And Into the Fire

January 04, 2017:

Zatanna visits the Wayne Manor after a few days of recovery in Brooklyn to respond to Bruce Wayne's worried texts in person, and things immediately go sideways when she senses magical workings underneath the mansion.

Wayne Manor - Crest Hill - Bristol - Gotham

Characters

NPCs: Alfred Pennyworth

Mentions: Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, John Constantine

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

She has been out of pocket for a few days.

That isn't to say that Zatanna Zatara has not been busy; the disastrous events over New Year's Ever has yielded, at the very least, one significant victory - the Liber Consecratus was now in her hands, safely tucked away in John Constantine's bunker and a safe that by all means isn't normal. She has spent the hours since then poring over the book's pages, discussing its nature with the Englishman and figuring out what to say to her father in a letter that John was supposed to deliver to him along with the parcel. It was an endeavour that, while it would have come easily to her a month or several months ago, she is presently struggling with, having yet to fully confront John's confession in the last few days in that her father had meddled in her happiness; for a woman especially devoted to him, it was nothing short of betrayal.

So what do you say to the man you love the most in the world, knowing he's in danger, is fighting on his own…who deliberately hurt you because he simply couldn't let you make your own mistakes?

That isn't to say she has eschewed all contact with the outside world either, she has received plenty of texts out of worry or something else entirely: Azalea needed her help /again/ (to which she texted she needs a few days by herself), and something about jail and bail from Peter Quill (to which she decided he could stand to be caged and stay out of trouble for a few days), however it's Bruce whose texts have spurred answers that are less distant or dismissive - she owed him, on top of everything else, and unlike the other two, he didn't need anything from her but the assurance that she was fine.

Which she gave, citing that she had been slightly traumatized by what happened and needed to stay home for a few days - certainly mostly fiction.

Keeping herself protected and opening the portal to retrieve Jane Foster had left her open to the attacks from Muller's - Hanussen's - agent; she only discovered that later back in the Brooklyn bunker, where a strip of her wards have been burned away, having been unable to keep up her protections while so many other things have been going on. It left a bare line over her inner wrist, like a suicide scar. She had to hand it to them, really; whoever Hanussen was in league with, they had a flair for the dramatic.

As promised, however, she finds herself in Wayne Manor after a few days' rest and study, but she's yet to find a solution for her ward problem. She had left the book with Constantine, maybe there was something helpful there.

When Alfred opens the door, Zatanna steps in, greeting the old butler with a cheerful, but exhausted smile and bussing his cheek with a kiss. "I swung by New York on a quick visit," she tells him, presenting him with a white box. "I couldn't resist."

The sticker on top reveals that what she brought is full of the world famous Lauduree macarons.

"Where's Bruce?"

She doesn't look worse for wear at least, the young woman is clad in her signature goth chic; black boot-cut jeans, designer coat and boots. Whatever top she wears is guaranteed to be long-sleeved; it'd be hard to explain to Bruce what the wards mean, especially when they /glow blue/, unlike what he has managed to glimpse before in the mirror.

—-

"He— " Alfred's cut off even as he takes the box from Zatanna's hands, surprise on his face at her unexpected visit, and he barely has the presence of mind to airkiss her cheek back. "He's been worried sick, dearie. I've been worried too, if you don't mind my saying so. Wh— visit? Are you off again?"

His questions are interrupted by a baritone voice. "Zatanna?" Bruce stands at the stairwell's first landing in the entryway, eyes widening, and quick-steps down the curving, wide marble, his Oxfords thumping on the carpet lining them. "I've been worried sick!" A bruise is on his forehead, likely from that night. "When the lights went out, and— I thought you were ahead of me, and then I got out there and couldn't find you! I looked all over the ER, I asked the hospital. Where have you been hiding?" He comes up short a half a pace from hugging her, as if unsure how that will be received.

—-

At the butler's concerned face, Zatanna has a hard time meeting his eyes. There's a hint of a smile - exhaustion is evident there, but melancholy also and for a moment, she wrestles with the desire to tell the man /everything/: That people were still trying to kill her, that her father was alive, but that he had betrayed her, and the item that she had sought to reclaim for Giovanni Zatara was more than it seemed. The only salve she has managed to allow herself, so far, is the fact that she and Constantine have made amends after two weeks of doing nothing but fight.

"I'm sorry, Alfred," she tells him. "But you can say some business has taken me to New York, I'll have to go back and forth for a while."

The bunker is the only thing that's slowing down the problem in her arm. "Rest assured I'll visit you and the Waynes whenever I'm here, th— "

Her name reaches her ears, she looks up to find Bruce Wayne hurrying down the stairs to meet her.

"…/me/?!" she wonders, and despite herself, she can't help but laugh. As Bruce stops short and reins himself in, the young magician has no such qualms, eating up the remains of that half step and throwing her arms around his neck. "You pushed me under the table to keep me safe and when I looked back out, you and Tim were just /gone/! I thought the two of you would be helping civilians and it was so dark I thought it best to stay under cover. I tried looking, but a few EMTs said you and Tim were already taken to Gotham General and that Alfred Pennyworth had already been called."

Lowering her arms, she gives him a look, and a slight smirk. "It must be good to be a Wayne," she ribs him. "ER's aren't really all that known for their efficiency, you know."

—-

Bruce 'oofs' and hugs Zatanna enthusiastically as she leaps into his arms, squeezing her tight enough to make ribs creak a little. "Yeah, you! It turned into such a nightmare, that…. that /guy/," he says, face creasing in distress. "And the lights, and the people screaming— Tim was close enough I could grab him and we headed out when those flares went down. But I couldn't find you under the table," he says. "Did you crawl off? What happened?"

