Too Close to Home

December 30, 2016:

The constant attempts of Muller's agent to breach Zatanna's mystical defenses catches the attention of one Peter Parker, and the urgency of the situation forces them to have several months' worth of conversations in a day.

Queens/Greenwich Village - New York City

It's New York. Everyone knows what it looks like.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Tim Drake, Dick Grayson, John Constantine

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Marty's Cameras and Lenses has been a staple in the neighborhood for years.

They say the proprietor, Martin Gates, was once a TIME photographer, notorious for photographing some of the worst battlefields in the modern age. He had paid for his art dearly when a piece of shrapnel tore out a chunk of his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down and unable to return to his true passion, but considering what he does now, it stands to reason that he hasn't left it all behind. Photography remains his life's work, and while his wares have been updated for the current age - the advent of the digital camera has rendered film almost entirely obsolete - he still keeps some of his industry's history in the back corner of his store, where developing agents and chemicals stand near light-sensitive spools. These days, outside of repair, most of his work revolved around custom lenses, having discovered an affinity for glass a few months after his accident. In fact, he's become so good, and some would say almost impossibly good, at his new craft that plenty of the city's professionals have found themselves shoving at one another to get on his waiting lists for such products.

Zatanna Zatara is no such professional, but she /does/ need an expert on such things.

Despite his growing success, Marty has resisted any and all efforts to leave Queens; there are many who have tried to coax him out of his simple, nondescript storefront and usher him to the more glamorous sides of Manhattan, and time and again, he has declared that he is happy where he is, grinding glass in his backroom (at least, that's what people think he does) and chatting with his customers about exposures and appertures. Presently, he is talking to a few others when she finally steps inside the shop, and decides to wait her turn before accosting him.

Ice-blue eyes skip over the merchandise, wandering curiously to the back corner where the more 'vintage' equipment stands, carefully picking up a heavy, bulky cylindrical object. A pursing of her lips sends microscopic motes of dust swirling upwards, catching shafts of light spilling out from the nearby window. She picks up loose strains of conversation:

"…swear to God, Marty, I thought it was a fuckin' alien."

"What, you mean it wasn't? I mean, this /is/ New York."

"No, I don't think so, it was really weird and kinda creepy, once I develop the rolls, I'll show you and you can tell me if it's some kinda glass trick or something. I mean I /was/ drunk when I took it…"

Her head inclines slightly towards the counter with growing interest, though her attention is wrenched away once more by the static crackle sparking from her wrist, just under her sleeve. This latest attempt lights up nerve endings like a Christmas tree, webs of pain crawling up her forearm as the long-distance spell throws itself savagely against her defenses, rattling at her new wards. A symbol fades, but just a little, from the space above her wrist; her digits lock up as the heavy lens slips from her grasp and towards the floor, her set from the right hand closing protectively over her arm.

She bites back a hiss, and a curse.

—-

Fun fact: New York City is cold in winter.

Addendum to Fun Fact: New York City is especially cold in winter when you are only wearing spandex.

Addendum to the Addendum of the Fun Fact: New York City is especially cold in winter when you are only wearing spandex and swinging through the air faster than most cars.

The More You Know.

This is a reality that Peter Parker has swiftly learned to live with. Newfound durability helps for a lot: it's so much harder to be affected by the cold when your body is inexplicably suffused with inexplicably gene-splicing radiation. Insulating, also a fancy trick Peter learned to invest in when he started to feel all his extremities go numb one day. But still. There's almost so much you can do. Especially when your budget is in the 'J. Jonah Jameson laughs at your poverty and throws a nickle at your face' category.

Which might explain why, as a certain red-and-blue spidery spectre swings by Marty's Camera and Lenses, it is done with a bright and enthusiastic cry of, "WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO I CAN'T FEEL MY SPIDER-FINGERS—!"

And just like that, he's gone in a thwip and a blip.

Ultimately, the trajectory of everyone's Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man takes him to a secluded alleyway only a block or so down from the store; it's one of many places Peter's learned as a safe place to hide his civilian clothes when he's out slinging, and besides — he has business here, anyway.

"I should seriously start investing in some kinda winter costume," Peter mutters to himself as he slides on a pair of khaki pants, long enough to expertly cover leggings. On goes a tragically wrinkled button-up white shirt next. Thick, woolen gloves, a heavy dark blue winter jacket, shoes, a dark blue cap — it takes him no time at all to get dressed, even if the outcome is something that looks like he just kind of threw everything together that looked warm. Bundling up, he starts his walk, lips pursing thoughtfully as he approaches the store doors.

"Maybe some kind of spider-scarf? Spider-mitts? … Spider-muffs?"

A second passes in blissful silence as Parker's brows scrunch inward, hand fixed on the handle to Marty's shop.

"… Yeah, okay, that one just sounded wrong."

*jingle*

Vaporously condensed breath spills from Peter Parker's lips as he enters the store with a smile warm enough to offset the bone-chilling cold outside. The young man's apparently a well-known fixture here, if the way the proprietor takes the time to give him a nod and a welcome is any indication. Rubbing gloved hands together, Parker looks at the old, vintage camera dangling around his neck with a fond sort of smile before making his way deeper in.

For right now, Peter is content to wait; patience seems to be his middle name as he just lingers at the shelves, eyeballing equipment curiously. As the conversation drifts towards 'aliens,' those hazel eyes flicker upwards if only briefly with a flash of unpleasant day-after-Christmas memories. He looks like he might say something…

… if not for the sudden, sharp tingle that invades his skull in a subconscious warning of danger. Magic jolts in a spit of static crackles, and while Parker can't see it, he -can- feel it — and he's not nearly experienced enough to keep alert, hazel eyes from instantly and reflexively flicking towards the source.

A girl? A cute girl? His first thought is, Oh god, this cute girl is going to turn into a monster and try to eat everyone here, isn't she, that's just what I could use on the day before New Years Eve, being cute girl monster food—

But in the end, it's not really long at all before concern wins over completely legitimate worries about his own health; there is a brief hesitation as he tries to figure out how to broach the situation. A brief moment of thought to try not to signal anything weird is going on. He can do this. He's clever. And so, he steps over, lifts a hand to hail Zatanna's attention, and then offers, out of a deep sense of concern,

"Hey, how's it going?" with a short, awkward clear of his throat. Wait. No. That sends the wrong signals. "I mean — because you look kinda bad." No. You're screwing this up Parker. Try again. "Not like you're bad-looking! Just that you look like you're bad—" NOPE.

Peter takes a long moment of silence. Wait for it. "What I -mean- is… are you alright, miss?"

There. Good job.

—-

Somewhere in Peter's pocket, his smartphone vibrates, and it's yet another tweet from the Daily Bugle:

'Rumors of creepy alien spotted on 6th and Main! Ever since that Spider-Man started menacing this city it's just gotten even weirder! Coincidence? I think not! More on today's issue, pg. 5'

Somehow, J. Jonah Jameson's ire and bias manage to push past the boundaries of Twitter's 140 character count limit. Maybe he's also an alien.

Zatanna doesn't notice the chime as yet another customer enters the shop; unlike certain elements in the shop, her senses are attuned to one thing only, but otherwise she's surprisingly, /mostly/ normal in the midst of a city populated by insane amounts of special people. Not when New York was home to the Avengers headquarters, its prominent A emblazoned permanently in NYC's urban skyline, or the Baxter Building, home of the Fantastic Four, a family so notorious they don't even bother with secret identities, or the Charles Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters somewhere upstate, where 'gifted' means something else other than a ridiculously high IQ and extra fingers and toes.

There's one other in Marty's store today, and while Zatanna Zatara doesn't know this yet, she already shares one commonality with its friendly neighborhood hero, though this certainly isn't changing her current streak of hanging out with people her age with secret identities /at all/. Maybe there's something in the air around her, or something more; while the future is more difficult to predict than any layman could ever imagine, the demands of Fate are sometimes too strong and insistent to ignore.

This moment, in honor of the holiday season, is handily ensconced with the wrapping paper of Chance, tied with the strings of Coincidence, but the unknowable rules of the universe have dictated that this will not be the last time they will ever speak to one another.

But we'll get to that later.

By the time Peter Parker has approached the young magician, she's already low on the ground to pick up the lens, and his query has her flicking up those eyes - a blue pale enough that it straddles the fine line between striking and unsettling - from where she's crouched, clambering up a pair of worn jeans, the expected winter jacket and tired hazel eyes peering at her from a mop of unkempt brown hair. Past the haggard traces of late night vigilantism, there is instantly something endearing about him, not in the least because the very first thing he notices is her present physical state, reminded instantly of the sort of boyish handsomeness she associates with the likes of Tim Drake.

And then he tells her that she looks 'kinda bad.'

There's a blink.

Well, that's a first.

She can't help but laugh, the sound immediately banishing, at least for the moment, the persistent hollow ache somewhere within her chest, demons exorcised and her heart consecrated all at once by the opportunity for a reprieve from those shadows; this is positively, probably, the most normal thing that has happened to her this entire week. Standing up, she sets the high-speed lens back where she has found it, shaking her left hand demonstratively.

"Carpal tunnel," she says, lies; it comes easily, for a young woman who cons audiences for a living, oblivious to the fact that her current companion would know this. "I have a paper due for my Advanced Sanskrit class back in G.U., so I was up all night hammering away at it. Definitely paying for it in the morning, though, I shoulda worn a brace. You waiting on Marty, too?" She lowers her voice in an exaggerated, conspiratorial whisper. "I think they're talking about aliens."

Her stare tracks to the vintage camera hanging on his neck, reaching out before she could stop herself, her index finger curling on the strap, though she doesn't pull. She leans forward to stare at the brand name embossed on the top.

"Wow, I didn't know these were still around. Canon AE-1, 35mm? You're old school."

Oh, good. She's laughing. Peter had very legitimate concerns he would be slapped, and it would be entirely justified. It's the happy middleground between 'Zatanna laughs' and 'Zatanna turns into a gibbering monstrosity and slurps up his spine like a noodle.'

So, so far things are actually looking up for Peter!

It's a strange feeling.

He's not sure he's comfortable with it.

It, of course, doesn't stop him from joining in that laughter with some of his own; lifting a hand to that unkempt mane of brown hair, he rubs the back of his head and looks aside, the grin that graces his lips awkward and yet so very disarmingly friendly for it.

"This is nnnnnnnot my proudest moment," he asides between his laughter, voice wry in its amusement. "But I guess it MIGHT not be my most shameful either, so I ought to look on the bright side, right?" Right. Find the silver lining. He has yet to combust from embarassment yet, which for him is a step up. Whatever fate might have in store for him, or her, or them…

… right now, Peter's heroic focus is making sure he gets out of this encounter without looking like an ass.

It's harder than you'd think.

Made harder still by the simple fact that he doesn't know how to approach this without overshowing his hand. He's clever but he doesn't have the experience or paranoiac intensity of certain Bat-like individuals when it comes to mixing his secret identity and vigilante work; youth and a certain naivete make him more worried about this girl than he is suspicious of her than he rightly ought to be, but he has no clue how to broach it. It makes for a more surreal encounter from his perspective, the normalcy that Zatanna feels counterbalanced by the thoughts that race through Peter's head even as that extrasensory tingle begins to dim.

All of it just manifests in that tired but warm smile as Parker's shoulders lift in a helpless shrug. She assures him, and he does his best to look reassured, even if he doesn't feel it. Carpal tunnel, she says. And she says it with such nonchalance he very well would have believed her if he didn't know for a fact it couldn't be that. A bad wrist doesn't make his spider-sense go off like DEATH IS COMING. But what could he really say?

'Hey, you're lying!'

'What? How do you know that??'

'Because you're making me allllllll tingly!'

