Two Weeks Ago
When they approached, Vanessa was studying in one of the starstation’s many greenhouses. It was peaceful and smelled really nice in there, with dozens of various examples of exotic plant life, from Earth and many other places, surrounding the table she had set herself up at. With the wide assortment of books (of both the physical and digital sort) arranged in front of her along with a bottle of water, the blonde girl had everything she wanted at that particular moment. Peace, safety, quiet, and the opportunity to learn things she didn’t already know.
She wasn’t actually studying for any particular class by that point, of course. Vanessa was already over a full semester ahead in her actual school work, the various assignments as detailed in the course study guides meticulously organized through several color-coded binders back in her room, waiting to be handed in when the appropriate time finally came.
Some might ask the girl what she would do in the case that one of the teachers significantly changed a particular homework assignment, rendering her earlier work useless. To which, she would have informed them that doing work which helped her learn was never useless. And also that she would be quite happy to get another assignment she could work on. Doing one assignment to prove she knew the material was fine enough on its own, but the opportunity to do another one weeks later simply to reassure everyone involved (including herself) that the lesson had truly stuck? In what reality would that be something negative?
Tristan called her weird for things like that, but Vanessa didn’t care. He was her brother and always would be. She knew he loved her, even if they disagreed on things like this. They may have both now had the same perfect memory, but Tristan didn’t particularly care to utilize his to its full extent. The boy was happy just knowing enough to pass his classes before getting on with what he considered far more important things. But to Vanessa, nothing was more important than knowledge. Facts, figures, numbers, names, spells, truth, both good and bad, were all important things. They were all sources of power. Knowing the right thing at the right time could save her family, or other people. She had previously dedicated herself to studying in order to find them. Now that they were here, her devotion to knowledge was about protecting them.
So, it was there, at the table in the greenhouse, that Vanessa was sitting when a group of people approached. She heard them making their way along the path, even as one of the powers she had picked up allowed her to sense the exact number of skeletons entering her space. Four. Four skeletons, all human-ish in size and shape. Pulled from her studying by the realization that they were deliberately approaching rather than walking past, Vanessa looked up and turned to see who it was. She expected to find her brother and friends. Instead, her gaze found unfamiliar figures. They were obviously Seosten. Well, that or a teen drama full of ridiculously good-looking supermodel ‘students’ was being filmed, and she was pretty sure the people in charge up here had more important things to focus on.
Two of the approaching Seosten were male, the other two female. All four appeared to be a couple years younger than Vanessa, which of course meant they could have been anywhere from actually that age, up to their thirties or so. The two guys both had dark hair, one a shade lighter than the other. The one with lighter hair had quite dark skin, while the one with darker hair was the taller of the two and appeared to be caucasian. The two girls were both white as well, one with dark blonde, almost brown hair and a deep tan, while the other girl had red hair worn quite short, and was wearing a pair of pitch-black sunglasses.
“Hello?” Vanessa greeted the quartet uncertainly, eyes moving back and forth between them.
“Hi!” the girl with the sunglasses raised a hand in greeting, her voice cheerful. “Sorry, we haven’t met, but uhh, you’re Vanessa, right? Vanessa Moon?” Her hand rose as the girl used her index finger to pull down the bridge of her glasses so she could meet the other girl’s gaze with her own sea-green eyes. “Daughter of Sariel the Olympian and Haiden the Bane.”
At first, Vanessa started to reflexively nod. Then she blinked, squinting that way. “The Bane?”
The black boy spoke up with a cough. “Ah, yeah, sorry. That’s sort of what our people call him. You know, after he spent like ten years in our space running all over, destroying, breaking, killing–” In mid-sentence, the boy blanched. “Sorry, that kind of sounds like we blame him.”
“We don’t,” the second girl, the one with blonde-brown hair, put in. “I mean, we’d probably do the same thing if it meant getting back to the people we care about, you know?”