Sensing a Story, Alfred clears his throat and nods at the duo. "Uh, if I might suggest, the lady might want to sit?" Alfred says, to Bruce. "Might I also suggest the west conservatory?" he adds, gesturing vaguely. "It's made up already, and I'll bring around a kettle for a cuppa for both of you," he says, his tone vastly more paternal than his normal diffident subservience.

—-

She hangs on for longer than necessary as Bruce squeezes her tightly enough to put a few dents in her ribs, gratitude emanating from every pore, squeezing her eyes shut. As elusive as Gotham's favorite son generally is, there was always something about his nature that makes it difficult for her to keep secrets from him, also - or at least those regarding anything involving her father. Giovanni Zatara was a nexus of commonality between herself and Bruce - two of the three heirs of the enigmatic magician's secrets. Perhaps that was it, she thinks, why it's so easy to confide in him about her paternal woes. Bruce was a father himself, after all.

But she squeezes him warmly, clutches at him because he could never truly know the extent as to how much he's helped her. While she can't actually confess to /stealing/ the Liber Consecratus, she has every intention of cutting a check for its value to the orphanage the centennial was supposed to benefit.

"Thank you, Bruce," she whispers. The words are heartfelt, emotion thickening her contralto, though she wouldn't be able to blame him, if he was puzzled by it. For indeed, as Alfred says, there is a story.

Easing back, the young woman beams at Alfred. "West conservatory is this way?" she wonders, gesturing vaguely - she has visited the Manor enough times to get some sense as to where specific rooms are. "That sounds great."

With that, she'll follow where Bruce leads. "You weren't injured too terribly, were you? What about Tim?" she asks, worry suffusing her features. "I had to switch tables because they kept getting knocked off, but at least I was able to get to safety. The entire ordeal was a little harrowing, to say the least, but I'm so glad you're alright. I'd feel awful if anything happened to you or Tim - God knows if you would have gone were it not for me, and I know that Tim only showed up because I kept needling him about it."

—-

"Tim's young and made of rubber," Bruce chuckles, waving it off. "Banged his knee, but he helped a couple of nice old ladies out of the auditorium and into the ambulances. Got multiple offers of adoption and one of them tried to marry him off to her niece."

He opens the conservatory doors and ushes Zatanna in, moving to sit next to her at the small, low sofa in front of an already set and roaring fire. Alfred must have some kind of prescience, or the long habit of a butler accustomed to keeping certain rooms ready in case of visitors. There's no doubt he'd be prepared for a royal entourage to 'drop in'.

"And I just smacked my head on the doorframe, of all things. They insisted on taking us to the hospital before we could be released. Tim and I went over to Arbor View after that," he says, referring to an extremely expensive, private hospital in Gotham. "Once we were bandaged up, we started trying to call people. I was … worried," he admits to Zatanna, meeting her electric blue eyes with his sky gaze. "What happened to you in there? How come you didn't run out with the others?"

—-

"That's what happens when you break six feet," Zatanna quips, taking a slow seat on the other end of the sofa. "You're so tall you're bound to hit a snag during a crisis, especially when people are rushing from all directions. Still, you were lucky." Her expression shifts, the look of her indescribable, as always a creature of great empathy. "I heard some of those who attended the gala weren't so fortunate. I heard….people /died/, Bruce. I mean, I knew Gotham seems to be some strange focal point for the weird and unusual, but I had no idea it could be this bad."

And those /other artifacts/ in the auction. Did the Commission even have any idea what they had?! Who just puts up the Tarnhelm in an estate sale?! She can't help but wonder whether Baron Winters managed to secure the prize he paid fifty million dollars for - the thought passes like smoke through aa screen door, however.

At his concerned expression, she smiles faintly, her own eyes averting to look down at her hands.

"I was there for the book, Bruce," she reminds him. "I had to make sure it fell into my hands no matter what. It might be the only way to get my father back - all I know is that he needs it, so….I managed to snag it in the middle of the fight and after that I just ran."

Ran, yes, only so she could take cover and do what she had to in order to help Bucky Barnes save Jane Foster's life.

"Er…I don't intend to steal it!" she says, lifting her hands up. "I'll cut a check for it and donate it to the orphanage, I promise."

Her eyes drift over to the fireplace, wrestling visibly with herself. Light and shadow dance over her profile.

"Daddy's alive," she tells him at last. "John saw him a few days back. And of course he wouldn't tell him what was going on either. Just that he was dealing with something huge and he's keeping me out of it. He says it isn't safe."

—-

Bruce— and his inner Dark Knight— both exhale in relief. Giovanni Zatara was one of his best and most formidable allies. To know he's alive and well removes a great burden of worry from his broad shoulders. "Tell him— tell him that if he needs anything from me, I'm there in a heartbeat," he suggests to Zatanna. Giovanni would know the double meaning there. "Anything, okay?"

He waves off her suggestion of buying the book. "I told you I'd help with that, Zatanna, and I meant it. I'm sure the auction house's insurance has it covered for a wholly reasonable amount, and frankly, given the madness that went down, it's probably for the best that the book's somewhere safe. I know the last thing I saw was that crazy man going for it, so— let's chalk this one up to letting the big corporation dip into their penny fund and cover the cost, huh?" he encourages her. "I'm sure they won't miss it and it's not as if you're going to resell it. Honestly," he says, waving a hand through the air. "/I'll/ sleep better knowing it's safely in your hands, and away from… others."

He reaches over and squeezes Zatanna's hand— one gentle, callused palm sliding under, the his other hand resting atop it. He gives Zatanna an earnest look. "I'm glad you're all right, Zatanna. Just… maybe no more adventures for a few days, huh?"

