He found the old man underneath the stars, contemplating, with two cigar between his callused fingers.
It was the first face he’d seen in days; since the chosen few had boarded the arks from Xa-Koro, with Dorian being the last to have his ticket punched, he had sealed himself off from the rest of Aurelia’s anointed ones into his own cabin, and had not departed in days. The lithe figure that emerged and sidled up to the Colonel looked almost like the glorious lieutenant he’d been a week earlier – the swelling was subsiding, his movements were less shambling, bones had been set and scrapes gauzed up. By now Dorian Shaddix looked less like a man who had been beaten into a mound of flesh and left to slither for his life in the dirt of a doomed civilization, and more like a very, very well-off young daredevil who had just botched a stunt on a Gukko bird.
At forty thousand feet.
He was still clearly getting the hang of being back on his legs, and the slouch he took beside Brykon came with a relieved exhale.
“Hey,” he said simply. His voice was raw from days of disuse. Brykon’s face was expressionless, but he flipped the cigar once between his fingers and held it out to Dorian.
“Take it,” his commander instructed harshly. “It’s not for the rank and file. You may not have taste in clothes but you’ve got a taste for vice. How are your fingers? Can you cut?”
“I could probably manage butter,” Dorian replied, a little sullenly. “In Po-Wahi.”
Brykon’s mouth hardly quirked, but he did take an old, improvised-looking cigar cutter and beheaded the cigar at a few millimeters with the makeshift guillotine. He gave Dor a light, too, and the lieutenant of Bad Company took a long drag on it and puffed. His eyes widened, and he coughed slightly.
“Whaaaat the #####?” he rasped. “What is this?”
The old man’s laugh was metallic and coarse, like worn old widgets in a purse. There were some notes of humor in it, as potent as the notes of vanilla in the exhale Dorian had taken.
“It’s a specialty I’m working on. A man needs a retirement plan for the day his muscles get stiff, his eyesight goes bad, and his stomach starts roiling when he spills some blood. I’m thinking of cigars.”
Dorian eyed the old man curiously and took another puff. Now that he knew what to expect, his tongue clucked curiously.
“I’ll send you a box sometime.” Brykon stared up into the stars, face inscrutable as ever. Dorian found himself staring into the crags and contours, as he had so many times, and was surprised at how comforting he still found them, even after everything. He felt like a mountain climber in an old, familiar range, where even the dangers were old friends.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Mm. You and your restless legs. Like the whole island is just one big field trip, and you keep on finding stops while your life passes you by. While the world moves on.” Brykon took a puff on his own cigar, synchronized with Dor’s; the two Toa of Iron silently pieced together makeshift constellations from the stars. It was midnight, and their smoke was the only cloud cover. “I know you, Dorian. I know what happened to Xa-Koro bothers you. I can see it on your face.”
“Colonel, what happened happen—”
“Quiet, boy. We did what we did, I know that. I said I can see it bothers you. Do you think I plan on selling these death-sticks tomorrow? I saw you and Grokk going out for your boys’ nights, tearing up the length of the city. I saw how many nights Illicia’s bunk was empty. I see how Jin and Liacada look at you, then and now. You think you wouldn’t be in my shoes if I didn’t see you coming?”
“I don’t want to be in your shoes,” Dorian replied quietly.
Brykon stared at him and puffed again; the old man cleared his throat, rubbed by old cigars and bad gin into a hollow with the consistency of an old wallet.
“I know. Like I said, it bothers you. You want out?”
“Quiet. If you and me and Jin and Grokk all worked at a Kolhii goods store, you’d be happy. It’s people that bind you, boy, not the jobs. It’s people that will lead you astray. ” Brykon’s cigar was wedged tight between his teeth, distorting the words in his poem. “Aurelia knows it. Much as those dreams she has about you thrill her at night, she knows you don’t tell her anything you haven’t said in a hundred girls’ ears. So she gives me the marching orders and I pass them to you, because she knows whose tune can make you dance. If she asked you to light that match, knowing there was gas in there to blow those islands to Artakha, would you have done it?”
Dorian was quiet for a moment, as though he was caught in some trap where the only mode of survival was to gnaw through his ankle.
“No, I wouldn’t have.”
“You’re the highest paid killer on the island, and you won’t kill for money?”
“But everyone in a Koro—”
“If you did a circuit around the island, six Koros, six kills, six days, in three months you’d have—”
“It’s not a math problem!” Dorian replied; the boy was getting heated. “There was no sport in that. That wasn’t even conquest. Nobody kept anything.”
“How many of your conquests have you kept around?” Brykon snorted, barreling over Dor’s response. “If a thing is only a conquest once it lasts, nobody could be called a conqueror for long. No. We did a , despicable thing, Dorian, and we’re on our way to do another. Look, say some brute on one of these boats gets cold feet. Maybe he was on the wrong end of a fight. Maybe he misses a girl or a boy he left at home. Say he’s made some powerful enemy on board and he decides to visit Gukko Force headquarters on shore leave. What do you do?”
