by Starsky Hutch 76 and Martin Maenza
“So, you started to mess in Lilith’s life to get back at her mother?” Nightwing reiterated. “That is truly petty.”
“Oh, but you only know the part of it!” Eros snapped. “Let me tell you the rest! When Thia sought to gather her children in an attempt to take over this world, you heroes whose name you share with the Titans managed to get involved. It was your actions that put Thia in check, and eventually led to Hyperion rising up against his wife! The two battled on, only to be consumed in a great flame that wiped them both out of existence!
“My revenge against Thia went up in flames with her! All my planning, all my actions were but for naught! And I had all of you and Lilith to blame for it! That is why I stepped up my influence in her life!
“By that point, I had already toyed with the mind of this winged fool, working through some rather complex mental conditionings in order to get him to fall hopelessly in love with Lilith! While I could not use my powers directly on her, in part thanks to her Olympian heritage, I could influence her by giving her a partner so willing to please her in every loving way. Within a year’s time, my own influences on Azrael were enough to convince her that he truly cared for her. She fell in love with him, too. I even manipulated events so that it would appear that Azrael had Olympian connections in order to make him more appealing to Lilith. My plan was then to crush her spirit!
“But my revenge now extended to your team as well! After achieving a total hold with Azrael, I began to work my invisible manipulations on some of the rest of you as well. I created couplings where none had been before and rekindled once more relationships that had long since been settled. All in the name of and under the guise of love.” Raven and Arsenal turned to one another silently, as did Nightwing and Starfire.
“And so,” Eros said, “the culmination of all my work has ended here today! Having ruined what should have been the happiest day in Lilith’s young life and casting your young fragile human lives into turmoil once more, my work is done!”
Changeling shook his head with amazement. “The god of ‘love’ did all this?” he said sarcastically.
Eros replied, “Think of how many wars have been fought and how many mighty civilizations have fallen in the name of love! Don’t underestimate me too easily, for I can be the cruelest god of all!”
“Are we just going to stand here and take this?” Arsenal snapped, obviously upset by this whole recent turn of events.
“I’m with you!” Starfire agreed, her hands beginning to glow slightly as if to discharge a round of her deadly star-bolts. “We’ll show him he can’t toy with the New Titans!” She began to open fire on the blonde man. The blasts shattered in the air a few feet before hitting their intended target. “X’hal!”
From behind a mystical shield, Eros laughed. “You are a fool!” he said. “Beautiful, but a fool nonetheless! No one can strike me unless I so wish it!”
There came a loud cry of anguish from Azrael. He picked up the sword that Eros had discarded to him earlier, raised it above his head, and charged at the blonde figure. “You shall pay for what you have done!”
Eros laughed as his mystical field threw the angered man back to the ground, hard. “Don’t waste your energy, winged man! The only reason you were able to touch me before in battle is because I allowed it! You are weak, foolish, and pathetic! In part, I’m glad I was able to deceive you as well! You’re now a man lost without a past and without a love!”
“Eros! You’ll–!” Nightwing started to say.
Artemis gently grabbed his shoulder. “Let it go, Dick,” she whispered. “Trust me on this.”
Eros laughed once more. “And so, my young fools, I bid you farewell. Some mere mortal once said ‘it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.’ That mortal never met the likes of me! Ha-ha-ha-ha!”
“God of love?” Lilith Clay exploded. Her face was full of so many emotions: anger, frustration, betrayal, and sadness. “God of hate is more like it!”
“Oh, now don’t be like that,” Eros cooed mockingly. “After that beautiful kiss the two of us shared earlier, I thought you liked me. It was every bit as sweet as those of your mother. Too bad! If I’d have known of the passions that burned within you, I would have tried pursuing you instead of destroying you! Oh well, c’est la vie!” He turned to the winged man. “That’s something your people would say!”
And with that, the figure of Eros shimmered into a beam of light and launched high into the heavens above the island. In a moment, his echoing laughter faded, leaving the New Titans silently contemplating where they would go from here.
Sometime later that day, Donna Troy Long was about to head home to her husband when she was passing by one of the guest quarters. She stopped in the doorway because of what she saw transpiring in the room. Lilith was standing before a small suitcase, carefully folding clothes and placing them inside of it. “Going somewhere?” Donna asked.
