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Middle Ground


Part 1


The birthday torture started months beforehand this year, instead of mere days, so Raven knew something must be off. The teasing, the anticipation. So… how do you feel about turning 21? All that jazz.

I don't know, she had answered at first, bewildered. The same as I felt about every other birthday?

She didn't realize what the twenty first birthday for Americans represented. And once she found out, she had never wanted a party less. There was nothing about a typical American twenty-first birthday that she wanted. The blended factors of being the center of attention, dancing, drinking, bright lights, unpredictable music, piles and piles of amped up, concentrated emotion; it sounded like the ingredients to a nightmare smoothie. None of that appealed to her. It made her stomach turn just thinking about it. She'd almost persuaded her friends not to throw her a party at all when the unthinkable happened. The city decided to throw her a party.

Alright, so it didn't happen quite like that. Robin opened the mail one day to find an invite to a casual gala, a charity drive with over two dozen recipient organizations listed, scheduled for the very day of her birthday that year. Everyone loved those sorts of events except for her and Robin, but Robin couldn't resist the PR value and so it was only Raven left dissenting. She was outnumbered. Down their names went on the guest list. Raven was okay with it, she supposed, and spent the next two months talking herself into the whole ordeal.

Until the last minute.

She even let Starfire dress her up. She almost wanted to goㅡalmost. There was definitely an interest in the whole idea of it, and she suspected she might even enjoy herself if she went along as planned.

But even so, she could see the undisguised discomfort on her own face in the mirror above Starfire's vanity as Star fussed about with her hair, struggling to find a balance that was "Messy, but not too messy. Casually disarrayed but not in a manner that appears contrived. It is a statement. You care, but you also do not." At this point she winked in the mirror and Raven sighed, sinking further into the chair, wondering if there was anyone on this planet that could decipher what Starfire just said.

Raven had long since stopped trying to understand Starfire's fashion agenda and just let her have her way without asking questions. It was simpler than fighting her every step of the way. For Raven it was only a partyㅡbut god forbid she say so. Starfire hummed as she worked with a mischievous sort of bounce in her step, almost like she was preparing Raven for more than just a simple night out.

More than once Raven opened her mouth to ask but, unsure how to work that suspicion into an actual question, she left it unvoiced.

For the event tonight Starfire had talked her into a flowy black skirt and a knitted forget-me-not shirt which hung so loose that she felt justified in not wearing a bra for once. The only ornament on the whole outfit was a silhouetted black rose on the center of the shirt. Looking at it in the mirror now, Raven decided she liked it. Much to her chagrin, Starfire had been right when she'd burst out of the back of her walk-in closet in triumph to announce that she'd found something that perfectly suited her younger friend. Actually, she was a little amused that Starfire still kept around clothes in Raven's size when occasions that called for the need were this rare. It was… sweet.

But by the time they made it to the common room where everyone else was waiting, Raven had already decided to stay home.

"What!" Beast Boy shrieked before she had even finished her sentence. Raven flinched as disappointment quaked around her on all sides.

"Are you sure?" Robin pressed. "Everyone's expecting you."

"Yeah, we cancelled your birthday party for this." Cyborg struggled with his cuff links as he frowned at her. "You said you'd go. We would've dropped out of this thing a long time ago if you'd said something sooner."

"I know," she said, and folded her arms over her stomach. "I'm really sorry, I meant to go. I'm just not feeling up to it. The circus of emotion at parties… It's just too much. There will be over a hundred people there. I can't deal with that today."

"You can't back out now!" Beast Boy abandoned his suit jacket on a kitchen chair and threw his arms up. "Raven, you promised me."

Slightly flustered at his direct attack, Raven sought help from the others with her eyes. Why did he always have to go and make it personal? Beast Boy always found a way of turning her choices into a tug-o-war of wills, and as she found that no one would respond to her wordless plea for help, she realized that this wasn't a team discussion, it was a two-person battle. It always was, whether she liked it or not. There was no denying it to herself, either, that her reluctance to accompany them tonight hinged partially on his matching eagerness for the same. Seven years of living with him meant she didn't even need to read his emotions to know he had been planning something questionable that involved her and the party. It was obvious.

Beast Boy waved his arms impatiently as she continued to avoid both his indignance and his eyes. "Hello," he finally complained. "Earth to Raven. You promised me that you would come tonight. Or did I dream that?"

"I can do whatever I want," she retorted. She felt guilty for chickening out but not so guilty she was going to let him walk all over her. "It's my birthday, isn't it?"

"You always…" he made a frustrated snarling sound and looked for a second like he was going to growl at her, but then he did a complete one-eighty, bursting into a weirdly genuine smile. "You know what, you're right."

