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The Garden in the Darkness | Part 1: An Unscheduled Landing | Chapter 9

Mirawynd is playing one of their favorite games with their human and their new friend Reba: “run around the hangar and retrieve the shiny thing so one of the humans will throw it again!”

The shiny thing in play is a bit of crinkly golden foil rolled up into a ball. It makes the best sort of a sound when Mirawynd pounces on it, too. They’re not sure where Reba found the foil, but they’ve been most pleased to chase after it.

When Mirawynd finishes extracting their prize from the box it’s fallen behind on the far side of the hangar, they pause to shake the dust out of their fur before scampering back over to their human’s darter. He and Reba are still sitting on the craft’s wing, right where Mirawynd left them.

The bigger game at the moment is “wait for Abi and Nyx to come back”, so the three of them have been playing in the hangar for a long time now. Mirawynd has done all of the scampering parts of the game themself—from what they can tell, their human and Reba are more interested in sitting on the wing and talking about things that aren’t particularly interesting.

Mirawynd has also determined that Reba must be like them and get cold easily, since their human seems very keen on letting her sit close to him and has his arm around her shoulders to keep her warm. They can understand that, though; their human is very good at being warm and comforting. Since Reba is their friend now, they don’t mind letting her borrow him like this for a while. It’s nice having someone to watch him so he doesn’t wander off while they’re playing get himself into trouble, too.

Mirawynd climbs up the side of their human’s darter and onto the wing, carefully carrying their shiny foil ball in their lower pair of hands. They bounce into Reba’s lap and offer the ball up to her with a cheerfully triumphant squeak.

“Aye, Wyndi, dear, I see ye found it!” Reba giggles lightly as she takes the ball from them. “And here I thought it were lost forever this time.”

“Shiny!” Mirawynd agrees. “Again?”

Again? I’d think ye’d be tired of playing fetch by now…” Reba tosses the ball back and forth between her hands.

Mirawynd watches its path intently, waving their tail in time with the motion and crinkling sounds of the ball. They have learned that their new friend is better at ball-throwing than their human is. Reba can make the shiny thing fly all the way over to the other side of the hangar, if she wants to.

“You’d be surprised how long Wyndi’s attention span is,” Mirawynd’s human remarks, “especially when something they consider ‘shiny’ is involved.”

“Considering we’ve been at this for an hour now, Julian? I ain’t all that surprised.”

“Again?” asks Mirawynd, tapping one of their upper hands on Reba’s elbow.

Reba catches the ball in one hand and pats them on the head with the other. “Fine, but it’s Julian’s turn to throw it for ye.” She sets the ball in his hand. “See if ye can get it further than the end of the wing this time?”

“You know,” their human replies with a laugh, re-crinkling the ball, “If you come up with another game to play with them, Wyndi’ll change tacks pretty quick—” He pauses, pulling down the microphone bar on his headset and holding up a hand to let Mirawynd and Reba know they need to be quiet again. “Mayview Control here. Say again, Major? I didn’t catch all of that over the static.”

—Control.—friends—coming in!” says Abi’s garbled voice over his headset.

Mirawynd perks their ears up at the sound and bounces up to their human’s shoulder to listen.

“If that means you’re preparing to land, Major, then yes, go ahead.”

Almost as soon as he says this, Mirawynd hears the sound of the big doors in the ceiling slipping open to reveal the shimmery field between inside and outside. Within a few minutes of the doors being fully open, first Abi’s darter and then two more land in the hangar.

“Ye were expecting company, weren’t ye?” Reba asks, hesitant as she stands up and dusts herself off.

“We hoped so,” Mirawynd’s human replies. He waves broadly to the pilots of the three darters.

Abi is the first to get out. She stretches as she climbs onto her darter’s wing and then reaches in to help Nyx out of the copilot’s seat.

Mirawynd leaves their shiny ball with their human and excitedly scampers over to say hello to Abi and their cousin. By the time they’ve made it up onto the wing of Abi’s darter, Nyx has mostly climbed out. Mirawynd squeaks a cheerful greeting and hops up into their cousin’s lower hand to offer a welcome-back hug.