And then he gets slapped, and he's right back at square one again.

He's playing through all the possible scenarios, all of them ending in him getting abused, as his laughter fades. He offers a sympathetic sort of look, brows softening and hazel eyes glancing at almost unsettlingly icy blues, before he ventures a tentative, "Oof. And here I thought my classes were rough. Me, I just have the wrists of an 80 year old from too many video games." Demonstratively, he turns his wrists around in a circle after he says this, making exaggerated cracking noises between his lips as he moves them. He is, in fact, that much of a dork.

He might even insist on not worrying about him despite his plight — and then -cleverly- use that to his advantage to steer the conversation towards her clearly life-threatening case of carpal tunnel — but she is providing no end of distractions. Hazel eyes dart towards the counter, looking at Marty and his customer. "Man," he utters lamentably, heaving a sigh. "I miss when the only aliens we had to worry about were Space Invaders." And then, realizing this is yet another nerdy thing to say, Parker clears his throat. "But err — yeah. Marty. Yep. We're great pals! I think he might only be using me because of my camera, though. I'm just too ashamed to confront him about it."

His smile is lopsided when he turns his attention back onto Zatanna; tired eyes hide the scrutinizing stare, but there's nothing familiar about her, which would put him more on edge if this conversation wasn't a slice of normalcy he rarely gets, which just makes it -more surreal-. It's an uncomfortable position to be in. "So, uh, about that—" he begins, ever-so-smoothly.

And then she's grabbing his camera strap. His -camera strap-. And -leaning in-. INTO HIS PRECIOUS SPIDER-PERSONAL SPACE.

Peter's response, being the suave young man that he is, is to gulp and squeak out, "Uh. Hi?"

Stiff as a board, instantly disarmed from whatever clever conversation track he was going to use to get more information from this suspiciously unsuspiciously suspicious character, Peter just sort of looks dumbly down at his camera. A second passes in silence as he seems to just be staring through it. "Canon oh right! My camera. That I own. I mean it's not— I guess I -am- pretty old school but it's— I mean, film is generally speaking better than— but that's kinda boring and— not that I think it's boring just that some people might—" And there he goes, cycling through conversation topics awkwardly before he just manages an awkward heave of a sigh and a sorry smile. "… It… was my dad's," he finally explains, simply. "Not a lotta places do work on film cameras anymore though, so this place is like a total slice of heaven for me. Marty's a lifesaver. Highly recommended. Totally."

There. That was a good recovery, right? Right. … right. He clears his throat, and offers after a long moment, "Peter," and, as if realizing maybe this is a bit vague, expands on that, "Parker. Peter Parker. That's my — y'know. Name." Smooth. "Since we're already at the 'grabbing each other's cameras' phase of the relationship." This, he manages to say with a small, friendly kind of smile and an easy(ish) laugh. "Uh — are you here for work or—?"

—-

Her fellow college student - or she assumes anyway, he looks like her age - and his easy manner spark a growing, visible change in the young woman before him. That veneer of polite distance fades slowly into the background, some of her old self rapidly reclaimed as her mouth curves upwards in a grin, wry enough, broad enough to scare the normally covert dimple on her left cheek out from its alabaster hiding place. His admittance that this isn't his proudest moment makes that unmisakeable spark of mischief flare and blossom within those irises, inclining her head and giving him a sideways glance. "Well, if it helps, today would be a bad time to come onto me anyway," she quips. "I haven't been sufficiently caffeinated yet, I wouldn't be in my A-game /at all/, so telling me I look 'kinda bad' today is a relief. Unless you're using reverse psychology. Are you using reverse psychology? I thought you were a camera guy?! Is this false advertising? I should totally report you."

His patomime of an old person with cracking wrists has her laughing again, looking at him with an expression somewhere between amazement and disbelief….and even relief? The latter is an unknown element and for a perceptive character like Peter, something he isn't going to miss. After the week she's had, compounded with the presence of a Norse God /sleeping on her couch/ back home, the chance at a normal, every day conversation is something she leaps on and seizes by the jugular with those black-lacquered nails. Warm, friendly, concerned guy who knows how to talk to someone without the standard brand of New Yorkan jackassery that's everywhere in the five burroughs? Yes, please!

"You gotta be careful about that," she banters back. "You're /way/ too young for osteoperosis, and then who'd save us all from uh…." She tilts her head back and thinks, before offering: "M. Bison? Jesus, I don't even remember the last time I touched a console. But that's okay, you're probably a better person than me at something like that. I mean, with aliens crawling around everywhere, you'd probably need all that handy knowledge in case aliens pour out of a wormhole in the sky again. I mean…I'm /sure/ the Avengers would have had an easier time with all of that if they just had a Mac Powerbook to upload some impossible virus into the mothership. So yeah, for all I know, you'll end up being our only hope in saving the world later, so take care of your hands."

Shameless most days and downright incorrigible in the rest, nobody who knows her would be surprised at all that Zatanna has absolutely no compunctions getting into the private space of someone she has just met, though her fingers - and not even all of them, just her thumb and index - fall away from the strap. Looking up from her leaned in position and his squeak, her smile grows, a subtle, terribly feminine twitch of the corners of her mouth that probably does his present discomfiture absolutely no favors whatsoever. It's the look of a girl who's scented blood in the water.

/Thankfully/, any noodle slurping of his spine hasn't occurred as of yet. Easing back on her heels, she slides her hands in her pockets. His introduction - and his jest about their new relationship - has her grinning broadly at him again. "I'll make sure to put that in my Facebook somehow, so you should friend me so you can see it. 'Relationship status: Camera-Linked by Cute Dude in Queens'." Her hand extends towards him in a shake. "Zatanna Zatara….god, I know, I /know/, it's awful but Daddy's eccentric and Italian, I had absolutely no choice. If I did I'd totally come up with something more creative like….shit, I don't know. Mariposa? Marmaduke? Anyway, just call me Zee, it's less ridiculous. It's…" Really, really, really. "…nice to meet you, Peter Parker."

There's a glance towards the front of the store. "I dabbled a little bit in Photography while I was on the road with Daddy, but it's all digital - it's really hard to get into film these days because it's getting phased out super fast and the overhead for everything, dark room, chemicals, that kind of thing, is only getting more expensive. But you seem really into it though, I think that's pretty cool, is it just a hobby or for work or…? You said the camera belong to your dad? Is he a photographer?"

And there she is again, fearlessly, recklessly stumbling into the realms of the personal, those attentive eyes on his face.

He would feel those pings, now that she was standing so close to him, aftershocks of strange, intangible energy thrumming from underneath her sleeve and sending ripples that fall just underneath normal human senses. Animals, insects, have always been sensitive to the workings of the arcane (and in fact are often /implements/ for such workings) and in that, Peter's interesting condition would not be at all immune to it, but now that he's close enough to assess it further, it paves the way for a sudden realization; while it's coming from Zee, she is in no way the source, and whatever is happening, it's outward and not from this store, the sense of a burgeoning storm curling over his senses as it crashes into the young woman's mystical fortress over and over again.

But she talks as if she doesn't feel it, though he would see it pass over those clear ice-blues now and then, as if she wasn't being attacked, as if she was completely oblivious to something strange and weird trying to /end/ her from afar.

"So you think it's true what they say about Marty?"

What?

Zatanna lowers her voice. "That he's….special? I mean I heard…ever since the leg thing, he's become /realy/ good at glass. That's why I'm here actually, I wanted to ask him if he'd make me something. You?"

—-

This is, at the very least, an improvement of being soaked with weird Krampus demon egg juice.

It's a long story.

And one very difficult to try to explain to his Aunt May. Something about an infestation rabid skunks was invoked.

He knows that dastardly spark in Zatanna's eyes, though. It's the same kind of spark he gets when he's about to make some criminal's life a living hell with his witty repartee (which they NEVER appreciate). That is the look of Trouble. Still, he manages to play along in his sheepish way, hands lifting up in a helpless shrug of an 'I didn't do it' gesture as he stands accused of loathsome reverse psychology.

"It wasn't me!" he insists, emphatically. "I don't use reverse psychology! I only use reverse psychology to convince people I'm not using reverse psychology!" The mild quirk of a entertained grin tugs at the corners of his lips. A brief spark of that mischief in his own eyes, even if of a tamer variety.

It fades, just a bit, at her joking insistence that he'd be the ace in the hole in saving the world one day. His laughter is modest and self-effacing, quick to dismiss the very notion of it to reinforce the absurdity. Yes. Absurd. Completely. "I'll be sure to tell Captain America that he needs to be shooting where they're going to be, instead of where they are. I bet he'll appreciate the tip."

And that just reminds him of the fact that his idol called him SPIDER-BOY. THE HUMILIATION NEVER ENDS.

There are things you notice when your camera is being molested by some strange girl who feels like doom that you just met. For one thing, there's that almost palpable sense of relief that clings to her as she melts away into a certain semblence of comfort. A bad day? A bad week? A bad everything? It's familiar to him — that rare moment where one can just be themselves. It makes some part of him happy — both that he can relate, and because he's simply able to help, in some small way, even if he doesn't know her situation and can't even begin to ask.

It also calls to mind the rumbling tingle at the base of his skull that still continues — from her? No. Not her. She's not the threat. But what surrounds her…

The crunch of Peter's brows inward could easily be due to how flustered he's become with Zatanna's presence more than anything else; it flutters away within the breadth of his introduction as she offers her own. "Man, Facebook is really getting pretty inclusive with its relationship statuses," he remarks in that glib, easy-going way of his. But no. Wait. He blinks, as if just picking up on something. "Err. —Cute? Pfffffffffffffffft," that would be his reaction to a compliment, just a big exhale of abashed air flapping at his lips. Which pretty perfectly sums up Peter Parker in a nutshell.

Suddenly feeling eager for a distraction, Parker is all too happy to cling to the nature of Zatanna's name with the lift of dark brows and the curious tilt of his head. "See, I dunno, now my name is just feeling inadequate," he decides to joke, his expression one of good-natured reassurance. "Guess we both have parents with a thing for alliteration, huh? I like it. -Although-, maybe renaming yourself after a cartoon dog -does- have some merit…"

He lets that sentence trail as if to wonder about all the possible 'Oh, -Marmaduke!' moments Zatanna could potentially have with a new name before taking her hand in a firm an friendly shake, complemented by the ease of his smile. "Right back at you, Zatanna Zee Zatara." And for all that she is confusing, perplexing, embarassing — and -worrying- him —

He really does mean that.

He looks back toward the front desk, back towards Marty, as Zatanna talks about photography; it's a convenient way for him to mull over just what he's going to do about this whole situation. He can't bring it up to her. Part of him tells him he should just let it go. Just let her be on her way. Never think about it again. But he can't do that, either. He especially can't do that. What…

"—on the road?" Peter finally asks with a blink, his hazel eyes returning anew to Zatanna. "Do you travel a lot?" It's a question that helps him buffer the thing that actually catches his attention, that he doesn't quite know how to respond to.

'You said the camera belongs to your dad? Is he a photographer?'

"… Oh, um, nah," Peter says after a moment, with enough quiet, pensive pause under that scrutinous gaze to suggest there's something more to it — because he simply is not the sort to lay his personal problems out to burden another with — not the least of which someone he barely knows. "Just a hobby of his, I guess." He smiles, a rueful little smile. "Not me, though. I do freelance photography. Because I'm like — masochistic, I guess? That's the only thing that makes it make sense to me."

Perhaps he's a little too eager for the change of conversation away from his parents; perhaps he's just a little too happy to talk about hers, or Marty, or anything else. But he lunges into that question headfirst with hazel eyes blinking in wide confusion at Zatanna's question. "What they say? What, that he looks a kinda unnervingly like Robin Williams in One Hour Photo—?"

