OOC For Josh. I hope I got his voice right.
IC (Cael – Ko-Wahi)
He was buried facing east.
She stood over the grave, and the sun cast her shadow over the little heap of rocks that served as a marker. Although it was long past dawn, the cold still bit at any exposed skin. This high up the mountain, there was only so much the sun could do to warm the air. Cael’s breath rose before her in great clouds of vapour that drifted until they were lost in the vastness of the blue sky. She pulled the scarf tighter around her neck to ward off the chill, but it did nothing to ease the ache deep in her chest.
Joske was gone.
The truth tasted bitter in her mouth, like medicine. She wanted to vomit it up, to empty her body and mind of the knowledge so she could return to blissful ignorance. It would be better to remain in Ga-Koro and tend to her people and miss him terribly, but still hold out hope that one day she would hear his knock on the door and open it to see his face, smiling down at her like the sun. Instead, she stood here in the snow, watching over a grave, and felt the enormity of her loss settle over her like a suffocating cloud.
It hurt in a way she’d never known. She knew broken bones and burned fingers and scraped knees, but this loss hurt differently. She could feel it roosting in her chest behind her heartlight, a slow, steady, unbearable ache poised to tear her heart in two. It felt like her chest might cave in at any moment, her ribs giving away to her anguish like twigs before a hurricane. It threatened to engulf her like the ocean, to sweep her away like an undertow. She had mourned for Gali, and for Nokama. She had borne the weight of a thousand years of loss. But she had never known grief like this.
“You said once that love is suffering,” she said aloud, her steam-clothed words breaking the stillness at last. “So I guess this means I still love you. Because it hurts.”
Her voice cracked on the last word. Her shoulders buckled once, twice, but no sound came out. The tears came silently, the way the stars appear at dusk.
“It hurts, Joske,” she managed to say, squeezing each word through a voice thick with emotion. “It hurts so much. I just… I can’t…”
She clenched her eyes shut and bowed her head, pressing her palms to her temples. Each inhalation hissed through gritted teeth, and each ragged exhalation carried a whimpered sob with it. It was an ugly sound, had anyone been close enough to hear it. The sound of a wound too deep to heal.
“It’s… not… fair,” she said, sniffling back whatever tears hadn’t yet escaped. She lowered her hands, then wrapped her arms around her shoulders and hugged herself tightly, staring down at that little pile of rocks that symbolized him. The topmost rock was blueish grey speckled with white chips; it was such an unfitting grave; it was nothing like him. His armour had been red and his mask had been gold, but more than that, he’d always been so warm and alive. His every movement was full of energy. He never stopped moving, never stopped thinking, never stood still for a moment and it drove her crazy and it made her love him all the more because they were so different but he still loved her.
For a moment, she imagined that her arms were his and he was holding her tight against the cold, but her shivering gave it away. He was gone. “It’s not fair,” she repeated, but the rocks gave no reply.
They ate breakfast together.
The fruit was fresh, the bread was warm, and the milk was cold and sweet. Cael apologized over the lack of coffee (she said she didn’t like it) but Joske waved it off. He was an athlete, he said, and preferred not to trust his performance to chemicals anyway.
It was a bit of a grandiose thing to say, but the way he said it made it funny instead of pompous. She laughed and reminded him not to eat too quickly. He’d just woken up as a Toa yesterday, after all, and he was still getting accustomed to his new body.
Joske accepted the advice and did his best not to wolf down everything in sight. As they ate, he asked how long she’d lived in Ga-Koro.
“As long as I can remember,” she said, spreading jam on a piece of bread. “It’s where I grew up, and I’ve never found a reason to leave.”
“I can see why,” the Toa of fire replied through a mouthful of fruit. “You’ve got it all here. Sun, beach, water, beautiful women—” He caught himself and smiled sheepishly. “—I mean waves. Beautiful waves. For surfing. You ever done it?”
Usually, Joske would’ve already tossed out a half-dozen lines far more risqué than that. The Kohlii star was known for his cranked-to-eleven charm, and he had the marks on his bedpost to prove it. But he’d decided not to hit on Cael. Sure, he’d retain his trademark sarcasm, wit, suave, maybe throw in a flirt or two… but nothing past that.
What’s this? A conscience?
“I haven’t,” the healer replied, breaking his train of thought. “I guess it’s not my style.”
“And what is your style?” His eyes crinkled mischievously. “Knitting by the fire?”
