Hello, dear readers! Yes, it is truly I, TwistedPremise, returned from the dreaded land of AFK and "the real world" to bring you a new chapter! I'm seriously sorry about bailing on the story like that, I never intended to do so or leave this story pre-completion, it just kinda ended up on the back burner while i dealt with other stuff. In any case, major thanks to all my reviewers, your feedback ultimately shaped how this chapter came together more than you can ever imagine, so thank you. I know I entered some dangerous waters introducing Rose Wilson to the story, but I trust that this solution will satisfy all my readers' concerns. In any case, I'll give my disclaimer and shut up now: I own nothing of the Teen Titans, not even a costume. (Though if I had one, it'd be a Slade or Red X costume, sorry.) As always, leave a review and I'll try to get back to you soon!
As Changeling was composing his brief email, Raven stirred from her crash-nap feeling remarkably refreshed. She blinked against the sunlight streaming from her curtain-less and cracked windows and stretched, popping her back twice. She could feel the remains of what must have been an incredibly pleasant dream fading, but she couldn't remember what it was.
Reason was right, she admitted. It's amazing what a few hours sleep can do.
She took note of her room around her with frustration. This is the worst it's been since I was 17. Books, glass shards from her vanity, and cloth from her curtains littered the floor, as well as a few feathers she'd missed from cleaning up last night. The window was cracked in a large spiderweb pattern, and it would take one of her better reconstruction spells to recover the bookshelf. Finally, her bed sheets were twisted into a tangled mess. The fitted sheet had been pulled off two corners, her comforter was only halfway on the bed, and while Raven's right leg was entangled in her sheets her left was uncovered entirely.
That's odd, I'm normally dead-still in my sleep. She mused. I'd remember if I had a nightmare. She paused, and I wouldn't be this well rested.
Dismissing it, she considered returning to Nevermore to talk things out with Reason. I'll take care of my room first, she decided. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that it'd been almost 24 hours since she'd had anything more than a cup of tea. Then food. Given a little distance from the "incident," and how she was feeling after her nap, Nevermore didn't seem so urgent a concern, anyway.
She extricated herself from the sheets and swung her feet over to her shoes, mindful of the glass pieces. She idly went about picking up the pieces of glass with obsidian energy, collecting them in front of the vanity. It was just a daydream, she reasoned, a fanciful act of imagination about an attractive young man. I really shouldn't be surprised, people have those all the time, and I'm hardly the first to acknowledge his new form's appearance. She snorted at the memory of how he'd crowed when HERO magazine ranked him over Cyborg in their "50 hottest heroes" issue. They'd actually given him credit for the pointed ears… and I can't blame them.
Raven's step faltered, and she glanced around quickly to determine if anything had broken, but the room was still. Releasing a sigh of relief, Raven arranged the glass she'd collected in front of the vanity mirror, took a deep breath, and concentrated: "Restituo."
She'd researched the technique for this spell to mitigate the weekly maintenance she'd ask Cyborg for shortly after moving in to the tower, and since then it'd saved her thousands of dollars and countless explanations she'd rather not give. The glass turned black, flowed like water to form one puddle, then flew to the surface of the mirror. It spread itself to cover the desired area, then the black faded to reveal a smooth, reformed surface.
Raven grinned and moved toward the window to repeat the process. As she watched the black energy spread across the thin fractures in the bulletproof surface, she wondered at her mental transformation. I seriously overreacted… I knew there was an… attraction… to Garfield, Affection made that perfectly clear last night. I should have expected something like that, especially after his spar with Nightwing…
She felt her face heat up at the memory as the black energy faded from the window. No, she closed her eyes and allowed the feeling to dissipate. This is an emotion, just like any other. Emotions do not define or control me. They come, they go, and I've been managing mine my entire life. I can handle this.
She opened her eyes and surveyed her room, as though daring something to crack and defy her. Nothing did.
She gave a slight nod of satisfaction, and set about arranging her curtains for magical repair. Who was it that Knowledge said contributed to make that happen again? Imagination, Affection, Timid, and Happy? She released the magic and watched the tattered edges of the curtain threads knit themselves together. I thought Fear was opposed to Affection? She lifted the edges of the curtain back up to the rod and threaded it through, levitating from the ground to do so.
