Sometime over the summer
Two figures walked through the woods surrounding the Atherby camp. One moved on two legs, the other, much larger one moved on four. The pair were barely visible through the early, pre-dawn light, their forms also shadowed by the thick trees. It wasn’t raining, but there was a thin early mist in the air. The forest itself was peaceful and quiet, most of its residents either still slumbering deep in their burrows, or on their way after a long night spent hunting for food.
As they walked, the four-legged figure raised a wing that was held tight against his body, using it to nudge the girl beside him. She stopped, head tilting a little before speaking up, her voice directed somewhere behind them. “Salten wants to know which one of us you’re following.”
There was a brief pause, then a soft sigh as a much smaller figure emerged from behind one of the nearby trees. Tabbris gave an embarrassed, sheepish shrug. “Um. Both of you, I guess?”
Giving a look to her Peryton partner, Avalon leaned in to whisper something to him before patting the majestic winged elk on the back. “You need something, kid? Or were you just practicing being sneaky without the benefit of another person to hide in?” A second passed, as she saw the way the young Seosten flinched, before Avalon exhaled. “Shit. Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” Her hand patted Salten before she took a step closer. “I know what that sounded like, but I wasn’t trying to…” Pausing, she exhaled. “I don’t like a lot of your people.”
Biting her lip, Tabbris nodded slowly, watching the older girl. “You have a pretty good reason,” she pointed out quietly. “We kind of… really hurt you and your whole family for a long time.”
“Not you,” Avalon corrected quietly. “Not your mom, not everyone. But some, yeah. Some of your people are real ass–jacka–jerks. Some of your people are real jerks, you know that?”
“Tell me about it,” Tabbris mumbled before realizing she’d said that aloud. With a visible blush, the young blonde added, “And you can curse in front of me, you know. It’s not like I haven’t heard it before.” The last bit was added quietly before she asked, “Do you want me to leave you alone? Because I can do that, I swear. I’ll disappear and I won’t bother you anymore and–”
Holding up a hand, Avalon interrupted. “Breathe, kid. In, then out, in, then out, without words.” She watched while Tabbris did that, before shaking her head once the girl calmed down a bit. “You don’t have to leave. But seriously, I’ve got to know, why were you really following us?”
There was a brief hesitation, as Tabbris shifted, kicking the dirt a little with obvious self-consciousness. “I–well I wasn’t really following you at first. I was just out here doing… um, other things. But then I saw you and I wanted to… I just wanted to say thank you, I guess?”
Now Avalon was the one who looked uncertain. She turned, glancing back toward Salten, who seemed to literally shrug back at her before returning his attention to the tree full of leaves he was busy munching on. Then she looked at the younger girl once more. “I’m sorry, thank me?”
The other girl’s head bobbed up and down. “For helping Flick before. You know, at the beginning of the year. Not just with the Peridles, but with everything else too. You didn’t have to help train her, but you did. You helped her a lot, even before you really… umm, liked her like that. I think.”
For a few long seconds, Avalon just stared at her. “I…” She paused, then shook her head, a very small smile playing at the side of her lips before she mastered it. “I suppose we really haven’t talked that much, have we? Just you and me without Felicity.” The last bit was added as she turned and stepped back over to where Salten was, pulling a handful of blueberries and acorns out of her pocket before gesturing. “Come on, you can give the big guy his treat.”
Tabbris hesitated, but then did so. Stepping over that way, she quietly responded with, “No, we… don’t talk much. I wanted to leave you alone, I guess? After Flick and me got back from space, and the whole thing with you being kidnapped, then the vault and… umm, I kind of… always tuned out and put myself to sleep for awhile whenever you and Flick were…” She trailed off, face going bright pink before she stammered an awkward, “You know, I just mean I always left you alone when you started getting relationshippy or whatever, I swear. I didn’t spy like that.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think you did,” Avalon murmured dryly. She held that briefly before amending, “Okay, maybe I did a little bit when I first heard about someone possessing Felicity. Just for a little bit. I was worried about a lot of things. But I didn’t know you. Now I do know you, and trust me, I absolutely believe that you haven’t spied on any of the times that we were… involved.”
Looking up at the other girl, Tabbris admitted, “It wasn’t just because of the relationship stuff. I was sort of avoiding you because of all the things the Seosten did to your family, and to you, like I said before. I know you have a lot of reasons to not like us, and I didn’t want that to come between you and Flick. I was afraid if I made her stand up for me, you two would…” She trailed off before giving a quick headshake. “I didn’t want to do that. So I tried to leave you alone.”
Avalon’s mouth opened at that, but before she could say anything, there was an annoyed huff from nearby. She glanced toward Salten, who was giving her a significant look before snorting again pointedly. Rolling her eyes at him, she looked back to Tabbris. “Here, hold out your hand, or his majesty’s going to get all snippy with us. He gets annoyed without his morning treat.”