Dorian’s response was predictable, the assassin’s code of honor. “He’s snitching. He’s a coward. We’re paid to kill cowards.”
“He is, and we are. He brings plans to sink Ta-Koro back into the volcano. What then?”
Dorian’s mouth was open to respond but fell silent. He sucked on his cigar and finally, visibly, grew contemplative along with his mentor.
“Two actions, two motivations. Saving a village, but only because you had to save your own #####. Do you get credit for that? How do you know if it’s cowardice or atonement?”
Dorian exhaled the puff he’d been holding in.
“We don’t know. Only he does.”
“Right,” Brykon said proudly. “Businessmen are rarely conquerors, Dorian. Either of us could crush the skulls of Aurelia and all her ilk if we so cared, and we might never face the consequences. But we’re soldiers of fortune and buying us is easy and safe. Whatever they needed Xa-Koro gone for, and whatever they need this next job done for, the consequences can’t be bought, negotiated, or written about in the minutes of the Cultured Gentry. So it’s conquerors that they choose to hire. They won’t care about the people we conquer. The soldiers won’t care, they just want a slice of what we take. You just take orders, too, and I know you’d do your job. But I also know you care. Don’t you?”
“Yeah,” said Dorian, reluctantly. Brykon put a hand on the younger Fe-Toa’s shoulder; he flinched, but not away from the contact.
“Redemption is only ever individual, Dor,” the old man said softly, his parchment-thin voice shaky. “It’s not rainwater. Yours won’t land on all of us. Only you. So pray for rain or don’t, but just be prepared to go it alone. You understand me? Hey. You understand?”
Dorian had been moved beyond words, and underneath his black eyes the iridescent blue was tearful. He nodded faintly, pursing his lips around the cigar.
“Good,” said Brykon Senegal quietly. “Then that’s my poem for tonight. You taste the vanilla?”
“Yeah.” Dorian chewed the cigar thoughtfully, looking back up into the constellation and hoping to lose himself there. “I guess I’m not too young for my own retirement plan.”
Brykon barked in laughter. “I guess you’re not, too. Well, I got the market cornered on these here cigars. But maybe you could go for some whiskey.”
Dor smiled wistfully.
“I could definitely go for whiskey,” he murmured.
The storm had raged for an hour now.
If he was a betting man, he would wager that Makuta was still attempting to test the limits of his power; no doubt the dark force that they had watched consume Echelon would be wroth at how his attempt at bluster fell short just outside Kini-Nui. But only one of the two heroes was a betting man, and he was currently still unconscious, body and mind no doubt spent from the ordeal of the past few days - or, given the very particular body and mind, the last lifetime. Dorian had exhausted himself time and again in the pursuit of atonement.
He had pulled the Toa of Iron into a makeshift shelter while the storm raged and begun to work on a fire. He still had some of his old power, but Merror felt it oddly invigorating to test the new physical limits of his body. Starting a fire by hand felt so unfamiliar Merror almost lapsed into thinking he'd never done it before. Dorian had a lighter around his neck, a bloodstained, pitted thing that the Turaga knew had once belonged to Joske. He had been wearing it since his drunken confession in Le-Koro, in what seemed like the time before time; the boy had carried that weight on his shoulders since then, and likely before. The lighter was a sign of the bond he and Joske had shared.
However this phase of his journey ended, Merror resolved to let Dor rest for now. The boy had heart, and made up in courage what he lacked in sense and patience. It was a fearlessness even Joske lacked; at least Joske had fretted over losing Cael. Dorian could lose everything, and it would only steel his nerve. That kind of drive deserved commendation, but it also exhausted the soul.
Yes. It was best to let the boy rest. He must have just been resting.
Merror had to believe it worked. It was his destiny.
“Oh my God,” the waitress hissed to her best friend, the bartender, “that’s really him!”
“He’s a Toa of Iron!”
“Lots of people are, my dad was a Toa of Iron—”
“He’s wearing leather pants!”
“Girl,” the lucky waitress admonished, hissing low so her exclamation didn’t become a squeal. “I saw his eyes. They are so blue.”
“Holy Mata Nui—"
“--we’re serving Dorian Shaddix!”
Since the fall of Ko-Koro, there had been a dearth of good news for the inhabitants of the frigid Wahi that was the village’s namesake. Every day the banter at the hearth would center around the confirmed casualties, the latest on mercenary movements to the fallen Koro’s zealously guarded gates, or the vile rumors about what was happening to the citizens trapped inside by Echelon. The only places of refuge were the secondary Koros and outposts, once used by Sanctum Guardsmen and mountain climbers for long arctic voyages away from Ko-Koro; the only bright spots in those days were the occasional Matoran refugees who came filtering in, carrying small nuggets of information and outlandish tales of escape. Now and then there would be some hero, an adventurer or new Toa who wanted to make a name for himself by storming the gates himself. They never came back for a return trip.
