Everyone- Timothy, Catarina, Fuzz, and Anton- was gathered together in Catarina’s courtyard. Anton hadn’t been planning to do things in such a drastic fashion, but he had to admit that Fuzz really helped kick off the process. “Good to see you, Timothy. Fuzz isn’t capable of verbalizing, but perhaps I can help. Even Fuzz can tell you guys are acting strange, and he’s never seen the two of you together to be normal.”
“Well, I, uh…” Timothy was still quite off put from being pulled by a wolf and thrust into an uncomfortable situation.
Catarina wasn’t much more equipped to handle a sudden confrontation. She had been focused on Fuzz’ surface actions rather than the implications. “We don’t have to- there’s nothing to really…” She didn’t manage a full, coherent sentence.
“A hundred years of experience makes some interactions painfully obvious,” Anton said. “Now, I fully understand that with the passage of time people might drift apart. But a simple half of a year shouldn’t end up with two people who are friends their whole lives not talking to each other. There are clearly thoughts that need to be communicated here. And while I admit to personal bias, I think the one who needs to express themselves first is you Timothy.” Anton threw around the full power of Voice. It couldn’t make anyone do anything they truly didn’t want to do, but a commanding tone was a very useful tool to have. “Being open and honest won’t be easy, but it will be quite better later. So. Why are you reluctant to speak to your best friend in the whole world?” Anton could think of several options. They could range from trivial and laughable- but still very real– to some things that would be painful. That depended on what he’d done or thought he’d done. “We can wait for you to form your thoughts.” That was half a reminder to Catarina. He put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, among other things.
Timothy clearly wanted to run away. Not that he was afraid of either of them, but emotional conflicts were harder to face than just a big scary monster that might try to kill you. With the latter you either won or you lost. There might be injuries, but physical pain only hurt so much.
It was clear that Timothy couldn’t really run away, if he wasn’t allowed to, but nobody was physically stopping him. Fuzz had managed to move him around with the element of surprise, but it would take Anton or Catarina to truly stop him. Anton had positioned them out of the way of his physical retreat- though of course he could just jump over a wall so the courtyards themselves were basically meaningless for blocking him.
Finally, Timothy put together a sentence. “I just… thought you would hate me. For abandoning you.”
“…What?” Catarina sounded genuinely confused.
Anton nodded. He thought it was something like that. But he wanted to let them talk about it before trying to insert his own potential explanations.
“You went on that whole journey,” Timothy said. “Faced so much danger. I could have helped. But I wasn’t there for you.” His face indicated there was more left unspoken.
“It’s alright,” Catarina said. “We didn’t need you.” Anton could see Timothy’s heart break. Catarina caught it a moment later. “I-it’s not that we couldn’t have used your help. Or want you there. It’s just… we made it back. No injuries that couldn’t recover.”
“… I still should have been with you.”
“Then why weren’t you?”
“I…” Timothy didn’t seem able to find the words. Anton supposed he should help.
“He had prior commitments,” Anton explained. Though it had come up long before, Anton remembered. He left out the unhelpful and extraneous details he knew about. “Our departure was not known about well in advance. I was perhaps a bit overeager to go, instead of waiting patiently for another companion.” It would have been impossible to say if things would ultimately have gone better had they waited. Many encounters would have happened differently, or not at all. They might have been too late for some things, though another companion might also have allowed them to move with less caution and more speed. But even though they’d only been separated for several months, as planned, that was still a significant time for two young folk with barely twenty years to their name. He’d focused too much on those potential people he planned to save, and not enough on those people who were close to him. “I am quite sure we would have benefitted from your presence.”
Timothy’s head still hung. “You wouldn’t need me. You’re both so strong. I’m not even at peak Body Tempering yet.”
Anton cracked his knuckles, grinning wildly. “We can fix that.”
“I don’t care about that,” Catarina said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re weak or strong. You’re my friend. Though I have to say, it’s harder to grow strong alone. I’d be way weaker if not for Grandpa Anton’s advice.”
The discussion was over shortly. A trivial argument to solve, though Anton might have some questions for Timothy in private. But though the solution was simple, the problems it could have caused if left alone were very meaningful. Anton remembered Timothy’s ambition to be stronger than Catarina, and though he must have worked hard alone he just didn’t have the right opportunities. When she returned with such strength, it was likely a significant blow to him. Anton was quite certain he was brushing up against finishing the tenth star and just couldn’t reach it.
It might have been more difficult to work through if the problems stemmed from not caring instead of caring too much. Anton doubted that things would be fully resolved with just what they had done, but the distance that had formed between the two friends could be patched.
