Chapter 101 – Out of Darkness

Gentle medicated wipes, hypoallergenic but cleansing, grazed Zelda's forearms and face. Protoman had noticed the odd occurrence a few times before, the princess suddenly perspiring in her coma. The temperature in the room was controlled, and she was neither feverish nor chilled beyond tiny variations. Protoman wasn't as medically knowledgeable as X, but with a lot of time on his hands, he was able to read that most humanoids sweat when under emotional stress, when sick, when faced with temperature control malfunctions centered in the brain, or when pregnant, the last of which was definitely not the case, confirmed by sonogram. Other species of humanoid more rarely use skin pores as scent glands for secreting hormones, or to remove toxins through the body.

The Sage of Light dutifully cleaned every crease of her face as he thought. She was infected by Mako. He considered the possibilities of that as he rubbed around her eyes, careful not to tug at the skin more than necessary, eventually tending to the narrow bridge of her nose. After recalling memories rather mechanically, Protoman concluded that, other than physical trauma that accelerated body temperature due to stress, Mako poisoning hadn't shown evidence of affecting sweat glands on Gaia. Still, not nearly enough research even existed on the condition to be certain. It was possible that her Hylian physiology caused different side effects than that of Gaians. Protoman cursed himself for being the cause of her Mako illness. It infuriated him to consider that Zelda might releasing poisons in her sleep through her sweat glands as a result of his weakness. But if that was the case, then she should be recovering, thought the reploid.

It was never easy to clean her collar with her skin revealing the shape of her bones so clearly. Despite a constant flow of nutrients and more fluids when she perspired, Zelda was wasting away, easy for anyone who saw her sunken, dark cheeks. Protoman bared his teeth, loathing himself. He stood and threw the wipe at the trash bin with more force than was necessary, then stepped to the metal cabinets and work station opposite from the beds and found what he needed, a microscope slide, a small swab, and sterile fluid to drop onto the slide. Returning to his sleeping princess, the Sage of Light pressed the swab against the skin of her right arm, where he hadn't yet cleaned.

Preparing the slide took little time, and through the magnifying glass of the hospital-grade microscope, Protoman started with the lowest magnification. Nothing. Zooming in further, still nothing. Further, skin cells and other unhelpful bits. Closer, and the liquid was the occasional host of swimming bacteria, and the skin cells were much more detailed, showing the foreign terrain of semi-transparent ridges and cliffs. Moving around, there were partially dissolved sodium crystals that were impossible to spot without the use of technology. Zooming beyond that, and he began to reach territory that he wasn't familiar with, but Mako poison's telltale mix of green and black toxins didn't appear present.

X would have been able to help more. Apparently Robin would have, too. Protoman only learned after Zelda's incident that the Titan leader had more medical knowledge than any of the rest of them. There was no one else to ask for help since the other Titans were less skilled, and none of the Sages had that kind of knowledge either. Gizmo, who had studied the disease greatly while in the tower, was long since gone and could not be contacted, not that they didn't try.

Protoman took more samples and kept searching but found nothing amiss as far as he could tell. After a dozen attempts and more than an hour under the microscope, Protoman switched the device's light off and swiveled back to look at Zelda. For a while he watched her lying in the same plain bed that she had been in for more than a week, the blankly colored sheets and pale walls tarnishing the faded beauty of the brave woman.

Guilt stabbed at him as soon as he turned away, but Protoman made no outward reaction to the emotional response as he exited the infirmary.

What time was it? Protoman wondered. He had an internal chronometer for that, but he found himself not wanting to check that way. The hall lights were dimmed to a meager glow, implying that it was night, and as Protoman following the center line of short red carpeting around the bend, he easily saw moonlight casting into the far edge of the Titan's Tower's living room.

A wall clock said twenty-two minutes past one in the morning. Many were sleeping. Saria and Beast Boy were on shift in the city. Protoman considered the goings on of the time as he glanced toward the kitchen area opposite and far from the large window wall. A small light was on, water was audibly running.

"Good evening, Sage of Light," Mewtwo greeted him without turning from his task, with many plates and cups held aloft by nothing but the creature's mind.

"What are you doing?" asked Protoman, curious as to why the Sage of Spirit, an entity of supreme telepathic ability, would be washing dishes.

"I find this cleansing process... oddly therapeutic," replied Mewtwo.

Protoman could see that the Sage's hands were buried in the soapy water, meticulously scrubbing every crevasse of every dish while two additional sponges and plates hovered above the sink, appearing to wash themselves. The care he took was not entirely dissimilar to Protoman's care of Zelda. The three sponges all worked at different rates, as if a different brain was behind them.

