Chapter 38

I had to cancel everything that I had planned in Cheyenne. Not that there was much to cancel, and frankly I was very pleased to leave. I only wished that the circumstances were different.

Though my soul wished to dwell on the hatred for myself and my hideously consequential mistake, duty maintained that I stand by my friend's side as he spent a night in the local hospital, tending to his needs and being the one person around that he knew. Pluk was given a single bed in ICU, and the staff worked through most of the night making sure that his condition would not decline. They examined his body and concluded that his legs had been broken in multiple locations, his pelvis had been crushed, and he had broken his back and five ribs. Aside, most of his body was bruised, deeply purple where the blood collected.

And despite all of that, his spirits remained high. My people never ceased to amaze me. Even through the pain, the numbness throughout much of his body, he was still so alive and so optimistic.

I think he was mostly pleased that I had pushed aside my anger. Of course, my emotions were not the priority, but that's how he saw it. To me, it was incredibly disturbing.

Once the hospital had gotten him into a stable condition, arrangements were made for him to be transported back to the Hork-Bajir medical centre in Yellowstone. There, he would be supervised by doctors specially trained to deal with my people and their unfortunate injuries and illnesses. With nothing left for me in Cheyenne, I was more than willing to travel with Pluk to his more suitable housing arrangements. The beds in the Human hospital were far from suitable, considering his size and his injuries.

He was heavily bandaged, and he would remain so for some time. Even when we returned home, tired and weary, I could not go ten minutes without dishing my sincerest apologies to him. I felt utterly awful. I was a terrible person for what I had done to my friend, but he would shrug it off and insist that I was not to blame.

After a day spent by his side in his new, larger bed, I left for home. Usually, the return would offer me great relief. I would catch the scent of grass and trees in my nostrils and feel the cosy ground beneath my aching toes. The sounds of the birds and the rustling leaves would kiss my ears. But this time, those delicacies could not provide me with comfort. Every time I vowed to stop making mistakes, I would return with a new collection under my metaphorical belt, and this time the guilt and the shame were too much to bear. I felt truly alone, even as I scraped my heels back into Hork-Bajir territory.

Hours later, I reached home. I re-introduced myself to my family, but I vanished just before they could question why I seemed so troubled. They would not find me in my hut, either, because I had gone a mile or so past into an isolated patch of trees that hadn't been touched for a while. There, I would grieve for as long as I had to.

My body was clutched around a large pine, my limbs wrapped around the trunk, my head rested to its surface. I held it like a kawatnoj would hold its mother, not wanting to let go and craving protection from the cold outside world.

A while passed, my mind too busy within itself to estimate how long. All I knew was that I was hungry. I hadn't eaten since the morning of the meeting, and my stomach was now overpowering my distress. Shuffling to the left, I rose up my right arm and sliced my blades into the tough wood. Some snow dropped from the canopy around me, disturbed by my movement.

The bark was bitter, but I chewed on it slowly, savouring the sensation. Its sweet sappy underside threatened briefly to turn away my negative emotions, but the realisation that I could potentially rid myself of it only brought it back stronger than ever. I ate a fraction of my cutting, then let the rest drop from my snout and into the snow far below.

I felt that nothing could cure my head of the horrible thoughts that swirled through. I thought of myself as a failure, a disaster. Not only that, but I began to feel that I was a fundamentally bad person. For that I blamed my cursed brain, unfortunate to be given the unusual mind of a seer. I never imagined that it could be so difficult, so heart-breaking when everything around me became all too much.

A Hork-Bajir does not belong in the Human world. They are too different, too contrasting. Being the bridge between would stretch me to my death. I had to give it up. Toby would understand, she would see my pain. I could live the rest of my life as just another innocent, blissfully ignorant Hork-Bajir and I would be infinitely happier.

Until the Humans began to exploit us without restriction. Taking advantage as we sat without a single line of defence.

Did I love my people enough to sacrifice my life and happiness for their well-being? Could I even accomplish that if I did?

"Taku?"

The sudden utterance of my name jolted me and I gripped my blades hard against the tree. I swivelled my head around to find who had interrupted me. Ruga was stood in the next tree over, cocking his head to the side as he looked at me with deep concern.

