It really was a rather nice hut, Charek mused. Came with an enclosed bedroom, a garden, a floor hatch for ocean access, a well-stocked larder, a very comfy couch… The floor didn’t even sway that much when the waves started getting fierce. He didn’t care much for the lilies draped over everything, admittedly, but other than that, he would have enjoyed staying for a time. It was a shame he was only a visitor until…
…well, until he could figure out where he was going next. Which had to be soon. He had better things to do than sit around. Whatever those things were.
The floor hatch popped open. Cephala emerged from the churning waters with the grace of a veteran diver, a lightstone in one hand and a pair of dead fish slung over her shoulder. “Hope you like Ruki,” she called as she ambled over to a cutting board. “I had a couple Redfin Likau tied up for us, but then a couple snappers accosted me on my way back. Gonna need a new net.”
Charek shrugged. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not a picky eater these days.”
“I doubt you ever were,” Cephala said. She set the Ruki and her lightstone down on the board, briefly toyed with a scaling knife, then put that down as well and turned to look at Charek. “That said,” she continued, “that sounded a little too much like code for ‘I’m between jobs right now’. Am I warm?”
“Searing,” Charek said. They both sighed.
Cephala trotted over to the couch and took a seat next to Charek, the tip of her Noble Kaukau barely reaching the Toa of Plasma’s shoulder. “What happened to that Outsiders job I hooked you up with?” she asked.
Charek glared at his feet. “…didn’t work out.”
Cephala snorted and gently elbowed Charek’s arm. “Come on, give me more than that.”
Charek grunted. “Didn’t mix well with the rest. First job felt like it was going nowhere. Lost track of everyone. Didn’t particularly feel like trying to stick around.”
“That’s it?” Cephala frowned up at her friend. “You decided you weren’t feeling it and just up and left on your first day? Charek, for a guy that’s always looking for a job, it sounds to me like you’re not trying very hard to keep one.”
“Didn’t really feel like they wanted to keep me,” Charek grumbled. “The guy in charge of the op left us in the dust after our first meetup in Ga, and we had pretty much no intel in the first place.”
“Well, you should’ve come to me, then!” Cephala said, elbowing Charek again. “I probably could have dug something up for you.”
“I was planning on it,” said Charek. “But I ran out of motivation pretty quick. Felt like I was being brushed off half the time I tried to actually talk with anyone. Leader even encouraged us to stay away from each other as much as possible.” He exhaled. “Some team.”
Cephala gazed up at Charek’s face… and, slowly, she began to smile. “You’re starting to miss the old crew, aren’t you?” she said.
Charek finally turned to meet her gaze, and a small smile of his own began to appear. “Maybe a couple of you,” he said. “Most of us were idiots, though.”
“Ha!” Cephala hopped to her feet and poked Charek’s heartlight. “Watch it with the names, brother. One of those ‘idiots’ is headed this way right now, and he’s about a hundred times busier than you are these days. Speaking of which, I have some fish to prepare…” The Po-Turaga spun on one foot and trotted back over to the cutting board.
Charek frowned as Cephala began stripping Ruki scales. Very little memory remained of his time with his old Toa team; they’d come together and broken apart long before he’d ever set foot on the island of Mata Nui. Faces and colors were hazy; names, even more so. He had a gut feeling that they’d split only after some cataclysmic defeat, some great tragedy, but the details eluded him, as did any inkling of what the team had done beforehand.
It would certainly be an interesting experience, he reckoned, to see one of the old guard again. Not necessarily an enjoyable one, though. Charek was hardly a model Toa these days, and he had a feeling that some his old comrades, if his memories were accurate enough, would take issue with that. In fact, there was one comrade in particular that would-
The front door slammed open. “SISTER,” Toa Joskander boomed, silhouetted in the doorway by the afternoon sun. “I AM HERE. NOTICE ME.”
Cephala cackled, scooping up a pile of sliced fishmeat and dumping it in a wok. “You’ve been noticed, brother,” she said as she unsealed her stove’s heatstone chamber. “You’ll have to wait a bit for a meal, unfortunately; today’s haul ran into a bit of a snag, and then Charek stopped by for a chat, and it’s all been very, very hectic today-”
“Charek?” Joskander’s head snapped around.
Charek met his gaze with a cool glare. He said nothing.
