They were waiting for her. She knew it. And now she was going to have to explain to them, something she was never very good at. There were times when she yearned to be an outcast again. A pariah, having contact with no one, neither requiring or offering reasons to anyone.
But she wasn't alone anymore.
She was Raven, a Teen Titan. And she had friends to take care of.
She just knew this wouldn't turn out well.
Standing before the doors that led to the Titans' community room, the dimensional traveler paused to collect her thoughts. Only twenty minutes ago her world had been stable and solid. Since then she had found herself being visited by a man who had turned out to be some kind of impervious criminal. She had watched her friend and ally attack this caller, and had responded with absolute fury herself. Raven flinched at the thought. She had assaulted her leader. If things had not gone differently, who knows what else she might have done. Then she had proceeded to let the villain go without any real constraints.
That just about summed it up. Now she just had to explain why.
From behind the door, the shadowy off-worlder could hear her teammates conversing. Feeling a twinge of paranoia, or perhaps just wanting to postpone the inevitable as much as possible, she pressed her ear to the portal.
It was easy to pick out Beast Boy's scratchy piping, and Starfire's plaintive tones. But their words were overridden by the authoritative voice of Robin. There was anger there, and well-deserved. A more mollifying rumble could be the sound of Cyborg expressing his opinion. Raven considered subtly shifting herself into the room to continue eavesdropping. But she immediately rejected that. Things were bad enough as they stood. No sense in making them even more hostile towards her.
She opened the door and strode into the room.
The other Titans all turned at her entrance.
For a moment, looking into their faces, Raven felt her normally sure grasp of herself slip. She was seized by the desire to start apologizing for anything and everything. It took less than a second to fight this feeling down. You don't weaken. You don't run. You put yourself before these people and tell them the truth. Because that's what they deserve.
Raven moved to the front of the room. She turned and stood before the bay windows.
"All of you, please take a seat and I'll..." she tried not to sound ungracious, "...explain."
The four other Titans wasted no time and settled in on the couch. Beast Boy was twisting and fidgeting uncomfortably. The tension in the air was obviously getting to him, but his usual safety measure of cracking jokes seemed to be dampened by his uncertainties regarding the situation.
Cyborg had come in late to the topic at hand, but he had quickly picked up that this left him no worse off than the others. He gazed at Raven patiently.
There was an aggrieved expression on Starfire's face. The merry alien was always disconcerted when her friends came into conflict, and it seemed there was no Tameranian concoction she could fall back on to try and make things right.
Robin had not taken his eyes off Raven since she came in. It made her feel awful, knowing that he regarded her with suspicion now. Though willing to give her some latitude in regards to this meeting's order, he obviously expected to get a lot back in return.
Might as well get things started.
"All right. Let me begin by clearing up a few things. First and foremost, the man you all just met, the one Robin refers to as Vandal Savage, is not known to me by that name. I met him for the first and only time about two months ago, before Terra came back. The name he gave me..." Raven hesitated, giving this matter some thought. "I'm not going to tell you that."
The Titans stirred in their seats.
"Any particular reason why you shouldn't?" Cyborg remarked.
Raven's eyes lowered to the floor.
"I don't think he wants me to," she murmured.
"Raven?" Beast Boy asked with some concern. "Does this guy have some kind of hold on you?"
"No," she insisted. "Now please let me finish."
They grew quiet once again. Raven drew a shaky breath. She was a little disconcerted at how calmly things were going. But Robin had yet to share his thoughts with her, so that might not last.
"That man," she continued. "I caught him... trying to kill himself. At least, that's what I thought at the time." Raven remembered what she had seen and heard only minutes earlier. "I saved him, and he offered to spend the evening with me. Nothing wrong with that, so I agreed. We talked to each other. Admittedly, I might have opened up more than the situation warranted, but I was..." She hesitated. "I guess you could say I was pleased by the attention. At the way he treated me. I didn't pick up on anything menacing from him. We talked about ourselves. He seemed nice. At least to me. Maybe I'm just easily fooled."
No, she rebuked herself. No self-pity. Get over it and move on.
"Anyway," Raven inhaled deeply, "We said our goodbyes and left it at that. I haven't heard from him until today."
She looked up to see their reactions. Almost as one, they all looked to Robin.
The Titans' leader stood up.
"When exactly was this?" he demanded.
Raven felt herself grow a bit cross, but she kept her voice even.
"It was the night before the big zoo incident."
Cyborg blinked. "Oh! So that was the guy who sent the flowers!"
Raven's eyes drifted off to one side. "Yes."
Robin crossed his arms and stared steadily from behind his mask. One mystery solved.
"You never met him again? He never tried to contact you?"
Raven gave a slow shake of her head.
"What about you?"
She looked at him perplexedly.
"Have you contacted him?" Something clicked in Robin's head. "Does this have anything to do with what you've been involved in for the past few weeks?"
Raven's eyes narrowed. "No. And that's all I'll tell you about that."
The young detective leaned forward and placed his palms on the table. "Raven, I think that after today you don't get to decide what stays secret around here anymore."
Her fists clenched, a wellspring of dark magic crackling through her veins. She faced the Boy Wonder in a dangerous light. "You are talking about things you don't understand, Robin!" Raven growled. "I'm not just another weapon in your arsenal against crime, and if you can't handle that then maybe I should just leave!"
"Whoa, hold up!" Cyborg leapt between them quickly before Robin could make a retort. "Now before either of you says or does something we'll all regret, let's just remember that we've been through a lot worse than this, so let's try to cool it down." He glanced meaningfully back and forth at both of them.
"Yeah," Beast Boy supplied. "It's not like we're in danger or anything."
"How do you know that?" Robin whipped around on him. "That man out there, the would-be world conqueror? The one none of you seemed to recognize as dangerous? For all we know he's aiming a weapon at us right now!"
Beast Boy smirked. "You think maybe this time he'll start the car?"
A brief chuckle escaped from Cyborg, and Starfire smiled faintly.
Robin stood livid before them, looking from one to another. "You honestly don't understand what's going on, do you?" he whispered furiously. Under his accusing stare, the Titans sobered rapidly.
"All right, then," the crimefighter sounded grim. "Let me fill you in."
With that he turned and walked to the computer terminal at the front of the room. Robin then brought up the Tower's archival data, selected a file, and opened it.
The image of the city skyline out their window faded, to be replaced by a criminal history report.
An image came with the words.
It was the face of the man they had left outside their home.
The name on the report was Vandal Savage.
"And this is just what we know," Robin said.
Cyborg walked over to examine the screen, and Beast Boy followed suit. Their expressions blanched as they picked out events in the rap sheet dating back over 300 years. Behind them, Starfire floated up before the huge digital picture. The face that stared unblinkingly at her was hard, fierce, a visage that spoke of arrogance and power. The gentle alien touched a hand to her cheek hesitantly, trying to reconcile these stern features with the ones she had met just a half hour before.
Standing off to the side, Robin observed his allies' reactions with approval.
And then he noticed that Raven was seated on the coffee table with her back to them all. She had not turned around.
Robin felt himself grow angry at her stubborn display. He stalked over to loom before the violet-haired female. Her head was cast down. She gave no acknowledgement of his presence.
"Look at it, Raven," Robin spoke softly.
At first there was nothing. Then her gemstone eyes rose up to train on him from beneath her dark brow.
"Is that an order, Robin?"
Her voice carried tones of both mockery and reproach. It made Robin's lips pull back from his teeth. "What is wrong with you?!" he demanded of her. "Are you just going to remain blissfully ignorant, pretend that everything is all nice and safe? I gave you credit for being smarter than that!"
She made no response, only rose to her feet to stand before him, poised and elegant in her cool beauty.
"Um, Raven," Beast Boy cast a glance over his shoulder. "I really think you should take a look at this."
They were watching her now. They wanted to know what she would do next. But Raven already knew.
