Avril clumsily hopped down off the final step of her father's old starship, both motion sick from the flight, and still getting used to her taur form. She glanced around the bustling hangar anxiously. For a dozy planet like Tavros, the port always managed to be fairly busy. Or so she'd heard. She'd lived a relatively sheltered and spoiled life, as the child of the mining magnate known as Victor Steele, after all. This was the first time she was really getting a taste of common life, and over the last few days she'd had quite a rough experience. First her crew had to protect her from would-be space pirates, and then a mysterious note led her to an unknown system where she nearly got arrested, and ended up saddled (quite literally!) with a costume that wasn't a costume after all but a permanent mod. It had made her more than a little jumpy and done nothing for her confidence.
The ground below Avril's hooves was a blessedly cool textured metal, stained and scraped from many decades of use, and she could see a number of loose bolts and other scrap laying haphazardly discarded about the deck. A small group of kaithrit girls ran past and Avril tried to ignore the twist of jealousy in her chest, recalling how she used to look just the same as those little twin-tailled cats, watching them carrying what appeared to be a small stack of parcels from one end of the hangar to the other. A leithan and a gryvain were arguing beneath the neighbouring starship, and all manner of other aliens, humans, and who-knows-what were running around carrying out their various errands.
"Captain Steele, ma'am." A handsome ausar technician with a bright, quick voice greeted her no sooner than she had taken a few steps from the ship, "Avril, that is, er... I fixed your codex for you." Wagging his fluffy tan canine tail, he thrust his arms out, Avril's touchscreen handheld gripped tightly in his nervous sweating handpaws. "T-there's a message on it, a signal has been detected in Mhen'ga..."
When Victor Steele had passed on, he hadn't exactly left his company to his only child, as most people expected he would. Nor had he left it to Avril's cousin, Jack, who had also been raised impersonally under the wealthy entrepreneur. Instead, he had set them both a challenge to recover a series of probes on a number of planets; a contest for the inheritance, to see who was truly worthy of bearing the Steele name. Avril knew this task was very important, she had to beat Jack, but...
She glanced back at the starship, paling. The mere thought of flying again so soon was enough to make her stomach feel unsettled. Cerise was a terrible pilot, and they hadn't made the adjustments necessary for a taur pilot yet.
She turned back to the eager to please ausar. "Good boy, Vahn. Thank you. Can you watch the ship, and cover for me if Cerise asks where I am? I'm just going to stretch my legs while we're refuelling, maybe get some supplies on the merchant deck, okay?" She didn't wait for a reply, flashing him her best attempt at a reassuring smile as she headed on to the elevator.
The elevator itself was clearly just as well used as the hangar, though maybe not as well serviced, and wasn't meant to carry very many people at once, which didn't strike the captain as being very efficient. Avril was barely able to fit her dappled quarters into the claustrophobic enclosure. She managed to turn around and select the scratched old button for the next floor, and waited as the doors closed with a harsh slow scraping. The elevator lurched upwards at a crawling pace, the cables overhead producing worrying creaks and groans that echoed back. Avril decided to pass the tense and surprisingly lengthy duration of the ride up by tying her long green hair back into a manageable if messy ponytail. Anything to attempt to control the impending panic attack threatening to crush the breath from her chest. She briefly allowed herself to ponder that stairs would have been faster and safer, but she hadn't seen any.
When the elevator jerked to a halt, it took a good few seconds for the doors to open again, and Avril was greeted with a somehow rusty-sounding yet cheerful 'ding!' She stood in stunned silence for a moment before scrambling from the elevator as the doors began to close again, letting out the breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding. After a few moments to let her heart rate settle again, she took in her surroundings, and frowned in confusion. This doesn't look like a merchant deck.
She stood in the middle of a sort of four-way intersection divided in the middle by the column of the elevator shaft: a calmly blue wallpapered hallway stretched in each cardinal direction from where she stood, rows of decorated doors with gold number plates inviting investigation. Realisation hit her at last that she'd somehow skipped a couple floors and ended up on the Residential Deck.
"No wonder it took so long." She sighed under her breath, turning around to head back down. Only, when she pressed the worn button next to the elevator, the doors didn't budge. She waited a moment. Pressed again several times, harder, as if that would help, but it was no use. The elevator was out of order, and she would have to contact maintenance if she wanted to get back to the hangar. But she couldn't see a phone nearby either.
