Heroes and Halflings – Epilogue
The night was a velvety black, with the stars glittering like a multitude of diamonds scattered across it. It was a perfect time for seeking, but that was not the reason Nuju was up on the fortress balcony. No, other reasons had driven him up here: reasons that he had once tried to deny, but now had no reason to.
It had been two days since Stiaye had arrived with her message, and since then, Stara had been a whirlwind of activity preparing to leave Rohaya for good. She had been deciding what to take with her back home (the pile was amazingly small), what to take to Metru Nui for the Archives to have, and what to leave in the stronghold. Among those in the latter group was a letter she had written to anyone who came here, explaining what had happened in the past month.
She had been moving at a speed that could put any of Matau's cyclones to shame over those days – too fast for the Toa of Ice to tell her how he felt about her.
While everyone (herself included) had been under the impression that the Toa of Lightning was an exile, Nuju had tried to fight against his love for her. But ever since the news had been shared, he couldn't get her out of his head, now that he could no longer conjure up resistance to it.
Stara and Stiaye were planning to accompany the Toa Metru on the two-day journey back to the City of Legends, and stay about two days there while they prepared for the next leg of their travel home. No matter how he looked at it, the time they had together – his chances to tell her his feelings – were numbered – if he could even put his thoughts into order.
He sighed, his body slouching over the parapet. He had no idea where to begin, even if he could pull her aside from her enthusiastic work. He had no personal experiences to draw off of, not even something from books. Nokama had, in the past, shown him this fictional romance or that one, and had urged him to read it. When a "no" hadn't been enough to dissuade her, he would take the book reluctantly, saying he would read it, but then start in on something Matau would call "Karzahni-boring", and forget all about it.
The Toa of Ice glared up at the diamond-bright stars, demanding an answer from them he knew he would never get, and cursing himself for not having a single point of reference to help organize his thoughts and find what he could possibly say to her.
"Nice night, isn't it?"
Nuju whirled around and found himself mask-to-mask with Stara herself. He flinched back from their sudden closeness, than felt guilty for doing so, when he had been thinking about her and when their time was so limited. "Sorry," he apologized, slightly sheepish.
The Lightning Toa's mouth twisted into her strange, familiar half-smile at his reaction. Her tendency to suddenly appear and disappear hadn't faded during this time: the only change was that Nokama, Matau, Whenua, and Stiaye were now on her list of victims. She had still avoided telling them how it worked, and since Kronus now slept in his stone sarcophagus, he doubted they would ever find out the secret of the trick she continued to play.
"S'alright," she said, voice slightly slurred from the late hour as she moved to his left, leaning against the stone: it had to be nearly midnight by now, and she had always been the last to go to sleep and the first up in the morning. Excitement at her discovery that she was free to return home, no longer being an exile, and her grief about the deaths of the Toa Rohaya – particularly Kronus – had seen to her sleeplessness personally.
He returned his gaze to Stara, from where he had averted his gaze towards the sky, noticing a subtle difference from the ecastic Toa who had been roaming the halls these last couple days. She didn't resemble the being he had been used to seeing: the one who had a heavy burden – her past – weighing down on her shoulders. No, she seemed like she was dragging her feet; slowing down all of a sudden. Worried, he asked her what was wrong.
"I feel as if I'm abandoning the others," she said heavily, naming her nineteen dead teammates with those words. "I was all psyched to go home, but now I feel as if I'm leaving it again. That, and . . . other things have been weighing on my mind."
"Things have been giving me something to think about over the last week as well," he said softly in reply.
Nuju forced himself to meet the intense green stare she was directing at him, and not to flinch away from her predator-like gaze. Unskilled he might be in relationships such as this, he did know that eye contact was vital at times like this. He forced his voice to steady and level as he spoke the words.
"For a while, I've been having . . . strange feelings. I've tried to fight them off, but I can't deny that they're right, true.
"I . . . I love you, Stara."
There. He'd said it. He quickly turned away, so he wouldn't have to see the amused look she'd no doubt be wearing now. Nuju braced himself for the scornful teasing the former exile would scald him with, words that would hurt worse than anything else.