The Toa Maru hadn’t shown their faces either, though there were rumors now and again that they were operating in the area. The waitress had to believe that was true. In the old days, when Matoro was still Akiri, she had been to a commencement address that had been held in Ko-Koro for Ambages, the Hand – another who was now allegedly gone, murdered by Makuta’s forces under a flag of peace. He hadn’t been the only beneficiary, however. Two of the Toa Maru had attended. Noble, mystic Stannis, with his sad grey eyes, had been far more handsome than anyone had led her to believe. The memory of his jawline alone…
There was Reordin, too, the renegade lieutenant, the hero of the Rama Hive, the people’s Maru. Rarely had a man ever looked so good in uniform – and unlike most of the Maru, who had all come from military backgrounds, Reo had not abandoned his roots. The way that Muaka’s fur on his collar had framed his own jaw, his proud cheeks, the cutting smirk or inscrutable blue of his eyes…they were all etched into her memory, every frozen, perfect detail that still kept her up at night. Blue eyes were the best.
Joske Nimil’s were blue, too, weren’t they? And so were Dorian’s. And here she was, keeping him waiting on an order! Oh, no…
It was a crowded hall, full of witnesses, but the young woman realized with a flutter in her stomach that would hardly save her if it came to that. Dorian Shaddix didn’t fear doing anything to anyone. He was mad, bad, and dangerous to know – the island’s most infamous killer, now allegedly working for the heroes. It was hard to believe, but it made for a better origin story, right? Heroes with dark sides were even hotter than their counterparts. That was why, everyone agreed, Oreius Maru was the next hottest after Reo. If the merch sales in the bazaars of Po-Koro were anything to go by, at least. Even Korero is…kind of a clean-cut cute, I guess…
“It’s…bourbon, right? With…no ice?” The order was legendary, so the waitress didn’t know why she’d bothered phrasing it as a question. “And you want…”
“Another beer’s fine,” said the gruff Toa sitting across from him. He was older than Dorian, and shrugged his shoulders as if he didn’t even know how he’d wound up here. “Anything you got. I know times are tough.”
“Right. Yeah, they are. But that’s—” She broke off, staring into his eyes. They weren’t just blue, they were purple, rimmed with sleeplessness and faint bruising at the edges. He looked tortured; the waitress wondered what it would take to ease that anguish, and how many girls had been roped into attempting. They had to have known it wouldn’t last. She knew that, too. But boys weren’t beautiful because they lasted, or even because they were good people. For a lot of them that wasn’t the case at all. Boys are beautiful because the Great Spirit hates girls, and wanted to inflict them on us. She knew she should have gone and returned the order immediately – why keep a pair of mercenaries like that waiting? – but something in her knew she would never get this chance again. She leaned in closer, so that the rest of the patrons wouldn’t hear her question.
“Did you…” she trailed off, as if there was more than one way to ask the question burning in the hearts of everyone on Mata Nui, “…kill Vakama?”
She had heard how the Mark Bearers eyes had used to glow in the face of emotion. Dorian Shaddix had been rage – everyone knew that. His eyes and tattoo were supposed to have been blue. She had no idea how any pair of eyes could glow more than they already did…but maybe the question had infuriated him, and his Mark was working as they spoke.
“Yeah.” The cigarette in his mouth, unlit, bobbed when he frowned. “Duh.”
“Well…are you going to kill Echelon?”
“That’s the plan. Knock ‘em dead. But, uh,” he cocked his head, “I’m gonna need bourbon to do it. So…”
The waitress’ posture went ramrod, as she’d used to watch the soldiers do at home in Ko-Koro. Then she inclined her head respectfully at both Toa and scurried off, heart racing at the fact that she’d really survived.
Dor’s incredulous glance moved from the retreating waitress to his companion.
“Here I thought that stupid old man was going to haunt me until I died. Why isn’t anyone I know like that? Do strangers really forgive you that fast if you’re hot?”
“I wouldn’t know, but it checks out,” Cipher Compassrose said. The Su-Toa shrugged ambivalently and drained the rest of his first beer, foam clinging to his lips. “If it helps, I still think it was pretty heinous.”
“You get paid enough not to think that. Which reminds me, hey.” Dor grabbed a napkin from the corner of the table and pulled it over to him with his fingertips. “You got something to write with?”
“Maybe. I’ll check.” Cipher began rummaging through the pockets of the disheveled jacket that had once belonged to his best friend, presumably for some utensil that he’d lifted off Dor over the years. “Can you write with an eraser?”
“You might not want me to. I’m writing my will.”
Cipher exhaled through his teeth. “That’s a little dramatic.”
“I buried my friend tonight. He had a destiny way bigger than whatever mine is. I should start thinking about these things.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
“I’m giving you all the money I made off of giving Bad Company to the Akiri.”
“Well, would you look at this? You should’ve warned me this thing had inside pockets too. One pen, coming up. This is good thinking, you know. Never hurts to have a plan for the future.”
