'What do you fear, lady?' he asked.
'A cage,' she said. 'To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.'
Bitterness was something easy to get used to. Perhaps it was simply all the years she'd spent that way, but looking back now, she couldn't recall ever being aware of some slide into such a state, of actually ever being bitter at becoming bitter. Instead she'd quickly discovered it made things easier – you could worry and complain about the world all you liked when you were bitter, because you at the very least had the smug knowledge that you were the only one who even bothered to complain. Bitter had been her lot in life for the longest time – and when, against any hopes she'd had, someone literally dropped from the sky and single-handedly proved her right, she'd gotten to bask in sweet vindication. And it had been sweet – she felt no shame at the joy she'd felt every time he'd shown another Agori or Glatorian just how much grander things could be than scavenging for scraps in the desert.
So. Bitter she'd handled. Sweet she'd handled.
Bittersweet was making Kiina angry.
She hadn't really bought all of Mata Nui's talk of destiny and grand plans and all that; sure, it was a nice idea to have, and if it was what had brought him down to give Bara Magna a much-needed kick in the rear end, she was all for it. But she'd always been one more for action than talk – or at least for talk that had more going for it than “because destiny says so”. His promises that he'd show her a new world – that she'd been all right with, because watching someone give you superpowers by tapping your stuff with his mask has a way of making you think that person's got things under control.
When things had been coming to an end, when he'd told her he had to go fight that crazy brother of his and save the universe (and in so many words, at that), she hadn't really bought it then either. He could harp on about how it was destiny that things end this way, but she knew that was a sack of Scarabax dung. You could be a gazillion-bio-tall robot, but that didn't change the fact that what made you do the right thing was who you were, not what some ancient prophecy said you had to do. But hey, she'd let him have that – after all, if he thought it was destiny that made her drop the tough-girl face for the first time in about a hundred thousand years, all power to him; she was too busy dropping the tough-girl face for the first time in about a hundred thousand years to care. After all, there had been two ways it could turn out: he was going to win and the Glatorian and Agori would live happily ever after, or he'd lose (die) and she'd be back to her old friend bitterness (until some nutjob Rahkshi provided her with a more permanent exit, of course).
She was prepared for either of those outcomes. By the time they got to the Mask of Life lying on the ground, part of her had even been prepared for the outcome she was sure had happened, of him being dead and gone forever in exchange for their new world. That would have been bittersweet heavy on the bitter, within her comfort zone. Instead he'd given one last heroic speech (she should have figured) and then decided to play dead inside a mask for the foreseeable future. Glad I could help, go forge your own destiny, see you later. PS, good luck on the whole integrating societies thing, and sorry about the power-hungry nutjobs you get on the side.
So that was the bittersweet she got. Shiny new planet, plenty of new allies, all for the low low cost of her best friend sealing himself away in a mask because destiny said so.
Bittersweet was really starting to tick her off.
She'd found it was hard to break the habit of going out to see the stars. She couldn't remember when she'd started – what night she looked up and finally got a chance to see just how unspeakably big everything was – but she knew then she'd be doing it for the rest of her life. There had been weeks or months when she'd stopped, when she was bitter enough that seeing everything out there waiting just made her feel worse, but in the end she always found herself drawn back to them. Even still, it was frustrating; some nights she wanted to just start yelling out at the sky for something to happen already. Of course, the stars had waited for a night she was too busy to go stargazing to send their wayward messenger; she figured it fit in with the universe's sense of humor.
But even now, with a paradise of a world all around her, she found herself trudging out some nights to just stare up. Once or twice she brought Click with her, perched on her shoulder; she wondered if somewhere in his little beetle brain he felt anything, if he'd also hoped to someday join their mutual friend on his travels and see what the universe had to offer. (This train of thought tended to reach its end around the time Click would fall off her shoulder, completely asleep.) She never invited the other Glatorian or Agori; it turned out a hundred thousand years of being the crazy woman who believed in aliens meant that even if you wound up being right in the end, people were still a little reluctant to chat celestial with you. So most nights she would go out alone, sitting down against the side of a tree or outcropping of rock and letting her mind wander down roads she'd thought she'd left behind when Mata Nui had arrived.
A voice to her right rumbled. “I'm sorry to bother you, but those are quite the valuable tablets you're sitting on.”
