The Ghosts of You and Me

December 14, 2016:

Takes place before 'A String of Lost Opportunities', Detective Richard Grayson attends Gotham University's Criminal Justice class as its guest lecturer, and manages to reacquaint himself with a figure from his past.

Gotham University - West Side - Chelsea - Gotham University

The sprawling campus of Gotham University.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, John Constantine, Giovanni Zatara, Alfred Pennyworth, Barbara Gordon, Jim Gordon

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

[INT. Intro to Criminal Justice - Gotham University]

Intro to Criminal Justice fulfills just one of the numerous core requirements for liberal arts majors at Gotham University. The students in the evening class are as often working adults as they are traditional students and so are spared a full auditorium experience and allowed to take a course with only thirty or so other people.

Associate Professor Scollon has a bit of a reputation as a pushover. He's the sort of fellow who has a mid-level day job in state bureaucracy but teaches one or two classes a semester - which as a rule is made up almost entirely of guest lecturers.

The man speaking tonight was introduced as 'Detective Richard Grayson, Bludhaven PD'. He is a young man in his mid-twenties who could not be more than a few years beyond his own graduation. Whereas many of these guest lecturers seem to oscillate between little actual experience but a lot of rousting stories and lots of experience and a very long power point - Dick somehow finds the perfect stride between them both.

With an intelligent charismatic demeanor it took only fifteen minutes for him to be the center of the universe with the entire class orbiting around as takes over the room. Moving from criminal justice nugget, to the twenty year-old cold cases he's solved, and then back to his start as a patrolman he keeps the entire affair light until someone asks a question and then he drills down to just the level needed to both answer the question but not bore anyone too badly.

Having rolled up the sleeves of his white button down shirt he gives a casual look to his watch before returning, "And I think you've tapped the well," he says though clearly the depths of his knowledge have barely been touched, "I'll leave a stack of cards on the table if anyone wants clarification on anything and, no: I can't fix your parking tickets." He says with a tone that delivers the bad joke but also makes it clear he knows he's telling a bad joke, "Any questions."

A middle-aged woman with streaks of gray hair, the sort that always delays the exodus with a final question, asks, "Detective. If you don't mind my asking. /Why/ did you choose law enforcement?"

He gives her a pointed look and then gazes across the audience, "Instead of banking or being a billionaire's son, she means." Dick engages the elephant some didn't even realize in the room, "For those who don't know google Bruce Wayne. He's my father."

Then he looks back to the woman, "Great question." He says with a true appreciation for the honesty of her tone - rather than making it some sort of thinly veiled accusation.

"When I was fourteen my parents were murdered in front of me," he says it so plainly and without any drama or call for sympathy, "They were performers which means we were well known but not wealthy. At that moment a lot of things could have happened to me but I was fortunate enough to meet Bruce Wayne."

"For those who don't know," he's talking to them all now, "Bruce also watched his parents get murdered and so I think he just knew what I was going to go through. For many years I was so angry and wanted answers to questions not even he - as a former victim - could answer. Sudden loss is such a personally unique experience in some ways and yet there is so much commonality to those who have experienced it together."

"When it came time to decide what I wanted to do with my life I realized that I wouldn't make a very good billionaire playboy but what I could do is find other people - like me and Bruce. People who had been wronged and I could work to help them through their pain by making sure they had the justice they deserved."

"So, that's how I got here," he summarizes, "Just trying make a difference wherever I can," then to them all, "What else can I answer for you?"

That seems to do it because after a pregnant pause the 'class dismissed' roll out begins. Dick begins to pack up his things.

—-

Introduction to Criminal Justice was an elective that she had not expected to take, but as a latecomer in the current Gotham University semester, most of the classes were full up and there were instances in which she had no choice but to take a class to play catch up with the required credits game. Hence she finds herself here in the semi-circular room every Thursday afternoon, straight out of her Biblical Aramaic class.

