From out of the night sky, Raven floated down to earth and looked carefully about her. Up ahead an ancient wooden wharf extended an intruding finger of land into the depths of the ocean. She took note of the continuous sound of water rolling up against the concrete barrier that divided land from sea. Old lampposts stretched away from her, arching out to cast clear islands of light along the ancient cobblestone path. The solitary Titan scanned the area for occupants of any kind, but to her relief, there were none. She was alone.
Raven caught the tang of sea air and let out her breath, along with any tension. Now she could finally relax. She had not expected to find anyone here, this being a spot two miles out of town, possessing nothing of exceptional interest to commend itself to the public. Nothing, that is, except solitude. Raven had discovered this abandoned place months earlier, and had soon deemed it an ideal spot to go when she needed to get away from her comrades in Titans Tower and any curious inhabitants of their thriving protectorate. Tonight was definitely one of those times. Having friends was wonderful, but it brought certain obligations that being by yourself did not. Especially for someone in her situation. So Raven was taking the night off from company.
Checking about one last time, the sorceress from the free-dimension of Azerath lifted off the ground and floated over the luminous tip of a lamp. She was alone now, but you never know, someone might come along, and up here she was out of any pedestrian's field of view. Closing her eyes, Raven steadied herself, spared one last moment of attention to the ocean's steady song, and...
"Azerath Metrion Zinthos. Azerath Metrion Zinthos. Azerath..."
The words slipped from Raven's lips, and the sound of surging waves gradually receded. Her awareness of the world not entirely obliterated, Raven used her occult mantra to focus her mind, enabling her to calmly and objectively deal with her emotions. They swarmed inside her head, seeking an outlet to make their presence felt in the world, but the dedicated young mystic placed herself between her feelings and the crackling, eldritch energy that was her father's legacy. As she had countless times before, Raven mentally divided and relegated her own emotions, ranging from incapacitating panic, to bone-cold sadness, to red destructive hatred. This last she took special care to subdue, and when the final rebellious flicker of herself was sealed away to her satisfaction, the blue-robed spell-caster was free to let her mind go.
Her astral form extended beyond any known planes, allowing her to contemplate herself in a new dimension. Around her, Raven saw without eyes a limitless gulf of calm black water, its placid surface throwing back a mirror reflection of far-flung stars high above her. She was at peace, finally. No distractions to preoccupy her, no worries or fears to upset her. Just calm, and contentment.
Azerath Metrion Zinthos
She was this place, and it was her.
Azerath Metrion Zinthos
She felt herself approaching something, a new understanding of some kind.
Azerath Metrion Zinthos
Without eagerness, but intrigued, she moved Azerath towards it Metrion and Zi...
A small green fish leapt from the glassy ebon water and immediately dropped in again.
Raven paused, momentarily taken aback. She searched for any sign of disturbance, but found nothing, not even the suggestion of a ripple to mar the mental ocean. She waited.
No importance, she decided. And so once again, Raven began to focus on her new discovery. Soon she could make out a presence, maybe even an awareness. Was she about to achieve contact with a heretofore unknown phase of existence? What marvelous wonders awaited her? Was it of the ocean, coming from it, the starry sky or...?
A star dropped straight down to hit the water.
Raven involuntarily focused on this occurrence, and in the moment her concentration strayed, the next word of her unconscious chant failed to come out, and she dipped down low. A burning pain suddenly erupted in her calve, and with a hiss, she found herself thrown back abruptly into the physical world. Her bare leg had descended to touch the hot metal of the lamppost, leaving a blossoming red mark.
Raven cursed her incompetence, and then willed herself to enough calm to bring her healing powers to bear. A sparkling blue energy collected about her hands, Azerath's teachings going into effect in her fingers, and Raven clasped them about her sore leg. The energy infused the damaged spot to null the pain, correcting it. As it did so, she thought about her interruptions. What had they meant?
There it was again!
Startled, Raven realized that the sound was originating from somewhere around her. With her injury now healed, she looked about to locate the source. And found it.
Some twenty feet away, a person was walking along the jetty towards the pier. Even from this vantage, Raven could tell that it was a man. As he strolled, the figure would casually bend down to pick a pebble from the ground. He would then send the stone out in a lazy lob over the ocean, to end in an audible KER-PLOP. This was what had disturbed her.
Raven glowered at the retreating form. Of all the rotten luck. Why did some miserable, aimless soul have to choose this night to come out here, to her private spot? She had been on the brink of something major, she was sure of it, and now this! Irritation flared up in her, and as the intruder bent to retrieve another missile, the sullen sorceress absently considered redirecting its course to give him a painful rap on the head. She shivered at the thought. Mustn't resort to violence. Whoever he was, he would probably leave soon. Until then, she would just have to make do.
The man had reached the wharf and was turning along its length. Raven once again drew up her legs, and prepared for meditation. As her spell droned softly out, she cast a furtive glance at her unwanted companion. He had reached the end of the dock and was now leaning out over the railing, apparently lost in the sight of the ocean.
"Azerath Metrion Zinthos." Raven continued to chant, seeking clarity, but the knowledge of the man's presence still distracted her. As her lips formed the words, she glared darkly at the starlit figure. Still he was just standing there, as if he owned the place. His lack of purpose served to fuel her irrational anger. Raven realized that she was now trying to force herself to meditate instead of letting it come. This would never work, but she kept on stubbornly chanting.