"Why Taku Kelmut come to these trees?"

I sighed and turned my head back to rest it on my tree's trunk. "Because I want to be alone."

I heard him shuffling to a more comfortable position in his tree. He wasn't going to take the hint. "Taku home. Come to help make campfire!"

"No, thank you, Ruga," I grumbled. "I wish to be alone for a while."

To his credit, he wasn't going to give up easily. "Ruga miss Taku. Taku come with Ruga."

"No, Ruga! Please, leave me here alone!"

"Taku sad," He concluded. "Fire will make Taku feel better. Fire will make cold go away."

I gripped tighter to my trunk, trying desperately not to get angry with my friend. "Listen, Ruga. I do not want to go! Yes, I am sad, but what I need to do now is spend some time alone. I need to think about things for a while!"

He fell silent for a moment, and then whimpered pathetically, "Ruga is sad now…"

"Ugh…" I grumbled, turning my head back around, loosening my grip on the tree. "How did you find me, anyway? I didn't think anybody would find me."

He managed a smile as he successfully regained my full attention. "Mago Kelmut say that Taku is home. Say that Taku disappear, run north. So Ruga come to find Taku and Pluk. Where is Pluk?"

"Pluk will not return home for some time," I stated with minimal emotional devotion. "And he won't walk his way back, either."

Ruga stared, trying to figure out what that meant. In the end, he gave up. "What Taku mean?"

"He is in the hospital because he has broken most of the bones in his lower body. I ran out over a road and he followed me. Because of my stupid, stupid mistake, he may never walk again."

He certainly understood that, and yet he didn't know how to respond. He made a low groaning noise instead, then he bowed his head as the reality of the situation made itself know. "Pluk come back?"

"Yes. Eventually," I muttered. "And he was as forgiving as I've come to expect. Not a single piece of him resents me for my foolishness. Not a drop of his blood boils at the mention of my name, even so soon after the accident. And he knows perfectly well how it happened! He knew that it wouldn't have happened if it weren't for me!"

Ruga seemed to let my self-detesting rant blow over him as if it was an internal monologue that only I could hear. In the corner of my eye, I saw him smile. "Pluk come back. Better!"

My jaw clenched. He simply didn't get it, and it really began to frustrate me. I really didn't want to hurt my friend, but the more he continued with his naïve, childish optimism, the more I began to break from my restraints. He had to go.

"Ruga…" I spoke behind my gritting teeth. "Go. You don't understand and you should leave."

But he wouldn't. "Taku come with Ruga. Sit by campfire. It will make Taku happy!"

"No, it will not, Ruga!" I blasted, turning my body and stamping a foot on my supporting branch. "I wish I had the same mind as you! I really do! I wish that I could see the bright side of every single little situation." I removed myself fully from the trunk and faced him directly, coming closer as he shrunk before me, confused and stunned. "I could just smile and sing and promise myself that everything will be just fine!" I mocked, grinning widely at him with chattering teeth. "Just like you do! Just like Pluk did when the van crushed his lower body! Yes, Ruga, I wish I could see that bright side! I could just forget all the failures and the fact that I have lost all respect among those who control this world that we live in!"

He was frozen solid, gawking up to me with big, bemused eyes. "Taku…"

"Do you realise how much I wish to be like you, Ruga?" I growled. "I would spend all day eating bark, sleeping in my tree and telling stories over campfires. Oh, how I would love that! But no, I don't have that, do I? I'm going to be the one to make sure that you don't die just like Relk did. The only one! You think Humans care about us more than they care about their money and their elections? You think they wouldn't sacrifice a Hork-Bajir's happiness for a tourist's dollar? While you all sit on your wicker platforms in your pitiful ignorance, the Humans plan to coat hundreds of miles of our home in cement and asphalt! But maybe you'll see the bright side in that, too," I considered abrasively. "And maybe my people saw the bright side when Yeerk slugs invaded their brains and dragged them to the battlefields to be slaughtered like pawns on a chessboard! Would you see the optimism in that, Ruga?! Come on, smile!"

He didn't smile. He was already curling into a ball, his jaw quivering.