“Hm.” Joskander shrugged. “Nice to see you too, brother.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Sure thing, bro.” Joskander turned back to Cephala. “I, uh, don’t have a lot of time, Cephala. Ihu’s pretty hectic too, right now. The Maru are leading a counterattack on Ko right now, so we’re low on staff and we gotta prepare for casualties and we’ve still got injured from before-”
“Wait, back up a little,” Cephala interrupted, accidentally squirting a little too much Hoi sauce into the wok. “They’re retaking Ko? Now?”
“You better believe it,” Joskander said, a nervous smile twitching its way to his lips. “Wish I could be there too, but someone’s gotta be the errand guy back at base, y’know?”
Cephala nodded. “Mata Nui preserve them,” she murmured.
Joskander closed his eyes, fists clenched tight.
Charek kept staring at Joskander, but he wasn’t glaring any more. When both Cephala and Joskander remained silent, he ventured, “… what’s this about Ko?”
Joskander’s head jerked up. “Sorry, what?”
“Uh…” Charek shifted uneasily on the couch. “You mentioned Ko-Wahi, yes? What’s going on there? A fight or something?”
“Wha-” Joskander sputtered. “Nonononono, not Ko-Wahi, you idiot! Ko-Koro! Occupied Ko-Koro! Occupied by Makuta worshippers Ko-Koro! That-” He whirled on Cephala. “Is he for real?”
Cephala grimaced, but kept frying. “Wouldn’t be surprised,” she said. “From what he’s told me, he’s been wandering Ga-Koro ever since right before news got out about the invasion.”
“And that matters?” Joskander demanded, storming inside. “There’s a war going on, Cephala! Everyone knows about it! You’d have to be dead not to know about it! What, did he just wander off into another friggin’ dimension or some-”
Joskander craned his neck around to glare at Charek again. “What now?”
“Your armor,” Charek said, mouth barely moving, eyes drinking in the burn lines etched into Joskander’s back.
“Mata Nui have mercy,” Joskander said as he turned around, an eye twitching madly behind his Kakama. “Yes, you idiot, it’s messed up. That’s what happens when you get shot up by a…” He stopped and frowned at the look on Charek’s face. “Are… are you doing okay, brother?”
Charek kept staring. “Are you?”
Joskander bit his lip, glancing down at his breastplate- at the dents, the cracks, the melt-edged cuts, the holes, the scars beneath. “I mean… There’s a reason I’m not on frontline duty, but I can still run just fine. And that’s what matters, yeah?”
Despite himself, Charek began to smile again. “Your front’s worse than your back, though.”
Joskander blinked. “And?”
Charek’s smile widened. “Took a lot to make you run, then.”
“You-” Joskander twitched in anger, then winced and gripped his injured side. Charek immediately lurched to his feet, but the Toa of Air waved him off, quietly gritting his teeth and hissing in pain.
After a moment, he exhaled and muttered, “It should have taken a lot more.”
“No. Stop that.” Charek took a step forward and looked Joskander in the eyes. “Never be afraid to back out when you need to,” he said, prodding the other Toa’s cracked heartlight. “You want to do something that matters? You want to be a hero, brother? Then do yourself a favor and keep your body breathing.”
Joskander sneered. “Of course you would say that,” he said. “Coward. Codebreaker.”
“This from the man with a martyr complex,” Charek retorted.
“Martyr complex?” Joskander spat. “It’s called trying to save people, idiot!”
“Then save yourself first,” said Charek, crossing his arms. “Idiot.”
Joskander opened his mouth, clearly about to drop a string of curses that would bring even a Rahkshi to tears- and then paused. He stared at Charek for a moment, jaw hanging dumbly, and let out a disbelieving laugh. “Oh, man,” he said. “Are you- oh, you’re legit worried about me, aren’t you?”
Charek paused, considered, made the face of a man who’d just realized he’d been stepping in Manas dung for the past five minutes. “Uh,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “That’s. That’s not how I’d-”
“You are. You’re worried.” Joskander cackled.
“Shut up and quit changing the subject,” Charek snarled.
“Here’s your subject, pal,” Joskander said. There was still a trace of harsh laughter on his face, a faint curl at the edge of his mouth, but no mirth to be found. “I got people I worry about, too, and they don’t have Masks of Speed like we do, who can’t run like we do. One of ‘em, last I saw, was cornered by a couple cultists. Doesn’t matter if I could do anything to help. I ran. He couldn’t.” He glared at the ground. “And that hurts, no matter how much you tell me I had to.”
Charek nodded, eyes flicking between Joskander and Cephala, who was still quietly cooking in the corner. He let the silence hang, then took a deep breath. “...so. You never did tell me how bad Ko was.”