And he was still just standing there!!
The hovering spell-caster ground her teeth in frustration.
BLAST IT, WOULD YOU JUST LEAVE ME ALONE?!!!
And at that, the man climbed up onto the railing.
Raven gaped, and her incantation stuttered to a halt. NO! She hadn't meant that!
A chill stole over her.
Was he going to...?!!
Then the figure flung out his arms and fell towards the water.
He walked aimlessly beside the border of earth and ocean, thinking about nothing. He did this intentionally, until he grew bored. A small rock in his path caught his eye, and on impulse he picked it up. Here, he thought as he chucked it into the water, try a new outlook on existence, courtesy of me. Strolling along, he repeated his altruistic gesture on other inanimate objects. Now if only someone would do the same for me. However, no giant hand descended from the heavens, and as he glanced around, there seemed to be no one else available. Of course, lack of company was what had brought him all the way out here, to a spot that perhaps he alone knew about. How ironic that what we most desire can so swiftly become a regret, he mused. Then he spied the dock.
Well, if nobody was here, perhaps he should just do himself the service. And with that, he marched down towards the wooden construct.
Reaching the end of its length he gazed out across the ocean. It was a clear night, warm, and the moon had already gone below the horizon. Only the stars to accompany him. Good. He wanted no gawkers to watch this moment. So, he thought, I've already decided? Oh, yes, he replied. But still, he took the time to enjoy the view. Then without hesitation, he clambered atop the railing.
Perched on the top rung, the man swayed heavily, catching his balance as he adjusted himself. He looked up at the sky.
"Maybe this time will be different," he mused in his own voice. Yes, maybe he would find himself in Atlantis, or turn into a fish. Maybe he would just sink down forever, with nothing to disturb him. Anything was possible. And with that fact securely in mind, the man spread his arms, closed his eyes and pitched himself forward.
Here I come, he thought.
No water, no splash.
Did somebody move the ocean?
Perplexed, the man opened his eyes. No, the ocean was still there, he was looking right at it.
Actually, to be more precise, he was hanging right over it. The man stared. Was this really happening? Was he really...?
The implications of the situation finally hit him.
"I can fly!" he exclaimed incredulously.
"And to think," a cool, throaty voice spoke from above him, "that's only the second-stupidest thing you've thought all day."
Surprised, the man turned his head to find a pair of very shapely legs floating before his face. His brain then registered a little more. There was a body that came with those legs, a petite, curvaceous feminine frame clad in a skintight leotard, possibly blue, with a belt of gold-set red gems draped around the hips. Craning his head around a bit higher, he picked up a fluttering cloak, two hands that seemed to be glowing black, and a pair of large, luminous dark eyes gazing out from the shadowy depths of a broad hood.
How was this happening?
Wait, what did she just say?!!
He suddenly remembered his predicament, hanging out over the water, and something occurred to him.
"Ah," the man stammered, fumbling for words. "This...isn't what it looks like." Even to him, it sounded weak. The flying girl stared at him, and he fidgeted.
"How would you know?" she asked pointedly. "I'm the one looking at it." She did not sound happy.
"What I mean is..." the man began, and then trailed off. He looked helplessly down (or rather across) at his feet, and finally noticed something. His clothes were glowing black, just like the girl's hands. Well, that explains that, he thought. But what am I supposed to do now? He wiggled his hands and feet. The action produced no discernible result. Apparently any change in his situation would have to derive from her. Once again he turned his neck at an uncomfortable degree to view his captor's face. "Look, I'm not sure what is going on, but could we possibly continue this on the ground?"
She looked at him, and gave an irritated sigh. The girl then gestured with one hand, and the man found himself floating back towards the dock, where he was quickly righted and placed back on his feet. The ebony aura around his clothes vanished, and he suddenly felt a good deal heavier. That had been rather pleasant, he reflected. Then the strangely clad maiden drifted over to settle in with her back to the ocean, her gaze set on him. The cloak came down to cover her body, leaving only her face and eyes to fill his attention.
For her part, Raven took the time to study the man she had rescued. He had on a set of dark grey pants and a coat. The style looked Oriental, and possibly expensive. His shoes were definitely expensive, Italian leather, and apparently the whole ensemble was comfortable enough to be tailor-made. This last she decided upon because of the man's unusual build. He was tall, maybe 6 ft. 3 in., and he carried himself very straight now that he was back on terra firma. His posture was so erect he almost certainly suffered from lower back pain, and his shoulders were squared resolutely, like he was determined to keep them from slumping. The man seemed in good shape, fairly big, but his arms were a little long, and there were short curly hairs on the backs of his hands. He had a trim black beard, slicked back hair, and deep-set, heavy-lidded dark eyes. He might have been military, Raven could not tell. But enough time had passed without either of them speaking. Her night had been ruined, and this man was going to answer for it.
"So now would you like to explain what was going on?" Raven inquired in a firm tone.
The man gave a small jerk, as if he had been lost in thought. For a moment he just stared blankly at her face, and the magic-user pursed her lips in a grim line. She waited for him to say something, and then it seemed to dawn on the man.
"You see," he began haltingly, "I had ...business in town, and ...I finished it, but afterwards I didn't really feel ...like..." He paused.
"I just wanted to be alone," he concluded. There, that should be enough for her.
The girl's eyes narrowed, and she crossed her arms. "And?" she prompted dangerously.