—-

She lets her hand be taken; it's rare that Bruce engages in such gestures himself, so the act comes as a bit of a surprise to her. Some part of her, foolish, naive - she was young after all - wonders if Alfred had been right and that her presence in this large, mostly-empty house was doing some good for its only two occupants. After all, in the end, it was the least she could do, to repay the Waynes and Alfred for their kindness over the years.

Zatanna remembers it vaguely; despite their wealth and prestige in the entertainment industry, Gotham's high society never really accepted the Zataras, pushed them in the outliers of their company. The Elliots were especially vocal about their dislike, especially since they were close to the Waynes themselves - she remembers Mrs. Elliot calling them 'carnies', once, at a party, thinking she was too young to know derision when she heard it, and Bruce's contemporary, Thomas Elliot, snubbed her father at every turn and called her a creepy little freak when she accidentally trod on his toes.

These memories are old, but they are simply some of the many reasons why Giovanni fostered such a close relationship with the Waynes - they saw something more in him, much like the way Giovanni saw something more in Bruce and John.

The warm squeeze is one she returns in kind. The raven-haired young woman gives her friend and benefactor a smile. "I wonder sometimes if I ought to give it up," she tells him. "Any vestige of a normal life. I tried, you know. I entered university and everything so I could learn, get a degree. But…after that night, I wonder if it's possible after all. So maybe adventures are going to be my life from now on, forever, until the day I die."

She lets out a small laugh. "Maybe it isn't so bad," she says. "I'm restless most days, anyway. Maybe all of my adventuring will do some good one day. But I'll take a breather, I promise. I don't necessarily like being tired, you know. It's murder on my beauty sleep."

After a pause, she eases her hand away, giving him an inquisitive look. "I'm sorry," she tells him quietly. "For worrying you, and Alfred, and probably Tim also. I /try/ not to be too much like Daddy but sometimes I simply can't help

—-

"Not that you need much sleep," Bruce says, a hint of a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. He lets her hand slip between trailing fingers and sits back against the sofa, looking into the fireplace as she turns those telling, too-mature eyes on him. "It's okay, Zatanna. You didn't to it to hurt me," he tells her, shaking his head minutely. "Friends worry about one another. It's what friends do. Our worries are just more… exotic than others," he says, wryly. "Your father played things close to the vest. I think I learned that from him, too. Never let them see up your sleeve and never let them see you bleed," he says, in the manner of a fellow quoting an axiom.

"You're a grown woman," he tells her, voice low and even. "I'm not going to try and stop you. Well," he amends. "I'll /try/, but I won't make it a sticking point. You've got to live your own life. Not the life that Alfred, or Tim, or even me or your father think you should," he tells the leggy gothling. "That's the point of being an adult. Making your own decisions and handling your own consequences."

A crackling fills the silence that follows, and he smiles again, chuckling. A glance at Zee, shaking his head once as his smile warms. "Hmm? Oh. Vicki Vale wrote a particularly waspish bit about you. It got buried by the fashion section in the paper, even despite the chaos," he tells Zatanna. "My designer says he has a six-month backlog of work now, and he was impossible to get a hold of beforehand. I'm worried I'll have to hire a new guy."

—-

'Not that you need much sleep.'

Zatanna's eyes widen at that, her lips shaping an 'o' as fingers press dramatically to her chest. "Oh my god, was that the infamous Bruce Wayne charm that I just saw?! Oh, my /stars/!" she cries, collapsing against her end of the sofa, fanning herself with her fingers. "You've done it now, Bruce, now every woman in the city is /really/ going to go after me now. And to think I'm just a family friend, I won't be able to walk past any public place in Gotham now, judged for all eternity! What /ever/ shall I do?!"

That bit of exaggerated drama over, she sits back up, all smiles once more as she absently rubs her wrist, slightly over her left cuff. "Well, it isn't as if you didn't warn me about her. I'll see if I can't square things with her at the very least, though honestly, the less attention I pay to that the better. You know how it goes with the media types, once you suddenly care about something they wrote, they'll think there's something deeper there."

In fact, she counted on this very thing when she had Jessica trade her story on Kazinsky for a copy of the centennial's guest list. That was how they found Muller's name to begin with. She pauses, wondering whether she ought to tell Bruce about that as well and ultimately discards the notion - he was worried about her enough, no need to tell him that a serial killer had attempted to sacrifice her to Mammon were it not for Red Robin's interference.

The fire crackles; embers spit upwards from the hearth, underscored by something else. Strains of magic, detectable only in the quiet, tickles her senses - erratic, unstable, but enough to make a cold drop of apprehension roll down her spine.

What the…

She can't help the rush of thoughts, of dark things, eldritch things, following her, of swallowing up the people she knows who are 'outside' of the spheres of strange and fantastic that dominate her life. It tightens her stomach, bands around her chest.

Bruce. Tim. Alfred.

She tries to stay calm - an accomplished actress herself, she's able to hold this at bay even while her nerves scream at her to do something.

"You'll have to forward my compliments to Mr. Carson," she tells him with a smile. "I certainly didn't make his job easier, as what happens when two different people have two different styles. But I hope I was an acceptable plus one, the last thing I wanted to do was to embarrass you."

She glances around. "Do you mind if I use the ladies'?" she asks, slowly standing up. "I'm afraid I'm not a hundred percent yet and…" She digs out a prescription bottle from her pocket, shaking it in emphasis. "I'll be back."

—-

"Er, of course," Bruce tells Zatanna, as she excuses herself. "Alfred's on his way with the tea, too. You'll go down the hall, take a left, then it's the silver door with the angel on it," Bruce tells Zatanna. "Go through that and I think you'll find a powder room on the left side; the right is typically for gentlemen guests," he suggests. Because of course the bathroom in Wayne Manor can't be JUST a bathroom.