Nope. That's not it.

"OH," Peter begins, perhaps a touch too loudly, before instantly and reflexively lowering his tone into a conspiratorial whisper. Special. Marty. He honestly never thought about it. "Special? I mean — I dunno. Can you really get… err, 'special,' from an accident—?" He tries to play dumb. He also thinks he's talking about a dirty disease when he keeps on referring to it in euphemisms. He tries to ignore that part. "I mean… maybe…" He manages a ghost of a grin, mild and joking. "You should ask him. 'Marty, are you a superpowered glass worker??'"

His jokes fall by the wayside just a bit when Zatanna asks that question. As if helpfully, he lifts his camera, peeking at her from overhead of the device. "Got some film to be developed, he always does a great job. I was going to see if he had any new lenses I could wistfully stare at while feeling the empty weight in my wallet." He sighs, long-sufferingly, a way only offset by the tenacious friendliness in his expression. "What d'you need made? —Err, sorry. That's not prying or something, is it? Sometimes people say I ask too many questions. Or pry too much. Or just talk too much in general. It's a gift and a curse."

Really. She doesn't know the half of it.

—-

"I guess I should be a little more appreciative," Zatanna replies, when Peter points out the alliterative nature of both their names. "Words are fun. I like words."

Understatement of the century.

It doesn't stop, the crackling, the vibrations, they jump all over the freelance photographer's spider-senses like embers from an active sparkler, electric and confusing, riddling his brain with chaotic patterns that make no sense. But he manages to carry on his easy banter, attracting that growing, visible appreciation from a young woman who seems, if anything, grateful for his presence instead of dismissing him as a dorky, socially awkward annoyance. But he'll discover soon enough that she follows the flow of societal cues like a small leaf on a running brook, smoothly sliding along and letting it take her away.

She doesn't resist the urge to ask personal questions, and nor does she hold back when asked them in turn, and while she lies easily, most days, she is open and honest.

His self-deprecating 'pffff' draws out another laugh, her elbow angling to nudge him playfully on one side, flashing him a look that's both wry and humoring, punctuated by a skeptical quirk of her eyebrows. "Oh, don't give me that, you shouldn't sell yourself short," she tells him, completely and utterly unashamed; it's a compliment, but it's a truthful one. "You should be out there strutting, maybe work those hands or two for added exercise. Toss your hair and stuff, /embrace/ your inner Queer Eye, that sort of thing. Who knows, maybe something good will happen and before you know it, you're in a plane full of Victoria's Secret models jet-setting to Tahiti."

He seems distracted; those clear, attentive eyes catch the flicker passing over his own hazel ones, the way he occasionally drops the ball with his split attention though he picks it back up quickly. It's curious, but it's one that she dismisses out of hand as there are many every day things that can explain it. He was young, a college student, and he lives in New York City, which never sleeps. And with some guy talking Marty's ear off about creepy aliens, he was probably anxious to be on his way.

Right?

But the mention of his father does pull him back to the present and for a moment, he would sense, see and /taste/ realization there, coming from the raven-haired magician. While passionate and prone to be emotional, she is sensitive too and what she sees strikes her as something intimately familiar, the ghosts of understanding, sympathy, rolling over her fine-boned face. There is nobody in the world who she is closer to, loves more, than Giovanni Zatara, and at the present moment, he was probably putting his life in mortal peril for some grand cause she can hardly comprehend; the only reason big enough, worthy enough, to justify abandoning her to the world.

"It probably makes you feel closer to him, yeah?" she says, her grin softening into a gentler smile. "I can relate, I do it too. Daddy's a stage magician so— " Both of her hands lift, palms forward and visible to him, her fingers curling within themselves in a graceful flutter. The right passes over the left before she flips it sideways, revealing a coin that was not there before; smooth, practiced, despite her young age, it was extremely difficult to find anyone better than Zatara's daughter in legerdemain, not even his most infamous disciples. "I picked up a couple of his tricks."

She's absolutely shameless there, addressing the spectres of his internal burdens directly instead of dismissing them as a trick of the light, as if they were nothing inconsequential. It doesn't matter if he was a new acquaintance, he was nice and he originally approached her because he was concerned. It's something she has done before, something she does unfailingly every day. She could at least return the gesture with one of her own, even if it was just to imply that she understands.

"Anyway, yeah, I do. I actually live in Gotham but…some family business has me staying here, for a while." She stumbles there; for the first time in this conversation, there's a more elusive note to her replies. "But before that, I've been traveling! I mentioned Daddy's a performer, right, so we fly everywhere. I actually haven't been to the States in a really long time, I think the last time was when I was ten. France, Germany, Austria, Hong Kong…it's been /exhausting/ though, so I'm kinda glad to put some roots down for a bit. What about you? You a local? Who do you freelance for?"

There's a glance towards Marty. Can anyone turn special after an accident? There's a tilt of her head, that mischief returning. "What, you daring me to ask?" she wonders.

And he would know, just by looking at her, that she'd do it.

But the last question gives her pause, and with a shrug, she reaches into her pocket to pluck out a piece of paper, handing it to him. "It's alright," she says with a small laugh. "I'm the same way, I don't really have much of a filter either when I /do/ ask questions, or say something. But I'd rather, you know…talk to someone I don't know while I'm waiting around than not. I mean, who knows? The encounter could be really surprising, some legendary team ups and friendships started with just that."

The paper contains a schematic - a circle, with the requisite shading to give it a three-dimensional look; if drawn by his feminine companion, she has a flair for the arts. There are notes and scribbles by a hurried, but girlish hand, arrows pointing over the circumference, measurements that denote a perfect sphere - or as perfect as anyone could make it, and Marty is said to work wonders - with a specific weight, made from specific glass, inlaid with specific treatments.

"It's…for a show," she says. "I perform too, sometimes. Trying to break into the business."

Another lie.

There is a pause, and after taking another look at Marty's profile, Zatanna lowers her voice, visibly holding back another laugh, though this is more incredulous than anything. "He /does/," she whispers, her eyes growing wide at the epiphany. "He /does/ look like Robin Williams from One Hour Photo. Thanks a /lot/, Peter, now I can't unsee it."

—-

Peter, at least, pays attention where it counts. Case in point:

Zatanna quite boldly instructs Peter to become the Peacock. He squints at her, lips pulling into a thoughtful line and cheeks puffing with a lingering inhale of breath. "You want me to like — to strut my stuff?" he asks. "Like this?"

And that is when he helpfully does a moonwalk in place, gliding without moving. His hands helpfully lift with the jazzy wiggle of his fingers.

The end result is Marty and his customer staring at Peter Parker as if they were staring at a godless abomination. Peter… slowlyyy… … stops.

About a second passes of him awkwardly clearing his throat and rubbing the back of his head before he bursts into awkward but sincere laughter.

"Y-yeah, see, like — that doesn't end well for -anyone-, you don't know the kinda hell you could've unleashed there!"

See? Attentive when it counts -most-.

It's a lame goofiness that is quick to fade as the conversation continues inexorably towards his father. Hazel eyes dip down to look at that camera as Zatarra addresses it, brows furrowed inward. "Yeah, maybe," he half-murmurs under his breath, before turning that friendly nonchalance back on with a casual smile for Zatanna. "Probably less weird than it being because I like weird old dudes paying me scraps to yell at me, right?"

The young college student's banter fades away, though, when Zee opens up about herself. In a manner of speaking. Vivid eyes shutter in the wake of a curious blink as Zatanna starts to move; Peter's no stranger to feats of dexterity. He's not even a stranger to sleight of hand, but even that supernaturally acute stare has difficulty tracking just where that coin might have come from. Another blink follows after its appearance, prelude to a dumbfounded and impressed little expression. "Now I'm gonna be obsessing over how you did that for the rest of the day," he points out, gravely. "Thanks a lot, Zee."

He probably might, too, if he didn't have another conundrum to figure out. Already, he has an idea forming in his head. He has the tools he needs for it, too; the problem is just finding an opening that will make sure she doesn't notice so he doesn't end up have a lot of awkward explaining to do that'll probably end up making him look like a creeper. Youth is the bane of superhero antics. He just needs to find a time where he can believably invade her personal space, or take advantage of her split attention—

Yes, his internal monologue realizes, he -does- seem like a creeper. Thanks a lot, internal monologue.

"Your dad sounds pretty awesome," he asides not at all to disrupt his internal train of thought. "That musta been a cool life. I can't even imagine, y'know? I bet you've seen some crazy things." Again, half of it, not knowing. When the question turns on him, though, he blinks, and rubs the back of his head. "New Yorker, born and raised," he admits with a mild grin. "Never been out of the city, so much as the state." It's mostly true! "I'm about as boring as it gets." He'd like to think that's mostly true too. Or wish. Or whatever.

"Huh? Oh, um — Daily Bugle, it's a…" … … "… it's a newspaper." Yeah. That's about as generous as he can get.

Once more, he looks Marty's way. Should she ask? She looks like she's going to ask. She really probably shouldn't ask. What if he is, and he, like, blows glass on her to death? That is a very real concern. The Ghastly Glass Man is a possibility he's not about to dismiss.

"Uh, you probably — can't, right? That's not a thing you can do I think." It is. He's bad at making up excuses. That's also a thing that is true.

"Besides, if One Hour Photo told me anything, it's that you don't want to upset Robin Williams."

There. That's a good warning, right? Right.

But when that paper is produced, Peter's head tilts. "Huh, looks nice," he compliments easily as he takes the paper in hand, looking over the schematic with a thoughtful eye. He has no idea what it all is, but he scrutinizes anyway, even as he finds the time to joke in between, "Zee and Pete, the Dynamic Duo? I think we'd need to work on our superhero names if that happened, right? Well — maybe not you. Zatanna sounds like a great hero name."

She explains. She lies. Peter whistles.

"That must be some trick. Dangerous?"

He doesn't believe her. But he can play along.

—-

'You don't know the kinda hell you could've unleashed here!'

Zatanna's mind backtracks at that; just a few days ago she had been storming up to the front desk of BR Artists Agency to speak with Benji Raymond, manager for the stars and soul broker for Mammon, which immediately dovetailed into a confrontation with three hellementals that attempted to burn her inside out by stuffing her with hellfire. It had been close, but doable, certainly the ripples of that event cascaded throughout downtown Manhattan which probably lit up the fuse of every psychic, warlock, witch and magus between here and the rest of the tri-cities, all because she needed Benji to call the Demon Prince of Excess for her.

"Ah ha ha ha ha….me, unleash hell?" she laughs, sliding her eyes to the side. Awkward. "I'm perfectly harmless. Pure as the driven snow. Angels sing whenever I walk past. Certainly not me!" She flashes a grin at him at that, the look of her so innocent, in fact, that every single court from here to the afterlife would convict her on the spot without a trial. "But you're right, I guess we better leave the Hell-raising for the likes of other people a lot weirder than us."

Whatever good humor she has been accumulating abates, feeling the ache, the sharp, stabbing pain of that white-hot conflagration before an empty absence. It pulses at the reminder, throbs at the back of her head; painful enough to be felt, painful enough to physically hurt in every way that matters. She pauses from her friendly banter, taking an opportunity to let her eyes wander to a point past Peter's shoulder, conveniently timed for when he drops his hazel eyes to the camera around his neck and murmurs that half-formed thought. His expression is enough, for the time being, to banish all thoughts of an empty couch and the resounding echo of a metal lid slamming shut, marking the true and final end of whatever she had with John Constantine.

