The Garden in the Darkness | Part 1: An Unscheduled Landing | Chapter 11
Mirawynd, true to form, does not want to get out of the nice warm water once their cousin is done helping them rid themself of the icky pond smell that’s been clinging to their fur all day. Instead, they splash over to the other side of the basin and retrieve the floating piece of plant sponge they’ve been playing with.
They swim their prize back over to the side where Nyx is waiting and offer it up hopefully. “Again?”
Their cousin makes a mildly exasperated trilling sound back at them, but accepts the soggy fibrous thing. “You know, Mirawynd, if you don’t come out of the water before it gets cold, you’re going to get chilled…”
“Again!” Mirawynd’s excitedly waving tail splashes a bit of water up towards Nyx’s face by accident.
Nyx shakes their head as they reach up with their upper hand to wipe the water away. “Okay, one more time… and then you’re getting dried off whether you agree to it or not.”
Mirawynd squeaks back something that is not precisely an agreement and swims over to the far side of the basin to wait for the game to begin. It’s a new game that they’ve invented today to play with their cousin, but it’s already one of their favorites. They can’t wait to show it to their human the next time he decides to give them a bath.
“Ready?” Nyx holds up the plant-sponge in their upper hand and squeezes the water out of it.
Mirawynd nods excitedly and splashes with their tail again.
“All right…” Nyx pantomimes tossing the plant-sponge into the air twice. On the third time, they let go so it flies up high above the center of the basin. “Catch!”
Mirawynd dives down into the shallow water and then pushes up so they jump out of it just in time to catch the plant-sponge between all four of their hands. They fall back down with a big splash, showering their cousin in lukewarm rinse water.
Nyx applauds them anyway, snapping the fingers of both hands and then making an exaggerated gesture towards Mirawynd—who is now triumphantly holding the sponge up above their head to show off that they have, in fact, caught it.
“Behold, the galaxy’s greatest luffa-catcher!” says Nyx, halfway laughing.
Mirawynd squeaks happily and then swims over to bring the plant-sponge back to them. “Again?”
“What, again?” Nyx reaches out with their upper hand to give Mirawynd’s ears a gentle rub.
Mirawynd purrs lightly at the touch and holds up their toy. “Again!”
Before Mirawynd can think to swim away, both of Nyx’s hands have closed around them and swiftly lifted them out of the water. They wriggle to try and slip free, dropping the plant-sponge onto the floor beside the basin in order to have use of all four arms to try and peel the gentle but persistent fingers away. It lands with a soggy thud.
“I think that’s quite enough splashing for today, Mirawynd,” says Nyx, seeming determined not to let go. “Julian warnedme what to expect from you, you know.”
Mirawynd stops wriggling for a moment to look up into their cousin’s eyes with the most pitiful expression they can muster. They’re not sure Nyx understands that resisting capture is an integral part of all stages of their bath time routine.
“Now, now, don’t give me that face.” Nyx smiles softly and loosens their upper hand’s grip enough to pet Mirawynd’ssoggy head some more. “I know you like being dry and clean better than wet and cold.”
Mirawynd nuzzles their hand and relaxes—then uses the next moment to slip free of their cousin’s grasp altogether with a triumphant squeak. They quickly bounce up over Nyx’s shoulder and down onto the floor to scamper out of the washroom and into the bigger part of Nyx and Reba’s nest room, leaving a trail of small splashy puddles behind them.
The room is mostly dark right now, but that doesn’t matter so much to Mirawynd. Their three keen golden eyes can see clearly in what little light is there.
“Mirawynd!” their cousin calls in a whisper that’s half laughing and half exasperated admonishment. “Come back here before you wake anyone up and let me dry you off, at least!”
Mirawynd pauses for a moment to shake off as much of the water as they can and then continues scampering around so Nyx can have fun chasing and looking for them. Nyx seems to be trying to chase them as silently and slowly as possible, although Mirawynd doesn’t understand why. Usually, when they play this game, the person trying to catch them with the towel makes an appropriate amount of fuss to show that they’re having fun too.
After a few minutes, Mirawynd starts to get cold even though the room is mostly nice and warm because their fur is still soggy. Chilly, but not quite ready to let their cousin catch them, they slip under the couch in the little sitting area. They see Nyx’s quiet feet walk past and through the curtain of vines at the door.
