Smoke and Mirrors

January 06, 2017:

Zatanna confronts Tim about what happened to her in Wayne Manor, but Tim manages to keep her trust. For now.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bruce Wayne, John Constantine, Peggy Carter, Captain America, Spider-Man

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It was a new year, and a new semester at Gotham University.

And something wasn't right.

Indeed, things had been not right a lot, lately… Even by the strange definition of 'right' that someone like Tim Drake lived by. The Gotham Antiquities Commission gala had turned into even more of a disaster than he'd expected it would - and he'd only even gone because he couldn't shake the instinct that something bad was going to happen to Zatanna - and since then he was sure something else had happened as well. There was a… Pall over Wayne Manor, not exactly the cheeriest home to begin with.

But even if nobody wanted to tell him what had happened, that was fine. Figuring things out on his own was one of Tim's particular strengths.

The new semester also meant a new Physics class, and so a pact that had been made before the winter break was set to continue: Tim sat in the study room that he and Zatanna generally used for their tutoring sessions, waiting for the goth girl to arrive, half his attention on his books - the semester had only just begun, and already he had notes prepared, of course - and the other half on the expensive smartphone he left sitting on the table beside himself, just in case it started buzzing with some manner of message.

So far, though, nothing.

—-

She turns her smartphone over and over again.

She hasn't been attending class in person lately, having spent most of her time in New York due to the fact that the threat to her person has not yet been vanquished, though she and John have been burning the midnight oil on that particular endeavour. That and the strange book that she managed to smuggle out of the disastrous centennial gala. The discoveries within were more than she expected, and that took up plenty of her hours as well, having discovered a mystical underlayer in the book itself, which explains why the tome's weight didn't match its appearance. It made for fascinating study and it had been almost enough to push thoughts regarding Wayne Manor to the backburners of her mind.

Almost.

But it visits her at night, renders her unable to sleep. The angelic essence that Constantine injected inside her helps keep exhaustion at bay, distilled Purity working all hours to burn all other bad chemicals, naturally recurring or otherwise, and other filthy things out of her bloodstream, including whatever detrimental effects there are through insomnia. It results in bursting, almost ethereal vitality that she doesn't necessarily feel, her hair, complexion and her coloring haven't looked so amazing in forever - for all of their eccentricities, constituents of the Host truly were mystical marvels. Though she supposes there is nothing so rare as an angel in mourning.

She can't keep dodging Tim forever though.

The paranoid thought sinks into the back of her mind, that maybe the entire family was in on it, that they were complicit to what she assumes are Bruce Wayne's macabre appetites. But the better angels of her nature reassert themselves - Tim could either be involved, or he could be innocent. Maybe he lives in fear of his adopted father, or maybe he doesn't know, in which case it would be her responsibility as a friend to warn him.

She doesn't know. Once again in the span of a few weeks, she faces a situation in which she doesn't know what to do.

She was never one to balk from a confrontation, however, as demonstrated by the way their regular study room's door clicks open, and Zatanna enters, dressed in the goth clothes she favors - ripped black jeans, though she wears fishnets underneath to add an additional layer of texture to the denim, a black top with long sleeves made of fine, almost delicate mesh and stitched with coruscating patterns, and her layered necklaces. Her boots, Valentino of course, put her at Tim's height.

She closes the door, and she looks directly at Tim.

"We need to talk."

There's no cheerfulness; those striking-unsettling eyes are pulled taut in their feline corners.

"Tim, Bruce did something to me a couple of nights ago. I want to know whether there's something dangerous about him that you'd like to tell me."

—-

He hears her before the door opens.

It's the boots that do it; the university never bothered to fully soundproof the study rooms in the library, though that might've been an intentional decision to dissuade a bunch of hormonal young adults from engaging in any shenanigans rather than hitting the books. Most people wouldn't bother noticing a sound that quiet anyway, but of course Tim has long since schooled himself to pick up on things most people wouldn't even notice, not out of superhuman senses but simply the act of paying attention in ways that regular people don't. The boots are familiar, the particular way the weight comes down on the raised heel distinctive to Zatanna.