"I'm… what?"

"You're right! It's your birthday. Do what you want. See you later, Rae." He gave her a glowing wink before strutting into the hall, forgetting his jacket in the kitchen. "Come on guys! We're gonna be late!"

Raven peered at the open door suspiciously and waved goodbye to her friends as they departed.

"Please," Starfire added as she tucked a last minute flower pin into her braided hair and folded Beast Boy's suit jacket over one arm, "if you change your mind, please do attend. It is better to arrive late than to never arrive at all."

Raven nodded, and breathed pure relief as the door closed. At least it was over. She'd honestly expected much more resistance than that, especially from Beast Boy. Judging on past experience, ninety percent of the resistance should have come from him, loudly and vehemently. It was curious how quickly he'd accepted itㅡdisconcerting, evenㅡnot to mention completely out of character.

Not that she was complaining (her gratitude far outweighed her suspicion). Maybe he was learning to pick his battles. About time, anyway.

.

.

The sun was just setting in the west over the Pacific horizon. Raven decided to spend the remainder of the dying sunlight reading near the window. Her tea kettle began to sing just as she was starting to squint her eyes at the pages, so she flicked on the kitchen light as she rummaged through a cupboard for some loose leaf tea.

The woody smell of ginger and honey gradually filled the cozy kitchen as Raven's tea bled into the water, and she counted tick-tocks on the clock in the silence. It wasn't that she didn't want to go to the party or participate in the festivities. In all honesty the idea of it tugged at her. She'd always been curious about mind-altering substances and she suspected she might enjoy a function like that more with a little of it in her system. But the comfortable silence of an empty house and a heavy book and a hot cup of tea were too tempting to pass up. It wasn't that she didn't want to go; it was just so much easier to stay. There was no risk involved with staying. No risk at all. And considering the narrowly averted apocalyptic disaster that today was the anniversary of, a night of safe silence was really the best birthday present she could wish for.

Tick-tock.

The four minutes of steeping were soon up. She went to pull her tea bag out but paused when the emergency alarm on her communicator rang out. Back to work already? Perhaps if it was something small she could take care of it alone to save her friends the trouble of leaving the party. The screen display surprised her though.

*INCOMING CALL*

Beast Boy

She clicked receive and set her jaw. "This had better be good."

"Raㅡ" The picture blurred and green flashed to white, then black, then green again. "He ven you hear me?"

Worry gripped her. "Are you alright? What's happening?"

She cranked the volume as he replied. "trap!" he said clearly, and his face finally focused in frame. Briefly she was able to take in his appearance, which was disheveled and alarmed, before the screen went fuzzy again. It seemed he was running with the communicator in hand. "down here," he was saying. "We needㅡ"

Nothing. The line was dead. The line was dead? The line never went dead unless something really bad was underfoot.

Going into panic mode, Raven ripped open a portal to cross the bay.

She emerged into the darkening city to three missed calls from her other teammates. There was no time to return the calls. As she soared ever more quickly through the night toward the place where she remembered the venue to be she thought could feel the communicator buzzing at her side as her skirt flapped in the wind, but was flying so fast she couldn't hear the alarm. If only she'd changed back into her uniform before she got the distress call. She was ill prepared for battle in this stupid ensemble.

When she arrived at the concert hall that had been listed on the invite she burst through the double doors with eyes blazing, her clothes flapping around her as the evening air cascaded through the building with the force of her entry, ruffling metallic banners and streamers all the way to the far end of the room. The bluesy thrum of guitar became a single discordant twang and subsequent microphone squeal, and a hush fell over the crowd as the few that were dancing stilled and conversations stuttered to a full stop.

Raven frowned, lowering her hands as she realized that there was no visible enemy here, just a confused and slightly startled crowd. The tense silence was broken when Beast Boy pushed through a gaggle of shocked older women, beaming like there was no tomorrow.

"Raven, you made it!" He advanced on her, positively prancing across the tile, closely followed by their other three friends who each looked sorrier than the last. "Here, I seriously need to give this to you before I lose it, because I know I will." He pulled a little wrapped present from the inside pocket of his jacket and she took it automatically, still blinded by confusion. "I know, I know, you hate unwrapping presents, but I couldn't resist wrapping it up."

"I don't understand…"

She scanned the room. Had they already dispatched their opponent without her? Maybe they had misjudged the threat level and hadn't really needed her help. The guitarist on the dias in the back corner of the hall coughed awkwardly into the mic and picked up his song again. Raven couldn't understand what had happened. Why was everyone acting so normal? Maybe Beast Boy… no. She reevaluated him, probing this time at the buzz of his emotions. Sure enough, simmering underneath that ocean of happiness was a positively incriminating amount of sulfurous guilt. There was no way. He really did it. How could he!

