Blood Drops

December 17, 2016:

It seemed like another ordinary day in campus for Tim Drake and Zatanna Zatara, until a late night study session puts them in the path of some strange workings.

Gotham University - West Side - Chelsea - Gotham City

The large, sprawling campus of Gotham University.

Characters

NPCs: Gottfried Muller

Mentions: Bruce Wayne, John Constantine

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

She wasn't all there today.

The set seating chart finalized early in the semester meant that despite their friendly rapport outside of class that Tim Drake and Zatanna Zatara do not sit together, with the latter being a newcomer forced to take up a seat in one of the nosebleed chairs close to the front. If the adopted Wayne had any concerns whatsoever that his classmate and project partner would not be paying any attention in a class that clearly did not hold much of her interest (and thus leave him with all the heavy lifting with their final assignment), he would find them rather unwarranted especially within the last week, where the black-haired young woman seemed extremely interested and attentive, filling her brain with graphs and formulas in either an attempt to do better or use class as a distraction for something else. She took detailed notes, was prepared every time McGillivray grilled her about the prior night's reading, and Tim really only had to explain the day's concepts to her once or twice. It turns out that she soaked information like a sponge when motivated to do so.

But today there isn't much of that.

Zatanna spent most of class looking out the window, her chin on her hand and her pen poised on an empty page, though she managed to escape McGillivray's Socratic Method interrogations because Fortune dictated that Lucas take the heat today. Her seatmate had to shake her when class was over, to helpfully let her know that people were leaving, which prompted the girl to gather her things, flash a quick grin at the brunette before exiting the room after a brief wave to him - indicative enough that she did not forget their study room appointment in the library once classes were finished for the day.

She skips lunch, contents herself to wander the halls on campus, attending her afternoon language classes though she decides to skip the last one. She arrives in their reserved study room well before him, setting her book bag on the table and dropping bonelessly in one of the couches present in the quiet space. The study rooms were popular, especially for the constituents of the law school; plenty of them practically lived in them, so securing one was a rare feat enough in itself. It was probably the reason why the university took some care in making them comfortable, with a large central table, plenty of seating and soft carpet, with ports for laptop computers and projectors everywhere.

When he finally arrives, she's fast asleep on the couch.

Her arms are folded on her stomach, her head resting lightly on the back rest, tilted on the side - long legs stretch out before her, a wicked stiletto heel hooked on the opposite armrest as light reflected off the faint sheen of the black snakeskin tights she wears, paired with a black halter. Rings on multiple fingers gleam a dull silver, matching those on her exposed toes, winking just underneath the black lacquer of her pedicure.

She wears her hear loose today, darker-than-black tresses spilled in a careless tousle over a bare shoulder.

There's a book pried open and face down on the length of her right thigh, signifying that she has at least made an attempt to read for other classes. It is her textbook on Biblical Aramaic, though her highlighter has rolled onto the floor during her nap.

—-

One of the dilemmas of the secret identity: How do you express concern for someone over something 'you' don't know about?

It's something that's bothered Tim in the past, given that the nature of the world - and especially Gotham City - meant that during his days as a kid hero, his friends were often placed in dire peril only to be rescued by the Boy Wonder who of course didn't know them personally. This happened especially a lot with girls that he knew, for some reason.

It hasn't gotten any easier, now that he's ostensibly an adult.

But the details of what had befallen Zatanna remained, for the most part, fairly secret, which had kept her from being swarmed by other students who wanted to hear every last detail about her being drugged and locked in a freezer while a serial killer waited to cut out her heart and probably do all sorts of weird sex stuff. Really, the only people who knew exactly what happened in there were the mysterious masked man who rescued her, and the killer who'd locked her up in the first place - and one of those had, apparently, recently exploded.

And don't think that didn't irritate Tim quite a lot.

His concerns over what exactly happened at Arkham needed to be put aside in the short term, though; school still had to be a priority, and he wasn't likely to learn too much by haring off and trying to steal some evidence from the site of the 'explosion' anyway. Knowing Arkham, it would already be too contaminated to get any useful information out of, though that wouldn't entirely rule out making a trip later on. An outside chance was better than none, probably.

In any case, when Tim entered the study room, he found Zatanna, out like a light.

"Yeah, that figures," Tim says quietly to himself, stooping to pick up Zatanna's dropped highlighter, setting it on the table before his bookbag joined it with an almost unnatural quiet. Another seat lightly eases underneath the young man as he settles himself down into it, trying to not wake the gothette up as he draws his books and his various writing implements out of his bag, sorting them out in a relatively organised manner before opening his Physics textbook, flipping through to the current chapter.

Of course, even if he doesn't actively try to wake Zatanna up, lots of people would find the mere presence of another person - at least, an unexpected one - enough of a disruption to draw them towards consciousness.

Even if that person /is/ a ninja.

—-

Two hours later and he would find out, perhaps to his chagrin, that Zatanna Zatara is either very exhausted or an extremely deep sleeper.