“Ah, hello, little one.” Nyx raises them up and gives them a proper snuggle in return. “How did you know I needed some fuzzy reassurance after that flight?”

Mirawynd purrs happily and then makes a brief leap over to Abi’s shoulder to give her a hug as well—and so they’ll be out of the way while she helps their cousin climb down from the darter’s wing, since Nyx only has hands on one side to steady themself and Abi only has the two to begin with to help them.

“See, Nyx?” asks Abi, once they’re all on the ground, “what did I tell you? Safe and sound, and none the worse for wear!”

“Aside from that bit on the tip of your other wing that’s missing?” Nyx gives Abi a knowing look of amusement.

“Well… That’s hardly a scratch, as far as I care.”

“I’m not sure I ever want to see what you consider ‘damage’, then, Abigail.”

Abi chuckles warmly. “Take a good look at Sarge’s darter later—that’s more of the sort of thing we start worrying about. Now, come on.” She offers them her arm. “I’ll introduce you to my wing-sisters—they’ll be happy to meet you, I’m sure.”

Abi and Nyx join Mirawynd’s human and Reba in the middle of the hangar. Mirawynd obligingly hops back to their usual place on their human’s shoulder, now that they’ve properly greeted their friends. They look over to the other two darters curiously.

“Friends?” they ask, tapping on their human’s cheek. Their tail waves expectantly. People who appear in darters are usually friends, after all.

“Who else?” he replies, reaching up to ruffle their ears.

Almost as soon as their human says this, the canopy of one of the two new darters opens and the pilot within hops out. She’s the deeply tan sort of a human, with her hair neatly braided up and hidden beneath a carefully folded and pinned ivory headscarf. Mirawynd immediately squeaks in joy and scampers over to meet her. She hops down from her darter’s wing with her usual flourish.

“Anna!” Mirawynd leaps up onto her shoulder and gives her neck a hug, nuzzling into the soft cloth of her headscarf for a moment. The familiar scent of rose-and-cedar soap is a welcome relief from the pond smell that’s still clinging to their fur. This is, after all, another one of their pilots—and they’ve been wondering where she was all day.

“Hey, Wyndi! You know, we were looking for you earlier…” Anna laughs and gives their ears a gentle scratch while she walks over to the wing of the last darter. Its canopy has just risen. “Need any help with your copilot, Penny?”

Mirawynd squeaks excitedly, unable to stop their tail from swishing to match. Penny is their other pilot, and like Anna and Abi counts as “family” in their mind because she’s been flying with their human for longer than Mirawynd can remember. Penny’s the one who always lets them share the crispy edges of her waffles at breakfast time. They’re happy to have most of their family all in the same place like they’re supposed to be again.

“No,” Penny calls back, “I think I can manage—just need to give him a minute or two to believe that we’re on the ground.” She climbs out onto her darter’s wing and runs a pale, fingerless-gloved hand through her tight white curls to untangle them from her headset and pull them back into her usual pair of low, poofy ponytails. As usual, she’s wearing the fancy tinted wraparound glasses that protect her pale, sensitive eyes from the lights of the world and help her see clearly.

By this time, everyone else has come over to join them at the side of Penny’s darter.

“What’s this about you having a copilot, Major?” Mirawynd’s human asks.

“Well, now!” Penny sits down and dangles her legs over the side of the wing. “We weren’t about to believe it when we got back to Surnia with the fledges and they told us that the two of you were last heard from under attack and had been presumed dead.”

“Dead already?” Abi laughs. “We’ve only been missing for a few hours this time!”

“Monterrey and Saunders found nothing but debris when they went to answer your distress call, and enough of it was darter-trace-ish to convince them,” Anna explains with a shrug. “Not enough to convince us, of course, but it’s not their fault for being the sort to follow protocols.”

“Ah, that explains it.” Abi shakes her head.