"That implies the need for therapy," Protoman suggested. "And that sounds problematic for a psychic."

Mewtwo exhaled a small burst of amusement, not quite a laugh. Protoman noticed a small hiccup in the rhythm of the floating sponges. "I sleep little, so I tended to the task at night. I am not accustomed to such chores, but I wanted to make myself helpful since no amount of psychic manipulation can mend the damage that has been done to everyone."

Protoman raised an eyebrow beneath his visor, curious as to why he hadn't thought of that. Raven was quite capable of doing the same. "I know that they need to recover on their own to truly have the strength that they'll need to fight Zero, but you haven't done anything at all?"

The small white saucer plate that Protoman had been drying telekinetically to the side suddenly floated in air with a towel frozen against it, and Mewtwo pulled his knobbed fingers from the water. The sudsy sponges also halted. "I have diffused a few unnecessary situations that might have come to blows had I not intervened by altering subconscious thoughts, but most of my influence has been dedicated to convincing Starfire to eat."

Surprised, Protoman could only frown at the pitiable situation. "You're keeping her alive."

The Sage of Spirit nodded. "I do not want that poor child to die, but I do not know what more I can do for. She has so little desire to live. I am hopeful when she chooses to eat on her own, but I still am making the choice for her more than half the time. She does not know that I am influencing her, but I would risk being caught if I intervened any more than I am. The consequences of that..."

"Agreed," Protoman crossed his arms as he leaned against the kitchen counter across from the sinks. "Speaking of consequences..."

Tension rose quickly, and the forlorn thoughts of Starfire were replaced by matters even more grave. Mewtwo dried his hands and put the chore of dishes aside, unfinished. Silently hovering, Mewtwo followed Protoman through the halls to the medical wing. He waved open the swishing doors and both the telepath and the reploid entered, Zelda the only other person able to hear them.

"Do you have an update on her condition?" asked Protoman firmly, but quietly.

"Despite being successfully provoked by Shadow, Raven shows no signs of infection from the Maverick Virus, as you call it." the telepath replied. "With two shards of the Chaos Emeralds inside her and the King of Evil nearly at the peak of strength, she should have shown symptoms by now."

"None at all," Protoman remarked. "That's odd. Even if the virus doesn't take over, something should have happened."

"Agreed," nodded Mewtwo. "Is it possible that the memories of The First are lying dormant, waiting to strike?"

With a slight pivot, Protoman shifted his shield arm uncomfortably, stealing a glance at Zelda before granting Mewtwo full attention. He shook his head with a frown beneath his visor. "With how much telepathic strength you and Saria have, I can't imagine we would've missed hiding emotions and thoughts."

"Perhaps," the telepath responded, and the horn-like protrusions at the back of his head shifted, in an expression of concern, Protoman thought as the telepath continued. "I'm not certain what is at work here, but I fear that when we find out, it will be too late."

To that, the reploid could not help but purse his lips in annoyance. "You're probably right, but for now I'm counting this as good news. If her new chakra stone is somehow fighting the internal manifestation of Zero, or if Raven is somehow resistant to the virus altogether, so be it, and thank whatever gods there may be for that bit of grace, even if it becomes short lived. Let's both keep a quiet eye on the situation."

"As you wish," bowed Mewtwo. The alien's tail livened slightly, waving with more vigor against the flow of gravity as the Sage of Spirit left Protoman to his thoughts.

Earlier in the night, Raven had knocked on Cyborg's door not long after his shift had ended. Cyborg's room was littered with little pieces of technology, a disaster since the last time she had seen it, and he was reluctant to even let her in. He tried to push aside project on benches, near his recharge station, on the floor.

To say that their time together was emotional was a terrible understatement, and the sorceress was still reeling from all that had been said long after. Cy and Raven had shared their pain and anger and hopelessness for a long time. Raven had cried, and so had Cyborg, about losing Robin and X, about how terrified they were to face the end of time. Cyborg had wanted to get to know X better, to make up for mistakes in the past. He also longed for his buddy back, the friend in Robin, who understood him and could think on his level, an equal of sorts that no longer existed except in memories, and inside them.

Taxed into exhaustion, emotionally drained. Yet somehow Raven felt better, and so did Cyborg. Raven tested her powers, trying to extend telekinetic limbs, throw dark bolts, or shield herself. Frustratingly, it was just as much of a strain. Maybe it was fractionally easier, but everything felt wrong, imbalanced, disproportionate. Her effort never matched her darkness, outputting too much or not enough to properly project astral energy. It bothered her that her powers of sorcery looked different as well, no longer all black tendrils of energy encased by a shadowed resplendence. They were more complex, darkness interspersed with streaks of light, and light mixed with streaks of darkness.

