by Starsky Hutch 76 and Martin Maenza
The next few days were filled with exhaustive tests as Dr. Mackenzie Ryan of STAR Labs was called in to examine every aspect of the man claiming to be John Gnarrk. Naturally, he had jumped at the chance to examine a living Cro-Magnon man.
Gnarrk was given every form of medical test conceivable. Fingerprints were matched. Dental records were checked. Blood tests were taken. X-rays were made and then compared to old x-rays from before John Gnarrk’s death.
The only test not performed was that of DNA testing. That hadn’t been available at the time of death, so no original sample was available to offer any comparison.
“A perfect match,” Dr. Ryan said, holding up the two sets of x-rays for Nightwing’s view. “Every break and heal is in the exact same place as in the originals before his alleged death. Even the trauma caused by the stabbing of his death.”
“How’s that possible?” Arsenal blurted.
“Because I’m who I say I am, Harper! That’s how!” Gnarrk growled. “I’m sick and tired of being called a liar!”
“No one’s calling you that, big guy!” Changeling said, holding up his hands openly.
“Yeah?” Gnarrk said. “Well it sure looks that way.”
“You can’t just think you can stroll in here after all these years and expect everyone to take you at face value,” Arsenal said.
“Why not?” Gnarrk said. “Look at all the second chances you got! I’ve heard things since I got back that curled my hair, and I got a lot to curl, brother!”
“Why, you–!” Arsenal started to say. He’d forgotten over the years just how irritating Gnarrk could be, but it was all coming back to him.
“I’ve had just about all of this I can take!” Gnarrk said, jumping up from the doctor’s bench. He flung open the door and stormed into the waiting room.
Donna Troy Long and Lilith Clay sat as if waiting anxiously and were startled by his sudden departure from the examination room. Azrael, who stood staring out the window with his arms folded behind his back, turned with a look of supreme irritation.
Lilith rose to her feet with a look of surprise and concern. “What is it, Gnarrk?”
“Baby, can’t we cut all this out?” he asked in a pleading tone. “It’s tearing me apart, and I can tell it’s not doing you any better. All I want is to be with you.”
“Gnarrk, I–” Lilith stammered, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Those tests are only proving what I’ve been saying all along. It’s me, baby! I’m back, and we can be together the way we were always meant to be. Look at how all this happened. It’s fate! Our destiny!”
Lilith stared at him wide-eyed, with tears running down both cheeks. “Oh, John…”
The moment was broken by a hand coming between them to shove Gnarrk backward. “Unhand my intended!” Azrael said sharply.
“Watch who you’re pushing, fancy-boy!” Gnarrk growled. “Or you’re liable to have those wings of yours plucked!”
“You dare try to come between me and my beloved, and then make idle threats?” Azrael said in outrage.
“Who said anything about them being idle?” Gnarrk shouted, lifting a chair over his head and hurling it at Azrael. The winged man quickly dodged out of the way; the chair smashed against the wall.
“What the hell?” a voice suddenly said from the doorway leading to the hall. “I step out for one second to clear out my plumbing and come back to find all hell’s broken loose!” Cyborg stepped into the room. “If you two think you’re going to make STAR Labs your own personal battlefield, I’ll knock the tar out of both of you myself!”
“Everybody just calm down!” Nightwing said, stepping out of the examination room.
“Don’t tell me, tell chicken-man here! He started it!” Gnarrk growled.
“I did not!” Azrael protested. “Tell this… simian… to keep his hands to himself!”
“Simian? Who do you think you’re calling a monkey, with your fruity outfit, stupid hair, and fancy-boy wings!”
“You… mock my wings?” Azrael said with a voice rising in timber.
“Not just your wings, pally,” Gnarrk grinned. “Or haven’t you been paying attention?”
“Enough!” Nightwing said forcefully. “Gnarrk, go put your shirt back on! We’re all going back to the Tower.”
Once back at their headquarters, the group members split up, each doing their best to escape the thick tension that was building. Nightwing had found nothing to discredit Gnarrk’s story despite his best efforts. It looked as if Lilith would have a very difficult decision to make very soon. Would she choose the man she loves now or the man she loved before?
In the common room, Changeling did his best to diffuse the situation in his usual fashion by joking. Starfire watched him and giggled, hanging on his every word. Gar was so funny. Funny and cute. He was so much more fun, in fact, than someone like Dick, who was always so serious. Why hadn’t she noticed how cute Gar was before? He was perfect for her. It was so obvious now. Why hadn’t she seen it before?
In the library, Nightwing pored over old case books. As Artemis passed by, he couldn’t help but have his gaze distracted by her athletic form as it came into his line of vision. When she saw him watching her, she returned his gaze with a shy smile. Donna was beautiful, compassionate, and highly intelligent. In every aspect, she was the perfect match for him. It was so obvious now. Why hadn’t he seen it before?