His quip about her sleight-of-hand couldn't come at a more opportune moment. She grins, wagging her index finger at him. "You know the old rule, right?" she tells him. "A magician never reveals her tricks, but I /might/ make an exception if you give me a good enough guess. A friend of mine actually asked me the same thing, and I gave him the same deal, and it doesn't seem fair that I not offer someone else the same opportunity, so….consider it a gesture of goodwill, from me to you. Think about it and get back to me."

She's already fishing her phone out, wiggling at him in invitation.

"I guess you can say it was fun," she continues. "Traveling. I got good at a bunch of languages, kind of a necessity when you're on the road as often as me, so when I got back, I decided to major in that and theatre. So if you're born and raised here…..NYU? Cornell? SUNY?" She tries to peg his college, looking at him up and down in an attempt to find any identifying markers - a sticker on his camera, or a patch on his clothes.

Mention of the Daily Bugle has her furrowing her brows. "Wow, really? I mean I guess…you're…what? Eighteen? Nineteen? Oh, man, the pay must be /shit/, how do you live? How are you going to get on a jet with Victoria's Secret models if you can't make it rain?"

She's teasing him again, oblivious to the other youth's own superior powers of perception, human or otherwise.

It isn't consistent, he would find - the attempts on Zatanna's mystical fortress cease and his senses relaxing, but that might not necessarily be a good thing, especially when, after a few moments, it comes ticking again, a more powerful shock caressing his built-in danger radar, crossing the ephemeral stuff that binds the universe together and slamming hard against…

Zatanna turns away, faltering even as she tries to disguise her change in posture as a casual look over one of the other shelves, but she can't quite help the way her right hand moves up on her left forearm, gripping it tight, the way tension strings over the delicate line of her shoulders.

"Hah hah…Zee and Pete?" She manages to look over her shoulder at him, giving him a tight grin; there's a slight tick at where the pale, tender hinge of her jaw meets her neck. "You're right, we need to come up with something cooler. Though you better be careful if you're going to say stuff about my name like that, Peter Parker, you might make me blush."

Says a woman who's almost incapable of blushing.

"As for that…no, nothing all too dangerous!" Lie, lie, lie. "I don't know if you've ever checked out street magician videos on Youtube, but there's a few sleight of hand tricks you can do with glass balls, and if you're good enough, you can make them look like they're floating off your…"

The world lurches slowly on its axis. Power and pain corkscrew over her arm. A flare of blue-white manifests from under her sleeve as the attack persists, stronger now, more persistent. Her eyes glaze over, her cheerful expression relaxing, growing more and more lethargic.

"…hands…" she murmurs. Before her eyes, Peter Parker clones himself; three of them are standing before her as the world continues to tilt.

Except it isn't the world that's tilting, but her. Her body slants over into him, though she's still conscious. She doesn't seem to realize this though, but the contact between her forehead and his shoulder is enough when it finally impacts, jolting her back into wakefulness. A hand flattens over his chest, a blind gesture, instinctive, without deliberation. Buzzing noises fill her brain.

"Sorry, Pete," she mumbles, attempting to straighten herself up, shaking her head vehemently once. "I don't think I feel very well."

—-

It isn't fading. If anything, it's getting worse. It's a dull headache at the back of his mind. A lingering presence that cannot sting like the presence of immediate danger, but instead lurks like a quaking dread on the horizon. Inexperienced as he is with the superhero business, Peter's still been dealing with his spider-sense being 'always on' for a few years now; he's gotten a handle on how to manage it, how to prioritize it. But this is…

… different.

It's unfortunate yet fortunate that the lurking, growing sense of unease inside him bubbles to the surface about when Zatanna's peerless poise starts to break despite what she must be enduring. The way his brows knit in concern match perfectly to the way her body sways and her words pause.

He tries to hide it, for her sake, when she presents that phone; brows lift, and he clucks his tongue once almost chidingly. "You sure about that? I'm pretty good at this kinda stuff. I know all the the best investigation methods. Like… Google… and… … Google…" But it's too late now, because he's already plucking up that phone and grabbing his from the pocket of his winter coat; his own a nondescript smartphone, more than a few models out of date. Far from having to use a burner, but it's clear he probably has it because it's cheap. Affordable.

"Don't be surprised when I call you less than a day from now," he begins confidently as he puts in the number into his phone — and then does the same for Zatanna before looking up with a lopsided hint of a smile, "… begging like a big baby for you to just tell me what the answer is already."

Yes. Now -that- is confidence.

He's still putting in information when she asks those questions about his university. There's no real identifiers on those clothes — they're all actually very nondescript, the only noteworthy thing about them their wrinkled disarray. Cheap and expendable and off-brand all the same, it looks like. "Ah — um, Columbia," he answers; he lifts a hand to rub the back of his head almost like a subconscious reaction, only to remember he's just about to scratch said head with his phone. "Got some kickass scholarships. Now I'm experiencing a living nightmare of schoolwork." Yes. That must be why he looks so tired.

He'd have an embarassed quip lined up for Zatanna's teasing — and, indeed, there's the little hint of a flush of red there that's probably less from the cold and more from the magician being a horrible person — but before he can, the electrical impulses of his extrasensory radar pulse undeniably. Right about when Zatanna turns away. Tries to mask her fatigue. Her pain. It doesn't work, he doesn't buy it — and this time, he doesn't pretend to, either. He overlooks the words, ignores the teasing warnings. Takes a step forward as he offers her phone back.

"Zee? Are you okay?" he asks, those hazel eyes looking for a moment as if they see right through her with the weight of their worry — worry of someone who's spent a long time supporting an aunt who needed it even when she was too proud to say she did. Of someone who's spent a long time hiding dangerous things, himself. "You're not looking so hot…"

He'll apologize for the phrasing on that one, too, later.

She tries to explain the schematics. He'd take a closer look again, but by this point, Zatanna's entire world comes tumbling down on top of him, metaphorically speaking. That tingle at the base of his skull reaches its looming apex the moment that Zatanna's body fails her and sends her careening lightly into him. His reflexes would be perhaps astonishingly good if she were aware enough to notice; she's not even reached him before those hands are up to support her weight to make sure she doesn't topple all the more, his stance unyielding despite the sudden, extra weight.

"That's — don't apologize," he utters almost instinctively, his brows furrowing. As she moves to straight, he looks to help.

And he does, sincerely, help.

That he practices his own sleight of hand to tuck a small, red object barely even the size of a fingertip inside one of her pockets is just when she's not paying attention. Part of him feels bad.

The bigger part of him is far too concerned to care right now.

"So, um — I dunno, but something tells me this isn't typical carpal tunnel symptoms," he ventures a joke when he's sure she's stable, looking at the magician with furrowed brows.

"You okay? Need to go somewhere? I can—"

Websling you to the nearest hospital and/or Avenger's Tower so you don't get destroyed by whatever crazy cosmic bullshit is eating you alive.

"—hail you a cab, or… or something."

—-

The demands of Fate continue their persistent press on this small shop, nondescript and as unassuming as Peter Parker's clothes. Numbers are exchanged, with the promise to call. Both devices are tucked away, just in time for Zatanna Zatara's all-too brief foray back into a normal life to be torn asunder by the new and more powerful attempts to shatter her defenses. It scrambles her brain, sets her left arm on fire, and the three Peters in front of her move with quick, unfailing grace. There is no resistance when he slips the bug into her pocket, his own dexterity at play, and it rests in the lining of her jacket, its indicator lights winking away forgotten between folds of fabric. Were this any other day, were her senses not so skewed, she would be able to examine the way he moves and determine that there's something more there than an ordinary mortal's natural ability; what's with all the nerds in her life being super-athletes?!

He moves like wind when he lifts his hands up to support her, like a cat, or some impossibly flexible insect.

Like a spider.

And in his good-natured attempt to bolster the faltering posture of his newest acquaintance, suffering the onslaught of a curse from afar, her left arm pulsing with her own defensive magic as it fights it off, he makes the tender, bitter mistake of touching her.

For spiders have been connected to some of the oldest mythologies in the world, the most ancient pantheons; not the more prominent ones that reflect sophisticated civilizations, but rougher, indigenous ones more viscerally tied to the history of the world. The Hopi know their queen as the creator, tribes in Africa know them as trickster gods. More disturbingly, and more relevantly, in Latin American magical tradition, spiders are harbingers - messengers of death and carriers of like magic. And one of its ilk, encased in the body of a man, elects to reach out and touch, involve himself while these conduits are battling, fighting for dominance.

His danger-sense goes wild, clarion alarms screaming through his already struggling brain. His eyes somehow see through his companion, sees beyond, rushing through the sprawling, concrete landscape of New York, twisting through forgotten alleys and smashing through windows. It claws at his skin, the sensation of ice-cold bones ripping down his spine, dumping white-hot adrenaline in his veins as flight-or-fight responses war with one another. It pulls him, sends his spirit flying, jetting through the familiar smells of exhaust and stale bay water. A rundown building lurks in front of him, hazy, wavering in the corners and if he regains his senses enough, he might even be able to get an address.

He feels it all and it hurts. The sensation blooms in the back of his head like a thorny rose.

Whatever it is suddenly ceases, a cord ripped out from the socket of a wall. /Someone/ has sensed his interference.

And he isn't the only one.

Zatanna Zatara stares up at him, her lips slightly parted; her eyes are full of pain, but that shouldn't be what worries him. There is realization there.

Realization that he saw. The question.

What are you?

—-

"I can — hail you a cab or… something… … h—"

He can see it.

The world drowns out in a deluge of inaudibly deafening screams inside his mind that alert him even more profoundly than even the most immediate and dangerous threats of bodily harm have ever inspired. It's like nothing he's ever felt before, and in the scream of nerves his mind just goes completely blank, washed to white within the blare of the incomprehensible.

And there, he sees it. He shouldn't see it — shouldn't see anything but this store, this room, but there it is, a rush of buildings and cityscapes and sea and sky until he is crashing through abandoned windows. Something clings to him, claws at him, tries to drag him down into a metaphysical muck he was probably happier never knowing existed.

But he sees it. A building, a structure that looks built on the foundation of a mirage. Rundown. Forgotten. Derelict. Important. That's important, isn't it? Even through the haze of pain he knows Important Ominous Visions when he sees them (and he's only seen the one!) and this just screams important into every corner of his mind that isn't reeling in pain.

He feels like screaming. He feels like vomiting. He feels like fighting. He feels like fleeing. But he fights past every primal impulse to try to get a better look at that building until he can see the sequences of numbers laying out the address—

"GUH!"

He feels like he's being repelled. Evicted by the largest and angriest of bouncers. His mouth is dry as he coughs up that yelp of surprise and pain. He probably calls undue attention to himself; his only saving grace is that, when he wheels backwards, the coverage of an aisle of camera accessories keep prying eyes from seeing how he falters and barely catches himself before he falls.

He is panting, gasping, his skin gone pale and his hazel eyes wide and unfocused as he clings to the wall of a nearby shelf. His grip probably shouldn't have held, but it does unflinchingly, a subconscious reaction that is fortunately subtle enough that it might go unnoticed. It lasts a second before he releases the shelf with a stumble, cold sweat clinging to his skin as he looks.

And he realizes that subconscious screw up of his overloaded mind really is the least of his concerns.

The way he looks at her. He knows what it means, because it's the same look he's giving -her- right now.

What -are- you?

For what seems like forever, he lingers like that, staring at her, gaping, unable to articulate thoughts, trying to figure out exactly what he ought to say to get himself out of this predicament.

And the first thing that comes to mind is,

"So — I'm not — like — a doctor… but I go onto WebMB -all the time- and that is NOT how carpal tunnel works—"

Yep.

