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i like you and i love you

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Tokyo wasn’t the first time they’d kissed.

This was very nearly a secret, as “Raven detecting feelings in her vicinity” hardly counted. Starfire wasn’t planning on changing this, despite certain misgivings. She was learning, still—perhaps she would always be in the process of learning this, of impressing human etiquette upon the pulsing flesh of her nature—the proper place of truth. Its place was not everywhere, nor nowhere. It was somewhere in between, somewhere near “nuance” and “compromise” and all those other words Cyborg deployed when he was feeling particularly put-upon. Starfire would nod and arrange her face into something she hoped appeared informed and thoughtful and not at all unsure. It was all about certainty and confidence, here. No wavering. Two feet firmly on the ground.

Sometimes, though, when she couldn’t sleep, she would sit on the roof and look at the stars. And an hour or so would pass and she would glance down and realize that she had been rising, slowly and steadily, on the grace of a smile she hadn’t realized she wore, and the earth would be a bright blue smear below her. She’d drift, companionably lost among the scattered jewelry of satellites and space junk, the earnest little efforts of this earnest little planet, and she would feel okay reflecting on all the strange truths within her--the truths that maybe weren’t truths at all. She would feel weak and confused and uncertain and without confidence and she would glory in the infirmity of these feelings. Wallow, even. That was a nice word. She’d mouth it, over and over again: wallowwallowwallowwallow. And her new, eyeless friends, content to listen, full of other’s feelings, would not reprimand her.

There, in the in-between, within the earth’s caul that was nothing as it was everything, she would reflect upon all the times they’d kissed before.

 The first time had been nearly half a year prior, and they’d been watching a TV show full of dead bodies. Everyone else had always been a little uncomfortable with Starfire’s appetite for gore, but Robin never was. It wasn’t his favorite thing, granted, but he listened to her when she explained her fascination with human decomposition and the terrible dependence of something as ephemeral as consciousness upon the physical self. Robin nodded, and maybe it was because he was the only person who knew about before, back when before was only before , when she couldn’t even take its knotted ugliness into her hands and unravel it into what happened to me on the Citadel’s ship. He would tense as she explained why she loved these shows—and as she pointedly didn’t explain—and he would nod and he would say do you maybe want to watch something now? I have a free hour. She’d smile, and once she even put her hand on his shoulder as he turned to go, and stuttered thank you, I—this—you are my best friend. And he’d blushed, he’d actually blushed, as faint as a seashell, and said you’re my best friend too, Star.

And this is what everyone always forgot, that they had been best friends for so long and that was still nearly the whole of it. That was still so much of who they were. And it was because he’d listened, and smiled, and brought home a box set of Law and Order: SVU with a shy admission of I saw this and realized that somehow you hadn’t seen it. And he didn’t ask questions until he did ask questions, and at that point they were exactly the questions she needed someone to ask her. But before that, on that day nearly half a year prior, they were simply best friends sitting down to watch an episode of Law and Order: SVU as twilight washed the living room in blue. Raven hovered nearby, a wraith nursing a mug of Constant Comment that warned the onlooker to BEWARE: EXPERIMENT VOLATILE BEFORE COFFEE. Cyborg had bought it. He loved picking up little gifts like that, little things that he thought would make someone smile, and soon enough Raven had an entire reef of drinkware no one else was allowed to use. She was partial to that one in particular, out of some silent, Ravenish commitment to irony. She hovered, and Beast Boy slipped in and out, nabbing just-one-more ice cream sandwich, remarking upon Raven’s crush on Olivia Benson which everyone knew was pretty much true because duh.

