Chapter 19

The travelling was exhausting, and though what waited filled me with such an avalanche of enthusiasm, the journey to Washington D.C. was almost painful in its lack of comfort and its excessive length. I would have been ecstatic to finally leave our private plane, but I was so tired that I could barely lift my eyelids to take in our newest surroundings. The change from plane to car was a blur, and I slept for the entire car journey until we reached our final destination.

Having slept, I was unrestrained in my ability to admire the establishment that Toby had arranged for us to stay in. She had mentioned that she would find the best place to reside, her personal favourite, and I could easily see why the one chosen was so highly regarded. It was picturesque, a photogenic masterpiece on the side of a grassy hill, a beacon that looked over the city circling us. There was noise, yes, but it was restricted to the wind and the monotonous buzz from nearby pylons that was ever-present in Human habitats – subtle and generally unnoticeable.

We had entered a circular parking lot in our own large and shiny black vehicle, spotting on the way a sparse distribution of Humans on the hotel's grounds. At the entrance, we were greeted by a man in a black and white collection of clothing who introduced himself as simply 'Warburton'. He brought in two silent Humans to take the luggage that the rest of our party had brought along, and invited us all inside. Personally, I was more than happy to stay outside to find some trees or gaze a little longer at the views of the city, but out of courtesy I followed them in.

And twenty minutes or so later, I entered my temporary home.

I padded in, feet connecting with a light-brown (perhaps beige) carpet, soft on my skin and strangely welcoming. My room could only be described as a work of art, and when I finally moved entirely within the room, my bag clutched in my hand, I just had to stand still and witness in awe what I had been treated to. Humans generally enjoyed living in homes that were decorated with countless materials and artworks and combinations of colours, something that I had learned both from spending time in Clarissa's home and from my encyclopedia. This, however, was something other-worldly. I dropped my bag by the door, intending to empty it after I had taken in the sights.

"Move, Taku," Clarissa grumbled. I felt the blunt edge of the door pressing against my rear, urging me out of the way. "Could I get in, please?"

"Sorry, Clarissa." I apologised, walking a few steps forward to allow her the room she needed to enter. She sighed heavily as she bundled through, her reaction to the surroundings not so blissful. She had witnessed it before.

Dragged behind her was a small but hefty suitcase, and she wheeled it over to lean it against the nearest feature, which turned out to be the side of a brown leather sofa. Then, she placed her hands on her hips and grinned pleasingly to me. "Are you impressed?"

I was slowly turning on my feet, observing the wonderful room. "I really like it, thank you," I replied. "I can see why Toby would like the place."

My eyes caught sight of the coffee table on the other side of the room, created with some kind of wood. Probably pine. Suddenly, my stomach decided to be hungry. Now interested in other aspects of my residence, I crept forward to the large window that illuminated the room. My view overlooked the parking lot where we had arrived, but to the left was an area that had been previously hidden, blocked off by a large wooden fence. I saw a couple of trees, small but appealing, and already I found my mouth watering.

My ears picked up the sound of a zip. Clarissa had taken it upon herself to start emptying my bag onto the small worktop that circled a basic kitchen section. Admittedly, I didn't have much with me. I needed no clothes, no gadgets, and only a small number of things that were mostly here to remind me of home. True to form, though, Clarissa had thoughtfully supplied me with a few items that I didn't necessarily require but found a pleasure to own.

"Where do I put it all?" I asked her as I rummaged through the pile that she had created.

She shrugged. "Wherever you want. It's your room, silly."

From the pile of assorted objects, I pulled up a small picture, brand new and contained within a thick leather frame. A picture of Mother and Father. The one which Clarissa deemed most frame-worthy, I assumed. It made me smile, and I already I knew that it would be a centrepiece.

"Thank you for this," I said to Clarissa, who had picked out a scarf which suited me… apparently. "I always wondered how Mother and Father would look in a picture."

"You make a pretty good photographer," She commented. "How were your parents when you left?"