Though just because she had limited expectations on the class does not mean that she doesn't enjoy it; Criminal Justice was an interesting subject and after the first several sessions, she has formed the belief that every American citizen should take a class or two, if not just to familiarize themselves with their Miranda rights and those that govern search and seizures by the police and other law enforcement bodies. It is a far cry from the study of law, to be sure, but she suspects that a full on legal education would be as dry as dirt, certainly not the sort that would capture her attention for long….but the Criminal Justice course included other primers to various interesting topics, such as Forensics, Criminal Psychology and other related areas. Then again, she supposes she couldn't help but be interested - Giovanni Zatara moonlighted as a superhero, if not a relatively unorthodox one, and a mystical defender that neutralized supernatural threats against the world, but he has always abided by the law and the concepts of Justice that it was meant to serve.

But the personal interest generated by the class wouldn't be the last of its surprises.

She is once again reminded as to how small the world truly is as the professor introduces Detective Richard Grayson, a common, unassuming enough name that would normally pass through her mental catalogue of acquaintances without generating any pings, but her eyes do follow him with interest if not just because he was tall and handsome (and she doesn't live under a rock), with a shock of dark hair and dark blue eyes that briefly reminds her of her other classmate, Tim, though they look nothing /too/ alike to suspect a blood relation, as well as an accompanying, nagging sensation of vague familiarity. However the personal account he shares by the end of the lecture has her sitting up straighter, her lips parting faintly.

Richard Grayson.

Dick Grayson.

Her brows furrow, ice-blue eyes tilting upwards towards the ceiling in a slightly accusatory fashion. With the week she has been having, she wonders whether there is something at work that has managed to draw out the shades of her past back in full color. But never one to be in any hurry to know everything, she takes her time, planting her chin on her hand and grinning faintly.

He's /really/ cute. And judging by the whispers of other girls behind her, she isn't the only one who thinks so.

Though really, she has to wonder whether Bruce Wayne does this on purpose - adopting young, orphaned men with the same hair and eyes. Was it a coincidence or a deeper emotional reason, perhaps he wanted his family to look like they belong together, after all?

With everyone else packing up, she tucks her notebook in her book bag, slinging it over her shoulder and wanders towards the front. Amusement fills her eyes when she sees that the cards he has helpfully put on the table are almost all /gone/. She reaches out to pluck one of the remaining two from the desk, scanning the name and information.

"I think you made an impression," she teases Dick, lifting her eyebrows and wiggling the card at him, shameless enough to poke at a man she has never spoken to in person. "I thought you looked familiar, though. I've seen the Flying Graysons in action when I was very young, but that was going to happen no matter what, I think….magicians travel with a circus, sometimes. I think I last saw you on the wire when you were thirteen when Daddy put on a guest appearance under the big top, but I think I last saw you when you were eighteen, last time Daddy visited the Waynes."

She extends a hand towards him. "Zatanna Zatara." Mischief lights up her eyes. "Though go easy on me, I might keel over with embarrassment if you /don't/ remember me in turn."

—-

Dick is acutely aware of his environment the little conversations about him and the glances looks people give as they take his cards is far more interesting to the protege of the World's Greatest Detective than watching his laptop power down. He makes little attempt to hide this fact - for he is gregarious - though he maintains a semblance of lecturer-to-student professionalism by simply nodding or saying 'thank you' to anyone who addresses him directly.

Well, almost anyone.

With the classroom essentially empty Zatanna's teasing is a clear segue into a more nuanced conversation. Naturally he recognizes that this could be a setup and so he replies with a simple, "Thanks. I really get a kick out of coming out here once or twice a year. I know how boring these evening classes can be," when she says he looks familiar there is a subtle tick to his gaze that only a professional performer might catch.

Without knowing the full breadth of him it would seem as if he's just very good at not seeming as if someone has him at a disadvantage. No doubt a benefit in his particular line of work. There is that fraction of a second where he tries to place her and when she talks about 'the Flying Graysons' then his brow does evidently furrow.

