Liam was exhausted after yet another day of his double life. The Resistance was becoming increasingly divided by the current political situation, and he - having taken upon himself the duty of the organization's leader - was expected to either de-escalate the tension or lead mankind into an open war with the Taelons. The truth was, most American cells were quite radical in their views and no less desperate to stand their ground, but the young man's Kimera legacy tempted him with a peaceful solution. Unfortunately, none would come into view as once and again the secret experiments supervised by the Taelon Synod were exposed by the media and the Liberation itself.
Throughout the past week dramatic negotiations in the Resistance headquarters seemed to last forever. It was already Liam Kincaid's third night without sleep, which - considering his in greater part human heritage - made him exhausted and likely to snap at the smallest triviality. Taking all these circumstances into account, that evening a message from Da'an was hardly anything but a nuisance; especially now that their relationship had deteriorated into mutual distrust bordering on hostility.
As he was walking down the street with his face hidden behind the high collar of his jacket, which protected him from the cold December wind, he could not help but snarl inwardly at the world around him. This was not what his life was supposed to look like...
Although two days left until Christmas had witnessed Washington in the sparkle of decorative lights, the truth was it could not mean less to a young man burdened with the survival of three species. Festive atmosphere used to mean something early in his life; with Lili and Augur reflecting that amazing side of mankind he could be proud of.
Loyalty. Respect. Friendship. Love.
All that he needed to learn to become what his Kimera father had predestined him to be: the hero for mankind, the saviour for the Taelons. With an odd longing, he recalled his own adolescence. At that stretch in time Da'an would helpfully fill all the blanks which his Protector's human friends could not, providing him with answers the alien part of him was looking for. He was grateful for the gift of knowledge, and for the utter secrecy, as Da'an had kept his identity a secret even until now - as he had promised.
Sadly, it seemed to be the only promise left unbroken, Liam concluded with a sigh.
As the obelisk of the Washington Monument loomed in the distance, he recalled it was the dispute over freedom which had drawn the final diving line between him and his Taelon mentor. With the passing time he had matured; yet maturity had smuggled betrayal, conflicts and needless deaths into his once peaceful life. It was disenchanting. Depressing. It seemed to have taken from him all the people he held dear, and the emptiness that remained was filled with little but silence.
With these thoughts in mind, Liam Kincaid entered the Taelon Embassy. It seemed dreadfully unfestive when set against the background of the city decorated with a lace of golden lights. As if wishing to take away the last trace of Christmas spirit, the edifice of the Embassy was the only building in the district untouched by the glittering snow, which had probably melted away at the first contact with protective energy shields.
Of course, this came as no surprise.
Taelons did not celebrate Christmas, and Liam did not really care. All of a sudden, he had stopped celebrating human holidays after Lili had been announced dead. Apparently, the emptiness after her demise (and, as it had later turned out, her journey to Jaridia) could not be filled by some tipsy carollers or an army of false Santas dispersed throughout all major stores in the city. He could not help feeling that Christmas was no more than some pitiful performance without a deeper meaning.
And a tiny Christmas tree which some desperate Volunteer must have left on the way to the lower level of the Embassy was no less pathetic...
‘Good evening, Liam.’
The soft, melodious sound of Da'an's voice jolted his Protector from his thoughts. He turned to face the alien being seated gracefully in his purple, throne-like chair.
‘Sinuai Euhura, Da'an,’ he replied somewhat mechanically in perfect Eunoia, trying to shake the last melting snowflakes from his jacket. ‘You wanted to see me?’
‘Yes,’ a soft blush swept through the Taelon's form as he waved his hand. ‘I will require your services... tomorrow evening,’ a longer pause immediately betrayed the diplomat's uneasiness. Curious, Liam raised his gaze from the floor to meet his employer's perfectly blue eyes, but just as he was about to speak, Da'an stopped him with a movement of his hand. ‘I am aware of your increasing engagement in certain... other duties,’ he said. ‘However, since this particular assignment is of great importance, I nurture hope that my request shall be given favourable consideration.’
A request? Liam blinked. This did not seem like the powerful, proud being he had come to know. ‘Well... I am your Protector after all,’ he said.
As it quickly became obvious, implications and nuances of the human language were definitely not a Taelon thing. The diplomat continued to look expectantly at the man before him.
‘That means I am available,’ Liam hardly resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
‘Splendid,’ a cryptic smile crossed Da'an's lips. ‘We shall meet here tomorrow at eight o'clock. I will await you.’
The man raised an eyebrow, waiting for the usual briefing, but the North American Companion had already risen from his chair and walked up to the virtual glass. It left no doubt as to where this conversation was going. It was over - the usual, Taelon style.
The young hybrid sighed and turned on his heels.
‘Do not be late,’ he heard the diplomat's soft voice as he was leaving.
* * *
Somewhat anxious, the next evening Liam arrived at the Embassy the way he had promised. Although he had managed to spare four hours for sleep, it was hardly enough to keep his senses sharp, and the atmosphere of secrecy the North American Companion had created the previous night did not bode well. His behaviour seemed too cordial for a Taelon, and a thought that the diplomat could be using real kryss again was nagging at his Protector's peace of mind.
Oddly, the audience chamber was barely illuminated like it usually was when the Synod would summon the North American Companion to the Mothership. Without thinking much, Liam activated the data stream and started browsing through Da'an's schedule. The last entry that day indicated the diplomat had not only gone to the Mothership, but also informed the Companion security he did not wish to be disturbed.
Trying to find a logical explanation, the young man rubbed his forehead. ‘Great. So now it's down to playing cat and mouse,’ he muttered to himself. Was that supposed to be his punishment for spending too much of his valuable time in the Resistance headquarters? After all, it was to be expected that Da'an would one day lose his patience. Only... just the day before he seemed genuinely content...
Eventually concluding that developing such theories without actual evidence would do him no good, he decided to discuss Da'an's absence with the security officer on duty. He strode out of the audience chamber, and nearly collided with a young woman on the way. The moment she saw him, she took a hesitant step back, which in itself aroused the man's suspicion.
‘Hey,’ his hand instinctively slid down to the energy gun, ‘you're not part of the security personnel.’
She did not as much as blink, which only confirmed his assumption. Now that he took the time to have a closer look, he realized how skinny she looked in the awkward reindeer-patterned sweater which was at least two sizes above her own and a pair of equally too big, black jeans. If not for the fact that all the clothes were clean, and her wavy blond hair fell over her shoulders with a fruity scent of shampoo, one could have thought she was homeless.
‘How did you get in here?’ he demanded.
Without answering, she looked up at him. And the moment a bluish ripple of alien energy flashed across her grey eyes, Liam felt his blood run cold.
‘Oh. My. God,’ he mumbled. ‘It's you, isn't it?’
‘Y-yes,’ her voice had a note of uncertainty in it.
‘Da'an, what did you do?!’
‘I...,’ the small pause clearly indicated the Taelon had not yet mastered the art of using human vocal organs. ‘I... transferred my... consciousness into a human form.’
Liam's jaw dropped. As if unable to assimilate the information, he continued to stare at the young woman with an expression that clearly communicated his confusion. Almost a minute passed before the footsteps of one of the security officers doing the usual check in the building finally brought him back to reality. Acting on instinct, he grabbed Da'an's hand and without warning pulled him (or rather - her) into the adjacent corridor to guarantee they would both remain unnoticed.
‘Your hand is... warm,’ he realized. ‘This isn't a hologram...’
Uncomfortable with the unexpected physical contact, Da'an took a step back. ‘As I have already clarified... this is a human form.’
His Protector still looked unconvinced. ‘A real human body?’
As the full implication of the statement sank in, Liam felt his voice break. ‘Da'an, you have stolen - you've stolen someone's body!’
Unsurprisingly, the diplomat seemed in no way moved by his Protector's distress, looking at him with unblinking, bluish grey eyes.
‘Who is she?!’
‘This is Natalie Novak.’ Da'an waved her hand, but his Protector could not help noticing that this typically Taelon gesture looked somewhat awkward when made by a human. ‘She died in a car accident at the age of twenty-seven. With the help of Taelon technology, her form was preserved even though her consciousness had already passed into the next level.’
Liam winced, not quite sure whether he should be glad no human had been harmed during the experiment or rather terrified by the fact that his employer was inhabiting what could technically be called a corpse.
‘Is the Synod involved in this?’
Da'an shook her head. ‘Only several most loyal humans in my service have been informed.’