The episode ended and Robin did not move to stop the TV from playing the next episode. Starfire looked to him and he shrugged. Cyborg slipped in for a glass of water and a quick goodnight as Detective Stabler growled something about my daughters and this sick bastard. They began a third episode. Raven must have drifted back into the shadows around that point, because by the fourth, they were alone. By the fifth, their arms were pressed together, and she had taken off her boots. By the sixth, her head was on his shoulder and his gloves were on the coffee table. The room was a fishbowl mixture of flat blue TV light and dense darkness. Electric with possibility. She’d felt what was going to happen like dew on her skin, like the moment before a perfect punch connects—and yet, she was calm. Serene, really. A good word: serene. He was warm and fragile and she could hear all the industrious rhythms of his body: the soft percussion of his heart, the sluice of blood, the air that he kept holding, perhaps accidentally, in his lungs. The sixth episode ended, and the disc returned to the DVD menu, incongruously bright and playing the theme that went DUN DUN dun dun dun dun dunnn-dunnn over and over again, and she shifted her head upon his shoulder and they were kissing. His mouth was wet and open and she responded with naked eagerness. He broke the kiss, his face aflame, his hair mussed over his forehead which, privately, she thought looked nicer than his usual spikes, and he stammered out something about Star and I don’t and I’m sorry.

She didn’t have the energy to reach for some thin approximation of human modesty, and so she simply stared at him and said “I apologize.”

“No,” he fumbled. “I, uh…it’s okay…”

So she’d leaned forward and kissed him again and the smallest sound fell from his lips, a slim little feather of a sigh drifting to settle on the carpet, a sound he’d never made where she could hear it before. He kissed her back, firmly, without skill, and she smiled against his lips and hitched her body forward until she was straddling him, her hair pooling onto his shoulders, his hands hot against her back. It wasn’t the best kissing they’d ever do and they stopped after maybe twenty minutes, Robin pausing to catch his breath, his shoulders tight, his mask askew. She could see the skin below his eyes, the latticework of veins splayed beneath it. Tenderness lurched within her.

“Uh,” he said, getting to his feet. She watched, plaintive, feeling entirely alien as he grabbed his gloves. “G—goodnight.”

And perhaps that might have been that. They said nothing the next day, and it was a long day—Saturday, with no fights or paperwork or even dishes to do. Robin stayed in his room. Starfire spent a lot of time outdoors waving to the people crowding the decks of the Titans: Up Close and Personal! ferry tour.

This stretched skin of normalcy was enough to deter Beast Boy, who at that point was deep into his Magic: The Gathering phase and spending a lot of time down at Pablo’s Game Cave, and Cyborg, who was involved in a furious eBay war for a vintage Cadillac grille. But Raven was not so easily fooled, and eventually she joined Starfire on the roof, a bottle of nail polish in Caribbean Cove wreathed in black beside her.

“Is this good silence or bad silence?” She asked, as Starfire extended a naked foot towards her. Raven never needed Q-tips or nail polish remover—she painted each and every nail perfectly, always with two short strokes. She found it meditative, apparently, and had been known to turn to Beast Boy’s feet when Starfire could not indulge her. Starfire watched her toenails turn turquoise and shrugged.

“I am not certain. And I am not certain that it matters.”

Raven cocked an eyebrow. “I promise you that it does.”

Starfire wrinkled her nose. “Could everyone and everything not be…normal, right now? I often spend my free time on the roof. Robin often spends his free time…as work time.”

“Well. Leaving behind entirely the fact that I am literally an empath, then. Let’s just call it…” Raven’s nose wrinkled delicately. “Woman’s intuition. Ugh.”

Starfire giggled. She’d tried for years to mold it into something loftier, a womanly murmur of a laugh, even a chuckle, but her giggle remained, stubbornly, a giggle. “Would you like me to paint your nails too?”

Raven rolled her eyes. “Come on, Starfire. What happened.”

There wasn’t much of a point in any further obfuscation, really. Literally an empath killed a lot of intrigue the Tower might have ever been able to sustain. “We kissed.” She paused. “Quite a lot.”

“Oh?”

“Though not as much as I would have liked.”

“And Robin was…” Raven tilted her head to the side, searching the clouds for the right word. “Responsive?”

“Yes. Until…he stopped. Us.”

“Hmmm.”

Hmmm!”