"Wait," he says his furrowed brow melting into an incredulous look which is immediately followed by a slow teasing smile, "You're that little girl." Pause, "Yeah," he affirms his own suspicions, "The one who kept showing me card tricks."

'I apologize, Master Dick,' Alfred's dry humor comes to the forefront of his mind how he had tried to pawn her continuous performance off on Alfred, 'Perhaps if you could convince Mistress Zatanna to saw me in half then I could both serve dinner and attend.'

"Zatanna," he snaps his fingers at his own recollection, "Wow." Pause. 'WOW' he repeats in his brain, "Talk about making a guy feel old," he says taking the high road there, "That was just before I moved out." Then with a faint apologetic smile, "Sorry if I was a jerk." For brushing her off, he means, "That was a rough couple of years before I started making my 'own way'."

—-

She takes his hand in a handshake, fingers capturing his own in a squeeze before she lets go, eyes searching his face for any signs of recognition, though she doesn't get it until much later when his memory catches up with him. She can almost pinpoint the exact moment in which it happens, though once she does, her grin broadens widely enough that it chases a secret dimple out of her left cheek for all the world to see - one that falters, only slightly, at her confusion for his apology. "Eh? What?"

Oh, that. Zatanna laughs, waving a hand sideways, slipping her hands in the pockets of her designer Valentino coat - military style and double breasted, with a high collar fastened around her neck by a decorative brass button. The gentle curve of her left hip nudges into the desk, her expression both mirthsome and somewhat endeared. "I was a kid," she reminds him. "How old was I? Nine? Ten? And you were a barely legal adult at the time, you were in under no obligation to entertain me back then, but you humored me anyway. If anything I should be the one saying sorry to you for pestering you so much. Poor you, I mean, Alfred didn't even help you out at the time!"

The age comment has her rolling her eyes skyward, though her expression remains buttressed by that perpetual good, teasing humor. "Oh, yeah, because being in your mid-twenties is super old," she remarks wryly. "You're downright geriatric, how did you even get out of bed this morning without your bones popping? Did you manage to catch the early bird special at Dinky's Diner on Tenth and Broadway?"

Still, that easy smile returns, her head inclining at him. "Zee's fine," she says. "Short and easy to remember, small world though, yeah? I just got back from carousing around Europe - Bruce mentioned you the last time I saw him, though I had no idea you've moved out. And to Bludhaven?" The name of the city catches up to her, concern rippling over her pale features. "Wow uh….you couldn't have gone to Miami or something? Bludhaven's a bit of the Wild West, isn't it? I heard this city's gotten doubly dangerous in the last few years, but Bludhaven's worse. You're not worried?"

—-

The right corner of Dick's mouth turns with an easy smile, "Alfred," he begins, "is always there when you need him but never in the way you want." Clearly he's speaking in more abstract terms - attempting to describe Pennyworth's role in the Wayne universe rather than the drudgery he endures as a butler.

"If there's one thing I've realized it's that he only refuses to help you because he won't always be around. If there's one thing he realized before I did it's: Dick Grayson won't always have a butler."

The bottoms of his eyes tense there displaying an easily overlooked scrutiny for the reaction to his wisdom, "Zee is great." His attitude flips there as he zips up the back containing his laptop and throws it over his shoulder, "Shorter is better. Richard Grayson is a fair stage name but Dick lets you know where you stand with people."

He starts to walk out of the room but continues their conversation such that it would be a social faux pas to not follow, "Miami?" Dick smiles there, "Gotham has meant too much to me to just move away. I wasn't just bullshitting when I said I do what I do because it's how I feel like I am somehow becoming square with the universe."

"The Wayne family connects to every piece of Gotham," he says, "I've known Jim Gordan and his daughter since I was fourteen. You can't outrun the influence that money brings but you can step past the personal relationships. In Bludhaven I was just the rich kid trying to pretend to be working class. I dunno how stacked the deck was against me but I know I at least had a fair hand to prove myself."

