As soon as Valria went to abandon ship, and Agni had followed her to pull her off the gangplank, I had crept up behind them like a rat on deck. Agni had stopped her just before her foot could brush freedom, fingers around her wrist gently as she tried to protest. Gently (gentility always surprised them, and had a nasty habit of working like a charm when it wasn't expected) I pulled Valria's frail little wrist out of the detective's grip and helped her outside. The platform was lit with the soft glow of evening sun; a little wind blew through the cracks of the planks and whistled a tune to itself, a little wind that had the potential to be a storm with the right conditions and a little rain. The clouds from earlier had scurried away in anticipation of my presence.
"Do you smoke? I smoke." Like a suitor's locket, Joske's lighter hung from a small silver chain around my neck and I pulled it away to light a cigarette over the yawning maw of the jungle below. A cinder danced its way to oblivion. "Look. Valria. I'm not the kind of guy who should be giving life advice. To be honest, I'm here on a whim, but I think it's a good thing because I know what your life has been, and I know the kind of ledge you're standing on now and I know that it looks prettier from way on high, but it's not, and if you take a step off it's just gonna look uglier and uglier the farther down you tumble. And the bottom...well, a lot of people are lucky enough to die before they reach it, and the ones that don't end up like me. Notice how no one wants to take their eyes off me?" I held the chain around my neck between two fake phalanges, lighter clinking against the back of my hand like a cold metal kiss. "That's fear. They're scared of what I'll do. Scared of me going off, and tearing something apart with me. But it's all fake. It's all bourbon talking, or maybe drugs, or maybe my fear. I burned myself out a long time ago - it's not something you ever want, but it is something you can fight. I didn't, but I can take one look at you and I know you're tougher than me, so I want to let you in on a secret. Because I know you're tough enough to handle it.
"Before I met Joske, a lot of nights I would come home into my loft, move my piano to the window, move my loveseat to the center of the room, and then move my poker table to where the piano used to be, just to ###### with the visitors. And then I'd forget what I was doing and trip on the loveseat. Sometimes, I'll look in a mirror and my eyes will be so clear and blue that you'd think the sky's poking through the curtains, and then I'd go and pour myself some bourbon and after half a bottle's gone my eyes look more like little patches of ######. There's no controlling demons, Valria, and they can't go away without help - demons are ###### that way. I've blazed that trail back and forth my whole life. Trust me."
"I just thought...if I couldn't handle them myself..." I inhaled and exhaled, trying to steady myself, feeling my resolve to leave weaken. "What's it like, when the demons are gone?"
I laughed at that. "######. I've been waiting all my life for someone to tell me that, too."
"Then how do you keep going? What keeps you here?" I asked.
"These people," I said at once, with the kind of certainty that can be bred only of pure affection and an almost religious conviction. "They're judgy, and they're uptight, and they'll pester you with Codes and lessons until you want to shoot yourself in the face. But before them, I really did want to shoot myself in the face. Do you know what I was, before this team? I was a killer and a ######, girlfriend. Whoever I was before that didn't matter, and I just learned to...ignore it. Flip it off like a little switch. But it's the same way with the good as it is with the bad: you'll never let it go. And if you want me to let you in another secret I will: I wish I could have it back. Every ###### day. First thing I did as a free man, I bought myself a piano and moved it into my loft, and I would sit down and play it - every day. And I play like a mother######er, don't doubt it, but...the good was gone. I sat there every day and wished something would happen to just beat the ###### out of whatever it is I am these days, and some shy, introverted little Toa would get born in its place, but it doesn't happen that way. I learned that, too."
I sound like Joske. Hotter, badder, more charming and less annoyingly self-righteous with the monologues, but I was wearing his lighter and I was wearing his sword and I could feel his words starting to make sense long after the fact. Infatuation? Maturation. The pinnacle of years worth of hard work on a lot of people's hands. This is being a man. I did it. ###### did it.
"And I learned it because of people like this," I said, looking at where Agni had halted like a statue in the doorframe and hoping against hope that a different grizzled old son of a ###### would step out of his skin, a Toa with blue eyes and the phantom smoke of old cigars on his skin, but this was life and not a dream and we were on different sides of one nasty coin, and all I saw was same old Agni. "You should give them a shot. They have their faults, yeah, but they saved my life. And if they can help out a junkie philosopher man-skank like me, God knows what they can do for you. Kay?"
This time I turned around, looking at each of them. Dorian with those blue eyes that contained so much pain, but he had people, he had this team. Cael, the Toa of Water whose lover was missing, not even on this plane of existance anymore. Tuara, powerful and fierce, someone who said her mind, stuck to her gut, and stayed with the people who needed her. Merror, a noble old Toa who had suffered loss as well, and didn't give up hope. Liacada who despite her faults was trying to make up for whatever mistakes she thought she committed.
Agni, who had saw the same horrors I did, who had felt the pain when Telric took the life of a friend we held dear, and though we never talked, felt the same crushing loneliness when we parted ways about four months ago. "Alright...I...I'll...stay and I'm sorry. Sorry for being like this."
"Nope. Don't apologize. Hold it." I smirked and put a comforting arm around her thin shoulders, pulling her into a one-armed half-hug. "You've earned the right to freak out a little. Trust me, these guys have seen worse from me on a good day. Just...work on changing it. You're tough - I can see you're tough. You have a whole lifetime to work things out. Just don't waste it, and we'll call it even. Great talk."
When I smiled at her and went to walk away, I heard the soft thunks of her footsteps trailing in the wake of mine softly. The wind, with its consumer base drying up before it, stopped blowing forward across the platform, and the whistling gave out against the chirps of birds and the sounds of faint progress. Agni was still standing like granite in the doorway, so I had to brush past him sideways when we were within reach of each other. I tapped him twice on the heartlight just as I passed him by, but by the time he had turned around to look for me, I had already rounded a left and camped out at the table again.