Beast Boy knew the moment it clicked on her face, because her expression contorted from puzzlement to fury. "Please don't be mad," he began. "I know what you're gonnaㅡ" But he was cut off by the sharpest slap to the face he'd ever gotten in his life.

Starfire gasped somewhere behind him.

"Okay," he growled, holding his hand to his cheek as he turned back to Raven with a glare. "Fucking, ow."

Robin stepped in front of him deftly, raising his hands to deflect any further physical attack. "Sorry, Raven, we told him not to do it. We tried to call you to tell you he was faking it but you didn't answer."

More furious than she'd been in years and in no mood for that leadership angle of his, Raven used her powers to tug Robin aside by his suit jacket. "That is the last straw, you jackass." She threw the present back at Beast Boy and he fumbled to catch it, mirroring her aggression. "I can't believe you did this. You took it too far this time. Too far."

"Stop reaming me," he snapped, the paper crunching under his death grip on the little box. "I just wanted you to have fun, and this is what I get?"

"My idea of fun is not the same as yours. Why don't you know when to just leave me alone?"

"You wanted to come!" he burst, almost laughing at the absurdity of it all. She had even seemed excited about the party for a moment there before totally backing out at the last second with no warning. "You had already agreed to go. You even got all dolled up andㅡ"

"I did not get 'dolled up,'" she seethed, abhorring his poor choice of words.

Beast Boy dragged one hand down his face in exasperation. "Dude, you're completely fixating on the wrong part of this, as usual. You said you'd come then you bailed on us."

Raven shoved away his accusing finger as he pointed it at her. "Don't try to turn this around." That was not going to stay her wrath this time. "I don't care what I said or what I promised. It's completely irrelevant now. You tricked me," she accused, "youㅡyou snake!"

The guitarist faltered on the stage again, mumbling uncertainties into the mic as Beast Boy and Raven's argument reached max volume and became impossible for the partygoers to ignore.

"Ha, ha," Beast Boy sneered as saccharinely as he possibly could, "can't insult me with animal names." He gestured wildly at his entire body. "Or did you forget?"

"Shut up," Raven shot back, her hair on end with black electricity as she struggled to keep her emotions from lashing out through her powers. "Just shut up. You exploited my emotions, Beast Boy!"

He smoothed his hair back, so far beyond the elation he'd felt upon her arrival. Right now he wanted to burn the entire venue to the ground with her present at the center. "You're just mad cause I'm the only one who figured out how."

"Yes, I'm mad," she breathed through her teeth, "and getting madder. So why don't you bite your tongue and apologize to me before I grow two extra eyes." She didn't care that everyone at the entire event was watching them and listening. If Beast Boy didn't apologize for this stunt right here and now she was never going to speak to him again.

"No way!" Beast Boy almost burst a vein in his forehead. "Not this time, not happening. I am not apologizing for this. All I wanted was for you to be here. How is that too much to ask?" Cyborg put his hand on Beast Boy's shoulder tentatively but Beast Boy shoved him off without even looking. "No, maybe I went overboard but you don't respond to anything less! It's not like I ask for the whole goddamn moon, Rae, just care about something that I want just once."

"I don't owe you anything." It always came back to that. Somehow he managed to make this more personal than it ever should have been. Him and her. "You're not entitled to my presence in your life."

"Wow." He hit her with the same look of betrayal he had when she'd slapped him. Cyborg tried to intervene again, this time with Starfire as backup, but he shrugged them both off with increasing vigor. "Leave me alone, guys. Seriously, stay out of this." He looked at Rae again in the coldest way he ever had. "You really are heartless, you know that?"

That stung. The depth of the sting surprised her. She had to turn away from him, and answered quietly so that only he would hear her carefully picked words. "Maybe you should have thought of that when you were trying to use my heart to puppeteer me then."

Beast Boy reeled, hands on his forehead. This was just too much. Too rich.

Finally he found the words to respond to that doozy of an accusation. "Would you climb down off your high fucking horse! Jeez! If you can't learn how to have fun and take a joke then you are never gonna be happy."

At this point Raven passed over the threshold from anger into a dangerous calm. Her voice was venomous and quiet. "Taking everything as a joke is so much worse than not being able to take one at all. Maybe that's why you're so unhappy."

He couldn't help it. He laughed. It was a short bark of laughter that lingered in the muffled silence that had overtaken the party. The only other sound in the room was the AC as it dutifully pumped frosty air into the room. He laughed again, not knowing how else to respond. There was nothing left to say. His eyes became glued to the ceramic tile and he loosened his tie just for something to distract him from the hundreds of prying eyes.