Obediently holding up both hands cupped together, Tabbris watched as the nuts and fruit were poured into them. “I guess he really likes all these, huh?” she asked while extending her arms so that the huffy Peryton could immediately start munching, his eagerness as his snout all-but dove into the small pile of treats making her giggle with delight. “Oh–oh, he really likes them.”
Smirking, Avalon nodded. “Yeah, he can be a bit of a pig sometimes.” She automatically ducked without looking as Salten’s wing lazily snapped out that way, before pouring a bit more into the younger girl’s raised hands. “He’s earned it though, even if he is a bit of a jerk about it.”
The two stood together like that, Avalon watching as Tabbris fed Salten his treat for a silent moment. Then she exhaled. “Anyway, what I was going to say before someone had to butt in, is that I already told you, I don’t hate all Seosten for some being jackasses any more than I hate all humans for some being jackasses. You know, assholes are assholes, whatever the species. It just so happens that your species happens to have a lot of assholes in charge of them.” Pausing then, she shrugged. “I guess that’s what happens when you’re at war for so long.”
Looking down and away with a hard gulp, Tabbris nodded in agreement. “Yeah… and the Seosten have been at war basically forever.” Quietly, she added, “I don’t think they’d know what to do if the war ever actually ended. Their whole… I mean… our whole society is built around it. It has been for hundreds of thousands of years, you know? They’ve always had the Fomorians to fight. If those… those monsters just disappeared? What would the Seosten be without them?”
“They’d still be an intergalactic… interuniversal Empire,” Avalon pointed out mildly. “And there would always be new enemies to fight. Good guys and bad guys. People who just want their freedom and people who would treat the Empire’s subjects even worse than the Seosten do. It’s a big universe, and even if the Fomorians disappeared, something else evil would take their place. The Seosten have made a lot of enemies over the millennia. There have to be plenty of groups just waiting for a chance to take a swing at them. Good ones and bad ones, as I said.”
As Salten finished his snack, Tabbris dusted her hands off. Then she hesitated before slowly reaching up to touch his nose. When he didn’t move away or seem annoyed, she started to pet him with a tiny smile. Her voice was quiet. “You’re right. My people will always have others to fight. It doesn’t matter if the Fomorians disappear or anything. And it’s more than that. Mama said that there’s a lot of bad groups that the Seosten crushed so they wouldn’t fight each other and could focus on the Fomorians instead. You know, whole governments that were fighting each other when our people showed up, smacked them down and forced them to get along. If the Seosten stopped doing that, some of them would go back to fighting each other. There wouldn’t be one giant war in the universe, there’d be a whole bunch of smaller ones.”
“Exactly,” Avalon agreed. “I mean, I didn’t know all that. But yeah, of course the Seosten have a lot more enemies, and other groups who just want to fight. Keeping what has to be thousands of species all working together against the Fomorians can’t be easy, even for people with possession powers like your people have. And without one unifying threat, even the Seosten themselves would probably splinter into smaller groups. They already have, sort of, with Athena’s group. Different people have different ideologies, different ways of doing things.”
“I guess that’s one thing my people are good at, making people focus on fighting just one threat.” With those muttered words, Tabbris stepped up to Salten. The young girl shuddered a little at the thought of what the universe would look like if it plunged into a thousand little wars as her arms went around his neck. The Peryton took it in stride, nuzzling her back gently while one of his wings came down to wrap around the girl like an arm as he made a noise of reassurance.
“I had a point beyond being horribly depressing,” Avalon noted, “I swear I did. What was it again?” She stepped over, looking a bit awkward with her hand raised as though she thought she should pat Tabbris or something but wasn’t sure how to go about it. She was saved, sort of, as Salten’s other wing came down, giving her a push so that her hand found Tabbris’s back. She kept it there, squeezing a little bit. “Hey, kid… Tabbris, look at me for a minute?”
So, the Seosten girl did, slowly turning around to put her back against Salten while looking at Avalon. “I don’t think you’re horribly depressing,” she assured her. “I think you’re really good for Flick. That’s what I was trying to say before. Thanks for always being there for my… sister.”
“That’s my line,” Avalon informed her, before amending, “Sort of. You’ve been there for Felicity as much as… more than I have. You’ve been there through a lot of things that would have gotten her killed. Or possessed. Without you, she wouldn’t be Felicity.” Her hand rose then, resting against Tabbris’s cheek without any nudge from Salten. “Back when I first heard about Felicity being possessed, my first thought was that you made her the way she was. Then I thought that was wrong, because you didn’t take control of her. But that was wrong too. You did make her the way she is. Or… you helped make her that way. Without you, she wouldn’t be the person she is. I love her the way she is. A big part of that is because of you, Tabbris. You saved her, you protected her. Everything I love about Felicity is… there because you possessed her. She’s not my… our Felicity in spite of you possessing her, she’s her because of it. Because of you.”