“So naturally,” Penny continues, “when Colonel Bell’s wing finally got picked up, she cleared us to come check the only place Abigail’d have come if y’all weren’t dead but couldn’t get back to the rendezvous point for some reason. And we had the hunch that at least one of you had to have taken a bad enough hit to need to land somewhere and probably couldn’t get back off the ground…” Penny trails off with a knowing grin and a vague gesture at her darter’s cockpit.

“Sounds reasonable to me, but what’s that got to do with—” Abi’s eyes widen and she bursts out laughing. “Oh, seriously, girls? Tell me you didn’t.”

“We did!” Anna laughs, similarly grinning. “After all, anything that kept the two of you grounded enough to need a rescue would certainly be beyond our skill to repair if we managed to find you.”

Mirawynd’s human tilts his head with a confused expression. “What in the stars have you two gone and done this time?”

Mirawynd’s ears catch a familiar sort of a groan coming from within Penny’s darter. Ever the willing follower of their own curiosity, they scamper up onto the wing to investigate.

“What, Wyndi, don’t I get a hello from you?” Penny teases as they pass by her.

Mirawynd pauses to scurry over along the wing and give Penny a brief hug so she doesn’t feel left out before curiosity compels them to continue up the side of the darter and into the cockpit. They are surprised, but most pleased, to find that their pilots have brought their second-favorite human along for the adventure.

At the moment, he’s sitting hunched over with his restraint straps undone and has one pinkish-pale hand set over his eyes. His shoulder-length golden-brown hair has escaped from its hair-tie and fallen into his face again. As usual, he’s wearing the emerald green trousers and matching loose-fitting shirt that he always keeps partway unbuttoned and with the long sleeves rolled up past his elbows, along with the many-pocketed ivory work vest which is marked on the back with the same shiny design Mirawynd’s pilots wear.

Mirawynd makes a soft trilling squeak of greeting and hops down onto the man’s shoulder as gently as they can, since he seems to not be feeling well.

“Oh, now you show back up.” He lets out a weak groan, not turning to look at them. “I searched the whole bloody ship for you, kitten. Where’ve you been hiding?”

Mirawynd waves their tail sheepishly and gives their friend a light pat on the hand and the most apologetic squeak they can muster. They hadn’t intended to leave him all alone today, after all. They’d just left for a moment to rearrange their stash of shiny things before their human left on his patrol and accidentally fallen asleep.

His other hand reaches up to gently pat them on the head. Mirawynd takes this as a gesture that he’s forgiven them for the accidental abandonment.

“Come on, Rudy,” Penny says, leaning on her elbows on the edge of the open cockpit. “We’re on the ground now, and there’s even a bit of natural gravity here! You can’t tell me you’d rather stay in my bird all afternoon.”

“I never should have let you talk me into getting in the bloody bird, Albright,” Rudy mutters. “You fly like a drunken hummingbird with a death wish—you know that?”

“Aww…” Penny takes on her most innocent tone and lightly reaches out to nudge his shoulder. “I kept the acrobatics to a minimum like I promised, though, didn’t I?”

“If that’s what you call a minimum,” Rudy replies, finally taking his hand off his eyes to shoot her a weakly barbed look, “it’s no wonder I keep having to replace your bloody stabilizer coils.”

Down on the hangar floor, Mirawynd can hear their human laughing. “I almost can’t believe it. They really got you into a bird this time?” he calls up, sounding like he’s standing right beside the wing now.

“Under protest,” Rudy bellows back, haltingly doing his best to stand and climb out of the cockpit without falling or dislodging Mirawynd from his shoulder. “And on your account, no less, seeing as how if one of you had gone and gotten shot up or crashed again, it’d have to be you.”

“I might have had a bit of ‘engine trouble’,” Mirawynd’s human admits, offering a hand up to help the unsteady mechanic down from the wing.

“He’s getting better, Rudy,” calls Abi, chuckling. “He was only a little bit on fire when he landed this time!”

Rudy glances over to the side of the hangar where Mirawynd’s human has left his damaged darter and the parts of it that have fallen off and are sitting on the floor now. “I don’t know what I hate more, ladies—the fact that you coerced me into coming along on this fool’s errand… or the fact that the bloody fool himself actually did need me to fix his mess again.” He wobbles significantly as he tries to shoo all of the helpful hands away and stand on his own.

