New York was almost as snowy as Yellowstone Park. The streets were teeming with motor vehicles and pedestrians, creating a whirlwind of noise that wove its way up the side of our tall hotel building. It blew in through the window, joining the cold in a discordant melody in my ears. I watched the activity from twenty stories, keeping a metre distance from the window, a shelter from the dropping temperature as the evening began to set in.
For so long I had been dreading another trip to one of the great Human cities, but I had come this time with intent. I needed to be there, not just for my own dignity but also that of my people. Being in New York was the punishment for my crimes, and a very fitting one.
I had little other reason to be there. I had learnt long beforehand that I was not permitted into the headquarters of the news broadcasting station I was to appear on. The reasons were disguised but unmistakeable, and it only added to my rage.
Everything about it frustrated me, and in the city I had very little to cling to other than the handful of possessions I had brought and the even grouchier Hork-Bajir in the room beside mine. Toby hated this trip just as much as I did.
She and Cassie were pre-occupied. My suspicions were growing, but I couldn't understand why. As for Clarissa, nothing had changed. Only I had.
She knocked on my hotel room door. I could tell that it was her because the knock was performed with a certain beat that matched her rather tuneful lifestyle. I moved away from the window with whatever energy I could be bothered to expend and opened the door for her. A big grin was spread over her face, so much so that I feared it would interfere with her huge hoopy earrings.
"Hey, Taku," She chirped in a long drawn-out fashion. "You ready?"
"Ready for what?" I grunted, moving aside to allow her in.
She pranced in with a spring and dropped a large purple bag on my sofa. "Your interview starts in two hours," She said. "You've got to get ready!"
"I'm ready enough," I responded, shuffling over and already knowing what was in the bag. "I just need some time to think it over."
Clarissa shrugged it off entirely, her attention focused on the bag as she pulled equipment from it. "You've had loads of thinking time. You barely said a word on the flight over. Now come on, we need you to look good for those cameras!"
"I look good enough already."
She chuckled and shook her head up at me. "Remember humility, Taku. People like it."
"I don't mean it like that," I retorted. "I mean I don't need makeup. Does it even make a difference?"
"Yes, silly, of course it makes a difference. Everyone does it and for a good reason. The better you look, the more people pay attention."
"It shouldn't be that way," I huffed. "So very shallow."
She pulled up a wooden stool for me to sit on and prepared her first pile of equipment. "Yeah, but it works. Do you want it to work or not?"
I sat on the stool, deliberately making it seem uncomfortable. "Of course I want it to work. I just think there should be more genuine ways to do it. And, please, don't coat me like last time. I was choking on the fumes."
"Well, gee, Taku, that's the thanks I get? When you're in a good mood again I'm going to make you apologise."
"You'll be waiting a long time." I mumbled.
She put a hold on the make-up process to reply to my statement. "You've been, like, really grumpy for this whole trip, Taku. Lighten up a bit. Everything is going to go great!"
"I'll lighten up as soon as I can be home with my family on my nice cosy branch. I know now why Toby hates these trips so much."
She rolled her eyes and began to rub a wet tissue over my head. "Duh, we all hate our jobs."
There was an awkward silence. She must have assumed that I would continue the conversation, but I took my time to consider what she said and brought it back. "And what is your job?"
Clarissa fell unnaturally silent and then forced a laugh. "Most people hate their jobs. I like mine."
"I'm sure you do," I sighed, feeling guilty for trying to trap her. "Though I find it hard to believe. How you can enjoy yourself around the two most miserable Hork-Bajir in the universe is hard to fathom."
She told me to hold still as she took the damp tissue around my right eye to scrape off the stray dirt. "You're happier than most Humans."
"Yes. You Humans seem to find pleasure in making yourselves miserable."
She smiled at me as the tissue was dragged over my snout. "Just like you, huh?"
She said it in jest, but I reacted differently to what she may have expected. "I don't make myself miserable! Why would I?"
"Geez, Taku," She huffed, pulling the tissue away to get a full look of me. "What's wrong with you today?"
I folded my arms over my chest and felt very petulant when I replied, "Nothing. I'm fine."
"No, you're not," She countered, beginning to grow frustrated with me. "You've never been like this. I know things are busy right now and it's, like, getting on top of you, but you have to stop being so paranoid and edgy."
"I'll stop being paranoid and edgy when I have good reason to," I compromised, allowing her to finish off with the tissue by scrubbing the last part of my face. "So many things have gone wrong that I think I'm right to be those things."
Clarissa dropped the tissue to the floor, marking out her workspace, and started to prepare some kind of brush, dabbing it into a strange powdery substance. She took it to my right cheek and tapped it against my skin. "Bad stuff always happens. Sometimes it just happens in big clumps, you know. You'll get through it. Just keep your chin up."
I lifted my head backwards at her order.
"Not like that. I mean metaphorically."
I dropped my snout back down and let her continue. "I don't know. This all seems like some big over-complicated game that I'm in no position to play. I just want to go home and live with my people."
"You were given that choice." Clarissa muttered casually.
"How do you know that?"
"Toby," She replied, dabbing the brush against the base of my snout. "I think it was, like, last year."