The stranger glanced from left to right, as if for help. "And...then you came along," he added.
Raven felt her teeth clench. This was going nowhere. It could be he was in shock, or he was just ignorant. Either way, it didn't look as if she would be getting any cooperation. He did not seem suicidal or depressed. Well, forget it then. She decided it was not really important. And with that, Raven suppressed her justified annoyance and levitated upwards.
"I'm going to be leaving now," she said, speaking slowly so that he was sure to understand. "Whatever choices you make are up to you, and I strongly suggest you think about their consequences. Good night." With that, she floated off inland.
The man stood staring after her. That had been an unusual confrontation. What an interesting girl. Quite a find...
Did she just say 'Good night?!!'
"Wait!" the man cried, and hurried after her.
Raven halted and looked back. The suicide caught up to her and stopped.
"I just wanted to be alone," he stated again. She arched an eyebrow. "And I came out here because I knew it would be deserted. Anyone who knows about this place could guess that. And if you are here, then you can't have been just waiting around to see if somebody showed up and needed rescuing, so I assume you came here to be alone too."
Raven was mystified as to where this was headed.
"But two people can't be alone together," the man continued, "so if we're both here now, why don't we see what happens next?" He offered up his hand invitingly.
Raven remained perplexed. What was wrong with him? First he's looking to drown himself, and then he's asking her to spend the night with him. He might be a psychopath. He obviously had some kind of mental abnormality. After all, no normal person would ever want to spend time with her. This was definitely an odd character, but did he actually expect her to accompany him? He seemed to just jump from one impulse to another. It was very confusing. She did not sense any hostility from him, but all the same...It was not as if she had much experience around people who wanted her company. What should she do?
The man still stood with his hand outstretched, waiting patiently. He did not try to press her any further. And that was what decided it.
"Fine," the sulky Titan stated brusquely. This night was a wash for peaceful contemplation anyway. And she could leave anytime she wanted. Drifting down, Raven ignored his open hand and settled in beside him. She looked up at him, and the dark man gazed down on her. Everything was quiet now. Even the ocean's tumult had receded. The man crooked a smile at her, and then held out his arm to indicate the path. Raven glanced down it, then back at him. She did not move.
"If I were you," she said in a low voice, "I wouldn't try anything."
The man's face did not change. He just gave a short nod, while still gesturing down the lane. With a final warning glare, Raven turned and strode off, her boots crunching on gravel. Her companion soon joined her, and together they walked beneath the stars.
The way wound around hills dotted with limestone boulders, bearing inland. Trees began to sprout up, forming a sparse forest further on. After a few minutes of walking, neither of them had said a word. At first Raven kept a brisk pace. She remained wary of this strange individual, tensed and ready for action. But after while, with no evidence of danger and nothing but the night-time sounds and smells to occupy her, she began to relax, though still cautious concerning her situation. Her swift, steady pace became more of a stroll, and she took some time to enjoy herself. It was a nice night, after all.
For his part, the stranger was proving less of a burden than she had expected. He had not attempted to strike a up a conversation, pester her with questions, or even offer an explanation for their encounter. Raven had assumed him to be a verbose person, similar to her teammate Beast Boy. But the man seemed content to continue in silence, and for that she was feeling grateful. She realized he had not even asked for her name, and had also failed to supply his own. Not that it mattered. Everyone in this city knew who she was, and he had implied some familiarity with the surroundings, so he was probably a resident. The magic user terminated this line of thinking and once again observed the landscape. The trees had grown more dense around them, though starlight still glimmered faintly overhead. There were no lampposts here, as they were now a fair distance from the coast, and its presence was no longer audible. Nothing of any interest to speak of, so she just walked. And stole an occasional glance at her companion.
The man still had not spoken. His attention went from the stars, to the ground, about the trees, and sometimes at her, though in the last case he would quickly look away if she seemed to notice. Raven frowned to herself. She had not known what to expect from this potential lunatic, but it was certainly not this. Was this really all he had in mind?
Lost in thought, it took Raven a few moments to notice she was walking alone.
The dimensional sorceress whirled about, her powers at the ready. A few feet behind her, the stranger had stopped and was peering off into the forest. He took note of Raven, and gestured off to the side.
"This way," he stated simply. "There's a good spot a little way back." And with that, he moved into the woods. After a moment's hesitation, Raven followed.
The stranger made a lot of noise moving through the undergrowth, so she had no trouble keeping track of him. There did not seem to be a path, and the young mystic had to pay close attention to the ground and any bethorned plant-life looking to adhere to her cloak. But despite this she still noticed when the sounds of her companion's progress diminished, and Raven soon learned why as she stepped out from under the canopy and into a clearing.
The low-growing trees in this area had given way to a bare hill with thick grass, and the quiet man was climbing it. Raven quickly floated up to follow him. She had had her fill of walking. Reaching the summit, the view struck her motionless.
You could see everything at this height, from the ocean in the distance to the lights of town. She must have not noticed that the land was sloping upwards to this rise. The hill was the crest of that slope, the landscape now flowing down towards the endless expanse of water. With the stars out and not a cloud in the sky, Raven had to admit that this was a very beautiful place.
The stranger too was contemplating their surroundings, standing with one hand resting on a large, narrow boulder that crowned the hill. Raven glided over to join him, and the man looked down at her. She returned his gaze steadily, her face betraying nothing. Then he gave the stone a quick pat.