“It…” Joskander grimaced. “It’s a mess. Blizzard was going, everything was dying, I just sort of accidentally wound up in the thick of it. I could barely keep track of what was going on.” He looked back up at Charek, a haunted look in his eyes. “I… snuck back a little later, though…”
“Couple refugees showed up a few days after the fall. Said the guys at the top had set half their captives free to send a message to the other villages.” Joskander grit his teeth. “And then the guards started shooting them as they ran.”
“So I went back.” The Toa of Air’s voice was low, just a touch above a whisper. “Bodies everywhere. One survivor. I got her back to Ihu. Took the rest back later for ID and burial.” He walked over to a window and gazed into nothing. “That’s… not quite what you were asking for, I think. I don’t know.”
“Nah,” Charek said. “I think I get the picture now.”
“Mm.” Joskander leaned forward, resting the tip of his Kakama on the windowsill. “So. Yeah. I got a job now.”
“A job…” Charek murmured.
“Grunt stuff, mostly,” Joskander continued. “Scouting. Supply runs- we’ve got some supplies waiting at Onu-Koro right now, actually, I’m gonna be taking care of that after I’m done here…” He glanced back at Charek and offered a weak smile. “I’m oversharing, aren’t I? What’s up on your end? Shoot anyone lately?”
Charek let out a dry chuckle. “I’ve mostly just been wasting away here in Ga, honestly. Cephala got me signed up with a merc crew working the cable car between Ta and Ko, but that went south pretty quick.”
“Cable car…!” Joskander nearly bumped his head on the window as he straightened up. “Hold up, you signed on with the guys at Obsidian Outpost?”
Charek stared. “You know about them?”
“You kidding?” Joskander beamed- the first genuine smile he’d worn since arriving at Cephala’s hut. “Like, we had an absolute ton of refugees and wounded headed over to Ta-Koro through the cable car, back when the battle was still fresh and all, and Zero made sure everything went super smoothly. She’s probably saved more people than I have.”
Charek sat back down on the couch and leaned back, fingers drumming the armrests. “Huh.”
“Not what you were expecting to hear?”
Charek closed his eyes and sifted through his memories of Zero- quiet, stern, cold, distant Zero. Eyes that made you feel like you were being watched by an entire fortress. A presence that made you want to both drop to your knees and run for your life at the same time. “No,” he said. “Not in the slightest.”
Joskander shrugged. “Maybe you shoulda stayed longer, then,” he said, idly scuffing a nearby carpet with an armored heel.
Charek opened his eyes. “…maybe,” he said. His head rolled languidly to the side. “Or maybe they should’ve pitched me a better reason to stick around first.”
“Ha!” Joskander said. “They should have pitched you out the nearest window is what they should’ve done.”
Charek smiled. “I’d like to see them try.”
Across the room, Cephala smiled and turned off the stove.
Dinner was ready.
* * *
“…and I’m still not super confident working with Ruki, so if it’s a little overcooked, or a little undercooked, or if the Lota flakes taste too strong for-”
“Cephala,” Charek chided gently, bringing a spoonful of stir-fry to his lips. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“You always get all worked up about the little stuff,” Joskander agreed. Despite his friends’ admonishment, the Toa had refused to take a seat at the dining table while he ate, and was presently trailing Ruki bits across the hut. “You never worried when you were punting Kane-Ra off mountains. Why start now?”
Cephala shrugged and sipped at a Bula smoothie. “I was a Toa. Fighting was always my thing. Cooking? Not so much.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Joskander said, shoveling seafood into his mouth and grinning all the way. “Mmmmmmph.”
Charek side-eyed his brother with a look of distaste. “You know, you can’t savor your food properly if you eat that fast.”
“Mmmmmmmmmph,”Joskander mumbled. He swallowed, then added, “I’ll savor my food however I wanna, buddy. Besides, I got a job, remember? Kinda in a hurry.”
“Well, your job isn’t here,” Charek said, “so while you’re making a social call, the least you can do is-”
“He’s not,” Cephala said. “He’s here on business.” She looked at her smoothie, sighed, and set it down.
“Oh?” Charek turned to Joskander, absentmindedly stirring his food.
Joskander gulped down another mouthful of stir-fry and nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “as much as I want to just stop by and hang, I’m only here because Cephala’s been doing some digging for me. There were a couple other Toa that were with me when Ko fell…” He sighed.
Charek didn’t ask him to keep going. He could fill in the gaps himself
“I think I found them both, by the way,” Cephala said.