The answer came to her as she turned to address the bookshelf. No, fear isn't directly opposed to affection, just to taking action that might be risky. She righted the bookshelf with a though, collecting wood splinters that had broken off the shelves. There was no risk in a private moment like that… at least, not beyond the obvious.
All the pieces were in place: "molior, restituo, perfectus." Raven felt the energy drain from her as the spell regenerated the wood into solid planks once again.
So, now what? She wondered, moving to restore the tangled mess of her bedsheets. What do I do about this? Does this change anything? Sure, I'm attracted to him. I've been attracted to other guys before. Okay, he's sweet and kind and occasionally funny when he's not trying. And yes, he has been there for me when I've needed it and genuinely cares about me… but none of that changes anything. I still don't know if there's anything… there. Or what it would look like if there was potential for… something. Her ears reddened at her pre-nap memory. It certainly wouldn't look like that.
Her stomach growled as she finished smoothing her blanket. Okay, lunch time. She glanced at the clock and blinked in surprise. Rather, dinner time. She took one last glance around the room to ensure everything was in good order, then turned and headed to the common room, purposefully avoiding looking at the communicator beside her door as she summoned it to the empty spot on her belt. I just hope the evening is uneventful, I've had enough drama for the past 24 hours.
It seemed fate had finally given her a break as the doors to the common room panned open. Cyborg was at the stove, idly stirring a pot of what smelled like beef stew while his attentions remained on a panel in his other forearm. He didn't seem to notice her entrance, which was unusual, but Raven was too busy confirming the absence of a green shapeshifter to think anything of it.
"Afternoon, Victor" she called out, opting for his off-the-clock name as she made for her tea cabinet.
The semi-mechanical man jolted slightly, nearly dropping his stirring spoon as he recovered his senses. "Oh, hey Raven." He composed himself as she turned away to retrieve her kettle. "Glad you decided to rejoin civilization. You all healed up?"
Her tone made it clear she was rolling her eyes. "It was only a localized second-degree burn, nothing to be concerned about."
"And that's why we worry about it for you. Because you don't" Cyborg quipped, his caring tone allaying any potential sharpness to his words. "But it don't take three-quarters of a day to heal yourself, what's kept you?"
Raven opted for honesty, mostly. "I took a nap. Overload left me drained, and waking up early for practice didn't help. Add meditation and some cleaning, and now I'm here."
Cyborg chuckled. "Man, never know what to expect around here. The same fight that knocks you outta commission for a day turns the green bean into a record-breaking ball of energy. Can't you two find a happy medium?"
That was as good a segue as any. "Speaking of Garfield, where is he? Hiding from your six-meat stew?"
"Hey now, just one meat today, thank you. And he said he was running errands in-town, including checking out some veg-head restaurant, won't be back til late."
That let Raven off the hook for the evening. "And 'NightStar'?" Raven queried, sarcasm in her tone.
"Oh, you saw the tabloids, did you?" Cyborg grinned. "I'm gonna get a couple light-years of mileage out of this one, 'Wing's gonna hate it. Getting plenty of traction online though, surprised nobody thought of that one years ago. Anyway, they should be back soon, they're at the police convention downtown."
Then a thought occurred to Cyborg. "Hey, when do you read the tabloids? I thought you hated that 'nonsensical, vapid-minded garbage.'"
Raven was perhaps a bit too composed with her response. "Starfire showed me an article. How'd you see it?"
Cyborg just tapped the side of his head. "I got a couple web-crawlers monitoring traffic about us, just in case something slanderous or dangerous pops up. It picked up the new phrase."
Raven hummed her placating acceptance of the excuse before indicating the boiling pot on the stove. "I was going to make pasta, but that smells delicious. Is there enough for two?"
Cyborg just chuckled. "You have to ask?" He pulled out two bowls, and they sat down to eat.