"Here," he said. "You can take the throne. I'll lie on the grass."
Raven looked at his offering. The rock came up to her eye level, which made it about a foot below his head. Its top half was shaped in a smooth S-curve, a natural cradle for a person to lie back on. It was the final touch to complement this perfect locale. However, Raven did not immediately take him up on his suggestion. She had already spent a few hours here, and although the place was enticing with natural beauty, perhaps she should be returning home to get some rest. She was just about to voice her concerns, when the man simply plopped down on the ground and stretched his length in the grass. Pillowing his head in his hands, he stole a peek at her, and then turned his attention to the sky.
Raven watched him lying peacefully there. Then with a shrug, the young Titan levitated up to the top of the boulder and lay down. The contours of the rock matched her dimensions well, her thick cowl made an excellent pillow, and the dark-souled girl felt herself relax on this odd perch. Together they looked up at the midnight-blue heavens bedecked with celestial lights.
The man lay on the soft, damp grass. He felt quite at ease. There were no demands on him, an attractive girl was lying next to him (albeit five feet above him), and he could see the distant lights of the Milky Way. It was most pleasurable. Of a sudden he was taken back to his youth, when he had enjoyed similar easy comforts, without the perils and stress afforded by modern adulthood. He had looked up at the sky a great deal then, wondering who was up there and why. The man remembered searching the night's blackness for familiar references, the circling, unchanging stars whose patterns and stories he had faithfully memorized. Even now, so many years later, he could still recall them clearly. Some of those old comrades were visible here, far from home and with the bright lights of the city dimming their luster.
He lifted a finger and sought out a guiding point, the North Star. His hand moved downward, located one of those eternal star paintings in the sky. "Taulis the Horse," he murmured to himself. Then another. "The Four Stones." They were coming faster now. "Gods' Home. The Circling Wolves."
"What are you doing?" The girl's rich voice came from above. He looked at her in surprise, his arm still raised skyward. She was sitting up and staring down at him questioningly. He must have been speaking out loud, he hadn't noticed. He had not meant to disturb her.
"My apologies. I was just naming the constellations."
Raven continued to eye him. "Those aren't their names," she said flatly.
The stranger looked over her shoulder at the sea of stars. "They were where I grew up."
"Where was that?" Raven asked automatically, and then rebuked herself. She had not intended for this to become a conversation. Who knows where it might lead? But the man's face had grown distant, his lips parted in thought.
"I took the time to figure this out," he mused softly. "It was... in the Caucasus Mountains, somewhere in the region north of Rostov-on-Don."
"In what is now Russia," Raven supplied.
"Yes." The man smiled, pleased. "Yes, have you been there?"
"No," Raven said and looked out across the ocean. "I just read about it." She hoped he would leave it at that. The talk of a homeland gave rise to memories of her own, uncomfortable ones. But the man continued undeterred. He seemed to have found a topic of interest.
"Our society was rather primitive in comparison to this country. But we didn't know that, so what did we care? The community was small, and we did not welcome outsiders. But we did attend some local gatherings on occasion. By the Bol' Shaya Laba River. And every year, we would make a pilgrimage to Mount Elbrus. It's still considered a holy place by the locals, even now."
Raven listened, interested in spite of herself. Not many people she knew could converse fluently on such a topic.
"We worked all summer and spring long," he continued, "and hunted. It was an important tradition, and when the cold came, we would range farther to find game. It wasn't like it is today, with boundary lines everywhere, and people shooting you off for invading their homes. Back then we had a different sense of the word 'home.' It wasn't like a house, it was about the people you trusted, your family. Wherever they were at the time, that was home."
His voice was animated, and he gestured excitedly. Raven found herself mesmerized. These words meant something to her.
"I know what you mean," she whispered softly.
He looked at her with interest. "Oh?"
The young woman drew up her legs and clasped her arms about them. She rested her chin on her knees. "Where I grew up," she began, choosing her words slowly and carefully, "things were never simple. For as long as I can remember, I was treated differently. People were always watching me, like they were afraid I might try something, or I might explode." Raven frowned with bitterness. "Or that something else would. It made me feel bad."
"But when I was with my mother," her voice became more resonant," I didn't feel scared or lonely then. No matter where we went, as long as I was with her, I felt safe. Everywhere she was became home. She carried it with her."
Suddenly Raven realized how much she was revealing to a man she had just met, and quickly stopped talking.
The stranger had sat up during her story. He wore a faint smile.
"It was my mother who taught me the names of the stars," he spoke wistfully. "Sometimes, when I was a child, I couldn't sleep, and I would cry. My father would become angry..." Raven flinched at that, "...so my mother would take me outside and show me the stars. She told me their stories until I fell asleep. It was one of the few kindnesses we were permitted."
Raven watched him again. The man fell silent for a long time. He did not seem so strange and disturbing now. She did not doubt his honesty, and even felt a little ashamed for being so cold to him earlier.
"Why did you leave there?" the sorceress asked.
He did not answer immediately. A few moments slipped by. Then the man stirred, and when his voice came out now, it was grim. "My father was a very important and wealthy figure in our community. He was the one people looked to for leadership, to make the important decisions, and I was supposed to follow in his footsteps. That was what he wanted, what I thought I wanted. I believed that it was my right, that I was the only one who could do it. I was proud, arrogant. A few years after he resigned, when I had proven to everyone what I could do, times got bad. When the cold came it stayed, and did not let up. We became cut off from our natural way of life."