Tim doesn't let on, of course, having trained almost as extensively at not giving away that he's noticing things as he has at noticing them in the first place. He doesn't look up until she enters the room, his head turning, dark blue eyes shifting towards her distinctive figure.

She'd been beautiful at the gala, in a way that had made Tim regret that they'd had so little time to socialise before everything took a turn for the terror and mayhem… But this was something else entirely, something that went beyond her natural appearance, or the way she accentuated it with the bold cosmetics and dark clothes and accessories of her chosen fashion. There was something… Not /unnatural/ about it, that was the wrong word, but as though there were something emphasising her, a light shining through that reduced others to drabness.

And yet that light didn't come with the one he generally associated with her. She was grim and serious, and her opening conversational gambit was one which never, ever, ever presaged good things.

'We need to talk.'

Tim's brows lift faintly, and his mouth opens as though he were about to say something, but he's forestalled by Zatanna's elaboration, which makes his brows continue to lift until they practically disappear under his longish black hair. His mind races. What does she know? Did she find out about Batman? Did Bruce fall under the influence of whatever sinister force is after Zatanna and do something terrible?

"What do you mean 'something'?" the young man asks, extremely carefully. "Zee, what happened?"

—-

It all comes flooding back and for the briefest seconds, Tim would see it in her face; grief, remembered heartbreak, the betrayal of it all. Those large expressive eyes run the entire gauntlet of those emotions, rendered so vulnerable in the way she so willingly carves her own chest open for others to have free access to the resilient muscle that beats against her bones. It's only been a couple of days since that incident, but now that she's looking at Tim in the face, she feels the tidal wave rise yet again, crashing into her nerves and leaving her breathless. For a while she doesn't even see him, or give him the impression that she's looking at him. She looks past him, towards the memory.

Of turning around, quickly, because her hackles had already been up, to parry the strike - surgical, precise - towards the tender hinge where her throat meets her shoulder. And looking up to see Bruce's face and the expression within.

It was a man she didn't recognize; handsome lines as cold as marble, the lack of remorse in his blue eyes.

Unconsciously, her right hand tightens against her side.

A tic, a hard throb causes that life-giving vein to pulse against the side of her throat, to reflect the hard cramp somewhere within her chest. But unlike hours after the incident happened, sorrow doesn't win out, and her serious eyes slowly brighten with a near-incandescent fury; white-blue fire spits at Tim from where she stands and she keeps /very close/ to the door. If something serious had happened, Tim would need no further need for any other indicators but that, practically flattening her body against the only means of escape afforded to her in such a cramped space.

Though he would know that she isn't exactly normal, wouldn't he? But she doesn't know that.

"Your dad /drugged me/, Tim!"

She means for it to be quiet, she means for it to be calm, but the outrage, the urgent, desperate /need/ to unleash her trauma on someone else who was close to the object of her ire tears out of her in a breathless torrent.

"And if you even so much as say that I must be /misunderstanding/ anything, I swear to Jehovah, I'll throw the nearest thing I can reach at you! I am /not/ misunderstanding anything, I was /fully conscious/ when he /got me by the neck/ and I ended up waking up at a friend's place with /drugs/ in my system that he /had/ to drain out of me so I'd even be /functional/!"

The shakes start, hairline fissures of tension spread over those delicate shoulders as she rounds on her best friend, assailed by her own doubts that perhaps, perhaps, she was taking this out on the wrong person. She waffles between doubting that he has something to do with it, that he was in on whatever secrets were lurking in the underbellies of Wayne Manor, or if he was an innocent party who had no idea this dark side even exists within his foster father. She doesn't know, but she is /tired/ of being betrayed, and emotions spill out of her, all lightning and thunder and fire.

