"Azarath, metreon, zinthos..."
The dark and dismal confines of Raven's bedroom near the top of Titans Tower were silent, save for the somber chanting of its blue-haired occupant floating a few inches above the center of the room. Her legs crossed, her arms extended, her eyes closed, Raven was currently engaged in deep meditation, undisturbed by the chaotic Samsara of the surrounding world.
Samsara, thy name is Starfire.
"Raven, would you by chance happen to have a spare blue cape I could use?"
The loud, friendly voice of the alien girl snapped Raven out of her contemplative state and immediately back into the hustle and bustle of Titans Tower life. Her eyes snapped open.
"Starfire, what have I told you and the others about going into my room?" said Raven, her eyes narrowed and glaring at Starfire as the orange-skinned alien rummaged through Raven's clothes closets.
"Much apologies, but this is a very important task... at least, it is important to me."
For the past few weeks, there had been only one thing on Starfire's mind. Robin, the leader of the Teen Titans and Starfire's most precious friend, had occupied Starfire's conscience, commanding her every thought and compelling her every action. Ever since Robin had saved Starfire's life from torture and annihilation at the hands of Starfire's vicious sister Blackfire, as well as an obnoxious and equally vicious young girl by the name of Kitten, Starfire had been sure of only one thing. She loved Robin deeply, with all of her heart and soul. She'd kissed him but one time, on the bridge overlooking the grassy knoll where Starfire's life was put in jeopardy just minutes earlier. She'd thought that kissing Robin would be enough to express her deep affection, but now she desired to do something more. She had to find some other method to express her love, and after studying the sacred customs of her planet, she'd found the perfect way.
"Well, meditation is important to me, and in order to do that, I need absolute silence," said Raven, continuing to glare at Starfire. "There's a spare cloak lying in the corner of the closet, take it and go."
"Oh, thank you, my friend!" exclaimed Starfire, emitting a squeal of excitement and crushing Raven in a tight, suffocating bear hug. "I am much indebted to you for your kindness!"
"Great..." gasped Raven, still clenched in Starfire's tight grasp. "Now will you please... let me breathe?"
Starfire released Raven and skipped happily out of the room with the cloak, leaving the quiet girl to her meditation.
"Duuuuuuuude... what do you need my hockey stick for?"
Starfire had visited Beast Boy's room next, and while Beast Boy hadn't been as disturbed by Starfire's intrusion as Raven had been, her request for his hockey stick was met with a far stronger objection.
"It is for something very special... I know that you cherish your hockey stick greatly, but I promise that if you let me use it I will reward you greatly in the future!" said Starfire, her fists clenched in a pleading gesture. "Please?"
"Why don't you just buy a hockey stick with your own money?" asked Beast Boy. "You do have your own money, right?"
Starfire DID have her own money... until the new industrial-sized mustard dispensers went on sale at the nearby Ultra-Mart. Now Starfire felt the sharp sting of buyer's remorse deep within her heart.
"If you do this for me, I will... I will... I will let you give Silkie a bath for the next month!" said Starfire, a smile on her face. "You like Silkie, do you not?"
"Yeah, but I don't like giving Silkie a bath," replied Beast Boy. "That's woman's work."
Starfire's eyes immediately shined bright green, and she towered over Beast Boy, her voice filling with rage.
"If you let me have your hockey stick, I will FORGIVE YOU FOR MAKING THAT STATEMENT JUST NOW!"
Beast Boy quickly conceded.
Cyborg's room was next on Starfire's collection tour. She went inside and saw Cyborg making some mechanical adjustments on his leg. As soon as the door closed, Cyborg raised his head and saw Starfire standing right next to him, her eyes wide and piercing.
"Whoa, you just kinda snuck up on me, didn't you?" asked Cyborg, scooting back in his chair to escape Starfire's slightly creepy gaze. "Uh... is there something you wanted?"
"There certainly is!" said Starfire, a smile on her face. "Do you have any power crystals that you would not mind allowing me to have?"
Cyborg's power crystals, small, clear, diamond-like rocks, were what Cyborg put into his circuitry to enhance his powers. Outside of Cyborg's body, they were very beautiful, and shone with many colors in any sort of light. They were also fairly valuable, and even discarded crystals Cyborg didn't part with lightly.
"And would you mind telling me why you need some of my spare power crystals?" asked Cyborg, a skeptical look on his face.
Starfire, quite eager to keep her plans a secret, clamped her lips tightly closed and shook her head.
"I just... need them," Starfire squeaked out. "It is for a... a project!"
Cyborg knew Starfire was hiding something, and most likely, it was something concerning Robin. As Robin's closest friend out of the Titans, Cyborg had seen Robin and Starfire's budding relationship up close, and realized that the two were definitely developing strong feelings for one another.
"And just who is this project of yours for, huh, Starfire?" asked Cyborg, a sly smile growing on his face. "You got somebody... special in mind for these power crystals?"
"May...be..." Starfire stammered, her lip quivering nervously. Though Starfire loved Robin, and was completely sure of her feelings for him, she still had trouble expressing those feelings to others. She hadn't even told Robin that she loved him, which was a big reason why she was hunting for a blue cloak, a hockey stick, and shiny power crystals in the first place. "It is none of your business!"
Starfire immediately blushed, and raised her hands to her lips. She'd lashed out at Cyborg, who had every right to know why Starfire wanted to use some of his power crystals. But before she could apologize, she heard Cyborg chuckle.
"Alright, alright, you don't have to get all snippy about it," said Cyborg, reaching into a nearby drawer and pulling out a handful of shiny discarded power crystals. "Take what ya need."
With a squeal of joy, Starfire grabbed the crystals from Cyborg's hands and dashed out of the room, not even stopping to give Cyborg a grateful embrace. Cyborg smiled and shook his head, returning to his mechanical work.
"Robin, you got yourself one helluva woman on your hands..."
With all the required materials collected, Starfire immediately set about to work. Using the hockey stick, power crystals, and blue cloak, Starfire was going to construct the Ndl'emme, the Tamaranian gift of true love. It was to be constructed with great care, and with all the love in one's heart. It took Starfire nearly eighteen hours to make, for the materials had to be assembled with the greatest of precision. Finally, as the sun rose on a new day, Starfire had finished her beautiful gift. Her fingers ached, her eyelids were heavy from lack of sleep, and her head throbbed with exhaustion.
"With this," said Starfire, holding up the Ndl'emme and allowing the sun's rays to shine down on it through the windows in her room, "I shall express my feelings for Robin and my desire to be his yenori forever and ever!"
In Tamaranian, 'yenori' meant 'beloved one'. It wasn't quite an engagement, but the expression of the desire to be one's 'yenori' was not taken lightly in Tamaranian culture, and was only used when one truly and irrevocably loved another person. Presenting someone with an Ndl'emme was tantamount to an eternal declaration of endless love, and usually led to an unbreakable bond between two inseperable lovers.
Needless to say, Starfire was quite nervous about presenting Robin with her gift.
