That Lone Reason to Stay

December 24, 2016:

At the wake of receiving a worrisome text from John Constantine, Zatanna Zatara pays Bruce Wayne a visit to drop off his and Alfred's Christmas gifts, spurred by the growing awareness that she is running on borrowed time.

Wayne Manor - Crest Hill - Bristol - Gotham

The stately Wayne Manor.

Characters

NPCs: Alfred Pennyworth

Mentions: Jessica Jones, Tim Drake, Dick Grayson, Giovanni Zatara, John Constantine, Chas Chandler

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

She never fails to call ahead.

It isn't because Zatanna Zatara is particularly averse to surprise visits; she often relishes in them herself - whether such surprises are good or bad hardly matters - rather that she knows that Bruce Wayne keeps a ridiculously heavy schedule and she would rather guarantee that she sees him rather than stop by unannounced only to find him gone. Not that would be such a bad thing either, given her fondness for Alfred Pennyworth that often guarantees that any missed opportunities to see Bruce only meant spending more time with the older British gentleman, to have tea and reminisce about the old days with her father. Spending time with the butler has given her that at least - a piece of Giovanni Zatara back to her, wherever he is.

Though news that he was in Gotham only confirms her worst fears, namely that while her father was alive, he was almost guaranteed to be in considerable peril.

Even as she stands there waiting to be let in by Alfred, that tumbles in her mind, interspersed with the memories of the last text she received from John Constantine. Four words. Four words a mage such as herself should worry about instead of spending the evening doing house calls:

Someone has your blood.

Her left arm twitches in memory, feeling it burn; she remembers the fear, what had happened when the /thing/ attacked Tim and how her ward managed to protect him from the living shadows that tried to ensnare him. It wounded her instead, and she was so concerned about her classmate that all she focused on was leaving the place with him as expediently as possible. Never did the possibility that she was the true target enter her mind until receiving that message - a ruse, misdirection inflicted in the most physical and savage of ways.

The wards she has etched magically spark now and then, eating away at the visible sigils - signs that whoever has her blood has been trying to do /something/ to her within the last day. Every attempt cracks away at the 'sleeve' that she has constructed for herself, hidden underneath her dark clothing. It is a temporary measure - once all of it is gone, she'll be vulnerable, unless she finds the person first.

But magic always has a price; the only person she knows that has been exempt from that rule has been herself.

In other words, this is a game of chicken - she knows how curses work, knows that the price is often days, months and years of a person's lifespan. The question is how much her attacker is willing to spend while he continues to try and shatter her protections.

In many ways, this visit to the manor is helpful - it gives her something to think about other than Chas' visit, Jessica's situation and the danger posed on her person. She needs the clarity a delay provides in order to determine how she is going to tackle this next set of problems.

Whenever Alfred answers the door, she gives him a small smile, stepping in and planting a light peck on the butler's cheek, presenting him with a festive holiday gift bag. "Merry Christmas, Alfred," she tells him, affection softening the startling color of her ice-blue eyes. "I hope you like it, are you sick of me yet? Where's Bruce?"

She carries two other items with her - another Christmas gift and what seems to be a simplistic, but elegant boutonniere, made out of sprigs of dried herbs and a single white rosebud, clearly for a man's suit or tux.

—-

The double doors swing wide, less than a minute after Zatanna knocks, and a beatific smile crosses the stalwart Brit's face as Zatanna proves to be on the other side of them. "Why, miss Zatanna, how nice to see you. Please come in," he says, stepping aside and holding the door for her, as if this arrangement were more pleasant surprise than scheduled meeting. "May I take your gifts and coat?" Alfred offers. "I suppose you're here for some Christmas cheer; Master Bruce is in the conservatory. I've taken the liberty of setting out some refreshments," Alfred adds over his shoulder, leading the way for Zatanna. "Had a few people popping in and out all day, but seems you've some time to yourself for a while."