Liam sighed. Now Da'an's official note that he intended to spend the next few days on the Mothership made perfect sense. Nobody would look for him. Not even Zo'or.
‘Okay... but why did you begin this in the first place?’
A cryptic smile curved the woman's lips. ‘My wish was to experience the human world, and one of your most valued festivals appears to be an appropriate timing.’
Liam took a deep breath. ‘So I take it you want me to accompany you in this experiment?’
The smile on Da'an's face widened to a grin.
‘I'm really going to regret this,’ the man whined, ‘but it's not like I have any choice now, do I?’
‘Technically, you do not.’ Da'an wrapped her hands around the sweater, somewhat bothered by the change in the way she perceived temperature.
‘I am not certain. Human perception... is different.’
Liam glanced at Da'an's Christmas-themed clothes again, wondering where the Taelon had got them from before a beep of his global broke the silence. He took a few steps away to make sure she would not be visible in the video transmission, and answered the call.
‘Major,’ Jeff Simons, who was one of the security officers on duty that night, saluted his superior with an uncomfortable look on his face.
‘Jeff.’ Liam did his best to look as casually as possible. ‘Good to hear from you. What's up?’
‘I am truly sorry to bother you, sir, but we've got a problem in the Volunteer headquarters. One of the Volunteers has accused her roommate of stealing her clothes...’
‘That's... unexpected,’ the hybrid sent Da'an a meaningful, accusing look.
‘The situation spiralled out of control after several other Volunteers joined the fight. We need to break it up, but right now we're understaffed.’
‘Yeah... I get it. I'm on my way.’ Having ended the transmission, Liam turned to the alleged thief. ‘I'll be right back and you... stay right here!’
Before you get yourself - and me - in more trouble, he added mentally.
Da'an leaned against the wall, the smile on her human face betraying the excitement she felt about the long-dreamed journey into the human world she was about to undertake.
* * *
Having solved the crisis in the Volunteer headquarters, Liam hurried back to the upper levels of the Embassy, fully intending to at least try to talk Da'an out of what seemed like a risky idea. Even though throughout the past seven years the North American Companion had spent most of his time on Earth, he had always been protected from those darker aspects of the human world by the Companion security services - and that included a large team of people who scheduled his public appearances, planned security details and had every place double-checked before the intended visit. Although he had saved Da'an's life on many occasions, Liam had no illusions. He could not ensure the diplomat's safety in a frail, human form while walking the city streets with a crowd of strangers.
‘Da'an?’ his call was bordering on an urgent whisper, but he did not wish to draw more attention than was absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, as could have been expected, the Companion was nowhere to be seen. Of course. The Taelons were far more intelligent than humans, but somehow the ‘stay right here’ never seemed to work with Da'an. Liam cursed under his breath. He bolted into the audience chamber only to find that it was empty.
Damn. He couldn't just raise the alarm and tell security to start searching for a miraculously resurrected woman. Just as he was about to call Street, however, he spotted something with the corner of his eye. Through the glimmering particles of the virtual glass he saw a slim silhouette standing in the snow by the half-frozen fountain.
Without thinking much, he hurried down the ramp and soon found himself in the Embassy garden. Da'an was leaning over the fountain, her eyes riveted on that small fragment where the crystal-clear water had not yet frozen. Of course - Liam concluded - she was studying her own reflection. Even though he knew her appearance was misleading and in no way depicted her true nature, the childlike curiosity reflected in her wide-open eyes as her slim hand brushed against her cheek almost made him regret that he had to disturb her. Still, the moment a fine layer of snow crunched under his boots, she instantly took a step back, and the spell was broken.
‘Liam,’ she acknowledged his presence, but the carefree expression on her face was chased away by his frown.
‘Why have you left the Embassy?’ the young hybrid demanded. ‘Humans can't walk in the cold without a jacket!’
‘I merely wished to... experience snow the way humans experience it,’ she said softly, and before she could even protest, Liam had already put his own jacket around her small shoulders.
‘You scared the hell out of me,’ he said, pushing her back towards the Embassy. ‘This whole experiment has been a misguided idea from the very beginning.’
‘I assume I do not muster sufficient respect in this form,’ Da'an's voice gained a threatening undertone. ‘Yet I remind you, Major, that despite your vigorous opposition, you are expected to follow my orders.’
‘Yeah - yeah - yeah,’ Liam could not help a smile, pushing her forward with even greater force. ‘I promise I'll let you freeze next time.’
The moment the door closed behind them, Da'an pushed his jacket away with all the strength her frail form managed to muster. From the very expression on her face, the man could tell she was going to lash out at him - well, the usual Taelon style, with cold pride and semantically complex sentences - but as she was about to begin her monologue, her mouth parted in what looked like growing disbelief.
‘What?’ Liam raised an eyebrow.
Da'an's grey eyes grew wide in apparent horror.
‘Da'an?’ the man felt his blood run cold. ‘What's wrong?!’
‘I - I -,’ two failed attempts to communicate her distress were quickly followed by a loud achoo, which she could in no way hold back. The moment she sneezed, she instantly buried her face in her hands as if expecting some tragedy had befallen her.
Liam did his best not to burst out laughing, although a suppressed chuckle nevertheless escaped his throat as he rolled his eyes. ‘You just sneezed. It's okay, that's completely normal for a human.’
Da'an did not seem convinced as she peeked from between her fingers. ‘I... I could not control it.’
‘I know the feeling,’ her Protector grinned. ‘Trust me, when you're a human, just too many things remain beyond your control. You'll get used to it.’
Reassured by the explanation, Da'an let her hands drop to her sides and raised her head, trying to regain whatever dignity she had left in this dreadful, defiant form. But before she even managed to begin her moralizing speech about obedience and loyalty in Companion services, Liam expressed his capitulation with a sigh.
‘I will give you a tour around the city,’ he said, ‘if you scrupulously follow all safety precautions; and no more disappearing on me.’
Da'an's eyes narrowed. Her Protector was in no position to set conditions, but on the other hand, at the moment he was the only person she could trust with her secret. ‘Very well. One condition, though,’ she said after a moment of consideration.
‘What is it?’
‘You shall not disclose my true identity to anyone.’
‘Agreed,’ he said simply.
‘Including Companion security.’
Liam grimaced, having realized this meant keeping the diplomat away from his... her... own security personnel. How the hell would he explain the presence of an unauthorized person in a heavily guarded Taelon building? With noticeable reluctance, he nodded, silently praying Sandoval had finally taken holiday vacation this year, then watched Da'an slowly turn away from him.
‘I will, however, require some time to procure a coat.’
Quickly concluding that she was going to secretly rummage through the Volunteer headquarters again, the man instantly blocked her way. ‘No way! If somebody here needs to st... procure... a coat, I'm the one going.’
The diplomat only tilted her head.
Glad that he encountered no opposition this time, Liam ran a hand through his ruffled hair, mentally searching the list of female Volunteers to pinpoint those who were closest to Da'an's size. Jessica Humpton seemed like the perfect match, but the entire squad knew she had been taking kickboxing classes for several years now; if she caught him stealing her stuff, she would tan his hide. At the very thought of her fury, Liam felt shivers going down his spine. Hell, this certainly lay far beyond the duties of a Companion Protector... and it was just one day left until Christmas, which he was supposed to celebrate at Renee's family house in the outskirts of Washington. Now he was stuck with an alien entity imprisoned in a human form, incidentally wreaking havoc all around. Whoever had put the idea into Da'an's head, should be damned for all eternity!
‘Listen, I'm going to get that coat, and you're going to stay right here,’ he emphasized. He looked into Da'an's wide-open grey eyes to make sure she understood his request this time, but her only reaction manifested itself in a silent nod. Having tilted her head again, she watched him leave with undisguised curiosity as to the outcome of his procurement services.
* * *
About half an hour later Liam appeared in the Embassy with a beige toggle coat hung over his am. The expression on his face clearly indicated that despite the successful outcome of his mission, hardly anything had gone as planned. Da'an's lips parted slightly at the sight of a large bruise just beneath his Protector's left eye.
‘What has happened?’ she asked, visibly concerned, but Liam just shook his head.
‘It's enough to say that now I'm considered a womanizer and a perv, and -’ he paused, all of a sudden realizing that the diplomat's human appearance had once more deceived him. Now she was staring at him with her typical, childlike curiosity. Since a quick change of the topic was his last chance to avoid having to explain the meaning of the word ‘perv’ to his employer, he hastily led her towards the exit. ‘We still need to figure out where to go,’ he threw Da'an a red herring and by the small smile on her face he could tell the term was no longer being analysed. Thank God!