She waited until nearly four o'clock that day to speak to him. After a brief nap, Starfire awoke and carried out her normal business of the day. She'd skipped breakfast because of her nap, but had eaten lunch with the others. After lunch, she became overtaken with excitement as she prepared herself to present Robin with the gift that would forever seal her love for him. At least, that's what Starfire hoped.
Finally, at 3:56 PM that day, after the Titans had parted to their seperate places in the tower, just as they had done the previous day, Starfire took the Ndl'emme from her room and walked down the hall to Robin's room. She knocked on the door and waited, the Ndl'emme held in both of her hands. When he didn't answer, she slid the door open herself and ventured inside.
Robin was crouched over at his desk, deep in concentration. He'd been studying battle footage for quite some time now, and had noticed a recurring pattern in the attacks of one of his most frequent foes, Cinderblock. Like a chessmaster studying his past games for insight on his opponent's moves, Robin was watching the footage like a hawk, his eyes scanning the replayed footage faster than any normal man could.
"Robin?" said Starfire, meekly tapping Robin on the shoulder. When he did not respond, she gently spun him around and held the Ndl'emme out to him.
The Ndl'emme was made up of Beast Boy's hockey stick, its end broken off and sanded down to make the piece of wood look more like a staff than an actual hockey stick. The material from Raven's cloak had been cut down and smoothed over the stick, glued on to give it a silky sheen. Finally, Cyborg's power crystals had been carefully sewn into the fabric. The beautiful blue staff shone brightly in the light from outside the room, its craftsmanship exquisite despite the humble materials it was born from.
"It is for you! It is-" Starfire began. Robin smiled, then spun back around and returned to his studies.
"That's nice," said Robin nonchalantly, casually waving his hand in an aloof gesture. Starfire scowled briefly, continuing to hold out the staff.
"But it is the-"
"I said that's nice," said Robin, blind to the world around him. "Set it down on my bed... it's really nice, Starfire, thank you."
A feeling of deep sadness began to swell within Starfire's heart. She bit into her tongue, fighting back angry words that were slowly surfacing to her lips. She'd spent eighteen hours, given up a night of sleep and had put her heart and soul into this gift, only to have Robin wave it off as if it were a toy. The Ndl'emme was supposed to be a sacred Tamaranian gift, an expression of love in its purest form.
She held out the staff and made one last effort to get Robin to accept it properly.
"Look, Starfire," shouted Robin, spinning his chair around, his voice raising in anger. "I'm really busy, and I don't have time to play with toys right now! I appreciate the gift, but I'd really like to get back to reviewing this battle footage, alright?"
Even as Robin was speaking the words, he knew that they hadn't come out as he'd intended. He'd intended to be more gentle with Starfire, the person he cared about perhaps more than any other. But the frustration from having anything interrupt his work was far too great for him to hold back, and now he was lashing out at one of his friends.
Starfire, on the other hand, was completely crushed. Robin had called the Ndl'emme a toy, just what Starfire thought he believed it to be in the first place. He had rejected one of Tamaran's most beautiful and sacred traditions, and what's worse, he'd yelled at her as she tried to express her love.
"You... you... INSENSITIVE RORKAN BALWORT!"
The Ndl'emme snapped in two as Starfire's grip became too strong for the weak hockey stick to endure. Its two halves fell to the floor at Robin's feet. As Robin looked down at the broken staff, and then back up, he could already see the tears that were streaming down Starfire's face.
"No, Robin, you did not listen to me, and I will certainly not listen to you!" Starfire screamed, struggling to speak through her sobs. Her entire body trembled, her knees weak with sadness and grief. "I... I HATE YOU, ROBIN!"
Before Robin could speak, Starfire fled from the room, her sobs echoing through the halls. Robin, stunned by Starfire's outburst, could only bend over and pick up the two halves of the splintered Ndl'emme. Only now could he see the beauty of the broken staff, and what Starfire had truly intended it to be.
"Starfire..." Robin stammered, his mind now completely focused on the fact that he'd hurt Starfire's feelings, and terribly. He'd become so engrossed in his studies that he'd completely blocked out the girl as she tried to present him with something she'd made herself, and clearly must've spent a lot of time making. "She... she put her heart and soul into this... and I completely turned it away... I turned her away..."
The door opened, and Beast Boy entered the room, followed seconds later by Cyborg.
"I heard yelling," said Beast Boy, "and saw Starfire running down the hall..."
"What did you do, man?" asked Cyborg. In reply, Robin simply held up the broken blue staff in his hands. Beast Boy walked over and gently took one of the broken halves.
"Awwww, dude!" shouted Beast Boy, peeling away the blue fabric and noticing what was underneath. "My hockey stick! Duuuuuuuude!"
"What... what is this?" asked Cyborg, looking at the piece of staff still in Robin's hand.
"It's a present Starfire tried to give me," replied Robin sadly, "that I was too busy to take."
"So THAT'S what Star wanted my hockey stick for..." said Beast Boy, casually tossing the Ndl'emme fragment onto Robin's bed. "You're in big trouble now, Robin..."
A glare from Cyborg quickly shut up his green-faced comrade.
"Have you tried talking to her at all?" asked Cyborg. "I mean, it's only been a couple of minutes... now's probably the best time to-"
"That's what I'm going to do right now," said Robin, standing up and walking toward the hallway. "I've got to apologize for how I treated Starfire... I just hope she'll be able to forgive me..."
Meanwhile, Raven had followed the sobbing Tamaranian girl to her room, and was now trying to soothe her alien friend.
"Starfire, you know how Robin gets about these things... when it comes to crime-fighting, he's borderline obsessive."
"I do not care!" shouted Starfire, her voice muffled as she buried her face in her pillow. "The Ndl'emme is the most sacred artifact of Tamaranian love, and for Robin to just ignore it is absolutely unheard of! I opened my heart to him, and he barely even said
Starfire was clearly overreacting, and perhaps, deep down inside, she knew it. But Robin's pocket veto of her Ndl'emme was far too much for the lovestruck Starfire to handle all at once, and her tears would not stop flowing until the grief was completely gone.
"He cares for you, Starfire. He-"
"Then why did he ignore me?" shouted Starfire, sitting up on her bed and staring straight into Raven's eyes. "Why did he deny the gift of greatest love? Why could he not detect my growing sadness? Why could he not give just a few moments of his day to accept me as his dearest yenori? Why did he-"
A loud, blaring klaxon accompanied by bright red lights flashing in the room alerted all five Titans that the city was under attack. It was time for the Teen Titans to put their feelings inside and spring into action.
Clearly, Starfire wanted no part of this.
And apparently, neither did Robin, at least until he had made a heartfelt apology to Starfire. He ran to her door at the same time that Raven was preparing to come out, and nearly collided with her as she stood in the doorway.
"Robin, she doesn't want to speak with you right now," said Raven, "and someone in the city needs us. I suggest we-"
"I need to speak to Starfire!" shouted Robin, trying to peer above Raven's shoulders into Starfire's room. "Starfire-"
"I am not coming!" came Starfire's voice, once again muffled into her pillow.