"Uh.. Sorry you all had to witness this very ugly and very public breakup," he joked a bit too loudly, in what he hoped was a devil-may-care tone. "Next round of drinks is on Robin." Uncertain mutterings rose around him as he ducked around Raven toward the exit, followed by Robin's loud denial of any such thing happening. "Have fun," he hissed at Raven flippantly as he passed her.

"I will."

That stopped him. He turned back to face her with slow-motion incredulity. "Seriously? Now you want to stay?"

"Yes." She crossed her arms, determined to come out on top of this. "Wasn't that what you wanted?"

Beast Boy couldn't even muster the energy to look angry. The wind had left his sails. "You are so spiteful," he spat.

Raven dug her fingernails into her arms. "And you're relentless."

"Not anymore, sweetheart." He gave her a sarcastic wave and turned heel. "This guy is relenting. Forever." Near the door he grabbed a guy around his age by the tie and pushed the half-squished present into his hands. The man opened his mouth in utter confusion but Beast Boy was already walking away. "It's yours," he called back. "Keep it, give it away, I don't care."

"Beast Boy," Starfire called after him, flying toward the door, but he ignored her plea.

"No one follow me," he snapped, and the door slammed behind him.

Robin appeared at Raven's side, and she could feel the anger and sadness and sympathy rolling off him in waves (for which friend he felt the sympathy for, she didn't know, and didn't want to). "Raven, maybe you shouldㅡ"

Before he could finish, Raven briskly took leave of him. "I know how to have fun," she remarked under her breath to no one in particular.

How dare Beast Boy say such a horrible thing to her. And did she really put off such an unhappy vibe? She chanced a sweeping glance at the rest of the party, allowing herself to believe for a moment that Beast Boy was right. No one was looking her way, though. They had resolutely gone back to their own conversations, dutifully skirting around the catastrophe that had just happened. The disinterest seemed forced but she was grateful anyway.

Cyborg caught up with her at the bar. "Does this mean you really are staying, then? I thought you were just saying that."

"I'm staying." The stool creaked angrily as she yanked it back with her powers and took a seat. The bartender sidled toward them almost guiltily, adjusting the bandana tied around her flaming red hair and hiding her eyes beneath her bangs. "I turned twenty-one today so I guess I'll have a… whatever," she finished, realizing she didn't know the name of a single alcoholic beverage.

The woman behind the counter leaned forward on one elbow, like Raven had just ordered a space-age mattress. "What the heck is a Whatever? I've never mixed one of those."

Raven turned to Cyborg for help. "Two glasses of the house wine please," he corrected.

"Make it three! Please, what is a house wine?" Starfire whispered conspiratorially to Cyborg as the bartender carded them and turned away to pour their drinks. But even as he opened his mouth to explain the intricacies of wine-lingo to her, Starfire redirected her attention to the girl between them, humming and hawing before finally coming out with it. "I believe I must mirror Beast Boy's unfortunate words and express my regret for the very ugly and very public breaking up. I seem to recall the phrase 'breaking up' as reference to that of lovers parting ways." That sentence caused Raven to inhale her first sip of red wine. Starfire traced the top of her own untouched wine glass with her forefinger, making it sing. It was a low, haunting note. She looked confused. "I was not aware that you were dating. I thought..."

"Weㅡaren't," Raven finally choked, rasping. "And weren't," she clarified. "He only said that to rile me up."

Cyborg sighed into his glass. "He certainly is good at that."

"I don't want to talk about Beast Boy," she stated with rigid finality. "I am going to have a good time here, even if it kills me." And that meant forgetting all about him.

.

.

It was more than two hours later that she finally freed herself from Starfire's insatiable need to dance and took a seat at the bar top once more, this time in the farthest corner where the counter curved away toward the wall, hiding her somewhat from view to the majority of the room. Her head was swimming. The room was swimming. What was she even doing here? The bartender set a glass in front of her that she hadn't ordered and Raven was about to say so when she realized it was a glass of cool ice water. She blinked in surprise and had almost remembered how to say 'thanks' in English when the redhead winked at her and scampered away to help someone else.

Raven flattened the folds in her skirt, wishing she could be anywhere else but here. Anywhen else but now. The music faded to the back of her awareness and left her somewhat numb and dissociated from the world around her. All of her anger had ebbed, leaving only sadness. She refused to think about it yet, and the stuff sloshing around in her stomach was really helping with that, but already in the back of her mind she was recognizing that she had made a very big mistake tonight.

