Closed Between sand and stars

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A woman in uniform stepped out of her carriage, her over the shoulder brown hair tucked behind her left ear. It was clear by her medals and posture that she wasn’t just anyone, despite her young age. Ocean blue wings hung stiff behind her back as she entered the store, leaving the two men who had accompanied her behind by the entrance. She had to be careful not to stumble over the telescopes and paraphernalia she wasn’t able to identify on her way to the heart of the shop.

“Hello? Is there anyone in here?” She called, Looking over the bookshelf to her right. She had no idea there could be that many books written about stars, and most of them were heavy looking. In between some of them were loose sheets of paper, in all kinds of conditions. Klaire noticed one had its tip burned, and she had to control her curious urge to pull it and see what was written on it.

The store was cozy with a lived-in feel, the afternoon light that shone through the massive windows laid shadows of its frame on the floor, covered in carpet. It would probably look even better at night time, lit by moonlight.

“I'm looking for Mr. Cilma.”
Silence broke with the sound of a delicate chime belonging to the bell above the wooden doorframe, alerting the man to an arrival. He'd heard the noise hundreds and thousands of times, so it no longer startled - not like it used to. His focus remained, as did the stillness of his hand, as he dragged the fountain pen along the flat surface, permanently altering the map. It was daunting work; every single stroke was mathematical, relying on precise calculations and coordinates in order to remain accurate.

"Back here," he called out, without taking his eyes off the work in front of him. He hoped she'd come closer, and carefully manouver past the wooden bookshelves meant to separate the larger room into two.

He sat at his workspace, the workspace of his former mentor, Mr. Cilma, the very man being sought out by this feminine presence. The workspace included a massive wooden desk, piled high with worn books, copper buckets filled with rolled parchment - some blank, and others not, and writing utensils messily scattered about. A large magnifying glass had been attached to the nearby vertical support beam, and was stretched to sit in front of him, engorging the beginning details of his most recent work.

The clean shaven man would continue working, the sleeves of his simple cotton tunic rolled up to his biceps to prevent smudging and pesky ink stains. The sound of footsteps drew closer until they stopped, the woman now in his line of sight, just a mere couple of feet away. He finished the line carefully and placed the utensil down beside the map. His dark gaze lifted to take in the uniform, the medals lining her breast, and finally, her face. An officer?

"I'm afraid Mr. Cilma is not available. But perhaps I can be of assistance, officer," the man said, straightening back in his chair, clasping his hands together, and giving the woman a lazy smile.
Klaire followed the voice until she found the workstation. She expected to meet an old, grizzled gentleman, not a handsome man that should be around the same age as her. Perhaps that would be Mr. Cilma's son, that she didn't know he had.

"Captain Byrn." She corrected him, as well as providing an introduction. "I'm afraid you cannot, I'm looking specifically for Mr. Cilma. When will he be here? I can wait." Despite being nearby a comfortable looking armchair, Klaire stood still, just like she'd learned at the academy. "Please, continue with what you were doing. I didn't mean to interrupt."
"My apologies, Captain," the man said, bowing his head ever so slightly. His dark eyes sparkled with a newfound interest, his gaze not yet leaving her presence. Now why would a Captain need to speak to Cilma, especially with such great urgency? He'd seen his fair share of prominent figures; some well known merchants and sailors, captains of their own wooden steeds, even fae royalty, looking for intricate and accurate maps to stick on their walls - a true waste, in his humble opinion. But a Captain, and one that practically stood at attention - and would continue to stand for her eternity, if she were to truly wait for Cilma - well that was a cause for curiosity.

The man finally looked away, albeit temporarily, to the clasped hands in his lap. He chuckled beneath his breath before meeting her gaze once more. "Captain Byrn, I'm afraid you've wasted your time. Cilma passed away three months ago."

The statement was oddly nonchalant for someone who regarded Cilma as a second father. Although he missed the old man dearly, he had seen far worse, and far more dishonorable deaths. It was a rarity to grow and die of old age, having lived a full life doing what one loved. And Cilma had accomplished just that.

The man watched the Captain's reaction without speaking another word. He'd already offered his assistance; whether or not she took his first and only offer was entirely her choice.
Klaire didn't blush often. She was used to being in the presence of men, but they rarely ever looked at her with as much intensity as this one did - or maybe he just had intense eyes. It was a relief when he looked away, but it didn't last very long, not with the news that followed.