“All these years and ye still haven’t gotten past ye space-sickness, have ye?” Reba asks through a stifled giggle.

“I’ve just spent the last four hours cooped up in that death trap with wings, and—” Rudy suddenly startles and looks Reba over with a questioning tilt of his head, as if he doesn’t believe what he’s seeing. “—And what the bloody stars are youdoing here, Kiely? Last I heard, you were…” he trails off, looking between Abi and Mirawynd’s human now for an explanation.

The only response he gets is a matched pair of cheerful shrugs.

“Dead?” Reba finishes for him.

“Yeah…” Rudy looks back to her now, wobbling slightly and reaching up to rub at his temple. “That.”

“If I be a ghost, mister Rudolph,” says Reba, offering Rudy her arm with a wry grin, “I still be one with a good stock of remedies for vertigo—if ye don’t mind a bit of a walk through our ghostly garden to get to them.”

Rudy shakes his head, and once again seems to pale afterwards, but takes her offered arm. “I don’t know why I expected that this day would get less weird once we got here.”

“Re-ba friend!” Mirawynd gives his cheek another reassuring nuzzle.

“An old friend, yes,” Rudy tells them. After a moment, his eyes flicker over to Nyx. “Have we met?”

“We haven’t,” Nyx tells him with an amused swish of their tail. “Although, if you’re the same mechanic Abigail was telling me about while we were flying, I believe I’m familiar with your household.”

“If these ladies had a second mechanic, I wouldn’t have been the one to come along, that’s for sure.” Rudy groans, digging around in one of his work vest’s pockets for something with the hand that isn’t clinging to Reba’s arm for stability. “And since when are you the gossip, Ioane? I thought you left that to your sisters.”

“Technically,” Abi says, holding back a giggle, “we were gossiping about your husband’s counterpart. You just happened to come up in the conversation by association.”

“Ah. I should have guessed…” Rudy fishes a spare hair-tie out of his pocket and shakily hands it up to Mirawynd. “Is Dons a relative of yours, then?”

Mirawynd squeaks happily and gives his cheek another nuzzle before they set about gathering his hair back up and practicing the side braids their Entile Celadon taught them to make the last time their ships were in the same place. Helping Rudy get his hair to stay out of his face is one of their entile’s favorite games. He really must not be feeling well if he’s asking for Mirawynd to do something about it rather than making a show of being reluctant to let them practice.

“About four lines distant,” Nyx tells him. “I’ve met them once, but I know them more by reputation than anything.”

“They do have quite the reputation, don’t they?” Rudy offers Nyx his free hand now, although it’s still not-so-subtly shaking. “Elias Rudolph—if we’re being formal, you can tack on ‘of Elder Celadon’s household’ to that, but I understand the Council’s Eldest also has a claim of some kind on me.”

“Mine,” Mirawynd adds, looking up to their cousin from the strands of hair they’re busy untangling and waving their tail happily.

“Ah. Right. And Wyndi here does too.”

“Nyx Yrital of Elder Caeruleus’ line—the Eldest is my entile.” Nyx takes his hand between their upper and lower one with a broad, cheerful smile. “I’d offer you a hug, cousin, but something tells me you wouldn’t appreciate that at the moment?”

“Maybe after the ground stops trying to move under my feet.”

Nyx’s third eye glances over to Abi. “I’m not surprised it is, considering what I just went through myself.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Nyx,” Abi quips, “I’d still say you make a pretty good copilot! Now, before we go off to pick kiwanomelons and talk strategy, I have two more introductions for you: my wing-sisters, Pilot-Majors Anna Toussaint and Penny Albright.” She gestures to each of them in turn. “Couldn’t ask for a better rescue party.”

“Welcome to Mayview,” Nyx says, nodding their head softly. “We’re grateful for your help.”

“Aye.” Reba pats Rudy’s hand where it’s still resting on her arm. “Now, assuming he cooperates, I’ll be taking me patient here back to our nest so he can recover from whatever it is ye’ve gone and done to him. Come find me when ye be ready to show them me Novan-cicle collection, Nyx.”