"Why should I look?" Her mouth quirked slightly. "Robin already told me he was a wanted criminal, and I didn't think that it was for shoplifting pencils. Besides, I've always trusted our team leader."
Robin stiffened defensively. His masked eyes narrowed onto Ravens'. "Don't try to turn this back on me," he growled. "You're the one who needs to convince us that you really know what you're doing here!"
Before him, Raven suddenly gave a short laugh. "But I don't, Robin."
And she shrugged helplessly.
"I really don't."
The room grew silent after this admission.
Robin crossed his arms.
"Then I don't see how it can be left up to you."
At this Cyborg turned away from the screen and walked over to where the pair of them stood. Raven turned. She stared dully at him. His eye said it all. She knew what was coming next. Now they would all start to abuse her.
"Listen, Raven," the tech-genius began. "Nobody here wants you to start to regret living with us. And we all know that there's more that goes on in our lives than bustin' up bad guys and risking our necks. But I gotta be honest, I've never really known you to do much besides that." He hesitated as Raven's face hardened. "What I'm trying to say is, knowing who you are when you're by yourself is one thing, and knowing who you are around other people is another. Raven, I'm just not sure you've got the... well... experience at dealing with folks to know what might be best for you here."
Raven had known this was coming. Condemnation without cause was nothing new to her. But this time it was different, and she shivered when she realized why. This time it was coming from someone she trusted. Her first reaction was to take revenge, lash out, say something cruel. Hurt him back for doing exactly what everyone else used to do to her.
But Cyborg wasn't finished.
"Now that being said, let me also be the first to say that not knowing how you're gonna manage this doesn't necessarily mean that you shouldn't be allowed to. Itís times like this that let us find out things about ourselves we never realized."
Cyborg grinned as Raven's controlled features melted into a look of shock at this sudden show of support.
"Personally I want to see the side of you that you're gonna use to work this whole thing out. So just tell me what to do, Raven. I'm ready to back you up no matter what decision you make."
Openmouthed, Raven stood speechless. As his words sank in, she felt her face grow warm with pleasure. Feelings welled up in her heart, and Raven had to fight them down lest this unexpectedly wonderful moment be marred by the room being torn apart. Instead she settled for bestowing on him one of her infrequent smiles, and bowed forward in gratitude.
Cyborg grinned broadly back, and cast a warning look at Robin as the Boy Wonder seemed about to find his own voice again. "I think it's time we each had a turn to speak here," he announced firmly.
"Ahem!" Beast Boy coughed dramatically. This earned him hostile looks from both Raven and Robin at the same time, which was more than enough to make the green kid cheerfully consider waiving his turn. However, though his insides quailed, he quickly plucked up his courage and began to speak.
"Well, the thing is..." Beast Boy halted. He shuffled his feet as he searched for the best way he could think of to put this. "See, I kinda got a bad vibe off that guy pretty much from the start. I mean, it's not like I knew he was indestructible or anything, I just, y'know, had this... funny feeling. But then, when I found out he was here to see Raven, I kinda... relaxed...a bit."
Beast Boy fidgeted and rubbed the back of his head. That seemed to help him think.
"OK, it's like this. I knew that if Raven was involved, that it was gonna be all right, cuz' she's...I mean, uh...smart, y'know, and..." The shape-shifter felt his face flush at even this benign compliment of his attractive teammate, looking everywhere about the room but at her. "And powerful too. So I just knew that even if this guy did turn out to be bad news, that I could count on Raven to hand him his butt in a sling if he tried anything." He faltered for a moment.
"Um, long story short, Raven. You've got my vote. I think you can handle this Vandal Savage no matter which way things turn out. So just, grit your teeth and kick butt!" And he gave her a big thumbs-up while flashing a gigantic toothy grin.
Floating apart from the others, Starfire remained as before, in front of Vandal Savage's image. While her teammates had spoken their peace, she continued to study the alien physiognomy of this Earthling, and she had reached a conclusion.
"He is different now," she said quietly.
Robin looked over at her. "What was that, Star?"
"This man," she mused thoughtfully, head tilted to one side. "In this picture, there is no fear in him. His is the face that causes others to be afraid." Starfire turned and gestured to the screen. "But now he is the one who knows fear, and uncertainty. Robin, I do not doubt that this is the man you say he is. But if so, then the question becomes more compelling, the question of why he has come to us. Surely he must have known that one of us might recognize him for who he is, given that we are who we are. So then what has caused him to place his fate in our hands?"
Standing off to one side, Raven regarded her friend in surprise. With Starfire's emotional outpourings and pronounced naivetť, Raven sometimes forgot that the beautiful young alien was also quite intelligent. Just why had Vandal Savage taken such a risk of exposing himself to them?
Starfire glided over to join Robin. "We are all on guard now," she said to him. "He cannot take us unawares, nor is he likely to escape. And if Raven feels it is in her best interests to uncover the mystery of this man's arrival, then as her friends, we should all be ready to come to her aid." She then turned a Tameranian-sized smile on the azure Titan. "I will lend you my strength in any way you might require, my friend."
Raven couldn't think of anything to say.
She had fully expected that she would have to argue with them, try to convince them one by one that she had the right and the need to see this problem through on her own. But these people cared about her and trusted her and maybe even liked her enough to put their safety in her hands. The realization almost floored Raven, causing her to reach out to the couch for support. It was one thing to believe people were your friends, and quite another to be shown it. They really understood her. She hadn't thought that any of the other Titans would understand her position, but here they all were.
All but one.
Robin, the leader of the Teen Titans, remained unconvinced.
"He's evil," the masked warrior asserted, and such was the regard they all held him in that each Titan felt swayed by these words. "He's a threat to us."
But Raven was not about to let him outrank her.
"That remains to be seen."
The remaining Titans gave the two forceful personalities some space.
Robin jerked his head down with an angry exclamation, and when he looked up it seemed to the sorceress like he was less confident. "You don't know why he's here!"
She took a step towards him.
"Then let me find out."
He stared at her, and a look came over his face. Almost like he was in pain. "You're doing it again, Raven. You're putting yourself in danger again. Are you trying to die?"
Raven flinched. That was close. She had wondered the same thing herself on occasion. Did she risk her life for other people in the expectation that she would lose her own, and thereby avert the danger that she represented? But looking at her ally, she realized suddenly that even if that was the case, it was not what was at issue here with Robin. He was trying his hardest to keep them safe, and the thought that it might not be enough seemed to be killing him.
You're doing it again.
Was that what this was about? Was Robin still punishing himself for the incident with Terra and Slade? How much of what he was feeling here came as an offshoot of his own sense of frustration?
"Robin," she began, uncertain how to proceed but knowing she had to. "I'm not operating on some hidden agenda with this. There's no big secret." That was the truth, on its face. "And I'm not looking to put myself in unnecessary danger. If I talk to him and decide that you are right, that there's no worth to this man running free, then I'll put him in a cage where he belongs. But I need to decide that for myself. Can you let me do that? Do you trust me that much?"
The masked crimefighter stared at the ground. He was thinking to himself. But just how would thinking help him, when he himself didn't know all the details of what was going on? There were too many blank spots for any logical course of action. So what was left? Instinct? Routine? Gut reaction? Only half an hour ago he had decided to confront Raven to see if she would share any undisclosed information to help in the fight against Slade. Now there was an entirely new villain on the scene, and who's to say they were not connected somehow? Slade and Savage might be working together, using Raven as their cat's-paw. It was certainly possible. So then the question became, was his unfounded suspicion of two known villains stronger than the trust he held for one proven friend?
Now there was a question he could answer, and there was no better time than now.
"I've always thought of you as someone I can depend on, Raven," Robin spoke at last. "What happened today caught me by surprise, but...I'm thinking not half as much as it did you."
The other Titans, Raven included, gratefully let out the breaths they had not realized they were holding.