"She said that she won't be able to concentrate on fighting with this weighing so heavily on her mind," said Raven. "I suggest we go and take care of whatever is attacking the city, and then you can come back and say to Starfire what you want."
"We need her to come along with us, man!" shouted Cyborg, trying to peer into Starfire's room almost as much as Robin was.
But Raven knew that Starfire was in no emotional shape to fight, and as much as Raven wanted the Titans to be a complete team for each and every battle, she knew that trying to coax the deeply distrought Starfire into battle would be a fruitless and time-wasting affair. Hopefully, whomever was attacking the city would be weak enough for four Titans to beat.
"C'mon, guys," sighed Robin, sadly bowing his head and turning to run the other way down the hall. He knew as well as Raven did that Starfire wouldn't be easily pushed into battle. "We'd better head to the city..."
"Nice going, Robin," said Beast Boy as the four Titans ran toward the ground-floor elevator as quickly as they could. "You just HAD to go and hurt Starfire's fee-"
Suddenly, a glowing black energy plate had appeared over Beast Boy's lips, sealing them closed.
"Mmmph!" shouted Beast Boy, futilely trying to pull the seal off with his hands.
"You can talk when we get to the battle," said Raven, her right index finger glowing with dark energy. "IF you behave yourself."
As the Titans dashed to Cyborg's T-Car in the Tower's garage, Robin knew he'd hurt Starfire deeply, and he also knew that it would be incredibly difficult to reconcile what he'd done.
That was the one sad thing about friendships. They were incredibly hard to build up, but, at least it seemed to Robin, with one heartless act, they could be easily torn down.
And bonds of love, thought Robin, were significantly more fragile.
When Robin, Raven, Beast Boy, and Cyborg left Titans Tower, Starfire remained in her room, all alone.
At least, that's what the Titans thought. But unbeknownest to them, a man had been hiding in the basement of the tower since the previous morning, undetected for nearly 36 hours.
He was a man on a mission, and now that the Titans had left, that mission could be fulfilled.
Merkova Kelindrec had not come to the tower to harm any of the Titans. He'd come to gain access to a secret that only two other people in the world even had knowledge of its mere existance. When Merkova saw on his radar that the T-Car had left, he sprang into action and began his search.
He'd already searched the basement completely, only stopping thrice to hide when one of the Tower's residents came down to take care of something. Merkova didn't like confrontations. Of course, that didn't mean he wasn't ready for one. He was the best swordsman and fighter that his small country had to offer, and if attacked, he was certainly ready to defend himself. Or even go on the offensive, if need be. But hopefully for Merkova, that need wouldn't arise. He stepped out of the basement and into the main room of Titans Tower. His portable radar gave him no clues as to the whereabouts of what he was searching for, but his gut told him that it was somewhere nearby.
Merkova was a young man, in his early-20s. As a rule, he always wore black on his missions, and this time wore a clingy black windbreaker shirt with long, baggy black pants made out of a strong synethesized fabric that allowed protection as well as great freedom of movement. His long, platinum-blonde hair was tied back into a ponytail, and if not for his muscles, Merkova could easily pass for a girl.
He pulled a black laptop computer from his backpack and hooked it into the comlink of the large monitor near the wall of the large room. He sat down on the nearby red couch, placed the laptop on the coffee table, and began scanning furiously through the tower's vast computer network. He easily hacked his way through the first series of firewalls, his concentration peaked. Merkova had a mission to do, and he was certainly going to do it.
"I know you're hiding those codes somewhere, Robin... and when I find them, the whole world will be at my fingertips..."
As Merkova hacked and cracked the protection around the Teen Titans' computer network, he had no idea that just a few floors above him, a young Tamaranian girl was still grieving over her dear friend's betrayal.
She was still sobbing, though not as much as she had been when the Titans had left the tower. She was sitting up on her bed and trying her best to cheer herself up.
"There are... other people... in the world... besides Robin..." Starfire said, brushing a tear from her eye. "Other people who will not ignore me when I am trying to tell them something important... other people who will not yell at me for expressing my feelings..."
But as many other people as there were in the world, there was only one Robin. Every time Starfire's mind drifted back toward forgiving him, she had to force herself away, remembering the pain his betrayal had caused her.
"Other people who will not hallucinate and hurt my arm... other people who will not break my heart... other people who will not... not comfort me when I am sad... who will not talk to me when something is wrong... who will not defend me when I am not quite strong enough to defend myself... who will not be extra-gentle when pulling tape off of my mouth so that it will not damage my lips..."
She was doing it again... getting ready to forgive Robin. Robin, the person who harshly rejected Starfire's offer of eternal love. Robin, who had broken her heart.
Robin, who she hated.
Klaxons blared. But these weren't normal sirens... these were loud, piercing bleeping noises that were only produced when the Tower itself was under attack. Someone was assaulting Titans Tower.
"No time for sadness now, Starfire... you must defend your home!"
In the face of imminent danger, even the emotionally-damaged Starfire knew that she had to lick her wounds and rush to the aid of Titans Tower. But who was attacking?
Downstairs, Merkova KNEW he'd screwed up. And badly. A missed firewall had tripped the Tower's security safeguards when Merkova had tried to hack past it, and now, his mission was in serious trouble. Before he could even finish packing up his laptop, a door at the top of the flight of stairs leading down to the main room of the tower flew open. Standing in the doorway was Starfire, her emerald eyes aglow.
"What are you doing here?"
The other Titans, meanwhile, were now downtown. The T-Car had sped across the lake in record time (thanks to its newly-installed amphibious mode), and had taken the Titans all the way to the scene of a major attack on the city. As they climbed out of the car, all the T-Communicators began to rang.
"The Tower!" shouted Robin, a worried look appearing on his face. "Starfire!"
But before the other Titans could respond, they each recieved a large hamburger to the face.
"Blegh!" shouted Beast Boy as he smacked the hamburger to the ground, Raven's seal having been removed as the T-Car emerged from the lake a few minutes earlier. "I hate meat!"
"Whoever this guy is," said Cyborg, devouring his burger before it could even fall into his hands, "he's my kinda villain!"
"Wake up with the king!" shouted a man standing about thirty feet from the Titans, a large cannon held in his arms. He wore a royal robe and a mask on his face that made him look just like a king, complete with a crown. "Mwahahaha! Just call me... the Burger Monarch!"
"Haven't I seen you on TV before?" asked Raven, wiping burger juice from her face. The man simply laughed, his mask portaying a permanent jovial smile.
"Maybe you have, maybe you haven't," said the Burger Monarch. "Now, here's one meatnormous surprise!"
The Burger Monarch shot his cannon into the air, firing a large glob of red meat that stopped high above the Titans' heads. It then began to fall, taking the shape of a gigantic hamburger patty about thirty feet in diameter. It fell incredibly fast, and would have squashed the four Titans flat if Cyborg hadn't raised his arms and caught it before it did any damage. He took the oversized burger and threw it into a nearby alley, groaning in exhaustion.
