Author's Note: I promise, I'm still around and I haven't forgotten the story! Honest! I hope everyone is well and happy. I still intend to finish this thing, even if I'm in the nursing home when I do it.
In the Azarath of the past...
"Where is the book, Theron?" Coman looked as close to furious as he ever got.
Theron gestured towards the towering shelves that filled the massive library. "Which book? We have lots of dem here."
"You know of what I speak. Azar's great book disappeared the day she left us. Rinzen was with her most of that day. When we came to … collect her … it was not on its stand. Rinzen himself has made himself scarce since then. One of you knows where it is. It is a treasure of Azarath, and we must have it back."
Theron glanced briefly over the shoulder of the remaining leader of Azarath. Rinzen, Azar's former attendant, was looking out from the shadows of the stacks of books. His eyes seemed to be boring holes into the back of Coman's head.
"You mean you must have it, Coman. No. She left it to Raven. It belongs to her."
"It belongs to us all! You do not understand what its loss would mean-"
"I do know that for all of my time here, you have never bothered with any of de books. Why dat one, and why now? Can you just not stand the fact that Azar actually loved her? Or are you afraid it will show her de path out of dis place?"
Coman's eyes burned with a rage that could no longer be hidden. Theron felt a small spark of glee at the emotion the stony old man was finally showing. He could almost see Rinzen's eyes rolling as he stepped back into deeper shadows.
"Why are you undermining our work here?" Coman replied, his voice overflowing with frustration. He lowered his voice, but his fists were clenched. "Why do you give the child hope? Why show her a world she will never see? A world in which she does not belong?"
"Ah, so dis goes beyond de book, even. Why would you keep her ignorant, Coman?" Theron argued back. "She is a human being. She too is a child of Earth. She deserves to be free! She deserves to know what she is protectin'!"
"She is not an ordinary human child, Theron! She is not one of us. You were not one of the originals; you don't understand. I must continually remind you—"
"I do not care about her father! I have only been here a little time, I know dat. But are you nuts, mon?" Theron's lilting accent deepened with his anger. "She is still just a baby. A baby! Did you ever actually listen to Azar's words?"
"You are endangering our work here, Theron," Coman replied. His voice had returned to its normal icy placidity. "You are not one of us, either."
"What are you saying?" Theron asked, with measured words. He could see Rinzen reaching up onto one of the shelves to his right and pulling down a heavy volume.
Coman drew his robes close and jutted his chin high into the air. His voice echoed through the library.
"Theron, formerly of Earth, I hereby banish you from the Temple of Azarath, never to return."
Rinzen rushed out of the stacks of shelves with the Book of Azar in hand and planted himself by Theron's side. He rested his hand on Theron's shoulder and narrowed his eyes at Coman. The elder glared at both of them, taking in the wall of men and the heavy tome in Rinzen's hands. He reached forward for it.
"Rinzen! Give it to me!" he ordered. "Remember your vows!"
"Nuts!" Theron shouted. "His vow was to Azar, not you, not to the Temple, but only to her and the child," Theron replied. "And mine was to Azar, too. He goes with me, and so does the book, so we can give it to Raven when she is old enough to care for it."
"You would betray us, then, Rinzen?"
A single word escaped the man before he and Theron disappeared into their own puff of smoke.
Raven gazed into the fire and listened to the warm chatter that mingled with its smoke. She had managed to push off Sian's story just a little while longer, first with the business of setting up the tents, then with allowing Karen to fuss over the finer points of their campfire meal. She knew it would not wait forever, but she needed just a few more moments of peace, just a few more.
Bart was spearing marshmallows with a stick while he chirped cheerfully to a beaming Sian and a taciturn Jericho, who was also staring into the flames and occasionally sipping from a canteen. Cyborg and Charles were murmuring quietly to her right as Karen passed graham crackers and bits of chocolate around the circle. Cassie and Connor, somewhere in the stages of reconciling after some sort of private disagreement, sat across from her. They had arrived much later than the rest of them, staring at each other with some unknown tension between them. Tim had not been able to come with them, so he was not there to act as his normal balance between them. The light of the fire gleamed across the metal of Victor's arms. Charles was tamping tobacco into his pipe and chuckling softly. She could not see Garfield, who was somewhere outside the small circle of light. She could sense him, though, with the faint taste of sour apple candy on her tongue, the flavor that ever caused a smile to steal across her lips. She watched as his shadow appeared over her cousin's shoulder. Muscular green hands emerged from the darkness and placed a dark shape by the Charles's side. Her cousin nodded at Garfield, who then circled the fire and slipped into the space between Raven and Bart. She felt his arm curl around her shoulders, and she welcomed the gentle pull towards him. She rested her head against his shoulder and inhaled his distinctive scent deeply. My family, she murmured to herself.