And then I realised that I was yelling at Ruga. Ruga, my friend. Ruga the Hork-Bajir. The blur that had veiled my eyes fell away and my legs trembled. I stumbled, clutched tighter to my branch and gasped with deep remorse. Had I just lost myself entirely? It felt almost like a distant dream at that point, but the image of the scared Hork-Bajir before my awoken eyes remained. My head span, dizzy with the huge swing in my state of mind and I had to balance myself firmly with all limbs.

I couldn't lose Ruga. I wouldn't let myself push him away, too. Pushing away a Human friend was terrible, but pushing away one of my own people was like removing a warm blanket during the coldest, stormiest night.

"Oh, Ruga," I choked, my whole form shivering as I came to the full terms of what had just happened. "I didn't mean all that. Truly, I didn't! I'm so sorry."

He was silent. I wouldn't expect much more from him after such a baffling series of outbursts. What I expected most was for him to scurry away, frightened by the creature that had replaced his friend. Instead, he stayed, either dutifully or due to an inability to move.

I growled abruptly. "This is why I told you to leave! I'm not who I was, Ruga," I stammered, pushing myself up from my submissive position and feeling the rage once again defeat the weak part of me. This time, I managed to hold it. "I need my time alone. There is something wrong with me and I don't know how to control it. Please, leave before it happens again."

Finally, he was able to break his silence. "No. Taku sad. Ruga help Taku!"

And again I switched. I felt my face scrunch up, initially trying to hold back the tears but giving away with little resistance. I collapsed on my branch, coming to rest in a blubbering heap before him, my head buried in my arms. I couldn't utter a word through my sorrowful gasps.

Ruga allowed it for a while, perhaps suspecting another swing in mood. Just as I thought that he had gone, I felt the branch shudder as he approached. "Why is Taku sad?" He asked.

I lifted my head from my arms and found him directly in front. Unbundling myself, I was thankful to start feeling calmer in the presence of someone who didn't care about a few juggernaut mood swings. "I don't want to be different, Ruga," I sulked. "All it's done is put expectations on me that I cannot fulfil. I have failed at every step. Not only that, but everybody close to me has dropped away like flies. I'm alone whenever I leave the park."

"Ruga come." He suggested naively.

I glowered at him. "That's just what I did with Pluk. Now he's in the hospital. The only Hork-Bajir who can help me outside of Yellowstone abandoned me and left me with all of her paperwork. So much paperwork…"

"Does Taku have Human friend?" He asked.

"I did. But I pushed her away with the rest of the Human race. I wish that I hadn't, because I think she really cared."

He thought about the situation. "Taku say sorry to Human."

"Perhaps," I sighed. "But it could make no difference. The state government is trying to build a big road over Yellowstone. They want to change Yellowstone so that it is not protected as it is now. I don't know who can stop that now."

The concepts were probably flying over his head, but to his credit, he did not let it deter from his attempts at comforting. "Taku is different, like Toby Hamee. Toby Hamee save Hork-Bajir, so Taku Kelmut save Hork-Bajir, too."

I chuckled, finding the comparison to be utterly absurd. "It's not that easy. I wish it was. I wish that I could have the same influence as she did. No matter what she could say, she would always be Toby Hamee: Saviour of the Hork-Bajir. And me? I'm the nobody alien that hates the whole Human race."

Ruga sat back on his branch and huffed impatiently, whacking his tail against the branch behind him. He was smiling, though, in jest. "Taku never this grumpy before. Maybe Taku grumpy because not beat Ruga in race for many moons!"

It was a tactic that I didn't expect, but his sudden burst of energy woke me from my admittedly self-loathing cocoon. "I haven't had the chance. I would win, though."

He grinned widely, pleased that he could receive a positive reaction from me. "Taku Kelmut happier if he play race with Ruga!"

"I will, Ruga," I assured him with sincerity. "I would like a few minutes alone, but then I will come find you."

He grunted at my insistence. "Fine. Taku come, though. Taku play the game."

And with that, Ruga left, bouncing gleefully through the trees and back towards our home stretch. I was alone again, not sure whether I would find some revelation in what he said or whether I would retreat back into self-pity.

