|Summary:||In which there are close alien encounters.|
|Timeline:||Early 2016; about a week since “Full Metal and the Hogwarts Mishap.”|
|Published:||December 30, 2017.|
|Rating:||PG/K+ - Just a platonic study date and absolutely nothing more. Nope.|
Ilraen stood nervously in front of the door to Farilan’s response center, clutching the large, giftwrapped book to his chest. It was about a week since the mission where he’d picked it up. He and Farilan had arranged to meet today to begin their field study of humans together, and he had thought surprising her with a gift would be a good way to kick things off. Now, however, he wasn’t so sure. He had to admit his judgement lately wasn’t the best, and maybe Nume was right that it was a bad idea. He didn’t know what he was going to do with the book otherwise, though, and he did still think it was interesting. He could only hope she would, too. Keeping the book tightly clamped to his body with one arm, he raised a fist and knocked.
Farilan opened the door, her eyes narrowed. <Unless you’re here with my deliv—oh, it’s you.> She cast a glance back into her RC before letting out a small sigh and stepping into the corridor, shutting the door behind her. <I suppose we might as well get this started.>
<Hello,> Ilraen said for a lack of a better way to begin. <Yes . . . but first . . . I wanted to give you something. A present.> He held out the book. It was wrapped in Christmas paper, the only kind they had lying around, but he didn’t think she would recognize it as being inappropriate. He was very aware that the fresh, shiny scar on his chest was now exposed, and she couldn’t fail to notice it.
<What’s that?> Farilan said sharply, all four eyes focusing on the scar. <Are you all right?>
<Oh.> Ilraen lowered his main eyes, caught between embarrassment and, oddly, pleasure at her scrutiny. <I am fine, now. It was a spell . . . a curse called Sectumsempra. The wounds made by sufficiently dark magic can never be fully erased.> He shifted his hooves and fell silent. Getting into exactly how he’d gotten himself cursed was something he wanted to avoid at all costs.
<I am glad you recovered,> Farilan said, then quickly added, <I would hate to have missed our study of humans.>
Ilraen looked up again, smiling. <Thank you. I was worried that I would not make it, but they let me out of Medical after only a day. Magic can be really marvelous, when it is used for good and not evil. It is one thing that some continua have that sets them quite apart from our own, or World One. That’s why I got you this.> He extended the book toward her again, trying to ignore how it wiggled. <Since you are here to learn about other species, I thought this would help. It is not quite a normal text, and it must be handled with care, but I hope you find it engaging.>
Farilan delicately took the package and held it up to inspect it. <It’s . . . er . . . lovely,> she said. <And interestingly decorated.>
<Oh,> Ilraen said again, trying not to look too amused. He had been there; he knew what it felt like. <The paper is just a covering. You remove it to reveal the gift inside. That way, it is a surprise.>
<Oh. I suppose this is one of those human customs you have told me about?> Farilan asked as she began to carefully peel away the tape holding the paper in place.
<Yes, indeed. You don’t need to be so careful,> he added. <Many people enjoy simply tearing it, and it is disposable.>
Farilan hesitantly tore off a strip of paper, and her eyes crinkled in a smile. <I suppose I can see the appeal of that,> she said, and pulled the rest of the paper away. <A book! The Monster Book of Monsters—it sounds fascinating.> Her tail moved forward to cut the twine binding it shut.
Ilraen was so happy that he almost forgot to warn her. <Wait, before you—>
The twine snapped, and the book shook itself vigorously in newfound freedom. It snapped shut on Farilan’s tail and she screamed, snatching her hands away and attempting to shake the book off her tail. <GET IT OFF GET IT OFF GET IT OFF—>
<Oh, no!> Ilraen darted to help, but with Farilan erratically dancing around, he couldn’t get close enough. <Farilan, hold still and I will get it!>
Farilan, however, wasn’t listening, and continued flailing until her tail snapped forward and the book was sent flying down the corridor. It bounced off a wall and dropped to the floor, picked itself up, and scuttled away into the depths of HQ.
Ilraen stood staring after it, hands pressed to his face in mortification. He hardly dared glance at Farilan with his stalk-eyes. <I . . . I am so sorry. Nume told me it was a bad idea . . . I should have listened. Are you all right? It didn’t hurt you, did it?>
Farilan held her tail gingerly in one hand, rubbing the base of her tail blade where the book had bitten her. <I am fine,> she said, but the usual haughtiness in her voice was gone. She kept her eyes averted from Ilraen as she spoke.