“Try saving daredevils who get out of their depth,” she shot back.
Joske clapped a hand to his chest in mock agony. “Karz! She heals with one hand and kills with the other!”
“Seriously though,” he continued, pouring himself another glass of milk. “You’ve lived in Ga-Koro your whole life and never once got the urge to pack up and see the world? There’s a lot of island out there.”
“I’ve left once or twice,” she admitted. “I’ve been to Onu-Koro before, and Ta-Koro a couple times. But you’ve seen a lot more than that, I’m guessing.”
He nodded. “Yeah. I mean, away games are half the fun of Kolhii. As much as I love playing home games, hearing the Ta-Koro crowd chant my name…” he drifted off, a lazy smile playing on his lips. “Well, it feels just as good to shut down another team on their home turf. Did you ever hear about the time I beat Hewkii six to one in Po-Koro?”
She shook her head. “I don’t keep up with Kolhii much, to be honest. But tell me.”
“Well, it’s kind of hard to do that game justice,” he said with a laugh. “I’m an athlete, not a poet. But let’s just say it was legendary…”
“It’s not fair,” she said again. Her fingernails dug into her shoulders as she hugged herself tighter, but the pain seemed to be coming from far away. Everything was far away now, everything that mattered and everything that she loved, and she couldn’t get it back. She choked back another sob and let her arms fall and hang limply at her sides. The rocks remained unmoved by her grief, and their insolence turned her sorrow to sudden anger.
“It’s! Not! Fair!” she screamed, and the sound scraped her throat raw as it passed. She stepped forward and kicked the pile of stones, scattering them to the snow. Her foot blossomed with pain, but it only fueled her fury. Fists clenched, she emptied her lungs again and the scream tore itself from her chest to echo across the unforgiving mountain. She kicked again and again with all the grace of a drunk, lashing out against the lifeless rocks that dared remind her that he was gone, and she didn’t stop until no two of them stood together.
The rocks lay strewn across the snow like drops of paint on a canvas. The painter stood over them, breathing hard, her shoulders rising and falling and her eyes glassy with tears. She shuddered. What crime had she committed to deserve this? Surely she had done some awful thing and this was penance, to stand alone in the cold and never again feel his warmth. To never again see the light in his eyes or the way he smiled. His smile was effortless, she remembered, it came to his lips like it was meant to be there, like he’d been born smiling.
She desperately tried to fix it in her memory, to memorize the line of his jaw and curve of his mouth before time stole it away. That was the cruelest punishment of all: to know that one day she was doomed to forget the blue of his eyes (like ice on the ocean, like the sky after a storm, like the sea under the sun) and the sound of his laugh (like water over rocks, like birds’ wings, like the wind in the trees) and the way he held her like she might break (like she was made of glass, or spiders’ silk, or light).
Time was the enemy now. She felt tears trickle down her cheeks as she stared down at the scattered rocks, stark against the snow. Time had taken Joske from her, and she was still here, a blue figure standing over dark stones.
They sat and talked together.
Night hung over the island, a vast black sheet studded with constellations of twinkling stars. The trees of Ga-Wahi swayed under the sky as a gentle breeze made their leaves rustle and their boughs creak. These sounds mingled with the soft noises of the jungle: wild Rahi stalked through the undergrowth, and insects chirruped and clicked as they flitted from place to place.
In the midst of this, two Toa sat on a rocky outcropping overlooking a river, silhouetted against the canvas of the sky. Joske had come here to be alone—to sort out his thoughts and figure out what to do next and how to keep his team together while they did it. It was hard enough being a new Toa, and harder still having the fate of the island resting on your shoulders. The Toa of fire would’ve liked nothing better than to hang up his quest and return to an easy life of Kolhii games and adoring fans, but that wasn’t an option. He had a job to do and a destiny to meet, and nothing would stand in his way.
So he had come here to be alone. And yet—for some reason, he didn’t mind that he wasn’t.
He leaned back against the rock and ran a hand along its surface, feeling the grooves and bumps under his fingertips. The two of them had talked for awhile about a lot of things: the Toa Code, their quest, the weather… regardless of the subject, talking with Cael was helpful. She straightened his thoughts out, untangling his quandaries with a practiced hand. They were a good team: her practical outlook balanced his outbursts of passion. But more than that, they enjoyed talking with each other. It was easy, even natural.