"So if you feel," Robin continued, "that you are up to being the one to decide this man's fate, I'm not above letting you call the shots." He took a step closer to her, and his face was deadly serious. "But keep in mind that there are a lot of people at potential risk here, some of whom have the honor of calling you friend. And I for one do not want to regret that fact."
The tension that had gripped her since this ordeal began slipped away, and Raven found she felt a little proud of herself. "Thank you," she said wearily, and turned to take them all in. "I mean it. All of you. Thanks."
Cyborg nodded, and Beast Boy smiled. Starfire bowed gracefully. Beside her, Robin sat down heavily on the couch. He rubbed the back of his neck in consternation. "Guess it's time you found your answer, Raven. We'll be here when you do."
The spell-caster nodded, and walked towards the door. On the threshold, she paused. Behind her was warmth and companionship. She felt it now more than ever, and the thought of losing it made her shudder with worry. Before her lay an unknown future, filled with tough choices and danger. A part of her wanted to stay in this room, for fear of losing what it held for her. But Raven knew that standing still meant fear, and action took courage. She had never actually thought of herself as courageous. Not that she thought she wasn't, she had just never given it any consideration. Maybe this single step would open all the doors that had previously been closed to her. Was it worth the risk of losing what she already had?
Somehow, Raven knew. The Teen Titans would go on. With her. Towards the future.
And with that, she moved out into the night.
Patty jumped up from her seat with a squeak. Her glasses, which had been balanced precariously on the tip of her nose, flew off her head. She peered about blindly. Who else was in here?!
She reached for her purse and fumbled about for the tube of pepper spray.
"Miss Hastings, it's Eric."
Patty froze. "Eric?" she whispered. "Are...you in here somewhere?"
"You know I'm not, Miss Hastings." The voice was made up of equal parts boredom and irritation.
"Ah...well..." Patty continued to peruse the darkened room. "I..I seem to have lost my glasses, and..."
"Over to your left, on the floor, next to the file cabinet."
"Thank you," the young woman exhaled gladly. She moved in the direction indicated. Patting gently about, she finally located her errant eyewear. Fully equipped, Patty rose to her feet and trotted to the far corner of the room, where a blinking red light revealed the security camera on the wall. She gave a timid wave up at it, grinning abashedly. "I'm sorry, Eric. I just got caught up in my work, it's so fascinating. By any chance, are you familiar with Christian scrip...?"
"Miss Hastings," the security guard broke in over the intercom. "It's almost time for us to lock up. Do you think for once maybe you can get out of here before midnight?"
Patty Hastings blinked owlishly at the impersonal device. "What? What time is it?"
"It's a quarter 'til, ma'am," the voice droned.
"Oh." The English researcher shivered. "Just... let me put everything away properly, all right?"
"Whatever." And the intercom clicked off.
Hastily Patty moved back to her workbench. She reached over to begin unloading the manuscripts, but hesitated when she noticed how her hands were shaking. So instead she began to pack away her own notes and shut down her computer. It made no real difference how many times she dropped those. But if anything were to happen to the ancient sheets of brown crumpled parchment, protected though they were in airtight cases of steel and bullet-proof plastic... Well, suffice it to say that Patty need no longer fear about her future. She wouldn't have one anymore.
This thought sent a pang of new terror through her frame, causing her to drop her laptop. Bending down to retrieve it, the foreign national bemoaned her lot. How could she have let this happen again? How could she have lost track of time again?!! Just because she worked with antique volumes did not mean she had all the time in the world. Forgetful by birth, Patricia Hastings had recognized early on the necessity and importance of careful ordering of her surroundings. This recognition of a fault, combined with a healthy respect for English literature, had led to her full-fledged desire to enter into the library profession. A certain degree of technical aptitude had culminated in her introduction to the field of informatics, whereby on-line information resources are retrieved and shared for the fruitful purpose of pan-cultural and scientific advancement.
It all sounded well and good. And it was precisely
because of her experience in organizing data among several different research
groups spanning across the globe that she had been offered the chance to travel
Some of her colleagues had suggested there might be more than devotion to her work that led Patty to keep such late hours. She was not unaware of her own predicament. Traveling to this city had exposed her to not just cultural differences, but very real human danger.
Being quite accustomed to the placid atmosphere of her
It was while walking to the bus stop late one evening that the warnings had struck home. As she fiddled about in her purse for the correct change, puzzling still over the unfamiliar currency, suddenly something struck her from behind. Shock and confusion were all Patty felt as she found herself lying on the pavement, at least until a violent jerk tore her purse painfully from her shoulder. Patty never even saw or heard her assailant make good their escape. She just lay there numbly, unable to move or react until the driver of the lorry came to her assistance.
The police had been of no help. And lately Patty found herself unable to sleep and jumping at the slightest sound. The experience had left her noticeably rattled, but she had refused an offer to return home, also declining to contact the trauma counselor recommended by the police. She told herself that there was no time to engage in personal pursuits when a piece of history was at stake. But she knew that eventually she would have to seek some help in regards to this incident. At one point she had even found herself considering contacting the city's resident super-hero task force, the Teen Titans, to request their aid in tracking down the culprit. It was all silly rubbish. But still the young woman found herself peering over her shoulder whenever she was outside, and spending much longer hours at the museum than any of her colleagues. They had been kind enough to arrange a car service for her, but her abuse of the facility's operating hours had recently led the administration to suspend that courtesy.
So now Patty would once again have to leave her sanctuary to brave the night alone.
Having collected her belongings, the British citizen felt sufficiently calm to handle the artifacts. Wheeling the cart closer to the table, Patty gently rolled the plate containing the manuscripts onto the carriage. She then proceeded to move the contents out of the room, down the hall to the secured area.
Standing before the door, Patty removed the card the museum had given her from the chain around her neck. She swiped it through the pad, and then pulled the door open. Pushing the contrivance over to one of the environment-shielded wall cabinets, she again used her card and then waited as a number of bins opened electronically along the wall. Over the cool fluorescent lights of the shelves, Patty gazed on the archaeological, historical and religious find of her lifetime. For a moment she was lost in their archaic appeal, these classic examples of recorded history which had only in the last century been replaced with a much surer method of preservation. Then she collected herself, and with the utmost care and respect, transferred the parchment plate back into its storage receptacle.
Patty left the room, closing the door firmly and checking to insure the mechanism had locked. She made her way back to the research section, purposefully scanned the room to insure she had left nothing behind, and then, with a nervous squirm, moved out into the hall. Passing rooms that housed the museum's treasures, she finally reached the first gate leading back into the museum proper. The security guard, known to her only as Eric, was visible through the window in the office beyond the barred wall. After quickly checking that everything was where it needed to be, Patty deposited her briefcase on a trundle conveyor belt to be scanned. It moved through the inspection and exited the lane without any difficulties, to no one's surprise.
"How are you this evening, Mr. Eric?" the young woman called good-naturedly as the officer appeared to let her through. For her trouble she received a very surly look, which in the tradition of her country she heartily ignored. "I'm always so grateful that you're here to look after me. Sometimes when I'm working I get so very focused on what I'm doing that everything else just disappears. Is it the same way with you and your job?"
The gate swung open. "No."
"Well, that's unfortunate," she pouted. "I don't understand how you can do a job if you don't enjoy it immensely. Have I told you what we've learned so far?" Patty retrieved her belongings and followed the buzz-cut employee to the second gate of super-plastic, prattling on in what she hoped was not too obvious an attempt to deter her leaving.
"Well, actually, maybe I shouldn't talk about that. All very hush-hush, you know." She absently-mindedly checked through the satchel to verify the contents. "You know, come to think of it, I just marvel at how much security you have here, cameras and alarms and what-not all over the place. Do you ever worry about getting locked in? I don't. That is to say, I don't worry. If I had to choose between being locked in and being locked out I would definitely much rather be in. Don't you agree?"
Reaching the security barrier, the guard glanced back at her.
"You dropped something," he commented languidly, and then turned away.