"Even I know that that much meat is dangerous," said Cyborg, pointing his arm cannon at the Burger Monarch and firing a blue plasma blast. The Burger Monarch laughed and cartwheeled out of the way, causing the blast to fly past him and into the side of a nearby building, causing an enormous explosion.
"How about some... eggs!" shouted the Burger Monarch, firing two large egg yolks out of his cannon, directly at the four Teen Titans. The yolks slammed into the ground in the middle of the group, throwing up an enormous explosion that sent all four superheroes flying. Raven was the first to catch her balance, pointing her arms at the Burger Monarch and charging up as much energy as she could.
"Azarath, metreon, zinthos!" Raven shouted. The Burger Monarch's gun began to glow with dark energy as Raven tried to use her telekinetic powers to force the weapon from his hands.
"Bacon!" the Burger Monarch cried, firing a long strip of bacon that slammed into Raven's chest, pinning her arms to her sides and disorienting her, causing the attack to cease. The bacon-bound girl rolled along the ground several feet before finally coming to a stop in the middle of the street. "Cheese!"
Another blast from the villain's cannon covered the ground underneath Robin, Beast Boy, and Cyborg's feet with hot, sticky yellow cheese, sticking all three of them to the ground. Enraged, Beast Boy transformed into a rhino and charged the Burger Monarch, plowing him into the same building that Cyborg inadvertantly blasted earlier. He detransformed and tried to rip the gun from the Burger Monarch's hands, unfazed as workers from the building ran for their lives around the two struggling fighters.
"How dare you support the slaughter of innocent animals! Don't you know that cows have feelings too?" shouted Beast Boy as he fought with the Burger Monarch.
"It's time for you to have it MY way!" shouted the Burger Monarch, smashing the cannon across the side of Beast Boy's face, knocking him back out of the building and planting him flat on his back. The Burger Monarch followed Beast Boy outside. Meanwhile, Cyborg was chewing through Raven's delicious bonds.
"This isn't the time to savor every bite, Cyborg..." Raven sighed, rolling her eyes and hoping that Cyborg would be able to free her soon.
Meanwhile, Robin couldn't stop thinking of the situation back at the tower, and that Starfire could possibly be in serious danger...
"I will not ask you again... what are you doing here?"
Looking up at the angry alien girl who was currently staring down at him, Merkova realized he had two options. He could run away, or he could fight.
Merkova hated confrontations. But he hated failing his mission even more.
So, without a word, Merkova unsheathed a long katana blade and dashed up the stairs, charging Starfire with surprising speed. With a loud scream, Starfire threw a Starbolt that hit Merkova squarely in the chest, sending him plummeting down the stairs, his chest and back smashing against the rough surface several times before finally hitting the ground, his sword still firmly clutched in his left hand.
"That... was pretty stupid..." thought Merkova to himself, struggling to climb to his feet. Meanwhile, Starfire was pointing her hand at the fallen attacker, preparing to fire another Starbolt at any moment.
"Do not move," said Starfire, her voice calm but assertive. "I do not wish to harm you further."
"And I do not wish to harm you at all... seems we've got a problem here, don't we?" said Merkova, reaching into his pocket and quickly withdrawing several flash bombs, then throwing them up the stairs and closing his eyes as they exploded in Starfire's face.
"Aaaaaaaah!" screamed Starfire, her eyes temporarily rendered useless by the extremely bright flash. Now Merkova made his move, running up the stairs and slamming Starfire's head right into a nearby wall. The blow would have knocked out a normal human, but Starfire was a Tamaranian, and the blow merely stunned her. However, Merkova's next attack, a roundhouse kick to Starfire's stomach, sent the young alien girl reeling. She crashed to the ground, still blinded by Merkova's flash bombs, and now with a sharp pain in her midsection. "His kicks... they're as powerful as Robin's..."
Even in the middle of a fight, Starfire couldn't stop thinking about Robin. But as she thought, Merkova was towering over her, his sword precariously over her throat. He hesitated, wondering whether Starfire was more valuable to him dead or alive. Soon, that question would be much farther from his mind. A Starbolt slammed into Merkova's face, knocking him up into the air and back down on the ground, just in front of the staircase. Starfire, her vision quickly returning, ran toward Merkova, ready to kick him down the stairs. He reached up and grabbed her by the ankle, and then with a mighty throw, sent the Tamaranian girl on the same trip she'd intended for him, though Starfire's gift of flight stopped the trip just short of its destination. As Starfire floated back up to confront Merkova, he stood tall, his katana at the ready.
"Bring it on..." he whispered menacingly.
Raven was freed from the bacon just in time to watch as the Burger Monarch shot Beast Boy point-blank with an exploding egg yolk. He hit the ground with a loud thud, and didn't move once he hit the ground. Raven quietly gasped out of concern. With a cry of rage, she blasted the Burger Monarch with a dark energy ball that knocked the cannon right from his hands.
"Noooooooo!" shouted the Burger Monarch, diving for his weapon. Instead, he recieved a staff blow to the face, courtesy of the Boy Wonder. He hit the ground with a large bump on his forehead. His deadly food cannon slammed into the pavement and shattered into a million pieces, spraying ketchup and mustard everywhere.
"Beast Boy, are you alright?" asked Raven, gently trying to shake the green superhero awake. With a pained groan, Beast Boy came to, smiling as he saw Raven leaning over him.
"So... are you ready to apologize for putting that energy seal on my mouth?" Beast Boy asked, half-jokingly. Raven sighed, helping Beast Boy to his feet. As Robin handcuffed the Burger Monarch, Cyborg knelt down over a large pile of mustard, a smile on his face.
"Too bad Starfire isn't here for this, huh, guys?" joked Cyborg, looking around at the other Titans. On the mention of Starfire, a worried look immediately appeared on Robin's face. He remembered the earlier T-Com alert that something was happening at the tower... and that Starfire was the only one there to stop it.
"We need to get back to the tower ASAP," said Robin, loading the defeated Burger Monarch into the back of the T-Car. "I just hope the police station is on the way... and that you're alright, Starfire..."
Starfire and Merkova locked arms at the top of the stairs and began wrestling one another for leverage. Immediately, it was clear that Starfire's alien strength gave her a marked advantage, and she began pushing Merkova back down the upstairs hallway, trying to knock him over. The sword grasped in Merkova's left hand, however, allowed him to distract Starfire temporarily by pushing the blade in toward Starfire's chest. Instinctively, the girl jumped back, releasing her hold on Merkova's arms and recieving an elbow to the nose as the price for her distraction.
"Let's see how you like this, little girl..." said Merkova. His baggy pants contained several pockets, two of which contained items that would prove invaluable to the man in a fight. One of them, the lower-left pocket, concealed a set of bolos. Merkova pulled them out and tossed them at Starfire's legs before the girl could charge Merkova again. The bolos wrapped themselves around Starfire's ankles, causing the girl to fall to the ground, her face slamming into the tiled hallway floor.
"That is... not fair!" shouted Starfire, floating up and slamming her tied feet into Merkova's chin. The force of the kick was enough to knock Merkova high into the air, where Starfire then was able to swing around and slam her legs into the side of the blonde man's face. Steadying himself, he was able to land on his feet, though he now had a thin stream of blood trickling down the side of his jaw.