Dorian stared at Cipher for a long moment, as if he was somewhere else with someone else, before rolling his eyes. He cupped a hand around the cigarette pursed in his mouth and lit it. He looked down at the napkin for a long, long time before deciding that there was a simple way to word this. No legalese, no pretense, no personal messages to those he was leaving behind; after all, who was going to know until it was over? Instead, the Toa of Iron chewed on the end of the quill and scribbled out a short, sweet last testament.
CIPHER GETS EVERYTHING
“There. Now don’t go losing that, it’s got my autograph,” Dor said through the beginnings of a cheeky grin, sliding the legal document over to Cipher. He looked at the napkin as if Dorian had thrown up on it.
“Lotta good this is going to do me when I’m dead in Mangaia, too,” Cipher drawled, pocketing the napkin in the driest part of the jacket. “At least I’ll know I could’ve been rich.”
“You’re not going to Mangaia.” Dor was staring at the table.
Silence fell over the table. The waitress came back, a smile full of nervous energy contorting her face, and set their drinks down. Dorian’s bourbon was down the hatch in a second.
“Do you want anot—”
“You should go,” the Toa of Plasma cut in, a slight note of warning in his voice. The waitress’ eyes widened at the implication. Everyone had heard about Dorian Shaddix’s bar-destroying meltdown in Le-Koro years ago, after all. Suddenly, the myth of Dorian Shaddix was growing very, very lifelike in front of her; the truth was starting to catch up to his image. “Now,” Cipher insisted. She scurried off, and there was silence again.
“I’m not letting you go down there alone.”
“You’ve never let me do something once in my life,” Dorian replied heatedly. “I go, I see, I conquer. You’ve never been mad about us taking off in different directions before.”
“This is different, Dor.”
“Why? Why would it be different if I’m not about to die trying?” the young Toa’s asked, voice continuing to raise.
“You were the one who said—”
“And you said I wouldn’t! What, you don’t believe that? C’mon, Ciph! Are you gonna need to cash that napkin in or not?”
“Maybe I wouldn’t if you weren’t so stubborn about this! You just buried your friend, you should know what charging in half-cocked could—”
The empty bourbon glass went flying. Cipher wore a Calix as well, so whether Dor meant to hit him or not he failed; instead, the glass whizzed by multiple heads and shattered in the fire of the hearth. A chorus of outcry started to rise up as people checked to make sure they hadn’t been cut. Dorian had already risen up on his heel and turned to march outside, hands tucked under his arms in the face of the snow.
Cipher followed. Figured that now, of all times, he wouldn’t get lost.
Not that the Toa of Plasma didn't hang back. He stood a few steps away,, watching Dorian tremble with cold and rage. His breath was leaving him in increasingly rapid puffs, wisps of frost that dissipated in the wind. Like a man who saw ghosts, Cipher wondered if he had ever seen them at all. Dorian's moods had always been ephemeral, removed from the realities and attitudes of normal people. Had his rage ever been there at all? His sadness? How many things had he cried over that were worth sobbing for again?
Had he ever really been happy? Cipher asked himself. When Dor spoke, his best friend feared he knew the answer.
"What good does it do anyone to make me live like this?" Dorian asked, with eyes gone blank as Joske's. "Why am I taking self-help lessons from people who never did the things I did? Who never had to climb back from where I fell? He was right. In the end, it only ever falls on me. What does it matter if--" He broke off.
"I would do it myself if I could. But I can't. It--It feels like giving up. If Echelon does it, then...there's no giving up. I just lost. That's not as bad, right?"
Cipher said nothing. The rain was falling on Dorian, and only Dorian; droplets steamed when they hit the snow.
"Will you just ##### tell me I'm right?" he asked. His young voice cracked.
Cipher chewed his lip and looked down to the snow.
"You're gonna do what you wanna do, man," the worn Toa of Plasma said to the banks. "You always do."
The two brothers stood, staring at each other; Dor's shoulders hunched forward, struggling against his new backbone, trying to hold back an outburst with a maturity he had once lacked. Cipher seemed ramrod, solid as always...but when the two found themselves embracing, Dor could tell he needed the support too.
"Catch you 'round the way, then, brother," Cipher said into Dor's shoulder. It was shaking softly as the gunslinger cried, then cleared his throat.
"Yeah. Head for Ta-Koro on your way back," Dor sniffed. "That way we'll probably meet in Ga."
They both laughed, and Cipher thumped Dorian on his back with a fist. He had managed to shuffle the jacket so it slung over Dor's shoulder, cushioning his traps with the accessory.
"You know something?" Dorian mused quietly, voice calming down. "If we ran it back today? I bet the two of us would smoke that ##### ."
Cipher chuckled again.
"Like Rannare weed, brother."
The storm had died out. As Merror had anticipated, Makuta had tired himself quickly in his attempt to reassert control over the domain that was once his. He found some degree of peace in that, beyond the satisfaction of knowing that the darkness would have a more difficult return than perhaps anticipated. The winds that had been approaching gale force hours earlier had eased now into a pleasant breeze; it almost felt like the guiding hand of Mata Nui that streaked across Merror's face, and not the tendrils of his malevolent brother.