"What?" Patty looked behind her. On the floor lay some pages that had slipped from her dossier. "Oh dear," she sighed, bending down to retrieve them. "I can be such a scatter-brain, you know. It's been like that since my childhood. I would bury my toys in the garden, I don't remember why exactly but I did, and anyway we would find them years later while planting the petunias."
She rummaged about carefully on the floor, hoping to at least stay another minute. "You know, actually it got to be so bad, do you know what my school-chums began to refer to me as?"
The voice was electronic, and nasty. For a moment she barely registered what was said. Crouched down on her knees, the shocked librarian finally realized that something very wrong had just happened. And before she could consider her options, Patricia Hastings turned to look behind her.
And immediately wished she hadn't.
Eric the security guard was nowhere to be seen. In his place Patty found herself confronted by a figure that defied reason. It was bone-white. That was all she could see at first. Like a ghost come out of nowhere, it stood there watching her. The intruder looked like a man, except that its head was long and conically-shaped. Scrawled on the front of this headdress was the parody of a face, with a crooked, leering red line for a mouth, one eye shut in a possessive wink, and the other bulging forth in garish crimson intensity. It looked like one of the deranged Picasso paintings that had frightened her as a child. A grotesque titter escaped from the thing, and Patty shivered. She could scarcely believe this was happening. This just couldn't be real, she couldn't be expected to handle something like this.
"Wh..." emerged faintly from her throat. "Wha..."
The bizarre form suddenly bent down until its face hovered before her.
"Relax, hot-tottie," it smirked. "You're just going crazy!"
Its right arm came up, the end of which was encased in a polygonal cylinder of some kind. Patty cringed away. A sharp hiss escaped from one of several red circles emblazoned on the cylinder's end, and a chemical smell filled her nostrils. The world swam before her eyes, and then she was sliding off to one side, drifting away into dreamless sleep...
The crazily-dressed invader reached out. For a moment its hand drifted over the unconscious woman's form, as if debating the merits of certain actions. Finally it settled for simply looping the card key from around her head.
The man stood up and moved into the open guard office. He shut off all the security cameras to the store room and flipped the switch to open the gate. Moving back out as the bars slid away before him, he paused beside his recumbent victim.
"No, please, don't get up. I'm just looking around."
He chuckled. And then the weird form stole quickly down the halls, counting the doors. Coming to the right one, he entered, moving unerringly through the lightless rooms until he came to the vault. He then swiped the card through its slot, and pulling back the massive portal, entered the room.
At this point his resources failed him, and he had to resort to opening compartments at random. Withdrawing several objects of obvious value (or so he hoped), he proceeded to stack them on one of the carts. He finally found the right drawer, and gave a small snort of genuine disinterest at the sight of the irreplaceable Thomas scrolls. But with a disdainful shrug, the thief stacked the entire collection on his cart.
Stepping back, he took a moment to admire his handiwork.
"Happy Birthday to me," he sang softly as he began to push his goods down the hall.
"Happy Birthday to Me." Through the workrooms, along the corridor.
"Happy Birthday, dear Manifest." By the gates, past the sleeping Brit.
And out the door.
"Happy Birthday to ME!"
I failed, he told himself. I had my chance and I lost it.
Kultuq was seated in his cabin.
Suddenly he slid to the floor in an undignified heap.
"Lost," he moaned wretchedly. "Looooost." His hands clutched at his head, and he buried his face in the carpet.
He had planned and worked and strove for this day. And then he had destroyed it. Stupid, impatient stubbornness. The fear that if he waited any longer she might not be there for him. She might be lost. And so he had just rushed in without thinking about it carefully. He had let the most important event of his life be determined by chance, treating it like a game.
It was only fitting that he had lost.
The ancient human rocked and keened on the ground. He felt no shame for this craven display, overcome as he already was with self-loathing.
"You ruined it all," he whispered. "Your last chance. It was supposed to be perfect. It should have been beautiful. Why did you do it?" He rose to his knees and stared at his hands.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this."
If only I could go back in time, Kultuq thought. If I could change just one thing in history, just one, it would be that. I could go back and warn myself. Don't be so careless. Take a chance and wait. Because if you don't you'll just end up groveling on the floor like a dog.
For a time he just sat there, drowning in remorse. He collapsed to one side, the breath leaving his body with an uncaring grunt. In this position Kultuq found himself staring at his own reflection in a full-length mirror. He jerked his head away from the sight of himself. How far he had fallen. How ironic. He had survived everything, events and challenges that would have destroyed any other man. And yet now here he was, reduced to mewling on the floor by one harsh word from a girl.
The thought of Raven brought Kultuq some measure of fear. She would be coming for him. He couldn't let her find him like this! The sheer disgrace...
Swiftly he crawled over to the piano, clambering atop its bench. There he sat, hunched over. Dejected. Fresh grief oozed from his brain.
"You blew it, you fool. You screwed up and lost the game." And he brought his forehead down on the keys with a discordant blare of notes as messed up as himself.
The material cool against his brow, Kultuq sighed. He absorbed the feel of it. Smooth and cold. Just like her. He raised his hands wearily and sent them passing gently over the ivories, his fingertips registering their properties with a kind of wonder. The immortal felt himself growing calmer. He hauled himself up, downcast gaze affixed to the instrument's keys. Hesitantly he pressed a solitary finger down.
The note came out with soft elegance, dwindling quickly to nothing as he let the bar rise. He examined the sound. It was fresh and calm, undisturbed. Not alive, but living, only momentarily.
He could bring it back.
Kultuq now looked at his seated reflection in the mirror. He could do it again. He could try again, and sound that note. Sometimes in dreams you were allowed to go back and try it until you get it right. There were plenty of chances, until the dream ended.
And Kultuq was most definitely living his dream now.
Hands that had once torn apart the flesh of wild animals to survive now caressed the workings of one of mankind's most beautiful and inspired creations. And with that, Kultuq moved his fingers, and from the piano's chords and his own memory, he brought forth the stirring refrains of "It's All in the Game."
The song suited him. He realized with some surprise that he was playing it perfectly. Swift and sure, the notes sounded throughout his cabin without fail. He was in the zone. Perhaps never again in his life would he perform a piece so well.
With the final flourish, Kultuq paused.
Going back was not the answer. He was inextricably compelled to move forward. Being an immortal involved certain requirements. Yes, he would regret the dissolution of his plans. But when that was over he would make new ones. It was time to start thinking again. How did he want this to go?
Before Kultuq could answer, the shadows flared up across the floor.
The former super-villain realized his stay had elapsed. Had they decided already? How long had it been? What should he do? Kultuq managed to keep from panicking. He had to accept that he was not in control here. He had to wait and see Raven's resolve.
Raven stood up into the real world. The magic of her transition had locked onto Vandal Savage and drawn her into his presence. Her hooded eyes absorbed the details of her surroundings. Savage, or Kultuq, was seated on a piano bench. He had turned upon her arrival, and Raven noted the room was dark. Moonlight through a porthole gave only scant indication of what it contained. A bookshelf off to one side, a stereo-surround system that would make Cyborg drool. Raven swiftly sent her soul in part to inhabit the surrounding area. Luminous magic etched the edges of every artifact to be found, and so the spell-weaver knew. From the various musical instruments in cases behind the secret wall, to the well-stocked collection of compact discs, to over a dozen types of weapons secreted at random in various places. These she took hold of and obliterated immediately, though no evidence of this could be found to the senses.
At the last Raven balked at examining Kultuq himself. Whatever items he might have concealed, she would let him reveal as his tendencies warranted. The black-light enchantment then slid back under her cloak in a second. Now assured, Raven was ready to begin.
But she did not speak. No, not yet. Instead she looked at him.
Kultuq had not moved since her arrival.
His posture was loose, hunched over. But even with scant light and some distance between them, Raven noticed how his legs trembled. His eyes remained carefully fixed on her. It struck Raven how in their first meeting she had been the one who was wary and he quite relaxed. Could he be afraid of her? More likely of what she represented, application of punishment for his past wickedness. Was that why he had come here? Was this man looking for someone to make him atone?