Raven was washing dishes as Cyborg replaced his spices when Nightwing and Starfire came in. "Friend Raven!" Starfire called out cheerfully, though she refrained from a hug this time. "You are recovered?"
Raven let out a little huff. "For Azar's sake, I'm fine. It was a small burn and an energy draining shield, I'm healed and rested, not to mention fully fueled on Cyborg's cooking. I'm fine."
"Glad to hear it," Nightwing cut in with a mischevious grin, "because I was hoping you'd be ready to go on patrol with me tonight."
Raven remained composed, but Cyborg winced dramatically for her. "Dang Rae, you walked into that one." He turned to Nightwing. "Wait, why Raven? She just got done with patrol last night, when she got in a pretty nasty scrape. I can go."
Nightwing shrugged. "If you want to, but normally breaking the record on the obstacle course earns you three days off of evening patrols. I'm guessing Changeling's out on the town tonight, taking advantage of that right now?"
Raven cut Cyborg off. "It's all right, I'm happy to get out of the tower a bit. I didn't actually do anything at training this morning, so this is only fair."
Cyborg nodded, then grinned. "In that case, I'm gonna go grab tickets for the Jump City Jumpshot's game tonight." If anyone noticed the plurality of the word "tickets," they didn't mention it as he left for the garage.
"I will go in search of Silkie," Starfire declared, flying through the door after her mechanical friend.
Raven finished with the last bowl and set it on the drying rack. "Shall we?"
Nightwing gestured deferentially to the door. "After you."
It was an uneventful patrol, for the most part. Raven had expected Nightwing to stick with her for a while to make sure she was recovered and break off on his own after a while, but two hours in he was still jumping across rooftops beside her as she flew through the town. Suddenly his communicator chirped, and he called her over. "There's an accident involving a semi on the loop half a mile from us, blocking three lanes of traffic. Nobody hurt, but police could use your help moving the semi."
Raven nodded, understanding. It wasn't their normal line of work, but the Titans would occasionally help out with mundane things like this when they were closer to the incident than the authorities. Particularly when Nightwing wanted to demonstrate- in full view of the inevitable traffic/news copter- that Raven was back at full strength. Nothing encouraged crime like thinking a Titan was out of commission.
Raven was a quarter mile to the crash before she realized Nightwing was still following her. She slowed to let him catch up. "What are you doing?"
"Going to take statements," he responded.
"No, I mean, why are you following me. You never follow me during patrols. You take one route, I take another; we cover more area that way. It's standard Titan procedure. The only person you break that pattern for is Starfire, and that's for obvious reasons."
Nightwing coughed, lips pursing at her analysis. "Fair enough. I've been meaning to ask you something."
"And the past two hours haven't been opportunity enough?"
"Been too busy jumping rooftops. You're not exactly taking a convenient path for non-fliers."
Raven hadn't realized it, but he was right. She hadn't been going out of her way to make it hard on him, but she wasn't exactly taking his limitations into consideration with her flight path. It was a credit to his athleticism that she hadn't lost him an hour ago, actually. Okay, but why does any of this matter in the first place? "I didn't realize you were trying to turn patrol into social hour," she teased, her usual monotone betraying nothing.
He just snorted, a grin conceding the point. "Fine, then we'll take a break from patrol." He flipped his communicator open, checked the screen briefly, and returned it to his pocket without breaking stride. "Take care of the semi, and meet me atop the Steiley building in 15 minutes."
"That's a thirty minute drive from here."
"Lucky I'm not driving," he quipped, and took an abrupt ninety-degree turn left, leaving Raven to deal with the crash scene she'd just arrived to.
"Guess I get to take statements, then" she commented to herself as she floated down to the expressway below her.
It only took ten minutes to clear the site, get statements, and return traffic to its usual flow pattern for dusk in Jump City, so with a few short jumps Raven was able to teleport to the roof of the Steiley building three minutes early. It still wasn't fast enough.
"Over here," Nightwing called out from the corner of the flat roof, crouched behind the ubiquitous parapet as he surveyed the street below.
She floated over, entrusting the shadow of late dusk to conceal her.