Her emotions weren't under control. Cyborg was better, and so was she, but sharing that time with him left her even more worried by how terrible Starfire's condition was. If Cy, a person who wasn't as susceptible to emotional breakdown as most, gushed his sadness and loss as much as he did, how would Starfire react to receiving help?

Much like I did, Raven thought. Those first few days, staying next to X's corpse, violently reacting to visitors, being the one to put him in the coffin... how had she ever survived that? It was hardly a week since X's death, but it felt like years of sorrow had passed between now and then, a massive and insurmountable gap that she had somehow been dragged beyond.

Raven's door had opened at her presence, but she ignored the dimly lit room and the comforts of bed. Starfire was still suffering, still stuck in that period that distorted time, and Raven decided to do what she could that night. Turning away from the dark welcoming bed, old oak furniture and antique art. As she backed away from her door and allowed the automatic door to swish closed, anxiousness gripped her legs, and she tensed them, forcing them to move through the hallways across the building.

Raven halted, a breath caught in her throat as she nervously arrived at Starfire's door. It was locked, no response from the doors to greet her. Cautiously, Raven extended a single, black appendage to manipulate the physical mechanisms, subverting the electronics altogether. The task didn't require much precision, a simple matter of operating a single button from within the control pad, but the difficulty of commanding her powers frustrated her. Eventually Raven found the sweet spot, and the door slowly hissed open. Darkness pervaded the room, a smell of unwashed clothes and something ammonia-like soured the nose as the hallway was washed in the stink. A solid object budged as her toe collided with something that sounded plastic. Narrowing her eyes in the dimly lit space, she saw the open mustard bottle she had knocked whose edges were discolored with the beginnings of a spotted mold.

A spark of neon green lit and soared, a star bolt intended for Raven's torso. The sorceress tensed, but telekinetic black and white limbs effortlessly lunged from her outstretched arm, encompassing the unstable mass of energy. Darkness took the brunt of the bolt, and the extensions of light, thinner but faster, backed her more familiar shadow limbs. Halting the bolt entirely, Raven sensed her white astral limbs consuming Starfire's attack, dissipating the energy and transferring it to her, replenishing what little had been used to block it in the first place. A sensation of satiated hunger in her muscles tingled in response. Raven was astonished at the effortlessness of the defense, and she had only been thinking of Starfire when her psychic energies responded naturally. A second and a third bolt followed, no less difficult to catch and absorb from such lazily targeted attacks. After that, Starfire seemed unwilling to fight more, and silence took over.

In the darkness, Raven saw the faint silhouette of her friend, half curled up, half sprawled in a manner that didn't appear comfortable, dressed in stained pajamas that were scorched with small holes. The smell was concerning as she approached, but the sorceress was far more disoriented by her telepathy's natural eavesdropping. Little more but decaying thoughts of death and self-pity emanated from Starfire, the mind and the body sharing the same fate. The only part of Star not focused on misery was the small amount of willpower that urged her to remove the intruder in her room.

Amidst relative darkness, the bed's gaunt occupant croaked with a dry, unused voice. "Please leave."

"No, Star. I can't," Raven whispered, and her stomach twisted as much from the sight of an anorexic girl as it did from the pungent odors of neglect and mold. She needed food intravenously, and Raven feared that her healing powers wouldn't nearly suffice to repair the wasting husk she looked down upon. Alleviating Starfire's crushed soul seemed like a faraway, impossible task.

"I'm don't want to talk," Starfire stressed in a less defensive tone, but she curled sluggishly into a ball, shuddering with every moment.

"I'm not asking you to. But you're going to listen," Raven spoke softly, but firmly as she approached, "and you're going to get medical attention."

"Don't... ngh."

"What?" Raven asked, nearing close enough for her knees to press against the bright purple sheets of the mattress.

An arm reached out, surprisingly fast, gripping Raven's thigh with a white hot pain.

"Don't touch me!"

Incineration, the pin of Raven's exposed leg was agonizing and sudden, a non-stop star bolt pressed against her flesh, endlessly forming and striking its target. The Sage of Darkness felt her mind's defenses respond, but, even as her leg dripped blood, she clenched and bared her teeth as she reached down to Star's wrists. Squeezing as hard as she possibly could , Raven felt the crushing hold on her leg slowly release, and the energy forming there crackled out.