It's a walk down a long hallway to the conservatory, which proves to be a large and well-lit room decorated in a late eighteenth-century plantation aesthetic; lots of white, soft pastels, and generous windows which contain a measure of frost that diffracts the cold, early evening light. Bruce Wayne seems to be dressed down, in loafers, slacks, and a sports jacket over a polo— he smiles warmly at Zatanna and moves to greet her when she enters. "Hello Zatanna. Welcome back, and Merry Christmas," he tells the leggy magicienne. Stooping, he exchanges polite kisses to the cheek, and invites her to sit at the small coffe service Alfred's laid out, filled with eggnog, coffee, brandy, and enough small treats to give someone diabetes. "Have a seat— help yourself to a snack."

—-

Shadowcrest has always been a labyrinth of mystery, a construct built out of living wood, fraught with the kind of secrets that would turn anyone's hair white if he or she has heard even a fraction of them, but whenever she visits, she gets this same impression from Wayne Manor. The signs are nothing overt, but rather something that she feels while walking through these halls, like passing through near-invisible cobwebs, forgotten ghosts clinging to her skin. "That would be great, Alfred," she says, taking off her coat; her clothes are black, as always, though today her signature gothic leanings are paired with street styles from Paris - slim-fitting dark jeans, ripped in places and worn over sheer stockings to add an additional underlay of pattern and texture from beneath the denim, a short-sleeved top that droops off one shoulder and exposes the straps of something light and sleeveless underneath. She has her necklaces, loose chains made out of silver and gold to add a pop of color, and layered bangles on her wrists.

"Don't drink it all in one sitting," Zatanna tells him - she had gifted him a very expensive bottle of forty year old scotch; to Zatanna, Alfred deserved nothing but the best. She keeps her packages with her, however, letting herself indulge in the usual giddiness associated with giving gifts herself.

Her boots enable her to kiss Bruce's cheeks without rising on her toes, when she finally sees him, giving him a beaming smile that belies her worries. "You're as always the most obliging man," she tells him warmly. "Merry Christmas, Bruce, are you having a good one?" She sets her packages down on the table, lifting up the transparent box to hold it up against his chest.

"It's been a while since I made a boutonniere," she confesses, examining it against his lapel critically without opening the plastic lid. "I used to do it for Daddy all the time, before every performance…I hope white is alright, I know you prefer dark suits, so I thought the contrast would look lovely."

—-

Alfred's brows climb up to his receding hairline, making a valiant effort to disappear into the white wispy locks at his brow. "Well, I'll be blowed, miss Zatanna," he murmurs, before depositing her at the door. "This is a properly fine gift. Thank you," he says, his features wreathed in smile. He leaves, then, so Bruce and Zatanna can make nice.

"A…boutonniere? I hope you weren't expecting a corsage, Zatanna," Bruce says, craning his neck to look down at the box plastered against his lapel. "I think those go out of vogue around the time high school is done."

"I have a small something for you, actually," Bruce says, as the two of them sit near each other on the small settee. He reaches forward for a small box, barely larger than the span of Zatanna's fingers, and offers it to her. It's exquisitely wrapped, with a real silk strand that's been hand-tied into a perfect bow knot. "We had our Christmas a bit earlier this morning, the kids and myself," he explains. "But I like to pick up some things for friends." He nods at the box, eyes dancing.

It clinks when Zee takes it— and inside, a pair of worn, slightly tarnished, but otherwise excellent handcuffs. A pair of initials are scribed on them— 'H.H.'

"I know you're a card shark, but it never hurts to get some inspiration from the greats of escape. That was your father's real speciality," Bruce reminds Zee, un-necessarily. "I thought this might inspire you a bit, too."

—-

At the quip, Zatanna pokes his side, laughing as she sets the box on the table. "Humor me on this one, Bruce," she tells him lightly, throwing him a look. "It's tradition for me now, for luck. If you're going to help me win the book at the auction, I might as well make sure the odds are tipped in our favor. But no, no corsages necessary, I never even /had/ a prom, if you must know, so believe me when I say I'm missing absolutely nothing in that regard."