“Novan-cicles?” Penny asks, raising her eyebrows.

“It’s a long story…” Nyx begins.

Mirawynd stays on Rudy’s shoulder as Reba leads him off down the grape-vine-draped corridor, since they’re not done braiding his hair yet and still feel guilty about leaving him behind this morning.

“So, Kiley, old friend,” says Rudy. He’s still leaning on Reba’s arm for stability as he walks and doing his best not to trip on any of the vines, since his feet are already giving him problems. “What’s a nice ghostly doctor like you been up to… wherever here is?”

“Oh, ye know how we ghosts be, Mister Rudolph.” Reba laughs. “Haunting folks and gardening, mostly. And yeself?”

“Putting your boyfriend’s bloody darter back together a thousand times, mostly.”

“He ain’t my boyfriend yet.” Reba rolls her eyes amusedly for punctuation. “But thank ye for looking after him, all the same.”

“I promised you I would, didn’t I?” Rudy smirks at her, albeit still with the dulled-down voice he’s been using since he got out of Penny’s darter. “Granted, Wyndi here’s pretty good at helping keeping him in line, when the both of them aren’t off finding trouble to get into.”

“So he tells me.”

Mirawynd finishes the two hair-holding braids now and secures them together with the hair-tie. They tap on Rudy’s cheek to let him know.

“Thanks, Wyndi.” He reaches up with his free hand to pat them on the head, then stops walking as they come to the archway into the big dome area with the pond, taking hold of the edge of the arched doorway.

Reba stops walking too, looking up to him with concern in her eyes. “Ye can sit down if ye need to.”

“I’ll be fine—just… got a little light-headed again, that’s all.” He blinks a few times and lets go of the wall to rub at his temples. “Bloody mad pilots and their bloody acrobatics…”

Mirawynd gives his paler-than-usual cheek a small nuzzle and begins making their most reassuring purr. They’re not sure why their friend isn’t feeling well, but they do want to help.

“I did notice ye were forcing yeself to stay upright back there out of stubbornness.” Reba raises an eyebrow. “Why in the stars did ye go and let them talk ye into coming along? I seem to recall we first met because ye needed to be sorted out so ye could at least tolerate being in a shuttlecraft for more than twenty minutes.”

“Eh… mechanic’s duty to his pilots and all that—and not wanting to have to fix one of Sarge’s bloody patch-up jobs again.” After another deep breath, Rudy slowly pats her hand as a signal that he’s okay for walking again.

“Oh, is that all? Just ye sense of duty getting the better of ye?” Reba asks, leading him through the tangled maze of plants once more.

“Well…” Rudy lets out a weak chuckle, still leaning on her arm. “The fact that it’s Aegolius that’s dropping by in a few days to pick us all up didn’t hurt.”

“Not the ship ye came from?”

“Captain Brentwood couldn’t break off from her patrol course any more than she already had because she had some other big rendezvous to make, so Surnia’s already out of darter range by now. The madwomen called in a favor or three to make arrangements.” Rudy rubs at his temples again, but halfway smiles now. “Can’t say I mind the temporary reassignment.”

“Ah.” Reba gets a teasing shimmer in the corner of her eye. “Julian told me ye went and married an officer. That’ll be his ship, I take it?”

“It is. Of course he’s told you…” Rudy sighs lightly, although whether to try to clear his head or out of exasperation, Mirawynd can’t tell. “Sarge is even more of a bloody gossip than the rest of the Musketeers are.”

“Well, now, Mister Rudolph! I’ve only rejoined the ranks of the living this morning.” Reba laughs, pausing to let him lean on a different wall near some fragrant purple and white flowered vines for a while and rest. “I’d say I be entitled to a few years worth of missed gossip.”

Rudy nods, although it seems to Mirawynd that he immediately wishes he hadn’t, since the motion makes the color drain out of his face again. “Tell you what, Kiley,” he says, once he’s able to talk again, “you get me somewhere where the world isn’t wobbling, and I’ll fill you in on the entire Fleet’s worth of gossip.”




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