“So there I was, leaning backwards over the table,” he said. “I thought for sure I was gonna drop the cue. Or snap my wrists. You know, one of the two.”
She laughed. “Par for the course with you.”
“Har har. But I had a hundred widgets on the line, not to mention my pride. So there was no way I couldn’t at least try to make the shot.
“I remembered my training—‘my training’ being that one time I watched Dorian Shaddix make the same shot. I took a deep breath. Easy in, easy out, and boom. Sunk it.”
“Fascinating,” she said playfully. “So, when do we get to the part of the story where you actually meet this Dorian? I thought’s that what you were telling me.”
“I’m getting there! Karz, woman, you’ve got no patience.”
“Sorry. You know me, impatient as always. Can never wait for anything.”
He chuckled and squeezed her hand. “Lucky you’ve got me around. You know, to teach you all those virtues, like patience, caution, common sense…”
He trailed off and winked, and they both laughed. There was a sense of timelessness there, under the night sky. Like evening was a dream and morning was a myth and neither might actually exist. But if this was all there was, Cael would be satisfied. It would be enough.
“Cael,” Joske said, his smile fading. “I need to tell you something. Not about pool, or Kolhii, or anything like that.
She nodded. He took a deep breath and looked her in the eyes.
“Look, I don’t know how all this is going to end. Tomorrow we’re going to go to Ga-Koro, find the last Crystal, and then I'll be off to find the Wanderer's Company and the Keeping Place... before fighting Heuani. I still have many questions left unanswered, and I don't know if I'll find answers for them all in time, let alone feel confident in my abilities. There are so many things I am unsure of right now, but I do have one immovable constant: you."
He swallowed hard but didn’t break her gaze.
"Cael, I love you. I love you so much. So much so that when this is all over, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. But I’m not going to ask for that. Not yet. Will you just stay here with me tonight, and just gaze at the stars? I don't want to go back right away, back to the pressures and choices and destiny... just us. The calm before the storm, I guess. And maybe a kiss that I don't have to steal?"
She leaned into him, her heart beating so loud she swore it seemed to reverberate through the air. She had never anticipated something so much and felt so nervous at the same time. And yet, somehow, it felt right. Something she'd been waiting on for a long time. She opened her mouth to reply, but found herself, for once in her life, with nothing at all to say. Joske had said it all. Instead, she kissed him under the sky.
No one was around to see, except for the stars. Those glittering points of light bore sole witness to the promise: whatever happened after this, neither of them would be alone.
She was still here. Alone on the mountain, standing over a grave.
This was her curse, to carry on in presence and absence. Long after others were allowed to move on, she remained, steadfast and lonely as a lighthouse. She persisted, even in the face of what now lay before her: an impossible expanse of empty time.
She was no legendary hero. Those mythical men and women in the Turaga’s stories—they rose to a grand occasion, a climactic clash of good and evil that left the world forever changed. They lived and died for that decisive event, then laid their burdens down when it was done, and the curtain fell on their stories. But she was the epilogue. She rose from her seat and left the theatre to brave the outside world. She was allowed to partake of the great stories, to follow along from the first chapter until the last, but she was not allowed to rest when they came to an end. No—long after the book closed, she was doomed to persist.
The immeasurable burden of time weighed heavy on her shoulders. It was an immensity of time, a colossal expanse of mundane hours and long days. No chronicler would bother with that time—it would never be tallied on the Wall or studied in the Sanctum. That time, like her, existed in the spaces between the great stories, enduring between lines and long past final sentences.
She wiped her eyes, but the tears were gone now. What she found instead was a weary emptiness. The wind whistled gently over the snow, but its chill couldn’t touch her anymore.
“I can’t do it, Joske,” she said softly. “I’m so tired. I thought I could. I promised I could. I know I said I’d wait for you, but I can’t.”
Her voice broke again, and she covered her mouth with a hand.
“I can’t,” she repeated, as if this confession was the secret phrase that would finally convince someone, anyone to listen and take this burden away. “I can’t.”
No one was listening, but she pressed desperately on.
“I can’t wait for you. Not for this long; it’s too much. You should’ve known that. I never would’ve asked this of you.”
She breathed in—a long, shaky breath that filled her lungs to bursting and made her chest ache. Her throat hurt. The sky was too bright: the endless blue was vivid and cold and it bore down on her like the weight of all the time that lay before her, vast and utterly empty.
They lay quiet together.