I grunted. "And what else has she told you of our conversations?"
"Only the things I needed to know. She told me that you agreed to live her lifestyle. It would be a bit late now to stop it."
I pulled my face back to stop her brush contacting. "And what makes you say that, Clarissa? Why is it a bit late?"
The brush was left in mid-air. She was intent on continuing, but shrugged at my question and said, "You're in the spotlight now. People expect things of you."
"Well they shouldn't!" I burst, the volume of my statement causing her to recoil. "I will live the life I want to lead!"
Clarissa looked sympathetic, but the brush was not dropped and she leaned in again to continue her work. "You probably can eventually, but first you-"
"First I what?" I growled, moving back further to disallow the brush. "First I play your silly Human games?! Go on your television networks to make a total fool of myself?!"
She finally pulled back, the brush dropping to her side. Her eyes held a look of confusion. "I don't know what you mean…"
"Yes, you do," I accused, pushing back my stool and standing before her. I must have looked a frightening figure as I loomed over her. "The whole point of you being here is to make me Human. You bring me Human food, put me in front of Human televisions and douse me in these disgusting Human potions! I don't want to be Human! I want nothing to do with them!"
Clarissa remained stood in her place, the expression of confusion still present but mixed with pain. Her hands were shaking. "It's not like that, Taku…"
I didn't give in to her emotional gaze and I turned away, stepping across the room towards the window. "I don't like you Humans. You are so shallow, so petty. Why must I disguise myself like one of them to talk about my people?! I am not one of them and I never will be!"
"Taku, I'm not trying to turn you into a Human, okay?" She tried to reason. I could hear her choking, trying to hold back tears. "I'm just trying to help you see things like we do."
"It is Human vision that is causing the problems that we face! I would only blind myself," I countered. "Tonight I am expected to attend an interview with a panel on a nationwide broadcast to discuss the impact of CrescentCreations, and I am expected to listen politely, nod and then come up with some mediocre reasons why I disagree. It will be totally, utterly pointless. No minds will be changed, no progression achieved. That is what Humans expect, and what everyone has tried to convince me is correct. But it's not going to happen like that! I'm sick of coming to these damn cities and being restricted to my room because I am not allowed to wander the streets! I'm sick of people judging me because I messed up a television interview. I'm sick of wearing make-up!"
She was remaining quiet, absolutely still as I barraged her with outpouring emotion. It was all being unleashed again, and I could do little to cease it.
"I'm not going to be Human anymore! It doesn't work! I'm going to tell this pathetic country exactly what I think of them and they're all going to see!"
Now tears were beginning to flow from Clarissa's eyes, and her lower lip shuddered. She shook her head. "Taku, please, just-"
"No," I huffed. "I don't need you anymore, Clarissa. I don't need your tuition and I don't need your powders. Go home."
I didn't expect anything. Indeed, I received nothing. Clarissa shook her head again, took her things up in her bags and left, quietly shutting the door behind her. I was alone again.
At that moment, I was satisfied. Her presence now made me feel tremendously uncomfortable and I couldn't bear the idea of once again dousing myself in products just to make my smile a little more unrealistic on the cameras. She always wanted to do it to me and now I didn't want that anymore. I was perfectly content with my own skin.
But she had tainted me. I dragged a finger along my cheek and stared at my claw, now smudged with a lighter shade of green. I rubbed my claws together and briefly played with the bizarre stuff, but it would not go away so easily, so I grunted with dissatisfaction and walked past the sofa and towards the en suite bathroom where everything was built with a petite Human in mind. Switching on the lights, I headed to the sink and twisted the knob that would begin the flow of hot water.
A large golden-framed mirror was the only thing to look at while stood over the sink and I used it to locate the patches where Clarissa had marked my face. It was mostly on my right cheek, though some was haphazardly brushed onto my beak, most likely when I pulled away. My scales glittered subtly, cleared of any microbes of dirt with her wet tissue.
It was normal to me now, a disguise that I wore frequently. The disguise of a pathetic foreigner trying desperately to fit in where it was never possible to begin with. The Human world was complicated and violent. Corrupted and stained with greed. Things that Hork-Bajir were not.
I was a Hork-Bajir. Even with the make-up stains and the unnaturally clean skin I could see it. Nothing could mistake my blades or my eyes. The Human world was not made for me, or I for it. I should not have to behave like them.
The interview was now less than two hours away. I was to be filmed in a studio not far from the hotel and I had initially planned to be cordial and polite, but equally resistant and strong-willed. I knew that that would no longer be possible, even if I tried. I was too wound up, too volatile and emotional. If Clarissa could cause me to explode, then the words of the enemy could be catastrophic.
Not that I cared. I wanted that. I wished to make my presence known as something other than the pitiful cowering wreck that I was previously, to breach the headlines and make my message known to the entire Human world.
It was all being planned. I tried to predict the opening lines of the host in my head, always so predictable. She would first introduce the other two guests, the ones in the newsroom. Then it would be me. Then it would probably end. Rebuttals to my points weren't necessary, and neither were the other guests, to an extent.