Her breathing doesn't change when he walks inside and quietly picks up her highlighter, she doesn't shift in her seat while she's securely in the Sandman's embrace. Throughout the time Tim quietly reads on the table near the couch, she hasn't moved, displaying all the animation of a corpse - save for the rise and fall of her chest, she is almost completely still, as if, somehow, her spirit has left her body and has elected to drift off someplace else, leaving her corporeal form with just enough functionality to stay alive before it finally returns to her human shell.

The sun has well sunk into the horizon when her lashes finally flicker and lift from her cheeks. Her right leg stretches out, joints popping audibly as her body moves, one heel planting on the ground as she straightens up in a half-seated position, stifling a yawn between her fingers, before they inch up to rub her eyes. They fall on the window, and a small frown pulls on the corners of her mouth. It looks dark out, what time is it?

"….oh my god!"

Zatanna is already pulling out her phone, thumbs blasting through the LCD screen to fire off a quick apology, and one that Tim receives promptly, the buzzing sound of its vibrate function, while low, enough to cut through the sleep-fog clouding her brain and notify her that she isn't alone in the room. Turning her head, she gapes at him openly from where she's sitting.

"…you're still here?" she wonders, her surprise overt, standing up from the couch so she could move to one of the chairs. "You could have woken me, I promise I'm not one of the ones who wakes up violently, if you were worried about getting punched in the face, or being subjected to some pathetic crying about not wanting to go to school today."

She drags the chair out of the table, dropping on it and rubbing her cheek on one hand, pulling her Physics textbook towards her. She stares at the title, blank-faced, attempting to make the title make sense in her crowded mind.

"I'm sorry," she groans. "It's one of those days."

—-

On the upside, at least she didn't snore.

Tim kept half an eye on the magician as she dozed on the couch, though he definitely wasn't looking too closely at any rising and falling her chest might be doing; it was just a careful lookout in case she woke up, which of course eventually she did. It took a couple of hours, sure, but they were peaceful hours he was able to spend studying without any outside interruptions. As an added benefit, it lent Zatanna some plausible deniability just in case anybody looked inside the study room and saw her asleep; at least with Tim there, nobody could argue that the room was being misused.

Honestly, it wasn't the worst use a boy and a girl alone together had ever put these rooms to.

Tim looks up, dark blue eyes on the goth girl as she awakens, sitting up sort of and realising that she's been out of commission for a few hours now, that the time they were supposed to meet up to study had long since passed. Her thumbs move with a frightening alacrity to type out a message on her phone, and the very moment she hits 'send', there's a low but audible BUZZ BUZZ against the study table as Tim's phone rumbles against the tabletop.

Those pale blue eyes turn to look at him.

Tim lifts one hand slightly off of the table and waves.

"You looked so peaceful, I didn't want to disturb you," Tim says, in a way that's extremely difficult to tell if he's being serious or not. "Besides, you might've been having a really amazing dream, and I'd have to be some kind of monster to pull you away from it. Stealing you away from your harem of cabana boys to the exciting world of physics."

He watches as she shifts to a chair at the table, as she stares at her textbook as though it were written in… Well, there must be a language too obscure even for her. Proto-Indo-European?

One of those days, she names it.

"Wanna talk about it?" he wonders.

—-

The change his quip ellicits in her - just one, simple statement full of light, easy humor - is immediate; life flares back into those foggy eyes, brightening their luster as that expressive face grins appreciatively at Tim. Zatanna laughs, savoring and indulging in the sound, lifting a hand to cover her eyes; with it comes a wave of undeniable affection, peeking out from between her fingers at her classmate once the peals of mirth have abated. "I don't need a harem," she replies, picking up a pen and twirling it lightly between the second knuckles of her index and middle fingers, the gradual, spinning motion soothing in its own right. "I'd settle for Bradley Cooper and a tub of cocoa butter. Not /all/ of it, mind, but just enough to make things interesting. I should probably not try and fool myself into thinking that every handsome man must be extremely good with his hands, though, in the event that I'm setting myself up for disappointment."

Glancing sidelong at Tim, she gives him a wink, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear as she flips to a blank page in her notebook. It comes back to her, slowly but surely - what the graphs mean and what the numbers represent.

His casual offer has her looking up, giving him a smile - a familiar one to him, by now; he can read the words behind it, which she has told him multiple times already….that he was sweet.

"I'd feel bad if I unloaded," she tells him after a few quick scribbles on her page. "Because you already do plenty for me, on top of being a very good tutor. Trust me, after the week I've had, studying with you's been the only time I've managed to breathe easy. I'm actually starting to enjoy Physics, it's kind of weird."

The dark-haired youth, so far, has been the most normal thing that has happened to her upon her return from Europe, and thinking about the fact returns that sickeningly sour, debilitating fear that the craziness that has latched onto her orbit would fall on him and crush him. But in all of their days together, this is the first time he has ever asked and the part of her that is perpetually hungry for meaningful, human connections salivates at the bait he dangles in front of her, feeling its fingers twist and grab at it. She tries to ignore it, she does; she is self-conscious already around him, remembering the fact that he knows just how empty her personal contacts list is. The last thing she wants him to believe is that she is lacking in confidants.

Her insecurities war with that first instinct, the knowledge that this is the first time he's asked, proving her wrong yet again about Tim Drake and his sense of aloofness.