Kiina set the all-time Glatorian high-jump record, then spun to see a Toa sitting against the other side of the old tree she'd been up against, his lower legs stuck partially into the ground and a number of old tablets scattered around him. His black-and-silver armor complemented the spiky mask he wore, green eyes shining out through the eyepieces and a calm smile on his face. A weathered pack lay to his side with a few other tablets visible inside; it was covered in dirt for a reason she couldn't fathom. Wordlessly, he reached out and scooped up the stones she'd been resting on (they had looked like any other rock to her) and inspected them; apparently satisfied that they had sustained no damage, he put them aside and nodded cordially at her. She resisted the urge to blast him with a jet of water; what sort of nutjob wore black armor out on a moonless night to catch up on his reading? It was hard to make him out even now. She scowled at him. “Wouldn't have been an issue if you weren't doing your best rock imitation over there. Do Toa normally say hello by scaring the living daylights out of people?”
The smile remained. “I apologize for the startle – you seemed so interested in the sky that I didn't want to bother you. Of course, I had imagined you were going to look before you sat down.” He extended an arm in greeting. “You are the Water Glatorian Kiina, yes? I am Onua, the Toa Nuva of Earth. I don't believe I've had the pleasure.”
The name shook loose the details she'd been trying to dredge up. She nodded at him, but ignored the outstretched arm. “That's me. You're one of Tahu's friends, right? You've been helping with getting the Matoran into the village and all that. I think I saw you with Ackar the other day.”
Realizing it was doing no good, Onua retracted his arm. “That's correct. I'm afraid I let Tahu and Gali do most of the organization; I simply help out where I can.” He gestured for Kiina to sit again; after a moment, she decided that her pride wouldn't be too wounded by sitting down to talk. The Toa tilted his head slightly at her. “What exactly were you looking at up there?”
Kiina glanced at him for a moment and shrugged. “Nothing in particular. Just taking in the view.” She gestured down at the tablets surrounding him. “I'd say you're the one who's got some explaining to do. You can't think of a better place to go through a bunch of old tablets than half a mile out of the village on a moonless night?”
Onua shrugged noncommittally. “I find it much quieter out here, is all. It's good to see the village pulling together, but the construction makes Onu-Koro seem peaceful. Besides,” - was it just her, or did his eyes actually flash? - “I'm used to life underground. If anything, it's easier for me to see on a night like this.”
Kiina rolled her eyes. “Another Toa superpower, huh? I'm starting to wonder if there's anything you guys can't do.”
Her companion chuckled and picked up a small stone resting on the ground, playing it through his fingers until it came to rest between two of them. “Hardly – anything that lives in darkness long enough gets used to it. If you want a 'superpower' -”
His fingers snapped together, effortlessly crushing the rock. A slightly embarrassed smile played across his face. “My apologies; I'm not usually a showoff, but you did ask.”
Kiina hadn't, but she let it slide. “So what are all those stones, anyways? I don't think I've seen that much writing in one place since the Great Beings left us all to rot.”
If Onua was surprised by the harsh language she had used, he didn't show it. Instead he merely handed over the slab he had been perusing to her. “Onu-Metru was home to the Archives – they held information on every species of Rahi, Rahkshi, and Bohrok under the sun, and quite a few under that. They were badly damaged in the battle against Teridax, and we've only just begun to send teams in to recover what they can. The live samples are all dead or escaped, of course, but the records and journals of their keepers largely survived. It's simply a matter of reorganization.”
Kiina flipped over the tablet and found herself looking at a diagram of a strange, almost humpbacked little bipedal creature. Its front seemed to have a window through which a strange, misshapen blob could be seen resting within. To the sides were notes, and across the top a name: “Tahnok.” She frowned and handed it back over to Onua. “Seems kind of weird to me, going to so much trouble over a bunch of pictures of ancient animals.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps, but this is the result of thousands of years of research by my people. It would be remiss to simply forget it. And besides” - he gestured to a Scarabax beetle making its way up the tree beside him - “if we don't have an Archives, where will we put our records of all the wonders waiting for us here?”
Kiina snorted, receiving a harsh glare in return. “Sorry, pops, it's just that after 100,000 years of waking up to these things crawling into your bed, it's pretty hard to see them as wonders.”
Onua's face returned to its calm smile. “Perhaps. I was merely using it as an example – though I do have a friend who I'm sure could find a thousand praises to sing about this bug. And I do mean sing; don't ever stop by a Le-Koran party unless you're ready to have your ears ringing for the next few days.” Kiina let the reference slide – she was pretty sure Le- meant the green ones, but it probably wasn't a good idea to ask. Onua put the tablet aside and looked at her curiously. “But I digress. You still haven't answered my question.”