—-

She knows because he looks sick; pale, wan, his hazel eyes wide, under the pale shafts of morning light filtering from the nearby window, his skin looks clammy with cold sweat. The tremors running down his body are consistent with surrpise, shock, and she can faintly taste old, cruel magic at the back of her throat. His stare looks distant, for just a moment, and filled with pain. Were this any other person, nobody would even notice - time moves differently in the strange, cryptic world underlying this one.

But Zatanna has been raised in that world, was born to it; her soul is magic itself, though she doesn't know it, ten times larger, greater than an ordinary human person's and pure, its raw glory the only reason why she has never had a lien on her spirit for a god or demon to claim, no ephemeral price to pay for her skills, of which, while they are many, barely even scratch the surface of her overall potential. She feels it in the air, feels the goosebumps rise from her skin, and suddenly Peter Parker is no ordinary man, but an /other/, something beyond though he maintains a very convincing facsimile of one.

But that's what confuses her as she looks at him. She can't detect magic on him, and most of the time, she knows. The only time mages are able to hide from her are those who are actively hiding their presence, and even then, that is a difficult technique to master. Experts have done it, like her own father.

Like…

There should be hesitation, but there isn't any as she reaches out for him, to help his discombobulated body away from the shelf. As she looks at him, he would find them, frustration and no small measure of apology writ in those large, expressive eyes. She should be running - she should turn tail and run and not look back. Whatever just happened could find her again and if he was around her…

Another image flashes in the back of her head, of Tim Drake thrown back, protected only by a ward she has managed to place on him seconds before the shadows attacked.

But that was Tim; handsome, whip-smart, normal Tim, who didn't have a supernatural or weird bone in his body. Peter Parker is a completely different animal and she /knows/. She doesn't know what she knows yet, but she knows he isn't ordinary.

"We better get out of here," she tells him quietly. "Are you okay? Can you walk?"

The urge to grab onto him and rip the air open with a teleportation spell is strong. Whatever had been trying to get at her stopped the moment Peter touched her. For all she knows, he could try again and neither of them would be safe.

And the closest place she knows in which to find safe harbor is…

***

WHITE LIGHT PENTACLES
Greenwich Village

She isn't an idiot. While she knows there's more to Peter Parker than meets the eye, she also knows that whatever he is isn't related to any function of sorcery there is. She would have known the moment he said hi. If she tried teleporation now, he might go into such a shock that he'd run away from her the moment they appeared in Ginny Townsend's store.

So cab it is.

White Light Pentacles takes up a small corner in New York City's Greenwich Village between a Mom-and-Pop calzone place that had been there forever, and a vegan coffeehouse, just one of many in a community that thrived by catering to the Bohemian/hipster lifestyle so popular in the current times. The front of the store is crammed with the generic essentials one would expect from a peddler of all things New Age; shelves of candles in all shapes and colors dominated the room, incense and various holders were perpetually in stock and crystals that promised to cure any physical, emotional or mental malady were located in the locked glass case underneath the register. Wall hangings of famous chakra maps found places next to depictions of Buddhist deities, Ojibwe dreamcatchers and Egyptian hieroglyphics amidst the fragrant haze of vanilla smoke that escaped a black burner on top of the counter.

"Zatanna?" Ginny's pale-haired head looks up from its sleepy droop. "What are you doing here?" There's a slight squint. "Did you know Constantine's— "

"I need to use your back room," she says, her voice somewhat breathless; there is at least that, her worry for Peter's safety has managed to drown the nagging pang in her gut at the sound of his name. "Please, Ginny."

The woman frowns visibly, her eyes cutting sharply towards Peter Parker's face….and what she sees on him has them narrowing faintly, her jaw stiffening at the corners.

"Go," she says, waving to both teenagers as she rises from her seat behind the counter. "Do you need any help?"

"No." Zee pauses. "…fuck, I hope not."

Taking Peter's arm, she leads him to the back. If he looks over his shoulder, he would find Ginny crossing quietly to the door and with a flick of her wrist, flips the sign from WE'RE OPEN to GO AWAY, WE'RE CLOSED.

—-

Peter Parker is definitely not normal. Peter Parker is still also definitely not magic. Whatever mystical implications of his association with spiders, Peters changes are all physiological; which means he can take the strain of having his mind so assaulted. Which means it won't topple or kill him. Which means his unfailingly subconscious sense of balance keeps him from losing his footing, and the strange adhesive properties of his fingers let him cling to that shelf without risk of his grip faltering.

What it doesn't do is protect him from having his mind freaked the fuck out.

He has no experience with the supernatural. The -really, really, seriously- supernatural, not just a guy in a fishbowl hat. None. El zilcho. Which is why, beyond using that mask of humor like a shield in a way that cuts a little too close to home to his Other Self, Peter just kind of only has the effort to nod like an idiot when Zatanna fires off those rapid-fire questions.

"… okay," he says. Because he's okay? Because he's not really registering the questions and just agreeing? Is it a blanket statement? Either way, he's being dragged off outside, and he offers no resistance, just stumbling along with Zatanna from behind with a lone, half-aware protest:

"—But what about your balls — ?"

NOW!

Well, that spider-tracer ended up being a waste.

That's Peter's main thought as he is shepherded into a small, nondescript slice of Greenwich Village and ushered into a New Age hipster treasure trove. It's really all he can think about; the steady ping of the tracer designed to signal his spider-sense is the lone focusing point in a series of increasingly surreal events. Hazel eyes sweep around him, taking in the sights, learning and memorizing them just in case. His lips purse.

"… I'm not really all that into vapes, Zee— "

Oh, and there's the store owner. Staring at him like she's staring through his soul. That's cool.

He lamely waves a hand, smiles a weak smile. "Hiya," he offers, "I'm Peter. … … Sorry about the vape thing— "

And off he's dragged again with an unresisting, "Whoa here I go" as he's led along to the back room. He looks over his shoulder. Sees the sign being flipped. Furrows his brows as his senses start to sink back in, slowly but surely.

"So, I know it's probably just me, but that seemed ominous— "

And off he shuttles into the back room.

—-

The humor is welcome and she will take it. Anything is better than him running away, anything was better than him ripping his hands away . Anything was better than him looking at her like she had grown two heads, walking around with hands for feet. The last thing she needs, the last thing she wants, is another person to reject her presence, though considering how Peter didn't even fight her in coming here, there's some spark of hope that he would at least let her make sure no lasting damage has been placed on him after his accidental…

….what even happened? It came so suddenly, so quickly, so fast that even her supernatural senses could not seize the details; while her memory is hardly photographic, she has a very good sense of the occult and what happened was /weird/, even for her, even when armed with a lifelong tutelage in the mystic arts and its deeper, more unsettling secrets.

"That's Ginny, she can be ominous," Zatanna tells him, keeping her tone light. "This area has about three school districts and they say she's managed to scare more delinquents off her storefront than all of them combined. She owns this place and she's…" Well, she's not friendly. "…she's a good person. If not a little eccentric."

And as she pulls back the beaded curtain that leads to the back room, Peter will find that 'eccentric' barely covers it.

There is a narrow winding staircase, a trap waiting to happen for anyone who simply steps through the glass-and-string divider with every expectation that there's a broad floor underneath, liable to fall facefirst into the depths of the building if he or she wasn't careful. A few quick steps lead them to the below space, the smell of old New York - musty, mingled with stale basement air - clinging to cold stone and brick as it opens up to what appears to be a surprisingly large library of books adorning hanging shelves, and display cases full of artifacts, reminscent of country museums; it is nothing modern, and everything is an antique.

There is a very detailed mosaic on the floor, fashioned from colorful tiles. They form a pattern, but considering the amount of old furniture inside, he wouldn't be able to discern what it is all too clearly. Dried herbs, clumped in bunches of seven, dangle from every other corner - some of the many reasons why she brought Peter here.

There is an old, circular table in the room as well as a few chairs. When she finally lets go of Peter at last, she gestures for him to take a seat.

"So what are you?" she asks, cutting to the quick.

She drags a chair over so she could sit directly in front of him, though she doesn't take it up as of yet. She doesn't adopt the posture of an interrogator, but rather one that would remind him of doctors that have seen him as a child, liable to ask him to turn his head and cough at any moment. Stripping off her gloves and her jacket, she straighens up her longsleeved lace shirt, the intricate gaps in the fabric revealing the tanktop she wears underneath; black, all black, as befitting the gothic fashion sense she favors.

"Are you psychic?" she asks. "Or just sensitive?"

After a pause, she gives him a small smile. "Were you just pulling my leg about not figuring out my card trick?"

—-

Running or fleeing would probably be the sensible thing to do. Even beyond basic, kneejerk human responses, there's the simple fact that Zatanna knew something was off about him and was bound to ask him about it. He could just disappear, he could have just left and got lost in the crowds before the cab came. Maybe she could look him up, but New York is a big city. He could just become another face in the crowd.

But that's just not him.

There's something clearly wrong with Zatanna, and he can't just leave. This might be — this PROBABLY IS — completely out of his wheelhouse. He has no idea what the hell just happened or what this place is or -wow- all of this stuff in the back room looks creepy like what you'd find in some ancient wizard's secret chamber and he'd say that out loud but he's already filled up his nerd quota for the day…

… BUT. He has a responsibility now, to see this through. So he will.

It doesn't make him any less dazed as he walks inside, though, hands stuffed into his pockets as he looks this way and that. For as unawares and unfocused as he seems, though, Parker never trips, never falters, never shows any signs of poor balance as he navigates through even as he doesn't even look at the obstacles in front of him. He just… avoids them, as naturally as breathing. He just finds the chairs, pulls one out, and sits. And stares. Like he's just… sort of there.

'So what are you?' she asks.

"How does she scare them off, like with a paddle?"

… …

"Oh. Right. The other stuff."

That question is easy to ask, though. Answering it is, well… another matter entirely. As Zatanna gets herself comfortable, Peter just stays in that stuffy winter wear like he was dead set on not removing a piece; the questions, no matter the smile they're coupled with, make him look aside and furrow his brows in thought. Conflict, maybe. He's had to learn to be the type to be good at playing things close to the vest, but it doesn't come naturally to him. And frankly…

… no one knows what he is. No one -can- know what he is. No one can…

"… You first," he says after a long, tense silence. Hazel eyes look up, into those strange blues of Zatanna's. He's not avoiding it. He keeps his stare level. But, it's clear — he needs some sort of a sign of trust. Something he can go on to make it feel like he's not about to get screwed over, here. Something. Anything.

"I'm not really good at cards," he still manages as a glib retort, offering a small, sheepish sort of smile as if to say 'what can you do?'

—-

'How does she scare them off? With a paddle?'

"Guts and hot blood mostly," Zatanna tells him conversationally, moving over so she could take a seat on the chair right in front of Peter. There is nothing imperious about the way she folds her slender body on it, leaning forward until she rests her elbows against her knees. If she is perturbed by his skeptical, hesitant expression, she doesn't show it; the half-smile lingers on her cherry-red mouth and this close, he would see the fatigue clearly now, emphasized by the way she slumps on the chair, sinks into it as if it has more give than wood. It is the face of a young woman who has had a few, very rough several days and now that they were far away from the mundane world, she feels free to let show some of it.

"Me? I'm…"

Zatanna pauses, resigned bemusement rippling over her delicate face, like stones cast on a clear lake. The Zatara family curse - they are notoriously bad at keeping their true natures under wraps. Her dad regularly walks around in a top hat and cape, for crying out loud.

"….I'm magic," she tells him, those striking-unsettling blues lifting up to meet his hazel eyes dead on; it's supposed to be a secret, but once asked to reveal it, she doesn't show any hesitation, perhaps sensing just why he asks. It sounds ludicrous, and somewhat mad, but he would know by her expression that it is no euphemism, nothing borne out of some inflated sense of ego. It is not a joke.