"There's a tunnel at the back of the clock. The one in the study. Did you know that, Tim? It goes somewhere dark and there was /something/ there, and I managed to get away and that's where he found me and I asked him to tell me what was going on because I thought it was dangerous! After the gala, after everything, I was worried sick about you and your family so I thought…I thought I could…he tried to pass it off. That it was nothing but I /knew/ it was a lie. People have been /lying to me/ since I got home and I wasn't shy confronting him about it because I was just worried about him and Alfred and…and…and he /lures me into his study/ promising to explain it all and then he attacks me!!"

She breathes raggedly after that, the last words ripping through the air in the room, lapsing heavily into silence.

She conveniently leaves out /how/ she managed to escape, even now she keeps that part of her under wraps, just in case. Just in case. Her expression contorts, misery stitching over those fine-boned lines.

"Daddy trusted him, Tim. I trusted him. So I'm asking you….are you part of whatever the hell he's about?"

—-

Whatever happened, Tim can already tell that it's bad; Zatanna wasn't one to keep things under wraps, wasn't one to school her body language when she wasn't performing. She was keeping her distance from him, keeping closer to the door, in case she needed to run. She was angry, and afraid, and so Tim did the only thing he could do about it.

He put both his hands on top of the table, splayed out and palms down, where she could see them, and he did not stir from where he was sitting.

He lets her speak, though this is as much a measure to make sure he has all the details before doing anything as it is a means of letting her get it out of her system. A detached part of his mind notes how striking she looks in her distraught fury, her eyes nearly glowing, but the dark-haired young man seems unruffled. Most people would flinch back in a situation like this, or respond angrily in turn. Most people haven't been through the sorts of things he has.

But internally, he's still working a mile a minute in his head. Trying to figure out what she knows, what she could've reasoned out. Trying to figure out what on Earth Bruce was doing. He wouldn't put it past his adoptive father to have done this as part of some weird elaborate vetting scheme, whether for Zatanna to see if she was safe to share certain knowledge with, or for Tim to see if Red Robin was still the true believer he was when he wore that suit of red and green and yellow and black.

She mentions the clock, the tunnel, and Tim is almost certain he knows where this is going next, understands in at least an intellectual way that Bruce was trying to protect the secret, though what that had to do with drugging Zatanna he isn't entirely certain.

'Are you part of whatever the hell he's about?'

That's an awkward question.

What he knows is that, unless she was holding back, she doesn't know what was on the other side of that tunnel. She doesn't know about the cave, about the Batman. And that means he can't be honest with her, not without dragging others with him. It was a struggle he'd been facing since he was fourteen years old, and time hadn't made it twist up his guts with guilt any less.

"I don't know what you're talking about, about any tunnel," he says, his brow furrowing. "And I've definitely never heard of Bruce drugging anyone. There's… There's been a lot of weird stuff going on lately, Zee. Like that… Whatever it was that attacked you that night on campus, and then the gala. I really don't know what's going on anymore."

—-

'I've definitely never heard of Bruce drugging anyone.'

For a moment, she looks stunned.

Her joints lock, and whatever rant that she is gearing for, whatever second wave or new circle of Hell she decides to unleash in this study room dies the moment she hears the words. The rest are inconsequential - it might very well be that Tim doesn't know about the secret passage, and it's even slightly curious that he seems stunned about weird things happening in Gotham when weird things going on in the city are common and all over its newsfeed every day. But what gets her are those words, and she looks at him with such an open, wounded expression that nobody would be blamed if they immediately assumed that Tim Drake just cracked her one against the face.

Because he reminds her that she's talking about Bruce Wayne.

Richest Man in the Universe, Peter Parker described him. Gotham's favorite son. Billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. Tim's foster father, who took him in after his own parents died. Even if she screams her story to the heavens for it to be judged by those above and below and in-between, no human being on the planet would ever believe her. After all, it's a common enough story, isn't it? A young, naive girl getting charmed by a wealthy, eccentric bachelor - something happens and she manages to escape, tries to tell others what happened to her but nobody believes her, because in such situations, power only goes one way.