The sun hung heavy over the horizon like a nodding head, like it was blinking back sleep and couldn’t wait to set. Its golden light pierced the frosty windows and fell soft over the room, illuminating a couch facing a smoldering fireplace. Two Toa sat there, covered in a thick blanket. One awake, one asleep.
Joske had nodded off awhile ago, exhausted after a day of training. Each day was a new whirlwind of activity where he desperately pushed himself to be better, to move faster and hit harder. He woke before dawn every day to practice his swordplay, followed that with a morning of meditation and studies, then spent the afternoon training and sparring with anyone he could find. This handful of evening hours was his only free time, but he was often too tired to enjoy it.
Cael didn’t seem to mind. She rested her head on his shoulder and watched the flames flicker. It was enough to be together, she thought, just to lean on his body and feel his warmth. To know that he was there.
She envied him, though. She couldn’t remember the last time she had slept through the night. Closing her eyes brought no comfort anymore: the darkness reminded her of the cold shadows beneath the island, the ones that had taken her and swallowed her whole. So she stayed awake until she was too weary to fight her own weariness, and then she would sleep for a few blissful hours, only to awake in a cold sweat, heart pounding. Antrim said the nightmares would pass in time, but for now, she sat and watched the fire.
“Morning,” Joske’s sleepy voice drew her from her thoughts. “What time is it?”
“Nearly sundown,” she replied with a tired smile. “You’ve only been sleeping for half an hour.”
He rubbed his eyes. “Sorry. I guess I passed out.”
“That means you’re tired. Your body needs the rest.”
“I can think of something else it needs more,” he teased, planting a kiss on the side of her head. “Like… a snack.”
“There’s fruit on the table.”
“Bread in the cupboard?”
“There might still be some leftovers in the icebox.?”
“I was thinking… maybe I’ll just eat you,” he said playfully, and mimed taking a bite out of her shoulder. “There’s gotta be a reason I call you honey. Or sweetie. It’s cause you’re just too…”
He trailed off, noticing that she wasn’t laughing with him like she usually did. His smile faded.
“You’re thinking about him again.”
She nodded, suddenly afraid to speak. He sat up and looked for her eyes.
“It’s okay. You’re here, with me.”
“Say it, Cael.”
“I’m here,” came the soft reply. “With you.”
“I love you.”
“You love me.”
“I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“You won’t let anything happen to me.”
“I promise,” he repeated, and placed a kiss on her forehead. He hugged her tightly as the sun finally sank below the snow-covered hills, leaving a twilight canvas that stretched from earth to heaven. She breathed in his scent and closed her eyes. For this brief moment, the darkness was comforting, because she was with him.
She was home.
The sun still shone down, but now the healer’s shadow lay behind her, stretched across the snow. Time passed, as was its nature, and she was doomed to move with it while Joske was left farther and farther behind.
She had chosen this, hadn’t she? This was her place: not in the great stories, but before them, and after. For by their very nature, healers must exist in the aftermath. Theirs is to deal with the fallout, to mend what was broken and rebuild what was ruined. Joske could never have survived in peacetime: he was restless, always aching for the next chance to prove his strength. He would’ve gone crazy. But her? Her place was here, in the space between stories. The years the history books sum up in single sentences. There was nothing for her in glorious battles, in dangerous quests, in climactic duels of shadow and light. No, hers was the aftermath. To pick up the pieces and do her best to carry on.
She bent down and began to collect the stones. They were cold; each one numbed her fingers as she gently lifted it from the snow. Silently, the tears came again, running down her face and falling to the snow like drops of rain.
Hers were the patient hours and sleepless nights. Hers were the broken wrists and sprained ankles and the detritus of ordinary life. Hers were the survivors, like herself: the ones who were blessed and cursed to live in the vast shadow of what they had lost.
One by one, she placed the rocks back where she had found them. The pile grew slowly but steadily until it resembled again that marker she had destroyed. It no longer seemed an affront to her, but a tender reminder of the one she had loved, and who had loved her in return.
It was no sprint they ran, these survivors, but a marathon. They would set a steady plodding pace across the innumerable years, through hills and valleys, neither to break into a sprint nor to stop and rest. Like all the others, she would run bearing precious cargo: the memories of a man she could never forget. She would carry his legacy in gentle hands across the vast face of implacable time. She would remember Joske Nimil long after the stories ended. She would carry their love until the end of all things.