Chapter 32

I snuck away from my escorts as soon as we had entered the hotel. I told them that I wanted water, and while they stood at the bar I managed to duck away behind them and jog to the elevators. Thankfully, my elevator was empty. I didn't want to be within ten feet of a Human for the rest of the trip.

I leaned back against the railings as the elevator whirred into its mechanical frenzy, the buzz of the components barely drowned out by the tingly music playing from a tiny speaker in the upper corner. I would have preferred just the buzzing, but my hands were enough to block the Human sounds as I placed them firmly on the sides of my head. I hummed, the vibrations cutting out whatever remnants of the music still drifted through.

My eyes were still open, however. They investigated the surroundings, took in the deep greys and golds of the elevator interior. Comfortably claustrophobic, if such could exist.

Behind me was another Hork-Bajir. A reflection of myself. The mirror displayed my back, from my shoulders down to the base of my tail. Unfamiliar, in that I usually only saw my front. I gazed at my back for a while, but turned to face the mirror directly when my neck began to feel uncomfortable with the strain of looking directly backwards. The sight of my front was much less foreign and I shuffled forward for a closer look.

It wasn't the same reflection from earlier. I recognised my own eyes and my headblades. The arm blades, too, and the shoulder blades. They were Taku's. A naïve Hork-Bajir who swung in the trees, sat around campfires and couldn't help but giggle inanely at nonsensical syllables his mother used to make.

"Thpit…" I spoke to my reflection.

The word echoed, bounced over the walls and danced with the beat of the music that droned away in the background. It swished through my head, pulling at memories and registering in every part of me. My mouth smiled slowly and with reluctance. My reflection's eyes urged me on, dilated pupils pleading for the escape.

Then my mouth opened, and I laughed. The reflection laughed, too.

"Um, excuse me?"

I stopped with a shocked grunt and turned my head. The elevator door was open, a middle-aged Human female stood in its wake. She looked concerned, but at the same time reluctant to approach and with the most subtle hint of fear on her pale face.

Scared of me, but equally empathetic. Like most. I looked away, at the same time manoeuvring myself out of the elevator. I heard her feet clumsily bounce backwards as she made enough room, and then the sound changed as they transported her into the elevator where I once was.

Curious, I made one last glance. She was not visible as the elevator doors were almost shut, but I caught the last moments of myself in the mirror. My back was turned again.

It was late by Hork-Bajir standards. The Sun had set, and the only lighting was coming from the long hallways that I stumbled down. However, Humans were still milling around, still highly active even at night. Probably more so. I said not a word to any of them, doing my best to avoid them as much as possible and creeping past those that I had to. Finally, I made it back to our rooms, and though I should have gone straight back into my own designated room to sulk, I skipped past it to the room next-door. I knocked on it firmly and felt the door shift slightly, unlocked.

"Yes? Come in!" Toby called from within. She sounded preoccupied, not that it mattered.

I pushed the door open and marched in, letting it close behind my tail and standing motionless as I watched her.

She was sorting files. Frantically, at that. She had a pad of paper under her arm while using the other to dutifully organise another, hunched over her desk at the end of the room. She didn't even look up to see that it was me that had entered.

I got so fed up of waiting for her that I decided to just speak up. "Where were you? I was there alone!"

Upon hearing my voice, she turned her neck so that she looked backwards at me. "Hello, Taku."

"Please answer my question." I insisted, stepping further into the room to get a better look at what she was doing.

"I was here," She said, actually stopping her sorting for that short moment to stare at me with conviction. "I never said I would be there. Where is Clarissa?"

"She didn't go," I replied, leaving out some major details. "And neither did Cassie. I was alone down there."

Toby looked sympathetic for the shortest amount of time, and then got back to her sorting, casually continuing the conversation. "And how was it?"

I almost gasped audible. "You didn't even watch it?! I thought that would be the least you'd do."

She sighed, but her apparent rush to sort things took most of her attention. Finished with the current files, she bounced over to the other side of the room and began to empty her bedside table, of all things. "Well, I didn't. I'm sorry. Did I miss something important?"