She comes from a world where the mystical and the fantastic happen every day. But it isn't every day that the darker parts of the more mundane plane assail her. And should she be surprised? Stories like these are so common that nobody ever really pays attention anymore in the news, relegated as social justice anecdotes but otherwise, they are of little consequence unless the story is attached with something outrageous.

She should have expected it, she thinks numbly as she stares at her classmate. Who the hell would ever believe her?

'John did,' whispers her own voice, from the back of her head.

Zatanna turns her face away from him, staring at the other side of the wall.

"You don't believe me."

She says it like it's fact. And of course she does, she doesn't know any better. There's a laugh, but it's nothing lighthearted, nothing humorous - the edge is dull, and lacks its normal luster.

"Fuck…" A hand lifts, and she presses her face against the palm. "I don't know why I should have expected anything different. Who could really blame you, right? He took you in, you all come from the same circles, and my family never really did fit in with the august company the rest of you keep. God, I still remember what the Elliots called us back in the day."

Carnies. That her father was a charlatan, and how she was a creepy little freak. Nevermind the sacrifices her own father had suffered to keep the world safe from things beyond their mortal ken.

She takes a deep breath and turns. Her hand reaches for the door.

"Sorry," she tells him without looking at him. "I don't feel like studying today."

And with that, she opens the door.

—-

'You don't believe me.'

That wasn't true, which was the real problem. Tim did believe her, though he'd much prefer it wasn't true. He understood, in that detached, intellectual way, why Bruce would go to outlandish extremes to protect the secret. Tim knows, better than anyone, what a carefully constructed house of cards the secret is, knows that uncovering one identity would lead to others, and then what? Zatanna isn't stupid - she's brilliant, in fact - and it wouldn't be difficult at all for her to start drawing the right conclusions once she learned the true identity of one of Gotham's cape and cowl squad.

He knows that Batman can go too far trying to protect his mission and his legend. That he can push away those who might be his allies, that he can cross lines which he shouldn't. He knows this better than most, because of course that was why he became Robin in the first place.

He knows what he should do, of course. The cold, logical, pragmatic thing. Let her go, forget about her. She wouldn't be the first friend he lost because of the secret, and odds were she wouldn't be the last. Perhaps it would be the best thing for her anyway, it would get her away from them. He could still try to keep her safe from the whatever-was-happening as Red Robin, who was of course much more familiar and comfortable with weird things happening than sheltered Tim Drake.

All he had to do was the sensible thing: Say nothing.

"I believe you," Tim says from behind Zatanna, as she starts opening the door.

He doesn't move from where he sits, his hands still pressed on the tabletop, trying to be as nonthreatening as possible. That posture started because he could see her readiness to bolt before, and it persists because he knows she has to worry that he's involved in whatever drove Bruce to attack her. Of course, she's right, and he is involved in it, but she doesn't know the reality of it.

"I meant what I said, I've never heard of him doing anything like that before. That doesn't mean I don't believe it's possible, or that I think you're lying. Things have been strange lately, Zee. Though I don't really have to tell /you/ that. I won't try to make you stay, if you want to leave, but I'm here if you want to talk, or even just sit in awkward silence."

—-

She doesn't step out of the room just yet, and a hard, frustrated stare focuses on the doorknob in her grip.

"Were we friends after all, Tim?" she asks.

It may be a hurtful question to ask but that was always Zatanna's way, fearless, heedless, reckless when it comes to trodding through the emotional battlefields of human interaction, bleeding from shots fired in all directions for /daring/. Perhaps this tendency won't stay with her, she is young after all, and experience tends to temper these wild urges later in life. But for the time being, she doesn't know how to be anything else and when she asks it, she turns her head to look at Tim directly in the eyes.