"…I slapped Batman."

What.

"I got jumped by a couple of muggers. I got one, but he showed up after taking another and he basically insulted me after scaring me shitless, nevermind that I was super polite and cooperative. So I slapped him and told him to get professional help. Immediately after that, my ex showed up needing my help with something, which of /course/ he does, so I didn't get home until around four this morning. And before that…"

There's a pause. She looks up at him. "Bruce got me my invite," she tells him. "By bringing me along as his date." She tosses her pen on the notebook and groans. "Therefore putting me on every woman's hit list and every scandal rag in the city by the New Year. I don't suppose you'll be there, too? He mentioned something about keeping up his cover, I guess he stopped going on dates for a while but he for some reason doesn't want to lose his eligible bachelor status and since he's doing me a favor, I'll happily oblige him….but I /did/ warn him I'm going to change my story every five minutes to confuse reporters and my efforts in that regard would be a little easier if you were there."

—-

Honestly, he's not really sure what the point of the cocoa butter is.

It's good to hear someone laugh though, especially someone he knows has been through such a trying circumstances recently. In Tim's experience, nobody likes being captured and held hostage by a maniac, even if they've got the abilities and self-possession to slip their bonds and make a credible effort at escape on their own; it's not like he lacks a personal history with that sort of situation, given the fondness maniacal criminals have for capturing heroes and putting them in elaborate death traps.

He can only imagine that it would be even worse given the particulars of the situation. What college-aged young woman doesn't have a healthy concern about getting roofied and ending up in a dire situation? Even if nothing had happened, it was sure to feel like a violation, sure to leave her feeling vulnerable. Especially without elaborate terror ninja training designed to keep you going through hostage situations.

But he can't ask about that. Not specifically. He can't tip his hand, or risk anything that might reveal the truth, and that leaves him playing a delicate and dangerous game that he's been playing for a long time now, compartmentalising 'Tim Drake' and 'Red Robin,' keeping the knowledge of one from the mouth of the other.

It's frustrating, at times. But necessary.

So Tim doesn't press when Zatanna insists that he 'already does plenty,' figuring that she'd want to latch onto something fairly mundane and normal in the midst of the things that had happened. That was fine, wasn't it? They could just do some studying, she'd show off her vivacity to prove there was nothing serious bothering her, and it would be a perfectly normal evening for perfectly normal college students.

'…I slapped Batman.'

Or not, that works too.

Tim's eyebrows lift as he stares at Zatanna in frank wonderment, the kind of bewildered expression even her most outlandish act of prestidigitation has never managed to draw from a crowd. He looks at her like she said she just beat up the Devil and took his lunch money, which is not that far removed from what she /did/ say, given the quasi-mythical status of the Batman in Gotham City. Some people still don't believe he really even exists. What she says is pure madness. And then somehow her ex is rolled up into it, which kept her up late in some manner he's definitely not going to ask about, and then Zatanna dials things back into talking about his adoptive father.

"You're probably a bit young for him," Tim says, which has nothing to do with anything, except perhaps the scandal she was about to cause. It's still a nonsense observation, irrelevant and obvious, slipping out because he's off-balance from all the everything else. "Um… I dunno, I hadn't /planned/ on going, those sorts of things aren't really my speed."

He kind of feels like he's going to end up going, though.

Call it intuition.

—-

'You're probably a bit young for him,' the adopted son of Bruce Wayne says while wearing an indescribable look on his face.

A resounding silence falls between them after that as Zatanna stares at him from where she sits, her lips slightly parted. She had just told him that she had slapped the Batman, that in no uncertain terms, she had just lost her proverbial shit on Gotham's most terrifying spectre in the worst and most mortifying of ways, and that was his takeaway?!

Slowly, the backwards-talking goth princess leans forward to bury her face in both of her hands. From Tim's easy vantage point, he would see her shoulders shake, what he could see of her eyes glistening with tears. For a moment, he might have that most horrifying of possibilities loom before him, that he had just made his study partner cry. But crimson flushes over her cheeks and he would realize no, that is not what's happening.

Zatanna Zatara was laughing uproariously, and she's attempting to hide this between her palms, because they're in a goddamn library and the last thing she wants to do was get them kicked out on top of everything else.

"Oh, Tim," she breathes, wiping her knuckles on a bead of moisture that has escaped one eye. "I love you, you're so…you're so /normal/!"

/IF ONLY SHE KNEW./

Taking a few deep breaths to calm herself, she shifts on her chair, fingers lowering to hook into the straps of her shoes so she could curl her legs on her chair, decidedly not sitting properly on it as she flashes him a bright, almost giddy grin.

"Don't worry," she tells him, twirling her pen in a flourish. "I'm /not/ angling to be your adoptive mother, I promise. It's just something to keep up his image, or that's what he tells me anyway and like I said, I'm happy to oblige him because he's helping me out. And I figured it wouldn't be something you were interested in, I saw the look on your face when you mentioned it, but…."

She leans towards him, propping her chin on one hand as she observes his eyes almost nose to nose, lashes partially lidding over her startling ice blues.