Dorian still hadn't woken up yet. That wasn't so surprising, but doubts began to wriggle into his mind, like the worms from the soil as the rain subsided. He had no idea how long something like this took. Obviously he had never pried for specifics from Joske or Cael. Those wounds ran too deep, too visibly on their faces, to ever be picked at safely. Dor could be asleep for another hour, or for a day. Perhaps he would never wake up, and all he had bought was the young man's life - life in its simplest form. It seemed cruel to bring back a Dorian Shaddix who would never be able to laugh, never embarrass his elders in front of others or win a bartender's heart with a single smile. Merror had never understood what it was people loved about that smile until he had seen it as Echelon was dying - a bright, exhilarated grin, lacking in malice yet full of warmth. What if the sun rose in a few hours, but there was no warmth in the light?
Would it even be worth it?
No. Dorian had to wake. And soon.
He was probably just thinking of something clever to say.
“If you stay here, you will pass on. I can't tell you where; all I know is that you will leave Mata Nui forever. But I've come to collect you, Cael: if you come with me, you can choose to return.”
“Does... does everyone get this choice?”
“It doesn't matter.” The First Toa smiled. “But you do, and that's all that matters.”
How long had he been here by now? Days? Months? Years? Cael had been right; time flowed differently here, at the crossroads, where everything ceased to matter. Eventually he had stopped tallying, for fear of going mad with the realization of how much time had passed him by. The idea of those he loved eventually going on was comforting, but naturally frightening, too. He had lived most of his life under the auspices of fame, and the idea of eventually fading to legend as the First Toa had came with mixed emotions. Still...those were problems for the world below him. Time flowed differently; for the first time in a long time he had been at peace, whether he had been dead for fifteen minutes or fifteen centuries.
At least, that had been the case when he arrived. Telling time had become impossible, now that Dorian was here and able to talk forever.
"I learned this one from a Vortixx named Marfoir, one drunken night in the Final Problem at Xa-Koro," the Toa of Iron crowed, body unnaturally balanced from the tips of his feet against the wall to his wrists propped on the pool table. "I watched him cut through three homeless vagrants with a single shot from this pose. Later he taught me how to adjust it for the pool table."
"So you learned how to bank three stripes from the murder of three hobos."
"If they didn't want to be homeless, why didn't they buy homes?" Dor asked rhetorically, cue probing between his knuckles somewhat suggestively. "A year after that it was banned from competition in all six Wahi."
"You cheated in a tourney?" Joske asked.
"Well...no." Dorian screwed up his mouth to one side, looking faintly sheepish, as though he'd had something to do with the crime - or had just never thought to take up a career playing snooker and was realizing how much legit money he'd missed out on. "Marfoir blew half of Matau's head off. But that was another life. I'm done using my talents for evil. Only for money."
"That still sounds just like mercenary work."
At first he'd had the strength to banter back, but by now they had settled into their routine. Routine was a dangerous thing to have in purgatory -- Dor's cheeky name for what, to him, clearly resembled the Lavapool Inn, "but with more pool tables and less Tuara drooling on the bar." Joske had sworn he'd come to on the Kolhii pitch in Ta-Koro, with the heat of the volcano and the emptiness of the stands weighing on his chest. Neither of their experiences seemed to match up with the blank canvas that Cael had described, and he had said as much to Dorian after a few drinks of bourbon too many. Dor shrugged, grinned, and cracked a joke like he always did: "She was an easy one. They're probably up there weighing our deeds against a feather."
He had gestured upstairs ambiguously with his pool cue, and Joske immediately knew what he meant. Both of them had seen the Lavapool enough in life to know, instinctively, that there was nothing up there but rooms for rent. Both of the two Toa, one a reformed womanizer and one making a solid crack at it, had spent enough time up there to know there was nothing up there but hazy, drunken memories.
Yet somehow neither of them had been brave enough to venture up into the old, familiar halls of the second floor. They had just stuck to the ground floor, playing pool with the same results. Routine.
Dorian banked the last three stripes, as Joske knew he would. Dorian loved to treat each victory like his first, though, kicking off from the wall and spinning the chalk between his fingers with a victorious whoop! and a smile. The Toa of Fire groaned.
"You're getting better, Jos. Give it another three hundred and you'll go far with this game. Let's see, so we'll add one more tally mark, that's a five, so diagonal--"
"I'm going to the Air Kolhii table."
"--don't be a baby, so that's 195--" Dor was scribbling furiously on the chalkboard, blocking it from view.
"You said we'd play Air Kolhii at 69."
Joske groaned. "...Nice. And then again at 100."
"--to 3! Another victory for the Young Conqueror"
Dorian moved away from the chalkboard with a grand gesture, revealing a battalion of tally marks under the "KILLED ECHELON" column; the soldiers in Dor's army were swelling up faster than his ego, with only occasional - possibly intentional - defeats at the hands of the suicide squad under "DIDN'T KILL ECHELON."