It makes her too open, too vulnerable; social tacticians from the world over would probably balk at her way, when she is so willing to commit emotional suicide at any time just so she could draw something real and definite from someone else. But these concerns are far, so very far, from her mind. The wounded look is gone at least, replaced by fatigue, of the deep-seated kind that could only come from someone whose heart has been rent to tatters not just once, or twice, or even thrice, but often and consistently within the last few weeks. Bruce isn't who she thought he was, her own /father/ betrayed her by meddling in her happiness, made her think the worst of someone who, for all of his caustic shell, cared about her, and perhaps even loved her, and the misunderstandings had only piled up until they reached such a shattering breaking point that it was a miracle they were even able to make amends.

She doesn't know who to trust anymore. After everything else, could anyone find any fault in that?

So she asks and she looks him in the eye as she does; she only makes it seem easy to say these words as she bulls into thorny emotional territory, but she would be lying if she said they didn't leave her mouth with some effort. This is her way, the only way she has found to rebel and distinguish herself from all the authoritative male influences in her life - John, Giovanni, Bruce, they all feared emotions and in that arena, she is leaps and bounds ahead of them.

"Because I don't know who to trust anymore." Ever so frank, as if she had been born with an extraneous tendon or vein that permanently attached her mouth to her heart.

"And I'm not just being dramatic," she continues. "Trouble follows me, like it does Daddy. Like it does everyone who causes the same kinds of ripples that I do. Even now, while I breathe, while I stand here in this room with you, people are trying to kill me, and I know it sounds…" She lets out another humorless laugh. "…absolutely /insane/ and that's not even the worst of my problems, if you can believe it. What could possibly be more important, right? So I'm asking, because I do want to talk. I want to talk forever. I want to tell you how much you've meant to me these last few weeks, because God only knows how much I needed to be around someone like you. But I don't know if I can."

—-

That emotional recklessness was both a strength and a weakness for Zatanna, in Tim's estimation; it created all sorts of vulnerabilities for her, vulnerabilities that someone more controlled like himself eschewed almost by reflex, but it also made it easier for her to create those important connections with other people, despite the risks.

And isn't it better to love and lose, to paraphrase, than to never love at all?

Tim isn't immune to it, particularly not with the curious effect of the magical relic running through her veins, lending Zatanna a haunting and ethereal beauty no matter how brokenhearted she looks, no matter how battered she is from all the things she's endured since she returned to Gotham City. She asks him if they were ever truly friends after all, and it hurts more than if she'd just up and punched him right in the gut.

"Of course we are," Tim answers her, using the present tense rather than the past. He is acutely aware, of course, that he is still lying to her, by omission if nothing else… But there are too many secrets that aren't his to tell for him to open up to her, even now. Too many lives that could be placed in danger if she discovered the truth and wasn't careful about how she vented her justifiable anger at Bruce Wayne.

Always, he finds himself calculating, weighing, rather than going with his emotions. It's part of him now, ground into his bones. A survival mechanism in the life he chose.

"Considering what's happened around you recently, Zee, I'm prepared to believe all sorts of things. I'm not going to sit here and bullshit you and make some manly speech about how I'll protect you from… I don't even know what all that stuff was, ghost tentacles or whatever, but I can talk. I can listen." He's very good at listening. That it might be a good opportunity to gain more intelligence on what's happening certainly occurs to him, but he at least tries to believe that his primary concern is Zatanna's psychological wellbeing.

His brow furrows again, but he keeps his attention focused on Zatanna, keeps his body language as nonthreatening as he can. It would be worlds easier if he could talk to her without the obfuscation in place. But then, if she knew, why would she trust him any?

"I can't make you do anything, Zee, and I won't try. If you want to stay here and talk about it, that's your choice. If you want to walk out that door, you have every right. Just remember you can always pick up the phone and call me."

"Okay?" he adds, with a hopeful, boyish smile.