"But you made me a promise you'd keep me out of trouble," she says. "And I can't help but cause trouble wherever I go. It's not even something I do consciously or even deliberately, it just happens. Plus if I end up tripping on my heels and embarrassing your dad, who else would I freak out about it? I'm already kind of freaked out about it. He's not exactly just anyone, he's Bruce Wayne, and he's been more than generous to me already….maybe more than I even deserve."

She leans back, tilting her head back and drawing out a long exhale. "You weren't kidding about his philanthropy, though," she muses quietly, her mind drifting back to what Alfred has told her the night of the visit.

—-

He doesn't /really/ think he might've made Zatanna cry with that, because why on Earth would she? Unless she really was interested in Bruce like that, some sort of strange girlish infatuation with a somewhat older man. Maybe she's already been putting together her dream wedding scrapbook, and writing 'Bruce and Zatanna Wayne' in the margins of her notebooks with hearts around them. Maybe.

She doesn't seem the type, though. Zatanna seems to be one of the more levelheaded young women Tim Drake has ever met, and this despite her flamboyant manner and the whole thing where she's a stage magician who studies dead languages.

Fortunately, she isn't doing anything that strange, and is instead trying to keep from laughing her ass clean off and potentially getting them kicked out in case her mirth got through the mostly-soundproofed confines of the study room, though she does refer to him as 'so normal'.

This causes a mix of feelings inside of Tim's thoughts, as he's both a bit offended to be so neatly labeled, but also glad that he's managed to pass so normally. Yes, that's him, a perfectly normal college student. Nothing weird here at all.

The surprisingly cheerful goth girl dives right into Tim's personal space not long afterwards, her dark, dark lashes lowered over her pale blue eyes as she looks into his darker ones, her nose nearly brushing against his own. This close, the faint scent of something sweet hangs around her, an enchantment to lull the unwary into her spell. She comes at the topic in a roundabout way, trying to make it teasing and playful, trying to hide any possibility that there might be a more genuine reason she wanted him there, but when it comes down to it she's asking him to go to the gala as well. So she won't feel so alone there, he assumes, knowing that she'll be well out of her element, and won't be able to cope with it in her usual way by making a scene of herself.

And shen she's leaning back, exhaling slowly, talking about Bruce's philanthropic pursuits.

"If you want me to go, you can just ask," Tim says, finding it much easier to say so now that she's not right /there/. "It wouldn't be the first time I went somewhere boring for a friend."

—-

Anyone who knows Zatanna Zatara knows that she is shameless enough to ask if it occurs to her to do so. She's managed to recruit others to her cause, and quite a few of them have extremely difficult personalities. It's almost strange for the likes of her not to just simply do what she does and invite Tim to the event if she truly wanted him there. Even if he would find it absolutely boring, she was certain that she could at least be an entertaining acquaintance to be around.

But she knows; there is trouble brewing on the horizon around that event, knows that a deadly contract killer and a calculating sorceror are lurking in the shadows, that there may be other more dangerous people involved. She's already worried about Bruce showing up to the event, and while the man looks like he could take care of himself, what can a normal person do against magic and super-assassins?

She already secured the promise from Captain America that he would be there, and he was bringing back-up. There are at least capable legends in attendance that'll be able to stop whatever's going to happen.

But Tim…

He would glimpse it in her profile, her cheerfulness fading away, softening her features as she grows more contemplative. Was she seriously going to press the one normal friend - finally, a friend her age - she has to come to something potentially dangerous? And if he went at her invitation, and shit did hit the fan and he got hurt, would she even be able to forgive herself? And all because he had a way to give her peace of mind?

"…I was teasing you, Tim," she tells him, her smile returning, though it doesn't quite reach her eyes. That was rare, too. "It's a New Year thing, you know? It's the sort of day you should be spending doing something fun, welcome the New Year in with something that makes you happy. I'm really only going because I have to, plus what kind of friend would I be if I asked you to suffer with me?" She presses a hand dramatically against her chest. "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done," she quotes Dickens, with all the reverence expected from an accomplished actress.

—-

Something wasn't right.

That was the sort of thing Tim Drake was very attuned to noticing, and had been for quite some time. He looked for patterns without even trying, and it wasn't a very big leap to go from looking for patterns to looking for changes in those patterns: Though he had initially been of the mind that Zatanna was dancing around the act of actually asking him to go to the event so that there'd be someone else in her own age group there, somebody else that she knew instead of a bunch of boring rich old people, it became clear that something else was going on as he observed the goth girl.

The way her exuberant good cheer sloughed away, subtly but definitely, her features softening, betrayed it. A hint of something… Melancholy, maybe, or worry. She told him that she was just teasing him, and though her lips pulled into another one of her easy smiles that so deftly charmed most of those who interacted with her, he could see how it was subtly /off/. How it didn't reach her pale blue eyes. She made a show of it, like she usually did, the dramatic act of her sacrifice in not making him attend with her.

What she didn't know, what she couldn't imagine, was that she was only ensuring that Tim /would/ be there, one way or another. Something was up, and given that she'd recently barely avoided being ritualistically murdered by a serial killer with strange powers, who allegedly blew himself up not long after being taken into custody, Tim wasn't sure that particular something wouldn't prove to be bad for Zatanna's wellbeing, both mental and physical.