I placed my hand into the hot water as it poured freely from the tap, formed a cup to transport the liquid to my face. I splashed it onto the offending area and began to scrub vigorously. Light green water spilled around my hand as the make-up came loose.
The image in the mirror began to look more Hork-Bajir as the substance came away. I smiled as the process went on, feeling freer in my old self. Things were going to be so much better when I rid myself of the Human side.
There was one little spot of make-up left, just on the lower part of my right jaw. Upon spotting it, I reached down to again cusp some water to rinse it off with. My hand went under for milliseconds before natural reaction caused me to withdraw sharply and with a pained yelp. The water was steaming, burning the area of the hand it touched.
I turned the tap off and muttered harshly under my breath, grasping at my afflicted hand. My inner monologue had distracted from the fact that the hot water tap would have been quickly increasing in temperature. A silly mistake on my part, and I decided that I had done enough make-up removal.
I had about an hour to spare before I needed to leave my hotel room for the interview. With Clarissa gone, Toby seemingly absent and no books to read, I had little choice but to crack open a bottle of water and sit down in front of the television. I picked up my nearest bottle that was sat cosily in an open backpack and guided myself down onto the large leather sofa near the centre of my large, mostly red coloured room. The leather was cold on my skin, as it always had been, but didn't take long to warm. In that time, I flicked lazily through the television channels. Sitcoms, movies, cartoons, a live showing of a theatre performance…
I considered that last one briefly, but then I decided against it, took a long gulp from my water bottle and turned to the first news station I came across.
Same old dull news stories. Same old miserable ones, if I were to be honest. Normally I would avoid the torture, but over the last months I had come to realise that world news could be very important for me. Most of the time it wasn't but alien relations stories would often pop up that concerned me. Then Toby would calm me down and take the entire responsibility on her own shoulders. She seemed used to it.
I got bored very quickly, but the monotony of the television screen began to lull me into a peaceful daze where my only slight movements included breathing and scratching myself on occasion. This, coming before a big event for me, was unusual. I would normally be in panic mode, but something was different this time. That was obvious.
However, my daze didn't last long. My ears were still just barely paying attention to the television when a worrying news story was first uttered by the programme's host.
"Plans to build a highway over a section of Yellowstone have re-emerged after pressure from local businesses," The young male host with unnaturally sleek hair spoke. "The plans were first proposed back in 2007 but were put aside when challenged by the CAE."
I perked up, awaking from my daydream and paying full attention as the story was revealed. I could already sense that I would not approve of whatever was happening.
The host continued, "The highway would connect towns on the eastern and western borders of Yellowstone National Park, and though this may seem like exactly the opposite thing that should happen in a national park, the groups behind the plan explain that Yellowstone had already been compromised as a national reserve when the Hork-Bajir were introduced in the year 2001. So not only would they have to battle campaigners who worry about the environmental impact of a highway, they will also first have to convince state and federal governments that the park is no longer technically a reserve."
The host disappeared, and a pre-recorded section took his place. A narrator spoke over the filmed image of a street in Idaho Falls, a Human settlement on the western side of Yellowstone. The narrator, female, said, "Since the turn of the century, the city of Idaho Falls and the neighbouring towns have seen a huge increase in tourism, coinciding with the arrival of Hork-Bajir to Yellowstone National Park. However, this increase has led to unusual levels of congestion in the region as campers, hikers and photographers head in from all around the world. Many have grown concerned that congestion issues will prove problematic for small businesses and tourists alike."
A man then appeared. He was particularly large and wore a sports cap and a chequered hoodie. He spoke into a microphone, and was addressed by a patch at the bottom of the screen as the owner of a local business. "You know, we get all these people coming into the town, looking for a place to stay and that's great. But you know what they always tell me? They always tell me that it's difficult to get here. Small twisty roads, you know, it takes quite a long time. It was fine a while ago, but now that our demand has gone up, we need to make it easier to get here."
"How do we do that, do you think?" The woman behind the microphone could be heard asking.
"Build bigger highways." He replied, nodding.
The large man disappeared after his brief appearance and another film of landscape took his place. The narrator said, "Plans to build a large highway just south of Yellowstone Lake are proving very popular among local business owners, who see the proposed road as an ideal solution as tourism increases. However, the highway would also cross through part of the Hork-Bajir designated territory, effectively splitting it in half, and many also question whether a highway can be built in Yellowstone in the first place."
And the man reappeared, having clearly been asked a different question. "As far as I'm concerned, Yellowstone stopped being a protected national reserve as soon as the Hork-Bajir came along. They ain't a natural part of the ecosystem. You don't introduce animals into a reserve that don't naturally belong there, because that totally defeats the point of a reserve. If it ain't a reserve, it ain't protected, and we can legally build a highway in it."
I doubted the truth of what he was saying, but that wasn't my major concern. I switched off the television, having gotten the message and seen far too much of it. Another problem, another example of greed. The subtle comparison to animals pushed it too far and caused my stomach to churn.
I would have to investigate later. It was just another file of papers to sort through some other day. At that moment, all I had to care about was my interview, and just exactly what I would say and how long I would have to say it.
I got up, finished my water and left the building.