She frowned. “Actually, I'm pretty sure I did.”
He shook his head. “Hardly. 'Nothing in particular' isn't much of an answer.”
She rolled her eyes. “It's Glatorian for mind your own business.”
The Toa raised a brow, but the Glatorian was hardly willing to continue the conversation. Eventually he seemed to give up, turning back to the his work. Kiina laid her head back against the tree and looked up at the sky. Far to the north, some glint of light was moving across the sky; she wondered if it was some miracle on the way to its own planet, some weird alien Mask of Life with its own Mata Nui trapped inside. Or perhaps it was the Great Beings, somehow having learned of Spherus Magna's revival and now making their grand return. She frowned a bit at that idea; Mata Nui had told them to go find the Great Beings, but after everything they'd pulled she wouldn't be all that broken up if it turned out they were never coming back.
Time passed. She was vaguely aware of Onua shuffling the tablets around, grouping them into one category or another, but by and large she'd managed to tune him out. Toa weren't that bad when they weren't busy playing hero, she supposed.
A flurry of noise broke her reverie, and she turned just in time to see the black Toa disappear under the ground, apparently making use of some tunnel or other to make his way back. A small slab rested on the roots of the tree where he'd been sitting, with a message written in clumps of earth somehow attached to it.
I will most likely be here again in two nights' time, should you wish to meet me or avoid me.
She sighed and tossed it aside. Toa were weird.
They did not meet again in two nights' time; a group of wandering Skakdi had gotten the wise idea to try and ambush a scouting group she'd been leading, and by the time they'd gotten back to the village Kiina had hardly been in the mood for stargazing. It was more interesting than dealing with Bone Hunters, but she wished they would hurry and settle on a location for New Atero; the Matoran and Agori alike kept adding on to the makeshift village they stayed at now, and if they waited much longer everyone was just going to get ticked off at having to build it again. Besides, less scouting meant less spiky-backed nutjobs to deal with.
It was four nights after that that she found herself sitting at the same tree, lost in thought, when a rumbling noise from the earth made her turn. She was unsurprised to see Onua's head poke out of the ground and shake the dirt loose from his mask; he nodded cordially and climbed most of the way out of the hole, once again leaving his legs partially buried. She figured it was probably better not to ask; she'd probably get some answer about being in tune with one's element or something.
“Why do you always leave your legs in the ground like that?”
He glanced at her. “Because it's quite comfortable.”
The two looked at each other for a moment more, and then Onua turned his attention to the pack he'd been carrying. No other words passed between them that night.
On their sixth meeting Kiina broke the silence once more. “Did you ever meet Mata Nui?”
Onua seemed unsurprised by the question, but Kiina had begun to get the feeling that he would seem unsurprised if Click revealed himself to be Teridax in disguise. “Not as such. We were guided by his values, but he was asleep for most of my conscious life, and dead for some of the remainder. Even when he was awake, he never directly contacted any of us, to the best of my knowledge.”
Kiina frowned. “Nothing? Never? I mean, with the way he talked about you all, I figured-”
A chuckle. “-that we were his right-hand men or something of the like? No, I'm afraid not. We knew he was there for us, and we worked tirelessly to help him, but he was hardly someone to sit down and talk with. From what I've heard, you and the other Glatorian know him far better than we ever did.”
She shook her head. “Maybe. But still, the stories he used to tell of Toa and Matoran, working tirelessly to keep the peace and act as heroes... it wouldn't have surprised me if he'd been down there with you, pushing you onwards. That's what he did for us, after all.”
Onua waited for her to continue, but the Glatorian said nothing more. By the time she looked over at him again, he was lost in his usual work.
She was dozing against the tree one night when he arrived, later than usual. She opened her eyes as he took his usual place. “You struck me as the kind to be punctual, pops.”
A smile. “I didn't realize we had a schedule. A rough day, is all.”
She noticed now that his armor seemed somewhat more pitted than usual. “Something happen?”
He shook his head. “Nothing that we couldn't take care of. Some sort of huge lizard thought it would be a good idea to attack one of the mining camps the Onu-Matoran set up. I convinced him otherwise.”
She snorted derisively. “With all the stuff we have to deal with around here, it almost feels like we're still stuck on Bara Magna. Gotta admit, I was hoping for a planet with a little less in terms of random attacks.”