Joskander’s bowl slipped from his fingers; he yelped and caught it inches from the ground. “Wait, both of them?”
Cephala nodded. “From what I hear, a Toa of Ice by the name of Dahkapa arrived at the Ta-Koro hospital not long ago. Went up to a Toa of Lightning named Brontes, started insulting him and demanding he take him to Akiri Jaller.”
Slowly, as if barely conscious of his actions, Joskander took a seat at the table across from Cephala and gently set his bowl down. “Brontes…” he murmured.
“Bronze armor,” Cephala added. “Kanohi Calix. Uses swords and a shield.”
Joskander clenched his fists. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s both of them, then.”
“It gets worse,” Cephala said. “Dahkapa accused Brontes of leaving him to fight at Ko-Koro alone-”
“Alone…” Joskander rasped, slowly slumping in his chair.
“-and also confessed to being a cultist of the Brotherhood of Ak’Rei’An,” Cephala continued. “Likely tortured into joining when the village fell, then cut loose when the fiends at the top of the food chain decided their pet crazies weren’t needed any longer.”
“He’s locked up now,” Cephala said. “The Ta-Koro Guard weren’t about to let a known member of a terrorist cult just walk around, demanding to see their leader.” She paused, then finished, “As far as I can tell, neither he nor Brontes ever mentioned you.”
Joskander didn’t respond. His head was sagging, his eyes squeezed shut.
Charek glanced at Cephala, who seemed very intent on staring at the floor until the entire hut rotted away. He sighed, then put his spoon down and elbowed Joskander. “Hey,” he grunted.
“Your food’s getting cold.”
A quiet response, barely even a whimper. “Not hungry.”
“Eat anyways,” Charek said. “You’ve got an awful lot of running to do, right? War buddy to look after and all that.”
A minute’s silence. Then, as if someone had dropped a live Kraata into his armor, Joskander bolted upright, limbs stiff, eyes wide. He grabbed his bowl and began stuffing himself again, grumbling curses around every mouthful.
Charek blinked. “Uh, Joskander?” he said.
“Shut up,” Joskander said, bringing his bowl to his Kakama and slurping down what remained of its contents. “Supply run. Too busy. Can’t visit. No time. No time. No time. Can’t visit.”
Charek sucked in another breath and looked at Cephala again, who mouthed “I think we broke him” at him while fumbling with something under the table. He nodded, grimacing, and asked Joskander, “Can’t visit who? Dahkapa? Us?”
“Yes,” Joskander said between slurps.
Charek waited for elaboration; when none came, he ventured, “When you say ‘yes’, do you mean…?”
“Anyone! Yes! Okay?” Joskander slurped the angriest slurp Charek had heard in years. “Remember? The Onu-Koro thing? Ihu’s waiting on a bunch of gizmos and doodads and whatever and I need to grab that stuff now. Bhuko’s waiting on me.”
“Bhuko?” Charek inquired.
“Bhuko,” Joskander confirmed. Slurp. Slurp.
“Guardswoman from Ko,” Cephala added. “The one Joskander rescued after the takeover. Crippled from the waist down, possibly for life.”
Charek nodded, steepling his hands. After a moment’s thought, he asked, “What if I went to Onu for you? Would that give you enough time?”
Joskander finally stopped slurping. (Finally.) He gulped down what food had made it into his mouth, then asked, “Are you… Are you actually volunteering to help? For real?”
Charek smirked. “Well, I am between jobs at the moment…”
“And that translates to you deciding to start acting like a Toa again?” Joskander wolfed down one last bite of stir-fry, tossed his bowl back onto the table, and wiped his mask clean with the back of his hand. “Ha. Today I learned, I guess.”
“Well, then,” Charek said with a snort. “When you put it that way, suddenly I’m feeling a little less motivated.”
“Behave, you two,” Cephala said, smiling. “I can pack up your leftovers if you’re okay with food on the go, Charek.”
“Easy, there,” Charek said, waving his hand airily. “Field trip hasn’t been approved yet. Maybe he’ll say no! After all, why trust a cowardly, codebreaking merc, hm?”
Joskander raised an eyebrow. “You’re taunting me an awful lot for a volunteer.”
“I like to call it a challenge,” Charek said. His grin faded somewhat. “And… well, I want you to be sure about this. I did leave the Code behind, after all.” He paused, then added, “‘Coward’ might not be entirely wrong either.”
Joskander looked at Charek, and an expression the Toa of Plasma couldn’t quite place (regret? Pain? Judgement?) flitted across his brother’s face. Then he nodded firmly. “You know how to get to Onu-Koro?”