She makes light of it, but the Wayne heir couldn't be blamed for knowing what it actually is - protection, a shield in the event that things take a turn for the worse in the event itself - seven different sprigs, an old incantation, her very breath whispered over the petals of the small, simple thing encased in the plastic box, and something that'll retain its moisture and freshness until the event itself. Bruce may be familiar with her father's unique skillset, but she has not informed him that his talents - all of them - are skills that she has inherited, oblivious to the fact that Alfred has probably told him already.

It seems unnecessary to her, to burden him with the knowledge. He has enough to deal with every day.

His gift is a surprise; a flush of pink rises to her cheeks, slowly taking the box. "Bruce, you shouldn't have! Really, it's sweet that you've thought of me, but after my first visit here and the others hence, you're liable to make me develop a complex!" Her hand lifts, rubbing at her cheek in a self-conscious fashion, but given the expectant look from the man, she fumbles with the ribbon, letting it slip delicately between her fingers. It's too beautiful, really, to tear into, so she works the wrapping and the silk bow carefully until she stares at Harry Houdini's initials.

Her jaw goes slack.

"It…no." She takes the cuffs reverently, her thumb stroking over the engraved initials, her disbelief writ over those fine lines, those large, expressive eyes. "…no. /No/. Really?! Are these really his? How did you ever /find/ these, you're…"

Her fingers shake, causing those tarnished cuffs to clatter within her grip, emotion pouring forth, vibrating every cell and exacerbated by the knowledge that if she fails in saving her own life, this would possibly be the last time she would ever see him, speak to him and spend any time with him. Turning around, she throws her arms around his neck, leaning forward and dispensing with all vestiges of propriety.

"Oh, Bruce, I love them!"

—-

"They're really his, I've got an antiqui— oof!" Bruce seems a little surprised by the hug. Does he? His reaction seems surprised, arms going wide, grunting in shock. But he leans back just a little, enough that Zee isn't going to crash into him hard enough to get hurt.

Alfred really needs to stop feeding him, too, because if there's a soft spot under that jacket, Zee can't find it. He's built like Tim, or Dick— a lifetime of careful dedication to fitness that's impossible to hide.

"It's fine, Zatanna," Bruce chuckles, returning Zatanna's hug with a pat to her back. "You're actually easier to shop for than Alfred. He doesn't drop hints all year, and I always somehow get guilted into giving him an extra two weeks of vacation so he can go to Italy for new shoes," Bruce says, wryly. "But, a magician? A stage performer? That's a little bit of luck as much as anything else," he tells Zatanna. "I don't know if they'll hold up to an act, though. They're.. well, most of a century old."

—-

She finds out firsthand that throwing herself against Bruce Wayne is akin to throwing oneself into a brick wall, but the philanthropist is as ever conscientious of his own person and considerate of the safety of those around him at any given moment. His act of leaning back is enough to soften the blow some, but if the young woman is hurt by her willing collision course, she doesn't show it.

"Oof! Tim was right….you /feel/ like a health nut. Do none of you have any body fat? How do you stay warm in the winter?"

Teteering precariously on the balls of her feet, Zatanna keeps her arms wound around his neck, squeezing him warmly as unwanted, traitorous heat prickles from underneath her dark lashes, catching a glimpse of the wards drawn over her skin, over her left arm, like incomplete tattoos meant to chart just how much time she has before she's rendered fatally vulnerable.

Another attempt is made; sparks crackle from her wrist, just under her layered bangles, slowly disappearing off her skin and leaving a bit of static tingling at the back of Bruce's neck; like particles of sand slowly draining down from an upturned hourglass, letting her know, letting her /watch/ as she runs out of time. She squeezes her eyes shut, blinking her eyes rapidly to stem the flow of tears, frustration spicing the volatile storm of emotions dragging her heart savagely against her ribcage. Her time with those she calls her own is always like this - so short, so painfully short. If she could only…

She takes a deep breath, citrus wafting into her nose; scent triggers memory the fastest and she remembers the last time she spent with him and Alfred in the Wayne Manor's kitchen. Her own is subtle, having eschewed the need for any perfume this evening, letting the honey-vanilla notes of her shampoo speak for themselves. Drawing away, she grins broadly at Bruce, her stage-worthy megawatt expression drawn out in its full, blinding force - anything to distract the man from the telltale glisten in her ice-blue irises.