‘My attire feels... uncomfortable,’ she said.
‘Yeah, that's because it's at least two sizes too big, Da'an,’ Liam stated the obvious, and regretted it instantly.
‘Do you believe you are capable of procuring more adequate garments?’
‘Pro- ’ Liam winced. ‘I'm definitely NOT going to steal clothes again!’
The Companion was clearly disappointed.
‘We can go shopping if you'd like to,’ his Protector offered instead, although the awareness that he was probably going to go bankrupt was not particularly soothing.
Da'an's light-grey, human eyes enthusiastically flashed with alien energy. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Your suggestion seems appropriate.’
Just remember to add the bills to my severance payment once Sandoval eventually gets me fired for this, Liam thought grimly.
With a dark premonition that the Taelon's secret experiment would indeed bring about the end of his career in Companion security services, Liam somewhat reluctantly helped Da'an with the coat. Making sure she would not lose her balance, he demonstrated how to button up. As a Taelon she was a quick learner and managed to deal with the final two buttons on her own. This done, she straightened before him, visibly satisfied with herself.
‘Ready?’ he asked, deep in his heart hoping Da'an would change his... her... mind, but his question remained ignored as the diplomat slowly walked up to the automatic door.
It parted before her, letting in the cold, winter air. Liam watched her take a deep breath and gaze in the distance at the municipal buildings decorated with golden lights. The moment they passed the garden gate, the enthusiasm with which Da'an beheld their snow-covered surroundings, unfurled in its full glory - to Liam's utter despair. The more enthralled she was, the less attention did she pay to the safety precautions he had asked her to take. He thanked God she eventually stopped by a street lamp ornamented with holly, giving him some time to catch his breath.
‘What is this?’ she inquired.
Liam craned his neck to see what she was referring to and could not help a chuckle. He would expect her to ask about anything else than... well...
‘It's a municipal trash can, Da'an.’
The answer awakened her curiosity even more as she turned her gaze towards the fine pile of garbage. Slowly, she picked a banana peel and an empty pack of cigarettes from the contents of the container, drawing the rather disgusted gazes of several passer-bys.
Liam observed her, dumbstruck. ‘Da'an, that's just rubbish, you can't tell me you've never seen...’ he paused, seeing her glance at him in an uneasy manner. ‘Oh,’ he muttered. ‘So you've never seen... Right.’
Now that he thought of it, it made sense. An alien dignitary was typically presented with the finest achievements of mankind. All of the less reputable items were either passed over in silence or - as absurd as it sounded - covered with billboards during Da'an's official visits to avoid unnecessary questions about the more shameful aspects of human life. The downside was, explaining all this mess had become his duty now.
‘This pile here contains discarded everyday items,’ he began, hoping that a scientific perspective would make the matter a little less repulsive. ‘Out-of-date foodstuffs, empty packages, and things you don't want to know about. Once a day they're collected and transported to a processing site.’
‘And this item?’
Liam flinched when the stench reached his nostrils. ‘That's a banana peel.’
A dreadfully old banana peel.
Da'an blinked. ‘I have not yet had the opportunity to discover certain... basics of human life.’
I'm honestly hoping we can avoid explaining other basics, though, the young hybrid noted to himself.
With the corner of his eye, he noticed Da'an was still holding the banana peel. ‘Do you think we could... um... get rid of this?’ he suggested, realizing that with that kind of compulsive garbage hoarding, by the end of the night they would both smell like dead cats.
‘Oh, certainly,’ she said and nonchalantly threw the peel behind her.
As if the Universe were plotting against them, some guy who was walking behind stepped on it and slipped. Da'an jerked when the thud reached her ears.
‘You damn prankster!’ a low male voice - clearly infuriated - was all Liam needed to know Da'an had done it again. Hoping the Christmas atmosphere would soothe the guy's nerves, he turned around to apologize for the unfortunate incident only to find he was facing the broad chest of a two-metre high walking mountain of muscles.
‘Oh, hell,’ he winced, silently cursing what had every potential to become the longest - and the worst - night in his life.
The man leaned forward to look him in the eye. ‘Your last words before you die?’
‘My apologies?’ Liam mustered a forced smile.
‘Apologies is what I'll take from your girlfriend; with you I'm going to solve the problem like man to man.’
And before Liam could talk his way out of it, a massive punch sent him flying to the adjacent wall. Da'an froze. The stranger simply shrugged and walked away, followed by the diplomat's disbelieving gaze. Several minutes passed before Liam rather clumsily regained his footing, but continued to cover his nose with the sleeve of his jacket.
‘Liam?’ the Companion intoned with audible concern. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Do I look alright?!’ sounded the hoarse reply.
Clearly, as a Taelon Da'an was still struggling with the notion of irony and rhetorical questions. ‘You would have to lower your arm,’ she said honestly. ‘At the moment I see no difference.’
* * *
TNT was a large fashion store located on 14th Street, which Liam knew Renee frequently visited. The store was huge and took up two floors to fit women's, men's and kids' apparel and shoes - everything from comfortable pyjamas to glittering evening dresses. The young hybrid was no fashion expert, but he did know the basics, and optimistically calculated the whole affair was not supposed to take longer than half an hour. Although shopping with an overinquisitive alien did not bode well, it shouldn't be harder than what he had already encountered. No trash cans. No banana peels. Nothing that could pull him into more trouble than he had already faced, right? The security staff looked at him suspiciously when he entered the store with a black eye and a swollen nose, but he was determined to ignore their snooping gazes.
‘I am truly sorry for your predicament, Liam,’ Da'an said softly. ‘I must admit I have not anticipated my experiment would...’
Her Protector's eyes narrowed. Turn my life into a progressing nightmare?
‘... cause you so much discomfort.’
‘Well, it's not like you did it on purpose,’ he sighed. ‘Look, the entire store is full of clothes, I'm sure you can pick something just perfect for..’ Liam grew silent, noticing that the diplomat had just picked a sombrero from a mannequin's head. ‘No - no - no!’ he instantly snatched it right from Da'an's hand and received a look of mild annoyance in response. ‘We definitely don't need that for Christmas.’
The Companion tilted her head inquisitively before turning her attention to an embarrassingly transparent bikini set. Feeling his temperature rise, Liam began to look around in growing panic.
‘There's the winter wear section!’ he exclaimed upon seeing the sign hung on the ceiling and before Da'an could inquire about the bikini, she was forcefully pulled into a row of fuzzy sweaters and cardigans. Her Protector visibly relaxed, glad that the immediate danger of being drawn into a downright embarrassing situation had been averted. The Taelon in a woman's body, however, appeared somewhat perplexed by the young hybrid's reaction.
‘Is everything alright, Liam?’
‘Yes, why wouldn't it be?’ Liam felt his cheeks warm and suddenly became very aware of the heat spreading through his body. Stop it! - he kicked himself mentally. - For God's sake, this is your BOSS!
‘So, um, anything here that suits your taste?’ he asked, desperately trying to change the topic.
Da'an took a moment to consider her answer before she hesitantly picked a V-neck, purple sweater.
‘That's definitely your colour,’ the man did his best to sound enthusiastically. ‘Let's see if it's your size, too.’ He carefully placed the sweater in front of the confused Companion. ‘That definitely should do. Let's use that winning streak and get you a nice pair of jeans.’
This time he slowly guided her to the trousers section and within ten minutes picked three potential candidates.
‘You know what to do now, right?’ he asked. ‘The changing room's over there.’
Da'an looked in the direction her Protector had indicated, but to Liam's utter dismay, still did not look particularly convinced.
‘You go in there and try the clothes on,’ Liam clarified. ‘I'll be right behind the curtain.’
Assured by the statement, the diplomat walked in. Liam let out a relieved sigh before a recurring, bothersome thought began nagging at his peace of mind. Da'an knew how to dress, right? He... she was dressed when he had had first seen her in a human form at the Embassy. It's not like that bunch of human scientists helping her with the experiment was responsible for putting the clothes on her, too.
Still, the very possibility...
With a pained expression, Liam ran a hand across his face. God, please...
‘How's it going?’ he asked after five minutes of ominous silence. ‘Do they fit?’
‘I am uncertain,’ sounded the answer from behind the curtain.