"My dentist isn't gonna like that..."thought Merkova, wiping the blood from his face. He looked across the hallway and noticed that Starfire was frantically trying to untangle her legs from the bolos. He smirked. "Now's my chance..."
Merkova charged Starfire again. She looked up and readied a Starbolt. Suddenly, she felt the swipe of a sharp blade across her stomach. The force of the slash knocked her backward, and she looked down to see a gash about six inches wide, just above her bellybutton. It wasn't a very deep cut, but the sight of any blood made Starfire queasy. She put her hand up to her lips and slowly shook her head.
"It is not a severe wound... I am mostly undamaged... I will be fine... I will be..."
Merkova, meanwhile, had withdrawn his other useful item from his lower-right pocket. He seized Starfire's wrists and clasped a black, military-grade armbinder over them, tightly locking them together. The shackles, built to restrain even the strongest humans, proved quite formidable even for Starfire's strength. Her focus left the wound on her stomach and shifted immediately to her new predicament, trying to escape the bonds now tightly restraining her wrists and ankles. She lost her balance and fell to the ground, struggling with the fury of a wolverine.
"Release me... right now!" screamed Starfire, pushing up with her bound arms and slamming her feet into Merkova's knee. The blow stunned Merkova, who fell onto his other knee and began groaning in pain. Starfire spun around, her back facing her downed foe. "I... hope this works..."
Gathering her Starbolt energy, Starfire began to charge an attack. But with her hands bound, she couldn't properly channel the energy. Her Starbolts were rendered completely useless.
"NO!" screamed Starfire, kicking the floor with her bound feet in frustration. Merkova stood up and walked over to Starfire, his katana pointed at her chest.
"If you'd like another cut to match the one on your stomach, keep struggling," he said, pressing the blade to Starfire's chest just hard enough not to pierce her skin. "Otherwise, I suggest you do as I say."
"And I suggest you release me!" shouted Starfire, spinning around and sweeping her bound legs underneath Merkova's feet, knocking him off-balance and sending him crashing to the ground. "I have to get away..."
Not bothering to attack Merkova further, Starfire struggled to her feet and began hopping away as quickly as she could.
"I don't think so."
Merkova climbed back up and ran at Starfire, quickly overtaking her as she frantically hopped toward the stairway leading down to the main room. He leapt on her back, tackling her to the ground and causing her to scream out loudly.
"That's it," said Merkova, drawing his sword and raising it above the back of the helpless Tamaranian's neck.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" screamed Starfire, struggling desperately to free herself before Merkova's sword could come down. "Robin, help-"
The faint sound of a door opening could be heard from downstairs. The other Titans had arrived. Both Merkova and Starfire heard the sound at once, and both reacted with equal rapidity.
A thin black cloth was pulled behind Starfire's teeth and tied tightly behind her head.
"Shut up!" shouted Merkova, dragging the now gagged and bound Starfire away from the staircase and halfway down the hall.
"GMMMPH!" Starfire screamed, trying to extricate her legs from Merkova's grasp. "GMMM...MMMPH!"
The thin cleave gag muffled Starfire's words, but her screams were still fairly loud, and Merkova knew that if he didn't make Starfire's gag stronger, her loud screams would alert the other Titans. He dragged Starfire into the first room he could find, a storage room for some of the Titans' crime-fighting equipment. On one of the lower shelves were several rolls of duct tape. Merkova took one of them and pulled off two strips from the roll.
"If you're not gonna shut up, I'll just have to MAKE you shut up," said Merkova, ripping off two strips of tape from the roll and stretching them tightly over the cleave gag, sealing the black cloth inside Starfire's lips.
"Mmmbgh! Mmmph mbgh hmmn!" screamed Starfire, her cries noticably softer than they had been before her gag was reinforced. Now beginning to realize the helplessness of her situation, Starfire struggled with a renewed vigor. Her wrists strained against the military-grade cuffs on her arms, but it only resulted in tightening the vice-like grip that the cuffs had on her wrists. "I only have one chance..."
Starfire wasn't sure if her eye lasers would work if her wrists were bound. She'd wanted to use them when she had been kidnapped by her sister and Kitten, but in the fear and concern that she had for Robin, she'd completely forgotten them.
Her eyes lit up, and she quickly realized that she was, in fact, charging Starbolt energy. A second later, her eye lasers activated.
Had Starfire aimed just a little to the left, she probably would have scored a direct hit. As it stood, her beam zipped past Merkova and slammed into the far wall, creating a small explosion unnoticed by the other Titans, still downstairs.
"How DARE you!" shouted Merkova, pulling two reflective lenses out of his pocket. He placed them over Starfire's eyes, then stretched a piece of duct tape over Starfire's face to keep the lenses in place. Finally, he pulled out another cloth and tied it over Starfire's eyes, trapping the poor girl in total darkness.
"Mmph... mmmph... mmmph!" screamed Starfire, struggling to remove the cloth and tape from her face while frantically trying to scream through the cleave and tape gags over her mouth.
"If you try that eye laser trick again," said Merkova viciously, "you'll blow your own head off. How's that sound, hmm?"
Bound, blind, her screams silenced, Starfire felt the first trembles of fear coursing through her body. Her struggles became weaker, her cries softer, her entire psyche consumed once more by the feeling of utter helplessness. As Merkova slung the girl over his shoulder and began walking with her down the hall, Starfire could only wonder where she would end up... and if she would ever see Robin again.
And if she could ever love him again...
Completely unaware of the critical situation taking place just above their heads, Robin, Raven, Beast Boy, and Cyborg had been wandering around the living room for the past ten minutes, calling out Starfire's name. They had found Merkova's computer, on the coffee table, its USB cables still hanging out.
"Whoever this guy is, he's been messing with our system," said Cyborg, rapidly searching through the computer's files. Raven and Beast Boy were busily searching the room for any clues that might indicate an intruder, while Robin ran up the stairs to continue the search for Starfire.
"Starfire?" Robin shouted, concern evident in his voice. "She's probably still up in her room... at least I hope she is..."
But when Robin reached the upstairs hallway, he saw something that filled him with dread. Several drops of blood had stained the tile floor, and they appeared to be leaving a trail down the hall. Robin let out a loud gasp and ran down to the main room to inform the other Titans.
"Something happened... there was a fight upstairs!" shouted Robin. "There's blood on the floor... I think it's from Starfire!"
"No way," Beast Boy said, a stunned expression on his face. Raven seemed equally shaken, though her demeanor remained calm.
"Are you sure it's Starfire's?" asked Raven. "It may have been from the intruder... maybe Starfire managed to subdue him."
"Then where is she?" Robin replied. "If Starfire stopped an intruder, she'd be out here to tell us!"
"Guys, check this out..." said Cyborg, turning the screen of the laptop around to face the other Titans. On the screen was what appeared to be a list of mission objectives. "Apparently, this guy's some sort of international superassassin, or mercenary. Either way, he was sent here to retrieve something from the tower."