Once she's in the hallway, it's all grand arches and expensive artwork, sculptures tucked into nooks and crannies. But there are marks here and there of a homelier attitude; knicknacks that must have been cherished by young boys. A few scuffs and chips in the walls that are absolutely a result of someone banking a corner and not understanding physics. And plenty of pictures— of Bruce, of the boys, of extended family.

But it's still a cold and lonely walk, particularly as she slips past the bathroom and stalks towards the deeper west wing, where Bruce habitually resides along with the boys. Large, expansive suites give way to a library, a study, an office, a home gym, and the decore becomes more personal and less aesthetic, particularly as she rounds a corner and comes face to face with a giant trophy case filled to the brim with personal achievements— each boy has his own cabinet, too, and they're overflowing with civic awards, medals, graduate notifications, and the like.

—-

She has every intention of following his directions. "Well, far be it for me to miss Alfred's amazing tea service," she says with a laugh, turning to head out of the door. "I'll be right back."

To her infinite credit, Zatanna /does/ follow Bruce's directions. Long legs cross in a quick clip down the hall, making a left at where the hallways branch out. She reaches the powder room with the silver door and the looming cherub sculpture on top of it. There's a bit of a glance at it, giving it a look.

Yeah, she /knows/ angels hardly look that way these days, remembering John's most recent story about one such one bringing his pregnant /succubus/ wife to give birth on Constantine's couch. She'll never look at them the same way again.

Zatanna opens the door and slips inside, taking a pill and popping it in her mouth, drinking it down with a glass of water - the headache from the last few nights has remained, and while the pills enable her to keep it at bay, she still needs one now and then. Especially now, when she may have to tangle with the /next/ eldritch horror that attempts to threaten her and her own. Taking a deep breath, she inspects her face in the mirror.

Shutting off the faucet, she opens the door, and instead of heading back to the conservatory, she takes a detour. She uses her magical senses to guide her, pointing towards her shoes.

"Ecnelis," she whispers, to keep her footsteps quiet, before she turns tail and breaks into a /run/. She moves into the west wing, that surprisingly sharp memory for the arcane already calling up spells she can use just in case the worst happens. Bruce doesn't know, unless Alfred told him, but she has told neither of the extent of it, the magnitude of her father's tutelage. And as she dashes past priceless artwork and photographs, trophies and accomplishments by his wards, she merely gives them a passing glance.

That doesn't jive with her, doesn't quite parse - the pictures denote a happy, involved family life.

So why was the mansion always empty?

But she's no detective. She'll mull about that later.

She'll keep moving to where the magical signatures pulse the strongest.

—-

It's not a 'where' so much as a scent trail. Like magic oozing from a vent or a crack somewhere, something strange and weirdly unfinished feeling. It has a feeling of an amateur to it, someone who doesn't understand nuance. If they were a chef, it'd be jambalaya made with too much of all the seasonings, to the point it overwhelms the natural taste of the fish.

But it's /strong/, no matter how amateur, and the scent brings her into the west wing, and down a short flight into the 'North Tier', it's own little set of rooms— at the heart of which is Bruce Wayne's private study, business offices, and his bedroom. Just down the hall from Dick Grayson's, and around the corner from a stairwell that leads up to no doubt where Tim, Jason, and the other children had their own suites.

The trail comes up abruptly short at a clock. It's a clock in the wall, and even to a keen eye, wholly unremarkable. It keeps the time, the heavy pendulum swinging back and forth inside the cabinet, which is easily wider than her slender shoulders. The face sits about seven feet off the ground, and an intricate hand-carved clockwork diorama of Gotham runs perpetually around it. Figure it around 1890, judging by the horses and old schooners at the 'docks'?

But that tantalizing allure of strong magic is definitely coming up from the clock, though how it's coming through the wall is certainly a question for the ages— or where it's coming up /from/.

—-

Even now, she tries not to look around too much, to be diverted by her own curiosity about the Waynes and the family that Giovanni Zatara has become so close to in the last few decades or so. The idea of snooping around the manor under Alfred's and Bruce's noses tugs uncomfortably in her stomach, and she silently begs their forgiveness as she continues to follow. But this has to happen; she doesn't know what's lurking in the house and if it was as dangerous as it felt, she had to stop it. She was the only one /present/ who has the requisite expertise as to how.

And it /is/ dangerous - the source of it, whatever was generating these signatures was incredibly unstable, and she wonders whether someone had elected to place a magical bomb on the premises, set to explode if triggered by the right thing, the right set of parameters. The idea has her hackles rising, her temper on the verge of boiling over. And a touch of heartbreak as well - an emotion all too familiar to her in the last week. She is certain that while Bruce probably has many enemies, the fact that this was here /now/ during one of her visits when she didn't detect such a thing before…

What else could it be? She feels her stomach sink.

This is her fault.

"Fuck," Zatanna whispers between clenched teeth before she takes a deep breath. Only one way to make it right.

She faces the clock, and closes her eyes.

"Elbignatni eez," she murmurs.

And with that, she steps /through/ the clock, phasing through metal and wood, the plaster and stone that make up the wall. She navigates the darkness with the practiced ease of a young woman who was born to hunt it.

—-

She slips through the wall and solidifies beyond it, her eyes struggling to adjust to perfect pitch blackness. Shaking her head once to clear it, Zatanna digs out her pill bottle in one hand, closing it between her fingers and breathing softly against it.

"Thgil ot elttob," she murmurs, pressing her lips against the top. Matter stretches, elongates in her palms - transfiguration was one of the first things she had been taught by the Great Zatara, and so long as she has an object of similar size to the intended one, she can change its form from one to another. The tiny flashlight barely crosses her palm.