"Mother cried," I recalled. "But she understands why I'm leaving. I think. Father said that I should try to bring back some new bark."

"I don't think you'll get much bark around here."

I fell silent briefly and looked to her. "What do you mean? Are the trees here the same as the ones in Yellowstone?"

She shrugged. "Not really. It's just that we're not in the country, you know. We're in Washington D.C."

I blinked, wishing for her to explain further.

"There aren't many trees," She explained sorrowfully. "And the trees that are here are owned by people who probably don't want them eaten. There are a lot of parks in Washington, but I don't think the owners want a Hork-Bajir on their trees."

That was not exactly what I had expected, and though I did my best to appear unaffected, I knew that Clarissa could see my disappointment.

"So where do I eat?" I asked. "Where do I sleep?"

She smiled, intending to provide assurance. "You don't think the hotel would be prepared? They bring in food for you, duh."

"And what about sleep?"

Her hand clamped around mine, and then she started to drag me through the room. I attempted to avoid banging my legs or tail against the variety of obstacles that would get in the way (and I was mostly successful, aside from banging my shin against the low-standing coffee table).

There was another door that I hadn't taken note of, and she pulled me through to witness what I instantly deciphered as a bedroom. It was dominated by a huge bed, one that could comfortably hold three Humans or two of our people. As I turned, I saw that the wall by the door was a series of cabinets and drawers with mirrors for surfaces. Aside from those main features, there was a mass of floor space, enough to lay splayed on the floor without touching any other surface. The colour scheme matched the other room: Large, extravagant, and unbelievably pleasing to the eye.

"It's big…" I muttered. "This is a Human bed. Will you be sleeping here?"

She laughed, and pushed me lightly. "I have my own room."

I couldn't place my reaction to the situation. It was somewhere between disappointment and confusion, but for the entire journey I was expecting to reside in some tree outside of the hotel. That's where I wanted to stay, at least, but clearly that was not a possibility. I bent forward and pressed a hand to the duvet, feeling the material contour to the shape of my fingers. It was a sensation I wasn't used to, being more accustomed to the stiff, rough touch of bark, or the stringy dry grass that would usually lull us to sleep.

"I have to sleep on this bed?" I questioned, hoping that I didn't sound unenthusiastic.

"Yeah," She replied. "Don't worry; they understand that it might get a little torn-up."

I looked to my wrist and elbow blades. "It won't last long. My body won't be used to lying flat."

"You'll be fine." She offered, sitting down on the edge of the bed and bouncing on the mattress. She patted the space beside her, inviting me down, and I decided to indulge.

However, instead of simply sitting on the edge, I dropped my hands onto the surface, followed by my knees, angled wide enough so that the blades on my knees wouldn't pierce the materials. I rested my entire body weight in the centre of the bed, and then carefully lowered myself onto my stomach. I was lying flat, and though my blades were unencumbered, I felt entirely out of place.

"Comfy?" Clarissa asked me.

I assessed my position, and breathed heavily. "I'm not sure."

"Don't be such a baby."

I twisted my neck and looked back towards her. "Toby sleeps on beds like these, too?"

Clarissa nodded. "Of course she does. She never complains, but it's obvious she wants to."

"So she doesn't like it much," I muttered. It could have been worse, looking back, and I was definitely grateful that I was given a place to stay. At any rate, my accommodation was wonderful and appeasing, and I wouldn't let a strange bed ruin anything. "At least it is big enough for us."

Clarissa looked perplexed, and I wondered if I had caused her offense. "Us?"

"Toby and myself." I explained.

She laughed again, and I realised that every time she laughed, it was always in conclusion of something that caused me to feel a little more downhearted. "You aren't sharing a bed with Toby, Taku. You're in a hotel! You don't need body-heat to keep you warm, because this place has its own heating."

"So where does she sleep?"

"Next door," She said. "In fact, I'm pretty sure that her bedroom is just on the other side of that wall."