Lilith turned to her friend. Her eyes were puffy, and her nose had a rosy tint to it. The red-haired beauty sniffed once. “Just packing my things,” she said.
“I don’t need your special abilities to know something’s wrong,” the dark-haired woman said, placing her arm about her old friend’s shoulders. “Want to talk about it?”
Lilith shook her head. “Not right now, OK?” she said. “I think I just need to take some time to clear my head. Figure out what I’m going to do next.”
Donna nodded. “I understand. Going back to Olympus?”
“Are you kidding?” Lilith said a bit excitedly. “If I even catch a sight of that little creep Eros, I’m going to pluck out every single long blonde hair on his head, one at a time!”
Donna smiled. “Somehow, I know you would,” she said. “So, if not Olympus, then where? You know you can stay here at the Tower for as long as you like.”
“I know, Donna,” Lilith said. “You guys are the best! I know I can always count on you when times are tough. You’ve always been there for me. But for right now, I don’t know, I think I just need a little space from all that’s happened. OK?”
“Sure,” Donna said. She reached down, picked up a pair of pants from the drawer, and started to fold them. “Whatever you want to do is fine with us.”
Roy Harper had just turned on the monitor unit and placed it on the coffee table. He picked up a magazine, plopped down in a chair, and was about to catch up on the latest album reviews. Just then, he heard a slight sound near the doorway.
“Ahem,” said Raven in a soft voice. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
Roy put down the magazine. “No, not at all,” he said. “I just got Lian down for her nap. Come. Sit.”
The dark-haired woman stepped into the room and gently sat down on the couch next to his chair. She folded her hands into her lap. “How is Lian doing? Her ear infection clearing up?”
“I think so,” Roy said. “Might need to have tubes put in. I hear it’s a quick thing. Kids don’t feel a thing, and it drains the fluid out like that.” Raven nodded.
The two sat for a moment; an awkward silence crept into the room. Finally, they both broke it at the same time. “Can we talk about us?” they said in near unison. Raven blushed slightly. Roy chuckled a little bit.
“Go ahead,” she said.
“No, you first,” he replied.
Raven nodded. She drew a deep breath, steadied herself, and began to speak. “Roy, you know I had what some might call an unusual childhood.”
Roy smiled. “Hey, haven’t we all?” He chuckled again, but she didn’t see amusement in it. “Sorry, go on.”
“You know, because of that background, that I was very much withdrawn when I first met you all. I hadn’t really known love from a man, and I manipulated Wallace’s emotions. By getting him to feel like he loved me, I earned the trust of his friends quickly, so they’d be my allies against my father. Even though I eventually did begin to feel something for him, I’ve always felt truly bad for doing such a thing to him.”
“Hey, I’ve known Wally for a lot of years,” Roy said. “He’s the forgive-and-forget kind of guy.”
“I know that, too,” Raven said, “but today I realized something I did not before. When I found out I was on the receiving end of similar emotional manipulations, I felt what perhaps Wallace felt. It hurt very deeply.”
“Yeah,” Roy said a bit flatly. “Kind of knocks the wind right out your sails, doesn’t it?” He took her hand. “Hey, I’m feeling the same way, too. When Eros revealed that he’d been playing his emotional games on the lot of us for a long, long time, I was angry and hurt. It had me questioning a lot of things I really hadn’t wanted to question.”
“Same here,” said Raven. “So… what do we do now?”
“What do you think?” Roy asked. There was a pause.
“I do care about you, Roy,” Raven said finally. “I have fun spending time with you. We are different, perhaps maybe a bit too different. And I enjoy spending time with Lian, too. I just think… well, I think maybe if we tried to have a relationship after those mystical manipulations, that we might be forcing something that wasn’t ever really there.”
Roy swallowed but said nothing. He wanted to let Raven finish.
“I think that, perhaps, it is best if we remain just friends,” Raven said. She looked up and into his eyes. “Is that all right?”
There they were, the two words every man hated to hear. Roy forced a smile anyway. “Yes, of course,” he said. “Friends can still hug, though, right?” He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a comforting squeeze.
Raven smiled. “I… yes, friends can hug,” she said. He released his grip on her. “I do hope I can still spend time with Lian as well. She is such a joy.”