‘What do you mean, uncertain?’ somehow Liam felt it in his bones that another disaster was on its way, especially that Da'an's voice sounded rather awkward. ‘Do they fit or not?’
The silence in the changing room said more than words would. The man moaned. ‘Okay, I'm coming in.’
Having taken a deep breath, he swiftly slipped behind the curtain. Da'an was standing in front of the mirror with only one leg slid into her jeans and head visibly stuck in one of the sweater sleeves. Liam rolled his eyes, concluding that evolution on Earth was probably more deadly for a Taelon than an open conflict with the Resistance; a fashion store which had just outtricked a several-thousand-year-old member of an intellectually superior species surely deserved an applause.
‘Don't move, I'll try to get you unstuck,’ he offered and carefully began to pull the unfortunate sleeve. ‘What has tempted you to put your head in there?’
‘I do not believe this is working, Liam,’ the diplomat whined.
‘I'll try a little harder...’ he warned, and gave the sleeve a final, strong pull. Finally freed, Da'an took a large gulp of air, instantly noticing his Protector's flushed cheeks.
‘Liam?’ she asked, baffled.
As if awoken from a trance, the young hybrid immediately turned away from her in what looked like utter panic. If not for his obligations as a Companion Protector, he would probably sprint away from the store that very second.
‘Why aren't you wearing a bra?!’ he wailed instead.
‘A bra?’ Da'an sounded confused. ‘I do not believe you are wearing one either.’
Liam cursed under his breath. ‘It's strictly female lingerie! I swear I'm not going to get anywhere near you until you get one.’
The Companion looked even more flabbergasted than his Protector. ‘In that case, would you get one for me, please?’
The young hybrid felt he was on the verge of ripping the hair from his head. Still, if there was really no other way of ensuring he would never ever again see Da'an in some half-naked woman's body... he would strive to vanquish his weaknesses.
‘Stay right here,’ he commanded before heading straight for the lingerie section. As a three-year-old human-Kimera hybrid who had never even been anywhere near women's underwear, nor had really planned to be, Liam felt like he was drowning. Seriously, how did women even know which size was right? He gazed at rows of rows of bras labelled as full-cups, balconettes and demi-cups, and begged Universe for some miraculous illumination.
‘Can I help you?’ as if to answer his prayers, a young shop assistant smiled at him from behind the shelf.
Liam's uneasiness rocketed to the ceiling. ‘A-actually, I'm lo-looking for...’
‘A bra for your girlfriend?’ she offered helpfully.
‘She's not really my girlfriend... but it's not like I want one for myself, right?’ he strove for a humorous comment, but the woman began to eye him suspiciously.
You're a genius, Kincaid. Keep on plunging yourself deeper in that quagmire.
‘What size do you need?’ she continued professionally. His only answer was a blank expression, which - having worked in the industry for quite a few years now - she recognized instantly. ‘So you haven't got a clue. We'll try a few different sizes then. You're looking for a classic or erotic model?’
‘Pardon?’ he mumbled.
‘The lingerie. A standard bra or something extra for a romantic evening.’
Please, please, let it just end right here.
‘Standard, totally simple and... you know what? This one looks good!’ without thinking much, he grabbed the first one in the row and sprinted away, heading for the changing room.
Da'an nearly shrieked when her Protector technically rammed into the small compartment. With wide eyes she gazed at him as he leaned on the wall, trying to catch his breath.
‘This is killing me, Da'an,’ he panted. ‘Is there any possible way of dealing with it in the next five minutes? The saleslady thinks I'm wearing bras, and since she's just seen me run into a changing room with it...’ he paused as he realized the enormity of the disaster. ‘I'm socially finished in this city.’
An expression of guilt crossed Da'an's face. ‘Have I caused you discomfort?’
‘No, not at all,’ Liam ironized. ‘Turn around and let's get done with it.’
The Companion was far from arguing and with the reluctant help of her Protector managed to clip the bra, and put on the sweater and the jeans. She was about to collect her previously procured clothes, but Liam instantly blocked her way.
‘No, your reindeer set stays here,’ he instructed. ‘If you want to breach the law, you should learn to get rid of the evidence.’
Da'an inclined her head in curious regard.
‘It's not exactly what I should be teaching you... but we both know it works,’ he said, leading her towards the cash desk. Once their shopping was paid for, he quickly headed out of the store, making sure she followed close behind.
‘Liam, may I ask you a personal question?’ she inquired when they had already left the building.
Uh-huh. There she goes again. ‘I guess I'm going to regret it, but yeah... go on.’
‘Do you find my new form... repulsive?’
The young hybrid raised an eyebrow. ‘No, of course not. Why would you think I do?’
Da'an opened her mouth only to close it again. Clearly describing the situation was a challenge even for a renowned Taelon diplomat.
‘Oh... you mean that...’ Liam realized. ‘No, I was just a bit... embarrassed. You see, you're a woman... I mean, not you, you're an androgynous alien, but this woman... is a woman...’
Quagmire, Kincaid. You're drowning. He took a mental note to himself, which only seemed to make things worse.
‘Listen, Da'an, I'm technically three years old. Ha'gel passed the knowledge of the Kimera onto me, but my experience in the human world... is limited. Which probably makes me the worst teacher you could choose, alright?’
The diplomat smiled. ‘The fact that you did not get stuck in a piece of human clothing is still promising.’
Probably because Augur helped me dress the first time. Liam grinned in response.
Da'an's smile faded away as she gazed into distance. In the wan light of festive decorations, the snow glimmered around her, mimicking the tiny particles of alien energy which occasionally danced in her irides. As the wind gently whipped her blond hair back, her eyelids drifted closed. Somewhat bothered, Liam realized she had grown unnaturally pale for a human.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
Da'an opened her eyes, but Liam saw her lean on the wall for support.
‘When did you last eat?’ he continued, and - reading the blank expression on her face - quickly got his answer. ‘Did you eat anything at all?’
‘I do not believe so,’ the diplomat confessed.
‘Humans need to eat, Da'an. So now it's exactly what we're going to do,’ he decided. ‘I know a good restaurant nearby, but be warned: Taelon core energy is not on the menu,’ he added with a smile, and protectively took her by the elbow to ensure she would not lose her balance. Da'an seemed a little surprised by the gesture, but without any objections allowed her Protector to lead her across the street.
* * *
Da'an vaguely glanced at the snow-covered wooden signboard which read Imperial Oak before her Protector guided her past the door.
Despite the cold outside, the restaurant was warm, cosy and welcoming, quite as Liam had promised. Somewhere in the back fire was roaring and Christmas candles were lit on immaculately presented tables. The walls, freshly redecorated with a beige wallpaper, were occasionally adorned with woodland-themed landscapes and sconces.
‘Have a seat,’ Liam took Da'an's coat and hung it on an old-fashioned stand before joining her at the table. ‘Orange juice, espresso and the menu, Kathrin,’ he turned to the middle-aged waitress, who nodded with a smile and soon disappeared behind the back door.
‘Do you come here often?’ Da'an inquired as she took notice of the fact that her Protector knew the waitress' name.
‘Quite often. I can't really cook,’ Liam confessed, ‘and I have no relatives to invite me for dinner either, so...’ he finished his statement with a hopeless gesture.
‘I understand,’ the Companion answered quietly. ‘I have learnt that for humans Christmas is an occasion to rejoice within the family circle. Being a communal entity, and knowing that the Kimera were as well, I believe you most likely find your... seclusion... disturbing.’
Liam looked to the side. To tell the truth, he had never thought about it before. He had never had the time to ponder on it, or perhaps never allowed himself the time for such considerations. But Da'an was right. In many ways, he was alone.
‘You, of all people, should know how busy I am,’ he said.
‘It was my belief you did not encounter any problems creating bonds with other human beings, yet in the place you relate to as...’ Da'an paused, trying to recall the name, ‘fashion store... you confessed you were socially finished. I must admit I do not understand the nuances of this phrase.’
Liam smiled. ‘This has nothing to do with forming bonds, Da'an.’
The Companion looked visibly bothered by the fact that despite her Protector's clarifications she still could not grasp the concept.
‘Okay,’ the man sighed. ‘I'll try to picture this for you. Imagine... Imagine that the Synod Leader unexpectedly enters the Embassy...’
Da'an's eyes narrowed. What had Zo'or to do with this?