—-

She has a very distressing tendency to set things on fire.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't - fire can destroy but it could also clear the brush to reveal what's underneath. These days her success rate on that front has been fifty-fifty at best, but Zatanna stubbornly clings to her way because any other would be somehow eschewing that one part of her that hasn't changed since her father's disappearance. As she looks at him from where she stands, she's clearly uncertain. She wants to believe him, she does, but she feels that fist seize into the pit of her stomach, squeezing tight and for all she knows, Tim would just turn around and tell Bruce Wayne everything if not just to assure his crazy father that she wasn't about to do anything crazy like go to the media to have this latest scandal published, or worse, press charges.

The dig about the bullshit manly speech has her smirking once, though again it fails to reach her eyes. "No need for that," she sniffs. "I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself."

Sometimes, she does need help. She remembers waking up after the angelic essence had purged all the toxins Bruce Wayne flooded into her body, but otherwise she was responsible for banishing the Hunter Spirit that attacked her in the caverns under the Manor, and made sure that she had an exit before Bruce could well and truly harm her. That counts for something, right?

Glancing at the door again, she sighs and lets it close.

For some reason, she feels as if she's being manipulated again.

So she decides, in the end, to let it happen - to give Tim Drake enough rope to hang himself if he ends up violating her trust, or he keeps her secrets and proves that she hasn't severely overestimated everyone else she's met since she returned. She would rather not lose the only other friend she has left in Gotham, but to say that she trusts him completely now, considering who he lives with, would be a lie.

She was in deep enough shit, after all. Whatever harm Tim visits on her if that was his intent, she'll take it in stride also, and despite all evidence to the contrary, she is /not/ above making someone pay.

She moves for one of the chairs, taking a seat directly across him. She sets the bag next to her, making a note to keep it far away from him, remembering all the listening devices she had found inside it.

"I'm magic," she begins. "It's not just smoke and mirrors with me. If I willed it hard enough, it happens, to put it in a nutshell, and the reason why I returned to Gotham is because Daddy was after an old relic, which was being auctioned off at the gala. Other people were after it…as usual, whenever Daddy's involved, including the guy who caused all that trouble. He's the reason why I'm in the shit I'm in now, because he wanted to get at my father, and pit him against someone else I know because they're both big deals in the kind of world I was born into. I am, effectively, being held hostage from afar."

She folds the cuff of her left sleeve over, showing him the wards - glowing white-blue sigils etched on her skin, the bare strip over her wrist, eaten away from the consistent attacks she's endured. They are, however, holding, though sparks fly from her hand now and then like static. "They haven't stopped since John tried to stop the guy who attacked the gala, that was how he found out someone had my blood - when we were attacked on campus. I thought you were the target, but Muller….Hanussen, I guess, the immortal Nazi sorceror who made a mess of things in the New Year, knew enough about me to know that I'd jump in to protect you."

—-

Manipulation takes many forms, and it's a perhaps uncomfortable truth that Tim Drake is more than passing familiar with most of them.

So much of his life has been spent lying to people, after all. Lying to his parents when he first became Robin. Lying to his friends, his classmates, his girlfriends… And manipulation is a key part of the theatrical aspect of Batman's methodology that Tim has adopted, which his predecessors as Robin mostly discarded. Knowing, understanding how people work so that you can influence what they'll do. As a crimefighter, it's an enormously useful skill, because once you're influencing what the criminals do, you've already halfway won.

As an interpersonal methodology, though, it has its warts.

Tim isn't so foolish, so arrogant as to believe Zatanna is simply following along as a blind sheep, as some mark; she's an expert at manipulation too, given her own background, after all, and she's clever and determined besides. No, he can tell she's going along with him at least in part to see if he'll let her down, if he'll turn on her. Why would she not expect that, knowing the position he's in, and the position that she's placed him in by telling him about Bruce's actions?

Why wouldn't she at least worry that he was playing the part of the rich kid making sure his way of life and family reputation was secure from her potential to sling scandals and criminal charges and civil lawsuits?

Tim, being a fairly grounded individual, has always kind of resisted the idea that magic is real, no matter the weird things he's seen - or the guy with horrible eldritch powers who has a very real hate-on for Robin - and tried to put it into terms that made more sense for his view of the world. But there there she sits across from him, careful to keep her bag away from where he might slip a bug or a tracker on her, and tells him that she can do magic.