Mirawynd giggles. Nyx seems not to have realized that they didn’t leave the room at all. They’re still chilly and wet, but they can’t resist a good game of hide and seek.
A few moments later, a hand dangles down from above. It wiggles its five distinctly pinkish-pale human fingers at them in a way that makes the slim gold band on the fourth finger catch the tiny bit of light in the room and sparkle. Ever drawn to shiny things and warmth, Mirawynd scoots over to the fingers and taps them with one of their own upper hands.
The hand moves around until it finds Mirawynd’s head so it can ruffle their ears, then withdraws from the hiding space beneath the couch and beckons them upward.
Mirawynd follows, hopping up onto the couch and then more gently onto the chest of the human who’s been sleeping on it. They greet him with their softest and most charming squeak.
“I thought I heard a little silver rascal under there.” Rudy lightly strokes their ears again. “Ugh. And a wet rascal at that, I see. You’ve gone and escaped from the bath again, have you?”
Mirawynd makes a sheepish expression and takes hold of their soggy tail in their lower hands. They squeak softly as an acknowledgment.
“Well,” says Rudy, feigning annoyance, “go on, then. Go get your towel so I can dry you off. You can snuggle with me until Nyx comes back to collect you.”
“Pocket?” Mirawynd asks, reaching down with one of their upper hands to lift one side of his vest. Rudy does have very nice warm pockets for sleeping in. That’s part of why they like him so much.
“Only after you’re dry.”
It only takes Mirawynd a brief bit of scampering and dragging to bring one of the big towels from the washroom and climb back up onto the couch where their second-favorite human has been ever since Reba brought him down from the hangar. They present the towel to him with a triumphant squeak, waving their tail in a way that sends small droplets of water flying around them.
Rudy obliges by wrapping the towel around their small slightly-chilled body and rubbing their fur to get the last of the water out and fluff it back up—although he doesn’t make any attempt to sit up any more than he has to. “If Dons’ kittens are anything like you, Wyndi,” he tells them in a quiet, conspiratorial whisper, “we’re all going to have our hands full from the moment they open their eyes.”
Mirawynd contents themself with being dried and snuggled and curls up contentedly on his chest under the towel so that only their head is peeking out. They yawn softly, their purr loud enough now to almost drown out the sound. Part of the reason they like Rudy so much is because he’s always a good source of warmth and his voice is almost as comforting as their human’s. They can’t help but feel safe when they’re with him.
Mirawynd has nearly fallen asleep when they hear Nyx return. They swivel one ear in the direction of the door at the sound of the soft footsteps.
“Don’t worry,” Rudy calls softly to their cousin. “Wyndi went and tired themself out before they could leave the room.”
“Ah.” Nyx sighs and comes over to the sitting area. “I’m sorry they disturbed your rest, cousin Elias.”
“I was awake.” Rudy chuckles softly. “And believe it or not, they do this when Sarge bathes them too, if he forgets to lock the door to our lavatory first.”
“Julian didn’t tell me that part.” They hear the sound of Nyx settling down into one of the chairs opposite the couch. “I don’t know how he ever manages to get them clean… I’ve never met a kitten who was so enthusiastic about being difficult to bathe.”
“Wyndi’s a bit of a bloody handful when they want to be, yeah—unless Li’s around. They’re almost eerily well-behaved for him. He doesn’t even have to try to mimic Dons’ kitten-you-are-going-to-behave-now tone, either.” Rudy continues lightly stroking Mirawynd’s ears as he talks. “Dons tells me every kitten he’s ever met has been like that with him, though… not that I blame them.”
“Kittens are drawn to people their instincts say are warm and safe or somehow family,” Nyx comments with an amused tone. “I’m not surprised, somehow, that Elder Celadon’s Navigator is the sort to draw them. He’s a Beacon, after all.”
“You said you’d met Dons—was that recently enough that you’ve met Li too?”
“Once, about oh… a year or so before we left Horizon Prime?” A light teasing sparkle manifests in Nyx’s voice. “Assuming that he’s the same nice young man with the dark hair and the bright voice who was with them then? Grows orchids for a hobby?”
“That’d be him. Best Navigator in the Fleet, too, as far as anyone’s ever told me.” Rudy chuckles. “I’m sure they’ll both be glad to see you again when Aegolius gets here.”
“I’m looking forward to it…” Nyx trails off with a barely suppressed sigh.