Scanning the room, I was quick to point out a large, black, cuboidal object hung on the far wall. "You couldn't just switch on that enormous television to watch me ruin my career? You couldn't be bothered to even have my train wreck on as background noise?!"

Her form shifted, and she sprang up tall with anger in her eyes. "I've been very busy, Taku! I don't have time right now to worry about a damned television interview, and to be frank, neither do you! Here," She stomped over as I cowered, and dropped three huge pads of paper into my arms, much to my confusion. "These are yours now. Make sure they're done by the end of the week."

Shaking my head, I choked on my own words, gave up and gazed blankly up at her. Her expression quickly shifted, and she narrowed her eyes to open mine. She explored them and backed off when she was done. "Take the week off. Head home tomorrow and spend the week with our people."

By that point I was beyond normal levels of confusion. I placed the files on the sofa that I was leaning against and tried to find the reasons behind her behaviour. "Why are you giving me your files?"

"Because," She sighed, returning to her monster task. "I don't have time for it. I trust you to have our people's best interests at heart, so I'm passing them on to you."

Suddenly, the reality of it pushed itself into my mind. All around Toby's room were files, pads of paper, folders so full that pages spilled from the sides. And this was just her temporary hotel room. I imagined that files from her office would be joining them. I felt a cold shiver rush over me and I felt dizzied by the situation. "I can't handle that. There are people who can handle it better than me. I'll just ruin it!"

"You'll be fine," She reassured unconvincingly. "Once you've had some time off, take it slowly and it will be done."

Her words didn't calm me. Her casual tone made things worse, and I shook as I grew ever more frustrated. "Why don't you have time?! What has suddenly taken priority over the park?"

"It's not your business." She asserted.

I wasn't going to let her block my curiosity so cheaply. "I think it is."

"It isn't!" She grunted firmly in reply. Obviously, I wasn't going to get far in finding a reason, though I desperately wanted to.

I voiced my displeasure with a loud exhalation. "You must always hold secrets, mustn't you?"

"Not this again, Taku. There are some things that I cannot share and this is one of them. I'm sorry if that irritates you, but you just have to deal with it. Now please, let me organise my files in peace! Go play with Clarissa."

"Clarissa's gone."

She stood up straight and cocked her head at me. "What do you mean gone?"

I shrugged, almost embarrassed to tell her. "I told her to go home."

Toby shook her head and shot me a quizzical stare, the clogs in her head working overtime. "Why?"

"I don't need her anymore."

She began to look distressed, and she dropped her files and walked directly up to me. "You shouldn't have done that. You need her now more than ever, Taku."

"I've learnt what I needed to! I've learnt that I can't trust these Humans. I don't like them, Toby."

To my surprise, she smiled. "You're right. However, you don't have to like them; you just have to tolerate them. That's all. And they're not all bad. Clarissa would do anything for you. She may seem a bit preoccupied with her own face at times and she may be very eccentric, but she cares for you deeply."

I could see her head blades dipping forward. She meant to touch them against mine, a comfort. I backed away, out of her reach. "It's her job to care for us! That's what puts money in her pocket!"

Toby looked disgusted. "How dare you make such an accusation? Once again, Taku Kelmut, you're paranoia has gone one step too far! I have known Clarissa for years and not once has she put earnings over me or any of our people! I really don't know what's getting into you, but somewhere I've gone wrong. I can't figure out where."

"Maybe I can see what you can't," I offered with a chunk of smarminess. "You're playing the Human game, Toby. You're falling into their traps! That's why you're here stacking mountains of paper!"

"And what do you suggest I do?" She pressed with expert calmness.

"I… Well…"

Once more, I came to a crashing halt. Intense anger started to bubble, aimed at myself from within. I turned away from Toby and huffed my disapproval.

My turn did not work, though. Toby came up close behind me and reached her snout forward to speak as close to my ear as politeness would allow. "I'm sure you've learnt already. To clear rotten bark, you must taste it first."