But when she did speak, her voice was much softer then he'd thought it would be.
"You know, when I'd hear the legends about your team, Nuju, I would know I admired you," she said, her fingertips tracing invisible patterns on the stone, addressing both the fortress and the Ice Toa. "To me, you were the one who would understand, who would help me regain what I had lost – and I was right. But when we met, I realized that it wasn't an admiration; at least, not completely . . . it was more like an amoration."
At that last word, her cool hand came to rest on his shoulder. He spun around to find himself staring into her depthless emerald eyes, the space between them now nonexistant. She moved ever closer, their masks almost touching . . . and then the fantasies Onewa had risen after the conversation that had made the Toa of Ice come to recognize his feelings came true.
Nuju had heard that a first kiss from someone you truly loved felt like electricity shooting through your body, originating from where your lips met.
In this case, this statement was defiantly true. As soon as he responded to the moment by wrapping his arms around her like chains of the hardest ice while he kissed her back, Stara's power responded to her increased heartbeat and sent an electric current over her. Even though his eyes had closed, he could feel the gentle shocks, hear the crackling as her power danced over their bodies. He ignored them. It didn't matter. At this moment, only the Toa in his arms mattered. Nuju was deaf to everything except the rapid, excited heartbeat next to his own, senseless to everything except Stara's lithe form partially yielding in his embrace: even in a moment like this, she determined to hold her own.
Neither wanted the moment to end, though they both knew it was inevitable to do so. Reluctantly, they both pulled away, but stayed in each other's arms, Stara's power still snapping around them.
"I love you, Nuju," she said, absolute certainty in her voice. "My heart is yours."
"But what about Kronus?" he asked hesitantly, not sure if they should be proclaiming themselves so soon after the Toa's death. Stara understood his real question, though, and smiled at him.
"He was no more than a friend to me, Nuju . . . not in the way we are. Our bond was nothing more than a friendship – a trying one, but a friendship nonetheless. And even if we ever had feelings for each other," she added, laughing slightly, "I would have had to pry his heart out of Eos' grip . . . which would never, ever, happen. Not even in death."
No other words were spoken – or needed to be. As they kissed again, Nuju knew that everything would turn out alright in the end between them.
They may be destined to be pulled apart by their duty, but he knew that they would someday find themselves reunited in each other's arms again. Until that day came, and in the time they still had, the Toa of Ice would cherish every moment they shared, holding them to his heart until the day he died.
Beneath the volcano that was the heart of the island Stara and her comrades had called home, the lava bubbled, each bursting accordingly to the desires of the one who lurked below.
For nearly as long as this universe had existed, the volcano had been active, venting the emotions of Rohaya's captive being as they had come and gone. Its Purpose meant it could never sleep, and it had ceaselessly worked to serve Mata Nui, the Great Spirit, and protect the light.
Now, though – the Purpose was complete. While not turning out the way Rohaya had expected, the Toa it had gathered to it had done all that had been asked of them, fighting the Brotherhood in their own way. Now, though, nineteen lay dead beneath its surface and the last of them – the strongest of them, the last to have joined their number and the only one to survive what had come – was preparing to leave. To her, she would never return, but the future was hardly certain.
If the being had eyes, they would've blinked sleepily; if it had a mouth, it would've yawned. Now, he could finally sleep. The island would no longer be driven by its wills; those that came and went from it would – assuming Rohaya was ever treaded upon again.
As the seven Toa and one Matoran left, the captive being sunk into endless slumber – not death, but not normal sleep, either – and the Krycai fell silent in accordance.
Stara rapidly scaled the cliffs above the beach, Stiaye clinging to her shoulders like her life depended on it. And it probably does, thought the Toa of Lightning. Grasping an overhanging rock, she hauled herself to the top, barely breathing hard. On purpose, she had ignored the carved steps that led from the cove-harbor to the top of the cliff and scaled it without a harness – and for some crazy reason, the Xi-Matoran had gripped her shoulders and came along for the ride.
