Condrey?”
Cadet Lewis gives them his best attempt at a cute pleading expression.
Merlani does roll their eyes this time, pointedly pulling their pocket-com out where he can see them turn it off altogether.
“Jay and Mx. Maltby?”
Robin bounces off of the desk to join their training partner, waving to their twin as they pass in front of Merlani.
Cadet Lewis holds his message screen out towards Merlani under the desk. They pointedly fold all four arms on the table in front of them and rest their chin on their upper pair of hands, looking away from him and towards their instructors at the front of the room.
“And last but not least, Bunting and Mr. Maltby?” Entile Wyndi holds up the last data chip from their pile.
“See you later, Ocean, Lewis,” Richard says as he slips behind the chairs the two of them are sitting in.
“See you later, Maltby,” Merlani whispers in reply, not taking their eyes off the front of the room.
“Um, Commander Cerulean?” Cadet Lewis asks, raising his hand, “What about me and Ocean?”
“Ah! Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you out.” Entile Wyndi waves their tail cheerfully. “You’ll working with me today—The Elder of Cadet Ocean’s family has requested they be excused to attend to a household matter.” They turn toward the door and beckon with both left hands. “Come along, Cadet Lewis. Don’t dawdle, I’ve already got the conditions loaded for us in sim chamber eight.”
“Yes, Commander.” Cadet Lewis reluctantly stands from his seat, turning back as he leaves to look at Merlani and give them a disappointed wave.
“A household matter?” Merlani asks, tilting their head curiously as they come down to meet their uncle, since he’s still leaning on the wall near the door like he always does while Entile Wyndi is handing out assignments. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Uncle Julian smiles and gives Merlani a reassuring pat on the shoulder, since all of their classmates are gone and he doesn’t have to pretend to be formal. “But ‘household matter’ is about as much as Wyndi told me this morning when they asked me to help with it.”
“Ah.” Merlani nods, stifling a chuckle. “So they’ve caught a case of cryptic from Ai-Nida Celadon today, then?”
Uncle Julian laughs. “Seems like it! Come on, let’s get your things and head out—I’ve got a shuttle warmed up and ready to go, but I’d assume you need to stop by your flat and change clothes first.”
“Shuttle?” Merlani asks, startled.
“Yep! Whatever we’re handling is waiting for us up at Luna Orbital, apparently.”
Merlani follows their uncle out into the now-empty hallway, then looks up at him with the most innocent face they can manage without giggling. “Did they really ask for me specifically, Uncle Julian? Or am I coming along to make sure youhave someone to keep you from getting lost again?”
Uncle Julian laughs long enough at their teasing that he never does get around to answering.
When Merlani climbs up into the shuttle after their uncle, they’re surprised to see a pair of very familiar faces waiting for them inside.
“You three all set with the pre-flight checks?” Uncle Julian asks, nodding his head towards the access ladder up to the shuttle’s cockpit from the small passenger cabin.
“Yes sir, Commander Potts,” says Kouassi, saluting crisply. “Cadet Vasquez is confirming our flight plan with the control tower right now.”
“All cargo is stored, sir,” da Silva chimes in, mimicking the gesture, “and we double-checked the fuel charge and backup power cells as you requested.”
“Good.” Uncle Julian sets his small flight bag down on one of the passenger seats and takes off his uniform jacket, draping it over the back of the seat. He pulls his well-worn Darter Pilot’s jacket out of the bag and shrugs it on, grinning at the two cadets who are still standing at attention in front of him. “There! Now we can get this show on the road. Help our passenger settle in, we’ll take off as soon as Vasquez and I have our flight clearance.”
“Yes, sir!” chorus Kouassi and da Silva.
With that, Uncle Julian climbs up the ladder to the cockpit, leaving Merlani standing somewhat confused with their two teammates.
“So, Barker,” says Kouassi, making a broad and teasingly polite gesture with both arms towards the selection of open seats around them, “do you prefer an aisle or window seat?”
Da Silva stifles a chuckle, doing his best to mimic Kouassi’s tone. “And as our only passenger, feel free to ask one of your cabin attendants if you need any assistance…”
Merlani giggles, shaking their head. “You two are the best sort of silly, do you know that?”
“We do try,” says Kouassi, breaking out of his formal tone with a laugh.
“That’s why we’re friends, isn’t it?” da Silva asks with a chuckle, plopping down into one of the seats.
“It is,” Merlani agrees, taking the aisle seat opposite him and setting their bag down beside them on the floor. “Now, what in the stars are you doing here?”
Kouassi sits down cross-legged in the aisle between them. “Special training assignment—Colonel Albright called the three of us in this morning and told us we’d be going up to Luna Orbital as a shuttle crew with an experienced pilot buddy of hers as preparation for the practical portion of our license exam. Vasquez is flying us out, and I’m flying back.”