"It's a rough town though," he agrees, "more in need of help than anywhere else on the east coast. In a big city when you wear a badge you're always a target. It's cyclical though. Most good cops say they're moving away for the money - because its taboo to say you feel unsafe."

"Money is not an issue for me. So I have to either do my job or admit that I'm a coward. Which is what they always want to say about a billionaire's son." He looks to her directly there with his deep blue eyes, "I guess my biggest flaw is that I can't let someone just label me. I've always got something to prove."

"Speaking of which," nice seguer, Dick, "Why does the heir to a world renowned magician slum around a mediocre state university and pop in on her father's old friend?"

—-

She follows because she isn't the sort to discard the kind of opportunity that Dick provides - not just to reacquaint herself with someone she knew but to engage in some manner of meaningful conversation. While she recalls Dick Grayson as an older, sullen youth, oblivious to the fact that he had been suffering a rough patch with his adoptive father at the time she met him, she finds herself rather surprised at the changes a few years have placed on the young detective. Zatanna has never met the more gregarious side of Bruce's first ward, and while she had intended to simply say hi and reintroduce herself, she certainly didn't expect this - Tim is friendly, but detached, the kind of aloofness she associates with the truly cerebral sorts who are more comfortable thinking than feeling, and while Bruce had the charm and social graces that rivaled the likes of bluebloods and royals across the globe, there was always something about him that was elusive. Hence, the last thing she anticipates from anyone in the Wayne household is an open conversation.

And this is the kind that Dick provides, belying her earlier memories of a grumbly eighteen year old who was more exasperated with her than anything.

"Well, I guess you can't really expect any less in a city called Bludhaven," Zatanna muses, a wry smile curling on the corners of her mouth. "I wouldn't be surprised if it was a port for pirates back in the day, like how Hong Kong was during the 1600's, with a name like that. It doesn't exactly hide the fact that it's a tough town, but if that's what you want, I wish you the best of luck." She laughs. "I'm sure you don't need it, but it can't hurt. I just came back, you know, I don't want my first acts of my homecoming to include visiting you in the hospital for broken bones or gunshot wounds. Just promise me you'll be careful while you're out there, okay?"

She keeps an easy pace with him, the tall heels of her expensive boots helping with her stride. As his blue eyes turn to her (he's /really/ cute), she grins, revealing a hint of teeth, lifting her shoulders in a light shrug. "What, is it so hard to believe I want to taste the ordinary life a little bit? I've been on the road since I was five, it didn't really open me up to too many chances of having a stable headquarters to root on - Gotham was the first city I spent more than just a handful of months in and considering Daddy's friendship with the Waynes, of course I was going to look up Bruce."

Catching the look in his eye though, she shakes her head with another laugh. "Detective. Right. I needed Bruce's help with something…." Her lighthearted expression tempers, her eyes wandering away from him; it's a reflex, at this point, a certain youthful reluctance there not to be all too obvious as to how distressing she finds the situation. "….I don't want to get into too many details out here in the open, but Daddy's missing. Bruce knows what I know and he's been kind to offer his own resources. It's….honestly more than I deserve."

A quiet buzzing emanates from her back pocket, and while Zatanna's attention doesn't stray away from Dick, she digs out her phone to take a quick glance at the caller ID, DO NOT TAKE HIS CALLS flashing like a small alarm over the screen. Her expression flattens, exasperation stitching over her features. She shoves it back in her pocket with a determined sniff. As usual, his timing is downright /impeccable/.

—-

Dick gives her an easy grin at the laugh, "Don't worry about me," he says with a casual confidence that neither seems dismissive nor braggadocios even as he says the words, "If I'm in the hospital. You should see the other guy." Again telling a bad joke in such a way he knows he's playing up a movie trope.

His gaze doesn't so much as waver as she tries to obfuscate the truth. Nodding a bit she can tell by his look that she'd have better luck trying to spin that false rationale with the doorframe. He opens the door immediately stepping through due to practicality yet then holding it open like a proper gentleman - because it's the polite thing to do.