Raven’s smirk threatened to melt into a genuine smile. “Do you want to kiss him again?”

“Yes.” Starfire kept her eyes on her drying toenails. “Of course. But I do not know how he feels about…what we did. To say nothing of what we might do. Perhaps my telling of it is…skewed in my favor, and I am giving you an incomplete recounting.”

“I don’t think you did anything he hasn’t already spent a lot of time thinking about, Starfire.” Raven dandled the nail polish bottle around in midair, drawing lumpy figure-eights in the space between them. “I think Robin’s problem is guilt.”

“But we did not—“ Starfire’s voice faltered. “I understand that human regard towards these matters is complicated, but…” Her lips thinned in frustration. “It was nice! I will just…I will just never understand the human compulsion for guilt over nice things!

Raven smiled outright at that. “You’re not wrong. But I think this is…more of a Robin-specific problem. He’s not great at doing things that make him happy. He’s not great with happiness in general, really.”

“I know. But…” Starfire turned her face to the sun, not even bothering to squint as she’d trained herself to do. It was a polished coin in the sky, a neat buttonhole. Impossibly far away in anyone’s eyes but hers. “I am tired.”

Raven blinked at her. “I’m going to keep Beast Boy and Cyborg away from the living room tonight.”

Starfire looked at her and found something very nearly like mischief in Raven’s eyes.

After dinner, Raven announced that she was thinking of seeing the latest Winifred Hailey punchfest, and Beast Boy and Cyborg laughed and then realized she was serious and after a brief round of but you haven’t even seen Hacker’s Imperative: Tornado of Souls I and II yet, they were off. Starfire put in the next Law and Order: SVU disc, took off her boots and gauntlets, and waited.

It took two episodes. Robin emerged from his room, running a hand through his hair in a clearly calculated stab at nonchalance. “Pressing on, huh?”

“Yes,” Starfire said. “I have heard this season’s latter half contains the show’s most highly praised installments.”

“I think so,” he replied, resting a hand on the back of the couch. “Yeah, I think Cyborg told me that once. Are they…where are they?”

“They went to see a movie with Raven.”

“Oh.” Robin was doing a very good, but not imperceptible job of keeping his voice even. “Well, I’ve been digitizing all those early case files on the Hive all day.”

Starfire smiled. “The ones in the blue folders?”

“Yeah.” Robin rolled a shoulder. “I forgot to tag the last half, so…I guess I should probably take a break.”

Starfire swallowed the urge to laugh. Robin. Taking a break. “You are welcome to join me.”

He vaulted himself over the back of the couch. Starfire felt her body thrill at his nearness. Ice-T scowled at a bloodied vinyl miniskirt.

It took three episodes this time. Starfire supposed, her hands sliding beneath Robin’s shirt to rake the broad plane of his back, that Raven, Beast Boy and Cyborg had returned home, but they must have gone to bed at that point. Or been herded there. Robin had fallen back against the pillows, his legs drawn up behind her straddling thighs. She stifled the urge to grind her hips down, to pull his shirt off entirely, to do something with what they both felt stiffening between them, but: humans. Human morals. Human embarrassment. Slow, she told herself, pulling the word out like taffy, imagining it looped around her wrists. Slooooow. She pressed humid little kisses to the side of his neck, yanking his collar aside so she could get to the soft, sweet-smelling hollow where throat met shoulder. He gasped and bit his lip, hard. She grinned against his throat, rocking her hips back and forth just to feel the way it made him shudder.

“Starfire—oh god, Starfire—”

And so on. Lots of shifting, rhythmic at the best of times, awkward at the worst, but it was never unpleasant. It was warm and wet and secret—and it was that last part that she liked best. The dark closeness of it. The silence. This space they’d erected, quite without mention, in which they could just do and be and act for a change. It wasn’t thrillingly illicit, she mused later that night, her hand between her legs. It was the opposite, actually. It was comfortable in a way they had never before allowed themselves to be.