‘And... he sees you...’ Liam did his best to guess what could possibly result in the social death of a Taelon, but nonetheless his imagination brought before his eyes the very situation he himself found nightmarish. ‘And he sees you... kissing... Ronald Sandoval.’ Liam's lips parted when he realized that he had just dug a pit for himself, and with horror found that Da'an was solemnly pondering the example.
‘No, don't even... imagine this,’ he said quickly, hoping he could still take it all back.
‘Why would kissing Agent Sandoval result in my death?’ Da'an asked without even blinking.
‘Social death,’ her Protector corrected. ‘Zo'or would have you... I don't know...,’ he waved his hand, ‘removed from your post as the North American Companion?’
Da'an still could not comprehend. ‘He would have Agent Sandoval executed.’
Liam winced. ‘That's a bad example, Da'an. Can we just... forget about it?’ Please!
At this point the Universe suddenly decided to show him mercy. Kathrin brought the espresso, the juice and the menu to their table and as if some magician had just waved his magic wand, Da'an instantly abandoned the conversation. To Liam's amusement, her attention was captivated by the contents of the tall glass decorated with a lemon slice. Failing to conceal her increasing fascination, she gently poked the lemon with the tip of her finger.
‘Lemons are awfully sour, you'd better drink the juice,’ Liam could not help a smile.
Da'an glanced briefly at him, then turned her entire attention back to her nourishment. However, the moment she tried to lift it, her trembling hand did not escape her Protector's notice. Without thinking much, he moved his chair closer to hers and slowly lifted the glass, giving her time to take a sip without spilling the content. She looked at him inquiringly.
‘What?’ he asked, somewhat bothered by the way she was staring at him. To his growing discomfort, no answer came, which made him realize that she still had not swallowed the juice. ‘You need to swallow it now,’ he instructed, but the look of panic on the diplomat's face was an answer in itself. Having realized that Taelons simply absorbed energy through their pathways, Liam felt his heartbeat quicken at the very possibility that Da'an might simply choke. ‘Come on,’ he insisted. ‘It's not difficult, it's just like... taking in a gulp of air.’
The Companion did not seem convinced, but since no other solution came into view, she did what she was told - and all the juice she intended to swallow ended up... on her Protector's face.
‘Bullseye,’ Liam commented wryly.
Da'an quickly covered her mouth with an expression of utter horror. Her Protector, on the other hand, had obviously decided that only a professional approach to this most awkward assignment could keep him sane, and did not lose his composure. Having taken a deep, calming breath, he reached for a napkin. ‘It could have been worse,’ he assured her, smiling.
‘I believe it would be wise... to abandon this endeavour...’ the diplomat said, visibly dejected.
‘You need to drink and eat,’ Liam countered, ‘so we won't be leaving until you do.’
Da'an seemed to be hesitating, but eventually lifted the glass again with her Protector's help.
‘You'd better get going’ the young hybrid said encouragingly. ‘We still need to pick our dinner.’ Proud that his persuasion worked, he watched Da'an tentatively take a small sip... and...
‘Cookie for you,’ he sighed in relief and turned his attention to the menu. ‘Let's bring this to the next level and pick a meal...’
‘I am perfectly capable of choosing my own nourishment, Liam,’ the diplomat stated and - to his Protector's dismay - reached for the menu as well.
‘Are you sure? I mean...’ having realized the uneasy situation he had found himself in, the man ran a hand through his hair. ‘I'm sure you can deal with many kinds of... stuff... in the Taelon world, but this...’
Da'an tilted her head, eyeing him with narrowed eyes.
‘Forget I said anything,’ he said resignedly, seeing that the waitress was already heading to their table.
‘Can I take your order?’ she chirped, smiling sweetly at Liam.
‘Certainly. Steak, cucumber salad and potato wedges,’ he said, eyeing Da'an with growing curiosity.
Kathrin quickly noted the order on her pad. ‘And you, sweetheart?’
The young hybrid felt his throat clench at the very thought of Da'an choking on a fishbone or something equally tricky for a beginner.
Soup. God, please, let it be a soup.
‘Chilli Surprise,’ Da'an read aloud directly from the menu, oblivious to the fact that her Protector had just buried his face in his hands.
‘That's a hot girl you've got there, Liam,’ the waitress strove for a humorous comment before heading to the kitchen.
Da'an blinked. ‘I did not understand that reference,’ she admitted with disarming sincerity.
Liam could almost feel the black storm clouds gathering over his head. ‘Do you even know what chilli is?’
Da'an was already preparing a diplomatic answer to that when a new guest, who had just entered the restaurant, captivated her attention. Liam raised an eyebrow. One of the Santas doing their Christmas job in local stores had just popped in for dinner in his red costume. Noticing a little boy who was savouring French fries with his parents at a table in the corner, he clearly decided to offer the child a little Christmas gift and play his part despite having finished his shift that day. He rang his bell and with a well-known ho-ho-ho drew the boy's attention. Da'an's eyes widened.
‘Don't bother,’ Liam grinned at her. ‘Only good children get presents.’
The ice-cold glare which he received in response chilled him to the bone, but still he could not help a chuckle.
‘Who's been a good boy this year?’ the man in a Santa costume turned to the family in the corner and the woman who was in all likelihood the boy's mother answered with a smile that it was little Jimmy. Little Jimmy's big round eyes could successfully rival Da'an's, Liam noted with a grin, but the poor child was too shocked to say a word.
‘Do you know who I am, Jimmy?’ Santa continued, but this time - to Liam's utter despair - it was the Companion who rose from her chair and answered:
‘I know who you are.’
‘Da'an, don't!’ he whispered urgently, trying to get hold of her arm, but it was too late - the diplomat had already taken a step forward toward the visitor with every intention to join the conversation.
‘You are an imposter,’ she announced with full conviction, and Liam slumped in his chair too embarrassed to do more. ‘You are wearing a costume designed by an American carbonated drink manufacturer and pretend you are a Christian saint who died in the fourth century.’
There, she did it again, the hybrid wailed inwardly.
The little boy, on the other hand, burst out laughing. ‘You're silly!’ he turned to Da'an, who clearly had no diplomatic answer to that.
Fully intending to leverage the opportunity, Liam sprinted in the diplomat's direction and pulled her by the arm. ‘Excuse us, she's had too much to drink,’ he explained, trying to avoid Santa's infuriated gaze, and quickly led her back to their table.
Da'an looked at him questioningly. ‘I merely drank half a glass of orange juice,’ she pointed out, completely failing to understand what he meant by saying she had had too much to drink.
Liam ran a hand across his face. This was the worst day of his life, and most likely the end his career as well. He felt that by the end of the assignment he would either assail the diplomat with a volley of epithets or end up on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Having noticed that Kathrin was about to bring the ordered meals, however, he resigned himself to a deep, calming breath. For now.
‘One Chilli Surprise,’ the waitress carefully placed a chilli-stuffed beef casserole next to Da'an, ‘and here's your steak, Liam. Bon appÃ©tit!’
‘Thank you, Kathrin,’ he answered, feeling his heart beginning to ram against his chest at the very sight of little chilli peppers sticking out from Da'an's casserole. ‘Are you absolutely sure you want to eat this?’ he asked once the waitress had gone.
One look was enough to confirm that the diplomat was adamant. What else could be expected? Misery loved company.
‘Do you know how to use a knife and a fork?’
Da'an shook her head.
‘In that case I'll portion it for you.’ This said, Liam cut the smallest possible portion of the casserole and handed it over to the diplomat.
She carefully took the fork and analysed the content available on its top.
‘Same rules apply,’ the man said. ‘Don't die.’
Da'an sent him another ice-cold glare before she took the portion into her mouth and - to her Protector's despair - almost instantly began to choke.
‘For God's sake, you need to chew the food before you swallow!’ he urged before giving her a sharp blow between her shoulder blades. That seemed to help, although her tear-rimmed eyes clearly indicated that being a human did not turn out to be as easy as she had initially assumed. Very slowly at first, she began to chew. Liam felt a painful knot forming in his stomach and the please don't die mantra he kept inwardly repeating was not particularly helpful. What had tempted him to agree to take part in this, he could not tell, but ended up sincerely regretting it. Especially when Da'an's face became unnaturally flushed and her eyes glazed over. She dropped the fork and helplessly grabbed her own throat in what looked like growing panic.
‘That's the part where chilli comes in,’ Liam commented with a sigh.
Before he could offer her water, however, she jumped to her feet and stormed out of the restaurant.
‘Hey, wait!’ in an instant he sprinted after her.