Detective Grayson does what he does best - plying a confession from a seemingly simple conversation.

"Sorry about your dad." He is sincere.

"Just know that Bruce can help you," the young man replies layering sincere reassurance over her doubt, "If he has said he will help you then he will. As long as you're honest with him he'll move Heaven and Earth to make things right."

Outside it's cold and so Grayson thrusts a hand into the pocket of his winter coat and moves the laptop bag so that it dangles by the shoulder strap. Unconsciously this makes sure he always has one hand open - and free.

"You deserve it," he then says matter-of-factly, "Bruce may seem like some eccentric socialite but I've seen him stand in a room full of corporate officers and politicians and watch him gently cut all of their throats without ever raising his voice. He doesn't do anything without knowing the consequences for you or for him."

As she pulls out her phone there is a beat of silence and his astute environmental awareness comes into play as he observes her phone without with out even the slightest indication of his weakness. As she shoves it back into her pocket he adds one final thing, "Bruce has a way of drawing you in. Just be careful. He may be the wealthiest most intelligent man on the planet /but/ don't ever think he knows you better than you know yourself. Life can be a game of strategy. Don't ever be a piece on someone else's board."

As they cross the campus they close in upon a half-vacant parking lot where an unassuming black Ford Explorer is parked, "Need a lift to your car?" He asks her.

The lights on the vehicle flash then, doors unlocking as he toggles the fob in his jacket pocket.

—-

He holds the door open for her, an act that causes her to lift her brows and flashing him a feline look from the corners of her eyes; he'd get the impression that Zatanna Zatara doesn't have to actually say anything to tease someone, slipping through the opening and taking a step into the open air of the Gotham University campus, reaching up with both hands to tug at her high collar and pull up the scarf underneath, tucking it closer against her chin. Winters were cold and bitter in Gotham, its nights all the longer during the season in a city already bereft of color. It's certainly difficult to envision anyone loving it, and electing to stay, but the Wayne boys seem extremely loyal to it and what it could offer.

"I honestly didn't know what to tell him at first," she tells Dick honestly as they move towards the near-empty parking lot, catching sight of the Ford Explorer tucked close to the nearest curb. "Daddy had his secrets and I'm never all that certain what I should be sharing and what I shouldn't, but I was relieved when Bruce had some inkling as to what those were….it felt good, not to be able to hide. It was the first time in months that I felt I could breathe easy with any one of his contacts, but Bruce has always been different….special. Daddy broke all kinds of rules for him back in the day."

Dick is kind to offer his reassurances; this doesn't go unanswered, the young woman giving him a quick, but warm smile as they stop by his car. "I don't have one….well, I do, but I like walking and talking public transportation sometimes helps me learn to get around quickly, it's been a few years after all. But if you're offering a ride regardless, you can drop me off at the Third Eye, it's just a few blocks from here and on the way out of town." She has a license, but she hardly drives - at least, not in a place in which she's familiar. While she means what she said about public transportation, she hardly ever needs to when she can wish herself to any place she wants, provided that she has seen and remembers it.

"He's been very kind, but I don't want to impose too much on it too terribly," she tells her companion honestly. "He and Alfred both, they've been nothing but good and supportive to me since I've come back and it's not like Bruce doesn't have his own problems. Alfred told me about Jason when I asked….there was something off about Bruce the last time I talked to him, and I made him a promise I'll look out for him after that. It's the least I could do, I don't know if he'd let me, but I'm going to try."

—-

"Hop in. Should be unlocked," Dick says and then steps to his right and opens the rear passenger door. Shrugging the computer back from his shoulder he sets it in the rear floorboard before closing the door.

The name 'Jason' causes him to pause momentarily with a mien of sadness that that is partially obscured by the cold night. As he reaches for the driver's door he hesitates at her desire to try, "If you find him - keep your distance. Jason's into some bad things these days," he reveals with caution, "He's my brother but I'd be hesitant to blindly approach him and /I work in Bludhaven/," he reminds. "I've done that, once. It didn't go well. If he feels like we're cornering him I think he'll only get more defensive."