"So," she mused aloud, "what question could be so important that you'd break patrol, and why all the way out here?"
They were on the far edge of town, past downtown and on the edge of the mid-density development before the city grid gave way to suburban-style housing. The Steiley building itself was just an old historic four-story building that had been renovated to a mall, and it was the tallest thing from here to the old mining buildings at the foot of the mountains outside of town.
Nightwing paused before answering. "Have you noticed anything strange about Changeling recently?"
It was fortunate Nightwing's attention was on the street, rather than on her, because Raven stiffened for a full second before relaxing enough to respond with her typical detached tone. "What do you mean?" she stalled, buying time to see what exactly her detective-trained teammate might have noticed.
"Did you two argue recently, or did something happen between you?" His tone was gentler than his words, but Raven still bristled at his inquiry.
"As a matter of fact, no, we haven't argued in quite a while." She let her tone contain a touch more finality than necessary. "Why would you assume that something's going on with us, if something's going on with him at all? For that matter, you still haven't explained what you think is strange about him in the first place." She folded her arms in front of her, letting her displeasure with the situation be known. What the hell is he thinking?
Interesting, Nightwing noted, hearing the chill in her voice. Unusually defensive about both herself and Changeling, though she's being honest about not arguing with him recently. Also, she used "us" too casually, normally she maintains more distance in her language than that.
He took note of her posture in the reflection of the broken glass he'd positioned before she arrived: definitely defensive, and he could have sworn she froze up when he first mentioned Changeling. That was the great thing about domino masks; he could look like he was watching the street when in fact he was looking elsewhere. Definitely comes in handy when Starfire's around too.
But now it was time to back off. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything by it. It's just that he's been unusually active recently. When I came back from patrol last night he was still up." He turned to face her now, shifting his posture for a more casual, familiar effect.
"He does that all the time," she quipped. "He said he was feeling unusually awake after the Overload fight, said he was going to go play gamestation when he left, if I remember correctly."
"Funny. He never made it to the common room."
That brought her up short, though only for a second. "Then where was he?"
Her eyes widened briefly. "2:30? He was in the gym for five hours?"
"Apparently." He opted for a casual tone, trying to keep her talking. Interesting that she knows when Star and I came in. Only way she could have known that is if she felt us arrive empathically, which means she was still awake.
Suddenly, Raven grinned. "Explains how he dominated you this morning. He was training for it, that's when he developed that combo that put you out of commission."
"Maybe," Nightwing conceded, not ready to divulge the insights he'd gleaned from his conversation with the animorph- or his discovery about the fight itself- just yet. "But what it doesn't explain is what he's doing at a random cafe on the far side of town on his night off… or who he's meeting."
"Excuse me?" Raven's eyes widened at that revelation.
"He's across the corner, seated on the patio of the Corner Cafe as we speak," Nightwing elaborated. "Two drink menus, but he's refrained from ordering anything but an appetizer-which he's only picked at." He gestured beside him, offering Raven a better vantage point to survey the patio in question.
Raven accepted the perch, narrowing her gaze as she attempted to pinpoint her teammate. "Where is he?"
"Third table from the right corner. Wearing civvies gear, blue jeans, black cap, and a red button-up, though the fact that I've never seen that in his wardrobe makes a lot more sense now."
Raven's face betrayed confliction even as she identified her teammate on the busy patio. "This is interesting, sure, but why are we here? What Garfield- or any of us, for that matter- does with his free time has never concerned us, why is…"
She tapered off as Changeling stood, rising to greet whomever he had been waiting for. A slim young woman, 22, 23 maybe, with bleach-blond hair and a gymnast's figure greeted him with a glowing smile. Her black pencil skirt and jacket and teal blouse suggested she worked for a law firm or similarly formal office, but her tan and ponytail suggested an active and outdoorsy personality. Nightwing pulled his binoculars out to get a better look. Polished but functional fingernails, she works with her hands, possibly a laboratory? Flats, too, not heels. Again, professional but functional. No visible scars, tattoos, or birthmarks. Stud earrings, minimal makeup, energetic in a way that suggests recent career success.