There was a slight hint of spite in his tone, old and worn out. "I took actions that I thought were reasonable. I was a fool. By that time my mother was long dead, and I listened to no one but myself. Unbeknownst to me, dissension was growing. Before I knew it, the other families in the community had turned against me and mine. We were blamed for the hard times, and in a meeting of all the people, we were cast out of our home, sent to find our survival elsewhere. We lost everything."
He paused for a time. He seemed to be weighing his next words with care. "They thought I would die, but I didn't. I carried on. By then it was just my father, myself, and two loyal friends. I tried to lead them to safety, but they would not follow, and so I was left alone. I never knew what became of them, but for myself, I became a wanderer, living aimlessly. I had a lot of time to think, and after a while, I realized that I did not belong there anymore. I was too different, and there was nothing of value to keep me. By the time I finally caught a boat away from that area, it wasn't home anymore. In any sense of the word."
The man finished, and grew silent. His face was not angry though, or sad. He seemed thoughtful. Raven realized she was staring at him. She told herself to look away, but before she could, he turned his eyes upon her. "You?" he asked shortly. "How did you come to be here?"
Raven did not know what to say. There was much she could not tell this man, things she had told no one. But she had to say something. To her amazement, she did not want their talk to end, and she still did not know his name.
"My mother left me," she said simply. "After a while, she couldn't go out as much as she used to, and I stayed with her. I couldn't leave." Raven remembered the feelings of helplessness and pain she had experienced at the time. They were still the worst years of her life. "Her health began to fade, and she never got any better. I tried to help her..." the enchantress looked at her hands, flexing the slender, supple fingers, "...but I could do nothing for this. Others came too, and told me she was beyond anything they could do. I sent them away, and they did not return. I stayed with mother. For the rest of her life, I was always with her. And when she died, I came here." Raven thought about why, and finally said, "Because this had been her home, long before." And that was the truth.
She looked down at her audience. His lips quirked. He lowered his head, and gave a brief chuckle. Raven was immediately offended. "What's so funny?" she demanded.
The rude fellow looked up and grinned. "I just thought to myself," he said brightly, "that you and I should be gardeners." She glowered at him, confused and hostile. "Because," he continued, "we are both very good at hedging!"
And at that he laughed, in a loud and carefree way.
Still upset, Raven watched him incredulously. Then, as his laughter continued, she thought about it, and slowly, hesitantly, a tiny smile came to her lips. It did not reach any farther, but it was there, and she could not make it go away.
The man noticed this, and felt strangely pleased to see her smile. For some reason, it made him prouder than anything he had done lately. He was actually enjoying talking to this dark-eyed young woman. He wanted it to keep going.
"So," the man said in a convivial tone, "This place must be your home now."
Raven felt a surge of suspicion, her emotions doing a complete 180. "Why do you say that?"
The man swept out his arms in an all-encompassing gesture. "Like I said before, because you knew about this area, that you could be alone here. Only a local would know that. And..." he continued in a pedantic tone, "...you intended to return here again. That was why you saved a complete stranger from drowning. You could have left me alone, but you didn't want to remember this as the spot where someone had thrown it all away while you stood by watching."
Raven relaxed, her brief concerns forgotten. "You're half-right. I do come here often, but I didn't rescue you just for myself. I would have done it no matter where I was. It's what we do."
"We?" he asked.
"My friends and I," the Titan supplied. She turned her head in the direction of town, where Titans Tower could clearly be seen out in the bay.
"Ah," the man breathed sagely, "so you have friends here."
Raven blinked, surprised. And then her face softened. "Yes, I really do." It was most pleasing to acknowledge. "What about your friends?"
In response, the stranger reclined back on the grass, hands resting on his stomach. "I have none," he said carelessly, and raised a hand to forestall her. "Oh, I know, you see the expensive apparel, the easy nature, you think I must be swimming in people who want to befriend me."
Raven hadn't, but said nothing.
"But I'm serious," he remarked. "I have no friends. I have acquaintances, and people with whom I am friendly, but there is really no one I can trust. I have come far, my dear, farther than my father could ever have hoped to achieve for himself. I am in higher standing now than anyone I left behind in the Caucasus." His voice grew gentle, and slightly self-deprecatory. "But I have never found another home. Not really. I have only myself now. My family is all dead. If you think about it, then in reality, I am my own home. It's just like you said. Everywhere I go, I carry my home."
Raven gave a small "Hm" of understanding. She watched him lying there, seemingly at ease. She knew what it was like, to have no friends. It was not unbearable, but neither was it particularly wonderful. This man seemed resigned to it. "So I found my home," she murmured, "while you lost yours."
The loner inclined his head in agreement. They both grew silent and gazed at one another. She studied him, not really thinking, just looking. And he, for his part, watched her, and his thoughts he did not care to utter. Neither felt uncomfortable under their partner's stare. They both knew a great deal more about each other now.
After a time, the beautiful spell-caster stirred, and her eyes fastened on his.
"Raven," she said.
"Come again?" he asked, sitting up.
"My name," she spoke slowly. "It's Raven."