He took a deep breath, steeling himself. <If you do not wish to study with me anymore, I understand.> He waited for the inevitable.
Farilan slowly let out a breath and finally looked at him. <I am not about to let the opportunity to learn more go to waste,> she said, and drew herself upright. <But if you bring me another biting book, I will not tolerate your presence any longer.>
It took Ilraen a moment to work out that he was not being given the boot. <You mean . . . we are still going?>
<I suppose so,> Farilan said. <After all, I did promise.>
<Oh. You did. I mean, yes. I mean—> He shook his head. <I am sorry about the book. I was going to warn you, it just . . . perhaps we can forget it ever happened?>
<I do believe that would be for . . . for the best,> Farilan said, all too eager to forget about her undignified flailing. She pawed at the ground indecisively, then said, <Shall we get started, then?>
<Yes, of course.> Ilraen finally felt he could look her in the face again. <You will want to assume your human disguise. I will morph. You, er, probably will not want to watch. It is not an attractive process.> Not when he did it, anyway.
<I have seen my colleagues morph before,> Farilan said. <You do not have to worry about offending my delicate sensibilities.> If she’d had eyebrows at that moment, she would have raised one. As far as human gestures went, it was rather useful. <If you would like, I can disguise myself as a human first so that I may catch you when you inevitably lose your balance in your human morph.> She reached for the D.O.R.K.S. in her bag and quickly pressed a number of buttons. There was a FLASH and Farilan found herself standing on two legs instead of the usual four. She fell forward briefly before she caught herself against a wall and stood upright, brushing off her skirt. “Well?” She held out her arms.
It was the first time Ilraen had seen her in human form, and it was probably a good thing he didn’t have a mouth to dangle open as his eyes roamed over her features. Her eyes remained bright green, like his own, and glinted compellingly behind a narrow set of wire-frame glasses. Her hair was a pale butter-yellow blonde; it might have softened the angular lines of her face, if only it were free instead of tied back in a severe bun. He liked her choice of clothing: a light purple button-down shirt that approximated the fairer shades of her fur, set off by a slate-gray skirt that fell in straight lines from her slender hips.
For reasons Ilraen could not quite put any of his seven fingers on, he thought of “Marian the Librarian” from The Music Man. That was silly, though. Farilan wasn’t a librarian at all.
Farilan folded her arms, then quickly unfolded them. She was spending too much time with humans. “You’re not going to make me do this by myself, are you?” she said impatiently.
Ilraen gave the psychic equivalent of a cough and hurriedly took off the satchel hanging from his shoulder. <Well. Here goes nothing, as they say.>
His transformation was as awkward as ever. To his horror, his forelegs shriveled away first thing. Farilan caught him under the arms, but the weight of his body was still too much, and they both collapsed to the floor. He thought about backing out, but decided that would be even more humiliating, so he pressed on. His spine contracted, slowly dragging his back end into proximity with his front as his tail vanished and his hind legs turned into fat, pink tubes with fat, pink nubbins at the end instead of his handsome, shiny hooves. His arms were subject to the same process. Most of his fur thinned to near invisibility, and what was left turned a fair carroty color. His head sprouted loose flyaway curls of the stuff. There was a wet crunching noise as his bones rearranged themselves, and he flopped fish-like onto his back to avoid ending up with his face in Farilan’s lap. Finally, his nose pushed outward and reformed into a human shape, and he felt it was over.
After a great deal of trial and error, he had learned to carry a pair of underpants through the transformation, but that was it. Everywhere else, he was nude, and he shivered slightly as he felt the air on his skin.
Farilan gave him a once-over; a delicate eyebrow rose in disapproval. “As far as humans go, your morph is not the most impressive one I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s a Frolis maneuver.” Ilraen sat up, stung. “Nume and Jenni and Ginger and—” He stopped, realizing Farilan could not possibly appreciate the sentimental value in a string of names she didn’t know. No point being defensive. “I’ll, er, just get dressed before we go.” He began pulling on articles of clothing from his satchel.
“I still do not understand why humans feel the need to cover themselves,” Farilan said. “As protection from the elements, that I do, but they have such strange notions of modesty.” She let out a short bark of laughter. “Though I suppose I’d want to cover up all the time if I was that ugly, too.”
“Oh, it isn’t just about modesty,” Ilraen said, ignoring the barb. He was about eighty percent certain it wasn’t personal. “I thought it strange at first, too, but clothing is used as a means to identify oneself as part of a culture and of self-expression. You see, the first thing you must understand about humans is that they are so very diverse. That is why we are going to New Caledonia.” He got to his feet, now wearing sandals, khaki shorts, a white undershirt, and a loose, blue, short-sleeved top unbuttoned at the front. He offered Farilan a hand up.