Roy perked up. “Hey, a single father raising a two-year old daughter is never gonna turn down free babysitting,” he said. From the monitor, he heard the muffled cries as his little girl was stirring. Roy put a finger to his lips, motioning that they should hush. Inside, he was glad because it helped ease out of this rather awkward conversation.
“Seeing him suddenly start speaking French like that was so spooky,” Starfire said.
“Yet another reason to hate the French,” Changeling said.
“Be fair,” Nightwing said. “I’ve seen people who were brainwashed before, and Azrael definitely qualifies. He wasn’t responsible for his actions.”
“Tell that to Victor,” Changeling said. “He’s over at STAR Labs right now having his arm rebuilt. Thought he should get it done before we head out to California this weekend.”
“Poor guy,” Nightwing winced. He shuffled some sheets in his hands.
“What are you looking at, anyway?” Changeling said, transforming into a bird and perching on his shoulder.
“Azrael’s STAR file,” Nightwing said. “Dr. Ryan pulled a few strings and got me a copy. Want to hear something weird? That pod we found Azrael in changed into plywood, plaster, and paint shortly after the explosion. No working parts. Even the burns were painted on.”
“What’s even weirder is I recognize it,” Changeling said. “I guess I was too distracted by Deathstroke’s trial at the time to see it, but that pod’s from an old episode of Space Trek 2022! Episode number 102: The Sleeper Awakens. I bet if you turned it around, it would have ‘Property of Verner Brothers Productions’ stamped on the back!”
“As a matter of fact, it does,” Nightwing said, holding up a photo.
Changeling whistled. “Boy, that Eros sure has some sense of humor.”
“Yes,” Nightwing said with gritted teeth. “He’s funny like a rubber crutch.”
The topic in question, Azrael, suddenly appeared in the doorway. His long, flowing locks were now closely cropped. Instead of his usual armor and tunic, he wore a T-shirt and jeans. A trenchcoat covered his wings. From all outward appearances, he looked like an ordinary man, one who had been in one heck of a fight judging from the many nicks and scratches on his face. When he noticed the others staring at him, he looked down, unable to meet their gaze.
“That’s a new look for you, Nightwing said, walking toward him.
“Yes,” Azrael said. “I did not want to so closely resemble the one who had manipulated me for so long.”
“He manipulated all of us,” Nightwing said. He gestured to the duffel bag containing Azrael’s armaments and other possessions. “Going somewhere?”
“I cannot stay,” Azrael said, looking down. “The shame of what I have done is too much to bear.”
“You can’t go now,” Nightwing said. “We’re just starting to get to the truth behind your origins.”
“We know I am French,” Azrael said sourly. “That is all.”
“Well, at least that’s a start,” Nightwing said.
“Yes, that is true,” Azrael said. “At least it has been narrowed down to one world and one country.”
“Well, he could be Canadian,” Changeling added.
Nightwing turned and gave Changeling an annoyed look and then shook his head. “Yes, he could.”
“No,” Azrael said. “Though I have no basis for it, I know in my gut that I must go to France. That is where I will find the truth.”
“Could be,” Changeling said. “You’re even beginning to talk with an accent. I think Lilith must’ve opened the floodgates or something when she did that whammy on you.”
“Perhaps so,” Azrael said with a shudder.
Nightwing walked outside with Azrael. “Call me when you get settled in Paris. I might be able to help you. I’ve been told I’m pretty good at detective work.”
Azrael smiled. “You are being kinder than I deserve.”
“You’re not responsible for what happened,” Nightwing said. “No one is blaming you.”
“You are a good man,” Azrael said. “But a bad liar. I will call you. I promise.”
He cast his gaze down to the docks, where Lilith stood waiting for the ferry. A silent, remorseful look passed between them. It was all the goodbye either was now capable of after all that had happened. He took off his trenchcoat to free his wings, allowing them to spread to their full expanse, and then took to the air toward whatever destiny might now have in store for him.
Lilith turned so that she wouldn’t have to watch him go. Stepping aboard the floating platform as soon as it reached the shore, she put her bags down as well and reached for something in her coat pocket. She began to dry her tears on a linen handkerchief with her initials on it. For her, too, it was time to move on. And hopefully, in time, the pain would go away.