"You're a real martyr, Zatanna Zatara," Tim replies dryly, before sliding a notebook over towards her. "I made some study notes for you, while you were catching up on your beauty sleep. Without even taking your shoes off, so I'm guessing that nap ambushed you."

—-

He would be right in that regard; there is no way Zatanna would know.

If anything, she has made it clear through her appreciation that she finds her classmate as some sort of rare safe haven, an orbit she can gravitate towards whenever she wants to escape the overall craziness of her life (he's free to assume that this is regular teenaged drama, and if he did, she can never tell him otherwise). It helps her remember that her life isn't just burning, melting corpses, blood rituals and hunting and battling things that shouldn't exist, that no matter how crazy everything is, she has some space in which to actually live her life. It didn't just make Tim indispensible to her, for all of his expertise in Physics, it made him /important/ to her.

His dry remark has her batting her eyes at him, her smile broadening enough to chase her dimple out from its hiding place on her left cheek. The notebook being passed to her brightens her expression, reaching out to take it eagerly, slender fingers and black-lacquered nails brushing over the surface. Sure, she's reluctant to put him on the path of terrible danger, but she is more than happy to take unsolicited favors, especially if it gets her better than a passing grade.

"And you're an absolute saint," she banters back, reaching over to throw her arms around him and planting her lips on his cheek. "You're the best, Timothy Drake."

There is no exaggeration, her words devoid with her usual extravagant expressions; there's nothing but warmth, turning her cheek to press against his as she squeezes him against her side, as if he were some giant plush toy that she managed to win at a local carnival.

***

It doesn't take long for her to catch up, at least, when they finally start putting away their things. She still looks rather contrite about the hour, expressive in her sheepishness as the two of them move outside of the study room. "Sorry again," she tells him. "Next time though, you should just wake me. At least with that, you can go back at a reasonable hour."

Though time generally doesn't matter to her; she manages to handle whatever she needs doing, magic makes preparing to go out in the morning extremely easy, and most days, she tends to be a night owl. It was approaching ten in the evening now, the library mostly occupied by the A-types desperately pounding out papers or finishing the pages and pages of reading assigned to them by GU's graduate schools, but this side of the library, where most of the undergraduate sections are, is deathly silent.

It was a college after all, there were usually better things to do on campus and off at ten in the evening.

—-

An 'absolute saint' she calls him, as she throws her arms about his shoulders and neck and kisses his cheek with those lush lips of hers; Tim of course would take issue with that if she weren't just being hyperbolic, and if he could actually explain to her /why/ he's anything but a saint. Whatever was going on with her - and he was sure that there was something, now - he had to play ignorant for now, couldn't explain that he knew what had happened to her. There were too many uncomfortable questions past that door, too many secrets that weren't his to tell.

What's surprising is that Zee doesn't let go and move back to her side of the table immediately, instead continuing to lavish warm affection on him, rubbing her cheek against his own and squeezing him against her side, which is at least less dangerous than squeezing him against her front.

***

"I probably would've been here anyway," Tim assures her, possibly not for the first time. It might even be the truth; it would either be here, or seeing if he could find out anything else about Michael Kazinsky, or the explosion at Arkham. But he learned a long time ago that he had to be careful when it came to breaking promises for the sake of his 'extracurricular activities', and with finals upon them he did have to worry about that, too. Exams were more important, probably, than a dead serial killer.

"Besides, then I wouldn't have all these pictures of you sleeping with your mouth open, snoring and drooling, to blackmail you with later."

—-

"Until ten?" Zatanna wonders, furrowing her brows at him as the two of them slip through the empty stacks, lights flickering now and then on the more forgotten corners of the library. "That late? Wow, you really like studying. You're taking breaks, right? Isn't there some time limitation in which you can effectively absorb information? Like….something about how you can only efficiently study for twenty minutes at a time without taking a break?" Then again, she supposes a child genius didn't really need any studying advice from her, but she expresses her opinion anyway - Tim probably knows better, or have a more nuanced take on it and if he corrects her, then at least she would have learned something new.

They end up in the lobby of the library, moving their way gradually to the double doors that led to the wider expanses of campus. As both sets of feet tap onto scuffed marble floors, she feels the brush of it - something intangible that her companion couldn't possibly detect, or so she thinks, unaware that Tim doesn't need to see in order to /know/ the same thing that she does.

That someone was watching them.

It isn't anything overt, nor coming from any discernible direction, it feels like there are eyes everywhere, and nowhere at once. Her heart thuds heavily in her chest, though she attempts to keep herself casual. Tim gives her the excuse she needs to get close to him; she widens her eyes in an expression of mock-outrage, her lips parting as she leans in to punch his shoulder lightly, before curling her arm around his. "You wouldn't have /dared/! I'm magic, you know. Do you want to spend the next hour as a mollusk? I can do it, I promise."

Surreptitiously, deftly, with all of her considerable expertise in legerdemain, she slips a card in his pocket.