Asking herself was pointless. He was right there in front of her, and it was time he gave some answers.
Raven's cloak shifted as she stepped forward.
NO! Not yet!
Kultuq raised his hand, and Raven halted.
He gave not a word of explanation, only remained slumped on his seat. His arm dropped back into his lap, and he absorbed her presence in silence. He had to prolong it, this tenebrous feeling, before anything could be settled. Let me just hold onto my hope for a little longer, he prayed to her with his eyes. Don't let me know. Not just yet.
She was looking at him just the same way as when they first met. Warily, as one would to a stranger. But he wasn't! She knew his name! It grieved him that the time they shared had not produced in her the same feelings it had in him. But then again, it was foolish to have hoped a woman like her could fall madly in love with someone she had met only once. And if so, then she probably had no idea why he had come back to see her. Yes, of course. That was why she looked so hostile. She must be feeling very confused right now. No one whom she could trust. But she had opened up to him that night under the stars...
Raven felt herself growing increasingly irritated. Normally silence came easily to her. Filling up space with needless words was for less developed individuals. But she hadn't dared losing her friends and placed her life in jeopardy just to get the silent treatment from this inscrutable man.
So he was afraid to let anything happen for fear of it not working out? Well, she was not.
Raven's lips parted, and Kultuq whispered, "Let's go outside."
She considered this unexpected proposal curiously. Of a sudden, she knew that interrogating him here wouldn't be right. It just felt that way. Maybe she was trying to stall for time too. But reasons couldn't be worked out neatly right now. So instead the young demi-human simply extended an arm, indicating for him to lead the way.
Savage gave her a grateful smile and rose to his feet. He moved out of the room, and she followed, floating at his back. Lord of this vessel, he moved assuredly through the lightless corridors, finally climbing the steps to take them onto the deck. Shrouded in her cloak, Raven followed after, glancing from left to right. Spying nothing out of the ordinary, she continued to follow her quarry's lead to the aft of the boat. Vandal Savage moved to occupy one of several cushioned rattan thrones spaced around a table of similar material. Raven took a seat opposite him.
Kultuq felt his heart beat apace. When her dark, searching gaze fixed on him now, he trembled. Mingled hope and fear hobbled any attempt to begin in his defense. He was afraid of what these next few moments might bring. It was not how he had hoped to start with her. But he couldn't shy away from this. He had to make his play. There was no way he could be satisfied without knowing.
"I'm here for you." Kultuq's words broke the silence, and Raven tensed.
"Just what does that mean?" she spoke suspiciously. This was not a game. However she had viewed this man before, Raven now knew him to be exceedingly dangerous.
Kultuq leaned back and considered. So she had not pronounced judgment summarily. Good. That could mean that the masked boy had not corrupted her image of him totally. He already knew that Raven had few friends. She would trust their opinions more than him. But she probably didn't have much experience interacting with people, or interrogating them either. He had to approach this carefully to keep whatever hostility the other Titans might have engendered towards him from overriding the situation.
"I meant," Kultuq kept his voice even, "that I am here and willing to answer your questions."
Raven crossed her arms and glowered. Should she begin? Where to start? This was seeming more and more like a contest of wills, but he didn't appear to be putting up any sort of fight. She had almost hoped that she would arrive here to find him changed, metamorphosed into something much like Slade. Smug, devious, and evil. That would make her choice very simple. Off he goes to jail. But that wasn't the case. Even if she now thought of him as two different people, Vandal Savage and Kultuq, he himself hadn't changed. He still looked and behaved like Kultuq.
Nothing threatening at all.
"Who are you?" Raven demanded quietly.
He spread his arms out in an open gesture. "I am Kultuq."
She raised an eyebrow. "Not Vandal Savage?"
"Not to you."
"Would you care to explain that?"
The deep-set eyes drifted away from her. He looked up at the sky. "There is the person you know yourself to be, and the person you become around others. This person changes subtly for each human being you know, depending on your opinion of them, and theirs of you."
Now he stared directly at her. "To that boy who attacked me, I am Vandal Savage, and I have no real interest in making him see otherwise. But Savage is just a title I put on, one of many I have used in my life. I need no artifice between you and me, Raven. I want you to see the man that I am."
Raven was not impressed by this speech.
"The way other people observe us influences who we are," she said flatly. "I'm not so naive about life, no matter what you might think of me."
"NOT with me!" Kultuq leaned forward. "I do not let the ignorant condemnations of paltry men distort my view of myself. I change only at my approval, my will!!"
"Is this a psychology lecture, professor?" Raven drawled, just to see how he would react. "You're not the only person in this world."
In response, Kultuq relaxed
back, draping an arm lazily behind the chair. "If you like. I do have a
doctorate in psychotherapy from
"So you're a therapist?'
She stood up slowly.
"Are you a murderer?"
Now it came to it, Kultuq thought. The initial bone of contention.
"I have killed, both directly and through surrogates. Whether that makes me a murderer depends on how much the person who asks me knows about the circumstances." His tone held no apology, and Raven felt a surge of contempt.
"How can you justify killing?" she snapped. "You're never in any danger, you're immortal, aren't you? They can't kill you!"
"Yes," Kultuq intoned in a calm voice. "But I'm not the only person in the world, am I?"
The barb cut true. Raven hesitated, then slowly sank back into her chair.
"How do you mean?"
Kultuq sighed, relieved that she was willing to listen.
"Raven, being immortal does not mean that I treat death lightly. In fact I have the utmost respect for life. But not always for the people who possess it. Life is like a jewel, Raven. For some people..." he made a quick decision, "...like yourself, that jewel is all the more lustrous for the person who wears it." He saw her blink, and chalked up a mental victory.
"But for others, their actions and personalities cannot be seen as worthwhile no matter how fabulous the gem with which they are adorned. These people despoil the world, and pose a threat to ones like you. As a result, sometimes they must die," he concluded flatly.
His audience looked away. A part of her felt the truth to his words. Some people that lived were so dangerous that only death seemed sufficient to stop them. Remembering Slade, she knew that she had met one. But Raven also remembered that she herself had chosen not to kill Slade when she had the chance.
Was she now face to face with yet another monster?
"That sort of reasoning," she spoke at last, "is why you are called Savage."
This time it was Kultuq who came to his feet, and his anger was evident. "Had you seen what I have, Raven, you might not be so certain. You still don 't know who I am!"
"You might know who you are," Raven responded coolly, "but you don't know what you look like right now."
Savage's hands gripped the table, his eyes flared. Raven prepared to defend herself.
Then the man let his grip slacken, and retook his seat. "No," he admitted, crossing his legs carefully. "I admit that I have no idea what I must look like to you. Point conceded, Raven. I canít expect you to simply take my word."
From beneath her cowl she watched him with veiled eyes. The admission had swayed her far more than his argument.
"You're not used to being questioned, are you?"
"No," Kultuq grunted. "I am unaccustomed to explaining myself."
"But you're going to have to," the young heroine asserted. "Don't forget that your freedom is riding directly on what happens this night."
A rueful smile twisted the immortal's lips. "Ah, my precious freedom. A much more poetic punishment than mere death, yes? The very thing that renders me so powerful made a burden by my inability to exercise its limits. Caged, I become less enviable than a beggar dying in the street." His black eyes bore sternly into hers. "Is it your intent to punish me on behalf of mankind, Raven?"
The sorceress's hood dipped, hiding her face from his view. Her voice, when she spoke, was quiet, and strong, and it sent a shiver through Kultuq's spine. "This day started out normally for me," she said. "I had my friends, I had a mission in life that I deemed just and important. And then you came along." She suddenly raised her hands and placed them firmly on the table. "You came back into my life of your own accord. And as a result I found myself at odds with my good friend and my duty to the people around me."