Perhaps he was laughing at how stupid she was, or the obvious surprise in her eyes upon hearing that Mr. Cilma was dead. For three months. Klaire had researched about this man for weeks, how was she not made aware of this important bit of information?

"I'm sorry, I- what?" Her hand grabbed the side of the armchair. It wasn't death that had startled her so much, it was the fact that she had a plan, and that a few words from an unknown man trashed it within seconds. What was she supposed to do now? The ship was ready to set sail in the morning, and the cabin she'd reserved for Mr. Cilma empty. It'd be her first mission as captain, and she'd already fucked it up by not checking if the man she needed was alive or dead.

The woman stood quiet for a long time, thoughts rushing through her head. Should she reschedule it? And then what? What would she say to her superiors?

Calm down, you got this. Regaining her composure, Klaire breathed deeply, tucking her hair behind her ear before looking up at the man, who probably thought she was insane at that point.

"I must apologize, I wasn't made aware of this." She said, trying to return to her former stance. "Do you happen to know someone with his set of skills?"
The rose across her cheeks, the brief stutter, the way she grabbed the armchair - the man found her reaction rather endearing. He suspected that perhaps this title, Captain, was something recently bestowed upon Ms. Byrn. He certainly wouldn't ask her about it. He figured it would be a great insult, as would outwardly displaying the slight amusement that he was experiencing within. Besides, it wasn't that she appeared completely green, but rather, eager to achieve.

With that lazy smile back on his face, the man slowly rose to his feet, placing his left hand firmly on the desk. He leaned forward, over the magnifying glass and small stacks of books, extending his right hand towards her. "Ishaan Riasos. I was a student of Cilma's for nearly eighteen years and have inherited his work. Perhaps I can be of assistance?"

So maybe he did have to offer twice.
Not his son, but his student. Klaire should have guessed it - he was sitting at what clearly used to be Cilma’s desk after all, of course he’d have his set of skills. Despite not being able to hide the scarlet of her cheeks, she could pick her words more carefully and try not to make a fool of herself (again).

“It’s a pleasure, Mr. Riasos.” She said, shaking the man’s hand while keeping her gaze locked on his, this time less intimidated by it. She cleared her throat before speaking again.

“I need a navigator. More specifically, someone who can identify locations with nothing but the stars as a guide. I was informed Mr. Cilma was an expert at it, if you’ve been his student for eighteen years, I’m confident you’ll be a good enough replacement.” Did it come off as rude? Klaire hoped not. “If you’re interested in the position, that is. I can assure you, the payment will be worth your time.”
Captain Byrn had a delicate, yet firm grip - as expected. "Call me Ishaan, and please, sit," he said, gesturing towards the armchair, though doubting she'd take him up on the offer. He took a seat himself, leaning back comfortably as he listened to her somewhat unexpected proposition.

He was certainly a replacement, though was he truly good enough? He highly doubted that. Cilma had been extraordinary, naturally gifted, yet borderline obsessive. No - who was he kidding? Cilma had been obsessed, dedicating every waking moment into this bloody shop, into his work. Into finding and raising an heir to continue his legacy after his inevitable death. And although Ishaan had fit into his mold, his own brain carved to be extraordinary, the man had also passed along the obsession. Extraordinarily obsessive, and certainly not naturally gifted - that's where the difference was. Of course, Captain Byrn didn't know that.

"And what are these locations I would be hired to identify?" His first question, one of many already formed on the tip of his tongue.
Klaire took up Ishaan’s suggestion and sat on the armchair. At the tip of it, with her hands above her knees as if she was actively trying not to look too laid back, the result of years of military training. He, on the other hand, didn’t mind making it clear he was comfortable.

While the man seemed to ponder the offer, Klaire was beginning to wonder if that was a good idea. She didn’t know anything about the man other than his name and that he claimed to be Cilma’s student. It was a standard practice to run a background check on civilians whenever they’d perform duties to the air force, but she didn’t have much time for that now, did she?

“The location is classified until you’re confirmed to fly with us.” She said, knowing this wasn’t likely to be an answer that’d satisfy him, but she couldn’t reveal the mission’s intent to just anyone, it would compromise the entire plan. She leaned forward on the chair, resting her elbows on her knees.

“I won’t lie to you, it’ll be a dangerous journey. But I have a crew of ten highly trained officers that will ensure your safety. Do you have a piece of paper?” Of course he did. She wrote down a number and handed it over to him. “That’s your compensation for joining this expedition. You’ll get double if we are successful.”