His hands remain on the table, where he couldn't get anything from his bookbag or put anything in hers either, but he doesn't blame her for being careful. Instead, he listens.

And it is a rare thing that Tim Drake forgets anything he hears or sees.

"Well… I'm glad he was right about you, then," Tim muses, and he's not joking. He's pretty sure that would at /best/ been extremely painful. "So this Hanussen, he can do, what… Almost anything? Are you sure he didn't do anything to Bruce, I mean, he would've seen the two of you together. This is all… Pretty outside of my area of expertise, y'know, so I'm sorry if I'm grasping at straws, but I don't want him to be a maniac."

This is also not a joke, or a lie.

"And what's the endgame with him? I mean… What do you do to stop an immortal Nazi sorceror?"

—-

"The guy's been around since World War II, at least, so I don't know what else he can do," Zatanna tells him. "I'm convinced 'anything he's managed to study and read in the last seventy years' which is pretty considerable. He's not the first long-lived spellslinger I've heard of, but all of them have varying degrees of expertise. He's definitely a little more clever than the likes of Felix Faust, though….God only knows how many years he's lived on this Earth but he can't think his way out of a paper bag as far as subtle manipulations of circumstance are concerned."

She throws out the name casually, as if it's nothing, indicative enough that the young woman, despite her young age, has been mired into her father's world from almost the moment she was born, though if anyone just automatically assumes Zatara had given her a free pass into those secrets just because they were family would be gravely mistaken. Her father kept his true sorcery from her until the day she walked in on his antique phonograph changing its records by itself - the day she found out magic was real.

"We thought his endgame was the book," she says, scrubbing her face with one hand. "He didn't get that." Though while Zatanna doesn't tell Tim who has the book, he would know /who/ does - she opened the rift to assist the Winter Soldier to save Dr. Jane Foster with it, after all, and the book was never returned to the good people of the Gotham Antiquities Commission. "John…John Constantine, a former student of Daddy's, is more concerned about finding Hanussen's agent who has my blood and as far as we can tell, Hanussen's in league with Mammon, the Demon Prince of Excess. As in Hell, Tim. Hell exists, as does God and Heaven. Anyway, Mammon wants my soul. I don't know why. I keep trying to convince him that maybe we ought to find out but he's really reluctant to make those phone calls, and with good reason."

She rolls her head back to tilt her eyes towards the ceiling. "As for how to stop an immortal Nazi sorceror save encasing him in a block of carbonite and dumping him in the ocean to stare at fish? And that's assuming if you can keep him unconscious the entire time? Best way is to figure out how he became immortal in the process and go from there. That entails getting into the man's history, and 'Hanussen' can be any number of Hanussens in Germany. Captain America's date seems to know who he is definitively though but…that's SHIELD territory and…" She lets out a sudden, exasperated laugh. "My life these days is /complicated enough/ without rustling the jimmies of the world's most infamous intelligence organization."

After a pause, she glances at him sidelong. "Think I'm certifiably insane yet?" she wonders. "Why aren't you more freaked out about this?"

She sighs. "Anyway, I know he didn't do something to Bruce. We were sitting together before shit went sideways. I would have been able to tell."

—-

The most unsettling part for Tim is the sort of casual way Zatanna confirms the literal existence of aspects of Christian theology, having become an atheist after the death of his mother; though, since there are also Norse gods running around and who knows what else, maybe it's just one thing among many in a vast and strange and extremely complicated universe.

"I don't think you're insane, Zee," Tim says. He knows from insane, after all, having had to deal with all of the more infamous occupants of Arkham Asylum at one point or another. "I guess I was just hoping, after what you said…" But he has no reason to think that she's lying to him, or that she wouldn't have noticed if Bruce had been controlled. No, it seemed that the Dark Knight had crossed a line, as he sometimes did, and as always it fell to the few people who truly knew and cared about him to try and pull him back.

