I was home, having returned from New York in total silence. News had spread quickly about Toby and Cassie's disappearance through the park team. It wasn't headline news immediately, but as their absence lengthened it was quickly gathering steam. My escorts back at the park tried to get answers from me, as did the staff of the hotel we were staying at, but I kept my suspicions to myself. I wasn't going to supply the media with more ammunition.
As soon as I was let loose back into the park, I ran straight for the trees, jumped up and sprinted home, having answered none of their questions. The ramifications might become apparent later, but at that moment all I wanted was my own tree, fresh bark and the presence of Hork-Bajir around me. They accepted me back as if I hadn't even left.
I didn't tell Mother and Father that I had broken the picture frame. They most likely wouldn't understand, anyway.
Sleep was the first thing on my mind. Once home, I said hello and retreated to my own branch high up in the canopies. I clung to it, wrapped my head beneath my arms to stand a chance of rest. Thankfully, the family knew well enough to leave me alone, and I managed to sleep for a short while. Night time was more difficult, however. The quiet allowed thoughts to invade my head again.
I shuffled from my motionless state as soon as I heard my neighbours doing the same. I cut myself some breakfast from a nearby pine, drank some water from the river and finally started to think things over with a calm mind. In a meditative state, I sat on the outskirts of our locality where I was unlikely to be interrupted. Only the birds and the insects would disturb me in the dense pack of trees.
There was a lot to think about. In one disastrous sweep Toby, Cassie and Clarissa had gone. My three capable guardians who had taught me up till then. Who else was there? Jonathan? Jason? They weren't trained to take part-time care of an adolescent Hork-Bajir. They had no experience. Clarissa had been around Hork-Bajir for years, Toby was a Hork-Bajir, and Cassie… I didn't even want to think of Cassie's experiences.
I didn't trust any other Humans. Mainly because I didn't really know any. I didn't want to be alone again, not even for a few hours in the dangerous Human world. I needed companionship and I needed protection. I wouldn't go back without.
My head dropped into my hands and my tail gripped onto the snowy ground beneath me. Avoiding stress was something else I was aiming for. I needed to remain calm and I had a week of freedom to achieve that. Perhaps it would have been better to go sniffing out some new bark or new people. Maybe I could play with my friends.
I hadn't seen my friends for a while and I instantly began to wonder how they were coping after the loss of Relk. Would they ever want to explore again?
Then an idea hit me. It made my decision to see my friends much, much easier.
They weren't easy to find. Since they were usually together at that time of day, finding one meant finding the other. However, I couldn't predict what they would be doing.
I spotted Pluk's huge form clutching to the side of an unharvested tree, upside down and with his head peeking around the trunk to a nearby clearing. Ruga was in the next tree over, doing the same but the right way up. I arrived behind them and expected them to at least acknowledge my presence.
Well, they did, just without the usual bouncy enthusiasm that young Hork-Bajir display.
Clearly, that was the issue: they weren't that young anymore.
"Hello, Pluk. Hello, Ruga." I introduced with huge curiosity as to what they were gazing at.
They both grunted back a greeting, but their eyes remained fixated on the clearing. I adjusted my position to follow their stares and in the clearing ahead I saw a small group of young females. Admittedly, I began to stare as well.
They were growing up, just as I was. They were at their adult heights, their blades large and precise. Their head blades raked forward like crescent moons in the night sky. For a while I had been the more mature, but they had surely caught up.
Pluk rubbed his neck. "Pluk think Kalshi look nice today." He offered ponderously.
"Yes," Ruga agreed. "Ruga think, too."
I made my way onto Pluk's tree in an effort to grab his full attention. "It's natural. You're adolescents."
The new word caught their attentions. Ruga asked, "What adollisunds?"
"You aren't kawatnoj anymore," I said. "You are nearly adults. Adults become mothers and fathers."
I could see the confusion in their faces. Obviously, the topic was a little over their heads. Pluk finally turned himself the right way up and suggested, "Pluk be father, like Father."
"Yes," I responded, ending the conversation before it would inevitably jump over awkward boundaries. "Now, are we going to say hello?"
That seemed to shake them back into reality, and they bolted up and out of their daydreams. "Hello, Taku!" They both called with the enthusiasm I remembered them for.
"Taku back." Ruga observed proudly.
"And very happy for it," I mused to myself. "What are you doing today?"
Ruga grinned. "Ruga watch Kalshi. Pluk watch Kalshi. Taku watch Kalshi."
Pluk, quite helpfully, repeated the exact same trio of statements.
"Haven't you done that enough?" I asked. "Why don't we go down to talk to them? It sure beats watching, doesn't it?"
I let it sink in. A few seconds later, Pluk managed to pull some meaning out of the air. "Pluk talk to Kalshi!"
"Ruga talk, too."
"Good," I grunted. "Then let's go talk with them. I'm sure that we haven't met them before, so it would be nice to introduce."