Earlier in the week, she paid the Third Eye a visit; Gerry Craft was part of her father's network and he managed to procure some items for her to cobble together a couple of protective wards. It would be easy to plant one on Bruce, having disguised his as a boutonniere for his tux. Tim poses a little bit more of a challenge, having spent the week trying to figure out what he /always/ carries with him so it could be with him at all times without him knowing. She had intended to bide her time, though the crazier things became around her, the more anxious she got in trying to figure out where.

But with what's going on /now/, she has no choice. She has to get it on him before anything else happens.

"So where are you off to after this?" she wonders, leaving the library with him while her hackles rose and the hairs at the back of her neck straighten. But she was a theater major, and as expressive as she is, she manages to keep from him that something about their present environs is making her uncomfortable. "Home? In the loving arms of….what do geniuses read outside of class? Beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche? Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle?"

—-

Like Zatanna herself, Tim notices that they're being observed… And also like her, he doesn't want to let on that he does. He doesn't want to spook Zee, who surely wouldn't have a good response to being stalked after her recent experience with having been drugged and kidnapped, and he also doesn't want to tip his hand to whoever /is/ watching them.

It's hardly a unique experience for him, being watched and followed - he's dealt with it from all sorts of sources in the past several years, both in his civilian guise and as Robin. A lot of the time, it turns out to be ninjas - the League of Shadows, or goodness knows who else - but this feels… Different. More sinister.

"You'd be surprised what I'd dare," Tim informs her in her mock-outrage, as she goes from lightly slugging him in the shoulder to curling her arms around his. It's an affectionate closeness, the kind he rarely gets to enjoy these days, but it's not really in a circumstance where he can appreciate having a pretty girl on his arm, is it?

"And if I was acting like that, would a mollusk really be the best choice? I'd think a pig would be more fitting."

If Tim notices something being slipped into his pocket, he doesn't betray the fact; it's quite possible that he /doesn't/, given Zatanna's great skills in sleight of hand, surpassing even his own teacher. But whether he does or not, he certainly /behaves/ like he doesn't, like he doesn't notice anything awry at all. Just two normal college kids, on campus late, trying to not freeze their butts off in the winter weather.

"A little light bedtime reading, huh?" he muses. "And I suppose you're going to curl up with a few manuscripts in Aramaic to unwind after all that studying. I'll probably just end up playing video games. I /do/ other things than just studying, y'know."

Like punishing physical training, and trying to solve bizarre crimes.

—-

"It's all for convenience, I promise," Zatanna says with a laugh, appreciative of the quip - so far so good. "I can hardly explain a pig in a study room with me but if it's a mollusk I can just put you in my pocket and nobody would be the wiser. It's not like I'll be able to hide you completely if you were any bigger. Or could I? I can make things vanish too, I suppose. Throw my jacket over your porky self and presto! You're vanished into thin air, though I'm going to have to be really careful not to accidentally zap you in the back room of a barbecue house or something. It wouldn't end well for you, and I'd feel incredibly guilty."

He was never one to take her teasing lying down; it was one of the many reasons why they got along so well. She laughs again, though it is strangely hesitant in the fringes, feeling her skin crawl as they step into the half-lit darkness of the school grounds. "Nope. Not for me, no additional reading," she tells him. "Not even fashion magazines. I just pop a movie or something…something with Bradley Cooper, or Chris Evans. Or maybe even something totally brainless like….well. Anything by Seth Rogen, maybe." She gives him an experimental poke in his side, fingers brushing over his ribcage as she chews on her bottom lip, her expression growing mischievous….that gives way to startlement as she stares down at the space between them. "What the— " Her pokes find hard muscle; in fact, there's barely any give.

"Good /lord/, Timothy!" she exclaims, and even proceeds to try and /lift his shirt and jacket/ on one side just so she could see what's underneath. "How do you spend the other half of your day while not studying? Crossfit??"

Just a little bit longer, she thinks. Once they're close enough to the dormitories, she can say her goodbyes, and then see what she can do to pull whatever this is /off/ Tim's orbit.

—-

Tim doesn't really believe any of it, of course, but there's no reason to not play along for the sake of it. She's a talented magician, he knows that, and she's capable of all sorts of remarkable feats of illusion and trickery, but he /definitely/ doesn't believe that she's actually magic, that she could Circe him into a pig or make him vanish into thin air. But it's entertaining enough to joke about, even while trying to figure out exactly who is following them, his dark blue eyes alert for shadows beyond their own, his ears listening for breathing, for footfalls.

Zee admits to her fondness for movies starring men she likes to look at, which is fair enough - girls are allowed eye candy too, right? - though apparently she also makes exception for the occasional comedy. But her wandering hands and her poking finger discover that the hard-studying nerd is solid underneath his shirt, and then naturally she…

Starts pulling up his jacket and his shirt.

"Bruce is kind of a health nut," Tim protests, because for all of that carefree playboy manner the last Wayne had created around himself, there was no way to hide the Olympian physique he'd developed, unless he'd taken up fatsuits instead of Batsuits, and of course his wards all ended up similarly fit, didn't they? "Plus you know, all that money can get some good physical trainers. I find it helps me focus, clears the mind." He lifts his chin, watching Zatanna sidelong with a suspicious eye.

"You're not objectifying me now, are you?"