Her words span around my head until the meaning clicked into place. Yes, I had learnt it, barely an hour before when my television rant came to a sudden halt with the word please. It reverberated cruelly through me.

I knew it all along, and yet I refused to believe it.

"I want to go home." I sobbed, letting the restraints fall away.

Toby turned me gently and brought me into the embrace that I had refused previously. "I'm sorry that things are the way they are. I'm sorry for leaving all this on your shoulders. Just don't let it get on top of you. Please."

I remained silent and I knew that would worry her, but I had nothing to say. Toby was all that I had left in the whole city, and all I wanted was for her to be as close as possible. She was my lifeline, my guardian angel. She was my second mother.

"When we go home," I spoke. "I don't want to see any newspapers. No TV on the plane."

"Just sleep on the journey. No one will wake you," She let me out of her embrace and looked me over one last time. "You had better sleep now, too. You need it."

I didn't want it, but I knew that I needed it, so I smiled politely and made for the doorway. Toby was nearly finished sorting everything in her room, so I would let her finish uninterrupted. Letting the door close behind me, I walked down the corridor with calmer footsteps to my own room.

Pushing against the door brought to mind that it needed a key. I sighed and waited for my team of security to finally figure out where I had gotten to. They found me, chastised me and allowed me back into my room. I requested that I be left alone for the night.

It was dark outside, and all I could hear was the distant rumblings of Human activity that echoed up from twenty stories below. I watched it, pressing my headblades to the window and peeping down to the ground. It was a long way down, and every Human was like a tiny dot among a sea of red and amber glows. There was music, too, but at such a distance it was muffled and airy. It was almost haunting.

I contemplated sleep to ease my frantic mind. The buzzing in my head was the only sound from within my room. It competed harshly with the noises from outside. I closed the window as firmly as I could, and for a while stared at my reflection that was barely visible on the glass.

It will all be fine, I told myself, Toby said that I could have a week to recover. It didn't need to take any notice of what the Humans said, and I could lock myself away in the office blocks and work on those papers. I was good at that.

Except for the whole CrescentCreations thing. Don't forget that, Taku. Don't forget that. Or the interviews. Don't forget any of it.

My body tightened, cringed as my cruel brain dragged back the memories. I stomped away from the window and lay down on my belly across the bed. Not as stable as a tree, but the next best thing.

I could drown my sorrows in work. Work always took my mind off of things, and Toby had left me with plenty to do. Lots and lots of paragraphs to read, forms to fill, all for the good of my people. My wonderful, peaceful, docile people. They would never put me through televised interviews or lock me away in great skyscrapers.

But why did Toby need me to do all her work? More personal business, probably. She was always so secretive. Cassie, too. Both too busy to be at the interview. Too busy loading their work onto me. They didn't want to supervise me anymore. Toby had even told me so after Relk's funeral.

They were distancing themselves, pushing me further away and dropping it all on me. What could be more important than their work?

They're leaving, Taku.

I bolted up with a yelp and instantly charged for the door. It wouldn't open at first so I pulled as hard as I could. The wood snapped and crumpled and the lock was forced open with a hideous strain. I caught the sight of a security man in black at the other end of the corridor, but he was too far away to intervene. I rushed to Toby's door, already panting with heavy panicked grunts.

I pushed it open and felt a cool breeze rush over my face. The room was silent, all but for the air rushing in through the open window on the far side. The white curtains flickered in my direction and pulled me over to look, and I did so with possibilities barraging my head.

My instinct was to look down. The ground was far, far below, but among the red and amber glows and tiny Human dots I saw no activity. There was no sign of a fallen Hork-Bajir, but the undisturbed strolling of nightlife Humans on their way.

Looked left and right. Directly upwards, observing the flat walls of the side of the building. She could have climbed out. Nothing.

Then I noticed a stray deep brown feather as I stumbled back in contemplation. It was blowing gently in the breeze, fluttering down beneath the right-side curtain.