Her brown eyes scanned his expression, trying to read what he thought of it so far. Not many people would reject that amount of money in a heartbeat.
Although not the answer he was hoping for, it was what the man had expected. He nodded solemnly, listening patiently to the rest of the pitch, despite already knowing his own answer. Still, Ishaan took the piece of scrap paper that she slid across the desk and took a peak, eyebrows raising slightly at the sum. Gods, that would comfortably support him, his children, and grandchildren - that is, if he had any. The thought made him hesitate, his dark eyes trained on the number as silence filled the air.

Then he cleared his throat, eyes shooting up to meet the Captain's once more. "Although you strike a good bargain, I'm afraid I cannot help you. I'm sorry to have wasted your time, Captain." Placing his index and middle fingers on the paper, he slid it back towards her without offering an explanation, without another word.
Klaire was hopeful, but it all came crashing down at Ishaan's response. She knew enough about Mr. Cilma's character to know the proposition would at least intrigue him, even if it needed more convincing from her part. His apprentice on the other hand, seemed completely uninterested by it. Was the money not enough? Or was he afraid? She didn't know where to start with her questions.

"Why not?" She asked bluntly, refusing to take the paper he tried to return to her.
Seeing that number, seeing those zeros, had completely changed the man's demeanor. The smile, the relaxed position, the pleasantries - all gone. Of course, it wasn't in his nature to be cruel or impolite, but this was no longer a simple proposition. It was a business deal, one of such magnitude, that Ishaan had begun to question if Cilma had even seen such a substantial amount of gold in his entire lifetime. And to think, he'd shut it down so quickly, so easily. Even the Captain seemed stunned by his quick response.

His clasped hands rested against the edge of his desk as he looked down at his rough work, trying to find the words to explain. Explain to her, and explain to himself.

"As I said, Captain-," he paused, gaze meeting hers once again. "I've inherited this shop, Cilma's legacy, and I made him a promise I cannot break. I can't abandon this place for goddess knows how long, chasing a place that very well might be on the other side of the continent."

He had to think of the cost of rent, taxes, his own goddamn safety. Besides, was this something he was even interested in? Maybe once upon a time ago, where adventures and unknown territories were all he could ever dream of. But now? He was a grown man, with real problems, real interests and this just wasn't feasible.
Klaire understood his reasons, and admired his sense of responsibility. She was the same. She also had a legacy to protect.

Klaire Byrn was young, but she wasn't naive. Yes, she graduated at the top of her class and proved to everyone who'd accused her of nepotism she'd earned her position of captain through hard work, but she was inexperienced, and this mission was too important to just hand out to someone who had just recently been granted the title. They expected her to fail. Klaire's ship was being sent out in this expedition not because they were the best, but because they were expendable. Everyone who'd ever been sent to explore the desert had failed, and only one had ever returned, over a decade ago.

But with her, it'd be different. She wouldn't be flying blind, she'd have Ishaan. It was supposed to be Cilma, but he was her only option now.

"Two months." She said. "Two months, and I promise I'll bring you back home." Even if I have to protect you with my life.
Two months. Two months among the stars and he'd be back with a fortune, regardless of their success. He wouldn't have to worry about the slow winter months, or keeping this place afloat. He'd even be able to buy new magnifying glasses, or a more precise telescope. Hell, he could replace everything in this shop a hundred times over and still have leftovers.

Propping both elbows up on the edge of his desk, the man ran a hand warily through his short, dark hair, temporarily bowing his head. He remained silent for a minute or two, clearly debating what he wanted to do. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Ishaan spoke.

"I want this in writing. Two months. Not a day more. If we're not back within the two months, I want interest. To account for the lack of revenue, the rent, the taxes that I need to pay, and my additional services. I want one of your people to come by once every week to make sure everything is in order. If something happens, and I don't make it back..."

He paused, carefully considering his desire. He didn't have a child, or even a partner - not since Molly left - he didn't have a family to pass this responsibility down to. He figured he'd have years and years before he'd have to make such a decision. Sure, he had friends, but would they put in the time and effort to keep this place afloat? They didn't know the first thing about astronomy, celestial cartography, or how to use that information to travel.

"I want Cilma's work to be preserved. I want it sent to the university, I want the money owed to me donated to the university, to the students specializing in celestial cartography. And I want it done in Cilma's name."

"I'm assuming you will have the best equipment and supplies available to me. I want the best, and I assure you, I will know if it's not."