Still a few years before she can actually conjure things out of thin air, but this will do.

Zatanna twists the top, a thin beam of light emanating from its confines, turning the thing towards the back of the clock and furrowing her brows - her own worries are only growing, wondering if Bruce even /knew/ that there was a secret passage heading in or out of his parents' house. What if someone tried to stage a break in?

"I better tell him about it after I'm done here," she murmurs quietly.

With that, she starts on the forked path, bold and unperturbed, reckless; adrenaline rushes white-hot through her veins and she can feel herself nearly jumping out of her skin.

Left or right?

She walks over to the nearest wall, pressing her hand against it. Tucking her active flashlight against her waistband, she leans her cheek, her ear against the natural rock and closes her eyes.

"Dnuos yfilpma." Her breath carves out an arcane symbol against the wall as it caresses it - compared to the complex incantations she has engaged in lately, a spell to amplify sound in the caverns was a simple enough endeavor, listening for anything that may be unnatural. The amplification is keyed into her senses, she doesn't really spur every sound in the space to pitch upwards; she simply makes walls all the more sensitive to vibration. Sound travels, after all.

And she wouldn't have known that, if Tim wasn't such an excellent Physics tutor.

The sensory amplification rattles against Zatanna's teeth like a tuning fork pressed to them. Hearing all the sound is one thing; processing it cogently without a part of the brain developing that sense is another. It's not a matter of 'left or right'— there's a sense of something large, a big cavern some ways off, but the path is impossible to determine. The passages fork and refork, sometimes splitting, sometimes joining back together. It's impossible to tell which way to go, and the caverns— inasfar as she can sense in the moments as the migraine approaches skull-splitting— range from 'big' to 'massive'. Some old glacial deposit? The result of fast moving waters from a primordial era?

And as she brings magic winging to her person, there's a flaring, hostile presence from down below. The equivalent of alarm bells going off as the warding magic— hanging over her now like a fine, heavy cloud of mist— detect magic at work.

In the study, Bruce blinks in surprise at a stinging sensation against his left wrist. He overturns his wristwatch and peers at the sigil engraved in the back, which glows an angry red.

His fantastic mind whips through the 'instructions' he'd been given— red for intruder.

"Zatanna," he says, heart lurching, and he breaks into an explosive sprint towards the west wing. And despite his dress shoes, he moves as silently as Zatanna did.

—-

She has a healthy respect for fear.

It spills over her senses like silk, runs through her open nerves like magma, hot and unforgiving and while a knot coalesces at the back of her throat, Zatanna turns to face what it is that she has triggered. It confuses her at first, it almost feels like a ward, but with the way it's put together, it would only do the place that's being warded more harm than good. It's strong, but /unstable/ and that is counterproductive to what wards are supposed to do.

The feedback loop her spell generates has her ripping away from the wall, her senses ringing, staggering to the point that she nearly falls off the perilous steps and into certain death below, but she manages to right herself up.

"Who the /hell/ put this in here?" she exclaims, her voice sounding more offended than scared, really, though she certainly feels the latter as it curdles into her stomach. All her life, she spent these forays with her father by her side - and while it's been a few months since she's been on her own, there are moments - moments like this - in which she wishes she isn't alone.

She stamps down on that urge hard, blocks the doubt from her mind. There's no room for it, the thing might eat her alive!

Because that's what wards do - unstable or not, they're keyed to protect a specific domain.

With very little options before the full brunt of it hits her, Zatanna throws out her hand, fingers splayed and barks out an arcane word, calling up her own ward.

And unlike this one, hers is stable and drawing deep from the endless well of potential inside her.

Forces collide. It sends her flying, rolling down the steps and into the middle of the fork. She feels the bruises, the cut on her forehead, trickling crimson down her pallor.

But she is /relentless/; her eyes burn in the dark, for she is always at her best when there is something insurmountable to conquer. She is very much like her father that way.

She turns, and rushes into the nearest path. One hand is up to keep her own protections up while the other gestures with a graceful flick of her wrist, old words, arcane words, rolling off her tongue in her signature backward speak. Defense and offense, the latter of which seeks out the cracks in those unstable magical foundations, to break them apart further, blue-white light spooling off her slender frame and etching magic circles on the ground.

She picks at the proverbial lock, deftly, expertly; for someone so young, she is already /this/ good, blessed with all of the advantages her unusual upbringing and her unknown heritage could ever give anyone - to unlock it, to release it…..and nullify it once she hits enough weakpoints.

—-

Svartalves. That's the only race who tiers wards this way. Meticulous, precise work, supporting the thick layers of amateur enchantment poured over it. If it was just a matter of someone channeling enough raw power to slow her down, she could stop it cold; if it were solely the passive blockage of the Svartalf construct, she could pick it apart.

Someone put an immense amount of investment into stopping her from doing what she's doing, and the magical feedback lashes out at her, even as she starts trying to dismantle the runes around the caverns. Something old and ugly rushes up from below, creeping along the tunnels towards her; a prowling presence, a hunter spirit of some kind that seems to be more on the aethereal than the manifest physical plane. Something that hunts intruders like herself.

Bruce makes a frantic dash into the study and runs to the clock. It's … locked? The hands are where they're supposed to be? Bafflement washes over his face, then his wrist stings again. /Another/ surge, a ring of orange appearing— the hunter. Bruce grits his teeth, suppressing a curse, and flicks the clock hands to 10:48.

He swings the clock open wide.

"ZATANNA!" he shouts, his voice booming towards her along the cavern walls.