I stopped to consider what he said before I made that decision. Taku play the game. Those words danced through my thoughts and filled my world. I questioned the source of my problems, the cause for my stress and my emotional fragility.

What was it that Toby did that made her so strong amongst the Humans? She could walk into congress and change the minds of those who had such huge say in the country's decisions. Changing the minds of politicians seemed like a daunting, nigh impossible task. And yet, she could. And she could do it without the frightening breakdowns and mishaps that I had been experiencing.

How did she do it? How did she do it different from me?

She played the game.

I collapsed back against the trunk of my tree and stared blankly at my knee blades, pondering over the new idea that swept over me.

Maybe I was asking the wrong questions. I should've be asking what I was not doing rather than what Toby was doing.

I was not integrating well with the Humans, that was for sure. Toby never really did, either, but she held a professional disguise in the situations when such was needed. She knew how to play the part, how to act like a Human.

Maybe that was it. I was not acting Human. I had refused to play the Human game for so long, preferring to be the Hork-Bajir that I so loved. I didn't want to be a politician. That kind of role was not natural to a Hork-Bajir. I didn't exploit, I didn't mislead. I didn't lie.

But I was not entirely a Hork-Bajir. Part of my mind was different. That was what made me a seer.

How could I expect to be a politician if I refused to be like one? It was naïve, impossible. How did I not see it before?

I had to play the game now. Maybe that would help.

I started to laugh. It was funny. Very funny, actually. To be a success, I thought, I have to be the bad guy. It made me laugh harder, and I slumped back against what I thought was the trunk of my tree. Instead, I felt skin. My eyes bolted upwards, and between the distorted light that glistened through the canopies I saw the shape of a feminine head looking back down at me.

I stopped my laughing and forgot everything. She bent down to bring her face closer to mine, and she then bent her head forward to connect our blades in a deep kiss.

"I didn't expect to see you here…" I whispered, letting her kiss me before turning over to a more respectable position.

"Taku know to speak to the trees." She replied with a light-hearted smile.

"I didn't think that I did," I said back. "I didn't even know that I was right now. It's good to see you."

"Good to see Taku Kelmut, too, but Taku is sad."

I nodded meekly. "Yes, but I think I may know what to do. Ruga may have given me the answer that I needed. I don't need to be Taku the Hork-Bajir all the time. I can be Taku the Human politician!"

She giggled, and oh how I had missed hearing it. "Taku make a better Hork-Bajir."

"I think so, too. But maybe it's a change I have to make. I only wish you were here to help me."

"Taku have friends," She pointed. "Taku have lots of friends."

I looked to the branch that I stood on. Her tail brushed lightly over my toes. "I did, until I pushed them away. Now I am alone. I will not take my people from the park again. I cannot forgive myself for what happened to Pluk."

"Taku is good," She commented sweetly. "Not mean to do bad things. Bad things happen to Taku. Bad thing happen to Pluk."

"A bad thing happened to you, too." I replied mournfully.

But she did not flinch. Instead, she continued to smile and pulled me up to my feet so that I stood facing her. We looked deeply into each other's eyes, and I felt the connection that I had never had before. I moved closer and connected my blades to hers again.

"I miss you." I whimpered, trying to hold back tears as I began to wrap my arms around her.

"Miss Taku, too."

We embraced closer than we had ever done before. I felt so comforted by her presence and so relieved that she was finally back, even for that brief moment. I wanted nothing less than to be with her forever, to have her close to me whenever I felt down and depressed.

"I'm so alone," I managed to speak. "So alone…"

And she was gone. I took my arms off of the tree trunk and took a couple steps back. Her stay was brief, but I knew she would return again.

Then I heard a rustle. Not the rustle of leaves but that of a bird. I diverted my gaze to the upper level of the tree, and I saw the feathered creature sat in a nearby branch. A bird of prey, brown of feather with a white belly, its gaze fixated on me.

It spoke to me in an unfamiliar voice. I must have been hallucinating, because a bird had never spoken to me before. In a Human voice, it said, ((You are never alone.))

It flew away, vanishing from the canopies in a flurry of brown and orange.