In the cold, winter night, he found her kneeling on the pavement with her mouth filled with snow. ‘You okay now?’ he touched her arm, worried. Knowing that her pride would not let her answer anyway, he simply helped her get back to her feet. ‘Next time I'm the one choosing your nourishment,’ he said, mustering a small, reassuring smile, which he hoped would bring her some comfort. ‘For now you can have my meal while I'll be dealing with that Chilli Surprise of yours,’ he offered.
The diplomat looked at him pleadingly. ‘I am... fatigued,’ she said, her voice slurring slightly.
Liam bit his lip. He couldn't really bring her back to the Embassy, so the only other option left was the one he knew he would sooner or later regret.
‘Tonight we will rest at my place,’ he decided. ‘Tomorrow you'll return to your true form.’
Da'an did not object.
* * *
Liam's apartment was located within a ten-minute walk from the restaurant, which turned out to be good news - especially when Da'an's growing fatigue was becoming clearly visible in the lines of her face. Inhabiting a body that had for a long time lacked physical exercise and adequate nourishment had certain limitations, which the diplomat had obviously not considered before. Paying attention to the smallest details, Liam quickly noticed that her breathing was becoming laboured, and the fact that she was limping slightly did not make the situation any better. AÂ thought that he should have called a taxi crossed his mind, but it would make little sense now that their destination was already visible across the street. Da'an leaned on his arm as he stopped to give her some time to regain her strength.
‘We're almost there,’ he said reassuringly.
Her fatigued, grey eyes looked up at him before she turned her gaze towards the sky. ‘The Universe seems so distant from here,’ she remarked quietly. ‘It is comforting, in a way.’
Her Protector smiled as her took her by the arm. ‘It is, and I can promise you that you will be able to marvel at it tomorrow. Now both of us need some rest.’
Da'an nodded silently and allowed her Protector to guide her towards a four-storey building with rugged, grey walls. She could not help gazing at the majestic icicles hanging from the drainpipe. Taelon buildings, the Embassy among them, were never touched by snow or ice; the buildings' internal heating system melted away whatever the cold, winter weather might wish to leave upon them; yet the human city was different. Nature would crawl upon it, leaving walls sprinkled with snow and window-panes crystallized with frost.
‘Watch your step,’ Liam warned, pointing at the threshold, as they walked inside. He heard Da'an take a deeper breath the moment she saw the stairway. ‘Third floor. One step at a time and we'll get there,’ he assured and stretched out his hand in her direction, but all she did was stare at it with growing discomfort. ‘Come on,’ he encouraged her. ‘It's going to be easier with my help.’
Somewhat hesitantly, she reached for his hand. Human perception was indeed different, and the warmth of his skin did not feel as uncomfortable as it normally did in her Taelon form. Having concluded that there were no alternatives to her disposal, she began climbing the stairs, constantly followed by her Protector's watchful gaze.
Just as they had reached the third storey, however, one of the doors unexpectedly burst open, almost giving Liam a heart attack.
‘Mr. Kincaid!’ a middle-aged, oversized woman with foam curlers in her hair exclaimed jovially. ‘Judging by your long absence, one might think you didn't live here anymore!’
Liam felt like he was going to explode. He honestly hated his nosy neighbour with all his heart, and should have expected she would be keeping her watch by the window to observe (and later gossip about) all the people who entered the building.
‘What has happened to your face?’ she slowly adjusted her glasses.
‘A small accident not worth the attention, Mrs. Andrews,’ the young hybrid started hastily searching for the keys in his pocket.
Seeing that he was reluctant to continue the topic, the woman turned her entire attention to the slim, blond-haired girl in a beige coat who was meekly standing behind her reticent neighbour. ‘There, you've finally found yourself a girlfriend!’ she yammered. ‘How nice is that!’
Da'an tilted her head, and judging by the glint of curiosity in her eyes, Liam knew she was wondering about the purpose of the woman's foam curlers. Truth be told, she was staring at them like a cat at a laser-pointer.
‘You like my haircut?’ Mrs. Andrews turned to her, then lowered her voice a bit, eyeing Liam scrupulously. ‘Mr. Kincaid is a very lonely man. You're actually the first guest visiting him and he's been living here for three years now!’
Da'an blinked at her, fascinated by the way the foam curlers swayed together with her hair.
‘Me and Mrs. Johnson have been already wondering that perhaps... you know... that he may be one of those sociopaths.’
‘Thank you, Mrs. Andrews,’ Liam ironized as he quickly unlocked the door and pulled Da'an inside before she could verbally engage in the conversation. The door was shut behind them with a thud, but the intrusive woman's voice was still clearly audible as she continued her monologue in the corridor.
‘Why don't you just die?’ the man muttered against the door, quickly realizing that Da'an was staring at him with an awkward expression on her face. ‘You heard nothing,’ he said tightly before he took off his shoes and quickly began taking off hers.
‘You can rest on the sofa for now,’ he said as he led her into the living room. ‘I'm going to die if I don't take a shower.’
Da'an watched him leave with growing curiosity, wondering for what purpose her Protector required an energy shower, but eventually abandoned her considerations with a shrug and turned all of her attention to her surroundings. Her fatigued gaze wandered the mostly empty shelves and unpainted walls of what seemed to be a rather depressing environment when set against the festively decorated city. Slowly, she seated herself on the black couch, noticing it was much more comfortable than her chair at the Embassy.
Liam passed by the living room with a blue towel in his hand and peeked inside, somewhat bothered by the thought that he had to leave the diplomat alone, even if it were just for a short while. ‘Do you think you can stay unharmed for the next ten minutes?’ he asked, scratching his head. ‘I really need that shower.’
‘Do what you require, Liam,’ she answered. ‘I am in no immediate danger.’
The hybrid hesitated. In a human form Da'an was a danger to herself twenty-four hours a day, and knowing her typically Taelon inquisitive nature, she was likely to get into trouble if he did not busy her with something interesting enough to capture her attention. He looked around, thinking.
‘Hey,’ a beam of resolve brightened his face. ‘How about watching some news while I'm busy?’ he said as he picked the remote control and turned the TV on, instantly switching it to the news channel.
Da'an blinked at him.
‘I'm sure they're discussing some pretty interesting stuff,’ he said with unconcealed pride at his ingenious idea, and - heaving placed the remote control back on the table - headed straight to the bathroom, whistling.
The Companion tilted her head, unsuccessfully trying to understand why all humans recommended this one particular channel. She had access to it from the Embassy, basically because Agent Sandoval had suggested it at the very beginning of her tenure on Earth. For some unknown to her reason he had also ensured it would remain the only channel available in her office, and as years passed by, she had grown curious about other possibilities she had not yet explored.
Or rather - which she had not yet been allowed to explore.
Hesitantly at first, she glanced at the remote control. Liam certainly would not mind if she used it. All in all, it was likely he had left it there for this very purpose, so with extreme caution, she lifted it and carefully pressed the button she knew her Protector had used before he left.
* * *
Liam walked into the shower cubicle, feeling his muscles relax as streams of warm water began to travel down his back. The individual who invented the shower should have definitely been awarded the Nobel Prize.
‘God knows how much I needed this,’ he said to himself as he inhaled the refreshing citrus scent of his shower gel. He closed his eyes with an expression of utter bliss, doing his best to forget that Da'an was just behind the wall, until a male voice reached his ears, and he froze.
‘I saw what they're planning to do. They're like locusts!’
The hybrid arched an eyebrow. Locusts? Since when was the news channel showing documentaries about locusts?
Â´They're moving from planet to planet... their whole civilization. After they've consumed every natural resource, they move on... and we're next. Nuke them. Let's kill the bastards! Âª
Liam's eyes grew wide. That certainly did not sound like CNN, even less a documentary about locusts. Did Da'an actually... switch the channel? Without thinking much, the man hurriedly covered his most sensitive places with a towel and sprinted out of the bathroom, barely aware of the water dripping from his body.
Â´You know, this was supposed to be my weekend off, but noooo! You got me out here dragging your heavy ass through the burning desert!Âª
With wide open eyes Liam realized the TV screen was showing an American soldier dragging the corpse of a recently killed alien.
‘What is this?’ he asked, visibly ill-at-ease with that fact that Da'an was watching a sci-fi movie a Taelon dignitary should definitely NOT be familiar with.