As they eventually went their separate ways, Anton looked towards the fourth courtyard. There was one more member of their little community, and he felt they needed to have a talk. Probably should have been done months before, but he was more confident in his assertions now.
An unexpected knock on the door startled Velvet. She hadn’t even noticed him walking around. That was concerning, because Anton Krantz was extremely easy to notice. The aura of Spirit Building poured off him quite clearly. Velvet wondered what he wanted. The easiest way to find out was to just walk over to the door. “Senior Anton, please do come in.” He’d dropped by to say hello after he first returned- though not before he broke through to the twelfth star. He hadn’t stayed for more than a moment there, and she was hoping for more now.
“Thank you,” Anton smiled pleasantly. “I would love to.” Was he younger? If nothing else his wrinkles were less pronounced- though tempering his skin would do that. If she recalled correctly, he hadn’t finished that before leaving on his journey. Though nothing about his particular movements were threatening, Velvet herself was merely at the eighth star. He had four more, and it wasn’t just four but also a prime tempering and stepping into the next stage. He could kill her in an instant, though she thought she’d avoided giving him any reason to do so. “I thought that I should get to know my final neighbor better. You went on an expedition while we were gone, correct? With Timothy? I’d love to hear about it.”
Velvet took a deep breath. She didn’t want to screw something up. She didn’t fully comprehend how Anton Krantz was now four stars ahead of her instead of one, but she felt the opportunity he represented. “I’d be glad to! The team I was working with needed another competent defender, and he was the first I thought of.” It had been a bit concerning when he stagnated at the ninth star, but he was still ahead of her so she hadn’t been too worried. “We journeyed west, into Ambati. A bit north as well, into the jungled section.” She spoke about the mission, making sure to give TImothy proper praise. Anton listened intently, occasionally prompting her with questions. “… we made it back alright, but perhaps I should have invited you as well, Senior Anton.”
“I would have been forced to decline. I had my own plans to take care of.”
“So I noticed!” Velvet smiled. “A quite successful training journey, I can tell. I’d love to hear about how you advanced so quickly.”
“It’s quite simple really,” Anton explained, “Just put yourself in situations you must grow stronger, and you will. Or you suffer the consequences.”
Velvet grimaced. That wasn’t really the answer she was looking for. There had to be some trick to his growth. “I’m sure that someone as wise as you was never in any true danger.”
Something on Anton’s face shifted, though she couldn’t tell what it meant. “There are more precious things beyond just one’s wealth and life.” He looked at her, as if trying to see through her. He folded his hands in front of him, and she was suddenly very uncomfortable as the atmosphere shifted. “So why did you really invite Timothy?”
“I… don’t know what you mean.” Everything she said was true. “He was strong, growing stronger rapidly. A perfect fit for the team.”
“Understandable,” Anton said. “But… odd. I can see why you wouldn’t invite an old man along. Why not Catarina as well?”
“Well, there was the… incident. I’m sure you remember that.” Velvet dropped her eyes. She really didn’t want to remember that. She could have died. That was also part of why she hadn’t approached Anton. That danger.
“I see,” Anton nodded. “So instead you chose to attempt to manipulate her best friend instead.”
How was it so cold? Velvet knew the answer to that, but the way she was sweating and getting the chills at the same time was extremely uncomfortable. “I just asked him to come along,” she said sweetly. “It’s not like we gave him a bad cut or anything…” Timothy had potential. She really didn’t want to make an enemy of someone like that. Unfortunately, before she’d really understood anything she’d already done that with Catarina. Then she had been completely blindsided by Anton. Was he even human? How did he get so strong so fast?
She was shocked back to focus when Anton spoke. “I understand.” The words were powerful, yet frightening. “People don’t just become cultivators on a whim. They want something. Power. Safety. Stability. Though the latter two rarely end up working out in the long run.” Anton’s eyes nearly stabbed into her. “I understand wanting to be in control of your life. But do consider how you go about it.” Anton stood up. “Remember that we’re in the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars, and what that represents.” He turned towards the door. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have business to attend to. I’m afraid any talk about my trip will have to wait for later. Don’t be hesitant to drop by if you have any questions about that, or anything really. I’ll do my best to make sure you understand. And you don’t even have to listen over the wall.”
Velvet watched him go, closing the door behind himself. He didn’t know everything. He didn’t really know her. But he certainly wasn’t blind, or deaf. And he was far too strong to mess around with. Velvet sighed. She just wished she had whatever it was that he had. But he’d made it very clear that his secrets wouldn’t be easy to get.