—-

The amateuristic veneer of magic that caused her to pay attention to all this in the first place breaks apart in her hands, revealing, in her mystic senses, a more /elaborate/ construct - better, powerful, precise. What she thought was a poorly constructed bomb has fallen away to reveal an outward magical labyrinth pulsing with power and at the present moment, she finds herself ensnared within it.

To say that she has never experienced anything like this would be a lie; she's been trapped in magical mazes before, has been assaulted from all sides, but this is sorcery that she has never encountered before, her exposure to the denizens of the Nine Realms somewhat limited to Midgard and the God of Thunder that has somehow decided that her couch in Shadowcrest would be a good home for his laurels while he attempted to repair whatever damage he caused his relationship with the Lady Sif.

With the novitiate's facade wearing off, she thrusts her fingers forward and curls them in. She /shatters/ it with brute force, a sudden surge of her power. It will do nothing to the Svartalf protection lying underneath, but she can at the very least /get rid/ of the worrisome netwok of amateuristic wards before it does more harm than good. She'll consider that a small victory.

But then she feels the shadows move - the taste of something dangerous and after her is in the air.

She has become very intimately acquainted with this feeling.

The hunter spirit lurks in the depths, rushing closer in an attempt, perhaps, to consume her. Her options are dwindling and her brain hops and skips through all of her tricks. It's possible that her wards will be able to protect her - the one in her left arm is still active, but to use it would mean putting her in /very/ serious trouble, hence the additional layer of protection.

But if it doesn't work, then she can very well die anyway. Possibilities assail her mind and she roulettes through her options in the split second it takes for her to turn around and face the thing coming after her. From a distance, echoing from somewhere above, she hears her name.

She holds onto her wards; the Hunter descends on her.

She suddenly drops her outer layer of protection.

She spreads her hands wide, calling up the spell she had to learn with haste in the New Year's Eve party; it's risky, /reckless/, not doing anything until the thing was /right on top of her/, but it had to be close, it had to be for this next gambit to work.

And so before it could touch her, consume her…

She opens the rift to Jotuunheim, placing it between their bodies as she stands /centimetres/ away from certain death.

And once it flies through, she'll seal it shut.

Hopefully this 'Laffy' character won't be too mad.

—-

"…Zatanna?"

Bruce is behind her, looking stunned. Shocked, even, backpedaling a step as the nimbus of magic fades around her. He backs up one pace, then another, light fading as the portal shuts and trickles into non-existence. The light from Wayne Manor a dozen paces away is the only thing illuminating his craggy, worried features, jaw slack.

"How… how did you do that?" he whispers. "I had— Giovanni told me, but— I had no idea—" he stammers, looking around, then beckons for Zatanna to move. "Quickly, up here," he says, voice a low and worried hiss. "Get out of the tunnels! It's not safe down here," he admonishes her. "Please! Come quickly!" he says, backing up another pace.

—-

When Bruce finally finds her, the young woman is staring up at the magical network of protective wards that only she can see.

They glow, iridescent and pulsing green, energies not of this world knotting intricately over the craggy rock faces surrounding her. In the darkness, threads of magic, ephemeral stuff that make up the very core of her - her very soul /is/ pure magic - enables her to brighten this part of the caverns. Zatanna's face is tilted up, her ice-blue eyes running over the beautiful inscriptions; it's a language not of this world, or Heaven, or Hell, or Limbo and the planes in between. It is, quite literally, /alien/ magic and she wonders just what the hell it is doing here.

In the caverns underneath Wayne Manor.

And she is certain that this was not here before, not in the prior times she visited. Something this powerful, masked by something so unstable, if this was always part of the Manor, she would have felt it the night she got reacquainted with Bruce Wayne.

She says nothing when he urges her, pleads her to get away from here. It's dangerous, he says, and she can't help a small, self-deprecating smile. It tastes bitter on her lips.

It's always dangerous. She remembers her conversation with Peter Parker, about how he decided to forego his own chances at a normal life, to give other people their own.

"What aren't you telling me, Bruce?"

Her fingers curl tightly against her sides.

"I thought…it was me. I thought it was because of me. I never felt this before, not in my prior visits to the Manor. So when I felt it…so unstable, so /dangerous/, I thought my father's enemies had decided to hit you, too, when I appeared with you so publicly on New Year's Eve. I rushed in here because I wanted to protect you and Alfred, and Tim."

She slowly turns around to look at him. Her eyes burn in the dark, pale blue fire that forever straddles the fine line between striking and unsettling.

"Do you even need protection, Bruce?" she whispers.

—-

"Zatanna—" Bruce exhales, running fingers through his hair in consternation. The perfect picture of a fellow embarassed and frustrated by a secret being outed.

"Giovanni did it," he says, finally. "It's why I found him in the first place. I don't — I don't understand most of it," he says. "I still don't, and he tried to teach me. Smart elves?" he hazards. "We— my parents— had a deal with them. All the Waynes have. When I turned eighteen, the old deal expired and I got offered the new one. I didn't know what to make of it. There were things crawling up from below, ugly, shadow things. I found Giovanni and explained it to him. He came down here and— disappeared. For two days," he says, gesturing. "When he came up, he'd made a deal with the elves. Said they wouldn't bother me as long as I let them stay down there, and they put something in the tunnels so nothing could sneak /down/ there," he explains.

Bruce gives Zatanna a guilty look, finally dropping his gaze. "I didn't tell you because I— well, it's a family thing. Giovanni swore to secrecy. That goes both ways."

In a rattling thirty seconds, Batman extemporizes the fastest load of bullshit he'd ever concoted off the cuff. The perfect story— some elements of truth, some of fiction. Some parts real, some parts falsified, and impossible to dissemble the falsehoods without running up against a concrete fact or two.