As she was fretting what to do, she heard the jangle of keys to her right, and the soft click of a door closing. A feminine voice carried down the west hallway, and Avril looked up to see the stunning sight of another centaur. Avril herself stood at a full six foot, with waist length deep green wavy hair, narrow mismatched copper and steel blue eyes, and thin lips usually tugged down in a perpetually fretful frown. She had a pair of fluffy grey catlike ears nestled in her hair, already a relic from her kaithrit life, and her coat was a scruffy dappled grey. She wore tired black and white space-pilot gear she'd inherited from her mother, and it didn't quite fit her.
This other centaur was truly Avril's opposite in every way. She stood at about five foot five, definitely short for a centaur, and her straight brown hair was cut short in a girlish bobcut that framed her face cutely. She had round brown eyes that seemed to crinkle at the edges out of a sense of resting joy, and she had a bright full smile as she sung softly to herself, treading light down the hallway. She was wearing a simple white shirt on her torso, covered by what looked like a handmade light pink woollen cardigan. Her chestnut coat shone with a healthy lustre; and watching her, Avril felt her heart stopping for the second time in the last few minutes, for completely different reasons.
She took a few steps backward, instinctively planning on hiding, but she hadn't really accounted for a small table she hadn't noticed behind her. Her hindquarters knocked into it and promptly toppled it over with a loud clatter.
Avril skittered sideways in sudden fright with a snort and nearly fell as her legs buckled, before she realised what produced the loud sound, and covered her face in embarrassment as the other centaur hurriedly approached. She didn't hear mocking laughter, but she didn't hear anything else anymore either, and risked a peek.
The other centaur was simply standing in front of her, a few paces away, with that nonthreatening and friendly smile. "Are you alright? I'm Aina, by the way."
Avril dropped her hands from her face, although she still felt absolutely mortified. "I-I'm fine, thank you Aina." God even her name is pretty. "I.. me...ahem. I am Starfleet Imperial Captain Avril Jane Steele." She sniffed, trying to maintain an air of dignity and importance as if she hadn't trampled that completely already. She'd just gloss over the part where 'Starfleet Imperial Captain' wasn't actually some illustrious title but rather named her as captain of the clunker ship she'd named The Starfleet Imperial when she was practically a self-important toddler...
Upon seeing Aina's wide-eyed look, she sighed, giving up all sense of grandness. "Just call me Avril. I'm really not much of a captain anyway. I can't even fly right now." She turned to lift up the table she had knocked down, and felt a reassuring pat on her back. "Oh don't be like that Avril. I'm sure you're a brilliant captain. Here, let me help you with that."
Together, the centaurs set the table upright again, Avril informed the other that the elevator wasn't cooperating, and Aina smiled pleasantly at the anxious captain. "Hey, why dont you come back to my apartment? I'll make you a nice cup of tea, and you can use my phone to call maintenance, and you can get back to your ship in no time."
Avril really couldn't think of any reason to reject the offer, and Aina looked about as threatening as a newborn kitten, so she gratefully accepted the offer and followed her back down the west hall. Aina began to sing to herself again as they walked, and Avril felt her heart do a strange little flip, which she pointedly ignored. They came to a stop outside of a door prettily decorated with painted flowers, nearly at the end of the hallway. It only took a moment for the chestnut to unlock the door, and Avril followed her into the apartment, where it was her turn to stare wide-eyed.
She'd never seen a home that catered to centaurs before, nor really any home that felt so...well. Homely. The Steele Estates were all so rich and showy, and certainly didn't feel lived in, but everything about Aina's colorful apartment spoke volumes to her character. The comfortable wide sunfaded couch against the wall was liberally decorated with plump soft cushions, and a well-loved blanket hung over the back. A threadbare rug lay underhoof, and most of the walls bore handpainted shelves with a mix of little stacks of old books with creased spines, and chaotic tangles of alien plants overflowing the confines of their pots. In fact, there were plants everywhere in Aina's apartment, and Avril didn't recognise even half of those. A wide arch curved in the wall to their left, and what looked like a taur friendly kitchen could be seen beyond it, to the right was a similar arch, but it was strung with colorful beads in a curtain for privacy, so Avril assumed that was Aina's room. The whole unit had a very open and sunny atmosphere, despite the total lack of windows or really any sunlight on Tavros, and Avril felt at once relaxed and smiling without really knowing why.