They fought Control Freak the next day. Something about tickets to a convention and Carrie Fisher and some kind of commemorative cereal box. They went out for pizza and Raven noted that they should really be eating out less, it wasn’t great for the budget, and Robin said nothing, and Beast Boy said well, it’s not like we don’t have friends in high places, and Cyborg shut them all up by promising to make fajitas. They went home, Starfire hauled out the Dreamcast, she and Beast Boy made a little more progress on their annual replay of Space Channel 5. Robin washed a few dishes and announced he was going to bed early.

And he might have. Starfire really, honestly was engrossed in this season, and if all she’d accomplished that night was devouring a few more episodes, that would have been fine. So she slid the next disc in. Cyborg was in bed already, Beast Boy saw DICK WOLF flash across the screen and left in a fit of sniggering, and Raven was—well. No fool.

Starfire finished the episode and began another and took a lot of deep, slow breaths. Halfway through, Robin’s door slid open. She nodded at him as he sat down. He nodded at her. Neither made a move to turn on the light. A homeless woman attacked a john with a hypodermic. Olivia muttered something about facing one’s demons. Cragen smirked. Robin’s hand reached for her cheek tentatively and she relocated it to her breast because honestly.

“Star, I—I don’t want you to feel pressured—we don’t have—”

“Nope,” she said, trying out a new word and quite liking how it felt. Really, if she’d had it her way she’d have thrust his hand beneath her top—but she was willing to take it slow. Slow. Nuance. Compromise. Robin made a strangled little sound of pleasure and she locked her legs around his waist as they fell against the couch.

The next day, they filed their taxes. She gave him a hickey. She’d read about them in the copy of The Sexual Self: Loving The Woman You Are, With or Without A Man Raven had bought her and immediately wanted to try it.

The next day, she and Raven taught the girls of GSA Troop 44287 how to do roundhouse kicks and make banana-balsamic smoothies. She took her top off entirely, rather liking the danger inherent to doing it in a common space. Robin murmured her name shakily into her hair as she pushed him up against the cushions.

The next day, they took down a jewel thief, Skyped with Titans East, and watched Sister Act. She pressed her hand between his legs and grinned as his head lolled back against a pile of unfolded laundry.

The next day, she slept in. Cyborg did some ribbon-cutting thing. Beast Boy handled monitor duty. She peeled the last few scraps of paint off her toenails and read a chapter of Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum. They were only halfway into the first episode this time before he pressed a stuttery kiss to the corner of her lips. She’d turned her head at the wrong time and when they broke apart, she giggled. He looked embarrassed. This was the hardest part, the initiation of it all: coaxing each other down the long, frayed ladder of but we can’t and you’re my best friend and Batman raised me to be a total klorbag when it comes to your legs and the feelings they inspire in me. She kissed him as squarely as she could and he threw himself into it with a blind sort of intensity. This night, it was his fingers in her hair, his body pressing her into the couch cushions, his fevered little kisses up and down her neck, her belly, her—“oh, oh,” she gasped as she felt his lips against her thigh. She spread her legs wider, her teeth digging into her bottom lip, pushing her fingers into his hair expectantly, urgently, utterly unabashedly—

“Star,” he muttered. She mumbled something, barely a word, waiting for him to tug her skirt down. And suddenly, disastrously, he was pulling away from her, pulling up, dragging himself backwards with his eyes on the carpet like he hadn’t had a fingertip already snuck beneath the hem of her tabloid-spurning boyshorts.

“Star—” he muttered, his hand curling behind his neck. He looked oddly spectral in the light of the TV. She’d had the presence of mind to mute it this time, at least. “Please—”

“What?” It came out a little more sharply than she’d intended. “Talk to me. Please talk to me, do not—leave. Do not just leave.”