Now the deep blue orbs trained accusingly on his face. "Starfire was right. You must have known how things would work out. You risked your freedom by coming to see me. By your own actions, you've appointed me as your judge, for whatever reason. And you can't behave as if it has no effect on you. If you've decided that I should be the one to justify or condemn you, then you have no one to blame but yourself. Get it through your head now! You are not above judgment, and you are the one who chose to risk his freedom!"
Kultuq stared openmouthed at the ashy-skinned girl. What she said was true. He had known coming here could cost him his freedom. He had risked his very future to try and have that future include Raven. He couldn't look at her as just another finite life in his world. Even if she didn't fully understand his intentions, she was completely correct in stating her power over him. Her choice would doom or free him. How important she was to him. Despite the way she was now looking at him, he was still in love with her. And inexperienced though he may be with that emotion, Kultuq knew that belittling her would not cause Raven to reciprocate his feelings. If he was going to have any chance, he was first going to have to convince this woman that he was worth being allowed to live free.
"What do you want of me?" Kultuq rasped helplessly.
Raven's hood lifted. Her eyes, when she looked at him, flashed with threat.
"Make me understand why you committed murders to rule the world."
The ancient wanderer closed his eyes. He leaned back, breathing in deeply. This was something he could answer, but answering it well would require some thought. So he took the time, which Raven allowed him.
She wanted to hear this.
"When I was still less than a century old," Kultuq began, "I was walking through a forest with some fish I had collected from the river, and a young man from a local tribe stepped in front of me with a club. He demanded my catch, or he would kill me. I was unarmed. He actually intended to kill me over some bony fish."
"Now, ten years ago, as I am driving my car down a dirt
Suddenly Kultuq reached out and gripped one of Raven's hands still resting on the table. She did not pull away.
"I killed them both, Raven."
She flinched involuntarily, but his hold remained firm.
"The one with the club, I rushed him. I pinned him to the ground, and I choked the life from him, though he groveled for mercy. The one with the gun, I ran him over with the car, though he shot me. He was still alive. I took his gun, and I used the butt of it to smash in his face. He screamed like the dying animal he was!"
Raven's throat was burning, like she was going to vomit. He was describing two murders, and who knew how many more he had committed in his life.
"Nothing has changed, Raven. I know this because I am 50,000 years old."
When she heard this, the girl's eyes widened. 50,000?!!! Could anyone live for that long and remain sane?
She looked at the man across from her.
Maybe they couldn't.
Suddenly Kultuq got up from his seat. Raven drew back a little, examining him. He moved around the table and knelt beside her.
"I have seen mankind from its infancy," he asserted. "The ancient civilizations you read about in books were societies in which I resided. 50,000 years of watching humanity, Raven. I have seen everything our species has to offer up to this date. Do you accept that I have a unique assessment of our race?"
Her eyes did not leave his face.
Wordlessly, she gave a short nod.
"Then heed this. In fifty millennia, human beings have not changed one bit. Technology, craft and knowledge aside, deep down, they are basically the same. Each of them realizes early on that death is inevitable, and so they must struggle and sacrifice to make their dreams come true before that time comes. They face danger, and defeat, and one another. Momentous events unfold, but ultimately man doesn't change."
"They are all afraid."
He spread his arms in a regretful fashion. "With that fear comes the need for answers. And they have no one to turn to but each other. Parents, friends, lovers. We rely upon them to help us understand. We look to books to learn the lessons of history. But do you know what, Raven? Our history has been utterly WRONG!!!"
"Yes!" Kultuq whispered fervently. "We perpetuate and compound upon the mistakes of before. Because the basic society that runs our lives is the same hideously short-sighted one used by the cavemen. Countries that go to war just to preserve their national identity. Tribes of people keeping alive the blood-feuds of their ancestors without any consideration for the merit of the thing. Trying to preserve the little bits of land and culture that have importance only in our own minds. Five hundred centuries and we haven't changed, Raven! We haven't realized that this primitive method of existence, of trying to proclaim yourself as the best and brightest, it has never worked! Do you see? If this way of life could lead us all to a stable and functional method of co-existence, don't you think it would have done so by now? But it hasn't! Because people see only two sides to every conflict, when actually there are thousands and thousands. But no one wants to try anything new, because it might not work out and then they might die. And they can't face that! Deep down, they are all determined to preserve themselves for as long as they can, to get enough food and drink to survive, and wealth to show they will make a suitable mate."
The immortal shook his head bitterly. "They have not improved."
Raven could not speak, trying to think and listen at the same time. He was telling her everything he had concluded from thousands of years of examination. Even if the conclusions turned out to be wrong to her, she still had to give this man his turn, out of respect for that.
"They keep repeating the mistakes," Kultuq continued, "that are ingrained into our society. Mankind has convinced itself that those mistakes are a part of the system, and the system is all we have, and they cannot survive without the system because the alternative is chaos. The world is not perfect, they say, and leave it at that."
Kultuq's eyes grew bright, and he impulsively reached forward to catch Raven's hands.
"But it could be. We could be perfect."
As you are perfect to me, he thought, and smiled.
"We just choose to deny it."
He smiled at her, feeling pride for himself and love for her in this moment.
"I am immortal, Raven," he stated calmly. "I have to live on this world. And so I will try to improve it, to make my eternal life the best that it can be. Those men that I killed...yes, they had mothers who loved them. Yes, they could have gone on to champion the downtrodden or save someone's life. But they wouldn't have. I know, Raven. Believe me, I have seen it time and time again. Whatever worth they might have possessed was far outweighed by the cost it would require from the rest of us to let them continue to exist. A person like that, and their ways, must be destroyed. They are the worst example of the many evils that we have labeled as undeniable and therefore bearable. But just because something can be tolerated doesn't mean it should. Tyrants die and their empires fall, but the individuals who made up these gobbling, selfish evils survive and go on to have children to whom they teach their idiocies and so the chain of deficiencies remains unbroken."
Kultuq squeezed her hands, and Raven found she was holding her breath.
"The world does not need many countries with countless leaders. They can never get anything accomplished. We need a single ruler. Someone who has seen what works and what does not. Someone who owes allegiance to no one nation, people, race, or faith. Someone who need not live every day in fear of being assassinated by some secret cabal or even a lone madman. It needs someone to force them away from the failings they cling to and to be able to do the same for their children and grandchildren and on and on until they no longer even remember what they did wrong."
"That person is me, Raven."
He released her hands and stood up.
"I..." he declared in a firm voice, "I can end war and starvation and corruption, from the tiny villages to the sprawling nations. I can exterminate the petty, grasping individuals who serve as the living examples of what is worst about man. And only I can do this, Raven. A leader is someone who perpetuates the status quo as he sees fit, and lets people continue blissfully in their ignorance so long as they do not oppose him. But a ruler is someone who can force people to do things in another way."
He looked so strong, so certain, that Raven did not doubt that he could do it.
"I am the one," he said decisively. "I am the one who will rule them all."
Drained by this outpouring, Kultuq sank to the deck. Drawing deep breaths, he hung his head. But his eyes never left Raven.
At first, she was silent.
"Do you think you are evil, Kultuq?"
She called me Kultuq, he thought.
Out loud, he said, "No one thinks themselves evil, Raven. No one wakes up and thinks, 'Today I will be evil, because it is the wrong thing to do.' They have to be told that they are. We all justify ourselves, saying that what we do is necessary and right. Everyone else is weak and wrong, but not us. So no, I don't think I'm evil. That's why you're here, remember? You have to tell me if I am. Remember you are the judge."
And that is that. Kultuq sighed, grateful to be done.
The small girl in the blue cape stood up. She moved slowly past him to reach the railing. Kultuq sat and watched her. Though her face was averted now, he had no doubt that she was still aware of his every movement. There was no point in trying to explain his past any further. He had spoken his part, and done it quite well, in his own opinion. Kultuq drew his knees up to his chin to wait. He thought about imprisonment. His spine trembled, and his arms shook. It shamed him that he should have such poor control in front of his paramour, but who knows, it might actually help his case. Kultuq grimaced at the absurdity of the notion of benefiting from one's weakness.
