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Feathers and Stars, Fallen or Not

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Turlough picked his way down the bottom of a small ravine, careful not to get any mud on his uniform. The ravine was hidden in a small copse of trees, a small patch of the Earth’s crisp night sky providing him with cover. Not half a mile away was the main building of Brendan Boys School, and over the rise of the hill it could be seen, glowing dimly with warm, musty lighting. The school grounds sprawled over many acres, hosting the hall, a church, playing fields, and dappled with cottages for teachers and caretakers. All of which was dominated by an ancient bird in ceremonial feathers.

Well, thought Turlough, the headmaster did rather have a beaky nose. Like a vulture in one of those cartoons Hippo had shown him. Not like a starling, or a robin, or indeed any of the small birds which fluttered incessantly about—those birds were more like the students or even some of the teachers.

And here I am, he thought, lying down in the middle of the dry rocky creek bed, stuck in an avian planet that was never flying anywhere, and never will.

Turlough abruptly dropped the bird metaphor, for he loathed any reference to this backwater planet. Whatever beauty could be found in it was not to be appreciated by war criminals. That was why he drew, he supposed, for he was there as a distant observer needing something to do with his hands, for the spilt blood of a civil war left stains and his sanity was slowly tapering away like lead from a pencil.

Cradling his head in his hands, elevated by a large rock, stone, whatever, he stared at the silver bark of the trees, wondering when he was going to look up at the stars. He hadn’t yet. He couldn’t. The stars were too heavy of a reminder of lost and lust. The only useful thing that the stars could provide him was faint light. Coward.

A sudden clattering of rocks made Turlough sit upright, staring towards the source of the noise. While he was wondering whether to hide or run, a bush of all things blocked his view for a moment too long. The human, as Turlough could now see, was now within earshot; for while his night vision was better than a human’s, if he moved now on this rocky, unstable ground, the primitive would not only hear him, but see him, for his red hair, bright like a beacon, would give his identity away. Tact made Turlough wait, hoping the human would turn around or wander past him.

He was not afraid of breaking curfew or the punishment that it involved; no, it was more the principle of the thing—for once, he was not pouring salt on the playing field, putting hydrochloric acid on the shower floors, or emptying boxes of soap flakes into the cistern—ergo, this time he was not doing anything to harm the school. So he waited.

Unfortunately, not for very long. The human looked around him, spotted Turlough, and frowned. Turlough didn’t bother swallowing a groan, though it came out more like a grunt. The human, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, was strict, stern and utterly ignorant about mathematics (the latter was annoying, since the man had taken it upon himself to teach that very subject). In layman’s terms, not Turlough’s favourite person—not that there was anyone he actually liked on this planet. And this animosity was fine most days in the classroom because Lethbridge-Stewart had also, alongside mathematics, taken it upon himself to teach all and sundry that Turlough was not his favourite person either.

During Turlough’s internal diatribe, Lethbridge-Stewart had marched towards him and now stopped a few feet from Turlough’s left hipbone. Unsure about the human custom in such an event, Turlough stared at the roots of the drell willows hanging over the creek bed and made no acknowledgement of the man’s presence. Even as the teacher’s eyes stared down at him, as wide and calculating as an owl’s, Turlough did not move. In the awkward silence that followed, Turlough smirked slightly. Then the man sat down beside him, grunting and knees clicking as he descended, and reclined on his arms with one knee raised, body propped up at an angle.

“Nice night, isn’t it?”

Turlough could groan. Small talk. He still ignored the dull human in favour of tree bark.

“Night owl too, I suppose?”

Turlough smirked fully this time, contemplating irony and oxymorons. Lethbridge-Stewart stared down at this smirk with amusement, finally catching the boy’s eyes. Pale eyes held dark ones, and for a moment both men shivered before breaking contact.

The teacher spoke again: “Turlough, isn’t it?”

Turlough grunted, and the human, probably well versed by now in the language of the teenage boy, took this for an affirmation. Despite not being a human or a teenager, Turlough thought that the primitive’s interpretation actually wasn’t too bad.