“He was just so… ahhh…. effective?” the caucasian boy offered. “Yeah, so effective that people started calling him The Bane, and it stuck. You know, like, ‘The Bane hit Teverith Station last week,’ things like that. It started when they didn’t know, or care about, his name, and stuck.”
“He has other names,” the red-haired girl informed her. “But a lot of them are pretty impolite.”
“Hey, I know!” the Seosten boy with dark-skin quickly announced, with obviously exaggerated excitement. “How about we all just start over and introduce ourselves this time instead of making everything super awkward? Sound good? Good.” With that, he extended a hand toward Vanessa. “Hey there. My name is Desenei, and this is Nithae, Hansurei, and Batreth.” With each name in order, he indicated the red-haired girl, the blonde girl, and the other guy.
“Um, good to meet you,” Vanessa replied politely, shifting around in her seat to face them properly. She still wasn’t sure what was going on here, but it was clear they weren’t just walking past, so she didn’t want to be rude, no matter how tempting it was to go back to her book. It was a really interesting book, after all. But everyone in her life had made it perfectly clear that ignoring people who were trying to talk to you just to keep reading was a bad thing.
Batreth, the other guy, offered Vanessa a smile. “Right, you were in the middle of something, and interrupting is rude. Sorry about that, really. We just wanted to introduce ourselves and ask if you wanted to come see a movie with us later. And uhh, it’d be great if you said yes, cuz we need all the help we can get.”
Nithae, the red-haired girl, quickly spoke up then. “What he means is that we’re supposed to be learning more about humans and their culture. So we have a list of Earth movies to watch, and we were hoping that you could help… explain some of the things we don’t get.”
Taken a bit aback by the request, Vanessa hesitantly pointed out, “Are you sure you don’t want to take my brother instead? He’s probably better for that sort of thing.”
The Seosten, however, disagreed and insisted she was the one they wanted to go with. So, Vanessa finally agreed. They promised to pick her up by her house in the living quarters in a few hours, and asked that she not eat yet, because they were planning on making a full thing of it.
After watching them head off, Vanessa glanced down at the nearby flowers. There were several thoughts running through her mind, mostly focused on why on Earth they wanted to get her help understanding Earth culture and traditions rather than Tristan’s. Did they think he didn’t know as much because he’d spent so long out in space? That had to be it, right?
In that case, boy were they going to be disappointed when it came to which twin they thought was more in touch with Bystander society.
As it turned out, the entire group didn’t show up at the house. Instead, when Vanessa opened the door several hours later, only Desenei was standing there. He had dressed up in crisp black slacks and a dark red silk shirt. When she saw that, Vanessa blanched. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize this was something formal.” She herself was only wearing (mostly clean) jeans and a hoodie. “Uh, I can go change into something better.”
Desenei, however, shook his head. “No, it’s okay, don’t worry about it. I’m only dressed like this because we were just at an evaluation with Athena, to check on how we’re doing. The others are setting up the projector, that’s why I’m the only one here.” He offered her a wink. “I’m great at a lot of things, but put me near anything technical and either it, or me, is going to blow up. Maybe both. And that would be a damn shame.” His smile was broad. “After all, have you seen me? I’m adorable.”
“Oh good,” Vanessa retorted, “I was starting to think you weren’t really a Seosten. But there’s the ego.”
The boy laughed. “Yeah, we deserve that, I guess. Okay, we definitely deserve it. That and a lot more. It’s just… you know, the way our culture works. We’re all just a little bit… extra and proud of it. Really proud. It’s kind of a thing with us.”
“At least you’re self-aware about it,” Vanessa pointed out, before squinting. “Why are you so self-aware about it?”
With a shrug, the boy replied, “I didn’t used to be, believe me. I was a real… garbage person. Thought our people were the best thing to ever happen to the universe, and that I was one of the best of those. The best among the best. Gold standard Seosten. Which, I guess I really was, as far as being arrogant goes.” After a brief consideration, he shook his head. “Anyway, I was on my first combat mission about two years ago, flying a fighter. Our squad was chasing down these slaves who ahh, escaped on a freighter ship. We were about to disable them when some of Athena’s people showed up. There was a… I think you call it a birdfight?”