Sian grunted happily as she rubbed her belly. "My thanks, mistress Karen, that was truly a feast fit for an Azar!"
Gar gave Raven a warm squeeze as Charles picked up the shadow by his side. As he brought the shape into the light, it resolved into a guitar. Its honey-colored wood mirrored the crackling fire.
"Joe," he said as he waved to interrupt Jericho's reverie, "my cousin and this young man here both tell me that you have a great love for music, and that it has been a while since you've had strings under your fingers." He picked at a couple of the strings and turned the knobs on the neck to tune it. "This was my grandfather's. I've never been able to do more than pick out a few bars of 'Goodbye, Old Paint'. I thought maybe this fellow could use a new home."
Charles handed the guitar to Raven. Grandfather's, she thought, as she ran her fingertips across the soundboard, trying to pick up any residual emotions that might be there—something, anything that might give her more insight into the spirit of Thunder Horse. She sensed faint vibrations of gentleness curling around her fingers. She brushed the polished wood one last time and passed the guitar on to Gar. Gar gave it to Bart, who presented the instrument to Jericho with a bow that befitted his position as Shogun of the Stair Luge Samurai.
The pale young man took it into his hands at studied it. Raven could sense that the uncertainty and disorientation stirring within him was starting to fade a little. He rested it in his lap and strummed his fingers over the strings.
"It – it's been a while," he stammered. "I'm not sure if I can still—"
"Your spirit's fingers never forget," Charles said as he lit his pipe. "Just give it a whirl."
"Joseph, please," Raven added, hoping to be of some help to someone who was giving up so much to help her. "It is time to find your voice again."
The guitar complained as he adjusted the knobs to bring it into tune.
"Play us some Garth, Joey," Victor called out.
"Garth?" Superboy asked. "I didn't know Tempest could-hey!" He yelped as Cassie elbowed him in the ribs.
"Or perhaps a ballad of recent past," Sian suggested. "Our people have long been away from these lands. I would like a song of the homeworld to take back to them."
Jericho's fingers strummed idly on no particular tune for a moment. He stopped every few seconds or so to turn a tuning knob here, stroke one of the strings gently there. He hummed softly along with it, each vibration of his voice swinging closer and closer to a song, one that sounded familiar.
"I heard this one on the radio yesterday," he said to no one in particular as his eyes studied his moving hands. "Done by a guy named Bublé. I've wanted to sing it since then."
He played a little longer, the strings falling into a soft melody. He sang some lines, drawing out the last word of each measure a little:
Another summer day
Has come and gone away
In Paris and Rome
But I wanna go home
The first words were shaky, unsure. He sang again, his voice stronger and clearer. It was tinged with homesickness and longing for the familiar. With all her repeated wanderings around the universe, Raven understood that feeling and empathized in more ways than one. She felt the wistfulness in the thoughts behind his choice of the song … his own visits to the cities he sang about, painting, time with his mother, now as dead as Arella. Such similar paths, she thought as she closed her eyes and focused on his words again:
And I feel just like I'm living someone else's life
It's like I just stepped outside
When everything was going right
And I know just why you could not
Come along with me
She felt the image in his mind, strong now, of the white-cloaked image of her old self in his mind that he had to abandon when he fell back into the real world. She felt his eyes on her as he sang on:
'Cause this was not your dream
But you always believed in me
She drifted into the song as Joseph's gentle singing transformed the voice of Sebastian, which she had feared so much, into a sound of comfort. She could feel his gaze walking around the circle of friends and then resting on her. Pretending not to notice, she sank deeper into Gar's shoulder and then felt him shift her weight into his chest as he settled back onto the rock behind them. His small kiss against her forehead and his whispering of a sweet nothing into her ear only made her drowsier. . .
She opened her eyes with a start. The circle of light was now empty. She could feel the presence of her friends, but she could not see them. The flames still popped and cracked as she gazed around, disoriented. Suddenly, where there had been empty space before, there was a young man wrapped in a woven blanket. His black eyes shone with an inner fire of their own.
"Dawn Child," he said with a smile.
She sat up and smiled back at him. "Grandfather." She looked around at the empty space again. "Is this a dream?" She paused as she felt the air with her hands and sensed his presence layered on top of the empathic signatures of her friends. A shuffling sound to her right drew her attention away from Thunder Horse. A green penguin wandered in out of the darkness, whistling a merry tune.
"Partly a dream, yes. I wandered by when I heard my guitar being played," Thunder Horse replied as he, too, watched the penguin as he waddled back into the night. He continued with a puzzled frown. "But right now I am not certain whose dream it is."
She shook her head. A smile tugged at her lips as she explained, "Garfield must have fallen asleep as well. Sometimes our dreams blend."
"Your young man? He dreams of being a penguin?"
Raven nodded. "He does that."