With serenity typical of her species, Da'an observed her Protector's agitated behaviour. ‘Independence Day,’ she answered solemnly, eyeing Liam's dishevelled form. ‘I believed it was a documentary about this year's celebrations, however I do not recollect...’ she paused, noticing that Liam had quickly switched the channel back to CNN.
‘That's not a documentary, Da'an, it's fiction,’ the man explained fervently. ‘Please, just watch the news.’ This said he threw the Companion a warning look before trotting back to the bathroom.
‘The other channels are far more interesting,’ the diplomat remarked and before Liam entered the shower cubicle again, he could hear the voice of a different male actor.
Â´What if they kill us? You don't want to die a virgin!Âª
The young hybrid helplessly ran a hand across his face. What else could he possibly expect? Da'an never ever listened to instructions - she was more likely to watch the news channel if she had been explicitly told not to do it. Now she was watching a sci-fi drama showing an alien species trying to conquer Earth, and it was enough of a bad idea in itself to suggest such a thing to a Taelon.
With a heavy sigh he turned back and strode into the room, heading straight for the remote control. The look of irritation on Da'an's face said it all when he switched the channel back to CNN, but he was not willing to take the responsibility for Earth's destruction just because he was reckless enough to put the idea into some alien ambassador's head.
‘The remote control is going to take a shower with me,’ he announced as he left the room, taking the device with him.
A flash of alien energy rippled across the Companion's narrowed eyes. Clearly, the child of Ha'gel had miraculously acquired some of Zo'or's worst character traits and presently rivalled the Synod Leader in his attempts to exert full control over his surroundings. Were all humans so possessive of their place of habitation?
The only consolation was, she had been dealing with that kind of dreadful attitude for centuries now. It was nothing she would not be able to handle. With this in mind, she considered her options. The enormous alien ship which she had seen in its full glory on the other channel was a true masterpiece, and she was tempted to know more about the technology. The lack of a remote control was not a problem. In a human form her mental capabilities were limited, but changing the channel should not prove a difficult task. At least so she thought before she directed her mental energy towards the device and a thin wisp of smoke began to slither from within the housing of the television set. Her lips parted in confusion, but in a human form her mental reflexes were much slower. After an unsettling buzz of electric current, the screen went black.
That was quite... unexpected. She had not been aware that human technology was so fragile...
Liam would definitely not be pleased. Although her intentions had not been aimed to displease him, especially not during a festival so important to all humans, it did not seem like there was any option that would enable her to avoid confrontation.
All of a sudden she recalled what her Protector had told her back in the fashion store. Humans found it imperative to dispose of the evidence. Perhaps if she did exactly that, the young hybrid would not be so displeased with her.
Even if she failed, it was worth a try.
* * *
Liam had just put shampoo on his head when he heard the doorbell ring, soon followed by a loud banging on the door.
‘Open up, Kincaid, I know you're there!’
The hybrid instantly recognized the voice of his neighbour who lived downstairs. Peter Carter was a nice family-type guy who worked in the local paper factory, but the urgency in his voice did not look like he had popped in for a beer, Liam realized, cursing under his breath. This was a really bad timing for whatever Peter had to say, especially when he had to pay his entire attention to Da'an to prevent her from doing anything reckless. With a sigh, the man quickly wrapped himself in the towel and hurried to the door.
‘Hi, Peter, I'm kind of busy - ’ Liam began, only to be cut off in mid-sentence
‘Is that your TV which has just dented the roof of my car?!’
Liam raised an eyebrow. What are you, drunk?!
‘Mrs. Andrews said she had seen some blond girl push a TV screen out of your window, and - who-hoo - guess where it landed!’
‘Da-,’ Liam bit his tongue just in time. ‘Diana!’ he called at the top of his voice, feeling that the Taelon had just crossed the limit of his patience. The Companion must have taken the hint, and before long appeared in the hallway with a somewhat guilty expression on her face.
‘Would you please explain to my neighbour why you pushed the TV through the window straight onto his car?’
Da'an's gaze travelled uneasily between her Protector's accusing and the stranger's clearly infuriated glare to finally rest on Liam's face. ‘You instructed me to dispose of the evidence,’ she said simply.
Liam was dumbstruck, and soon felt his neighbour's suspicious gaze upon him.
‘What evidence?’ Peter barked. ‘What are you doing here?’
The young hybrid realized that if he did not want to end up in jail, the time to act was now. He quickly took a credit card from the pocket of his jacket and waved it in front of his neighbour's face. ‘Can we just forget about the whole affair if I compensate for your loss?’ he offered, failing to conceal the discomfort in his voice.
Peter one more time eyed him suspiciously before he reluctantly took the card. ‘I will keep an eye on you... neighbour,’ he hissed through his teeth.
As soon as the man turned back, Liam closed the door. He turned his reproachful gaze towards the Taelon diplomat, and the fury, which unfurled in his eyes through the shimmer of Kimera energy, made Da'an took a precautionary step back.
‘Evidence!’ the hybrid laughed darkly in a manner that truly scared her. ‘I'm all ears now, what mischief are we brewing here, Da'an? If we end up in jail, I'd be thankful to know what kind of charges may be possibly brought against me!’
If he had not known better who she was, he would think the woman before him was truly bothered by his behaviour.
‘Liam, it was not my intention to...’ she began, but in the end let the sentence trail off, incomplete.
‘Then what WAS you intention?!’ her Protector demanded. ‘Ever since you took a human form, you're ruining my life! Was that the plan all along?’
‘No,’ the floor under her feet suddenly seemed to have captivated her entire attention.
Liam pointed his finger at her. ‘Your company has brought about the worst day of my life. You outcompeted all your rivals, which in itself is quite an achievement, considering the disaster my life used to be even without your help.’
She looked up at him sharply.
‘So now it comes down to the same old tune, leaving me thinking that it could all be different if you hadn't ordered William Boone to hunt down my father!’ he spat in fury. ‘Merry Christmas!’
Seeing the expression of despair on her face, the man fell silent and took a deep breath, realizing the situation had clearly spiralled out of his control. It was far from what he intended to say, at least not that day, but Da'an had been testing his patience more than anything else lately. He shouldn't have agreed to that damn assignment. He should have known his resentment would sooner or later resurface. After all, three years of pretending it wasn't there could not actually erase the memory...
‘I'm going to get dressed, and before you have another brilliant idea, at least TRY to start using that superior mind of yours,’ he added coldly, not sure what else to say, before the bathroom door was closed with a thud.
Overcome by sadness, grief and shame, Da'an felt herself tremble. As a Taelon she had been infused with human emotions before - love and fear - but the emotional turmoil wrecking her human form was beyond anything she had experienced as a Taelon for several thousand years. Without the chance to seek mental comfort in the Commonality, she felt the unwanted emotions overflow her carefully learned serenity, her heart ramming against her chest and bordering on actual physical pain. Able neither to understand nor to stop the storm which her Protector's words had unfurled within her body and mind, she succumbed to the urge of fleeing as far as her feet would take her and stormed past the door, sprinting down the stairs which led straight into the wintery night of the human world.
* * *
Liam walked out of the bathroom pulling the T-shirt over his head and slipping his arms into the sleeves. He was upset with himself for having lost his temper in front of Da'an. The fact was he had lashed out at him... her... many times in the past, but somehow in each case he had had serious reasons for doing so: lies, betrayal and manipulations resulting in deaths of human beings. This time, however, he had simply given vent to his frustration for a reason that had nothing to do with the Synod's agenda. Da'an had done things that for a human would seem thoughtless, but in all likelihood did have a deeper meaning on closer inspection, and well - she had not intended to hurt anyone. Nobody had suffered serious trauma or died, and a TV and a car were... well... just things.
She had a hard time being a human, it seemed, and his own behaviour was not particularly helpful.
He shouldn't have openly accused her of Ha'gel's death; it was one of those things that could not be averted and caused him needless pain whenever it was mentioned. He knew that at the time Da'an had done what she had been required to do since the Synod had been terrorized by the very possibility of the Kimera's revenge. She could have done nothing to stop this madness. If it hadn't been William Boone, someone else would have done the job; and Ha'gel had known he would die on Earth all along.
With a sigh, Liam rubbed his forehead. All in all, it seemed that he was the one who was supposed to apologize this time. With the intention of explaining the whole affair, he headed into the hallway and... felt his blood run cold.
The doors leading to the stairway were open.