I made the first movements to jump down from our tree, pulling my foot from the branch and dropping my tail downwards, when I noticed both of my friends staring hard at my face. Usually their eyes would be trailing elsewhere, but at that moment they were unmoving.
"Why are you staring?" I requested awkwardly.
Ruga cocked his head as he tried to figure something out. "Taku different." He concluded.
Pluk had the same idea. "Taku feel bad?"
I furrowed my eyes and began to conjure up a reason for their concern. It was similar to the look that Toby had given me when she told me to take a week off. I never assumed that my friends would pick up on it just as well as Toby. Perhaps I had underestimated them.
I broke the eye contact and pulled myself towards the trunk of the tree, grappling my arms around it to lower myself down. "Come on, before they find something else to do."
We jogged over just in time. Two females, or Kalshi, remained in the clearing, apparently exploring the contents of a mound of freshly stripped bark from a variety of trees. They noticed us approaching and the usual greeting rituals took place.
The females were from the neighbouring colony, and they had explored in our direction for new trees. Therefore, the biggest talking points for the group were the differences in our homes. It was intriguing stuff, but I found that most of the time I was staring off into space.
"Tree have bug!" One of our new friends called Koop Explained. "Bug have four legs and two legs."
Six, of course. Thankfully, my comrades understood well enough. Pluk added, "Pluk tree have bug, too! See lots."
"Ruga see big bug!" Ruga said dramatically. "Lot and lots of legs. More than Taku Kelmut count!"
Our new friends already recognised my name. They knew that I was a seer. Yet, as expected with the Hork-Bajir, nothing really changed. They relied on me more for answering difficult questions, but I was just another one of them. I was another stranger or a friend. I much preferred it that way.
Koop and Yafi were generous to share their bark collection with us, and as we ate I noticed that Ruga and Koop in particular were getting along fantastically. I could see a bond forming, and with my mind still glued to the task at hand, I took it as an opportunity to do what I needed to do. As Ruga and Koop became more concentrated on each other, I formulated a plan to bring Pluk away. The only issue was not leaving Yafi stranded. I took the two aside.
"You wanted to play a game?" I asked Yafi. She stood beside me, waiting patiently for me to fulfil a promise. "Okay, I have an idea."
She nodded enthusiastically and shuffled on her feet. "Game!"
I made sure that Pluk was paying attention, and explained what I had in mind. "We will find new bark. But we go by ourselves and bring back what we find. Bring it back to this spot. Then we decide who found the tastiest bark."
It was a popular idea, judging by their reactions and eagerness to get started. Pluk asked, "Start now?"
"Yes!" I announced. "Yafi, you should go that way!"
I pointed southwards to a thick wall of trees. Yafi did not hesitate for a second and spun on her feet to charge onwards to her mission. That left myself and Pluk stood alone, though I still needed to make it look genuine.
"Where Pluk go?" He asked me.
"That way," I answered, pointing in the opposite direction towards another grouping of trees. "Hurry, before Yafi gets back."
Given his cue, he sprang into action. He headed for his designated group of trees with his greatest pace. That was problematic, because he was considerably faster than I was. Not only that, but in case Yafi was looking, I decided to head in a westerly direction, hoping to cut Pluk off as I swung around. I hit the trees and threw myself up high. Once into the canopies, I held myself for a moment and changed my direction. I only hoped that Pluk would spend time investigating the first trees instead of sprinting further out.
I travelled for a distance that felt like it should have crossed his path, but I saw no sign of him. I sighed and sat back on a branch, assuming that he had gone further ahead. In the mass of trees, it would be near impossible to spot him. I would have to try a new tactic. Maybe just pull him aside like any sane person would…
"Taku Kelmut get lost," Pluk spoke up, making me jump and almost lose my balance. He was behind me, peering out from the neighbouring tree. "This where Pluk go. Taku go that way." He said, pointing in the wrong direction.
"Actually, Pluk," I replied, standing up to recover from the shock he gave me. "I need to talk to you."
He shook his head. "Find bark now. Talk later?"
I grunted. "Honestly, I made us do this just so I could get you alone."
Pluk stared, curiously wondering what I was trying to do. He pulled himself to a more stable seated position on his branch and waited with firm attention. With it, I knew I could make my offer.
"Pluk," I started slowly, trying to word it so that he could understand. "I go to the Human cities a lot now. I always had Toby Hamee with me, and Clarissa. You met her, didn't you?"
He nodded. "Clarissa Human. Say Pluk big."
"Yes, she did. Both of them are gone now. They are somewhere else, and will not come to the cities with me anymore."
He was still listening intently, which was very good. He understood it so far. I made sure by asking, and he said, "Pluk know. Taku alone."
The last two words stunned me. He already knew what it meant. "I don't want to be alone," I summarised. "I don't feel safe, because Humans are very dangerous."
"Dangerous?" He repeated sceptically. "Pluk not think. Humans nice."
"I understand why you'd think that," I murmured. "But I still need security. Would you be interested in being my bodyguard?"