"You keep interesting company, my child." He held his hands up to the fire, as if enjoying its warmth. A laugh burst out of him, destroying the frown in its wake. "Hah! This, coming from a young old man who haunts your dreams, eh?"
"Grandfather," Raven began, "it is wonderful to see you once more, but why are you here? What has happened? Are you – did you –"
"Did I go to the 'Happy Hunting Grounds' that all of those old Westerns used to talk about? No, child. I'm certainly not alive, but for some reason I am not among the dead, either. I am somewhere between them. Perhaps my task in this world is not finished. Maybe someone here still has a need of me, after all this time. Maybe none of the afterlives want me after some of my, um, recent behavior. Or maybe the Great Spirit has had some mercy on me and is allowing me to attend a council fire with the great-granddaughter that I never knew. You must have many questions for me since our last talk."
A squeaking ball of green fur bolted out of the darkness and scrambled up Raven's arm. The chipmunk nestled into the crown of her hair and chattered into the night air. "I do not know where to begin," she replied without taking much notice of her new hat. "But I have wondered since I saw you last… you said… you said that I am the way that I am because I chose to be this way. I don't understand that. How do you know? How could I possibly—"
"Ask the stranger."
"The one who claims to be an Azar? Does she truly know?"
"Yes," he replied, his voice deep and mysterious. Then he chuckled at her startled reaction. "Did you expect me to say something else? I'm the spirit-guide here. I can't tell you everything. But I think she can. The Book is genuine. I can tell you that much. Listen to her, listen to what she has to say. Do you think she speaks the truth?"
"She believes what she says."
"Ah, which is not necessarily the same thing as speaking the truth. But at least hear her out. She doesn't have to be all mysterious, like I do. And read the book. I think the book will tell you what you need to know."
Raven sighed. "I suppose there is no harm in seeing what is in it."
He shrugged. "Can't hurt. Might help. See? I am better than a fortune cookie."
Raven shuddered as she tried to suppress a small sound in chest. It boiled over and finally escaped her throat. It startled her until she realized what it was. A giggle. Followed by a snort.
Thunder Horse responded with a waggle of his eyebrows. "I'll bet that was a first."
"Indeed," she said, her voice rippling with more laughter. "It feels good."
"It does, it does," he agreed.
"Grandfather," she began as she wiped a tear – a tear of laughter? How odd! How wonderful! – from the corner of her eye. "There have been times, lately, that I have wished that my mother had sought sanctuary with you instead of going to Azarath. If you had raised me, perhaps both our stories would be different."
"Oh, my little one," he sighed. "You would have been such a delight to me in my sunset years." His eyes followed the bundle of fur that was trembling in her hair. "But, then again, maybe you would not now have your young…ummm... buck."
The chipmunk leaped from her head and shifted mid-air into a skunk. "Cara mia," he muttered into her skin as he started nuzzling her hand.
Thunder Horse regarded the scene with kind eyes. "That does not annoy you, Dawn Child?"
"All those... critters. It is so difficult to pretend to be a wise old duffer while I'm looking at a chipmunk in your hair or a skunk … do whatever he's doing."
"Oh! No. I rather enjoy the attention," she answered, stroking the skunk's ear with a finger on her free hand.
"Ahhhh," he replied, with a knowing wink. "Then you are perfect for each other."
As she smiled back at him, Raven could hear, faintly, what the others were doing around their own fire: Connor and Cassie slipping out of the circle of light... Bart teaching the Azar the proper way to roast a marshmallow... A guitar being retuned... Karen nibbling on a piece of chocolate... Victor reminding Gar of the first time the Titans went camping, when he kept burning his hot dogs, the faint flavor of embarrassment from her beloved. Raven remembered for a moment that that was when she first heard about him being on that television show. Then, finally, Joseph trying to sing again, his voice settling into a soft cowboy tune, slightly out of harmony with Charles's voice. They all felt closer to her than they had a moment before.
"There is something else I must tell you, Dawn Child," Thunder Horse's voice broke into the noise, more serious this time. "Why my body has not been found… you must tell Charlie… I think it still lives somewhere without me..." His voice was growing fainter with every word. "And I must find someone, someone named Winter..."
His voice faded into the distance as he disappeared, to be replaced by the other group around the fire. Gar was gently shaking her, telling her everyone was going to bed. She thought perhaps she was not entirely awake, as she imagined a blue butterfly flit once about Sian's head and disappear into the darkness. She had never seen a butterfly at night, so it must be cobwebs left behind by her dream. With a long and drawn-out yawn, she let him lead her to the tents, wondering if she would be able to recapture that connection with her grandfather, to find out the rest of his story, to remember the last few words he had said before he dissolved into the night. She resolved to tell Charles of the vision in the morning, once she had sorted it all out in her own head.