And lastly, the guilt. Zatanna's a good enough stage actor to recognize a con. Batman instead sells his bluff as an entirely different emotion, and with his last breath flings a knife at her heart— by mentioning Giovanni.

—-

She does not believe him.

As Bruce tries to explain, every word from his mouth has tremors rippling over her delicate shoulders. Her fists ball so tightly that bones push up from underneath her pale skin, white knuckles growing even whiter. Reality itself /reacts/ to her distress, tension vibrating through the caverns as all of her strings - every muscle, every emotion - reach their very limits. Adrenaline, her fight-or-flight responses, surge through her bloodstream and she /feels it all/, because that's who she is, a creature prone to passion, to emotion. It's a foolhardy thing, a reckless thing, to leave oneself so emotionally open and vulnerable all the time. Her honesty, the way she offers her heart to anyone who wanted to look inside, has drawn many, attracted many, has people responding to it - even inveterate cynics like John Constantine.

But when it turns the other way…

It /hurts/, and the pain slashes through her delicate, expressive face. How many times? John had ripped her heart out of her chest /twice/, her own father twice, and as she rushed in here to defend family friends, she…

Zatanna takes a few steps forward, and another, and another. She advances on him like a valkyrie, ready to sweep the soul of a noble warrior to Valhalla.

"This wasn't here when I first walked through your door," she tells him quietly.

"I would have felt it. This is new. It /tastes/ like new magic. Unless you're trying to tell me that you found my father behind my back and had him stay with you for two days and even /then/, I would have sensed his presence, because when a Zatara moves, he or she causes ripples, and people who are in the know can sense them….and I'm a Zatara myself. He is my only family, the one closest to me in the world, the kind of bond we have overrides even the most powerful magic and the /only/ way my father has managed to hide from me all of this time is because he is spending most of his time in another world."

Her voice lowers.

"Would you like to try again?"

—-

"All right. Okay. I'm sorry, Zatanna," Bruce says, exhaling. "You're right. Here— let's go in my study and talk. I'll explain everything to you," he tells her. He steps aside and gestures for her to pass him. "Please."

One pace into the office, Bruce Wayne steps silently behind Zatanna just before she coils to round on him to demand more explanation. His hand swings in a short arc, twisted into a peculiar claw-like shape, and he strikes the side of her neck. It's a perfect, popping blow that if delivered with both hands, can cause the arteries to overpressure and induce a stroke. Delivered as it is, it should knock Zatanna out soundlessly and painlessly, and without even leaving a mark.

—-

She's already wary.

He's lying, and when people lie, there is no reason to trust them. Zatanna watches him as he takes a few steps back and wanders back up the stairs, persuading her to follow. Some part of her doesn't want to, some part of her wants to simply disappear, to teleport back to New York and bury her head under a pillow and not surface to see daylight for a few days. Because this was strange, even for the likes of her, who deals with strangeness every day.

But consequences are what they are, always the consequences. While she hasn't told Bruce everything, and how could she, he might think she's crazy, she has been more than upfront - more than she should, and as he leads her to potentially further trouble, she lingers at the foot of the craggy steps leading back to the clock, her arms folded behind her back. She watches him, wounded, unmoving - she should be angry, but she looks heartbroken instead.

She's tired of being lied to. It has been a running theme in the last week.

Behind her, her fingers lift, to slip under her top and to the small of her back. She gouges her own skin with the tip of her fingernail, drawing blood, scratching five letters over her skin: CJCYN

With her arms still folded behind her, she closes her eyes and moves up the stairs.

Maybe it won't be so bad, some part of her, hopeful, young, oh so willing to think of the best of people, thinks. Maybe there's a perfectly good explanation. After all, everyone has their own skeletons.

As she moves into the study and whirls around, Bruce is on her.

What he might not expect is the fact that she's able to /block/ that first strike.

Zatanna Zatara's world is dangerous, and Giovanni is too seasoned of an operator to leave things to chance. She remembers the years in which she's had to take self-defense, because her magic will not always help her, and those lessons surge to the forefront of her brain now. Coupled with the fact that she is /already/ expecting trouble, it only makes her reflexes all the faster. But what she /sees/ on Bruce's face when she turns around in that quick clip, to keep his fingers from reaching her throat, freezes her joints, locks her limbs.

"Bruce…" she whispers. Betrayal fills her eyes.

It gives him the room he needs to get to those nerves and she crumples in his arms, a marionette with her strings cut, her raven hair spilled in inky whorls on expensive carpet.

Alfred would find the bottle down the stairs, transfigured back into its original form.

—-

"I knew I should have outsourced," Bruce mutters to himself, even as he catches Zatanna in his arms. He hurries her towards the side room, bumping an intercom with his elbow as he does. "Alfred," he says, sharply. "I need you. Now," he says. He settles Zatanna on the sofa and moves for his study, swinging out a concealed section of wall to reveal concealed medical gear. He produces a vial of clear liquid and a syringe, and loading it, moves to kneel next to her. A quick pass reveals a nasty scrape from her injuries the night prior buried in her lustrous black hair— into this he presses the syringe, just as Alfred runs in.

"My lord, Master Bruce, what happened?" he asks, stunned.

"She found the clock and the cave," Bruce grates, trying not to rush the injection despite the urgency. The Touch, a technique developed by the League, was not a long-term solution. Succinylcholine is— in a very tiny dose, it would keep her unconscious for a while.

Alfred grunts in shock, but being the Brit he is, he keeps an upper lip. And being the Soldier he is— he waits for instructions.