He exhaled slowly once he was done, and gently leaned back into his chair, finding that comfortable position once more. "Captain Byrn, only when I've seen and reviewed this in writing, will I agree to do it."
A giant smile took place in Klaire's lips, and she didn't bother trying to hide it. His demands were reasonable, and despite the amount of work it'd take to put all that in writing, it'd be damn worth it.

"I'll have it all in writing by tonight." She jumped up from the armchair, her wings opening up slightly with excitement before sliding back down. She took mental notes of all the things Ishaan mentioned, making sure she wouldn't forget it as soon as she left.

"Should I bring it back to you here?" Klaire asked. She didn't know what time the store closed. Regardless of that, she had the feeling he would still be there, behind his desk.
Normally, a reaction like that would've been infectious, but all Ishaan managed was a weary smile. Obviously, he didn't know where they were going, or why it was so important, but her reaction amplified the amount of pressure he suddenly felt. Pressure to sign those forms, and the potential pressure to perform to a degree that would result in success. The good news was that he hadn't signed his life away - not yet anyway.

"I'll be here until eight o'clock," he said carefully, slowly rising to his feet once more. Usually he'd stay for far longer than the shop's closing hours, but he had a feeling he needed the extra time to think about this decision. Time away from this shop, away from the instruments and gadgets he had grown so fond of, and in the comfort of his own quaint home. "If it cannot wait until the shop opens tomorrow, and I've gone for the evening, leave the forms at this address." He considered simply saying, you'll wait until tomorrow if you aren't on time, but that also meant he'd have less time to review the agreement. And given her reaction, this seemed like a time sensitive manner. So he wrote down his home address on the very same scrap of paper she'd used, the letters appearing to be more like elegant calligraphy rather than a simple scribble.

He handed her the paper then began to walk around the desk, leading her around the bookcases brimming with ancient books, past the stacks of equipment - some dusty, others not, and towards the front door. He would open the door for her, shake her hand, and wait patiently for her to walk through, bowing his head slightly. "It's been a pleasure, Captain Byrn." Then he'd firmly close the door behind her and make his way back to his desk, though this time his steps would be slower, uncertain. Contemplative.

During her escort, the lovely Captain would finally get a good look at the rest of the man. Fairly tall, with a slim, agile build and broad shoulders. She'd notice the freckles over his cheeks and the bridge of his nose, darker than his caramel-coloured skin. The faint scars; one by his hairline, the other across his cheek - Molly used to tell him that they made him even more handsome. But most notably, as he turned his back to her, she'd see his wings.

They'd once been concrete grey in colour, back when he'd been a child, but the years had not been kind, causing some of the darker colouring to fade. The outer aspects still remained fairly opaque, while the inner cells gradually got lighter, until they were nearly translucent. In some areas, they were so translucent, so delicate, that the Captain would wonder if there was even a surface there, or were they simply holes? Many of the veins that outlined each of the cells was dark grey, appearing like jagged cracks on a rock, struggling to deliver the blood and whatever was left of the nerves. Most noticeably though, was the difference in size between the right and left wing. They'd both been clipped, long ago, and very unevenly. The left took the brunt of the shears; its outer and posterior margins smaller than those on the right. Whoever had the pleasure of inflicting this punishment had clearly enjoyed mutilating one side more than the other.

It wasn't a sight commonly seen, at least not in this region. Those who knew him would eventually grow to look past the ugliness, yet new faces couldn't help but to stop and stare, to whisper and wonder what he had done to deserve this sentence. Perhaps Captain Byrn would question her decision to recruit such a damaged man.
The smile was no longer there, but the corners of Klaire's mouth were still up after what she considered a small victory. It wasn't over yet, he hadn't signed the papers, but she'd rather live with the feeling of accomplishment a little longer than worry about what was yet to come. The captain was about to follow her host to the door, with the bit of paper with his address in hand when she stopped mid step the moment he turned his back on her.

She'd never seen anything like it. It didn't look like malformation, it looked… Intentional. Too precise of a cut to be a result of an accident, even though the many holes near the ends of his wings were evidence that it had happened long ago. Perhaps when Ishaan was still a child.

A deathening shiver ran all over her body up to her wings, that clasped tightly against her back as if it felt threatened. She couldn't even begin to imagine how painful it must've been. She tried not to stare at it but it couldn't be helped; She couldn't look away, not until he turned to face her and she looked down. The wings were right there, for everyone to see but it still felt like an invasion of privacy.