At least it beat "SECURED THE BAG" and "FUMBLED THE BAG." Joske had suggested "WOKE MAKUTA" and "DIDN'T," but Dorian had pouted at that and reminded him that he'd had no fair warning of what would happen if the Vault was opened. Which was fair enough. He had also shot down "CAEL'S HOTTER" vs. "TUARA'S HOTTER" on the basis of feminism and not pitting strong women against each other, which got a little more of an eye roll out of Joske when one considered their track records with women.
Try as he might to deny it, he had missed this. Dorian had always been good for laughs - and they were both beyond talking shop.
"And again at 150," Joske finished. "Air Kolhii. Or I turn to guerrilla warfare and start burning divots into the table, Young Conqueror."
That made Dor pout again, and he balanced one elbow on his cue and clasped his hands together.
"You know, you could at least let me have this. You're gonna be out of here any time," he mused. "195 to 3 is respectable for someone who sucks at everything. Up there," Dor jerked his head towards the dreaded staircase by the bar, "they're probably ripping me to shreds."
Joske had to admit that was true, but he wanted to reassure Dor somehow about the struggle for atonement, the equivalent weight of good deeds for their own sake, motivating yourself to change. He hated hearing it, though, just like Joske got sick of hearing jokes about performing animal rescues and wearing tights and a cape.
"Fine," the Toa of Iron continued. "Air Kolhii. Lucky for you, I learned from the best players of real Kolhii on how to function with a Kolhii striker, and--"
"Really? I don't remember teaching you a thing, pretty boy. Have you been hoarding autographs of me somewhere? Or just watching from afar?"
"Nah, 'cause I learned from the guys who juked you out at that final in Ga-Koro three years ago."
"Poor Joske, couldn't stand a chance," Dor tutted softly. "You were never going to kill Echelon with those snapped ankles."
"Well, now I want you to go to Karz."
Dorian grinned and opened his mouth to return banter when a voice rang out from upstairs.
"Paid in full."
Joske understood what it meant immediately, and a smile drew across his own face. Dorian, ignorant of what he had gone through to save Cael, looked suddenly anxious. Before--
"Were we supposed to be paying for these drinks?"
Joske laughed, both in amusement and at wonder. Truly, Dorian got all the luck; he held no bitterness, no resentment over the Toa of Iron's fortune. If anything, it gladdened his heart to know that someone down there had seen in Dor what Joske saw. Someone capable of more good than any mercenary, zealot, ally, or even the man himself would ever believe. Joske stepped forward and bumped a fist against Dor's shoulder.
"I'll pick up the tab. You're needed elsewhere."
Dor didn't understand. Or he was playing dense.
"You're right. No time to go upstairs. Air Kolhii in thirty seconds. Just you wait, my wrist action is perfect. I could take my Calix off and nail it to my own hand and I'd still have reflexes that could dazzle you. 195 to 3? You're gonna long for the days of 195--"
"Next time," Joske interrupted. "Next time you're 'round the way, Dor. You're being called back."
"You don't get to argue over it, I didn't resurrect you."
"Tell them to stop!"
"I'm dead, too."
"They didn't get a choice, either."
"Paid in full," the voice said, more forcefully.
"You fell for that? I think you've hit the bourbon a little heavy, Dor. Go back to Mata Nui and clear your head. Take two Bula and call Cael in the morning."
Dorian chewed his lip, eyes glowing angrily. He looked fit to snap the pool cue and charge upstairs with the splintered halves akimbo. As his gaze roved around the bar, searching for other improvised weapons he could use to charge the powers that be, he squinted. Joske turned to look, and even for a one-time Toa of Light, the sheer whiteness of the glow outside the Lavapool's boundaries made shielding his eyes a necessity. That was it, then -- the light Cael had seen, the light he'd saved her from, the light he'd been prepared to feed himself to make his beloved whole again.
Joske had to love his friend for trying. Dorian Shaddix, ever predictable in his unpredictability, was already having similar ideas. His brain was moving at a mile a minute, eyes squinted to protect themselves from the glow but also racing with possibilities. There was none of the acceptance and grace with which he'd met his own face; instead, there was desperation, and longing, and hurt, and guilt. He knew the look well.
It was the last face Joske had seen in his life.
"Come with me."
"Next time around," Joske promised, squeezing his friend's shoulder. "I don't feel like winding up stuck in your body. Or digging my way out from under the snowbanks."
"We'll rob your grave."
"Yikes. Pass, you sicko."
Dor bit his lip harder; for a second, Joske wondered if Dor would attempt to bludgeon him with the cue. He doubted he could fall unconscious in this place if he tried.
"Next time around," Joske repeated, clapping Dor's shoulder and letting go. "Tell Cael I love her, and look after her for me."
"She doesn't need either of us for that."
"No. You're right." Joske smiled at the thought of her; Dor looked like he wanted to say something, but thought better of it. "Fine. Tell Agni not to blame himself, even though--"
"--we both know he will?"
"Yeah. And tell Angelus I'm sorry. And I'm grateful."