The Toa shrugged. “It's not such a high price to pay for peace. After all that's happened since I reawoke, the occasional biomechanical lizard isn't too bad.”
Kiina smirked. “Sounds like you Toa had some interesting times back in that giant robot of yours. Must seem boring to you now.”
Onua returned a quizzical look. “Peace is boring? I thought I was talking to a Glatorian, not a Skakdi.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “That's not what I mean, and you know it. It's just...”
For once, the Toa of Earth didn't let the conversation end. “Just what?”
A hint of frustration crept into the Glatorian's voice. “It's just... I thought things were going to be better than this, you know? Maybe I was being silly, but I always thought there was going to be more to it. You know, maybe we'd travel the world, or find some way to go into space, maybe find some big epic revelations about the Great Beings. I always figured us five had more in store before things ended. And then we'd get to live out the rest of our lives on some planet very, very far from here so I'd never have to feel sand between my feet again.”
Onua gave her an appraising look. “That's quite the wish list you have there.”
Kiina glared at him out of the corner of her eyes. “Yeah, I know, all right? You try spending a hundred thousand years fighting off raiders and scavenging for food and then you can judge me for getting a little ticked off when the closest thing this stupid planet ever had to a hero decides to cut things short in favor of turning into a giant robot. Oh, and then a mask, don't forget that one. A giant robot was at least impressive.”
Onua gestured out to the land around them. “So you're disappointed in all this? Mata Nui didn't give us this world for nothing, you realize.”
Anger finally entered Kiina's voice. “Stop acting like I'm so ungrateful, blast it! I know he gave us all this, and that he's gone because he wants us to use it, but – there was supposed to be so much more! There should have been so much more! How is it fair for him to just vanish and leave us to this? We struggled to survive for so long, and our reward is... this? Farming and building for the rest of eternity, with a little new variety in the psychos wandering the desert waiting to try and kill us all? At least while he was here it felt like we were doing something worthwhile.”
Silence filled the clearing. Onua watched the Water Glatorian closely; there were no tears, but her fists had curled into tight balls and she was staring straight ahead. He broke the silence after a minute. “Try to be here tomorrow night. I'd like to continue this conversation then.”
By the time she'd come up with a retort, he was already burrowed away.
She insisted to herself throughout the day that she wouldn't take him up on his offer; she'd spoken to enough Toa to realize that this was practically paradise to them, and that no matter what she said to him he'd never understand her point of view. She wasn't even sure she understood her point of view; she was supposed to have thrown away the whole wanderlust thing about the time she learned to shoot water with her mind. But hey, getting lectured on how peachy things really were would actually probably be more fun than playing arbiter to some ticked-off Matoran and Agori, and so that evening she found herself waiting at the tree as usual. The stars turned in the sky above; the light she'd seen to the north was now long gone, off to some distant nebula to find its own destiny. When the familiar scurry of earth shifting reached her ears, she didn't even bother to turn to look, even as the Toa sat down beside her.
Kiina sighed in spite of herself. “All right, pops, you had a whole day to come up with a big speech on the value of being grateful and how stupid is to actually want anything interesting to happen. Just hurry up and get it over with.” Beside her, Onua slipped his satchel off his back and began to open it. Kiina looked at him incredulously. “Don't tell me you've got some ancient Matoran inscription of wisdom I'm supposed to read. Come on, if I'm going to get told off it might as well be-”
She was pretty sure she'd been going somewhere with that sentence, but the sight of an all-too-familiar golden mask pitted with scars and dirt being lifted out of the bag made her train of thought take a sharp detour off a cliff. Onua lifted the Ignika in his hands and turned it over experimentally, apparently checking that no further damage had come to it in its trip. He nodded, satisfied, and offered it to Kiina, who stared back at him dumbly. After a moment of choking noises that would normally be associated with an immediate call for medical attention, she managed to get out, “What- what in the name of- did you steal the Ignika?”
Onua shrugged. “Hardly. Borrowed is a more accurate term. After all, there's no rule that it has to stay perched up on that statue all the time.” He motioned for her to take the mask. “I said last night that I would like to continue this conversation. I simply thought I should not be the one to continue it.” He must have seen something in her eye, because he shook his head. “No, I very much doubt he'll talk back. But I notice things, and I've seen just about everyone in the village visit him one time or another. The exception, of course, being you.” Sensing one more push was required, he placed the mask into her hands. “Last night you came very close to saying something you needed to say. But half of talking is having a listener, and I think this is the one you need.”