Far from the frailty that embodied her, Star leapt from her bed and thrust her other hand at Raven's neck, but the sorceress caught it by the wrist before it could reach her neck and kill her. Now standing in a pure contest of strength, Starfire pushed forward, sliding Raven back toward the door as the two grunted in effort against each other.

Raven began pushing back, sensing her opponent quickly losing strength, but a bright green aura began to form around Starfire's eyes, the telltale sign that two bright rays of energy were about to sunder her face. Pouring out all of her anger, sadness and burdens into a moment of pure physical intensity, Raven screamed in force.

A snap rippled against Raven's right palm, a bone breaking under the force of her grip, and the buildup of energy faded in Star's eyes. Regret struck Raven's heart as she saw her friend's mouth hang open, voiceless as she her body faltered. The fragile girl tried to push back with a final burst of adrenaline, but a simple twist of the broken limb was all it took for the pain to overpower her, damping Star's face in an instant sweat as she limply fell to her knees. Raven carefully let her down. Gasps of breath came in weak, pitiful rasps, and Starfire's broken wrist lay carefully in her lap.

Raven felt her insides revolting against her, an urge to vomit growing as she watched Star's twitching fingers and wet, tear-filled eyes. As much as the broken wrist dominated her thoughts, Raven knew that there was more important healing to do. Relaxing, letting her second chakra flow with emotion while granting calm restraint to her first chakra, her white limbs stretched out from the folds of her cloak. One gently caressed Star's collar, another her face. Sadness hindered a third, but she breathed deeply, focusing not on the bone itself and rather the relief that would come for both of them if it was fixed. Fragile and inexperienced, a third white astral limb slipped from her back, around her sides and delicately onto Star's wrist.

It was hard to tell whether Raven chose the will of her limbs or if they willed her. The instinct to return the captured star bolt energy came to the sorceress, but her astral extensions were already acting with a soft glow that matched the emerald shade of Star's powers. Soothing energy relaxed Starfire's shaking and numbed her pain, but the sensation spread through the bright extensions and back to Raven, calming her as well. Star's mind, though no less ravaged by the loss of the man she loved, lost the urge to expel hatred under the pacifying effect of healing.

"Star," whispered Raven, kneeling closer to her, face to face. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for how much pain you're in. I know things will never be the same again, but I can help. If anyone can understand even close to what you're feeling, it's me."

Raven blinked as she sensed anger pulse in Starfire, and she felt the frail tightening of muscles as she held Starfire, coupled with a mental jolt that came forcefully. Starfire said nothing, but Raven knew that Star resented any insinuation that someone understood her pain.

Eventually, Raven knew that she had to push, to make her see that someone else did share the feelings of loss and emptiness. "I lost X," she said. "I loved him. And now he's gone. I loved Robin as a close friend, but you were the person most special to him. Please, tell me what's in your heart."

For many minutes, Starfire simply whimpered and cried.

"I'm... s-so sad. I have n-never... f-felt so lost. Sometimes..."

She stopped. Raven stroked her hair, not caring about the smell or the sweat, or even her own leg in disorienting pain. In their embrace, the sorceress felt Star's heart bearing open, and they shared the meager reprieve of relief.

"Sometimes what?" Raven asked.

At the invitation, Starfire's anger was visceral, a mental floodgate beginning to rise as her facial expression darkened, intensified, especially in the pale light of her bedroom. As she tried to open her mouth, that flood changed rapidly, not into a deluge of fury, but a frigid shame and fright. "Sometimes I imagine that Zero is here, and I imagine ripping his throat out, and watching while he slowly gasps for words he cannot speak, drowning in whatever blood he bleeds. Beyond that, I have fantasized of torturing him, murdering him, of things so horrible I do not dare speak of it."

Raven tried to keep calm. It was like the bright, constantly happy girl was no longer there, not even in pieces. Frightened, Raven wondered about herself, if she was like that, too, just a mere semblance of who she had been.

"You want revenge," Raven whispered. "That doesn't make you a bad person. I know your thoughts are scary, but it doesn't make you a bad person."

Starfire cried into Raven's chest, and the two talked for hours, a few words at a time, sharing all that they had lost, all they longed for, and all they wished had and hadn't happened. When they thought they couldn't cry anymore, there were still tears buried deep within their hearts, constant pains like black marks carved into their souls that could never heal completely. Well into the night, Raven noticed that her telepathy was less alert, less guarded. Starfire's emotions were calming, less full of rage, more rational.

"I think... I think I need help," Starfire eventually said.