Then he reaches and pulls open the driver's side.

The interior lights come on. A steel and plexi-glass cage separate the front bucket seats from the bench seat in the rear. Between the front two seats an AR-15 style assault rifle it locked in place. A tiny square containing six white buttons with occupies the center console and a small square police radio bolted on just below the AM/FM stereo.

Dick reaches across pulling the CB-style microphone from its spot hanging near the glove box and sets the microphone in one of the cup holders so it won't be in her way as she climbs in. He then starts the car the radio and center-console buttons flashing on with a shrill tone. The detective hits the buttons on the radio several times until the volume is almost all of the way down.

"Bruce helping you isn't a tit-for-tat," Dick continues as he manipulates the in-column gear shift, "You want to do something for him but he's the man who has everything." Grayson gives a haphazard look over both shoulders and then begins to back up, "He just wants a card at the holidays thanking him and letting him know how you're paying it forward." As they roll out of the space he shifts from REVERSE to DRIVE in an unhurried fashion, "Just be careful with the idea of Jason." Dick repeats as they start forward, "Don't accidentally rub salt in an old wound."

Circling around the parking spaces he then asks, "Right or left?" As they get to the edge of the parking lot.

—-

Slender fingers move to pull the door open on her side, Zatanna taking up the passenger seat and slipping the seatbelt into the buckle. Ice blue eyes wander over the dashboard, the windshield - it's a newer model, but not so new that it screams the sort of wealthy excess that other men in Dick's position would demonstrate, the smell of worn leather hitting her nose. There's a hint of a smile there, angled towards Dick….but one that fades away entirely at his next words.

Wait, what?

"….I was told he was killed by a mugger," she tells him, confusion writ plainly on her pale features. "Wait so….he survived it?" Pieces fall into place rapidly, surging through the details in the speed of light; why Alfred declined her offer, why /this/ death has been in the forefront of Bruce's mind when he was so shaped by his parents' murders. Not because Jason was dead, but because it didn't take, and now he was a shade of his former self, running around getting into dangerous trouble.

It's a commonality that the two of them share, and should he turn his head or look at her reflection through the rearview mirror, he would be able to pinpoint the precise moment that epiphany strikes his younger companion, as always so attuned with the human souls around her if not just due to her usual hunger with respect to connecting with other human lives, especially the ones she had left behind so many years ago. What was haunting Bruce and his boys wasn't the ghost of a loved one, but something much more mundane; Guilt is, as always, a powerful spectre.

"If I rubbed salt into anything, it wouldn't be accidental," she tells him frankly, her fingers resting on the side of her seat as she turns her eyes to the passing scenery. "I'm used to difficult personalities, if anything I've dealt with nothing /but/ them all my life, sometimes that's the only way to get anywhere with them. I was never afraid of getting burned, Dick….that one's my bag. You're perennially drawn to proving yourself, you said….I don't think I've ever been that way, but I'm not the sort of person to let anything stagnate."

She gives Dick a sidelong glance. "What did you mean by earlier, by the way? About being a piece on Bruce's board? I figured he wouldn't be where he was without having some expertise in manipulation but I always got the impression that was confined into the board room." Once the words leave her mouth, however, realization sticks there as well, how terribly naive that sounds. While young, she has been living under the shadow of a powerful man all of her life, and had something with another that perpetually cons and manipulates. In that regard, as far as life experiences are concerned, her youth isn't much of a credible excuse.

"Right," she says, gesturing. "And then another right in the third stop light."

Leaning back, she tilts her head, observing his profile; how light and shadow play over him as other cars drift past, rippling over hard bones and changing the color of his skin. A wry smile tilts upwards on the corner of her mouth.