"Mr Kelmut!" Shouted the security Human. He had caught up. "You can't just rush out of your room like that! You might bump into somebody!"

I didn't even acknowledge him. I turned around, spoke absolutely nothing and marched back to my room. He tried to speak to me, tried to lecture me on what I had done, but I paid no attention. I went back into my room and closed the door as best I could. Splinters held it in place.

Not even the sounds of outdoor activities infiltrated my room anymore. The world around me was blurring and tugging at every inch of my being. Something was breaking, and the hideous realisation that I was totally alone was the culprit. My hands shook, but the rest of me remained absolutely still. My eyes were open, but little registered other than the dull, nondescript floor.

It was all trying to destroy me. Everything. Now even one of my own people had deserted me. I never thought that would happen.

But Toby was a Seer! So? She is as smart as a Human! She thinks like a Human, talks like a Human…

Everything around them was defective. Everything they touched turned to ashes. They were a disease, and I would have nothing to do with them…

To clear rotten bark, you must taste it first.

I didn't want to taste it! I didn't want to play the sick Human game, but I knew that it was the only way to win.

It was all such a mess. I wasn't meant to be there. I was no seer, just an ordinary, ignorant Hork-Bajir. I ate bark and swung in trees, sat around campfires with family. Little more than that.

I looked up, and there stood before me was a desk. It had a water bottle on it and a pad of paper. There was a lamp, too, and a couple of brochures. They were all Human. I stammered forward and swept them from the desk and onto the floor. Then I turned the desk over and rammed it into the far corner of the room.

An abstract painting stood proudly, boastfully above that corner. Not for long, however, as it was soon removed and dropped with very little care between the desk legs.

Everything around me was Human, and it all had to be pulled down. Next, I removed the curtains, the hooks that held them to the wall, popping off in rhythmic fashion. They fell onto me, and in anger I threw them off. Bunching up the fabric, I bowled it into the pile.

I tore the paintings from the wall, threw down the towels and toilet paper provided in the bathroom, tipped the waste bin onto the floor and kicked it aside. The soaps, the television set, the useless coffee sachets and even the Bible that some presumptuous Human had left.

Lastly, I ravaged the storage closet. I bit angrily at the redundant ironing board and cursed it, before casually throwing it among the depressing pile that I had created in the corner. The room was empty but for the bed sheets, an alarm clock and a picture frame.

I picked up the two small bedside items in one big claw and launched them. The alarm clock bounced harmlessly on a scrunched rug, but the picture frame shattered against the desk's out-sticking leg.

And I realised what I had just thrown.

"Oh…" I breathed, "Oh, not that… No!"

I scurried over, shaking my head profusely. The shards were spilled down into the cracks and crevices of the mound, the once enclosed picture bent and ruined. I gently picked it up and turned it. Three Hork-Bajir faces looked back at me, drowned in the dark shadows of the room, distorted by shattered glass. Mother and Father, smiling, and myself lost in the crease caused by impact.

I searched for the glass that had fallen, reached into the rolled-up rug and cut myself deeply as I rummaged. I tried to put the glass back together, tried to undo the damage that I had done. It was all futile.

My only option then was to sob loudly. I curled up with my picture and wept, so deeply guilty that I could do something so cruel to Mother and Father. I loved them, and I loved their picture, but in my rage I had destroyed it.

"I want Mother," I whimpered. "I want Father. Taku want home."

Time passed, and I didn't keep track. In my stupor I eventually uncurled, holding the picture to my chest. I took from the pile four towels and a mirror that I had recklessly broken in half. In the darkness I constructed what I needed, fastening the towels to the frame of the mirror and attaching it face-down onto the ceiling above my bed.

I removed the corner of the bed sheet and crawled under. Gently, letting my body relax and lie sandwiched between the materials. An unnatural position, and I felt the mattress tear beneath my blades now and again. I pulled the sheet over my body, lying with limbs splayed and on my back as I gazed long into the mirror at myself, and I didn't stop until morning came.