He turned his head quizzically. "Bodyguard?"
I considered how to explain without putting him off. "You'll be with me most of the time, just making sure that nothing bad happens to me. You'll be able to see how the Humans live, too, which I'm sure you'll find very exciting!"
It was definitely working. I could see a smile forming on his face, and his head lifted with interest. "Go to see Humans with Taku?"
"Yes!" I said. "I'm sure you'd do the job very well!"
I wasn't lying. Pluk had barely stopped growing since birth, and he stood at least a couple of feet taller than even the average Hork-Bajir, like myself. His build was still athletic and strong, so much that one could say he was built like a concrete wall. If Humans were scared of me, I didn't even need to contemplate how they would react to him in the middle of a city hotel.
"Do good!" He exclaimed, raising himself. "Pluk be bodyguard for Taku. Make Taku safe!"
I smiled to him, revelling in how easily convinced my people were. "Thank you, Pluk. We can start next week. You'll come to the Yellowstone Centre with me."
But by that point, he wasn't fully focused. He was too giddy about his exciting new responsibilities. Keen to learn, he asked. "How Pluk do?"
"Do… Oh, How to be a bodyguard? It's easy," I suggested, stepping onto his branch. "Just stand with me. That's it."
He grinned and looked proudly to the tops of the trees. "Pluk stand with Taku lots. Easy!"
"Yes," I agreed. "But that's it. Nothing more, unless I say so."
"Just stand?" He questioned, enthusiasm slightly blunted.
"Unless I say otherwise."
"Unless Taku say otherwise…" He muttered. Then, he stood up tall, laughed, and simply moved beside me. "Pluk do!"
It was a game to him. There he stood, proud and effortless, a barrier to the rest of the world. All the while, he chuckled to himself, enjoying the thought of new adventures and new worlds. I couldn't help but feel the worst kind of guilt.
And Pluk unintentionally made it even worse. He turned to me midway through his bodyguard duty. "Ruga too small for bodyguard. What Ruga do?"
I blinked and started peeling off random strips from the nearest trunk so that it would seem that we were actually playing the bark-hunting game. "Ruga? Well, nothing."
"Ruga come, too." Pluk prodded.
I sensed his inevitable reaction and tried to soften the blow. "I can only bring one person. Maybe next time we'll bring Ruga, too. Besides, he'll be fine without us."
Pluk pouted. "No Ruga come."
"No Ruga come," I confirmed. I was already beginning to have my doubts about the decision, and though Pluk quickly returned to his content and optimistic state, I knew that part of him was already grieving the left-behind Ruga.
It was all part of growing up. They needed to learn how to be away from their friends. They needed to leave each other behind every so often.
So why couldn't I?
I was different. I was living a half-Human, half-Hork-Bajir life. I needed to take something from home as a safety blanket. Somebody. Pluk would come to no harm, because no Human would dare go near him.
Would Pluk enjoy his new job as my barrier, as a shield for my eyes and my ears?
He'd see it as an adventure, of course. He would find the joy in it that I could not.
Only time would tell. I noticed him staring at me with that concerned expression again. "Taku feel bad?"
I shook my head both as a response and to rid myself of the thoughts. "No. I feel good. Quick, you should find some bark and get back, or Yafi will wonder where we've gone."
He smiled and uttered abrupt laughter. "Taku find, too! Not quick as Pluk!"
With that, he bounced away in search of delicious bark. I was alone in the canopies, investigating every nook and cranny of the decision that I had made. I justified, criticised, praised myself and vilified myself. All the while I sat on the branch, slowly cutting strips of bark from the tree to fulfil my part of the game. Small strips that I clutched in my hands and my snout, larger ones that I held beneath my arms.
By the end of my contemplation, I had enough. Too much, even. I dropped whatever I held in my mouth and sighed, realising that I had been looking at my thighs the whole time. My friends would be waiting for me. I stood, dropped a couple pieces of bark, and prepared myself to leap back to the clearing where no doubt I would unveil the least interesting of the three collections.
I stopped myself, and Toby's words delved swiftly into my head. I wanted help. I wanted guidance. All that was around to help me was the big tree in which I was stood, curled within its comforting branches like a lost child. My eyes latched on, and I gawked up and down the thick pine's trunk. I could sense something other than bark and sap and leaves, and I moved instinctively closer. Wind blew over my ears, twisting around the branches and pulling me ever closer. The whisper clicked and creaked as nature rolled against the withstanding surface.
It was speaking to me. Trying to. The language was so delicate but at the same time so vague and monotone. It was inaudible.
Nevertheless, I tried to listen, tried to let the words sink into my mind and provide me with the answers that I needed.
"Answer me." I demanded under the subtlety of a whisper.
The winds slowed, and the leaves ceased their rustling. The wood remained still, unrelenting.
"Relk, please answer me."
The world was a deadly silence, the activities of noises leaving me behind. Nothing would speak to me then. I headed back to the clearing.