Raven watched the lights of the city reflected in the tranquil waters of the bay. Her thoughts were unwelcome to her at the time. Right now she just wanted to observe the world and not be put in this situation of deciding a man's future. Normally she left that up to other people. The police, the courts, Robin. It was frightening to have another life in her hands.
But it was her responsibility. She had accepted that burden. So what had she learned so far?
The prisoner admitted to having killed, for reasons both ruthless and unnecessary. A regular person she would have already condemned, based upon her own values. This would be simply because she believed her own moral code to be the right one. But hadn't he himself said that was what everyone did, good or evil?
No evil until you are told...
People had called her evil. But how could anyone understand her? They did not share her fears and responsibilities. She had to be on constant watch lest her unlocked supernatural powers lay waste to the world and lives around her. She could not afford to give in. She remembered the words of Slade, and it was true, she was afraid to kill. Doing so would undoubtedly change her into a monster, maybe not all at once, but slowly, over time, as the demon side of her gradually began to assert itself. She would find that having a justification for killing mattered less and less. She could just do it for the sake of slaughter, and strength, and certainty. Those urges existed as a part of her that Raven did not want to know. That was why she did not kill. Those were her reasons.
But they simply didn't apply to anyone else. Certainly not to this man. He was not half-demon.
So what was he?
Kultuq was another rarity, just like her. Pure human, but immortal. He had lived since before the birth of current human civilization. He really had seen it all. He had nothing to fear as far as his own survival was concerned. This set him definitively apart from other humans. And alone in this bubble, isolated from the desperate, basic needs of men, he had decided that for him, killing was acceptable. Not to change his own situation primarily, but to try and alter the very world. For the better, he said. Was that true? Did killing people who scrupled at nothing move society towards a sort of paradise? Raven had only been concerned with how killing might affect herself. That was how it had been since her youth. It was only after coming to Earth, meeting Robin, Beast Boy, Cyborg and Starfire, that her behavior had found a new purpose. To function in that society. To fit in. To keep her friends near her. In this world, only people on the outside fringes of normalcy killed. Criminals for profit. Soldiers in war. The insane for their mad reasons. Killing made you into a freak. That was how it was. Kultuq said this system was wrong. It was holding them back, allowing those who were willing to murder heedlessly to retain the upper hand. Was he right?
Raven looked over at him, sitting quietly on the deck. So normal.
But he was so old!!
Older than forests and words and even ideas. Did living for that long really give him a greater insight into mankind, or did it fundamentally warp his perceptions so that he could never comprehend the normal human state?
Two outsiders. Two peas in a pod. Living for their own sakes and those of others. So they both thought. Maybe that was why he had come to her, she suddenly realized. Because as a fellow outsider, she would be able to decide if he was right. She might be the one to tell him, once and for all, if he was really as evil as the world proclaimed him to be.
His head jerked up.
"Why did you come to me?"
Kultuq clutched his knees hard. Tell her the truth.
Tell her that you love her.
No don't!! It'll scare her off!!
She might never have heard that before...
You're taking too long! Hurry, before she gets suspicious!!!
"I... had a dream," he mumbled. "You were in it. And I realized that you and I were alike."
"Alike?" Suddenly Raven felt the need to deny that. "You have no idea what I am. Don't tell me we're the same," she scoffed.
He didn't react to her scorn. He just stared at the deck.
Raven scowled, a tiny fear growing in her chest. "So what is it, then? What do you and I have in common?"
He was looking at his hands now, seemingly absorbed by them. "Do they know about you? Your friends, I mean?"
Raven stiffened. He couldn't know... could he? She hadn't actually told anyone about her parentage or her dreads. Had this ancient soul found out somehow? She abruptly felt a surge of total hatred for this man, and the ship groaned from it. How dare he!!! Who was he, to sit there so calmly?! As if he had the right to judge her, as if anyone could condemn her for something she had never done and might never do!
"You have something you want to say to me, to call me?" Raven hissed. "To spill the big secret? Just go ahead and do it!!!"
Kultuq sighed. "So you haven't told them."
The ocean churned, and the ship lurched.
"TOLD THEM WHAT?!!!" Raven yelled.
He looked up at her. "That you're not getting any older."
In the moonlight, Raven's face went pale.
Her knees began to shake. She reached her hand for the rail to support her, but too late. She had already crumpled to the deck. She clung to the metal bar, pressing against it for support, and stared at him, dumbstruck. Both on the floor, they could do nothing but watch.
She felt cold. And sad. Hearing it spoken out loud...she had been certain he was going to call her a demon. But he had somehow learned another secret she had kept hidden.
Kultuq studied Raven. The anger that had caused her eyes to burn had been subsumed by shock. For a time, it almost looked as if she were about to cry.
Raven's throat worked. After a few attempts, she finally managed to get the words out.
"How...did you know?"
Kultuq pushed a hand through his hair. "You remember you told me that your mother died?" He didn't expect her to respond, so he continued. "Well, you didn't say she got sick. You said her health began to fail, and from the way you described it, it sounded like it took a long time. Not just years, even, but decades." He grimaced ruefully. "I know how that feels. I've watched people I cared about slowly grow old. Your mother died of old age, didn't she?"
Raven turned her face away from him. She hung from the pole as if she might collapse without it. Kultuq did not have to see her face to know that she was crying.
"It hurts to watch the ones you care for leave while you stay behind. Most people think that they will be reunited with them eventually. But not me. I will never see any of my friends again. Don't feel ashamed to cry before me, Raven." His throat felt tight, and his voice came out in a whisper. Kultuq found that his eyes were full of tears at the sight of her pain.
Raven fiercely wiped her cheeks. "So that's why you chose me?" she whispered haltingly. "You thought you'd finally found someone to keep you from being lonely forever?"
"No." Kultuq crawled towards her. Raven grew silent at his approach. He drew up behind her and leaned back against the rail, arms resting on his up-drawn legs. "I wasn't thinking that far ahead. In all honesty, I've been reacting on impulse ever since I figured that out. I threw away my plans for world conquest, you know. Just like that. I stopped. No more Vandal Savage. All I wanted in the world was to see you."
She turned her head slightly. "Why?" The word sounded so curious.
Kultuq gazed at the stars.
Tell her you love her. It might be what saves you.
But isn't she confused enough? Without you rashly throwing that into the mix too?
I thought you said you were not going to let fear control you anymore when it came to her. This could be your only chance. Stop treating it like a game and just feel.
My feelings? Or hers?
Kultuq pushed up off the deck and got to his feet. Raven remained where she was. He looked down at her.
"That was the last question, Raven. It's time for you to make your decision." He gave a sigh. "And when you have, come what may, I will tell you the answer."
She didn't move at first. Just sat there, huddled up like a child. But he knew this child was much older than she looked, and she had many more secrets than just that. Kultuq wasn't fooled. She was a strong girl. Though he hadn't meant for it to happen this way, if anyone could be relied upon to shoulder such a difficult task, it was her.
Raven the Enchantress.
She let go of the rail and floated up. Her boots found purchase on the planks, and she turned her face up to meet his.
So beautiful, he thought.
I love you.
"You've told me the truth." Her voice was wonderful, unlike any he had ever heard. Otherworldly. "Some people are too dangerous to live free. And each of us decides things by using our own values, not those of others."
Kultuq felt completely calm. All the anxiety had disappeared. He carried himself with dignity. He was proud of that.
"It's not just a matter of letting you go back to trying to rule the world or putting you in a cage for the rest of eternity," Raven pondered out loud. "That's too simple for the problems you represent."
She cocked her head to one side. "I could turn you into a fish. Or wipe your memory clean. I could even send you to another dimension."
Kultuq did not move.
Raven had decided.