Mirawynd opens one of their eyes and looks over, concerned for their cousin but sleepy enough that they don’t particularly want to leave the nice warm human whose chest they’re so comfortably snuggled up against.
“Hmm,” Rudy says after a few moments of silence. “Been a bloody long day, hasn’t it?”
“It has,” Nyx agrees. They start to stand up. “Forgive me, cousin Elias. I’m the one disturbing your rest now—”
“—You aren’t. I take night shift often enough I’m nocturnal by default.” Mirawynd feels him lightly shrug. “Just laying about here in the dark hoping the bloody vertigo will go away before morning, that’s all.”
“If you want to leave Wyndi with me and go get some sleep yourself, go ahead,” Rudy says, still in the same soft voice he’s been using since Nyx reappeared. “Kiely’s probably wondering where you are, if any of her’s awake still.”
“I might.” Nyx hesitates, then settles back down into their chair. They fold their legs up underneath them, curling their tail up into their lap where their lower hand can reach the tuft at the tip of it. “At the moment, I’m… well, still trying to calm my thoughts enough that I could sleep, to be honest.”
“I get that. Is it the thing with the strikers earlier, or…?”
“Mostly. I… never expected to find myself in a situation like that.” Nyx sighs softly. “Even less than I ever expected to wake up in a situation like this in the first place.”
“Kiely did fill me in earlier about what happened to the two of you.” Rudy absently continues stroking Mirawynd’s fur. “She mentioned you weren’t one of the Fleet’s volunteers?”
Mirawynd purrs louder, both because they feel like it and because they want their cousin to hear the sound and feel comforted too, considering the tone of voice they’ve been using. They’re glad they have Rudy here to talk to Nyx for them; he’s very good at being comforting when he wants to be, even if he can’t purr.
“I’m not… I was only able to join the team because it was a joint civilian aid and Fleet auxiliary venture.” Nyx hesitates again. “Ensign York wasn’t even my… well, Psiloscops’ Captain had assigned him to watch over me because he was the only Nav certified crew member available. He was a very nice person, but I…” They make a vague gesture with their lower hand before absently beginning to run their tail-fluff through its fingertips over and over again. “I still hadn’t decided whether I wanted to keep him for my Navigator or if I wanted to stay on here as a civilian staff member with the hospital we were hoping to set up when… everything happened.”
“Mm. And now with this ‘accidental rescue’ bit and having to be in the bloody middle of things, you’re back to being uncertain about that decision on top of everything else from the last four years that’s been dredged up for you today?” Rudy’s hand moves away from Mirawynd’s head just long enough to make little quotation gestures for emphasis.
“…To a certain extent, yes. The decision about whether I could properly volunteer for the Fleet if I wanted to has been made for me, though.” Just the barest hint of a sigh escapes as Nyx says this.
Nyx’s upper hand gestures at their right ear. “The scarring isn’t quite as obvious because of the way I keep my hair… but there was enough damage that I’ve lost most of my hearing in this one. I don’t know if I could get an earpiece to work in it properly again, and I’d have to use the other one to listen to the Strange if I was going to run jumps and actually get anywhere.”
“Which wouldn’t leave you much margin for being able to hear your Navigator giving points or be able to anchor to their voice so you didn’t get lost.” Rudy nods. “I know just enough about things from hanging out with Li and Dons to see where you’re going with this.”
“Yes…” Nyx sighs more audibly this time. “I don’t have much to offer as a jumper, even if it does seem that Abigail has found an alternative use for me… although I’ll admit I’m still not sure how I feel about being carried around to spot things your sensors can’t if it means being out in the middle of a battlefield.”
“I see what you mean. Wouldn’t blame you one bit for wanting to stay out of the bloody darters, myself.” Rudy gets quiet and thoughtful for a while before he replies. “Well, Nyx, I can’t say I’d have any more advice for you than you’d have for yourself—if you asked me for any—but if you’re anything like Dons? This is the part where I’m supposed to remind you that you do need to try to sleep instead of staying up for days on end with the weight of the galaxy on your chest.”
Nyx chuckles halfheartedly. “That… sounds like something my Nida would say.”
“It’s something I’ve picked up from Li’s playbook, actually, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been given the line by one Elder or another.”
Mirawynd gets an itch along the edges of the bare patch on their shoulders and uncurls themself with a yawn to try to scratch at it. Their sleepy eyes turn to Rudy with a soft, requesting sort of a squeak.