“I wasn’t. But I…” It was an absurd moment. He was rumpled in the way one can only become after a bout of furious kissing. She imagined him escaping to the bathroom, looking at himself in the mirror: his hair wilting, his shirt twisted, his face—well, he wouldn’t use this adjective, she supposed, but positively dewy with lust and exertion. She imagined him absorbing every scandalous detail and burying it all and placing a heavy stone atop it and stepping into a cold shower and reemerging with a smile and a, hey Star, don’t forget you have to answer that email about the Urban Reconstruction Fund by noon tomorrow, you know how Chairman Applebaum can get.

He took a deep, steadying breath. “This all just got really…uh, sexual. Really fast?”

Starfire blinked. “I am sorry. I have trouble parsing the…continuum of human sexuality.”

Robin smiled a little at that. A small, scared, teenage boy’s smile. “Well, you’re not alone in that. I think pretty much everyone does.”

“I know, but…I do not understand…” She looked at her hands. “I cannot locate the point that separates sexuality from…mere romance. I know that kissing is considered acceptable in children’s entertainment, but not, say, vaginal penetration—”

Pink spread across Robin’s face like spilled tea. “Jeez, Star—”

“You see!” She felt her face grow hot—out of embarrassment, but also conviction. “I do not understand your concepts of…of acceptability in these matters. I enjoy kissing you. I thought us to be…engaged in mutual pleasure. Do you enjoy kissing me?”

He could not maintain eye contact with her. “Y—yes.”

“And our activities as of late…to me, they are not so very far from…our feelings? I am not articulating this as I would like.” She felt a sudden surge of frustration. “I know it will fluster you to hear me say so, but I am truly terrible at euphemizing these matters. I would enjoy engaging in sexual intercourse with you.” He flinched, but she pressed on.  “And I find myself increasingly unable to conceal these desires, and have difficulty understanding why I should.”

Robin closed his eyes. “Star, I…wow. Okay.” He ground his palms into his eyes. “I’m sorry. I know this is hard for you. And I can’t…” he faltered. “I can’t…I can only talk so much about this myself. But it’s not fair to not…uh, help you, with this.”

“No,” she said, watching his hands scrabble at each other. “It is not.”

Whatever you want to do is fine.” He took her hands in his own. “But I…can’t. I don’t know how I feel about…about what’s happening. Between us.”

“You have issues.” She hadn’t meant it as a joke, but he laughed, a little ruefully. She frowned. “I am serious. I do not mean to diminish your feelings.”

“I know. Thank you.” His hands did not leave hers. “Issues. Yeah. I don’t know…how to feel about this. And I can’t…” He closed his eyes. “I’m sorry. I just…can’t do this. For a lot of reasons.”

She cast her eyes toward the carpet. Their words were oddly loud in the hush of the living room, in the strange, liminal space they had built that was falling into ruin all around them. “I am sorry. I do not mean to push you.”

“You’re not. Don’t worry about it.”

“But I also want to say that I do not think we can pretend that what is happening between us does not exist for very much longer.” She did not drag her eyes away from the carpet. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to finish speaking if she knew what expression he was wearing. “I am not the girl I was when I first came here, nor are you the boy.”

“I know.” His voice was quiet, and almost soft.

She could see the PLAY selection reflected onto the carpet. This made her terribly sad, for reasons she did not have the energy to investigate. “You are my best friend.”

“You’re my best friend too, Star.” His voice was barely above a whisper.

“And I have wanted to do this from the day we met.” She paused, anxiety welling in her throat. An anxiety she would not have felt a scant few years ago.  “I do not want you to think I merely mean the kissing, or anything beyond that. I am referring to everything that is between us.”

Silence stretched between them. Finally, he spoke. His voice was small and achingly gentle. “I know.”

I love you, she thought.

She bent down to kiss him, and he met her halfway. He had this way of exhaling as they kissed, this thin ribbon of a sigh unfurling from within him that absolutely enraptured her. I love you, she thought, cupping the words like something newly hatched. I love you.

“I have to go,” he said, and she knew it was true.