Kiina slowly dropped her gaze to the mask she was holding. It was the slightest bit warm, and though it was light in her hands, she somehow felt as though she was holding something extraordinarily heavy – she simply didn't have the capacity to be aware of it. Locked inside was one of her closest friends, waiting for some day that might never come. For a moment she had the wild urge to fling the mask away as some sort of petulant payback.
The moment passed. Onua had returned to his customary silence. Without speaking, she turned the mask over in her hands a few times, as if she could find some hint of what was inside. Almost without being aware of it, she began to talk.
“I guess this is overdue. I mean, it's like your Toa said, after all. I haven't even gone near that statue they've got you perched up on. It looks good from a distance, though. I hear it's of the Matoran who died to bring you back. You must have been one heck of a Great Spirit if you had someone willing to die for you that you'd never even talked to. But I guess you would be.
“When I met you for the first time, I was being selfish. I could've taken you where you needed to go without any bargaining or complaining, but I made you promise me that you'd take me back to your home when you went. Says a lot, doesn't it? It's my job to help out the other Agori and Glatorian, and I was ready to go riding off in search of adventure at the drop of a hat. Still am, I guess. Probably always will be. It's just... I don't know if you heard, at the end, I said it was too soon. I meant it. I know for you and for all your Toa and Matoran it was the end of a very long journey, but I felt... cheated, is all. I spent a hundred thousand years playing mercenary in the middle of a desert, and then I found out that there were wonders out there I couldn't have even imagined. And then one day it was just over. Just like that. I didn't even have any say in it.
“You remember me telling you I was worried we'd all just be like insects to you, when you went up in that giant body of yours? I know you don't think of us that way, and I know you're afraid of ever doing so. And I know that's why you chose to hole yourself up in that mask, but... I don't know if this is any better. You wanted us to forge our own destinies, but you didn't give us a choice as to whether or not you would be part of them.
“And yeah, I know that if anything really catastrophic happens – if that crazy brother of yours was just playing dead or something like that – you'll be back in a heartbeat to play hero. But I feel like those days are over now for some reason. Maybe there's still adventure waiting for us out there, but I feel like if there is, it's after the fact. Like it doesn't really matter one way or another if it happens.”
She let out a small laugh. “Listen to me. Sounds like I'm talking about that destiny thing you were always harping on about. I'd better shut up before I start wearing masks and talking dramatic all the time.” She closed her eyes and breathed in and out for a moment, then fixed her gaze on the mask's eyepieces. “The point is, I don't just miss you. I miss everything you brought with you. It wasn't always easy, and I probably made a fool of myself once or twice, but I'd bring it back if I could.”
A sad smile crossed her face. “Maybe one day you will come back. But when you do... I'm sorry, but I feel like even if I'm still here, it won't be the same. Yeah, I know, I just said I'd bring it back if I could, but I get the feeling you won't be back for a long, long time. And when you are, whatever destiny or quest or whatever that'll be waiting for you won't be for me. You can count on me being there – and maybe I'm wrong, and it'll be like nothing's changed at all – but I think our time's over. Even if I really, really hate that it is.”
For a moment Kiina seemed to uncertain about whether to say anything else, but then a look of sad determination entered her eyes. Without a word, she brought the mask up to the side of her face and held it there for a moment, her eyes closed. Onua said nothing as she brought it back down and handed it back over to him, merely accepting it with a nod. She cleared her throat awkwardly. “You should probably get that back to the village. I don't know how you got it out of there in the first place, but I'm pretty sure somebody's going to notice that the one guy everyone there actually likes has gone missing.”
He nodded once more, and returned the mask to his satchel. “Are you planning to stay out here much longer?”
Kiina smiled. “Yeah, I think so. Just for a little while, though.”
Onua placed a hand on her shoulder and met her gaze for a moment. Apparently satisfied with whatever he found there, he began tearing up the dirt mound left by his arrival. Soon even the sounds of his burrowing had vanished, and Kiina found herself alone with the land and the stars. A few Scarabax beetles scurried around in the darkness, clicking to each other. There was a faint wind blowing from some direction or other – at the moment, it didn't really seem to matter from where. Kiina leaned back against the tree and looked up at the sky one more time. For a moment she thought she saw the light to the north returning, but it was just her imagination.
It didn't matter, she supposed. She'd catch the next one.
Quote source: The Return of the King, "The Passing of the Grey Company." For a few of my thoughts on the piece, check my blog.
Edited by GSR, Apr 05 2012 - 06:14 PM.