“Dogfight,” Vanessa corrected.
“But dogs don’t even fl–I’m very confused.” Shaking that off, Desenei gestured. “But sure, there was a flying dogfight and some of us got shot down before Athena’s people pulled us in and took us prisoner. That’s me and the other three you met today. Well, there were six of us, but the other two didn’t… really end up getting along with the whole program.” He sighed. “So they sent them away, back to the Empire. But the four of us, we decided to stay. We were… curious about things after those first few weeks. So we stuck around. It was very… bumpy for awhile. Still is sometimes. But we’re working on it.”
“Is that why you wanted me to help you learn from these movies you found?” Vanessa curiously asked. “Because you think me being half-Seosten and raised on Earth would be useful? Because I really don’t know anything about the Seosten parts of me, and I don’t know that much more about human things. Believe me, I am not the best representative of human culture. I’m pretty sure you could teach me some things about that by now.”
With an easy laugh, Desenei shook his head. “Nah, it’s–okay, little confession to make. I thought you were a full Seosten before. I mean, before I knew who you were. I sort of saw you from a distance a few times and thought you were one of the Seosten who grew up with Athena’s people. I was actually asking the others how they thought I should approach you when Batreth told me who you were. Then we figured… like you said, you probably don’t know much about our people, so maybe we could help you learn. But coming right out and saying, ‘hey, let us teach you about the culture of the species that makes up half your DNA’ sounds pretty awkward at the best of times, let alone when that species has treated the other half of your DNA like… uhh, well, the way we have.” He offered an awkward shrug. “I don’t think I was supposed to say that part out loud yet. It was just supposed to be like a… you know, back and forth. We teach you some Seosten things, you teach us whatever you want about humans. We were afraid that if we came out and said we wanted to teach you about Seosten stuff, you might just refuse because of how bad your family was treated. But there’s a lot more to our people than that.”
That was a lot to take in, but Vanessa found herself focusing on one thing in particular. “Wait, you said you were planning how to approach before you even knew who I was. Why would you need to talk to me at all before you knew anything about me?”
“Oh, that?” Desenei grinned. “Because I wanted to ask you out on a date.”
Okay, now she was really taken aback. Rocking backward on her heels, Vanessa fought to find her voice. “And–but–and now you don’t, because you know I’m not a real Seosten.” Despite herself, she could hear the accusation in her own voice.
The boy, however, just shook his head. “Nah, nothing like that. But the thing is, when I found out who you were, I realized you’re a complete stranger, like… in every possible way. If I did ask you out, it’d only be because you’re attractive. Which, don’t get me wrong, you are very attractive. But I don’t know anything about you. This way, we can just hang out in a group, teach you about our people while you teach us about humans. And I can get to know you.
“Then I’ll ask you out.” With that, he pivoted on his heel and started to walk. “We should probably go though, the others are waiting.”
Watching him start off, Vanessa swallowed hard. An apprehensive expression crossed her face. He wanted to get to know her? He thought that if he did that, he’d want to ask her out. But that was the whole problem.
If he did get to know her, he’d realize what a very bad idea that was.
“Soooooomebody’s sleeping on my couch.” The teasing words came from Uncle Apollo, as the man descended the stairs that led up to the loft where his bed was in his Starstation apartment. Obviously unsurprised to find Vanessa laying there, given how often his nieces and nephew came to visit, the man started to continue into the kitchen. “You hungry, kid? I think I…”
He trailed off then, from a single sound which interrupted his words. A small, almost inaudible sniff. Only then did Apollo turn more toward the couch to see the huddled form there, her back to him as she faced the cushions. Then it came again, a very slight, quiet sniff, as he saw her shoulders shudder just a little.
“Nessa?” After a brief hesitation, the man stepped over that way. He gently reached down, fingers brushing the girl’s shoulder, all teasing and casual cheer gone from his voice. “Vanessa, are you okay?”