The man stared at her, a look of surprise on his face. He did not seem to have realized that they had never introduced themselves. He opened his mouth to speak, caught himself, and looked hastily at the ground. He seemed uncertain. And, she realized with concern, a little frightened. Like he did not know what to do. Could he not remember his name? Raven suddenly recalled the circumstances that had led to this conversation. Perhaps there really was something wrong with him. And just then, the man looked up.
Raven watched him closely. He was trembling a little, and he looked nervous. Then he appeared to reach a decision, and all signs of disturbance fled. The man met her eyes squarely. He held himself very still.
"My parents," he said calmly, "named me Kultuq."
Raven cocked her head to one side. "Kultuq," she repeated. He gave a brief nod, then let out his breath. "So now you know," he said in a light, casual manner. He was acting relaxed, but also a bit jangly, like something had just taken the edge off. The curious Titan finally decided to pose a difficult query.
"Kultuq," she asked carefully, "why did you try to kill yourself?"
A grimace crossed his face, and he rubbed his beard briskly. "I wasn't really thinking about dying," he said with a sigh. "I just wanted to see what might happen. Like if I would turn into a minnow." Then he flashed her a big smile. "But I'm glad I didn't."
Raven looked at him, and then leaned back. "So am I."
Kultuq grinned even more broadly. It made for a captivating sight, the alluring enchantress reclining on a bed of gray stone, silhouetted against a backdrop of stars. He would have given a lot for a camera. No, he thought, this moment belongs to me, and no one else. He copied her move, and let out a long sigh. How could he have ever thought of leaving this world?
Raven continued to watch the sky. She was calm now, totally at peace. And all without meditation. She was not having to force down any emotions, they were naturally in check. How had that happened? She could have drifted off to sleep right here. But, she decided, that would be a waste.
"So," Kultuq breathed. "This is what happens next."
"Yes," Raven spoke.
"I'm tempted to fall asleep here," he whispered. "But I doubt any dream could be this good."
Raven spread her hands out and gazed at the stars from between her fingers. "I try not to dream. You can be so helpless in them. And I need to keep things under control."
"You're a true child of man, then," he murmured in a teasing tone.
The hybrid daughter of magic closed her eyes. "Do you really think that?" Her voice quivered, and something about her tone made Kultuq sit up and take notice. What had he said? He hoped he hadn't offended her. It was never easy to know what might hurt someone. Please don't let this be one of those times. His next words could ruin or salvage this moment, he knew.
"Of course," he said at last, and took a deep breath, praying he was right. "There's absolutely nothing else in existence so confused and unsure about itself as we are. That's the only way you can be human, really. Not knowing for certain."
He watched her, his heart pounding.
If I ever said anything right, let it be...
Slowly, Raven rose to a sitting position. Her head was bowed, her cowl cast low over her face. Kultuq knew when to keep quiet. This could be important. He waited.
Raven shifted on her perch, and Kultuq leaned forward intently.
"You know," she spoke at last, though a trifle hesitantly, "that almost makes sense to me." Raven glanced at Kultuq, a questioning look in her eyes. "How did you come up with that?"
The older man grinned, feeling an enormous and unprecedented relief. "Well, don't give it too much thought," he advised. "True wisdom seems less profound and more kitsch the longer you examine it."
A star fell from the sky.
And then, very slowly, Raven of Azerath smiled. An open, honest smile.
"Thank you for talking with me, Kultuq."
The eccentric traveler opened his mouth to respond, when suddenly the shadows under Raven's hood vanished. Lit by an orange light, her face was finally revealed, and Kultuq stared dumbfounded. It was a wonder. Her eyes glowed, her skin was gleaming. Light flashed from a jewel set in her forehead, dark hair swept down to frame her face perfectly. Kultuq's words caught in his throat. This was magic.
Raven squinted and raised a hand to her eyes. Looking up at the horizon, she saw the orange crest of the sun. Morning was here. It took a moment for her to register this. She had talked to this man 'til the sun came up. Now the night was over. She realized with a twinge of disappointment that she should be getting home. Her friends would be rising soon.
The mystic girl slid down off the rock. Kultuq stared entranced at her. Then he scrambled to his feet. They both turned their heads to watch the sunrise, then looked back at one another.
"I have to go," Raven said, almost like an apology. Her face was again half-lost in shadow, but her eyes were free.
"And I," Kultuq affirmed. He brushed the dew from his pants.
The young woman crossed her arms and said in a mock-serious tone, "If I leave you here, are you going to try anything stupid again?"
Kultuq was silent. He shook his head. "No. I have to go to Europe, but I don't think I'll try to swim the Big Pond. I can afford to fly."
Raven nodded. He was telling the truth. They had enjoyed a night together, but now there were lives and responsibilities that needed attention. It was only one night. But it made a difference. "We might never meet again, Kultuq."
He sighed. "Perhaps not. You and I do run in different circles."
"I think you mean 'swim'," she corrected him.
"No, I was right the first time." He winked at her. "Get it?"
Raven gave him her most wintry stare. "Yes. And No."
He shrugged. "Maybe later. Unlike wisdom, jokes can get better with time."
The dark-robed Titan shook her head. "You'd have to live forever to improve that one."
"Then I'll let you know," he shot back.
Raven lifted one foot off the ground, and floated up before him.
"Goodbye, Kultuq. I'm pleased to have saved you."
Kultuq smiled faintly, and raised a hand in parting. "I won't forget it, Raven. May you always have a place to call home."
The mystic inclined her head, and was enveloped in a pitch-black shroud of energy. When it cleared, she was gone.