"Something... or someone," thought Robin, his legs beginning to tremble. "What if he came here to kidnap Starfire?"
"Then why would he have tried to hack our computer?" asked Raven, pointing at Merkova's laptop. "He probably came here trying to take some vital information. When he tripped our security system, Starfire may have come out to stop him."
"And there was a fight... and her blood was..."
Robin suddenly found that his lips could no longer form the words. He began to run over hundreds of scenarios in his mind of what might have happened to Starfire... of her being attacked, or hurt, or... or...
"We have to find Starfire now..." thought Robin, too horrified to think of what might happen if he couldn't.
Starfire could hear the elevator, its gears and cables working just as they always had. She'd been in the Titans Tower elevator hundreds of times, but never like she was now. Never lying helpless on its cold, steel floor, with a cruel and vicious man towering over her, unable to call out to her friends for help, or even see what the man was doing.
She could feel something sticky being pressed over the long gash on her stomach. Since being bound and gagged, Starfire had seemingly forgotten all about the wound, and it had even stopped hurting. The feeling of the tape being pressed over it, however, brought some of the pain back, and she briefly let out a moan through her cloth and tape gag.
"It won't do to have you leaving a trail of blood for your stupid little Titan teammates to follow," said Merkova, carefully pressing a second piece of duct tape over Starfire's wound. "And besides, I'm not such a bad guy... as long as your friends have what I want. How could I have been so stupid? If I'd have killed you, I'd have lost the perfect bargaining chip!"
"Bargaining chip?" thought Starfire, her fists clenching. "Mmmmmph mmmbgh! I am no bargaining chip! You will release me right now, that you will, or-"
The elevator stopped moving. Merkova smiled and picked up Starfire, who began squirming and thrashing in his grasp. It was amazing, thought the Tamaranian girl, that her strength seemed to leave her completely when she was physically restrained. She could lift cars and buildings when her limbs were free, but the moment her hands were tied, she became completely powerless. Her Starbolts had failed her, and it seemed that her strength was failing her too.
Merkova had delivered Starfire to the Tower's sub-basement, the lowest part of the complex. This is where he had been hiding out for the past thirty-six hours, and was the launching point for Merkova's entire plan to steal the Tower's most guarded prize. Also, it was where Merkova had stashed a spare set of supplies, which was fortunate, since he'd left his other bag in the main room of the tower. The Titans had it by now, Merkova was sure, and he knew that they would soon be hot on his trail.
"I've gotta work fast," thought Merkova, pulling out a strong, metallic chair and sitting the bound Starfire down in it. He removed several long, black cables from a black duffel bag lying nearby and began using the cables to roughly fasten Starfire in to the chair. The girl struggled as the bonds were tightened around her torso, six cables strapped every which way across Starfire's chest, fusing her upper body to the chair. Four more cables were wrapped around Starfire's lap and the chair, and then connected to two cables which were restraining her knees. Finally, three more cables were tightly wrapped around Starfire's ankles, finishing the job. Starfire moaned, struggled, and thrashed, but the bonds held fast. "There, nice and snug. Now, if you'll promise to be a good girl and not blast me with your eye lasers, I'll let you see again, okay?"
"Mmmph... mmmph mmph!" screamed Starfire, not caring whether or not the blindfold was removed from her eyes. Either way, she would be helpless, and though the feeling of complete and utter darkness was terrifying, seeing the face of the man who had captured her would probably terrify Starfire just as much. "Mnph!"
"What was that?" asked Merkova tauntingly, his hand stroking the side of Starfire's face. At the touch of Merkova's hand, Starfire flinched away, trying desperately to remove the man's coarse fingers from her face. "Are you going to behave, or not?"
Insulted by Merkova's taunting, Starfire screamed again, her eyes lighting up under the blindfold in rage.
"MMM! HMMF MMPH MMMGH! HRRRRRRRRRRRM!"
"Look, I can't understand you," said Merkova, obviously enjoying Starfire's muffled, angry cries. "Are you going to blast me with your eye lasers when I remove the blindfold? Promise me that you're not going to do it. Say, 'I promise that I won't blast you when you take off the blindfold.'"
Starfire, finally realizing that Merkova was just trying to agitate her, didn't say a word. She couldn't see that Merkova was becoming angry with her silence.
"I said, SAY IT!" shouted Merkova, pointing the blade of his katana at Starfire's neck. "Say what I told you to say, NOW!"
Feeling crushed and defeated, Starfire began muffling the words that Merkova had ordered her to say.
"Mmmph mmm mmph mmm hmbgh umm mmmph mmph mmmm..." muffled Starfire, hanging her head in defeat. Merkova smiled, gently pulling the cloth and tape from Starfire's eyes and taking the reflective lenses into his hands.
"Now, if you DO try to blast me, I'm going to put the blindfold back on, and you're going to have to ask me to take it off again, do you understand me?" asked Merkova. Starfire nodded meekly.
"Mm mmmphmmm... I understand..."
Just an hour and a half ago, Starfire was ready to declare her eternal love for Robin, and hear him declare his love in return. Now, she hated Robin, and she was helplessly gagged and bound to a chair in the basement of Titans Tower... her home. The home where Starfire had once felt safe and secure was now seemingly the most dangerous place in the universe. Her friend had betrayed her, and now her strength had failed her.
And her tears began to fall.
While Raven, Beast Boy, and Cyborg continued to search Merkova's computer for clues, Robin had taken it upon himself to find Starfire wherever she may be. The trial of blood had continued down the hallway before stopping abruptly just as Robin turned a corner. The relatively benign nature of Starfire's wound meant that it had stopped dripping blood long before Merkova had reached the elevator. The trail had gone cold.
"Starfire has to be somewhere around here..." Robin thought. Suddenly, after a few seconds of pacing, he found himself in front of Starfire's room. While knowing that she most likely wouldn't be inside, Robin decided to have a look anyway, hoping against hope that somehow, his friend would still be inside.
He walked in and quietly called her name once more. Recieving no answer, Robin wandered about for several seconds before noticing her tear-stained pillow lying at the head of her bed. He walked over and placed his hand on it, the pillow still damp from Starfire's tears.
Robin couldn't stand to see Starfire cry. He couldn't even stand to think of her crying, and the warmness of her tears brought a deep pain to his heart. He knew that she had been crying because of him.
"Starfire," whispered Robin, trying to channel Starfire's ethereal spirit through the tears on her pillow, "I... I just want to say I'm sorry... and that if after all this is over, if we could still be friends... if we could... I'd give anything to be able to tell you that I'm sorry..."
The words seemed so perfect as they slipped from Robin's lips, and yet, he knew that he'd never spoken words like those before in his life. Where did they come from? From his mind? From his heart? From his soul?
He found himself clutching her damp pillow to his heart, trying somehow to channel his feelings to her through the fluffy, inanimate object, wishing that Starfire would walk through the door and say the three words that would be worth more to Robin than all the money in the world, than all the gildersyke on Tamaran... "I forgive you..."