The concept wasn't entirely new to me, and in a moment of curiosity I reached up and knocked on the wall that stood over the bed. I listened closely, and after a few seconds, three knocks were quietly returned. I giggled, and let my youthful side take over.

"Toby!" I shouted at approximately mid-volume. "Are you in there?"

A second or two passed. Then, muted through the wall, "Yes".

I crawled a little closer. "We can talk through the walls!" I explained cheerfully.

"Stop shouting", I heard. "The other guests will complain!"

The guilt stopped me, but already I was in a better mood. I mischievously gave another few knocks, and shifted so that I was sat upright beside the big white pillows. "I like it here," I mentioned to Clarissa, who was now checking her nails. "I want to see more of the hotel."

She looked down at her glossy red nails, but I could see the hint of a smile. "Don't you think you should settle in here, first? Finish unpacking, you know? Besides, I need some sleep. I am so tired right now."

I ducked my head from embarrassment. "You're right. I should explore my own rooms first. Maybe I could read some more, too."

"The encyclopedia? How much have you read now?" She asked.

"I've read up to the founding of America," I informed, pleasing myself with the appropriateness of that fact. "It's good timing, I think, because this would be a good place to learn more about America's history."

She grinned, but she continued to stare at her nails. It wasn't at all unusual. "No doubt."

"I should visit the Washington monument," I suggested to myself whimsically. "Or the Lincoln Memorial. I could see the museums."

I continued to list the various places that I could imagine visiting, all the different places that I had seen on the television or in pictures or in my numerous books. The longer I outwardly fantasised, however, the more uneasy Clarissa appeared. After a while, I quietened, and then my concern finally stopped me.

"Clarissa?"

She was still doing her nails, but it didn't seem genuine anymore. "Taku," She started with a voice full of sympathy. "You can't really see those places. Not this week, anyway."

That brought my mood back down instantly. "Why not?"

"Look," She sighed, and she took a hold of my left elbow blade and shook it lightly. "You're covered in blades. You can't go to places with crowds unless it's planned weeks in advance."

I pouted instinctively. "So where can I go?"

Much to my grief, she hesitated. Her answer didn't help, either. "I'm sorry, Taku. You'll probably just go wherever Toby goes. She has a meeting with a few representatives and an interview for FOX News. That's about it."

"That should be fun." I said, putting into play my natural Hork-Bajir optimism.

Clarissa nodded, and finally put her nails down. "We'll make it fun. Just stick with me, okay? Toby won't be much help when it comes to fun."

I laughed, and joined her when she stood up from the bed. "I should move my things. I want to put my picture frame beside the bed, but I don't know where everything else will go."

"Take your time. Just make sure you're ready to go downstairs at seven for dinner." She said. Then she puckered her lips.

It was the invite to a Human kiss, and it can mean a lot of different things. For me, they were a sign that I was not alone, even though the two of us were of different races originating from far distant planets. It raised my confidence, essentially, and though it was most frequent when I was a small kawatnoj, it would still occur whenever I found myself in an unusual situation. I dropped my head down slightly, and let her peck on my cheek.

Not often did I see the reaction she had just then, though. She cringed and contorted her face to express displeasure. "Eww. Taku, when did you last shower?"

"Shower?"

She huffed and dropped her shoulders. "Before you go downstairs, you should take a shower. It's just through there," She pointed out of the bedroom door, and to another that was placed on the opposite side of my accommodation. "Instructions are there. Remember, we're in a really fancy place, so you have to be presentable, you know."

"Okay," I whimpered. "I'll do that now."

Clarissa left to empty her luggage into her room (including several suitcases that mostly included clothes, shoes, and various little gadgets used to achieve what she called The Standard), leaving me to my own devices. I put the picture frame on my bedside table, and left the rest of my stuff in the main room. It was just a collection of small stress toys for the journey, the scarf that Clarissa had chosen for me, and various other things that I probably wouldn't use while actually in D.C.. My book was present, too.