Kultuq shook his head in wonder. After a few moments, he withdrew his cell phone and called to bring the limo back.
Raven appeared in her room and sat on the bed. She suddenly gave a yawn, and realized how tired she was. Her jaw was sore, probably from all the unaccustomed talking. She had not expected to be so at peace. Lying back on her mattress, the exhausted superheroine closed her eyes. Maybe another hour before combat training. She could skip breakfast. It might make her a little snarly, but she was feeling good...
The Titan signal on her cloak began beeping, and Raven's eyes came open. She felt groggy. Had she actually been asleep? She groaned. It had not helped.
Someone was pounding on her door. "Yo, Raven!" Beast Boy's voice called. "We gotta get to the zoo! Some mutated animal-rights circus freaks are letting all the attractions out of their cages. Wake up, this sounds like fun!"
So much for that. Raven rose and crossed the room. Snarly might actually make this go easier.
She opened the door. "Then let's go."
The limo cruised along the freeway towards the airport. Reclining inside, Kultuq absently stroked the leather interior. He was alone again, but his good mood had not evaporated, which was unusual. Briefly he wondered if she had placed a spell on him. It made him laugh. She did not seem like that type of sorceress. Raven was a completely new type of person to him. Maybe one day he might return, and see her again. 'Til then, he hoped she would remember him. If only there were something he could do for Raven, to thank her for what she had given him.
The airport was drawing nearer. Planes were taking off and landing. Even this early in the morning, air traffic was brisk. An El Al Israel flight roared over him into the post-dawn sky. That got him thinking. A new type...yes...
Kultuq picked up the car phone. His faultless memory brought a number to mind, and he dialed. A succession of trace-eluding transfers later, a phone rang in the Middle East. And was answered.
"Good afternoon, Emanuel," Kultuq spoke. "This is your old friend."
A pause. "No, the other one." Then, "Yes, that's right. Now listen, Emanuel, I want to talk to you about your recent breakthrough. " Again, a pause. "If I told you how I knew, it would only upset you more. No more questions. I understand that the government and the breeders are already giving you grief. The way things are going, they might never see the market, and even if they do, you won't get a cent out of it. However, if you already had money of your own to bring to bear in the courts, your options would not be so bleak. Here is my proposal: I want, say, a dozen of your finest results, and I want them shipped to a specific location. I can arrange for their transport out of the country so that no one knows. In return for this, I will pay you $2 million apiece, plus an extra million if you assure they arrive at their destination by the end of the day where I am. That's thirteen hours. And $25 million. Have you got all that?"
"Glad to hear it. When I know they have arrived, I'll send you the number of a Swiss account with your name on it. You'll have the address in 15 minutes. Goodbye, Emanuel. And congratulations."
Kultuq set the phone down. The limo coasted down the runway until it reached his private jet. The gangway was lowered. Kultuq left the car and boarded the plane. Taking his seat, he waited for the flight clearance. While he did so, he replayed the events of last night in his mind. He had plenty of time.
Streaking along the road, the T-Car carried its five owners home. Raven stared out the window. She was feeling weary, even more so than before. Barely any sleep could do that to you. The other Titans seemed to be riding an adrenaline rush from their latest adventure. The battle with the so-called League of Vertebrate Entrapped Rescuers had lasted all of 10 minutes. However, rounding up the escapees from the city zoo had taken the rest of the day, compounded by the fact that the local news channels had picked up on the story and insisted on trying to interview the Titans while they chased marmosets, rhinos, and even a panda pair around the streets.
Fortunately, the daily ritual of urban workday traffic jams had actually served a benevolent purpose, namely that none of the animals had been hit by a car. With the help of local law enforcement, the retrieval had been conducted as smoothly as possible. The only major injury was a member of L.O.V.E.R. who had lost a hand while attempting to carry a Komodo dragon to freedom. And, of course, sometime tonight Raven was going to show up on several news programs with a 12 ft. python draped lazily around her neck. Beast Boy had enjoyed that a great deal, and had offered her his services if she wanted to repeat the experience. Raven had declined.
As the sun finally began to set, the T-Car completed its tunnel trip beneath the bay to arrive on the rocky island that sported Titans Tower. Cyborg tapped off the engine and applied the parking brake. "Alright, everybody out," he announced matter-of-factly. "Until I can wash off every last trace of yak slobber and hair, my baby is not moving another inch."
"Looks like there was a lot of out-of-species love today," Beast Boy sang cheekily. "I'd stay to help, but I have to get the VCR primed to tape the evening news. On every channel." He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively at Raven.
The Titans stepped out into the sea-cooled dusk air. They made their way up to the main entrance, with Robin still trying to console Starfire.
"Really, Star, you can go and see it again tomorrow, I promise," the Titans' leader spoke in a placating manner. Starfire drifted along beside him with a bereaved expression on her face.
"But I liked the tiny bear of Koala, and it liked me." The alien princess seemed to be fighting back tears. "It reminded me of a small grublup on Cerriak's shadow side that I befriended, especially when it began to eat my hair."
"It's just an hour's drive away," Robin tried to encourage her. "I'll take you there after training tomorrow and you can see it again."
Starfire brightened. "I will be able to hug and pet the tiny sleepy bear again?"