—-

She manages to pull up his jacket and shirt despite his protests, her blue eyes falling on the sharp ridges of his abdomen - corded musculature spreads tightly over hard bones and sinew, his jeans low enough for her to glimpse the beginning of a pronounced Apollo's Belt. Zatanna gawks at what she sees, staring disbelievingly at what her classmate looks like under layers of casual clothes, her brain attempting to parse what she is seeing with what she knows of Tim - normal, effortlessly brilliant, observant, studious Tim…

Who also happens to have the body of a star athlete underneath his Rebel Alliance t-shirts and North Face jackets. "Hubba-hubba, be still my heart, Tim, /look at you/!" she cries, unabashed and utterly unashamed of her admiration, for a moment forgetting that they were presently being stalked by something sinister in the shadows….there is no breath, nothing physical stirring from the bushes, no footsteps.

Whatever it is, the /sense/ of it is the most tangible thing, and strange audible notes, whispers…so faint they murmur just at the edge underneath of a normal human person's hearing, tickling the back of Tim's ear.

At his suspicious glance and comment, she looks up, lifting her own brows at him in turn, but he'd find her eyes alight with mirth. She tugs on the hem of his jacket and shirt emphatically.

Was she objectifying him?

"I don't exactly see you /stopping me/!" she exclaims with a laugh. "Is that how it is? You /like/ it when I look at you!"

—-

It's an excellent exercise in compartmentalisation, to be doing two completely different things at the same time, without letting on about one at all. On the one hand, he's engaged in some very strange banter with Zatanna, who is still holding up his shirt and his jacket, and feasting her pale blue eyes on the fruits of years of hard work and punishing training at the hands of the Batman and other, even less forgiving teachers; on the other, he's surreptitiously trying to figure out just who is watching.

It almost feels less like a /who/ than a /what/. The sense of eyes everywhere, of being observed from all directions, reminds him of something out of the jungles or dark forests. Of being hunted not by something human, but by animals which stalked without pity, in tandem, lurking in different cover to keep an eye on their prey from all sides.

"I can't really stop you from looking, can I?" Tim retorts, which doesn't answer if he likes it or not. And if he did, what of it? Was there anything wrong with enjoying being looked at by a young woman like Zatanna Zatara? "I guess it was worth being treated like a piece of meat just to see how surprised you were, though," he adds. "And fair's fair, I did see that video of you performing magic in just a bikini…" He's trying to keep them to the better-lit paths, having long since memorised exactly which those were. He isn't sure if that actually provides any safety, but with any luck they can find someplace with more people, which would hopefully discourage whoever was watching them.

—-

She finally lets go, Zatanna still laughing - it does its work to banish her apprehension, but she is very much aware that they aren't out of the woods. His shirt and jacket fall back down and she tucks her hands in her pockets, turning around so she could pay attention to where she's walking. The paths are brightly lit, and despite Gotham University's humble offerings as a campus, student safety is something the faculty takes seriously - there are plenty of street lights, and emergency buttons spaced out evenly on the wide quad leading towards the dorms.

Tim doesn't appear none the wiser, though the quiet whispering becomes more persistent. It makes her skin crawl, goosebumps to rise from her skin as a trickle of cold sweat runs down her back. She needs to walk a little faster, but the last thing she wants is to make Tim believe she was hurrying. He was observant - he would ask, and she doesn't have a story to tell him yet.

But as always, Tim was perceptive. As far as his instincts go, he would be right. It was most definitely a someone.

"That's right," she tells him with a grin. "Now we're even….until I wrangle you to come see one of my shows anyway, and then you'll owe me one again. I hope you're ready for it, Timothy D— "

It happens quickly, suddenly.

It moves so fast that it's hard to get a bead on exactly /what/ it is, shadows suddenly coming alive from their periphery to rush at both of them. In an evening as dark as this, it could be anything - perhaps a person, or an animal. It surges towards them with inhuman speed, an inevitable collision course - odd, for an ambush, when it's so overt. So /there/.

But the occurence becomes even stranger when whatever it is slams into Tim Drake, and the ward that Zatanna had placed in his pocket just a few moments before.

It explodes - it is nothing fiery, and there is no sound, but Tim would feel the shockwave rush over him, causing his senses to vibrate strangely and pull at his clothes, lifting him off his feet and throwing him back…while he takes a tumble, and some bruises, his injuries wouldn't be severe. His companion, however, isn't so lucky - not when she was focused on protecting /him/ instead of herself. The strange implosion of invisible force knocks her back as well, her right shoulder and side taking the brunt of it as blood sprays on the pavement, sprawling painfully on her side across the path and her books spilling on the ground.

Shadows dissipate on impact, strains wafting over them like smoke. The sense of multiple eyes watching them gradually fades away.

Zatanna lays still on the ground, her eyes wide and frozen with shock. Reflexively, she clutches her wounded arm, feeling blood rush through her fingers and spatter on the concrete, forcing herself to roll on her other side and sit up. Panicked eyes fall on Tim.

"Oh god, oh god….what was— Tim, are you okay?!" she wheezes, scrambling to get up, favoring her left side as she rushes over.