That took all of ten seconds, and so my next objective was to have a shower, and that was not something that I ever looked forward to. Clarissa's shower was notoriously temperamental, and the ceiling in the bathroom so low that I was always ducking. I had used Cassie's shower once, and it was much better. I hoped that this shower was just as exceptional as the rest of my temporary home was.

The instructions were basic and straight-forward, and so I started it up and left it to reach a suitable temperature. In the meantime, I investigated the rest of the bathroom. As expected, the quality and aesthetic was wonderful, again matching the mahogany and white theme.

However, even during my time at Clarissa's home, the bathroom was not a room I used often, other than for showers, and it was therefore still rather foreign to me. (The Human toilet, unsurprisingly, is not built with Hork-Bajir in mind, but with no trees that I could use here in Washington, it was something I would have to get used to. I was not looking forward to that.)

I placed my arm around the glass pane that signified the shower, and opened my palm to test the water. It felt different from the showers I had used before, with the water coming down harder and thicker, but that was surprisingly pleasant, as was the temperature it had levelled out at. Satisfied, I searched out a soft and large white towel, draped it over the sink nearby, and stepped into the white basin of the shower. My feet were instantly rushed with warm water, and upon realising that sensation, I also spotted that the shower was vaster than I initially thought. There was plenty of room, even though my feet were multitudes larger than a Human's, and even though I had a tail that forever swung low beneath me. I came to appreciate that the Humans had given me, and presumably Toby, accommodation that would allow us the space we needed. I was greatly impressed, just as I was with the shower.

I never plan to stay in showers for long, and I would historically be in them for no more than five minutes, but this was different. I genuinely enjoyed this experience, and for a while I even found myself investigating the bottles of body gel and the sponges that had been provided for me by the hotel. I smelled them, and found them too powerful for my olfactory senses, but they simply lent a pleasant atmosphere to this new shower experience. After a while, my surroundings had been wholly explored, and my mind sunk within itself as I fell into an almost philosophical daze. I stood there, unmoving, just thinking about… things.

Then my senses came into play. I was thirsty, having not drunk anything for a few hours. The solution was pretty simple, and I turned around once I had pulled myself from my motionless trance to lift my head up, open my mouth, and let the water spray onto my tongue. I lapped at it, pulling water in and sucking it down, and then I pulled away, averse to the hot water pummelling my face.

The water tasted strange, much more so than the water back in Yellowstone. It wasn't undrinkable, but neither was it appetising. It was liquid, however, and my thirst was quenched for the moment.

I switched off the shower and stepped out, taking the towel from the sink and carefully drying myself off, taking precautions that would mean avoiding tears in the fabric.

All was fine for a while, and when dry, I put my towel back on its rack to dry and headed back out towards the main room of my accommodation. As I stepped onto the carpeting, though, I felt a little tinge in my chest, a sharp aching sensation that made my hand reach up to clutch at where it occurred. I gasped when the pain turned into a steady ache arising from my gut, and I hunched over onto the nearest sofa, my head spinning into a daze.

My breathing turned to panting, and my body began to feel weak and limp. That only subsided briefly when my stomach rocked and gave up the battle, causing me to vomit with little warning onto the sofa I was leaning over. I moaned unhappily beneath my strained panting and tried to head back to the bathroom, in case my stomach decided to rebel yet again. I stumbled a little, but my tail kept my balance.

I was nearly there, but I stopped moving when I heard a gentle knocking on the front door. I stuttered a breath inwards and called, "Come in."

It clicked open, and much to my instant relief, it was Toby poking her head around the door. Perhaps it was the noise I was undoubtedly making that had alerted her, but she definitely looked a little perturbed when she saw me shivering and dripping vomit from my snout.

"Hello, Toby," I greeted her. "Am I being too noisy?"

She entered the room and let the door shut itself behind her. Then she shook her head sympathetically. "Taku," She said, and she lifted a six-pack of water bottles into the air between us. "Did you drink the water?"