Stiaye looked at her incredulously as she slid off her back. "How can you do that?" she asked. "I'd be gasping for breath if I was doing the climbing!"
"Mask of Enhancement, remember? Not to mention I've benefitted from over 1000 years of strength training."
There was no trace of bitterness in Stara's voice as she mentioned her years of exile: she had all but forgiven her people fully for the act. Stiaye still flinched at the obvious allusion, though. Stara quickly defused the awkward moment by adding, "Though if you were doing the climbing, you'd definitely be panting – I don't weigh as little as you do," and her friend laughed.
"The village is still where it was last time I was here, right?" the Toa asked. Another allusion, but the Xi-Matoran barely noticed as she nodded assent, a grin spreading across her face. "Wanna race, Stara?" she challenged.
"Have I changed that much?" returned her friend. "I'll go easy on you – and give you a head start!"
But even at a slower pace, Stara was still faster. As she waited at the top of a hill for her Matoran friend to catch up, the Toa of Lightning looked down.
Her breath caught as she saw her home at the bottom. The huts were arranged the same way she remembered them, the dwellings of the Xi-Matoran arranged in the curving arcs of the symbol for Unity, Duty, and Destiny, while the Suva and Reya's hut made up the center points. Stara's had been there in the center, too, and still was, as was the curving wall that defended the village. Time seemed to shudder and turn back on itself, because it had been on a clear night like this one Stara had looked back on her village for what had seemed to be the last time.
Glancing back toward Stiaye, who was still a ways off, Stara pried open her breastplate and removed the memory crystal Nuju had given her two weeks ago, when she had left Metru Nui with Stiaye. He had shown her how to imprint and view memories she stored in the stone . . . and then had given her another memory before they had parted. Clenching her hand, she willed it to activate.
The memories of her time as a Toa – pre- and post-exile – swirled through her mind's eye, but she flicked through them quickly. Behind her they may be, but they were still painful to watch. Besides, they weren't the images she was looking for.
She slowed down as she hit the time when she had met the Toa Metru for the first time. Octipi Grotto, Razor's Edge, Dragon's Watchtower, storming the fortress, Kronus's death, Stiaye's news . . . she relaxed her forced fast-forward as she found what she wanted.
Stara was experiencing the first kiss she and Nuju had shared, on their last night on Rohaya. She was reliving every stolen moment they had managed to find on the airships and on Metru Nui. And she felt the long, true promise he had given her before she had departed again.
She shut down the crystal as Stiaye staggered up to her, gasping for breath. Smiling slightly, she touched the Xi-Matoran's shoulder and willed her mask to strengthen her friend. Her breathing slowed and evened out, and she flashed a grateful look at Stara.
"Turaga Reya told me that when we came back, you should send a bolt of controlled lightning over the village, so they know it's you," she explained to her old friend.
Stara smiled. She'd give them controlled lightning, and then some.
Her staff in one hand, the crystal in the other, she raised her arms, as if to embrace the starry heavens. Three streamers of lightning shot from her tool, racing over the roofs of the huts below, and then twisting themselves into the symbols for the three virtues above the Suva.
The Toa of Lightning held them there for ten seconds, than willed them back into her. No sparks ran over her now. The stress she had felt as an exile was now gone.
The gates swung open and Matoran poured out like water through a spillway. Their eyes immediately focused on the Xi-Matoran standing on the hill's crest – and the tall Toa contrasting to the stars behind her.
As the group surged forward, Stara began to imprint this image into the crystal in her palm. She wanted to never forget this night – the night she came home.
What had she said to Nuju, before they had pulled away from each other's embrace? We'll see each other again. In life or death, we'll meet again.
No matter how long it takes, I'll be waiting, he had promised.
"I'll see you again, my love," she murmured to herself. "But for now . . . I've got it good right here."
Staiye smiled at her friend. Stara had told her on the journey how she and the Toa of Ice had fallen in love with each other. The Toa of Lightning had made a difficult decision in choosing her home over her heart, and she knew it.
"Come on," she said. "Let's go home."
"Home," echoed the Toa happily.
And together the two heartsore travelers started down to rejoin their people.