She didn’t respond at first, remaining silent and almost entirely motionless save for that almost imperceptible shudder that ran through her body. Then he heard her swallow hard before slowly turning to look at him. Her eyes were bloodshot, the remains of tears staining her face. She had been like this for awhile.
“Uncle Apollo,” she managed in a voice that audibly cracked as she forced the terrible words to come. “I… think there’s something wrong with me.”
“What?” Blinking, Apollo went down to one knee, his hand remaining where it was on the girl’s shoulder. “Vanessa, what happened? Do you want me to get your mother?”
“No!” she quickly blurted, the terror of what her mom would think bringing new tears to her eyes. “No, no, don’t… please. I just… I have to talk to someone who might be able to help or know more than me. You’re a Seosten and you know things. You were a scientist. So was Mom, but I can’t talk to her. I can’t ask her. If–if I’m broken, I can’t ask her.”
“Vanessa, you–” Stopping himself, Apollo paused, clearly considering his words. “Why do you think there’s something wrong with you?”
Her mouth opened, but no words would come out. A thick lump had formed in her throat. God. She thought it would be easier with Apollo, after everything. At least he wasn’t her mother. The thought of seeing how disappointed her mom would be, how… how much she would blame herself, it made Vanessa want to curl right back into a ball. But she couldn’t. She had to explain, or try to. Maybe Apollo would have an idea. Maybe he could help.
So, over the next few minutes, she explained about Desenei and the other Seosten, and how they had met up a few times over the past couple weeks whenever she wasn’t busy with other things. She told him about how interesting it was to learn about the Seosten from their point of view, and how they were genuinely interested in hearing what she thought.
“Sounds good so far,” Apollo carefully noted, his hand gently brushing her hair. “What went wrong? Do I need to go swat a few Seosten heads?”
“No.” Vanessa’s voice sounded hollow even to hear own ears. “They didn’t do anything wrong. He… didn’t do anything bad. He’s fine. He–it’s… me. I…” She trailed off once more, going silent for a few long moments. She shouldn’t have come here. This was dumb. She was making her problems into Apollo’s. She couldn’t–
As though reading her mind, Apollo quietly urged, “Vanessa, it’s okay to talk to me. It’s just you and me here. What happened?”
After a brief hesitation, the girl slowly spoke. “My birthday is tomorrow. Tristan’s and mine, I mean. We’re nineteen. We’re nineteen years old, Uncle Apollo. I’ve been an adult for a year. In another year, I’ll be twenty.”
She went silent for a few seconds, but Apollo didn’t speak up. He was quiet, simply watching what the girl was doing and giving her time to gather herself until she finally continued.
“Everything with Desenei was… fine. I like him. I like spending time with him. I like his stories. I like that he… he likes me. I want more of that. But…” Once more, she was silent, the confusion and shame of what was right on the tip of her tongue making it so hard to actually say. It took the girl another long minute before she managed to push out the words, briefly repeating herself.
“I’m nineteen years old, and I’ve never… I–” She swallowed the thick, ball-like lump in her throat. “I’ve never felt… physically… I…” Sitting up abruptly, Vanessa pushed herself to the corner of the couch and drew her knees to her chest, arms wrapped around them so she could huddle there, staring at the man. “I’ve never been sexually attracted to anyone, Uncle Apollo. No one. Ever. Not a boy, not a girl, no one. I know what it should feel like, I know what– I’ve looked it up. I’ve asked people, I’ve read about it, heard about it, I know what it is. Academically, I know everything about it. I know what it should be like.” Her head shook slowly. “But I never felt it. I thought maybe when I got to know Desenei, I’d like him. And I do. I really like him a lot. I like being around him. I like talking to him. Last night he… he kissed me. And it was okay. I mean, I sort of liked just the… the ummm… touch. I liked when our lips touched. But that was it. I didn’t like… anything more than just lips touching. I didn’t… I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t want anything else.” The tears were back, her eyes closing as she couldn’t bear to look at the man. “I like spending time with him. He makes me happy. I even like hugging and really simple, normal touch kissing. No tongue, no… nothing else. He’s the closest person I’ve ever gotten to for that and… and I still don’t feel anything.” Her voice cracked, sounding like it was breaking apart. “Before I found Tristan, I used to think maybe it had to do with being half-Seosten. But he’s half too. He’s my twin, we’re the exact same age and both half-Seosten, but he feels that stuff all the time and has for years. And I asked some of the other Seosten, they said that it kicks in around the same time for them as it does for humans. It’s not the hybrid thing. It’s not the Seosten thing. It’s me. I’m the problem.