"Are you kidding?" she wonders with a laugh. "These are way too valuable to use on stage! No way, Bruce. These'll find a place of honor in Shadowcrest, I promise."

She finally lets go, reaching for the table and plucking her box, offering it to him. It is medium-sized, with some heft, a plain white box with crimson and green cloth ribbons binding it together, with a sprig of holly slipped through the intersecting colors in the middle. "I hope you remember these," she tells him. "If not, I'll be terribly embarrassed."

Once opened, he would, indeed find three familiar objects - heavy glass balls of the same size, wrought from crystal and polished into perfect smoothness. They are unmistakeably a magician's implements, the sorts used to practice finger-dexterity for more advanced feats of legerdemain - the very first tools her father had set Bruce upon when he had first asked him to teach him his tricks.

"He'd want you to have them," she says. "In all of his life, Daddy taught only three people his secrets….you're the only one aside from me whom he taught his professional ones for the stage."

—-

Bruce mercifully looks away from Zatanna when she hugs him— into a mirror set into the mantle. Because ever the tactician, he's set her in a place in the room where she cannot hide anything behind her back, and the crackling of eldritch lights against her flesh draws a scowl. Batman's done more than merely follow Zatanna. In the space of two weeks, he's become an expert in the field of the arcane. Books adorn the Batcave that would have a shelf of reverence in Shadowcrest, knowledge of mystical traditions and techniques that goes back thousands of years. Some magicians would need to save for a lifetime for even one of those tomes, or trade terribly mystical power and favor for them.

Bruce Wayne had written close to ten million dollars in personal checks to obtain them, a few swipes of his pen doing the work of decades of apprenticing. His photographic memory correlates Zatanna's wards to his memory. A clock winding down, he surmises, instantly— watching one rune evaporate as it absorbs the chugging power sparkling against her alabaster flesh.

And then, part of him realizes how long Zatanna's hugging him, and discomfort swells in his chest. Because she is vital and alive in those most profound ways only women can understand, which often leave men uncertain and confused. And he finds himself stroking her shoulder more reassuringly than a gentle 'polite' hug would require.

And despite himself, her scent lingers in his nose.

When she breaks he's comported and smiling politely, and inquisition crosses his face when she offers the package. Fingers dextrously unravel the ribbon and he laughs with a pleased tone at Zatanna's gift, bobbling one of the balls up onto his fingertip like a finger finding an old glove. "Oh wow. I didn't know you had these. Wow, I am getting a hand cramp just looking at them," he says, chuckling and wincing. Still, one, two, three, and he's juggling them on his fingertips in hypnotic rhythm, biting the inside of his cheek. He holds it through a few motions, but then abruptly drops one on his foot. It rolls across the carpet, silent as moonlight.

Because Batman can play with these, but Bruce Wayne is too important to be bothered with maintaining that skill.

"Guess I'm out of practice," Bruce says, moving to retrieve the sphere.

—-

Affection; these days, she gets so little of it and the temptation is there to sink into the embrace and watch the runes vanish one by one on her skin. She doesn't know what is being attempted, or whoever it is that was cursing her from afar, but if she had absolutely no chance to save her own life, she could do worse than breathe her last while being held by Bruce Wayne. She supposes that if she made it to the afterlife without Mammon pulling any dirty tricks to obtain her soul for himself that she'd be able to brag about it to any jealous female onlookers, or dead ex-girlfriends. She was almost certain Bruce had one or two of those.