"Holy #####, you could just write a will already. You know, we have plenty of napkins, I could--"
"And one more thing. The boat won't take you all the way. You'll have to swim for the next one."
Dorian blinked. Joske grinned; to Dor's eyes, he seemed more vivid than he had since the Toa of Iron arrived. Maybe even more vivid than he'd been in life. The Kolhii star winked at him.
"It's on you to do this if they don't let me out," Joske said playfully. "Give everyone my best. I believe in you, Dor. The boat won't take you the whole way. You'll have to swim for the next one."
"Again with the fortune cookie #####. You know, can't you just tell me something immediately useful? Directions? Lotto numbers? Where Cael likes to eat?"
The glow was starting to swallow the whole Lavapool, but it curved around Joske to lick at Dorian's limbs. The more Dor tried to back away into the corners, near the chalkboard that sang of his conquests, the more the light followed him specifically and left Joske to his devices.
"Like I'd give you the chance. See you, Dor. I'll keep practicing the Matau Brain Masher or whatever."
"--The Sharpshooter, you useless prick, and don't think this is over! I'm totally digging your body up when this is over, and if you don't come back I'm going to chuck you right into the volcano, you fortune cookie, kitten-saving, telegram-booth changing, third-wheeling motherf--"
I shot upright like a cannon, hand cupping the wound where Heuani had pierced me all those years ago. There was a small fire burning, and the wind had picked up a little outside. A small enclave, formed mostly of low-hanging branches that had been snapped off or vines that had been sawed loose, was protecting the small blaze and I from the outside world. My vision was swimming, as though I'd never used my eyes before - or maybe like I'd just crawled from a grave, and was getting used to seeing something besides the inside of my own coffin. But from the looks of things, I hadn't even been buried. Not unless the old dickhead who was smiling at me from across the fire's tongues had been buried, too.
That wasn't a bad bet, honestly. I hated Turaga. They were wizened, pathetic reminders that some people were just too high-and-mighty to keep moving forward. They were proof of how seriously some Toa took the concept of 'destiny,' even though getting one particular job done in your life was no excuse for giving up your power. Becoming a Turaga was basically just taking early retirement. Who said you got to have peace while the rest of us were out here busting ##### to try and outwork the voices in your own head, telling you what you were doing wasn't enough?
I bet you wish you had that Toa Power now that Makuta's back, you hunchbacked old #####. Yeesh.
I must have woken up bitter. Did I pass out after the fall? I remember feeling something pretty important pop out of place near where the ol' R.I.P. Echelon commemorative tramp stamp was going as soon as I was back in Ta-Koro. And where had Merror gotten off too?
"I'm looking for my friend," I grumbled to the Turaga, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. "Did he go off for supplies from the settlement?"
"Your friend, eh?" The Turaga looked pleased with himself, green eyes bright behind his Noble Kanohi. "I can't say there are many people out here at Kini-Nui. Not tonight, of all nights, at least."
Tonight of all nights... Yeah. The story was going to go flying around, all of it, from Joske and Echelon's deaths to the return of Makuta. A lot had happened in only a little while. Time flew when you were about to die.
My eyes flew back down to my midsection. The Turaga laughed.
"And what does he look like, lad?" the old man asked knowingly. "This friend of yours. We might be able to find him together, once you're able to move around a little."
"He's..." I closed my eyes, still sore from sitting up too fast, and winced. "Ta-Toa. Big green eyes, sad, looks like a...really old puppy."
"A really old puppy, eh."
"Yeah. Handsome. Like a DILF, but if he wasn't really hot. He's got a Calix on, and bit of a weird brogue in his...voice..."
I turned my head to the left, feeling the protestant creaks of a sore neck, and stared into the Noble Kanohi again.
"And here I thought I aged gracefully," Merror laughed warmly. "I gather that the Turaga lifestyle won't be for you when you grow up. Hello, lad. I'm so happy you're ali--"
Our enclave was torn to pieces by the force of the swing. The cold steel of the rifle's barrel felt good in my hands, but honestly, I could have done it with anything. I just picked up the first weapon I saw poking out of the bag.
And I swung it again. And again. And again. At trees. At the ground. I almost tossed it back into Kini-Nui, but the last thing I needed to do was give Makuta one more advantage.
I remembered everything now.
"What is the matter with you!?" I raged, turning around and screaming at Merror. The look of serenity on the Turaga's -- Turaga's! -- face made me want to pistol whip him. He didn't have the strength to fight it anymore, or to do anything but seize up and twitch if I started really laying into him. He didn't have the strength to...to... "What would you do that for!?"
"For you," Merror said softly. "You died, Dorian. Thinking you failed. Thinking the people who love you love a failure. You deserve to hear from them yourself how false that is.."
"You deserve better, son. And instead you died."
"I thought it was a fair trade."
The fire in my stomach went as dim as Merror's had. I dropped back down onto my haunches, taking deep, unsteady breaths. I had died. For a second, I had known peace. Happiness. Real redemption.
But then I woke up.