Jericho walked over the ridge of rocks that protected the campsite from the wind, guitar in hand, to have a little time to himself. The vast sea of rock spread out below him, and he gazed into the shadows. For the first time in a while, the terrible thirst that had chased him for days receded a bit, and Sebastian's voice had grown quiet. The night songs of the canyon hummed around him. He heard some pebble shifting very close to him, and he turned to face the sound.
He was not alone.
She stood there, wrapped in silence. Her white cloak gleamed in the darkness. Any words he might have spoken caught in his throat. He reached out with one shaking hand and pushed the hood away from her face. He studied the midnight blue eyes that gazed up at him. The flecks of silver in them sparkled against the cold light of the moon.
This can't be real, he thought. "Raven?" he asked. He placed a trembling palm on her shoulder. The young woman covered it with her own hand.
"Joseph," she replied. Her voice was so tender. "I am here. I have always been here with you, my love."
"I thought-" The words choked him as they moved through his throat. "I thought I'd lost you."
Her skin felt so soft against his face. "Never," she said softly. She rested her lips against his cheek. "Never," she repeated, then pulled his face even closer, brushing her full, generous lips against his mouth.
"Even when I'm this?" he asked, his voice urgent and hoarse. "You still know me? You're not afraid of—"
"I see your soul, my love," she whispered against his mouth. "The shell does not matter."
He drank her long kiss in, wondering if this was what he had so thirsty for these past days, this warmth, this softness. He finally broke off for air with a deep sigh. He smiled as he heard Sebastian muttering in the far corners of his mind.
"They told me you were just a dream, a fantasy…" Jericho said softly.
"They've been lying to you. The one claiming to be me is an imposter. Trust me, beloved. Trust me. You are all in grave danger."
Gar stood in front of the open flap of the girls' tent with his hands tucked behind his back. "I wanted to tuck you in tonight, sweets, but Karen's read us guys the riot act about staying out of the ladies' tent." He waggled his eyebrows at the sparkles in her violet eyes, which were now a deep purple in the soft light. "So… I … uh… I got you the next best thing. Hold out your hand."
He revealed the secret package to her, a ball of soft fur not much larger than her hand. A face full of green smiled up at her with a single fang tacked on to the edge of its lip. She held it up the light to see that it wore a small white shirt with a purple collar and sleeves. She gave Gar a soft, earnest smile as she clasped it to her.
"I've never had one of these before," she whispered.
"A teddy bear?"
"A gift," she replied.
His lips twisted for a moment before they softened. "A gift to both of us. From Bart, actually. You really like him?"
She nodded, speechless.
"I'm glad, sweetie," he said. He stroked the head of the toy with the tip of his smallest finger. "But, of course, he wouldn't be complete without her…"
He revealed his other hand, which held a mass of brown fur wrapped in a tiny blue cloak. A tiny red rhinestone on its forehead reflected the light of the moon.
Raven gasped. "A little, furry… me?"
Gar chuckled. "Yeah. Cute, isn't she? She can watch out for me whenever you are away – which I hope is very rare, by the way – and he can take care of you when I'm not around, for whatever reason."
He hugged her, cradling the two small bears between them. Burying his face in her hair and inhaling the smoky scent of it, he whispered, "And Gar Bear… he… he can't… " His voice drifted off. He swallowed hard. "He can't help her make little bears."
"He can't… oh," she said, as she tightened her arms around him. "Oh, beloved." She could feel the sadness in him even more clearly now that she knew the reason behind it.
"I know it's one less thing for us to worry about," he said into her hair. "It's just that—"
"You wanted the choice."
"Yeah, something like that." He stroked the side of her face. She could feel his need for comfort, and she gladly sent out waves of it from herself into his body. She sensed a source of extreme happiness close by – Connor and Cassie must have slipped away again – and she tapped into it for strength to give to the young man in her arms. They stood there in silence for a few minutes, listening to Bart and Charles bicker over the last of the marshmallows.
"The choice," she murmured into his shoulder. "I am so afraid, beloved, of that choice. Not, not of you, not of the sakutia, but, oh, I do not know why, but I am so afraid."
"It's new ground for both of us, remember? We'll get through it, baby. And someday you won't be afraid anymore."
She pulled back for a moment and looked up at him. "It is not just … intimacy … that has my frightened. I lost my place at school. I am such a failure... Will I ever be able to … how does one say it? Pull my own weight?"
He rested his hands on her shoulders and held her still with his eyes. "You are not a failure, especially because of that stupid school. You'll figure out what you want to do, hon. You always do. But it's not diplomas or headlines that attract me. Remember, I love you. Even when you fall, even when you fail, I love you. Even when you fail. Never, ever forget that – Raven, what is it?"
"No, no, no, oh, no," she cried. Her eyes widened as a shiver enveloped her body and crept into her voice. "Azar! No!"
"She is here."