"I'm sorry," she tells him, laughter hinted in her tone, but it is nothing overt. "Here I am chatting about your relations and you're sitting here right next to me." Shifting, she angles her position so she could directly look at him, or as much as she can while inside a car. "Tell me about you." Because that's what every guy with a secret identity as a masked crimefighting vigilante wants to hear. "How did you do in the police academy? What was your best subject? Who's your partner while you're out detectiving? Is there a Mrs. Grayson? What about children?" Mischief returns; it never stays shelved for long. "I figured since you're /so old/ you'd have popped out one or two by now."

—-

An adrenaline dump. There's an a second or two of silence as Dick feels his veins burning with the icy-rush of having jammed his foot down his throat. The human mind works incredibly fast and Nightwing goes through their entire conversation related to Jason; 'keep an eye out' for him, she had said.

Context, Dick. She meant /Bruce/.

His hands strain upon the wheel which might not seem so unnatural given the topic of his risen-again brother.

The former Boy Wonder sighs, "He stays on my mind. It's sort-of soap opera-y," Dick says, "and it's not really my place to go into the details but," The vehicle continues down the road, "I'm a cold case detective." He reminds her, "We think Jason may be alive."

When she changes the subject he gladly does as well, "It's fine. Wayne is a pretty interesting topic," he admits, "Me?" Certain arrogance stirs there, "I've spent my life being trained as either a world class acrobat or subjected to the best education a billionaire can afford. The police academy was a breeze. It's not really 'subjects' like college. You study a topic for a couple of weeks then take an exam. Then do practical exercises for a week. Then study some more. It's designed for working-class heroes." The way he says it sounds disparaging towards others but when you're a superlative in all aspects of your life, the police academy isn't exactly a challenge - and that's a matter of public record.

"I work a lot solo," he then says, "We all assist each other though. There's a couple of people I prefer to have with me if we go to execute a warrant but it's not like TV." When she asks about his personal life he smirks, "Not a priority." The dryness of his response channels Bruce Wayne himself and then adds, "Besides, if I were to /pop out/ a child I think I'd have a whole different notoriety. I wouldn't mind a family but not yet. The great thing about guys is we can produce offspring without an adverse risk well into middle age." He snarks playing off her building upon his age and flexing some basic biology, "So why start now?"

They stop at the third red light and wait for it to change, "My days performing are far behind me," he reminds her, "You're the one all over Youtube. You don't have to go to college while we look for your Giovanni."

We look. He's going to have to talk to Bruce anyway now re: Jason.

—-

There's a flick of her eyes towards the way he grips his steering wheel at his slip, though Zatanna says nothing else about it - she knows that Jason is a sore topic, and not just with Bruce; Alfred did not hide the fact that everyone else had been affected, though Tim seems to be an exception as he never knew him.

Still, she follows the flow of conversation like the social creature that she is, the sort not to fight the tide too much and falls into the next topic without thought or regard as to where it takes her. "Good luck," she tells him quietly, followed by another turn of her cherry-red mouth. "Cold cases are tough, but considering you solved twenty of them already, I'm sure you'll crack this one, too."

So she had been paying attention! She can multitask being a student and a starry-eyed young woman listening to a handsome guest lecturer.

She drinks in the details of his life with the attentiveness of one thirsty for them, the veritable woman lost in a desert stumbling upon a much needed oasis. Exasperated affection paints her features as she watches him sidelong, her smile remaining as she absorbs hints of that brash arrogance - a kind of heated confidence that contrasts sharply with the cool, detached kind that she has seen Tim exude; when a person knows he is the smartest man in the room. The two wards lie on the opposite ends of the spectrum from one another, but their main influence is the same - somewhere in the middle, and somewhere beyond.

"Wow, so I was right," she says with a laugh. "I can usually peg the types by sight, but you /are/ pretty reckless. No dedicated partner in a city like /Bludhaven/? I thought /I/ could get a little wild! I better stock up on Get Well cards then because I have a feeling I'm going to have to send them to you a lot if I can't drive over. As for you popping out children?" There's a more cryptic turn to her mouth there. "Trust me, I've encountered stranger."