It had started to trickle at some point while I was out. The rain was falling on my head, and the Turaga whose life force the storm had doused crawled out from the remains of our shelter to sit beside me. My friend put his hand, so much frailer than it had been when I took it earlier tonight, on mine and clasped.
"It's not," I insisted weakly. "It's not fair. You were...good."
"Oh? Did I stop being good because I grew shorter? Did I lose my experience? Did my brain dull with age in the course of one night?" Merror squeezed my hand tighter with a teasing smile. "Sometimes, lad, I think you might put a little too much emphasis on looks. Just something we've all noticed."
I had to stifle a small laugh.
Merror's smile grew.
"Son, that man who died tonight has weighed on me for half my life. Probably all of yours. I know the valleys of failure more than most. Dorian, I look at you and I see a success for every man, woman, and child on Mata Nui. You understand? You did not fail."
"I said okay, ##### it." I took a long, deep breath, clenching my fist around Merror's gnarled old hand.
"Okay.." Underneath Merror's Noble Kanohi, a smile turned into a full-bore grin -- one with mischief I couldn't ever remember seeing when the Calix had been Great. "Then let's go find a bar somewhere before telling our story. I want to see if I can still keep up with the great and self-destructive Dorian Shaddix."
Merror saw the boy smile softly.
"I could definitely go for that," I said. A beat went by.
"So wait, did your life juju fix my liver?"
"Nothing I could do on that count. Sorry."
This time, I laughed. I even gave Merror a ride on my shoulders for a minute, just to see if it was more comfortable for him than walking. He still had too much pride for that, though, and eventually we just decided on walking back to Ta-Koro as equals.
Metaphorically. My neck still hurt, and craning it down to look at him was already proving to be a pain in the #####. But I'd dealt with a lot lately. A little height difference between friends was almost...quaint.
"Actually, Ga-Koro," I corrected. Merror looked up at me, puzzled. No doubt he'd tailed me to Ga-Koro but had no idea why. I bit down on the edge of my lip and grinned again.
"Whole island's waiting for me."
"Aaaand it goes riiiiiight there!" Dor let out a victory yell and pumped his arms up in the air as though he'd been crowned the island's Kolhii MVP. From her perch on the couch, sitting atop her calves with a bottle of bourbon in her hand, Tuara Drigton looked at her lover skeptically.
"You...moved a piano."
"It's not a piano. It's the piano."
"Oh, the first piano. Wicked."
"Well, no, not--it's the one from the casino I knocked over, in Xa-Koro. There are some good memories that this piano absorbed via osmosis! I mean...most of them were probably knocked out when the island blew up. Or when the water corroded the wood. Or during the restoration process. But the memories of those memories...that's what people remember, babe."
"Oh my God, why did you never talk this much when you had a Mark."
"Nothing fun to say. Besides, I've been playing music all my life."
"Explains the eighty guitars."
"Like...maybe half that." Dor rolled his eyes. "And we have the card table."
"It seats eight, Dorian. Good luck finding six suckers who will sit down and let you cheat at cards."
"I don't cheat!"
"You dumped Mark Bearers for other Mark Bearers."
"Oh, we're talking Mark Bearer stuff? Well, not for nothing, but you did let Kinvex die."
"##### dick, wow," Tuara sputtered through a drink. "False equivalence much?"
"For the good Captain, no less. Who you then left. For...who again?"
Tuara rolled her eyes as he plopped down beside her, and attempted to scoot away slightly. Dor wrapped his arm around her and kicked his feet up irreverently on the coffee table, back of his neck reclining to rest on the top of their couch. Both sighed.
"I'm applying for a job tomorrow," he murmured softly.
"Really? Is there anything still sacred enough to kill?"
"The ##### mouth on you," Dor rolled his eyes, "no. The Lavapool Inn needs a bartender. It pays alright. Comfy location. Gets a lot of business. I get to be around people. I'm thinking of going for it."
"Oooh, a plug," Tuara drawled, grinning and rolling on her side. "I'm in favor. Bring a gun to the job interview."
"That way you'll definitely get it."
"That makes sense, actually. Just keep it holstered. People open carry all kinds of weapons in Ta-Koro."
Tuara's grin stretched cartoonishly. She was well and truly drunk.
"Are you gonna be able to handle that?" Dor raised an eyebrow at the mostly-drained bottle in her hand. Tuara jabbed at his cheek with the bottom.
"Shhaddup. Dorian Shaddup. Who are you to teach me lessons," she grumbled through her grin. Dor rolled his eyes and smiled back. "You'll never learn your lesson."
"Says who?" Dorian Shaddup asked, sticking his bottom lip out in a perfect pout. "Deputy, you wrong me. Would I have managed to get this far if, somewhere along the line, I didn't start learning my lessons?"
Tuara giggled; Dor laughed. They leaned in as one, together.
The piano sat in the corner, suppressing all the ghosts who had graced its keys or ran fingers across the gilded wood. The angry shade of a callow young Toa of Iron was somewhere, buried alive beneath all that polish. It could not avert its eyes.
It watched the couple kiss.