Farilan thought for a moment about swatting his hand away, but she accepted it and allowed him to pull her to her feet. “I fail to see what that human settlement could have to offer that is any different from Headquarters,” she said. “Other than a lack of non-human species.”
“You will,” Ilraen assured her. “Now, I have only one hour and fifty-eight minutes remaining in morph, so let us go.” He held onto her hand and led her down the corridor.
Eventually they came to a door marked “1-Nou-1.” A seed-headed Security Dandelion dozed in a pot beside it.
“This is it,” Ilraen said.
“I was expecting something more impressive,” Farilan said dryly.
The Dandelion rustled her leaves and raised her head. Going through to New Caledonia?
“Yes, please,” Ilraen answered. “We shall return in approximately one and a half hours.” It wasn’t much, but it would have to do for a start.
The Dandelion nodded gently, as though swaying in a breeze. Have fun, she said, and opened the door.
The air that rushed in was hot and humid, filled with the scents of exotic plants and the calls of birds.
“The grass is . . . green,” Farilan said in surprise. “Bright green. I’ve never seen anything like it before. And the sky—!” She took several steps away from the door and turned around, craning her neck. “It’s all blue!”
Ilraen followed her, grinning nearly ear to ear. “Yes. It is very pretty, isn’t it? But be careful—the path to the town is a little steep in places. You may hold my hand again, if you like.”
“Thank you,” Farilan said, putting her hand in his. “I am still getting used to this human disguise. Two legs and no tail? Horrible balance.”
“You will get used to it. Come on.” He led her along again, hoping guiltily that she didn’t get used to it too quickly.
The red, rocky dirt track led them down the mountain and eventually became a packed road, the Rue Jay Thorntree du Nord. They passed the Cemetery Hill on their right, and the road dropped steeply to a farmer’s field—no doubt one source of the town’s food. Gradually, the road to either side filled with dwellings and businesses. The more traditional ground-level structures and dirt roads on the outskirts gave way to multilevel French Colonial fronts with white balustraded balconies looking over flagged streets as they came to the intersection of the Rue Jay with the Rue des Fleurs. This was the center of the city, marked by a clock tower standing on the northeast corner of the intersection. The square buzzed with a great diversity of human life, from brightly dressed native Kanaks to Pacific Islander, Asian, and European immigrants to agents with all manner of real-world and fictional origins.
Farilan looked around curiously as they entered the town. “Strange,” she commented, “how humans like to build such . . . crowded settlements.” She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like it much. Too claustrophobic, but it’s an improvement over Headquarters, I suppose.”
“Humans multiply more quickly than Andalites,” Ilraen noted. “In fact, many of the agents who live here do so because they have children, and wish to give them something closer to a normal life than they would experience in Headquarters. Fresh air and sunlight, a stable timestream, locations that do not move about . . . and real food.”
Several of the businesses on the square were restaurants, and Ilraen was looking them over with a critical eye. “I thought we might sample some while we are here,” he said. “We will avoid Deepdelver’s Tavern, but perhaps Abbott’s Bakery, or Sabor del Mar.”
“I will trust your recommendation,” Farilan said. “For all that I have been studying human culture as of late, cuisine is not one aspect I have bothered to familiarize myself with.”
“You haven’t? Not at all?” Ilraen boggled. “Then we must go to Sabor del Mar and have tapas. That way you may try a variety of small bites.”
He led her quickly across the square and secured them outdoor patio seats at the small Spanish place. He and Nume had done rather well for themselves in trade in recent times, so he quite happily ordered the largest flight of tapas on the menu, plus soft drinks. While they waited, he pointed out various aspects of human culture going on around them, such as the musicians playing on a small stage across the corner from the clock tower. He wasn’t sure all the instruments were Earth-native, and one of the players might have been an elf, but then this was a PPC city.
Farilan couldn’t seem to sit still. She kept turning around in her seat to stare—at the people behind them, at the potted plants, at the dog that went loping by on the street. “It’s very chaotic,” she finally said, turning back to Ilraen. “How do you stand it?”
“I have the most interesting thing in the multiverse right in front of me,” Ilraen said without thinking, leaning in with his chin on one hand. Then his higher brain functions kicked back in and he sat up. “That is, I tune it out. One gets used to it.”