The stool next to her squeaked. Someone slid into it and drummed their fingers on the counter. Great. She averted her gaze not-so-subtly, but the person spoke up anyway.

"Hey there, Raven." She didn't recognize his voice. "Okay, you look like you don't want to talk, and you totally don't have to. I respect that. I have something for you though."

Her curiosity drew her to finally look at him. His appearance jogged her memory, in a vague, half-dreamt sort of way. She studied his plaid suit jacket, the dreads pulled back into a ponytail, the spring green eyes. No, she was pretty sure she didn't know him.

Only then did she look at the hand he held out. Raven opened hers and he dropped something into it, tiny and cold. She held it aloft, everything else blurring in the background as her eyes focused on the little silver teardrop that hung from the delicate chain. A necklace? A stranger was giving her a necklace? As a hero, she'd dealt with her fair share of secret admirers and tangential creepy gifts, and with this being her birthday she probably should have seen something like this coming. But this was just… the worst timing. Tonight? Of all nights?

Normally she would have simply handed the necklace back and went on her dreary way, but she had just about had it with boys. So it was with teeth bared that she turned back to him, her judgement just impaired enough for her to imagine dunking this guy's head into the icebox on the other side of the counter. But before she could speak, he did.

"I know!" he said. "It's cheesy. But hear me out. This is our last year together as a team and I don't want you to forget me when I'm gone."

It was at this point that Raven's muddled brain noticed that he wasn't spouting this nonsense from nowhere. He was reading these words from a piece of paper.

"I don't wanna forget you either," he read on. "That's why I've got the other half. I know, the cheese. It's unbearable. But you're kinda sorta really super important to me. So, please. Take it?"

"Other half?" she wondered aloud, peering at the glistening teardrop. She didn't understand. It didn't look like half of anything.

Not understanding that her question wasn't rhetorical, the boy with the dreads offered her a gentle half-committed smile in lieu of an answer. Raven knew where she recognized him from now. Earlier tonight. This was the one Beast Boy had snagged from the crowd by the tie and gifted her present to when she had refused it. The boy in question slid the creased paper toward Raven and she inched away from it subconsciously, eyes quickly sliding past the quick, sloppy scrawl to the signature at the bottom.

Love,

BB

The paper crinkled as Raven pushed it out of the way to drop her forehead onto her arms and groan incoherently. She felt so lost and forlorn that she didn't even flinch when her new friend leaned over to pat her shoulder understandingly.

"Boys are the worst," he joked after a long silence.

Raven could only groan more and squeeze her eyes shut. "Girls can be pretty awful too."

"Far be it for me to suggest it, but… maybe it's time for you to go home." His voice was light and airy and carried that shade of youthful wisdom that was easy to pick out, even with her empathic senses darkened by the night's activities.

She knew what he was really getting at, anyway. "He won't be there," she mumbled. "He never goes home when he's mad."

The boy chucked drily. "Raven," he began with an air of practicality, "Trust meㅡI know boys, and... I don't think he was mad." He emphasized the word mad in an odd and open-ended way that caused her to tilt her head enough to peek at him between two locks of hair.

He pointed at the signature on the note. "Maybe you guys need to talk?" he proposed.

She sighed, sitting up to wrap the chain tightly around her wrist with the note tucked in. "Yeah. I think we do."

.

.

Stupid. So stupid to think we ever had a chance. Outside the concert hall, Beast Boy scared a flock of doves into flight as he fled across the street. She's impenetrable. On the flight home he beat his wings so hard he almost pulled a muscle. Unreachable. On the way down from the roof he must have punched the wall five or six times, and only stopped when he split a knuckle. Stubborn.

He listened to heavy metal and downed a beer and thought about what a relief it would be if he never saw Raven again, because it was so much work to love her.

He drank the second one with a little less vigor and listened to folk rock, genuinely trying to figure out what was stopping him from flying all the way back to Africa right this minute.

He was halfway through his third when he switched to jazz and stopped his pacing to stare out the window at that familiar neon skyline across the bay, knowing in his heart that he'd messed this up for good. Whatever this was.

Stupid...

Whatever they'd had, it was gone now. He'd seen it sputter out like a poorly struck match in the dark, the instant she realized he'd tricked her.

The Miles Davis album ended then so he listened to nothing. He slid to the ground with his fourth, his back to the glass wall, and listened to nothing. He'd always been uncomfortable with total silence. Hearing his own heart beating in his chest, the far off creaks and moans of structure and earth, the squeaks and slithers of animals and insects doing all manner of unspeakable things, an untameable, immutable inner monologue that just would not shut up inside his head andㅡworst of allㅡnothing to distract him from it.

Silence was torture. So he bore it like a penance until Raven came home.