“I’m nineteen years old and I’ve never felt any sexual attraction to anyone. And now… now I don’t think I ever will.”
After a brief moment, Apollo rose from his crouch and turned to sit on the couch next to her. Putting one arm around the girl, he half-embraced her before speaking quietly. “Vanessa, first of all, there is nothing wrong with you. Being different isn’t wrong. Whatever you feel or don’t feel, none of it is wrong. You have blonde hair, some have brown. You have white skin, some have different shades. You’re female in sex and gender. Some are female in sex and male in gender. Some are both at the same time. None of them are wrong, and neither are you.”
“But I…” Vanessa gave a heavy shudder, shifting a bit closer, her voice quiet. “I want to be with someone. I want to hold someone. I want to be close. I like… feeling that. I like him, just like that. I just… I never… I can’t… feel that. It’s like I’m empty there. How can I feel drawn to him, to anyone, one way but not the other? How can I like someone as much as I do, but not even feel the slightest hint of sexual attraction? It’s just not there, Uncle Apollo. I tried. I really tried to feel it, but there’s nothing, nothing. How can you say there’s not something wrong with me when I want the one part, but not the other? It’s just… it’s selfish and wrong and–”
“No.” Apollo’s head shook. “Vanessa, absolutely not. There is nothing selfish about how you feel. Someone who is sexually attracted to girls isn’t selfish for not being attracted to boys. And you are not selfish for not being attracted to any of them. Listen to me, okay? What you’re describing is being asexual. I know you’ve heard that term, but you probably shied away from it because you were afraid of what it might say, right?” When she gave a silent nod, he continued. “You want to know why you could enjoy being with someone, like spending time with them, hugging, even some level of kissing, why you could even want to have a close partner like that, but not feel any sexual attraction? Because you’re not aromantic, Vanessa. You can be asexual and still want romance, still want someone to share your life with. You can still love people, just as much as anyone else. Asexual doesn’t mean you’re a robot, it doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions or feelings. It means that you do not feel sexual attraction. That’s it. And there is nothing wrong with that. Not one void-damned thing. It doesn’t make you any more ‘wrong’ than your blonde hair or your height or your eyes or your skin color.”
“But…” Vanessa shifted a little, looking up to the man as she huddled against him. “What if Desenei leaves because he wants what I can’t–what I don’t?”
“I can’t say he won’t,” Apollo admitted. “And that doesn’t make him a monster either. People need to be with those who make them happy, people they are compatible with. And if he can’t be compatible with you, that’s sad. But you will find someone who is compatible with you. It might be him, it might be someone else. But whoever it is and however long it takes to find them, you never hide who you are. You never pretend to feel things you don’t feel. Because you are brilliant, in every way. And you deserve to be happy, Vanessa. That means being who you are, every part of who you are, and finding someone who loves you for all of it. You don’t settle, and you don’t pretend to be something you’re not.”
Vanessa was silent for a few seconds, the flood of emotions making it hard to even try to find words. Finally, she settled on, “I love you, Uncle Apollo.”
His arm tugged her closer, hugging his niece. “I love you too, Nessa.”
Another moment passed, before she lowered her head and nuzzled up against his shoulder. “Can we sit here for a little while?”
“Yeah, kid,” came the quiet response.
“We’ll sit here for as long as you like.”