The two stood there in silence after that, Avalon because she felt uncomfortable and Tabbris because she was quite literally overwhelmed. Finally, the older girl snapped her fingers. “That’s what I was trying to say before. Your people have been at war for so long that the people who took over, who held the most power for the longest time, have been the ones who were willing to do whatever it took. And that’s good sometimes, in some situations. Against monsters like the Fomorians, having people who are willing to do anything to beat them is good. Even necessary.”
She took a breath then, arms folding against her stomach. “But you need the other kind of people too. The people who can hold those first people back when they need to be held back, who can convince them to stop instead of charging forward across that moral line. You need the pragmatic ‘do anything to win’ people and the people who think about what will come afterward. The rebuilding people. But the Seosten have been at war for so long that it seems like most of them don’t even think about rebuilding anymore. Anyone who comes up with any kind of ballast to the situation to try to pull back gets labeled a traitor and has to completely separate themselves from their own civilization.
“That’s why this truce is a good thing. That’s why you, your mom, Athena, and all the other Seosten who will push for peace are good to have right now. Your people aren’t total monsters, Tabbris. It’s not a biological thing. It’s a societal thing. There–I know there are a lot of your people who would lean toward cooperation and genuine alliance if they saw that it was a viable option. They just need to see it. You, your mom, and all those others can show that to them.”
Blushing bright red, Tabbris stepped over to bury her face against Salten’s side with a mumbled, “You know, you sound like Jophiel right now?” It was true, those were the kind of things the woman who had once been known as Aphrodite had told Tabbris, Flick, Vanessa, and Tristan. They were supposed to be able to show the Seosten that a Seosten-human alliance was the best way forward.
“She’s talking about the Seosten leadership,” Avalon pointed out. “She means to get the Seraphs to turn your society toward an alliance. I’m talking about the people of your society seeing that this is an option. I don’t mean that your leaders should decide to change things, I mean that the Seosten people should see that things can change and then demand that they change. They’ve been trapped in this cycle of war and domination for hundreds of thousands of years with no real changes. They just need the chance to see a new option.”
After a momentary hesitation, Tabbris asked, “Do you really think they can change? We only have a year of this truce before the leaders make up their minds about an alliance or an invasion. I… I’m afraid they’re just building up and getting ready to do the invasion thing.” That admission came in a soft, worried voice while she hugged Salten’s side tightly, her face pensive.
“I don’t know,” Avalon admitted with a small shrug, her voice flat. “But I do know we’re not just going to roll over and wait for bad things to happen. Like I said, the Seosten need to see that there are other options. Not just about working with humans, but about working with everyone. Their hardliners have had a long gods damned time to beat the Fomorians their way. It’s not working. But they’ll just keep banging their heads against that wall until the entire universe collapses into a singularity, or until enough of your people decide enough is enough and drag them into a new way.”
Tabbris was quiet after that, thinking about what the other girl had said for a few moments before she murmured, “It’s gonna be hard to convince them of that with this Heretic war going on, you know. They’ll say humans can’t even get themselves in order against a bigger threat.”
Sighing heavily, Avalon muttered under her breath about the Seosten creating that problem to begin with before nodding. “Yeah, I know. That’s why this year is important. And why you’ve gotta be there for Felicity when she needs you. Because I can’t always be. Especially with… with her birthday coming up in October. You be her back-up, right?”
Stepping away from Salten, Tabbris looked straight to the older girl. “We both be her back-up.”
“Both,” Avalon agreed before adding, “So are you going to tell me what you were doing out here in the forest before you saw me?”
Now, Tabbris looked embarrassed for an entirely different reason. She poked the ground with her foot, ducking her gaze while mumbling, “Looking for bugs.”
“Bugs?” Avalon echoed, raising an eyebrow. “Why were you looking for bugs?”
The answer came with a shrug. “I like looking at bugs. Weird bugs. Neat bugs. When I was…” She hesitated before pushing on. “When I was still hiding in Flick at home, and I had to get out at night to sneak around putting spells up on the outside of the house, I used to… to… name the bugs there. You know, in the flower garden and the yard. I knew a lot of the bugs out there and I gave them names and… and they were sort of…” She swallowed hard, looking down with a barely audible, “They were sort of like friends.”
A long silence followed that, before Avalon took a step over there, reaching out to take Tabbris by the hand. “You know what? When my… dad used to lock me up in my bedroom, there was this spider that lived in the corner. I named him Wilbur.”
“Wilbur?” Tabbris echoed, eyes widening a bit as she looked up at the girl. “Really?”
“Really,” Avalon confirmed. She hesitated then before adding, “You know, I’m basically done with my work-out this morning. At least until someone else gets up. You want to take a walk with me?” An annoyed huff from nearby made her amend, “A walk with us, I mean.”
“You… want me to walk with you? With… without Flick?” Despite their conversation, Tabbris still sounded amazed by that idea.
Snorting, Avalon tugged her by the hand while turning. “Yeah, well, not everything’s about her. I’d like to know you too. So come on.
“Let’s go see what sort of neat bugs we can find.”