“Highway gate at the rear end of Ta,” Charek said. “Straight shot from there to Onu. Cephala got me some maps for the finer details if I need them. I’m in, then?”
“You’re in,” Joskander confirmed. “I’m not about to turn down a helping hand from a brother- especially now, when Ihu-Koro needs all the help we can get.” He smiled grimly. “Besides, I’ve had to work with people with less scruples than me before. People that can and will hunt you beyond the end of time itself if you even consider betraying our trust.”
Charek nodded. “I won’t.”
“Good.” Joskander’s smile grew wider. He reached into his pack and pulled out a notebook and a card. “Here’s my shopping list and Ihu cred,” he said, tossing both items on the table. “List has everything you need to get, along with everyone you need to get it from. All you gotta do is show them the card, and they’ll take care of the rest. No cash involved- Ihu’s already paid for everything that isn’t charity.”
“Excellent,” Charek said, picking up the notebook and skimming the list. “Hm. Lot of mechanical stuff. Might be tough to carry.”
“They’ll have everything packed up to make it easy for you,” Joskander said. “Remember, I was going to make this run alone, and I’m even worse at heavy lifting than you are. You’ll be fine.”
“Good, good,” Charek murmured, pocketing the notebook and slipping the card into his pack. “Where do we rendezvous when we’re done?”
Joskander thought for a moment. “Cable car,” he said. “If I’m not there, check the prison or the hospital.”
“Hm. What about a backup?” Charek said. “Somewhere less public.”
“For what?” Joskander frowned.
“In case you need to go on the run,” Cephala interjected. “In case the Ta-Koro Guard decide you’re getting a little too friendly with a cultist.”
Joskander grimaced. “Fine. I’ll camp out in a side highway to Onu or something. We’ll work out the details on the way to Ta-Koro.”
“Long way to run,” Cephala said.
Joskander almost smiled again. “I’m good at running.”
Cephala closed her eyes and exhaled. “Fair enough.” She turned to Charek and slid over a leaf-wrapped package. “Your food,” she told him.
Charek glanced down at where he’d left his bowl; it was gone. “When did you…?”
“A while ago.” Cephala’s eyes twinkled behind her Kaukau’s visor. “Before I even made the offer, in fact. The moment you started calling Joskander brother again, I had a feeling I knew how the conversation would end.” She prodded the box playfully. “And of course you were just so invested in the conversation, and all my hard work over a hot stove was going to waste…”
Charek gingerly picked up the package and tried to ignore Joskander sniggering next to him. “...sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Cephala said as she picked up her smoothie again. “The last time I saw you this excited, I was still a Toa. Listening to you two reminds me of the old days, when we were all a team- when nothing, not even Makuta himself, could break us.” She gazed into Charek’s eyes, and a memory, vivid and clear, suddenly broke through the fog in his mind- twelve Toa, side-by-side, standing proud as a fortress burned and crumbled around them. “Maybe those days aren’t out of reach yet. Not for you two, at least.”
Charek closed his eyes and let the memory fill him. In his mind’s eye, Rahi with rusted masks were cast screaming over crumbling battlements; armored serpents descended en masse from the skies, only to hit the ground in pieces. Joskander and Alaki were laughing as they conjured a howling blizzard from thin air; Cephala and Kolis had their teeth bared in predatory grins as they dragged a metal colossus to a watery grave. The Charek of the past was saying nothing. He simply pointed, and stars bloomed in his wake.
How long ago, he wondered, had this battle taken place? Who were they fighting, and where, and why? Was this the battle that had scattered his team to the winds, or just another victory in a proud, long-lost history of valor? Would he ever see its like again?
And did he truly want to?
He opened his eyes again, and Cephala was still staring at him, concerned yet expectant.
“They’re not,” he told her.
She laughed softly. “I’ll hold you to that, then.”
“I’ll try not to disappoint you.”
“If he does, I’ll kick his butt.” Joskander prodded Charek’s shoulder. “Get up, bro. You’ve got a job to do, remember?”
“I remember.” Charek stood up, food in hand. “I did forget that you were an idiot, though. I was actually taking you seriously for a little while there.”
Joskander shrugged. “Funny things happen to a guy when you stay in town long enough to watch everything fall apart.” He held out a fist. “Who knows? Hang around Ihu enough, and maybe you’ll start changing too.”
“Maybe.” Fistbump. “Let’s find out.”
Two Kakamas flared to life- one green, one red.