"Here we are, make yourself at home." Aina clearly didn't expect any spectacular response to her humble jumble, petting the couch invitingly as she walked past into the kitchen. "The phone is on the table beside the couch here, the maintenance number should be on the memo beside it. I always forget the important numbers... Anyway I'll make us that tea."
Twenty minutes later and Avril had politely yet flatly chewed out everyone on the line who'd had the misfortune of speaking to her, and after name-dropping her late father, someone finally agreed to come out to fix it. When she hung up the phone, Aina had a fresh cup of tea waiting for her.
"Hey, I wasn't interrupting anything was I?" Avril questioned lightly as she accepted the delicate cup, realising that Aina had clearly been leaving to do something when they'd met. Avril adjusted her grip on the cup, stretched out across the couch, enjoying taking her weight off her hooves for what felt like the first time in the last three days.
"Oh don't worry about that, really! I live by myself as you can see, and I do all my work from home, so sometimes I just go for a stroll to get a little change of scenery. I was planning on going down to the hangar for a little while today and watching the pilots for a while. Maybe seeing if any of them have any new specimens for me." She sighs almost dreamily. "Oh, but if the elevator is broken then I can't go anyway, so don't worry!"
Avril nodded to herself, nursing the tea calmly, before her brow furrowed and she looked up at Aina again. "New specimens? What is it that you do exactly?"
"Oh! I'm a botanist!" Aina beamed, "I have plants from all over the galaxy here. I do research on plants for the herbal industry mostly. But you know, not just anything will do for these plants, you have to simulate their conditions properly. I have sunlamps, and native soils, and I even have water brought in specific to the region of the specimen so that it gets just the right minerals for that really authentic quality. You won't get that from a synthetic blend!" By the joyful glow to her features, Avril could tell it was one of her favourite things to talk about. And talk she did, discussing her favourite plants for over an hour, detailing many many types and their properties and applications. Avril had thought that she would be bored to death by such a conversation, but found that Aina's enthusiasm was incredibly infectious and even ended up asking plenty of questions about Aina's line of work. While they talked, Aina made them some more tea, using several types of plants this time, and Avril was pleasantly surprised by some of their effects. When they'd exhausted the topic of botany temporarily, they talked of education, and Avril's family, and where she was headed next once they'd refuelled.
At some point the conversation drifted to the topic of centaurs, and after a little hesitation, Aina rose and fetched something, and kindly pressed a small wooden box into Avril's hands. "Here. I figure by the way you move and hold yourself that you're... a little new to the taur thing, and, when I was freshly nodded I found these herbs helped me a lot, at the very least for improving my coat. Honestly they're better fresh but they're fussy, so tea is probably more convenient for a busy woman like you. A cup a day should sort your coat out in no time. But you're really pretty regardless you know!"
Avril flushed and stammered a thanks, setting the box down by the phone, and tried to find an opportunity to change the subject before she embarrassed herself. "So uh, how long ago did you get modded? And what made you want to do it? If you don't mind my asking, of course."
Aina practically glowed again, just like when she was talking about her plants, and Avril began to wonder if that was just this girls default expression. "Oh I don't mind at all! It's been about.. Wow about five years already for me. As for what made me want to.." She paused, rubbing the back of her neck.
"Sorry, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
"No, no. I just haven't really talked about it before, and I can't really say if it was a good reason but.. It started when I was a young teenager I guess. Someone gave me a holo-film that had a few centaur actors in it, and I was so... spellbound you know? They were so beautiful and majestic and I was so envious just watching them. And before I knew it I had a secret stash of um..stallion magazines.. just to look at the mares," She admitted bashfully, "And of course my parents eventually found them and we fought for months over it. I told them I wanted to get the taur mods, and they said they'd never pay for such a thing. I told them they didn't have to. I got a part time job at a fast food place, flipping burgers and doing fries, and I saved for three years to do this. And honestly I have no regrets, I couldn't be happier, even if my parents won't talk to me anymore. I have a good life. So, how about you, what made you take the plunge?"