—-

Tim notices that she's walking a bit faster. That she's hurrying without trying to appear to hurry.

It makes sense, he supposes, that she would be more perceptive than she appears; being aware of your surroundings is important in stage magic, right? Being able to read a room, read people.

But she tries to play it off, joking with him, claiming that they're even now that she's seen him at least partially shirtless. He's just lucky he doesn't have any particularly notable scars on that side, not that would show in the fitful illumination provided by the lights on the campus' paths. He'd have to be careful coming up with explanations for any knife or claw marks that he hadn't managed to heal into invisibility.

Another reason why he can't afford to let his guard down. Too many questions.

Tim knows the attack is coming before it happens, but he's not really prepared for the /speed/ of it, a speed that reminds him of the sudden change that came over Kazinsky in the abandoned tannery. Yet what really surprises him is what happens when the whatever-it-is collides with him; though he was already moving to try and avoid or lessen the impact, it hits something /else/ instead, and that something else is what ultimately sends him flying, though he's far too well-trained to end up in a completely uncontrolled fall, tumbling as safely as he can instead, ending up on his front.

He doesn't stay down for long. Too dangerous. Can't leave himself vulnerable, even if his head is swimming.

Yet it becomes clear that whatever tried to attack him is simply… Gone.

"I'm fine," he assures Zatanna as she comes over to him, clutching her arm, and by and large he is, but he recognises the coppery tang of blood on the cold winter air right away, sees it black against the pale white of the goth magician's fingers. "But you're hurt."

Hurt by /what/, is the question.

"Come on, let's get out of here. Get you someplace we can bandage you up… Or would you prefer an ambulance?"

—-

Her heart is hammering in her chest, lurching painfully - guilt, fury and most of all sorrow. Traitorous, unwanted moisture pools in those large, ice-blue eyes even as she tries to help Tim up, both of their ears ringing, coming away from this with bruises and blood - at least in her case. She is thankful, at the very least, that her classmate doesn't appear too hurt, finding some solace in that the ward was able to protect him after all. She had thought about it before, once she finally slipped it in his belongings, that she would be congratulating herself for being so sneaky. But seeing how real all of it was, her mind backtracking to the last two weeks, was just…

She hates it when she's right.

Is this what being John Constantine feels like all the time?

Her stomach curdles, sick with guilt. Even as he turns his concern towards her, for a while she says nothing, simply staring at him tearfully as her fingers grip her arm tight, the most basic efforts levied to stem the blood flow. It was her, this encroaching weirdness….this danger. This curse that follows her, people /like/ her.

He was one of the first friends she's made after returning to Gotham, the first name on her contact list. He was nice, he was sweet, he never minds it when she borrows his notes and they get along so well.

And now, until this was all over, she might have to stay away from him.

Zatanna blinks her lashes rapidly in a desperate attempt to keep the tears from falling. She shakes her head; it's easy to pass them off as tears of pain, even though at the moment she can't feel it, not when other things numb the injury.

"We can just go to the campus clinic, it's not bad," she says instead. She agrees with that at least, so long as they quickly get out of here.

At least Tim wasn't asking questions. At least, for the time being, he doesn't think it's her.

—-

Being right in these sorts of situations is never as satisfying as you think it'll be.

There was a time when Tim Drake was a much more optimistic person, though even as a boy he was never really given to unadulterated optimism; as time and tide wore him down and made him more cynical, he's found being right to be far less of an enjoyable experience. Of course, that's the nature of expecting the worst, isn't it? When you're right, it's because everything's gone to shit.

It's easy to figure that Zatanna is near tears because of the pain, intensely unlikely as it would be that Tim would fail to notice the way her eyes glisten. She's hurt, and while he's sure it's hardly the first time for her, most people don't develop the ability to accept pain as assiduously as someone like him.

She's a magician, a performer, not a costumed crime-fighter. It's not her job to go around getting hurt and then making sure nobody sees how much it does hurt her.

"Okay, campus clinic it is," Tim agrees, wanting to make sure Zatanna feels as safe and comfortable as he can, which includes making sure she feels in control of what happens next. He does make sure that they don't leave anything behind, though there's nothing he can do about the blood… It's almost reflexive, ensuring that there's nothing to connect them to the site, like a dropped notebook or anything.

There must be some connection to what happened at the tannery, Tim thinks to himself. But was it after him?

Or was it after Zee?

—-

A FEW MINUTES LATER…

He waits for the two college students to leave before he emerges from the shadows of a nearby building, darkness parting around his suit, rippling back against the wall once he has fully extricated himself from it.

Pale green eyes flick down to where Tim and Zatanna had vanished, inclining his blond head. Whatever he was thinking, his features wouldn't reflect them in the slightest. While he wasn't particularly emotive, even before Joseph had him assassinated, he allows himself a brief moment of satisfaction.

Taking a step on the concrete path, he withdraws his pocket square, crouching to press the fabric on the dark surface. Withdrawing it, that sense of satisfaction grows as he espies the blood drops staining the surface.

This was enough.

In his line of work, in his unique community, this was plenty.

Without a word or another sound, Gottfried Muller turns back towards the wall, and let the shadows swallow him once more.

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