One graceful hand tilts sideways, a gesture so airy it's almost hypnotic; fingers draw up the cuff of that lace sleeve and he would see a glimpse of it, the network of glowing sigils imprinted on skin so pale, it soaks up the richer, warmer light inside the basement-library and transforms her pallor entirely. It's just a peek, the contrast sharp and luminous against such dark clothing.

"Anyway, you don't have to tell me," she says, pulling the cuff of her sleeve back over her wrist. "I just need to….I need to make sure whatever happened didn't stay with you and I brought you here so whoever's doing this to me wouldn't be able to touch you and me for a bit. Things are…they've been a little hairy for me lately." No kidding! "And you just…you were so nice, I guess the cosmos decided to reward you by snatching you into it a little. I'm…"

Her eyes leave his face at last, turning to the floor. Frustration, accumulating steadily over the course of the last few weeks, a downright deluge from the last couple of nights, wells viscous and ill in her ribcage, filling her lungs. Her vision blurs as moisture threatens to overtake it.

"I'm sorry," she tells him quietly. "You were just being nice, and because of that this…I'm so sorry."

—-

'Guts and hot blood mostly.'

"Oh well okay yeah that makes sense."

Peter Parker might still be in shock.

It's not enough that he doesn't notice the fatigue on Zatanna's own features. Tired. Really, really tired. Maybe from the college work, but no — by now, after what's happened, he knows what that really means. It's the same kind of tired he gets. Tiredness that comes from stretching yourself thin.

… which doesn't make her answer much easier to swallow. "Magic?" Hazel eyes squeeze shut in a slow blink. "Like… not stage magic. Hocus pocus magic? Dumbledore magic? Saruman of Many Colors magic?" This is probably the point where he'd go off on a spiel about how frankly weird that whole part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was, but he doesn't have it in him.

Surprisingly, there are more important things to discuss.

"I don't think I…" he begins, unable to help but be skeptical despite having just been drenched in demonjuice the other day, until Zatanna rolls that sleeve upward. He looks to her questioningly, before falling back down on the arm. Sigils. Yep. Those are like — elf runes or some crazy crap right there alright. Fortunately he forgets to voice all his nerdy thoughts. He just kinda gapes for like five or ten seconds.

"Yep. Okay. Magic. Right then."

Down goes the sleeve, and once more Peter is dragged back into a harsh reality. You don't have to tell me, she says. And he seems to hang on that for a long moment. It'd be easier. He only just met her. How does he know she's telling the truth? That she just won't come after him? After his friends? After Aunt May…? Really, how much does he know about her?

The most important part, a part of him says.

Despite himself, Peter smiles at her apology — at her words about how he got dragged into all this. Not scornfully, not really. And not at her. He shakes his head, his expression sympathetic. It's not her fault, that body language suggests. Just— "… hey," he says after a moment. He closes his eyes, and gets up out of his seat. By the time they open, that hazel gaze is affixed to the ceiling for a curious moment.

"I need you to uh — okay, two things.

"Promise me you won't tell anyone about what you're about to see. Like… anyone. Okay? Anyone. Not even if they come after you with hot blood and guts — what is -up- with that anyway, I mean—" No, wait. Other promise.

"… and promise this isn't some kinda elaborate ruse to trick me and kill me or eat me or something because that would seriously bum me out because I've already had to deal with one thing trying to eat me this week and it was really not great."

That last one seems like a joke, if his smile is any indication.

Probably.

—-

Zatanna takes in his expression silently, and while her half-smile remains, it's an apprehensive one. She takes in his startlement, the way he gapes at her arm, his face running an entire gamut of emotions until she lowers her eyes and misses that sympathetic smile he directs at her. Had she seen it, perhaps she'd have less of a cause to believe what she does, her thoughts racing in the speed of light inside of that raven-haired cranium.

A heavy silence falls between them after his statements of disbelieving, reluctant acceptance.

Because this is it, she decides, closing her eyes. He's going to leave. He's going to laugh, get up, and head up the stairs and vanish. He'll never call, probably delete her number, and tell his mostly-normal friends that he met some crazy chick in the camera shop to—

He suddenly rises from his seat; the sudden movement causing her head to tilt back, blurry eyes blinking confusedly at him as he delivers his conditions with…well, it isn't /willingness/, but more driven out of a desire to keep his word, or his end of the bargain, nevermind that she just absolved him from it just minutes ago. She isn't /after/ whatever secrets he is harboring, that isn't the reason why she took him to Virginia Townsend's inner sanctum; she just wants to make sure that he was fine.

But she'll get it anyway.

"Peter, you don't really have t…" The words die on the vine, catching the determined look he gives her, her own face reflecting her astonishment and…

….wait, what?

Mention of a carnivorous monster parts her lips.

"Was it the empusa?!" she exclaims. "What do you /mean/ it almost ate you?!"

Well, she knows about it, another chalk tick to the side of the board that suggests that he should probably believe her, if he didn't already.

After a long considering silence, she sighs, and gives him a small smile. "Promise. To both. If it helps, I'm a vegetarian, so even if someone basted you in honey and barbecue sauce or slathered you with the most amazing Belgian dark chocolate on Earth, and rolled you in front of me, I still wouldn't eat you."

—-

He could just not tell her. She said it would be fine. And frankly, he ought to not. Even just on the basic level that he doesn't want to rope her into his world of back luck nonsense, too. No matter what kind of magic she has. Sometimes chance just isn't in your favor, and it almost never is for Peter.

But she already knows something. And she brought him here out of concern, he honestly believes that. Maybe it's naive, maybe he'll pay for it in the long run… but he's still young. And… she trusted him enough to tell him. Enough to show him. Something frankly ludicrous that scientifically-minded Peter still honestly has a hard time believing, Elven Runes of Power or not.

It's not just about honoring a deal. It's about trust. Doing what's right. She showed him some faith without even knowing him that well, so…

… wait. "Empusa??" No — no. He can get to that, later. First…

Promise, she says, and he manages a smile, hesitant but genuine.

… which quickly becomes pursed lips as she goes into all that excrutiating detail about how he might be prepared. It doesn't stop him from bending over and taking off his shoes one by one; a glimpse would show Zatanna some very unusual, spandexy-looking… socks? Socks, maybe?

"See, now, you say that kinda stuff after and -then- I get worried."

And then he jumps.

… and he doesn't come down.

The young man is just a blur of cheap fabrics in one moment, and in the next, there's just empty air where he used to be standing. Nothing else, no sign, no hint, except—

"… and now I'm really hungry, and that's kind of freaking me out. Is that normal? Does that make me a cannibal? I'm seriously concerned I might eat myself under the right context, now."

—except the voice that comes from behind Zatanna.

If she looks behind her, if she looks up, she'll find him — hanging upside down from the ceiling. No — just standing on it. Not clinging to anything, not holding on. Just standing on the ceiling, upside-down, coat dangling limply over his head. "So what's an empusa? Is it the Krampus thing? How do you know about that…?" And as he asks the questions, those coat-tails kind of flap against his face, over and over. He sputters. Frowns.

"… really should've remembered about the coat," Peter Parker, with common sense proportional to that of a spider, mutters lamentably.

—-

Her eyes round into dinner plates, horror parting her lips. "You didn't even know what it was?!" she cries; this is panic after the fact.

He leaps and vanishes.

Zatanna slowly rises from her seat, moving over to the spot where the young man had vanished, confusion settling over her features like a warm blanket. What the hell just happened? She knows he isn't magic, she would have been able to tell, and there was hardly a sign that he opened a portal in the air or did anything of the like. Still, she senses that he's still in the room, though it is nothing culled by any paranormal-attuned radar she might be housing in her brain, but rather rooted on something more innate and human, those survival instincts everyone is born with, if they can be bothered to listen to them.

"Oh, no." The words leave her with a determined exhale. "Peter Parker, you come back here and explain to me what you're doing tangling with a goddess of the cross— "

His words drift from somewhere behind her, /above/ her, and she whirls around, ice-blue eyes tracking upwards. It's an easy trick, people tend to look eye-level, and even below, but rare that they ever look up first and she sees her new acquaintance demonstrate some strangeness of his own. He casually hangs upside down from the ceiling with nothing to hold him up, defying physics before her very eyes without the aid of any supernatural force she could sense.

Her incredulous stare moves to his toes, and the spandex…what are those? Longjohns?

Well, it /is/ winter.

"Well, you can't eat yourself before you explain all of this to me! You can't leave me hanging that way!" she says, pointing at him. "Just how….what….how did you…?"

There's a pitfall with being a very young expert in one field; it takes up all the brainspace available, so much that her knowledge of other areas is either rudimentary or nonexistent and for the moment, her mind scrambles around trying to identify what Peter is.

"…how do you do that…?" she finally asks. "It can't be magic so…psionics? No, I'd be able to tell that also. Is it just your body? That's…" She fumbles for the word. "/Amazing/."

SEE WHAT SHE DID THERE?

—-

Hazel eyes track the movement of Zatanna's gaze towards his spandex-wrapped feet. He clears his throat.

"Err. Long story. I'll explain later," because it would take a -while- and he's also not going to start undressing in front of a girl to explain it better, either.

Things are already weird enough right now.

Which is why he picks up on the things that matter. Like when Zatanna points at him, and he kind of backs away - across the ceiling - and lifts his hands up (down), going cross-eyed at the sight of the finger. "H-hey, I wasn't actually going to eawait. 'Hanging'?? Did did you just make a pun?"

He tries his hardest not to look like he's judging. Thankfully it's easier when you're upside-down.

Hands flop up against his sides, pushing against his coat irritably until he just kind of takes the thing off and lets gravity do its thing. Underneath, the shirt hangs enough that more red and blue spandex might be glimpsed, but he's not really paying attention to that so much as Zatanna's flabbergasted responses. It's interesting, in the same way it's also both a relief and completely horrifying: he's never told anyone else about this before.

And the first person he tells is a completely random stranger he had a five minute conversation with before she transmitted doom visions into his brain.

You're doin' great, Parker! says the judgmental voice in his head.

Arms crossing over his chest, Peter looks down (up; whatever). He taps his foot against the hard surface beneath him, and then just kind of scoffs at Zatanna's fumbling compliment. For however amazing he might be, his modest reaction when the mask isn't on remains the same, rubbing the back of his head and letting out another prolonged, "pffffffffft." Some things don't change.

"Honestly, I don't know how I do this one," he admits once he's done flapping sheepful air. "It's — well… man this is gonna sound stupid." He plants hands on his hips, taps his foot. Looks aside. Mutters.

"Ikindagotbitbyaspider," just like that. A second passes.

"Not like, a normal one! It was all messed up. Irradiated, I think? Anyway, after I recovered, all… this… happened." He gestures, vaguely, as if there's more to it than just 'standing upside down on a ceiling.' "My body's kind of… well… different. And I can feel things — like. Dangerous things. Y'know. Like sense them, or something." His brows furrow inward. "It's actually uh — how I noticed you." Peter clears his throat.

"Not that I thought you were dangerouswaitwell I kinda did— but it turned out you're not — maybe — man I hope to god you're not actually dangerous, this would seriously suck—"

He's still Peter, at the end of the day.

—-

The coat pools on the floor in a puddle of cheap but warm fabric. Gravity does its work doing the same with the clothes that are actually on him, pulling at the hems of his jeans to reveal more of the spandex attire underneath, how the shirt tugs low to reveal more of that red, blue and black costume. Zatanna slowly, very slowly, squints at him as he continues attempting to clear things up for her.

She's read about others - the Avengers were particularly prominent, extraordinary people who weren't necessarily sorcerors, who battled threats in the physical world they all lived in. She knows high magic isn't unheard of, even as the entire planet slowly fills up with people that can't be matched. She's recently met Captain America, larger and even more handsome than life itself, the selfie she took with him still in her cellphone, but much of their meeting has been shrouded with the very urgent business of letting him know that his best friend Bucky Barnes was back from the dead.