But she lets go because he might ask, leaving an appreciative kiss on his cheek and wicking a small smudge of her red lipstick on his skin, all too familiar with his social acumen, having tasted it firsthand. The last Wayne was perceptive and what's more, she knows herself….if he did ask, she isn't sure if she could keep it all from him, her worry, her distress, how /frightened/ she truly is, and all of them drive bitter spikes into her pride. She was Giovanni Zatara's daughter; if need be, for the honor of her profession, her identity, she'll be silent and die like a sorceror.

The sphere would have dropped on his foot, were Zatanna not there to catch it. Long, pale fingers pluck the falling object in mid-air before it lands on him, letting it roll effortlessly on her knuckles and over the pale bridge between her thumb and index. She smiles at him, letting the ball pop into the tip of her index and slowly, slowly letting it fall back into his waiting hand.

"It's alright, I promise I won't tell Daddy once I find him," she says, her syllables laced with mirth, holding her hands up so he could deposit the crystal spheres in her palms so she could place them back in the box. "Though if I recall correctly, you were already pretty dexterous when you came to him. I always wondered how you managed to get so good so fast back then, but I think I know why."

She finally allows herself to take a good look around the room they're in, her stare hopping over the crown molding, the high ceilings and the soft, pastel palette; an experimental tap of her heel on the floor gives her an idea as to how the acoustics of the conservatory work, long legs taking on a lazy, meandering drift to the heart of it - the grand piano. Light fingertips dance over the keys without depressing any of them, a hint as to just how meticulous her control really is over her fingers. Looking along her bared shoulder at Bruce, she pushes her thumb over the D key, letting the rest flow as they find the rest that belong; scales, in D-major.

"I didn't know you played," she remarks. "Rich, handsome, charming, a plethora of hidden talents….are you /sure/ you were never married? Not even once?"

—-

Bruce takes the spheres back from Zatanna and carefully packs them each into their little wooden box, perfectly built to contain them in the event of being dropped. Conscientious to a fault, he even latches it and brushes his fingers over the lid, smiling a little to himself. Zatara— always leaving little pearls of humanity in Bruce's brooding ocean.

"Hmm?" He looks up at Zatanna dancing her fingers down the scales, and smiles a little. "Oh. Yeah, all my life," he tells her, following with his hands resting in his pockets. "Mother got me started young, and it— well. I promised her I wouldn't quit on it. I still play," he says. "It's good for keeping the mind sharp, helps me relax." He settles down next to her, closer to the treble clef, and watches her fingers, then sets his hand on a higher register and starts following along with Zatanna's easy scales, fingers dancing along effortlessly. Here, is something Batman finds relatively pointless, but Bruce must excel at— and yet, it's something even Batman profoundly enjoys.

The brilliant solitude of music, perfectly executed.

—-

It is a Zatara family tradition, perhaps; whatever Giovanni can't do for Bruce, it seems that his only child has taken it upon herself to leave such tokens in his stead, at least until his return. Even if Alfred had not said anything, chances were that Zatanna would have done so anyway - it was just who she is.

"I heard those with dedicated musical training can retain information better," the young woman offers, tilting another smile his way, scooting over the bench to make room for him, though despite his the breadth of his shoulders, she still manages to find room on the same seat as him. Her flawless black manicure caresses the keys, her fingers moving in time with his.

Harmony from both sets of octaves fills the room, sitting side by side with him as her left hand falls on the lower keys, adding more complexity to the scales as she adds a few more chords to their growing musical litany; G-major, D-7, C-minor. The younger Zatara knows her notes, but that isn't so surprising; she is a performer, after all, on her way to being a professional star - she has probably already mastered a few of the basics such as dancing, singing, music and choreography. She did mention that she was a theatre major after all.

She is good enough that she doesn't have to look at the keys, watching him sidelong as he plays. The corner of her mouth lifts faintly, taking in what she sees with the silent tribute of one unashamed about her genuine interest in her companion's character; likes, dislikes, personality foibles. It may be a mask, but to her, it is a fascinating facade.