Avril was disarmed by her sunny smile for a moment after hearing her story, and it took her a moment to find her voice. "What made me want to be a centaur you mean? I uh, don't really have the best answer for that, because technically I didn't want to be modded like this." At the look of alarm on Aina's face, she hastily continued. "What I mean is... Okay, bear with me, its a long story. I was travelling with my crew about a week ago and we received a letter, old fashioned paper and all, talking about some promise I'd apparently made to meet someone on Poe-A. None of us had even heard of Poe-A, but there were coordinates in the back, so we went there at the time specified... There was a huge festival going on, everyone was out in the street partying. I met a demon-morph calling herself Holiday, and she told me I needed a costume, and pressured me into choosing quickly. I was a half-Kaithrit a week ago, so her shitty cat girl costume bored me. But I saw the horse costume in a box in the corner, and hey go big right? I pulled it on and it was a little awkward because I was so short.. Four foot can you believe? Anyway once I got it on, I could feel my legs less and the horse body more. It wasn't uncomfortable. I assumed that it had just meshed normally and was fairly excited at the time, and I left all my stuff with Holiday and partied. I danced all night, but someone must have slipped me something because I woke up in a disused dorm room, with a holo from a pretty kaithrit boy telling me that my personal effects were in a bag under the bunk, and that this definitely wasn't a costume...and that Holiday was on the run for stealing synth-tech and I nearly got arrested just for being around her. So uh yeah. I tried to take it off afterwards but it just hurt and I couldn't find a seam so I guess might as well make the best of it. I was upset at first but when you get around the bipedal centric society things, its actually pretty cool. Hey at least I didn't have to save for three years right?" Avril laughed lightly, trying to break the tension she'd created.
Aina looked absolutely horrified anyway, and promptly clattered up from her nest of pillows on the floor to wrap Avril in a near suffocating embrace. "Oh you poor girl, that sounds like such a terrifying experience. I hope your future experiences as a taur are so much better than how you came to be this way."
Avril was touched by the sudden affection, and shyly hugged Aina back after a moment, listening to her strong heart. "Thank you. Really Aina, you've been so kind to me today, and I've taken up so much of your time. I should probably get going now anyway, they should have fixed the elevator by now and my crew will be wondering where I am."
"Any time you want to chat about centaur stuff, or anything at all, or you just need a friend, you come knock okay? I'll always be here, or somewhere on Tavros, so don't be a stranger. I look forward to seek you. Oh, and don't forget the tea!"
Avril collected the little box from beside the phone. "Don't worry, I won't forget to take it. Thank you again, Aina. It's... nice to have a friend. I'll be sure to visit when I return from Mhen'ga okay?"
Aina beamed, her brown eyes glittering. "I'll see you then, Starfleet Imperial Captain." The made waved her fingers cheekily as Avril laughed and trotted back down the hall, her heart feeling warm and light in her chest for the first time in a long time. Nearing the elevator, she checked her codex and blinked in surprise. It was nearly sunset, she'd spent the entire day in the house of a stranger. Not that she considered Aina a stranger anymore of course, they were already firm friends, but she'd get such a lecture for 'going home with someone she didn't know', especially after what happened with Holiday. Maybe Cerise was right, maybe Avril really was too naive for a Steele kid.
She shook the thoughts from her mind, not willing to give up the happy mood quite yet, and tentatively pressed the button to call the elevator. To her delight, the doors opened immediately, and with a completely smooth motion, and the ride back down was just as speedy and unremarkable.
Vahn was waiting near the elevator, anxiously tapping at his small codex, and he jumped up when he saw Avril. "Oh, oh thank the stars, Captain! Captain Steele, ma'am, I was so worried, you weren't answering any of your messages, Cerise-"
"Messages?" Avril took out her codex and tapped the dark screen to bring it out of standby. The inbox was just as empty as it had been that morning. Or when she had checked the time two minutes ago.
"Oh biscuits give it here then. Uh, I mean. Would you please let me have a look at that, ma'am? I guess..maybe I didn't quite fix it so good after all maybe I'm very sorry-" Avril held up a hand to cut him off again.
"Never mind that. What's this about Cerise?"
The ausar responded in a rapid garble. "Oh well you see, I couldn't contact you, and she was thinking how much trouble could you possibly get into on a non-hostile planet, but then she was all like 'Sigh, this is Avril we're talking about.' And she went on ever so many rants about all of the terrible situations you might have gotten your er- large rump into. Her words, not mine, I'm just putting it more politely ma'am. And all this made me so much more worried about you, where were you?"
The young captain shook her head, her hooves clicking on the metal as she made her way to the starship to face her galotian guardian.
"I made a friend."