She has never, in her entire life, spoken at length with an other - a person that occupies the strange limbo between the mystical and the ordinary. Someone extraordinary who didn't have to pull from the intangible forces of the universe to exact change - metamorphosis inflicted directly on his body instead.

She doesn't hesitate, as usual; Zatanna Zatara was by and large fearless, at least when it comes to people, just one of the many traits she inherited from her legendary father. Taking a few steps until she's nose to nose with Peter hanging upside down, she reaches up to pinch her index finger and thumb over the fabric of his shirt, drawing it down further.

The spindly black legs cutting through a field of red catches her vision, nevermind that she is essentially /pulling his shirt down/ for a better look. Her jaw grows slack.

Spider. He was bitten by a messed up spider.

And the reports about the empusa, her propensity to browse through Youtube videos when bored. It explains so many things, the mystical aspects, she doesn't even get into yet, her already overcrowded brain screaming at the strain as a bolt of epiphany sears across tired synapses.

"Holy /shit/!" she exclaims. "You're /him/! You're…"

She's seen the streetcam videos!

"You're….you're…you're /that guy/! The guy who swings between buildings like Tarzan! You're /all over/ Youtube!" Her hand falls away, looking amazed and flabbergasted.

What the hell, universe?!

"I…wow." She slowly retakes her seat, somewhat dazed. "…/wow/."

After a few moments of silence, she leans forward. "Well….that explains it," she says, reaching upwards so she could tug at his shoulder in an effort to have him come down from the ceiling. "Animals, insects, they're sensitive to magic. Spiders especially have a special relationship with the arcane, especially magical traditions in Latin America." Her brows furrow faintly, a worried frown tugging on the corners of her mouth. "If you somehow adopted the essence of a…uh…freaky spider inside you and it changed your body, that might be why…"

She chews on her bottom lip thoughtfully. "Well, if it helps, I'm only dangerous when I'm about to kick someone's ass."

She looks up at him and winks.

"But I'm generally /not/ a violent person."

—-

Peter, also, met Captain America recently.

It's best not to ask how his DREAMS WERE CRUSHED like so much falling wreckage.

It's okay, he'll get over it. Eventually.

If there's some sort of mythos to what Peter is now, he doesn't really know it. He doesn't even know everything he can even do, still too fresh at this that he hasn't had those limits tested. More often than not he's had to hold himself back just to avoid killing people on accident. He can't imagine what it must be like for people like Superman.

Who he also got to meet, briefly.

(He blew super-cold air on him! What an honor!!!)

No. Peter just knows what's happening in the present. The here and now. The—

"Wow you're really close again — hey hey w-wait a minute why're you tugging on my clothes we're just—"

And down goes his shirt, revealing that distinctive spider-costume beneath. Peter pauses, his muppet-style flailing coming to an end.

" —friends!! Oh. Right. That… whole… thing. Well. Um. I guess it wasn't that complicated after all. Ha ha ha… ha… er."

'You're /him/! You're… you're… you're…'

"Please don't say Spider-Boy please don't say Spider-Boy please don't say Spider-Boy—"

'—/that guy/!'

"… I guess that's kinda less insulting?"

His -pride-!

Well, that's that, then. The cat and/or spider completely out of the bag now, Peter feels some sort of tension seep from his muscles just as much as he feels another kind swell in the back of his mind. He tries to shove aside the doubts and worries for now — in a small way, it really is nice to have -someone- to talk to about this. Someone he doesn't have to… lie to, all the time. He just happened to pick a complete x-factor (ha ha! references!). He might've made a huge mistake.

But at the moment, there's no worry there, no regret. Just a warm if not sheepish sort of smile that tugs at his lips as he glances aside. "Honestly? I'm happier you didn't call me like, Spider-Menace, or Spider-Terrorist, or Spidercide, or some ridiculous name like that. Most people don't…" Well, he doesn't have to explain it, really. Public opinion on him is a many-splendored thing. Just look at a YouTube comment section.

Still — he's happy to let Zatanna take her time to adjust. He honestly doesn't think it's that amazing compared to Zatanna 'You're a Wizard, Harry!' Zatara over there, what with all the magic, but he also knows he's lived with this, and Zatanna's lived with… her whole thing. Different perspectives. He just leans back a bit from his position on the ceiling, the hem of his shirt slapping him in the face as he heaves a heavy sigh.

"Ehnftereshdeeng" he muffles around mouthfuls of shirt as Zatanna explains, yanking the thing off and just holding it in his hand for now. That's not a good idea, he soon realizes, because what if scary shop lady comes in and spies him in spandex and then he's going to be both found out twice over -and- scandalized. It's not even concscious, how he suddenly just… chooses to stop having his feet stuck to that wall. Like breathing, one minute he's hanging upside-down, and the next he's falling through the air, flipping about in such a short span of space that the flexibility should rightly be impossible — which doesn't stop him from landing perfectly on his feet as easily as someone might hop out of bed.

"I'll try not to encourage you to kick my ass then," he asides as he tugs that rumpled shirt back over his head, straightening it out and making sure there's no bits of spandex peeking out. Once he's settled, he heaves a sigh — and turns an attentive stare back onto the seated Zatanna. Without a word, he grabs that other chair, drags it over, reverses it, and sits down, resting forearms over the back and chin on his arms as he stares at the magician.

"So…" he ventures, very carefully. How should he put this delicately? "… um… what's wrong with you?" That's not delicately!

"… pretend I said that less awkwardly."

There.

—-

The relief that Peter feels is mirrored by his female companion; he'd be able to see it on her face, those insistent cables of tension bleeding away the more he becomes open with himself, the air around her thrumming with less energy and something more akin to acceptance. A quirky smile curls up on Zatanna's lips, returning the one on Peter's face, exchanging a look from one 'weirdo' to another, finding some semblance of commiseration, finally, with someone of like age and similar experiences in the midst of the hectic, crazy world that threatens to constantly pull them in different directions until they fray and split at the seams.

"…so what do I call you while you're out there?"

She is obliging; it's the least she can do, when her new acquaintance — friend? — expresses some gratitude that she hasn't called him any derogatory names with which the press has labeled him, or embarrassing mistakes from other more established heroes addressing him. So she asks, and by the look of her, there'll at least be one person who gets it right in New York.

"Anyway, I hope you don't pay them too much attention," she offers. "You're doing what you think is right, every day, and you're probably trying to live a normal life on top of it, just like me. Especially these days, sometimes….I wonder if I should give up on it. It's not like I don't like what I am, I embrace it and where I come from wholeheartedly, it's just that sometimes….it's nice, to just be a girl."

He jumps, flips, lands with the ease of an aerialist-acrobat that would rival the likes of Dick Grayson when his star was at its highest all those years ago. She grins, and even presses her fingers together, clapping for him at the display. But then he asks questions of his own and her smile tempers in the corners, becomes a ghost of its usual sunny bent.

What was wrong with her, indeed.

"….first thing's first," she says, her hands lifting as she leans forward and cups his cheeks with both hands, her thumbs pressing lightly on the ridges underneath youthful skin.

Her lashes lower and kiss her own.

"Tceted," she whispers, though if he was expecting a light-show that would rival the likes of those found in the works of Tolkien or Jordan, he wouldn't find it here. There's a hint of it; her fingertips are cool against his face, the weather outside seeping through stone and clinging to them, but they gradually grow warmer until she leaves…/something/. Tingles, the sort that makes the hairs at the back of one's neck rise up slowly.

After a moment, she speaks up again though she keeps her eyes closed. "…you've got a bit clinging to you," she informs him. "It's like…have you heard of the Third Eye? The thing that supposedly governs your sensitivity to things beyond the physical? Imagine yours is behind a locked door, and someone just nudged it open just a little. It…whoever did this to me…to us…earlier, left traces of his magic on you. That means if he's nearby, you'll be able to twig where he is. But it could go both ways, too. That's why I brought you here."

It's useful, but also dangerous. Certainly he has a family, people he cares about. He certainly isn't like /her/, alone or constantly surrounded by other weirdos.

She slowly opens her eyes and lowers her hands.

"I can remove it," she says. "I can pull the door shut again, but I don't want to just do it without letting you know what's on you. As for…all this…"

She hesitates.

"…I just…I originally came back to the States to look for Daddy," she confesses quietly. "He's been missing for months. It led me back to Gotham, where I spent a bit of my childhood, I have family friends there with resources to help me look. But things got complicated and…" She takes a deep breath, lifting both of her hands to scrub her face. "My dad's a big deal, in the kind of circles I operate, and there's a few really bad sorts that want the same thing he's after. When they found out who I was, they attacked a friend of mine one day and I was forced to defend him. But I had to do it subtly because he doesn't /know/ about me, and….I was injured. I bled. But since I thought he was the target, all I could focus on was getting him out of there, but I left…bits of me. That's powerful, in my world. Especially blood. Even if you have a bit of it, you could…"

She glances down at her left arm.

"…they've been trying to kill me for a few days now, to distract Daddy, I think, or pit him against…" My ex-boyfriend. "…a friend, who already blames himself because he's another big deal and he involved himself because that's what he does." Not because of her, not because he was concerned about her, oh god, she can't. "All I can do is fight it off until I find the person who's got my blood."

Every word, though, burns off more of that burden; the bands that constrict around her chest loosen, the breath in her lungs feels lighter. Her eyes brighten with relief; she was never built, it was never her way, to keep things buried for long.

But that does leave more concerns.

"It's dangerous, Pete," she tells him softly. "You saw what happened, people get hurt around me. But you were so concerned and….it's what I would /do/ and I couldn't resist….this is enough. Me being able to talk about most of it with /someone/ is enough."

—-

What does she call him when he's out there?

That smile is returned, quirky and kind of silly in its bashfulness. Peter scratches at scruffy hair and looks aside. He's still new enough that just talking about these kinds of things makes him feel like an idiot, and it shows in that sideglance and errant cough.

"Uh. Spider— Spider-Man." There might be a -slight- emphasis on the 'man' part. Slight. "… Not Spider-Spider-Man, though. That was just— it's Spider-Man. Just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man."

It's the thing! The thing he says!

There's an easy roll of his shoulders when Zatanna offers her sympathies. His smile is a mild, unassuming sort when it touches at his lips. "Maybe. Kinda? At first? But I got used to it. I mean… it sounds nice, having a normal life, right? I just wanna go study, or blow off studying to hang out with friends, or blow off friends to go on a date. But — that's not who we are, right? Not anymore." He looks up, his smile taking a sympathetic edge as he leans against his seat. Brows knot together; hazel eyes glance towards the ground for a moment.

"Whenever I think like that, I just kinda—think to myself… 'how many people am I keeping from having a normal life just so I can have mine?'"

He doesn't sound entirely convinced — or at least, entirely happy. But he does sound resolved.

"… uh. Sorry. Didn't mean to bring in the heavy stuff." His throat clears awkwardly. "So let's talk about those creepy tattoo vision rune things you've got going on!"

Yes. That was well-transitioned.

And so she explains. Kind of. By touching him. -Again-. At least at -this- point he doesn't protest, just stiffens up a bit awkwardly as hands suddenly press to his cheeks. He blinks, listens to the word uttered. "Tceted? Is that like a fairie thing or s—"

Thankfully, before he can embarass himself further, his attention is cast towards the subtle aftereffects of an understated spell being cast. Finds cool at the warmth of his skin; the chill of winter sinks into his blood until even he can just barely feel it. It tingles. Familiar, but different, from the buzz of that danger-sense that pervades him, inspiring a primal reaction in the goosebumps that rise up on his skin.