And the next day he smiled at her and asked if she wanted Thai because he was thinking of ordering in, and Beast Boy wanted extra peanut sauce, and that was that. She put away the box set. She did not ask him about it. She went up to the roof and ended up in the stars and she thought a lot about humans and shame and truth and his hips hitching needily beneath hers and she did not ask him about it. There was an odd tranquility to it, to this knowledge suspended between them on the fragile spider’s string of their silence. Raven asked her what had happened and she’d shrugged—an adopted trait she never wore well—and told her that they’d stopped. And Raven nodded in her Ravenish way and Starfire nodded in a way that no one would ever recognize as Starfireish and she started going to bed earlier.

After their next kiss, after Tokyo, after a million messages from every friend she’d ever made in spandex congratulating her on omg fiiiiiinally you two holy crap, she found herself on the couch again, at midnight, watching Olivia Benson slide a thatch of auburn hair into one of those cunningly small evidence bags. Robin’s door slid open. He walked to the couch.

“I think you jumped ahead a little,” he said, landing a bit closer to genuine nonchalance this time.

She grinned. “I have not, unfortunately, been keeping the strictest track of where I was in the show’s chronology.”

“Nope.” He rocked a little uneasily onto his heels. “You could maybe…bring it into my room. My computer has better screen resolution.”

“I see,” she said, pressing the STOP button and knowing that he knew she didn’t give a single damn about screen resolution. The DVD slid out, and she balanced it between her fingers as Cyborg had taught her. “If we watch it in your room, we will not have to worry about disturbing our friends’ slumber.”

“Yeah,” Robin said. “The speakers out here can get pretty loud, so.”

They got up and approached the room together, the silence deafening and huge and tantalizing between them. She placed a hand on his shoulder, halting their progress just before the threshold to his room.

“To be clear,” she said, “The DVD watching is a veneer for the sake of modesty, correct? I am intending to kiss you. If I may be perfectly honest, I would be fine with engaging in sexual congress, but I understand that you might not be.”

He blinked once, slowly. “Yes.”

“I just want to be clear.”

“I know. It’s good. It’s a good thing—to be clear. About this stuff.”

“I know.”

“Good.”

She gave him a look that she hoped was intense and soulful and full of inarticulate emotion. A gaze. “You are my best friend.”

He smiled and took her hand gently. “You’re my best friend too, Starfire.”

“I would like to…remain this way. Best friends. Underneath everything…else, that we might be or become.”

“We can do that.” Both of his hands now held her own. Starfire felt small and sweet and simple, which was not how she wanted to feel all of the time, but often how she wanted to feel near him. “We can be whatever we want, Star. We don’t have to follow any…rules. Any we don’t want to.”

“Good.” She glanced into his room. The entrance looked less like an open wound than it once had, and more like an abandoned mine shaft. This was probably as good as it was ever going to get. His bed was unmade, which she recognized as one of his only vices. “I would like to be best friends who are also in love, and one of the ways I would like to express those feelings is through sexual intimacy.”

The barest pause passed between them. Starfire could nearly feel the dryness in Robin’s throat, but he gamely overcame it. “I—I would too.”

She looked back to him. “We already have, of course.”

He maintained eye contact, which she hadn’t really expected. “That’s true.”

“You seemed to enjoy it at the time.”

“I did.”

“We have simply…never discussed it before. So.”

Robin’s hands tightened around her own. “I…didn’t really know how to.”

“I know. But I feel that the time for such awkwardness has passed.” Starfire shook off his hands and walked, with womanly purpose, into his room. It smelled like cedar, which she knew came from the odor-banishing plug-ins Cyborg had gotten in a serious deal, you guys at Sam’s Club. Beneath that, it smelled like him, which was a smell like spring soil. “Please join me.”

He did, shucking off his gloves and cape as he stepped over the threshold. She let her boots puddle around her feet. There was a shivering second of silence, at which she rolled her eyes and pulled her top off over her head.

“Honestly.” She folded her arms beneath her breasts and gave him a look that might have been smoldering if she hadn’t been fighting a grin.

“Honestly,” he said, smiling too, the door sliding closed behind him.