"You're different on the bench," she tells him, giving his shoulder a playful nudge with her own. "You control a room effortlessly, Bruce, but there was always something so elusive about you when you do it. Not here, though. Here, you're…I don't know." She closes her eyes, soaking in the richness of the sound. Nothing can compare to a grand piano, in her mind, as far as musical instruments are concerned.

"You're all here, somehow," she murmurs. "I suppose you can't help it, you must have so many things every day that yank you in different directions. But I'm glad to discover that there's /something/ that pulls all the pieces of you into one moment."

—-

He really should leave.

He really should. Bruce's eyes are lidded, not quite looking at the keys, not quite ignoring them, merely aware of them as he thinks of all the reasons he should go. The excuses he could offer. The plans for departure, sorted by degrees of practicality and believability. A clumsy motion? Drop the keycover on her? Fall off the chair? He could insult her. Say something indelicate and uncouth. Perhaps fake a text from a female lover. -Two- female lovers, that would certainly make the situation awkward enough she'd leave on her own.

All those reasons to convince her to go, to tell her to get lost. She's dangerous, this daughter of Zatara. She's emotional and unbalanced and entirely too involved in his life. She could discover that Bruce Wayne is just a mask, find the truth about Gotham's lonely guardian. She could potentially undo the work of a lifetime. Worse, she could chip away at the wall of ice around his heart, the lonely, bitter hurt that keeps all people at arm's length.

So many reasons to convince her to go. Only one reason to let her stay.

That lone reason wins out.

"I have a lot of responsibilities, Zatanna," Bruce says, finally. "I run a company, I have children, I have philanthropic obligations; not to mention plenty of hobbies to fill the hours. You don't get to ring the brass bell if you can't put out maximum effort on demand."

"I'm a capitalist. I know I'm only as important as the checks that I send into bank accounts. If I can't produce value, then I'm not worth anything to anyone. I— it's hard to let people in." His fingers dance up and down the keys in an idle blues riff, dancing along the keys in a lively but oddly melancholy key of D.

"At least when I'm at the piano, I don't owe anything to anyone but myself to be excellent as I can be."

—-

She /is/ emotional. She is reckless and restless and everything that a man who has prided himself on his mastery of control is not. She is young and impetuous, unafraid of bulling into emotional minefields and absolutely unrepentant when it is time to rub salve on the multitude of burns that she tends to receive in the course of those endeavors. She is quick, willing to learn from her mistakes, but is inexperienced enough to keep on making some of them - perhaps because she enjoys them, or finds some worth or intrinsic value in making them over and over and over again.

Perhaps that is always the most confusing part of anyone who knows Zatanna Zatara; her willingness and deliberation in making the same set of mistakes, for all of her guile and cleverness.

What could she possibly gain from that?

It's a mystery, the answer to which she isn't willing to enlighten anyone as of yet. Lashes lift from their feathery kisses on her cheeks, giving Bruce a sidelong glance as he addresses her comments. Her fingers spread over the ivory keys, tapping them lightly in a cursory effort to join his piece, but slowly, they slip away, to let him conduct the strains of music. Visible enjoyment softens the look of her, her stare falling on his fingers as they run over the chords with the ease of a lifelong student.

"Everyone needs that one thing, I think," she tells him. "I don't know a single person who doesn't - my father isn't immune to it, something he could call his own at the exclusion of others. John isn't, either, and so is Chas. Honestly, I've wondered about it, if anything I'm relieved that it exists."

She turns her head so she could look at his profile directly, watching with curiosity as his own stare appears directed somewhere in the space between the keys and the polished, black surface of the grand piano's top.

"I don't think your boys think you're just a walking checkbook, though," she tells him straightforwardly. "I've had lengthy conversations with Dick and Tim and they've not said an ill thing about you. Dick, especially, who almost couldn't stop talking about you when he and I ran into each other on campus. It's strange, but I don't think it's just gratitude borne from taking them in when they lost everything….it's almost like reverence. Your boys /revere/ you, Bruce. And I don't necessarily think that's an exaggeration, either…I know a little something about that myself, you know."