"Go to the lab. I need the neural inductor, and bottle F-44 from the Blue cabinet," Batman tells Alfred. "She had a pill bottle, too. It's somewhere between the cave and the bathroom. Find it and bring it to me," he says, finishing the injection site. It should keep Zatanna cozily asleep and sedated for at least an hour, maybe longer if she drifts into natural sleep before waking up.

Alfred moves fast, even while Bruce sedates Zatanna. He runs into the cavern, nevermind the exertion of a near-seventy year old man running, and gets the requested bottle and the induction hood. On the way back, the pill bottle is fetched and handed off to Bruce as well. They work smoothly as a team— Alfred sets about connecting the neural inductor to Zatanna's forehead and temple. A handy gadget long since appropriated by the Mad Hatter.

The pill bottle— Bruce counts them, then flings four into the fireplace. He reloads the syringe with a milliliter of fluid and injects it into the bruise under her hair, too, where it'll go missed by most examination short of shaving her head.

"Time hack… now. Two minutes," Bruce says, moving to put away the syringe and the gear. The combination of drugs mightily implicate someone as having had one too many drinks and having decided to sleep it off— and make a person extremely impressionable to post-hypnotic suggestion.

"Thirty seconds," Alfred says, as they bundle off the last of the evidence. Bruce nods. "Call an ambulance. Tell them she was mixing hydrocodone and booze, and she'll need a stomach pump." Alfred reaches for a phone to make a call, and Bruce activates the induction hood and slowly peels open Zatanna's heavy lids to peer into her face, before reaching over to activate the portable EEG device.

—-

Cold metal hits her forehead and temples, and Zatanna doesn't feel it. She's out like a light, her body limp on the chair as quick hands, efficient hands, work her over. A syringe hides its marks in her hair and for a moment, there is blessed, blissful silence.

There's only so much someone can do, with such a potent drug cocktail in her system in what tantamounts to a very high blood alcohol content - nevermind that these days, she has been very careful in imbibing too much.

Nothing happens; Alfred follows his instructions, Bruce puts away the drugs, and reaches out for the young woman fastened on the chair. As careful fingertips move to pry open her lashes and her eyes…

They stare at him uncomprehendingly, unblinkingly, irises nudging at the very top of her eyeballs. She's still asleep.

And Zatanna Zatara starts dissolving before his very eyes.

She fades away like a ghost, a figment of his imagination, the induction hood clattering uselessly in the vacant space, metal falling on the now-empty seat. Wherever she vanishes to, there's no way of knowing, though perhaps Bruce would have a few guesses.

—-

Bruce watches in shock as Zatanna fades away. Alfred stares, his finger hovering just above the '1' on the dial phone. The two men are soundless, until Bruce passes a hand through the empty space.

"/Shit/," Bruce says, finally losing a bit of his composure. He rubs a hand through his hair. The greatest forensic scientist of his era takes five seconds to control his panic and start planning— assuming that Zatanna had some kind of contingency in place against being rendered unconscious. Now, to create the scene of the crime.

Alfred waits patiently. If anyone can sell this, it's Batman.

"The drugs are in her system. Her short term memory's is compromised," Batman remarks, eyes going flat and thinking. "She'll wake up feeling hungover. Empty a bottle of the Tolure Fields syrah," Batman tells Alfred. "Put a few drops near her coat, along with the No detail is too small— he recalls a wine she's had before. Scent and taste are powerful sense memories after all. "I need some butyric acid to spread around, too." Simulate the scent of vomit in the women's powder room.

"Put the pills where we can get them to her tomorrow. She's missing enough she'll think she took to many. Combined with the hangover, we need to sell her a story." He walks into the other room, leaving Alfred to clean up, and finds a coffee table. He eyes it critically, then eyes his angles and flops onto it— like a stumbling drunk. He takes the hit without so much as a grunt of pain, the wood cracking against his forehead and upending several pieces of bricabrac. It makes a hell of a mess.

He whips his phone out finally and flicks through his contacts to text Zatanna. ~Z what happened? you fell down and vanished! plz call!~

He sends variation of that same text for five minutes, and calls Zatanna's phone four times. Finally, he quits, his last message conveying vague unease about the 'mysterious ways of magicians'.

"Best we can do, Alfred," Batman says, returning to the lounge as Alfred finishes cleaning things up.

"Mayhaps, Master Bruce, you should have /told/ the young lady the truth, instead of /drugging her/," Alfred snaps, clearly in no mood to coddle his former ward.

"Didn't anticipate her vanishing into the mist, Alfred," Batman says, dryly. "I won't make that mistake again. And I don't know how she got into the clock. I'll have to review security footage. I think she sensed the wards somehow," he says. "Tonight I'll have to—"

"I wasn't talking about that," Alfred growls, getting in Bruce's face— one of the few men on Earth capable of such an act without fear. "I meant the young lady /deserves/ the truth. She's not just another family friend. She's Zatara's daughter. You don't have so many allies you can afford to manipulate all of us all the time," he scowls, thunderously. "So what if she'd found the cavern? She'd know your secret and she'd forgive you for it."

"Then she'll have to forgive me for protecting it," Batman says, grimly. "It's not just /my/ secret, Alfred. It's Tim's. And Dick's. It's all of us— and the more people who know, the greater our liability becomes."

There's an angry silence. "Some days, Master Bruce," Alfred says, stiffly. "I don't much care for the man you've made yourself into."

Bruce watches silently as Alfred sweeps out, shoulders hunched in anger, and flexes his hand to look down at where Zatanna had collapsed. "I don't think I do, either," he mutters, admitting it to no one but himself.

He moves to the clock and opens it once again, then heads into the caverns underfoot. Time to undo the wards— and figure out how to 'mask' them from Zatanna's awareness. If that's at all possible, even.

"I /knew/ I should have outsourced," he mutters again.

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