And then, a miracle. The door to Starfire's room opened. A smile flashed briefly on Robin's lips, and then faded as he dropped Starfire's pillow back onto her bed. He turned, but instead of seeing Starfire standing in the doorway, it was Cyborg, a grim look on his face.
"You better come down here, man."
Starfire's bound, gagged, and writhing form filled the screen in the main room of Titans Tower. Merkova had used the supplies he'd stashed in the Tower's basement to broadcast Starfire's predicament throughout the Tower, including on the huge screen that was now the center of attention of all four remaining Teen Titans, including an enraged Robin.
"If you ever want to see her alive again," said Merkova, hiding from the view of the screen, his voice clearly audible over the room's speakers, "I need those codes."
"Codes?" shouted Beast Boy, a quizzical look on his face. "The only code you're gonna get is a Beast Boy buttkicking!"
Cyborg and Raven were puzzled as well... but Robin knew exactly what Merkova meant. The young superhero's heart dropped to the pit of his stomach.
"You've got ten minutes to respond with the codes, or your basement will be little Starfire's tomb. I'll be waiting..."
The screen flashed off. Immediately, the normally calm Raven became overwhelmed with emotion.
"Who does that bastard think he is?" shouted Raven, her fists clenched in rage. "Starfire looks terrified... I can't imagine what she must've been put through..."
Robin, however, was trembling. Rage, fear, and regret swirled through his mind at the same time, a torrent of negative emotion.
"It's alright, Robin... we're gonna get Starfire back," said Cyborg, his hand resting on his friend's shoulder. "You can count on-"
"How did he... how did he EVER find out about the... only Batman and I knew about..."
"Knew about what, Robin?" asked Raven, slightly calmer than she had been a moment earlier. "Do you know what this guy is talking about when he mentions the word 'codes'?"
Robin sighed. He knew he'd have to tell his teammates sooner or later... but never did he hope that it would be like this. He sat down on the couch, his chin buried in his hands.
"There are six one-gigaton nuclear warheads directly under Titans Tower."
"WHAT?" shouted Raven, Cyborg, and Beast Boy simultaneously, their jaws dropped several inches.
"In 1994, after the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, the United States government built six enormous nuclear missiles. In case an asteroid ever came on a collision course with Earth, the nukes could be used to blow the object out of the sky before it made impact. A year after the nukes' construction, the terrorist group Al-Queda tried to get a hold of one of the missiles, and almost did. That's when the government asked Batman to safeguard them underneath the Batcave. A few years later, when Titans Tower was being built, Batman asked me to keep the warheads under Titans Tower."
"And you said YES?" shouted Cyborg, his hand clenched in anger. "What were you THINKING?"
"The Joker, while having no knowledge of the missiles, almost managed to find the launch codes hidden somewhere inside the Batcave. So, to safeguard the missiles, he asked me to keep them under the tower. Until today, I thought that only Batman and I knew of their true location."
"The United States government still knows of the bombs' existance," said Raven. "Apparently, this guy must've gotten a hold of one of the people that knew about the bombs, and was able to trace the location of the codes to Titans Tower."
"And now, if I don't give him the codes, he'll..."
Robin stopped. He knew exactly what would happen to Starfire if he didn't give up the codes. But he also knew exactly what could happen to the world and its people if he did.
"Azarath, metreon, zinthos... azarath, metreon, zinthos..."
"Raven, this isn't the time to meditate!" Robin shouted, his mind racing to figure out a way to save both Starfire and the world. Because if he had to choose, he knew exactly what he was going to choose... or rather, who.
"I'm trying to concentrate," said Raven quietly. "Starfire is still in Titans Tower... and that means that maybe, I can communicate with her through telepathy."
Meanwhile, Starfire continued to struggle in the basement. She had no idea what Merkova had meant when he'd mentioned 'codes', only that she needed to escape as quickly as possible, before her friends endangered themselves trying to save her.
"Starfire, can you hear me?"
"Shut up!" replied Merkova, looking anxiously at his watch. "Five more minutes... then you're history."
Starfire could've sworn that she'd heard Raven's voice in her head.
"Starfire, if you can hear me-"
Was Starfire just pretending to hear her dear friend Raven's voice? Was she now just trying to reassure herself by pretending to have a conversation in her head?
"Starfire, where are you?"
"Raven, I am scared..."
"I can hear her!" Raven said, looking over at the other Titans. Almost immediately, Robin ran to Raven's side.
"Where is she? What did she say? Is she hurt? Is she-"
"Let me concentrate," said Raven, returning to her deep meditation. "Starfire, are you alright?"
It WAS Raven! Somehow, Raven was able to speak to Starfire in her head... and a feeling of calm swept over Starfire's body. That meant that Raven was close, thought Starfire, and so was Robin... why couldn't she stop thinking about Robin?
"I am slightly damaged... my stomach is hurt and I have been silenced and restrained quite tightly... when I was brought here, I was blindfolded, but I can distinctly remember the sound of an elevator and the feeling of going down... are the others there?"
"We're all here, Starfire," thought Raven. "And I promise, you're going to be alright."
"Is there any way I can talk to her?" Robin asked quietly.
"Clear your mind of all thought, and focus only on Starfire," said Raven, extending her hand. "Take my hand in yours and clear your mind."
Robin complied, tightly clasping Raven's pale hand in his own and trying to focus completely on Starfire.
"Starfire... can you hear me?"
It was Robin! Clear as day, Starfire could hear the Boy Wonder's voice in her head. She could sense his worry, and also a bit of sadness.
"Starfire, I... I..."
Even in Robin's mind, he couldn't find the words. All he had to say was 'I'm sorry', but it seemed impossible to say even that. And his hesitation cost him dearly.
"I still hate you, Robin!"
Even now, bound and gagged and still afraid even as she was talking to two of her teammates, Starfire couldn't forget that Robin had hurt her. The pain of his rejection still cut through Starfire even more than Merkova's sword had, and she found it easier to move her arms and legs than to erase the anger and pain of Robin's ignorant gesture from her mind.
"Starfire, you can't mean that..." echoed Raven's voice through Starfire's mind.
"Stay out of this, Raven, this is between me and Robin, and-"
The ten minutes were up. The monitor in the main room of Titans Tower lit up once more, and the bound and gagged alien girl once more came in view of the screen. This time, however, Merkova himself was also in view, his blade pressed against Starfire's throat.
"Last chance," said Merkova, a scowl on his face. "Give me the codes or you can watch Starfire die."
Robin's entire body trembled. His lips quivered, and his eyes moistened. He clenched his fists and bit his tongue, knowing that he had failed Starfire, and knowing that she would spend her last moments hating him. He'd even forgotten the launch codes, and would have to run off to get them, costing valuable time that he knew he didn't have. He wouldn't even be able to say that he was sorry.
"Robin," thought Raven, releasing her grip on Robin's hand, "Starfire's in the sub-basement. Cyborg, Beast Boy, and I will stall this creep while you go do your thing."
Not wasting a moment of time, Robin dashed out of the room as quickly as he could, racing for the elevator. Merkova saw Robin leave, and immediately suspected that something was up.