“Ah, and here I thought you were asleep.” He obliges with gentle scratches, since he can reach the itchy bit more easily than Mirawynd themself can.
“I should probably return them to Julian soon,” says Nyx. “I’m sure he’s wondering by now if they’ve managed to accidentally drown me.”
“From what I can see of you in this light? I’d think they almost did.” Rudy shakes his head with a light chuckle. “Sarge won’t worry—he knows they’re safe with us, and the man sleeps like a rock when you can ever get him to settle down long enough. He probably wouldn’t even notice you’d slipped in to deliver them until morning anyway.”
“Ah.” Nyx stifles a yawn. “I’ll take your word for that.” After a moment, they come over and bend down beside the couch, lightly ruffling Mirawynd’s ears. “I’ll leave it up to you, then, Mirawynd—do you want to go upstairs to watch over your guardian’s dreams tonight, or are you staying here with us?”
Mirawynd looks up to their cousin with a questioning squeak. They had been under the impression that their human would be coming back to the nice warm nest to join them after he washed off his own pond smells. In fact, they’d assumed he was already in the nice nest they’d found when they explored behind the curtains dividing the room earlier, and that they’d be able to go snuggle with him whenever they wanted.
An old fear surfaces in their mind; one that’s almost as old as Mirawynd themself. It’s the fear that says they have to find their human now before he’s gone forever like the parent and littermates they only barely remember and they’re all alone—the fear that says that monsters like to try to take their human away if they leave him alone for too long. The fact that their cousin and their second-favorite human are there with them now barely registers. All that matters to Mirawynd is that they find their human.
They scamper off before Nyx or Rudy can say anything to stop them, first in the direction of the nest where they were sosure their human was supposed to be tonight. They dart under the edge of the vine curtains and hop up into the soft bed to search the blankets for him. There’s warmth there in the blankets for sure.
Mirawynd seeks out the warmth, tunneling through the blanket layers until they find first a leg and then the rest of a human—who is not their human at all, they discover, and seems to be all alone sleeping in the nest. They let out an alarmed squeak when they realize they were wrong about him being safely where they expected him.
Before Mirawynd can scurry off into the labyrinth of vines to find him, the human under the blanket catches them up in her hands. She starts lightly petting their head, forcing their instinct for growing still and relaxing in response to that to take over in spite of their urgent need to rescue their human from whatever trouble he’s surely gotten into while they weren’t watching him.
“Easy, now, ye wee fuzzy thing.” Reba yawns as she sits up in the nest and holds them so they’re looking right into her eyes. “What’s got ye all wound up?”
Mirawynd tries to explain to her that they need her to let go and stop petting them so they can go find their human, but it comes out as a series of somewhat pitiful and distressed squeaks because they don’t have the words.
“I’m sorry, Reba.” Nyx appears at the side of the nest and taps the side lamp with the tip of their tail to turn it on. “They’re looking for Julian. They’d just settled down from their bath, and I don’t think they understood that he wasn’t going to be sleeping here with us until I asked if they wanted to be taken to him.”
Reba looks back to Mirawynd with a raised eyebrow. “Ye been listening to too much gossip, kitten.”
“To be fair, Kiley,” they hear Rudy’s voice call from the couch, “they know Nyx shares that nest with you, which makes it ‘family territory’… and Sarge and I have yet to get out of being bunkmates, even if we do have a bit more space on Surnia than we did back at the bloody shipyards. With us all here, do you really think Wyndi’s fuzzy little brain could expect him to be sleeping anywhere else?”
“He has a point,” says Nyx, sitting down on the edge of the nest.
“I see he has.” Reba lets out something halfway between a laugh and a yawn and gives the itchy patch between Mirawynd’s upper shoulder blades a light scratch. “Well, Wyndi, dear, our man ain’t here, but I know for a fact he be somewhere safe—and I can take ye to him if ye promise to settle down and not run off along the way.”
Mirawynd gives her hand a small nuzzle of thanks. They sit and wait in the nest of blankets with their cousin while Reba pulls on another layer of clothes over her sleepwear so she’s more suitably dressed for the trek through the vines, then ride on her shoulder all the way to the room their human has inexplicably chosen for sleeping in.
Reba knocks on the door five or six times before she gives up and uses the keypad beside the door to open it herself. “Julian?” she calls from the doorway of the darkened apartment without entering. “Are ye awake?”