“Come to watch the stars?” This question surprised Turlough and he stiffened. “You must understand, young Turlough, that so long as you are watching the stars and not doing anything nefarious, I think I could let you go night with only a warning about breaking curfew.”

“Yes,” Turlough answered, cursing the way it came out strangled, “I’m watching the stars.”

That bit came out sarcastic; good. Turlough still wasn’t watching the stars though, something like fear rushes at the thought of viewing a strange sky, not being able to see his home world and have everything out of place.

“Why do you watch the stars, young Mr. Turlough?” asked Lethbridge Stewart, after a few minutes silence.

“It’s personal, Mr. Lethbridge-Stewart,” answered Turlough, watching with glee as the incorrect honorific hit the man’s face and wrenched it into a brief frown. The frown was too brief in this case, and for some reason Turlough began to feel guilty. “Brigadier, sorry sir,” the phrase came out perfectly flat and insincere.

“That’s alright boy--” and Turlough did raise his eyebrows at that “--Only my friends call me the Brigadier.”

Quite sure he had just been passively insulted, Turlough swallowed; “And who are your friends?” he asked.

The Brigadier was silent, and Turlough watched as a helplessly confused and lost expression rolled over the old man’s face.

Turlough picked up the small talk, berating himself while he did so. “So why do you watch the stars?” The insincerity rolled off Turlough in waves, but the teacher responded soon enough.

“You know, I’m not really sure. I’ve always thought— hoped— there’s some reason,” said the Brigadier, eyebrows pinching. “I’ve just forgotten, over the years I suppose. Ever since…”

“Since?” Turlough interjected, sitting up but trying to not sound too eager when possibilities of blackmail danced before his eyes.

“Well, I guess that’s just ‘personal’.” And the blighter smiled, didn’t he.

When nothing further was offered, Turlough dug. “When once you have tasted flight,” he quoted (or paraphrased), “forever will you walk with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

“Who said that?”

Turlough sighed—bait rejected. This man had to have a murky past, a lover, a murder… “Leonardo da Vinci. We learnt about him in art today.”

“And you paid attention?” the Brigadier harrumphed, but it sounded warmer than it usually did. “I should demand that Mr. de-Lange share me his secrets.”

There was a silence in which the Brigadier watched the stars, and in which Turlough watched the Brigadier watch the stars.

 “Have you ever noticed,” said the Brigadier, voice cleaving the night air, “How there’s so many gaps in the sky, where there could be stars.”

Turlough thought it prudent not to answer what he assumed was meant to be a rhetorical question anyway, so instead he retorted, voice sardonic: “Too many stars and you wouldn’t see the darkness. It would be no different to daytime.”

“The night is a rest from the day, I grant you, but sometimes I long for… Well, for the action of the day. Would more stars be so bad?”

Thinking about the increased rates of asteroid impacts with this planet that would involve, Turlough felt vaguely cheered, but fell silent.

“You know Turlough, there’s something different about you. You—remind me of something. Someone. Maybe,” and for a moment, the Brigadier was lost in the stars. “Oh, I don’t know, but retiring to teaching after being a soldier, I’ve always viewed you as fitting more in the category of one of my men than one of my boys; more a troop than a pupil. Not a fighter, mind you, but a veteran. Tell me I’m wrong, young man.”

“You’re wrong,” said Turlough obediently, dryly, forcing the stiff lines in his body to relax.

The Brigadier chuckled and Turlough found himself smiling (nearly warmly) in response.

“The universe—the world— is a big place, and I think you’d be surprised at what I can take in my stride,” the teacher focused his twinkling eyes upon Turlough. “However, this—” and he waved one hand vaguely between them “—this amiable relationship between two adults—is not one of them, and could not possibly resume in the classroom. You understand me, Turlough?”

“Perfectly, sir. Wouldn’t want to upset the pecking order.”

The Brigadier chuckled again, a warm sound to which Turlough found himself smiling. 

Turlough laid back down and turned his eyes to the sky.