Raven jolted. The long silence that had passed had nearly put her to sleep. Her white astral limbs had withdrawn and dissipated, having mended Starfire's wrist almost perfectly, the bone whole and the muscle around no longer cut or irritated. The sudden movement had also reinvigorated the pain in her bleeding leg, which Raven hadn't tended to at all.

"Me too," the sorceress nodded.

The two carefully stood, but Raven nearly vomited from the blinding nausea caused by her thigh. Starfire was weak, but unwounded, and they helped each other up and to the door.

"I'm sorry," Starfire whispered, trembling. "...about your..."

"It will heal fast," Raven said. "Don't worry about it."

As the door smoothly opened, all of the Titans were waiting for them. Such a sigh of relief came over them both that Starfire collapsed into Cyborg's arms, and Raven into Terra's. The Sage of Darkness vaguely stumbled through the events of the next hour, as she was given a transfusion of artificial blood and had her wound thoroughly tended to by a mixture of Saria's herbs and Protoman's materia healing.

When the blood circulated through and replaced what she had lost, as well as drinking an almost excessive amount of water at Terra's frequent insistence, Raven felt far more awake. Starfire, she quickly learned, had been thoroughly treated and was resting, hopefully to be much healthier and independent in the morning. It was a relief to hear, though the road to recovery would ultimately stretch much longer for both of them.

Most everyone, save Protoman, Saria and Beast Boy, eventually filtered out to avoid crowding, all of them wishing her a good night with words of approval, joy, and other things that Raven hazily knew she wouldn't recall having happened.

The green changeling stayed longer, though. He was oddly silent, other than a nervous chuckle at the mutual silence that Raven had no quarrel with. He smiled as she looked at him, and she weakly returned the expression. Without saying anything, Beast Boy hugged her, gave her a thumbs up, then left her in peace, just as awkwardly grinning as he always did in uncomfortable social situations. As Beast Boy's mental presence escaped her telepathy, Raven felt a strangeness, a sorrow of sorts, for how much more than a Titan she had become. It was difficult to think of him as a peer anymore.

Saria still remained, and Protoman was silent in the corner as he sat with Zelda as always. Starfire was in the middle bed, fast asleep.

"No more sad thoughts," Saria insisted. "Trust me, dwelling makes matters far worse."

Raven sighed, not at all disagreeing, but she did wonder why Saria had stayed.

"You did well, Hero of Time," the Sage of Forest stated. "None of the rest of us could have pulled off what you did, and in one night, no less."

"Thanks," Raven answered. "But I don't think I like being called that."

"But that's who you are," she approached, arms crossed. "Whether you like it or not. And now, also whether you like it or not, I... I need to tell you what I told him."

The tears in her eyes and the fear were potent even to Raven's dulled and exhausted senses. "X kept your secret from me. Are you sure you want to tell me?"

"Someone has to know," Saria insisted. "And if anyone is deserving, it's you."

Raven thought about that. Why she agreed in her tired state, she wasn't sure. They asked Protoman to step out, which he did agreeably despite his obvious distaste for being away from Zelda, but once the gold of his cape was out of sight and the automatic door sealed behind him, Saria carefully placed her palms on Raven's cheeks.

Saria's control over her telepathy was unreal, depositing scenes of memory, thoughts and actions in a precise sequence that made perfect sense. Awakening as Farore, searching for her sisters, loosening the seal, Ganon sending the Triforce of Power to Zero, Zero going berserk, and the rest was obvious from there, but Saria pushed further, showing the suffering she endured for a hundred years, her people dying, being resurrected by nature, meeting X, and most recently her near collapse as the burden of more and more deaths weighed upon her soul.

"You caused all of this," Raven spoke out of logic, not emotion, as the psychic link ended. "But... no you didn't. Farore did just as much as you did. And who or what caused Farore to wake in you? Saria... you made a foolish choice, but this was so beyond your ability to predict..."

"You're just as understanding as X," Saria cried, shaking her head of forest green hair. "I may have chosen to push forward, but I still don't feel like I deserve to live, and it's only because of him, and now you, that I keep going. Thank you so much... for understanding, and for trying to give me another chance at life."

Raven bowed. "You're welcome."

Reluctantly, Saria closed the distance between them and hugged Raven, trying to hold in sobs of anguish and relief.

After Saria left and Protoman returned, it didn't seem right to not give the reploid his privacy. Sore but functional, Raven pulled out her IV and limped back to her room. Undressing and exhausted, Raven collapsed into bed and fell into a night of sleep more deep than any she had felt since the day X died.