And worse.

Much worse.

The red light changes and at the turn, he'll see it: the Third Eye, one of the smaller boltholes of New Age paraphernalia present in Gotham City, though someone as learned as Nightwing would be familiar with its reputation as a haven for those who believe in the occult. Past the foggy glass of the storefront, he would find someone bustling around the cash register, not a thing that's all too strange….until its proprietor, Gerry Craft, turns around, his milky blind eyes staring directly at the Ford Explorer past his window.

She doesn't miss the 'we'. Her eyes fixing on the dashboard, she can't help but feel the surge within her chest, warm and electric all at once, a few volts jolted into her synapses and firing them awake and screaming. She feels the lump coalesce into the back of her throat, reminded once again of the people she has left behind here and her relative estrangement from them, yet here they are, treating her as if she has never left. As if her father had never left.

"A woman can't live on showbiz alone," she says lightly. "Trust me, college is good for me. I've been learning a lot, and I gotta have a backup plan if the showbiz thing doesn't work out, right?" Unbuckling her seatbelt, she tilts her body sideways, her mouth pecking lightly on Dick's cheek. There's no hesitation there, no internal struggle between impulse and the demands of propriety.

"I see what you did there," she tells him with a laugh, throwing him a look, opening the passenger door and stepping out, peering into the car with lifted brows. "But it's a story to be explored another time, I think."

—-

Dick turns in the dim lighting to look at her dead-on and in that moment there is certainty. Reckless. Suicidal. Too young to know better. He has been labeled as all of these things by so many people but time and time again, whenever the deck has been stacked against him, he has emerged with even the most Pyrrhic victories - but none the less victorious.

As a boy, he sailed through the air without a net. As a man he operates much the same.

"Always have a backup plan," he defines his outlook that way as they pull into the Third Eye, "I learned only that nothing in life is for certain."

When she kisses his cheek, the corners of his lips quirk in a fraternal smile, "Thanks," he says, for her having had the courage to introduce herself. With only a cursory glance through the front window, he reaches inside of his jacket and produces a business card not unlike the one she took earlier. Except now he reaches into the nebulous storage space between the police radio and the console to produce a pen.

He writes ten numerals upon it complete with a () and a -. A phone number.

"Alfred has to drive in from the county and I'm around at odd hours," he says, adding, "Always have a backup." He concludes.

—-

'Nothing in life is for certain,' he tells her.

He believes it, she muses internally, remembering the look in his eyes when they stopped at the red light, when he paused to directly look at her and letting her glimpse them all; arrogance, recklessness, prone to death-defying feats of something she hasn't discovered yet. Trouble, in a nutshell, and the kind that tends to call upon and fuel her own tendencies.

"Yeah?" Zatanna replies, reaching out to take the card he offers her, one arm lifting to prop against the top of the door as she leans in, meeting his eyes directly as her lips pull into yet another one of those flashfire smiles; a white sun exploding from a crimson horizon.

Nothing in life is for certain, he says.

"So's your youth," she ribs him, wiggling her fingers, his card no longer there, vanished to the wind and even to the likes of him, he wouldn't have a chance to pinpoint just when her legerdemain had been used, so smooth and so quick, so practiced that it's almost actual magic. Then again, she is just as adept at faking miracles as she is in performing actual ones.

"It's good to see you, Dick. Drive safely," she says, closing the door and moving towards the shop.

—-

[EPILOGUE]

When the door slams home, Dick feels his heartrate accelerate as he leans backward into his seat.

What he has to do next is not something that he's looking forward to. Producing his phone uses both of his phones to cycle through the menu stopping at the first letter 'A' for 'Alfred'. Then adding the second letter 'B' for 'Bruce'.

ELSEWHERE—

A notification pops up on Bruce Wayne and Alfred's phones. It's a group message. The first entry reads simply:

Need to talk. Mess up. Z knows about Jason. Sorry.

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