"Sure," Robin insisted. "Well, maybe not hold it. That's not really allowed, today was just a one-time..." Starfire's eyes flooded with tears. "But I'm sure if we talked to the zookeepers..." Robin blurted hurriedly.
"Hey." Beast Boy suddenly stopped. "Did somebody order take-out this morning and forget to cancel it?"
The other Titans looked up to where he was indicating. Raven, who had been lost momentarily in the splendor of the sunset, followed suit. In front of the Tower's colossal main portal, a dark-clad figure was standing.
For a moment Raven's eyes betrayed her. Then she picked out the cheap shoes, heavy belly pooch, and the brown uniform. A man was waiting for them, shifting from one foot to the other and handling carefully a conical shape wrapped in blue tissue paper. The Titans exchanged questioning looks, but finding nothing to explain this situation, they proceeded to approach their visitor.
The superheroes filed to a halt in front of their home. The man gave them a hasty nod of greeting. He smiled clumsily, his eyes darting from one strangely-garbed figure to another. Sweat dripped down his flushed face. He looked as if he had been running. Robin stepped forward.
"Can we...uh... help you?" he asked cautiously.
"Yes, well, you see," the man started, his jowls shaking. "I'm from Pan-Mundo Delivery, and, ahh..." A closer examination of his uniform revealed an emblem of a satyr-like figure leaping along and beaming joyfully while clutching a ribbon-bedecked box. "Is there, possibly, someone named Raven who lives here?"
Four pairs of eyes turned to regard their midnight-blue teammate. Raven raised her head a little. "Me," she said in a flat voice.
The delivery man grinned. "Oh, that's just great. Please sign here." He whipped out an electronic pad and pen with one hand and proffered them to her. The other teenagers stared. Raven directed a cold look at this person, and just as he was beginning to quiver, she grasped the offerings and wrote her name. Handing them back, she watched as the man snatched them up and then held out the mysterious bundle.
Raven paused slightly, but took it from him. She waited for an explanation, but the delivery man just beamed at them. He glanced down at the pad for confirmation, and his face took on a bewildered look as his brain tried to puzzle out the word written in one of the several dozen languages of Azerath that Raven knew. Then, with a quick shake of his head, he sidestepped around the silent group and began a stumbling trot down to a small boat anchored off the shore.
Their sweaty guest gone, the Titans turned all their attention on the object in Raven's hands.
"Doesn't look like food," Cyborg hazarded. Starfire inhaled deeply and smiled. "It smells glorious!" she exclaimed in delight. Raven thought so too. The aroma coming from this bundle was completely new to her, and quite impressive.
"We should be careful," Robin warned. "It might be dangerous."
Beast Boy frowned. "Dude, whoever heard of aromatic explosives?"
Raven had to agree, and before another word could be said, she reached up and peeled back the tape-clad cerulean tissue from the cone's top.
What lay inside took her breath away.
Cyborg whistled, and Robin stared. "Are those roses...blue?"
Nestled within the folds of paper were a full dozen unmistakable flowers. The fresh, delicate petals were without a doubt roses, but their coloring was simply amazing. The outer tip of each bloom was a brilliant blue, like the tropical coast. As they descended back to their fount, they turned a rich shade of indigo, even deeper than Raven's cloak. The startled mystic took in this unexpected miracle in total wonder. The others crowded around her.
"I have never seen Earth flowers like these," Starfire mused dreamily.
"That's because they don't exist," Robin exclaimed in confusion. "There are no blue rose breeds, people have been trying for decades, cross-pollination and gene-splicing, but there hasn't been any success. Something about the pH, you get this lemony..." His voice trailed off.
"Are they silk?" Cyborg guessed. "Or painted?"
Raven brought the petals up to her lips. They brushed against her ash-grey skin and mouth. She closed her eyes and breathed in their fragrance. "No," she whispered. "These are real."
"Incredible," Robin muttered. "Is there a card? Who are they from?"
Raven reluctantly broke away from her treasure to examine the wrappings. But there was nothing. No note of any kind.
Beast Boy snickered. "Maybe that snake you let cuddle you wanted a second date." Raven absently resisted launching him into the bay.
"No," she spoke softly as realization dawned. "I know who sent them."
"Who?" Robin asked warily.
Raven stroked the flowers. "Someone I helped last night."
"You went out last night?" the team leader demanded, but this time Raven ignored the question. She floated languidly into the Tower, leaving her perplexed companions behind. They gave up and followed after her. Just one more mystery about Raven. What else was new?
His eyes closed, Kultuq barely noticed when the plane reached its cruising altitude. Another few hours and he would be halfway across the world. He had not set foot in Portugal for some time, and he was oddly eager to arrive. Yes, this was definitely unusual. Who knew how long this feeling might last? All his previous melancholia was gone, at least for the moment. Nothing but blue skies ahead.
One of his employees, a woman named Ubeca, came out of the back. Having served him effectively for several years, she spoke without waiting for permission. "May I get you anything, sir?"
Kultuq's eyes flicked open and located her. "Whiskey, with ice."
She nodded and moved back to the bar, returning a few moments later with his drink.
Taking it, he waved a hand in dismissal. Ubeca bowed away.
"I'll be aft should you need me, Mr. Savage."
The immortal Kultuq, now known to the world as supervillain Vandal Savage, sipped his drink in pleasure. Just one night, one girl's company, and he felt alive again. Lucky for him.
"Let's see what happens next," he whispered.
To be continued...