Changeling and his new acquaintance sat, and Nightwing stole a glance at Raven. Raven normally didn't betray much- if anything- even to his trained eye, which is why it took him a minute to realize what he was looking at. Furrowed brow but wide eyes, pursed lips but soft chin, that's not just suspicion or curiosity+, that's confliction of several extremes. But which, and why?
Raven crouched on the roof of a mall, squinting at the last rays of light, reeling from the emotional maelstrom going on inside her head. Affection and Happy were waging war with Sadness, Anger, and Reason, and it wasn't going well for the more positive aspects. Happiness was all but extinguished as Sorow surged, and though affection would never desist, she found her assertions all but drowned in the maelstrom of frustration. It wasn't until the power in her started to swell accordingly that Raven closed her eyes and forced order on her mindscape. Her mantra echoed in every crevice of every territory until the raging ceased, and she opened her eyes knowing she'd need to explain herself to Nightwing. Calling on Reason, idly wondered whether her demonic heritage was receiving some sort of divine punishment…
Nightwing diverted his eyes from the empath and returned them to the table as she spoke. "Well, there's your answer. He was working out because he's got a date, probably couldn't sleep because he was nervous. He strayed from his normal off-duty routine to have coffee with a beautiful young woman because that's what men do, and the fact that we took a break from patrol to spy on him while he did so is just more evidence that you haven't gotten over your compulsive need to be in control of everything."
Nightwing opted not to say anything. She was right, they shouldn't be here, especially now that the situation was so clearly innocuous, but she was also reacting far and away stronger than he'd expect. She's rattled, but why?
"Now, if you'll excuse me, we've got a city to patrol," she continued, her tone clear that any attempt to follow would be futile.
And then she was gone.
Nightwing sighed, shaking his head. How did this go so wrong? It seemed so simple: Changeling admitted to struggling with the beast again, then somehow accessed it during their sparring this morning with some cue from Raven. Raven then leaves training early and doesn't re-emerge until Changeling's already gone: on "errands in town," no less. Factor it all in together and it only made sense to check in on Changeling's bizarre behavior, and to bring Raven along in hopes that she might shed some light on the situation. But clearly that didn't work out.
Something's going on here, and if it's not one issue between Raven and Changeling, then it's two separate issues overlapping enough I can't figure out where one starts and the other ends… He took a deep breath, acknowledging the inevitable. I need backup, and there's only one person I know who can sort out a mess like this. He flipped open his communicator and keyed a private line.
"Hey Star? Looks like a quiet night again, want to join me for surveillance of a concert in the square?"
Changeling was having a good evening. His pre-order for the new Pirate's Code: Guilds was placed, the new restaurant Garden Fresh served a wicked black bean burger with sweet potato fries and coleslaw, and his new co-worker Ms. Wilson had offered to meet him that evening to discuss and hand over an advance script of the new Cretaceous Planet movie. He arranged to meet her at a fairly nice café/restaurant conveniently located to the edge of town, and opted to enjoy the brisk evening air with an outside table. Lucky I can change shirts on a whim, this place is nicer than I thought, he noted, as the waitress brought his overpriced stuffed mushrooms to the table.
It wasn't long until Ms. Wilson arrived, looking surprisingly professional for a fresh college graduate with a job handling animals for a movie.
"Hi, Ms. Wilso…"
"Oh no, please, call me Rose," she insisted with a light laugh. "You've saved my life- thanks again, by the way- and are technically above me in the production hierarchy, let's not stand on ceremony."
"Okay, Rose it is." Changeling could already tell he liked Ms. Wil- Rose. There was something bubbly about her that made her seem fresh and vibrant. It didn't hurt that they were probably only two years apart, max.
They sat and the waitress appeared, ready for their orders.
When she left with a request for two iced teas, Rose immediately went to remove her jacket. "Sorry about my formal wear, I just had to sit through a two-hour meeting with the director and studio bigwigs about our production schedule, and they're always dressed to the nines for those meetings. Normally it's all super boring, too, but you should have seen their faces when I announced you'd agreed to review the script for us! Of course, all they care about is money, but they were going crazy! You can't buy celebrity endorsement like that, they want to put you as 'assistant director' or at the very least 'screenwriter' on the posters and trailers!"