"The pleasure is mine, Ishaan." Klaire answered quietly, unable to hide the soft pity in her voice. Without daring to wait for a response the officer left in a hurry, followed by the men who had waited for her by the door.


It was ten past 9PM when Klaire finally got to Ishaan's doorstep, a pile of paper tightly cluntched to her chest. She'd spent the rest of the afternoon writing down the document, editing it to assure she hadn't left out any of his demands or made any poor decisions on the way it was written, as well as talking to the officers responsible for the navigation material and making sure it was the best in the market, as Ishaan had requested. By the time she was done with all of it was past 8PM. She rushed to his address after skipping dinner and there she was now.

The fairy breathed deeply and knocked, unsure if he'd respond. Not only because it was already late, but because after her lack of decorum, she doubted he'd show the same level of respect from earlier. She might as well deserve it if he changed his mind, but the fairy could only hope he wouldn't.
The rest of the day had been agonizingly slow; there was no chime of the bell, no new customers. Silence left the man alone with his dominating thoughts, thoughts that entailed nothing but the Captain and her offer. He compartmentalized them, allowing himself to slave away on the work before him. He'd guided the pen in smooth, precise strokes, marking the stars with beautiful letters as he had the day, the week, the month before. As he had for most of his life, and hopefully, for many more years to come. When the clock struck eight and the Captain was nowhere to be found, Ishaan turned off his lamps, gathered his book-bag, and locked the shop door behind him.

His walk back home was not a long one - he was there within fifteen minutes. It was during this walk back, when he no longer had a distraction, that he began to consider the deal. He remembered the details of their conversation and the demands he'd made. Then, his mind went back to their final moments together; to her sorrowful gaze, which had quickly flickered back up to meet his once he'd turned around. That look and tone of pity was a regular experience for him. But it no longer bothered him, not like it used to many years ago.

About an hour later, he heard a gentle knock on the door. He'd had supper, and spent most of that hour contemplating. It began to drive him to frustration, causing the man to open up a book in a (failed) attempt to distract himself.

He opened the door and found Captain Byrn standing in the doorway, a small stack of papers clutched to her chest. "Good evening, Captain," Ishaan said, giving the woman a slight smile. He wore the same clothes as earlier, though his shirt was now untucked, giving off a frumpier and somewhat relaxed appearance.

A pause. He wondered if he should invite her in. Would it be rude not to? Even if she was just here to drop off the papers? And it'd probably not be ideal for his neighbors to see a woman on his doorstep, especially at this time of night - uniform or not. "Would you like to come in for a moment?" He'd open the door wider and step aside if she did choose to enter into the dimly lit house.

Ishaan lived rather simply. There was a small kitchen on the left, while the right housed his sitting area. A wooden spiral staircase led to the loft. Although not nearly as messy and cluttered as the shop, the house looked lived in. The shelves and counters were filled with things; spices, cookbooks, and fresh herbs in the kitchen, while books, knick knacks, and work gadgets lined the walls in the living area. An easel stood by the window facing out onto the street.
Klaire was tired and hungry, but she tried her ultimate best to not disclose it the moment Ishaan opened the door for her and welcomed her with a smile. She couldn't help but smile in return, her worries about having offended him dissolving as he invited her inside his home.

His house looked like an extension of the workshop, but warmer. The air was scented with the smell of fresh herbs, and the easel in the corner instiguated Klaire's natural curiosity. She wondered if he painted, and if he did, what his artwork looked like. She had to remind herself that this was a work related visit, and she shouldn't wonder about anything unrelated to her reason for being there.

"I apologize for showing up so late. Here is the document." She offered him the pile of paper, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear before clasping her hands together behind her back. "If you don't mind, I'll wait for you to revise it."
Once she was inside, Ishaan gently closed the wooden door behind them, keeping the cool night air from infiltrating the home any further. It was still early enough in the spring season for the mornings and nights to bring a chill, especially being so close to the coast. He took the stack of papers from her hands and began to flip through them, assessing the length of the document. It didn't disappoint; the Captain had certainly done her due diligence.

"With all due respect, you'd be here all night. And I hardly think that's appropriate. You're welcome to stay - for now. Would you like a tea?" His tone was filled with humour, though he was hardly joking. He didn't need her here for hours, not as he read, re-read, and if needed, tore apart the document. And although he was polite, the man was not a pushover. She'd stay as long as he allowed her to, Captain or not.

Without waiting for a response, he gently dropped the papers onto the kitchen counter and made his way towards the cabinet containing his tea leaves. "What's your preference?