‘Da'an?’ he called, but there was no answer. He quickly checked every room in the apartment only to find that it was empty. Da'an's coat was still hanging on the peg above her shoes, which made Liam realize she had left his apartment completely unprepared for the cold outside. Determined not to lose any more time, he quickly put on his boots and jacket, grabbed her outerwear and sprinted down the stairway.
In the middle of the night the neighbourhood was empty, which in a sense proved to be an unexpected advantage. Without the usual crowd of people travelling the streets, Da'an's footprints were clearly distinguishable in the fine layer of snow, enabling the young hybrid to trace her without much difficulty. Following the trace, he soon found himself by an old, creaking gate which led to a half-frozen park. His perfect sight - one of the advantages of his Kimera legacy - allowed him to spot a dark figure seated on a wooden bench just opposite a giant marble fountain.
‘Da'an!’ he called out to her, but she neither answered nor moved.
The moment he reached the spot, he instantly draped the coat over her shoulders, but she simply turned her head away.
‘You okay?’ he asked, quite unsuccessfully trying to catch a glimpse of her face.
‘Please, go away,’ she said. ‘I wish to be alone.’
‘I can assure you, you'll freeze if you stay here,’ he took both her hands in his own, hoping to provide her with warmth. ‘Human body consists of sixty percent water. If water around you freezes, you can be pretty sure you should be looking for shelter from the cold.’
The scientific approach seemed to do the trick and the diplomat finally looked at him. Liam frowned at her red, puffy eyes.
‘Have you been... crying?’
‘No,’ her voice gained a dark undertone. ‘Taelons do not cry.’
‘Technically, now you're a - ’ Liam began, but instantaneously fell silent when she glanced at him with her typical, Taelon cold dignity. ‘Right, how could I forget?’ he mustered a small smile, which disappeared almost instantly when he realized that Da'an was beginning to shiver. ‘We really need to get going,’ he urged, not failing to register that her body was gradually losing its battle with the low temperature.
Instead of listening to him, however, she leaned her head against an old tree growing right next to the bench. ‘I am fatigued, Liam,’ she whispered. ‘My human form requires rest.’
Liam frowned. ‘Your human form is entering hypothermia, not rest,’ he concluded and before she could protest, he lifted her up, placing one hand under her back and one under her knees.
Although the fear of falling to the ground drove her to instinctively wrap her arms around his neck, her displeased gaze did not escape his notice.
‘Yeah,’ he said with a smile. ‘I promise we can discuss the details of my execution later.’
* * *
In the warm glow of a simple ceiling lighting, Liam carefully placed a mug filled with hot tea on the table before he took a discreet glance at his guest barely visible from under a bundle of blankets. Ever since he had brought Da'an back to his apartment, she had not uttered a single word. Her silence only added to his worries. She was in a clearly deplorable mental and physical condition, and the fact that he was partially responsible for it, did not make him feel particularly good about his skills as a Companion Protector. At least, that was the official part of it he was desperately clinging to. Deep at heart, he was worried about her - something that should never occur, considering his current position as the leader of the human Resistance.
He cleared his throat to get her attention, but she refused to even look at him. ‘Well, just in case...’ he began, trying to draw her into a conversation, ‘you know we can bring this experiment to an end right now and everything will get back to normal?’
‘No,’ sounded the shortest answer he had ever heard from her.
The man helplessly looked at the ceiling as if expecting to discover a miraculous solution right above his head. ‘All I'm asking you to do is to try to at least consider...’
‘That is not possible,’ Da'an closed her eyes wearily. ‘This experiment will not end before Christmas.’
‘Why? What's in it for you?’ Liam seemed at a loss. ‘Taelons don't celebrate Christmas.’
‘Obviously,’ she said, then hesitated. ‘Yet you do.’
Liam raised an eyebrow. ‘I still don't get it.’
‘Did you for a split second believe that remaining in a human form brings me comfort?’
Her Protector blinked at her questioningly.
‘The transition from an energy form into the physical world has proved... extremely confusing,’ she confessed, her fatigued voice carrying a hint of shame. ‘These... unusual.... circumstances forced me to spend the first hour of my existential experience in a human form... crawling on the floor. I found myself unable to walk, even less keep my balance. When I finally made my first few steps, I collided with the bioslurry.’
The detailed graphic description she had provided was too tempting for Liam's imagination and he could hardly prevent himself from smiling. Still, he had not suspected that being a human could be that hard.
‘I feel... confined in a form which, in a sense, constraints my consciousness. In my true form, my mental capabilities are unlimited. Being a human, however, I must succumb to the limitations of the human brain, which in itself is a truly startling experience.’
Her Protector took the time to consider her confession. The discourse seemed logical, but somehow he had never actually taken into account the effect that a human brain might have on Taelon consciousness. It did, on many levels, explain why Da'an had so thoroughly failed as a human.
‘You have taught me to portion my nourishment,’ she continued, ‘yet each time I swallow, I am terrified by the very possibility that it may block my airways, and I will...’ Da'an's voice trailed off as she closed her eyes.
‘Yeah, I guess I'm dealing with identical thoughts each time I see you eat,’ Liam scratched his head, but now that he had finally said it, he felt relieved to know that Da'an perfectly understood the risk she was taking. ‘Then why bother?’
This time it was the diplomat who took a moment to gather her thoughts. ‘From the day you were born, you have been forced to experience the deaths of people you held dear, some of which... I am personally responsible for.’ A dark shadow fell across her features. ‘You no longer seem to believe that strengthening our relationship has... merit... and you are equally reluctant to trust other human beings. Since Christmas is a communal festival, I feared that you may feel... desolate.’
‘Wait ...’ the hybrid's green eyes narrowed, ‘you transferred your consciousness into a human form, because you thought I was... lonely?’
‘It was the only form that could enable me to truly celebrate Christmas the way humans celebrate it,’ she explained. ‘I do not believe I would have been able to explain the purpose of a Christmas tree in the audience chamber to the Synod, and especially to Zo'or.’
‘You can't tell me you're a human now, because you feared Sandoval would skrill your Christmas tree on Zo'or's order,’ Liam could not help a grin.
‘That was certainly not the case,’ her lips curved in a small smile as well. ‘My Taelon form has certain... limitations. I cannot absorb human nourishment or feel its taste. Yet most of all, I am unable to feel; experience and express emotions the way humans do,’ she paused, lowering her gaze. ‘A trait that has many times misled you to believe... your friendship means nothing to me.’
Overcome by fatigue, she sagged back against the pillow under the watchful gaze of her human Protector. Truth be told, Liam felt like a doofus. Da'an might have completely failed in being a human, but hell, he WAS a human and still thoroughly failed in seeing things that should have been obvious to a human being. Slowly, he rose from his chair and took the mug from the table.
‘You should have some tea,’ he offered, lifting it to enable her to safely take a sip.
Although she accepted his offer, Liam could still see the sorrow in her eyes. ‘I failed,’ she said simply, turning her gaze towards the window overlooking the sleeping city. ‘I wished to offer you my company, yet became a nuisance instead.’
‘You did the best you could,’ her Protector countered. ‘And truth is, I honestly suck at celebrating Christmas. The decorations, food, and all... I was invited to Renee's family house for tomorrow, but whenever I recall her screaming nephews, I get a migraine.’
Da'an tilted her head. ‘What shall we do then?’
Liam rubbed his chin. Yeah, what shall we do?
* * *
Â´You know, this was supposed to be my weekend off, but noooo! You got me out here dragging your heavy ass through the burning desert with your dreadlocks sticking out of the back of my parachute. I could have been at a barbecue!Âª
With the corner of his eye, Liam saw Da'an smile as she continued observing the American soldier dragging an alien corpse over the sand. He threw a piece of popcorn into the air and caught it between his teeth.
‘I must admit I admire human procurement services, Liam,’ she waved her hand. ‘You were provided with a new TV receiver within thirty minutes.’
‘Super fast Christmas delivery for additional twenty bucks,’ the young hybrid winked. ‘And don't forget you owe me eight hundred dollars for that TV bomb you discharged on Peter's car.’
Da'an's eyes narrowed as she observed his popcorn tricks.
‘Just between us,’ he continued, having leisurely crossed his legs on the table, ‘it was hilarious. That kind of thing would have gone viral on the -,’ he bit his tongue, suddenly realizing that the diplomat might take his opinion all too seriously. ‘Don't do that again. EVER.’
The Taelon could not help sending him a challenging smile as she mimicked her Protector's behaviour and stretched out her legs on the table.
Liam eyed her critically. I created a monster.