“Meanwhile, I’m getting to credit all of this as hours towards my ‘Security Personnel Practical Experience’ unit,” da Silva tells them.
“Oh?” Merlani twitches an ear curiously at him.
“Yep!” He grins. “I’m your bodyguard for the day.”
Merlani raises their third eyebrow at him teasingly. “Even though I could probably best you in a fight if I wanted to?”
“Hey!” Da Silva holds a hand over his chest dramatically, as if wounded. “No need to point that out to anyone.” He smirks at Merlani after a moment. “Besides, thing one: we’ve only ever gone to a draw, so jury’s still out on whether you could beat me. Thing two: it’s better tactics for people to assume you’re the sort of Florivan who doesn’t know how to defend themself.”
Merlani shakes their head, stifling giggles. “Okay, both points taken. I don’t see how I’d need a bodyguard if we’re just going up to Luna Orbital, though—it’s not exactly a dangerous place.”
Da Silva shrugs. “All I know is that I received orders to protect and assist you for ‘the duration of your mission’.” He makes little air quotation gestures with both hands for emphasis. “It’s good practice, either way.”
“Get yourselves secure back there, kids,” calls Uncle Julian’s voice over the intercom. “We’re cleared for take-off now.”
Kouassi reluctantly gets up and takes one of the other aisle seats while the shuttle is making its way up into the planet’s atmosphere. The shuttle’s internal gravity and inertia controls keep it comfortable and level-feeling inside, of course, but safety protocols are safety protocols.
Merlani finds themself somewhat disappointed that this model of short-range shuttle doesn’t have viewports in the passenger area so they can watch the scenery. At the same time, they’re grateful that their teammates are with them so they have something more interesting to think about. This is certainly a better way to spend the day than cooped up in a simulation chamber trying to deal with Cadet Lewis, that’s for sure.
“What is your mission, anyway, Barker?” Kouassi asks as soon as the green ‘safe to move’ light comes on and he can unbuckle his safety belt and get back into his apparently-more-comfortable spot on the floor in the aisle.
“No idea.” Merlani tells him. “Elder Celadon just had word passed to me that I needed to go up to Luna Orbital to handle some household business or other for them.”
“That’s… cryptic.” Kouassi looks up to them curiously. “I take it ‘household business’ is also the explanation for why you’re not in uniform?”
“Elder Celadon is notorious for being cryptic.” Merlani smooths the amber-embroidered white silk of their long-sleeved tunic over their lap with their lower hands. Underneath, they have a pair of loose trousers in amber with a wide white ribbon embroidered along the outer seams to match the translucent sash they’re wearing around their waist and the warm bead-fringed shawl over their shoulders. “But yeah. Household business calls for family clothes.”
“The look suits you,” Kouassi says with a smile. “Not that different from the outfit you wear for workouts, actually.”
“Same sort of thing,” Merlani replies, “just shinier. It’s more comfortable than you might think… and warm, thankfully, since we’re going up to Luna Orbital and all.”
Da Silva tilts his head curiously. “Any particular reason for the colors? I feel like you’re always wearing some variation on that when I see you out of uniform.”
“Oh, they’re family colors.” Merlani gestures to the edge of their shawl. “The amber is Elder Celadon’s, and the white is for my Ai-Nida. Those of us who had to be adopted into other households after the War wear our line Elder’s color too.”
Both of their human friends nod. Thankfully for Merlani, like Reese, these two have been through enough classes about the Novan War to understand why they and so many others among their people have cause to wear two colors and not need to ask too many questions about it.
“Well,” says Kouassi after a small silence, “they’re colors that look good on you.”
“Thanks,” says Merlani. They giggle softly. “Hopefully in a decade or two I’ll have a different color to wear, though.”
“Oh?” asks da Silva. “And that’s… good, right?”
“Oh, yes!” Merlani nods. “That would mean that one of my littermates had grown up to be an Elder and I’ll be part of their household instead—which will be a very good thing if it happens.” They mean this from the fullness of their heart, too. They know it’s impossible that they’ll ever have kittens and take on that role, but Mir and Mel would both make wonderful parents, in Merlani’s opinion.
“Well, then,” says da Silva, grinning even though he probably doesn’t understand the context. “I’ll look forward to seeing you in whatever color that turns out to be.”
Merlani dips their head to him in agreement.
“So…” Kouassi pulls his ever-present deck of cards out of his jacket’s innermost pocket. “Go Fish, anyone?”
Da Silva nods, taking the cards the other man has already begun to deal out to him and Merlani. “I swear I’ll manage to beat you this time, Paul.”
Merlani waves their tail happily as they accept their cards. “Has that ever happened before?”
“Nope,” says Kouassi, grinning, “but I suppose there’s a first time for everything…”