The waitress returned with their drinks, and Rose took a quick sip before continuing. "But anyway, I'm super excited you decided to help. Turns out, there's a minor part of a zoologist in the newest version of the script, and they offered me the chance to fill it since I already know the lingo and animals, so I'll be in your meetings with the actors. I'm consulting on any writing that requires animals, too, so the studio knows what we can do with live animals and what we'll have to CGI, so I'll see you in those meetings too."
Suddenly, Changeling was starting to feel overwhelmed. "Wow… uh, how many writers are there, exactly?"
"Well," she paused to think, "there have been four, but right now, counting you there are only two, plus two consultants: me and the CGI specialist. And really, you're more of a consultant like me, though they'll make it seem like you were more involved in the credits. Really what they'll do is take your feedback, decide if it helps make the movie more believable/more marketable and if so make as few changes as they can while still following your advice. Does that make sense?"
Changeling breathed a sigh of relief. "Yeah, yeah, that helps a lot. I was starting to get nervous I'd bit off more than I can chew."
"Oh, I doubt that. I once saw you bite through steel chain."
Changeling laughed. "Yeah, that was a mistake. My teeth hurt for a week."
They shared a good laugh at that one, and Changeling found himself surprisingly comfortable with his new role in this film.
"So, do I half to call you 'changeling,' or do you go by anything else when you're not a superhero?"
Changeling almost snorted his tea, and degenerated into a coughing fit when the liquid caught in his throat.
"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean…"
He put a hand up to cut her off. "It's fine, you just caught me off guard, is all." He took a breath to pause and think. "I don't really go by anything else, really. I'm always kind of on-the-clock, you know?" Rose looked disappointed, but nodded.
"But if you want… call me Mark."
Her face brightened as she pondered the name. "Mark, huh? I can see that." She raised her glass in a casual toast. "Nice to meet you Mark, and here's to working together."
Changeling smiled and raised his glass. "I'll drink to that."
Almost an hour and two appetizers later, Rose excused herself to drive home. As she did she left Changeling a thick ream of paper from her messenger bag, nearly 400 pages in all, marked "confidential" across the front, and the cheerful reminder that she'd made some notes in the margins for sections he ought to pay specific attention to.
Changeling had every intention of reading it… just not tonight. He stashed the script in a mailbox to an abandoned duplex under cover of dark and his eyes drifted to the base of the mountains just outside the city limits, defined by the stars they blocked out. He shifted into a greyhound and started running, knowing he'd shift several times before he made it out of the city, and several after that before he was done for the night. As he ran, he could feel the rumble in his chest swell, and the gravel voice echoed in his head: You cannot outrun me. You cannot exhaust me. You cannot kill me. Sooner or later I will be recognized, and you will claim what you desire.
His pace picked up, and he fought back the temptation to shift to something more predatory in the quiet suburban neighborhood he ran through. I am more than my baser instincts.
The voice rumbled as only a predator can. For now, perhaps….
Changeling returned to the tower, script in hand, at approximately three in the morning. He was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than a bowl of cereal before bed- a habit that put him to sleep as well as Nyquil would to a normal human being. Opting out of a spoon, he walked out of the kitchen drinking his cereal from the bowl with one hand as he let the manuscript open to a random page with his other.
A tidy string of penmanship in the corner caught his eye, and what he read sent the bowl and its contents crashing to the floor. Changeling stood, paralyzed in the center of the hall, staring in horror at the neat blue lettering. "No…" he whispered, unable to comprehend how two sentences could bring a whole world crashing down.
Changeling, please help me. Slade's back, and he plans to use me to destroy the Titans once and for all.
Eh? Ehhh? What'dya think? Poor Raven, I hated to do that to her, but I really have to explore this side of her before we can move on... Anyway, i'm not sure this was one of my more inspired chapters, though it certainly moved the plot along... Anyway, let me know what you think, I really do listen, I promise!