Mirawynd hops down from Reba’s shoulder and scampers through the set of rooms until they find the one where their human’s boots are sitting in the floor beside the nest. The lights turn on just as they’re inspecting the warm lump underneath the thin blanket, confirming for them that it is their human. He’s sound asleep and the edges of him feel like dreams—not nice ones, though, so Mirawynd takes it upon themself to scamper up to his head and tap his ear until he wakes up and bats them away.
“Mm, Wyndi, quit that…” he murmurs, still sounding more asleep than not.
“Sarge!” Wyndi squeaks, nuzzling his bearded cheek now. They’re very pleased to see that he’s safe and uninjured.
“It’s not morning yet, is it?” He rubs at his eyes with one hand and gives Mirawynd’s fur an absent stroke with the other.
“It ain’t,” Reba says, leaning on the door frame with her arms crossed. “Still, since Wyndi decided to wake me up, I figured ye needed to wake up too.”
For reasons Mirawynd doesn’t understand, the sound of her voice is enough to shock their human into actual wakefulness and make him grab around blindly for the shirt he’d set aside like he usually does when he goes to sleep. Supposing this must be a new game, they hop down from the bunk briefly to retrieve the shirt for him from the floor. They’re not sure why he wants it back, though, since it’s gone all cold and it still smells like pond water.
Mirawynd’s human pats them on the head in thanks when they present it to him. “Ah—sorry, Reba, were they pestering you?” His voice is muffled by the shirt he’s still scrambling to pull on. “I thought they’d decided to stay with Nyx—”
“—Don’t ye go falling out of ye bunk on my account, Julian. I only came to return ye counterpart, and freshly laundered at that.” Reba giggles. “And they had settled down… right up until they found out ye weren’t in easy reach.”
Mirawynd’s human relaxes a bit. “Wyndi does have a bit of a thing about us being separated when they’re not expecting it. They’re usually calmer about it when I leave them with Rudy, though.”
Mirawynd takes the opportunity to nuzzle against their human’s neck some more, just to make sure he’s okay and actually there. He reaches up to reassuringly stroke their fur in return.
Reba shrugs, still leaning on the doorway. “Ye be in a place they don’t know, Julian—and from what I’m told, Wyndi has their hands full keeping ye out of danger when they’re with ye.”
Their human laughs awkwardly. “Do I want to know which stories Rudy’s been telling you?”
“Enough to have filled in the gaps of some of the ones ye told me, but not all of them.” Reba stifles a yawn. “And my curiosity for the rest ain’t enough to keep me from my bed. If the two of ye are sorted now, I’ll be off back to my lair.”
“If…” Mirawynd’s human hesitates, looking down to their own contented set of golden eyes instead of up at Reba now. “Well. I’d say we are. Thanks for bringing them, Reba.”
“What else were I supposed to do with the sad little beastie what woke me up?” She comes over to give Mirawynd’s ears a goodnight ruffle. “See, now, Wyndi? He’s safe and sound and ye don’t have to worry anymore.”
Mirawynd purrs softly and nuzzles her hand with a squeak of gratitude. Reba is quickly taking a place on their list of most favorite humans.
“And as for ye, Julian?” Reba gets a teasing sort of a sparkle in the corners of her eyes for a moment and then playfully ruffles his hair too. “Goodnight. Thanks again for coming to rescue us—I’ll turn out the lights as I go.”
With that, she’s gone. Mirawynd’s human stares in the direction of the door for a minute or two before sighing. He sheds his pond-water shirt again and settles back down under the blanket into his temporary nest. Mirawynd doesn’t quite understand why he wouldn’t want to go with Reba back down to the nice warm room where the family nest is, but they’re somewhat used to their human being odd about his sleeping arrangements.
He’s quiet in the darkness for a while before he shifts from his usual sleeping position with Mirawynd curled up contentedly on the pillow in the nice cozy spot between his neck and shoulder to look at them. “Well, Wyndi… you’ve met my dearest friend, now—and she’s alive. What do you think of her?”
Wyndi yawns sleepily and reaches out to give him a reassuring pat. Their hand winds up patting his nose, since it happened to be closest within reach. “Mine.”
“Heh.” Their human smiles broadly and gives them one last scratch behind the ears before relaxing and drifting off to sleep. “I hoped you’d say that.”