In the kitchen, Cyborg stood staring at one of the photos held onto the refrigerator by a magnet. It was of the young woman named Kole Weathers, the most recent member to join the team. He was surprised at how much he found himself missing her, even though she’d only been away from the Tower for a few days. She was a beautiful, sensitive, and passionate person. If Jericho couldn’t show someone like that the love and attention she deserved, Victor felt he could. Why hadn’t he realized how perfect she was? It was so obvious now. Why hadn’t he seen it before?
Azrael felt lost as he wandered aimlessly about the island. Everything he knew, everything he felt he could count on, was about to be lost to him. With no memory of his own life before his time with the Titans, Lilith had become his world — his whole purpose for being. How would he be able to carry on without her?
This Gnarrk person had been her first love. How could he compete with something like that? Obviously, he couldn’t. He had to do something. He simply couldn’t let this happen. He withdrew his sword and stared down at it.
Lilith stood pensively, gazing out the picture window at the sunset over the harbor. Her thoughts were a maelstrom rivaled only by the one in the pit of her stomach. She loved two men, one of whom she’d soon have to hurt deeply.
As if on cue, Gnarrk stepped into the room. “That’s some view you guys’ve got here,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said sadly.
“It’s not half as beautiful as you,” he added.
Lilith smiled wistfully. “You always were a smooth-talker.”
“Once I learned the words, that is,” he said. “I have you to thank for that.” He stepped closer. “There was a time when I thought we’d share every sunset together for the rest of our lives.” He placed his hands on her shoulders. “You know, after the fight with Chronos, when I lay in your arms, feeling my life slip away, my only regret wasn’t that I was going to die young. It was that I wasn’t going to be able to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“Oh, John, it is you, isn’t it?” she said, smiling though tears. In that instant, her decision was made, as all the feeling of loss and regret she had felt for so many years came to the surface and then melted away. She threw her arms around him and held him tightly, as if afraid that he would be taken from her again.
“It’s me, baby. Now and forever, it’s me.” He brought his hands to her face and pulled her to him. They kissed. “I’m here, and nothing can ever break us apart again.”
Azrael walked sullenly; the sword felt heavy in his hands. Did he have it in him to send this interloper back to the grave? If it came to that, he knew he had to find it within himself. Living without her was not an option. The dark clouds that formed in the sky were mirroring those he felt around his very being.
He raised his head up, about to mouth a silent prayer for strength when his gaze drifted to the Tower. Through the window, he saw Lilith and the Gnarrk-person locked in a passionate kiss!
An animalistic scream issued from the very depths of his soul as a blinding red rage came over him. His wings shot out to their full spread, and he rocketed toward the window, crashing through it in a shower of glass.
Azrael landed in a crouching position with a crazed look in his eyes. His skin was peppered with broken glass, but he seemed completely oblivious to that fact. A feral snarl escaped his lips as he stared madly at the startled couple.
“Azrael…” Lilith began.
“Not… one… word!” Azrael growled, his chest heaving with anger.
Gnarrk stepped in between Azrael and Lilith, holding his arms out as if shielding her. “Don’t worry, babe,” he said. “I’ll protect you from this freak.”
“You dare?” Azrael growled. He leaped forward, swinging his sword at Gnarrk’s legs as if to cut them out from under him.
Gnarrk leaped into the air, narrowly avoiding a crippling blow. “You’ll have to do better than that, turkey-lad!” Gnarrk said, mockingly.
Azrael spun around, using the same motion of his sword-swing to deliver an elbow painfully into Gnarrk’s back as he landed. “I intend to do far more than simply better, ape-man!” he said menacingly.
Gnarrk went sprawling across the floor with a grunt. “You’ll pay for that!” he said through gritted teeth.
“Certainly,” Azrael said, delivering a kick to his midsection. “And this will be my currency!”
“Stop!” Lilith cried out in an anguished voice.
“You would defend this creature?” Azrael shouted. “I’ll put him down like the dog he is!”
“Well, this dog’s got fangs, buddy-boy!” Gnarrk said, leaping into the air and slamming Azrael with both feet. “And he ain’t about to let himself be put down!”
“You believe you have a choice?” Azrael said, grabbing him by the arm and swinging him into the wall. “I’ll smash you — smash you like a bug!”
“Like hell you will!” a startled voice said. A green gorilla suddenly came flying into the room and landed on Azrael’s back. His arms wrapped around the bloody winged man’s neck, attempting to put him in a choke-hold.
“Off me, boy!” Azrael grunted angrily. His wings began slamming together on Changeling.
“Hey! (oof) Cut it out!” Changeling gasped as he found himself the victim of an unexpected defense.
“I will not!” Azrael said, grabbing the loosening arm from around his neck. With one quick tug, Changeling was flung over his shoulder and sent flying into a display case bearing the trophies and awards of past Titans’ victories.
“Now, where was I?” Azrael said in a cold, emotionless voice. He looked down at where his sword had fallen and calmly reached down to pick it up. He turned to where the fallen Gnarrk lay with Lilith by his side.
“Azrael, no!” Lilith said. “If our time together meant anything to you…”
If he heard her words, his expression gave no indication. Azrael moved forward, robot-like, and raised his sword.