"Where is he going?" Merkova shouted, pressing his blade into Starfire's neck.
"The sight of blood makes him squeamish," said Raven, causing Beast Boy and Cyborg to let out quizzical 'huh?'s at the same time.
"So you're not going to give me the codes, is that it?" asked Merkova. "Well then, I-"
"I didn't say that," replied Raven. "He didn't think I was going to, but... Starfire is like a sister to me. I'd do anything to save her... even if it means dooming the world to nuclear winter."
"Then give me the codes. Now."
Seconds, minutes, hours, days, years... it took the elevator exactly 28.57 seconds to reach the sub-basement from the second floor of Titans Tower, but to Robin, it seemed like an eternity. Nevertheless, when he reached the basement, he could immediately hear what sounded like loud, muffled screams, and knew exactly whom they were coming from.
Merkova still had his sword to Starfire's neck, and was conversing with Raven, who was still bluffing that she knew the launch codes. Robin crept around a nearby corner and readied his Bat-a-rang for a throw he knew he'd only have one chance at. It was then that he saw Starfire, helplessly struggling, a look of intense fear in her eyes. He could see red around her eyes where she had been crying, and knew that she must've been put through a horrific ordeal.
"I'm gonna make this bastard pay..." thought Robin.
Meanwhile, the ultra-cool Raven was starting to lose her composure under pressure. She stumbled when she began reciting the third of the fake launch codes she had made up to fool Merkova. As she continued to stammer, Merkova knew he'd been tricked.
"You don't know the codes at all, do you?" said Merkova, ready to end Starfire's life at any moment. "SAY GOODBYE TO YOUR FRIEND!"
The Bat-a-rang looped around Merkova's wrist, wrenching his arm backward and forcing the katana from his hand. The force of Robin's subsequent tug jerked Merkova's arm back at a painful angle, and he let out a loud, gasping cry of agony.
"AAAAAAAAAAGH! DAMMIT!" shouted Merkova, quickly picking up his sword in his other hand and slicing his arm free from the Bat-a-rang. "You little son of a... god, my shoulder... you dislocated my shoulder!"
Tossing the severed Bat-a-rang to the ground, Robin began to charge Merkova, but hesitated the moment that his eyes met Starfire's.
For the first time in nearly two hours, the two teammates looked at one another, a confused mix of emotions swirling in their heads.
For Starfire, her hatred waxed and waned every few seconds... Robin had saved her life, but earlier that day, he'd shrugged off the sacred Ndl'emme, the offering of Starfire's eternal love... he'd called it a toy... so why, if Robin didn't love her, was he trying to save her? Was he trying to make amends? But he hadn't even said he was sorry, even when Raven's telepathy had given him the chance.
He wasn't sorry. Starfire knew Robin wasn't sorry.
"Try this, kid!" shouted Merkova, slashing at Robin's face with the deadly blade. Though the slash was dead-on, the fact that Merkova was holding the blade in his right hand significantly lessened the severity of the attack, and the result was a minor flesh wound across the middle of Robin's face, from his forehead down to just below his bottom lip.
The slash quickly brought Robin back into the fight, and he lunged forward with a punch that knocked Merkova backward several steps. Merkova, unfazed by the blow, slashed at Robin again. This time, however, Robin was ready. He pulled out and extended his bo staff just in time to parry Merkova's slash. Now, the fight was on.
As Starfire watched, bound and helpless at the back of the room, katana and bo staff clashed endlessly, metal clanging against metal, sparks flying with every collision. Whenever Merkova came especially close to gaining the upper hand, Starfire would squeak out a quiet 'mmph!'. Even though she hated Robin, she was still concerned for his well-being. That didn't make sense at all.
For several minutes, Robin and Merkova fought, their skill levels almost identical. Neither one could strike a fatal blow, though Robin managed to catch Merkova with his staff four times, and Merkova was able to slash Robin thrice, twice on his arm and once on his chest.
Robin fought harder than he'd ever fought before, solely to protect Starfire, the girl he cared about more than any other person in the world. He didn't care whether she hated him or not, he was still going to fight to defend her.
"No one's taking her away..."
He'd said it to the Centari police, and now he was saying it to Merkova, saying it resoundingly with every swing of his bo staff. As long as Robin was around, Starfire was never going to be hurt again.
Sometime during the ninth minute of fighting, Raven, Beast Boy, and Cyborg entered the room. Merkova saw them first, and instead of swinging his sword at Robin, he instead jabbed his thumb into the Boy Wonder's right eye.
"Agh!" shouted Robin, collapsing onto one knee and clutching his face as Merkova ran to his bag of supplies. The Titans immediately surrounded Robin, and Merkova knew he had them right where he wanted them.
"Should've done this a long time ago!" shouted Merkova, hurling a large, red orb between Robin and the other three Titans. A bright flash occured, and suddenly, a large red laser barrier seperated Robin from his comrades.
"What is this?" shouted Raven, blasting the barrier with all of her energy. The wall of light was completely unharmed. Cyborg tried to blast the barrier with his photon beam, while Beast Boy turned into a gorilla and pounded it with his fists. Nothing.
"Now it's just you and me," said Merkova, pulling out a smaller, black orb. "And I've got a lovely surprise in store for you."
Before Robin could stand, Merkova threw the orb. It exploded, and the closed-in area began to fill with a thick, green gas.
"MMMMPH!" Starfire screamed as Robin became engulfed in the thick gas cloud. "What is happening?"
As Robin rose to his feet, he breathed in the fumes and immediately began to cough and sputter. Merkova chuckled.
"It's concentrated D-17 suffocation gas, designed to kill a man in less than a minute. I've built up an immunity to the gas, but you, my good friend... well, like I said, I should've done this a long time ago."
"But... without me..." coughed Robin, trying desperately to catch a breath of fresh air, "you won't... get the codes..."
"I know you've got them somewhere in this tower," said Merkova, "and I've got plenty of gadgets to take out your friends once you're gone."
"That's a lie, man!" shouted Cyborg, still trying to blast away the laser barrier. "Let our friends go!"
Starfire began breathing in the gas through her nose, but soon realized that her Tamaranian biology gave her immunity to its fumes as well. But Robin, now lying face down on the ground, wasn't nearly so lucky. As he began taking his last, gasping breaths, Starfire knew he only had seconds of consciousness remaining.
Robin looked up at Starfire through the gas. He looked right into her eyes, wide and terrified over the gag. Was she screaming for him, or for herself? It didn't matter anymore... but Robin knew that before he blacked out, he had to say something... something that he might only get one more chance to say.
"Starfire... I... I'm so sorry..."
"I... should have known all along..." thought Starfire as she watched Robin's eyes slowly shut.
Of course Robin was sorry.
You have been so silly, Starfire... so foolish... Robin did not ignore you to hurt you... he did not reject the Ndl'emme, the sacred gift of Tamaranian love... if you believed that, Starfire, then perhaps you did not love Robin at all...
"But... I do love Robin..."
Starfire's mind had been playing a cruel joke on