"But instead I am going to do this." She folded her arms over her chest. "Iím going to keep you here in this city. You will be one more person under the protection of the Teen Titans. And while you're here, you will operate under my morals. Which means no killing." She raised a warning finger before his face. "I mean it, Kultuq. If I find out that you arranged the death of anyone, and by that I do mean anyone, then I will banish you to whatever hell I see fit."
Her lips lifted into an enigmatic smile.
"From now on, consider yourself home."
Before her, the resolutely squared shoulders seemed to sag a little. His hands dangled limply at his sides, and on his face was an inscrutable look. Raven kept her guard up in case of violence on his part.
And then Kultuq's mouth too worked up into a helpless smile.
"Home is where the heart is."
The shadowy planes of Raven's face were marred by a slight frown.
"Don't take a threat from me lightly, Kultuq. Vandal Savage has to end here."
He shrugged in obvious relief. "It's already done."
Raven's eyes narrowed slightly, but she gave a brief nod of acknowledgement. She was feeling tired, and right now all she wanted was to go home and lie down. Raven was just about to turn back towards the Tower when something came back to her.
"So what was the answer?"
For a brief moment, he just looked at her, in a way that left Raven feeling intensely uncomfortable. Then he reached into the breast pocket of his coat, the same one he had been wearing earlier in the day. From it he withdrew a slim black case. Holding it out before him, he gently flicked up the lid, and watched to measure her reaction.
Raven took a step closer.
At first she could only stare at the contents. Forgetting for the moment her demand for an answer, she raised her hand and lifted out a necklace made of black pearls. Each orb's surface glowed under the moon like a rainbow against space. Set in between each gem was a small nugget of pure gold, intricate tiny loops and whorls etched painstakingly into their surfaces.
Raven held the fabulous ornament up between her fingers. She felt perplexed. Her eyes turned to him.
The look on his face...
He smiled to himself. Feeling relaxed and easy. Now was the right time. He was glad he had waited.
"I fell in love with you."
Raven didn't move.
Didn't speak or blink.
She watched him with every sense she had, both physical and occult. Searching for a sign of mockery. Analyzing him for any hint that he had not just told her the truth.
And when she could find none, the girl with the double-edged soul stayed quiet.
Kultuq did not know what to expect. She might try to kill him, or recant her decision and banish him on the spot. But he had said it. If she chose to abide by her own ruling, then this might actually work out. The look in her eyes was not encouraging, and the immortal steeled himself for the worst.
"Raven, I can't tell what you're feeling," he whispered tonelessly.
Her expression did not alter. The hand holding the necklace vanished under her cloak. With her face only half visible, she regarded him steadily.
Her lips parted.
"I work very hard to not feel anything."
Kultuq couldn't respond.
Raven pivoted swiftly. She stalked across the ship's deck. At the railing she halted. Her hood shifted slightly to reveal her profile, calm and unreadable. Kultuq felt like the world was sliding out from under him.
"We'll talk about that later," she murmured. Her boots
left the ship, and Raven floated off towards
Kultuq stared at her until she was out of sight.
For just a second he thought he was going mad. He felt like screaming and laughing all at once.
And then it passed. Shaking, he rubbed his face furiously with both hands.
"I have a lot of work to do," he grumbled.
And then he went back into the ship to start looking for a place to live.
Raven slipped silently into the Tower. The hallways were dark and quiet. She was grateful for that. She knew that the others were most likely waiting up for her, but there was no one in sight now. Raven found that she was trembling slightly. She gripped the fabric of her cape and drew it tighter around herself. Only then did she remember the object in her hands.
Closing her eyes, she pressed the cool gems against her cheek, absorbing the sensation of their gritty luster.
I fell in love with you.
The first. The first time those words had ever been spoken to her.
Head bowed, Azerath's wayward child shuffled slowly forward. She knew she had to report her decision to her comrades. She could tell them that. But not this. It was another secret, something she would keep from them.
Or should she?
Raven felt like her brain was in a fog. This was so totally unexpected, she couldn't decide what to do with it. One minute she had everything figured out, and with six simple words it was unfamiliar territory again. How could this have happened?
Not looking where she was going, only half-aware of the direction her feet were taking her, Raven suddenly felt she was not alone.
She stopped, raising her head, keeping her dilemma hidden by a neutral pose.
Robin stood before her in the dimly lit passage.
She didn't want to do this, but at the same time, she felt relieved. At least it would be out of the way.
His arms were at his sides, but he did not appear relaxed. Suppressed was a better word, like a coiled spring silent with pent-up force. For all that he boasted no special powers, Robin could still be very intimidating.
"So?" the masked Titan whispered.
Raven remained where she was. "He's staying," she said simply. "I let him know what I would do to him if he tried to hurt anyone. If he breaks his word, I'll send him to a place that will make him regret he'll never die."
She watched him for a reaction. Robin's face was a mirror image of her own, it betrayed nothing. Whether he was surprised or angry was anyone's guess, and Raven was much too tired right now to play guessing games. She glided smoothly forward, headed for the community room.
As she passed Robin, his hand stole out to grip her shoulder.
Robin only touched her when he wanted her full attention.
"There's something you haven't told me."
Raven's hood shifted away from him.
"About the time with Slade," he insisted. He stepped in front of her now, and both his hands gripped her arms firmly.
"Raven." His voice was urgent, demanding. "I have to know. You have your secrets, but if today has shown us anything, it's that we never know when those secrets might come out. If there's anything about Slade, or Savage, that you're keeping to yourself, I need to know it!"
She still hadn't looked at him. Robin took a step closer to her, his hold loosening. "Raven," he whispered soothingly. "I think I've earned a little more trust from you today. You owe me that much."
He felt a shiver pass through her frame.
A fear that he had kept secret in his own heart began to come out. He could hear it in his voice when he spoke next.
"What did Slade do to you?"
Her head tilted up, and he could see her face. Raven was very, very good at hiding her emotions, but Robin could still pick out signs. The tightness in her temples, the way her eyes wavered slightly...
She hesitated, swallowing. She looked so lost.
"I passed out, but he might have...kissed me." The last two words came out in a whisper.
Robin's hands dropped, and he stepped back. Raven saw his face twist with sudden anguish.
It was almost a sob. Robin stood there with his mouth open, fighting for a way to speak, but the words stuck in his throat. He swallowed hard, and at last managed to force them out.
"Did he...?" His tongue failed him then.
She looked at him, uncertain.
Then realization dawned, and Raven paled.
"No!!" She shook her head forcefully, a look of horror on her face. "No, Robin, he didn't!"
"HOW CAN YOU BE SURE?!!" Robin let out a cry of pure frustration and spun away. He raised his hands, as if to strike at the very air, and then whipped back around. "You said it yourself, you were passed out half the time you were with him, he might have...!!"
Raven stepped forward suddenly and took his hands. The unfamiliarity of it, Raven actually touching him, made Robin stop from sheer astonishment.
Raven locked eyes with him, willing some of her own calm to transfer over to him.
Breathing raggedly, he stared into her eyes. "How can you be sure?" he demanded.
"Robin," she gentled her voice. "I would know. Believe me, I would know."
They stood there, a pair of people who didn't know each other as well as they might have liked...
Then Robin took a deep, slow breath. He closed his eyes, let it out, and opened them again.
Raven withdrew her hands, replacing them under her cloak.
"I'm going to tell the others what happened," she spoke. "Take a minute and then come join us. We've still got a lot to talk about."
Robin was already looking more calm, measured. His gaze never left her face.
"Fewer secrets between us, Raven," was all he said.
Raven didn't respond, just moved past him down the hall, a blue-cloaked shadow among shadows.
He didn't ask what she had held in her hands.
She left him there, staring after her, as she had Kultuq. There were too many secrets to begin. Some she kept even from herself. There was another reason she had spared Kultuq, a personal reason. Something that had occurred to her peripherally when he had told her how old he was.
There were secrets in this world known only to him. Perhaps he could tell her...
Perhaps he knew where she could find her friend.
To be continued...