One of Farilan’s eyebrows arched. “I’m so sure,” she said. “Ilraen, did you take me out here to teach me, or to romance me?”
Not expecting to be confronted about his motivations, Ilraen sat dumbfounded, trying desperately to come up with an answer that wouldn’t get him in trouble. “I—that is—I mean—”
He was rescued by the arrival of their food, a series of small portions served on a decorative wooden plank.
“Thank you!” he said to the waiter, and meant it. Then he was alone with Farilan again. “Erm . . . would you care to start with the olive tapenade on crostinis?”
Farilan just gave him a long, hard stare. “I’d care to start with an answer,” she said, keeping her tone carefully neutral.
“Well . . . ” Ilraen fussed with laying his napkin on his lap. He looked up tentatively. “I wish to get to know you better,” he said at last. “And to help you learn about humans. I thought I might accomplish both at the same time.”
There was a very uncomfortable pause while Farilan studied his face. “I should like to get to know you better as well,” she finally said. “Headquarters is sadly lacking in others of our own kind. It would be good to have a proper friend.”
“Yes, exactly!” He sighed with relief and smiled again. “I never got on with Iskillion, and he doesn’t know the Homeworld any better than I do, anyway. I would like to hear more about it. That would make us ‘tit for tat’, I believe the saying goes.”
Farilan smiled and sat back, staring off into the distance. “Oh, what is there to say about the Homeworld other than it was beautiful?” she said. “But first—how much do you already know of it?”
“Only what is known in the canon,” he replied. “I know the grass is blue and the sky is red-gold. That there are kafit birds and Garibahs, djabalas and derrishoul trees that resemble Earth asparagus. But I don’t know what any of it is really like, if you see what I mean.” He took the opportunity to start in on the crostinis.
Farilan watched him eat, then picked up one of the crostinis for herself. She recoiled when her nose bumped into the tapenade. “It’s so messy,” she complained, reaching up to wipe it off with her hand. She eyeballed the tapenade on her fingers, then brought them to her mouth to taste it. Her eyes widened briefly before she controlled herself. “It’s all right, I suppose,” she said, taking a more delicate bite.
Ilraen dabbed his own mouth with his napkin. “Perhaps a little too assertive for a first experience,” he fretted.
“It’s human food,” Farilan said, shrugging and doing her best to look dismissive. “I was not expecting anything phenomenal.” She copied Ilraen’s movement with her own napkin. “So, the Homeworld. Perhaps the best place to start would be to talk about the scoops . . . .”
The time passed far too quickly. Soon Ilraen’s two hours were almost up, and they still had to walk back to 1-Nou-1. Next time, he resolved, they would both be in disguise, even if it did mean giving up the thrill of being directly wired into the human sense of taste.
“That was more enjoyable than I thought it would be,” Farilan said when they stopped by the door to her RC. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“You are very welcome. I had a wonderful time, as well. I hope we might do it again soon. There are many exciting things to see and do in New Caledonia—not just food, either. Oh, we must visit the Musée des Univers Perdus! Lost fiction from across the multiverse. I’ve heard it’s fascinating!”
“I think I would rather like that,” Farilan said, and smiled. Her face felt rather warm. “Museums are always a good way to learn about other cultures, and the things a species writes about says a lot about them. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Oh, yes.” Ilraen hesitated to agree further for fear of reminding her that Nume had harangued her on that very subject not so long ago. “Er. Next time, then.”
And that seemed to mark the time to go. Ilraen had only a few minutes left in morph, and he couldn’t think of anything else to say, but he didn’t want to leave.
Farilan stood there for a moment longer before she realized their gazes were locked, and she cleared her throat. “I suppose I will be seeing you later, then,” she said. She half-raised a hand towards Ilraen’s face before pulling away and waving her fingers at him. “And thank you again.” She disappeared into her response center and hastily shut the door.
Ilraen was left standing with his own hand raised in a mirror gesture, not quite certain if he’d seen what he thought he’d seen. No, almost certainly not. They were friends. That was all.
He moved a little way down the corridor before quickly undressing and reverting back to his normal form. With a last lingering look in the direction of Farilan’s door, he sighed and went on his way.
And that was when the Monster Book of Monsters leapt out of a nearby doorway and snapped at his fetlocks.
Yaaay, Ilraen has made it to the friend zone, and he is thrilled!
Also, welcome to the New Cal city, now with actual description! Thanks to Delta Juliette for her tip on the architecture.
Iximaz’s Notes: Is the Ice Queen starting to defrost a little? . . . Maybe. But it’s not because she likes him or anything!