Another smile appears, nothing like the blinding expression she had given him earlier to distract him from the look in her eyes, but something softer and thus more muted.

"You're not like that either, for me," she tells him. "Sometimes it's difficult to see around name, and I think on your part, that's deliberate…but I meant what I said before, that if you ever needed me for anything, I'll be here. You're important to me, Bruce. Not just because of what you and Alfred have with my father, but because I know that, too - how difficult it is to let people in. You never know what they'll do to you in the end, after all, and I learned that lesson pretty early on. But if I think about it….if I weigh the pros and cons of it on the scale of how short life really is, it matters less and less to me. Destiny's overrated, and the future is harder to predict than anyone could ever imagine, so I'd rather live in the present, with the people I care about."

—-

Batman makes a mental note to correct their family cover story. The reflex is to override the foolish parental pride burning in his chest at Zatanna's lofty praise. No family can sound so good on paper, even an adopted one. Perhaps he should start a rumor about alcoholism or encourage the boys to come up with a story about prolonged absences at a boarding school. Create the story of a doting but absent father figure offering no real concern for them—

Bruce stumbles and misses a key, but recovers quickly, frowning a little at the slip.

And he pointedly doesn't look at Zatanna for as long as he can, perhaps knowing the dangerous temptation prolonged eye contact might create.

"Living in the present is a good story, Zatanna. It fits nicely into t-shirts with platitudes. But it doesn't pay bills," Bruce says, stubbornly clinging to the words and his fingers striking the keys more sharply. "If you don't invest in the future, the future won't come. You have to build a future. You have to work hard at it. Otherwise when it arrives, you're unready."

He turns and looks at Zatanna then, his words dying on his lips— mouth partially open, his jaw eases shut and his lips compress a little as he tries to marshal himself against those wide, knowing blue eyes and the intense proximity of the raven-haired woman, with all the bundled vitalty lurking under alabaster skin.

His fingers fumble on the keys, slowing to a halt.

—-

"What's wrong with that?" Zatanna wonders from where she sits. "Being unready?"

The answer is simple, she knows, and complicated at once but she poses the query anyway - it could be youthful naivete after all; not even in her twenties, what the hell would she actually know about life?

"Toddlers learn how to walk without thinking ahead about doing it, they fall down on unsteady feet and cry when they hurt themselves. Doesn't stop them from trying again until they master it. And I'm sure that every expert tactician in the world has had that one person who surprised them and turned their carefully crafted strategies on them. Millions of possibilities exist every day, I don't think even the smartest person on Earth could account for every single one of them, so I think /everyone/, on some level, will always be unready…and I think that's normal. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

She tilts her head slightly at him, watching him drive his fingers into the keys, already sensing /something/, the taste of a rare, but subtle degree of agitation coming from a man who is accustomed to being anything but agitated.

"That's not to say I'm incapable of planning when I /have/ to, Bruce, I'm not an idiot," she says with a laugh. "But I was never a firm believer that my life should be dictated by a series of next steps to a desired outcome. I like to be surpised….it doesn't matter if it's good or bad. I learn from either way."

If she notices him fumbling, she doesn't show it. Her hand lifts, reaching out to touch his cheek lightly, leaning in so she could look him right in the eye.

"We all have that one thing," she reminds him quietly. "This is mine. Maybe I'll grow out of it one day, or it could stay with me forever. I'm willing to find out when the time comes. For all I know, once I get old enough to look back at my life, I'll remember this moment and groan over how stupid I am. But not right now. I'm happy with this, presently, with who I am, where I am and who I'm with."

She lowers her hand, turning back to the keys, to place her hands over them as she lets her fingers skip and jump over them. Bruce would find the tune familiar - Mussgorsky's Night on Bald Mountain, the piece that her father always has playing during his performances.

Angling a sidelong glance at him, she gives him a wink. "That's not so bad, is it?" she says. "Plinking away at a piano with a friend who…" She frowns slightly. "…is /so much better at this than me/," she decides at the last, laughing as she misses a chord.

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