"I've got magic? Clinging to me?" asks Spider-Man, baffled. "… for some reason that sounds kinda gross." But, quips aside (he can't help himself (really, he can't)), Peter listens, lips pursing in thought; for as much the fool he might act in costume, the wheels in those hazel eyes are turning. This is the first time he's ever heard of magic even being a real thing, and yet he seems to follow along well enough. His eyes don't even glaze over. If anything, they look curious. The power of nerdery.

"Twig where he…" His brows furrow inward. Wheels move. He's only distracted by Zatanna's words, because he can't help but be — there's a twang of sympathy in something that hits far too close to home for his liking. Her father, missing. People after him. After her. Because of him?

Peter's right hand lifts. He hesitates for just a moment; he's not the best with this kind of thing, especially without the mask on. But, he just bears through it, letting that hand settle on Zatanna's shoulder. It's just slightly stiff. Slightly awkward. He manages to make it more friendly than forced, though. Because he -does- want it to be comforting.

"Well," Peter begins, "you're not gonna fight 'em alone." She's already not fighting them alone. A pause follows. "Uh. … I mean like. Now not sans-me. Because. I'm going to help. Some…how." Yeah. He almost had that.

Dangerous, though? Peter just smiles, a small but reassuring thing. "If I can help, I'm going to help. Dangerous or not. You're stuck with me now. Sorry." A second passes. "Besides… you were talking about… I could see the guy, like he saw me, right? That's what all that was about? The freaky hoodoo doom vision stuff going on in my skull when you were trying to get your glass balls?" That's a sentence that happened. But it's not the important part.

"Does that mean like — if I saw a creepy haunted house thing during that whole vision-whatever that looked like it was going to curse me or start bleeding from the walls if I looked at it funny or something — is that the place you're looking for—?"

There. Decipher that. That's the important part.

—-

Spider-Man. Zatanna grins at him faintly, enough that he'd be able to catch the contrast white makes against the color of her lipstick.

"Well, nice to meet you, too, Spider-Man," she tells him gamely.

She falls quiet after that, attentively listening as he dispenses his own opinion; from the perspective of someone in like circumstances, and her age, she finds her insight valuable and what he tells her, the 'heavy stuff', gives her pause. She glances down at her hands, absently turning them against her knees and rubbing them on the black, ripped denim she wears, the sheer weave of pantyhose peeking through the gaps to add another layer of texture to her already stylish clothing. "I guess I never thought of it that way," she confesses. "It's…I guess in our age, it's easy to be selfish and think that everything's about you, or you've suffered enough so why can't you have a piece of what everyone's got, that sort of thing. I don't know…I wonder sometimes if I can do what Daddy seems to do so effortlessly, sacrifice the things that make you happy and exchange it for a chance to make the world safe, or a better place, but be miserable in the attempt." Zatanna's ice-blue eyes fall on his hazel ones again. "Did you decide to do that, then?" she wonders. "Make that kind of sacrifice? Or you know…" She laughs softly. "I guess it's easier if you've got people to hang out with that's 'in the know', yeah? I think that might just be the best of both worlds and you don't gotta give up on….'normal' things. I mean, weird people can still do normal things, yeah?"

She waves a hand when he apologizes for the sudden turn in the conversation, warmth bleeding over her features, softening them into something infinitely more tender, and visibly endeared.

"You're a good guy, Pete. I hope that never changes."

Leaning back, his remarks on the magic on him has her scrunching up her nose. "You should feel gross," Zatanna tells him. "It's…" She purses her lips. "It's old, and black. Very black. The kind that drains years out of a caster's life. Magic always has a price, Peter. A week's worth of luck, Fate being able to dictate what happens to your life for a month….whole chunks of time shaved off of your lifespan in exchange for power. In my world, it never comes for free and the only person I know who doesn't have to pay anything for it is…"

Me.

Her expression reflects the kind of apprehension she isn't sure she could quantify to Peter, bless his generous, heroic soul, the extent of her worries there, waiting for the shoe to drop, or whether that means there's something inside her that's more different and galling than she could possibly imagine.

But he dashes over that reverie quickly enough. Surprise rounds her eyes, her lips parting to protest. "Pete, didn't you hear what I— it's dangerous, and /weird/. Really, really, really weird! Sometimes LSD-psychedelic-roadtrip-into-the-stars weird! I mean….a goddess of the crossroads almost /ate/ you! That kind of weird! And you're just going to…"

Oh yes. Not without him, he says. Stuck with him now. She stares at him with a slightly open mouth, before she buries her face in her hands.

And laughs.

"…I didn't know guardian angels came as spiders," she teases him, peeking at him from between her fingers, feeling the touch on her shoulder and the warmth it provides. "I appreciate it….thanks, Pete. I really…I'd go on and on and on about how much that means to me, hearing someone say that. And god, it feels good. To talk about it, to get the opinion of someone my age." Someone who doesn't just understand, but /knows/, and has yet to be colored by the cynicism of those who have /really/ been inside the muck.

Her hand reaches up, her palm sliding over his knuckles on her shoulder, giving them a squeeze. But the moment isn't meant to last when he mentions…

"…what. /What/??" Her hands suddenly lash out, clutching his shoulders, her expression open and hopeful and…what??

"You saw something? A /somewhere/? What haunted house? Do you have an address?"

—-

Did he make that kind of sacrifice? It's a question that doesn't have an easy answer. And not one that Peter's entirely satisfied with, all the same. It brings back memories he never dares forget as he looks down at his hands, gloves hiding the spandex and metal of web shooters beneath.

"… I did, kinda," is his ultimate answer. "Kinda had to." His smile is apologetic for his vagueries. He could explain, but he doesn't. Not today. Instead, he easily diverts, lifting a hand to rub at the back of his neck. "Y'know, I've been doing this for a couple years now and never -once- made a super-friend?" he confides, full of sorry lamentation. "I feel like a total loser! It feels like high school all over again! Next thing you know, Captain America is gonna come along and give me a swirlie or something."

His grin is a joking thing, one that fades more quickly than not when he looks back to Zatanna. "But — no one knows. I don't really — y'know — have anyone I could tell about it. You're the first." He sounds a bit embarrassed about that, because really, he doesn't go blabbing his secret identity to just anyone. Except how he just did. It's a predicament! "So — y'know. Don't tell — anyone. Ever. Super important. Can't stress that enough. I'll web the message into your house if I have to."

It's probably a joke.

But he also probably could do it.

Best not to find out.

A modest smile, a dismissive laugh, and Peter's very Peter response to that compliment is a simple, "We'll see how that holds up when you get to know me," joking and mild as ever. "… but… thanks. Really." It is nice — to be able to share all this. Whatever lingering worries he has, this is…

… this is good.

"Oh good. I'm glad my theory about the gross old magic panned out." This is less good, if Peter's flat observation is any indication. He tilts his head. Sniffs himself. As if he could smell the evil or something. He looks disappointed that he can't. It's a disappointment that fades into curiosity at her talk of magic. It's not something he knows much about — or anything. And as that sentence trails, his brows knit in thought as he watches her. The only person…

He says nothing. He won't pry. It's not his place. Even if he did put a tracer on her. That was for wholly justifiable reasons, however. Instead, he just waves off her worries with a, "It's totally fine! I've already had to take a path three times a day for the past week to get the stench of weird gross monster fetus off me, -and- I've had to say that super-embarrassing sentence out loud! I think I've covered the worst that I'm going to have to deal with." He jokes, of course; but he's resolved. And stubborn. He's not backing down.

The laughter is warming, in that case — it means, at least, he doesn't have to argue the point or just follow her around secretly because -that- would get weird.

"Ahh — yeah. Kinda does, right? It's not like I'm not getting anything out of it either so — thank you too, Zee." He considers, just a moment. "Let's just say we're even? Or you can owe me one. I'm fine with that too."

Fingers brush over the tough skin of his knuckles, far rougher than they were when he was in high school — a little, subtle sign of the life he leads now. A squeeze; he blinks, and clears his throat before offering a small but unflinchingly genuine smile. He looks like he might say something—

—but then he's being seized by the shoulders in the midst of his revelation, hands instantly flying up almost instinctively in an 'I DIDN'T DO IT OH GOD' gesture. It takes him about two seconds for his brain to catch up that he's not actually in trouble. Oh. Right. The house.

"Yeah — a house. Really old, run down thing. Somewhere… here, I guess? Seemed kinda important. Y'know. Ominous vision, evil portents, signs of calamity kinda stuff. I tried to get an address but…" He shakes his head. "I got kicked out before I could see it. Sorry. Guess they didn't like me playing peeping tom." He frowns.

"-Super- rude."

Speaking of which…

… …

"Oh uh yeah also I mmmmmmmmight've planted a tracer on you at the store but it's not really necessary anymore I guess so don't even worry about it right?? Right!" Ha ha, problem solved!

—-

They've told each other enough; their current conversation spans months and perhaps years of like conversations between two acquaintances, fast-tracked out of necessity and worry, and maybe a little bit of fear. To her, it's almost ridiculous how easy it is to talk to Peter Parker, someone who she's only met today, but she supposes privately that is what happens when two kindred souls collide, then tangle, then get tossed in a sea of trouble where revelations have to be made in order to pull each other out of it.

Zatanna braces herself, even as she watches him look down at his hands and confess that he has made his own sacrifice, though when he doesn't go into detail, she doesn't ask - he's told her plenty today, and he returns the courtesy of not prying when her voice trails off about the costs of power. It is always the first thing she tells a layman because it is the very first lesson she learned the day she discovered her father was an actual sorceror. One easily assumes that Zatanna had always known, that there was no way the apple of Giovanni Zatara's eye would have been kept in the dark about it. But they couldn't be more wrong….Zatara is always quick to heap his daughter with affection, but when it comes to her tutelage in magic, he was her most grueling taskmaster and harshest critic. He absolutely did not tell her about his true nature until the day she found his antique phonograph switching records by itself.

"I won't tell anyone." She confirms her promise. "I won't. You know, there's a way to make sure that I never do." She lifts her hand, palm forward towards Peter. "You can bind me with a blood pact, if that makes you feel any better. Basically if I break my promise to you, something awful happens to me."

To anyone else, it's a horrifying proposal. To the daughter of the Great Zatara - passionate, reckless, almost utterly fearless - she speaks of putting herself at risk like it's just another Tuesday.

"And I won't tell anyone about that either, that I'm the first. If anyone asks me, I'll tell them you're super popular and you've got the phone numbers of all of the Victoria's Secret Angels."

The lighthearted look vanishes, burned away by a brilliant smile, turning those blinding stage-lights on Peter. "But yeah, we're even." The fact that he can't remember an address doesn't seem to dent her cheerfulness much. "Thanks again, Pete. And….if you remember anything else about the house, let me know, okay? We'll check it out together."

We.

Together.

She was stuck with him now, he said.

The mention about the bug flattens her expression, patting her pockets, shifting around until she produces the tracer, its light winking between her fingertips. She gives him a look, glances down at her hand, then back at the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

With a shrug, she shoves it back into her pockets.

"Can't hurt for someone to know where I am all the time," she says. Lesson learned, John Constantine, though at the moment she'd rather throw herself off the Brooklyn Bridge than admit that to him.

"So…blood pact?" she offers. "Just for your peace of mind? What about the…" She gestures to him. "The thing I told about your Third Eye cracked open, do you want me to shut the door again? The connection goes both ways sometimes, Peter. I told you, this stuff is dangerous." She gives him the choice; it's the least she could do.

"Also what do you like on your pizza?"

What?

"I'm /starving/," Zatanna confesses. "It's well past lunch, I haven't had anything all day."

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