Though in at least one case, the damage might be well and truly done.

"There's a lot of weird stuff out there, and I'm just a guy, right? I try to look at things rationally, but that stuff at the gala, that wasn't very rational. As for freaking out, I'm a lifelong Gotham resident. It takes a lot to freak us out." Earthquakes, gang wars, they've seen it all. In the end, are demons from Hell really any worse than the Joker? "Though I can't say it isn't kinda scary. I didn't realise you were living with all this kinda stuff, Zee."

—-

"I didn't want to tell you because…"

Zatanna falls silent.

"Now that you've heard a fraction of the strangeness around me, the sort of things I attract, can you blame me for wanting to escape it sometimes? Be a normal college student? Go to class, make friends?" Her eyes fall to the way her finger traces absent patterns on the wood. "I met someone recently who said he thought about it, the same thing I did, trying to juggle his own weirdness and having a normal life also. But he also said that he chose differently because he couldn't help but wonder how many people he deprived of a normal life because he was trying to live his own. I never thought about it that way before, it's not like I have any grand aspirations to save the world like he does. And after I talked to him I wonder if….maybe he's right. Maybe I'm not meant for any of that."

She closes her eyes. "I want to be able to enjoy my life too, you know? I'm only young once, and there are definitely days where….this. All of this. Is just so much. And no matter how far I try to run, it pulls me back in. Because I can't help it….adventuring's in the blood, I guess. But there are days when I wish that I could be some other way. Because it gets exhausting, and then there are weeks like this where you can't help but question everything else around you."

Lashes lift from her cheeks, her striking-unsettling gaze focusing on Tim across the table.

"It's fun," she tells him, finally, a warmer, rueful smile turns up on her mouth. "Being normal with you, at least for a few hours. Except maybe I was wrong in that too. Your house is weird, Tim. I'm not even going to get into Bruce, but when I was trying to find the disturbance, I ran past the west wing and…there are so many pictures, all of it speaks of a loving, active family life. But the house is always /empty/ and /silent/ when I stop by. I'm not a detective, though I know a few who are, and it seemed….it felt wrong. So I guess I shouldn't have assumed. I mean….now that I know you're living with someone who may be certifiably insane anyway."

Glancing down at her left arm, she lifts her shoulders in a light shrug.

"Anyway, that's it. I'm glad you don't think I'm insane and by all rights….I don't know. Maybe I should have stayed away. I'm often told people like me just attract and bring disaster to those around them, but I didn't want to believe that and now…" She gestures vaguely. "It's kinda sad, I think. I'm a /professional illusionist/ and I have a hard time accepting that most of the time things and people aren't what they seem."

Her eyes lower, staring at her fingers.

"But I hope because I don't want to ever not, also. Hell I'm hoping now, that you're not going to somehow screw me over. Maybe it'll be optimism that'll be the death of me, instead of whatever eldritch terror is gonna come out of the woodwork next."

—-

Can he blame her for wanting to spend some time being normal, some time away from the weirdness of her life as an actual mistress of the mystic arts?

"I can't blame you for that, no," Tim replies. It would be an absurd thing to blame anyone for, in his opinion: He's seen firsthand what happens when you let that sort of thing completely consume your life. And, really, Zatanna has seen it too, even if she doesn't know it in at least this particular case. "People only have so much to give, Zee. Eventually, if you don't take any time for yourself, you'll just… Bleed yourself dry. Or lose sight of why you're doing it in the first place."

He chose this, which in some ways puts him at odds with a lot of the other people in the costumed heroics business: Often, they had that choice made for them, imposed upon them, or life gave them a choice that wasn't really a choice at all. Batman faced the options of surrendering to despair or becoming what he needed to become to prevent others from becoming like him. Tim's predecessors as Robin were largely drafted into the job. Tim took it upon himself.

He chose this life. Zatanna, it seemed, has had the choice made for her. By her father, by this Hanussen.

"I don't know how normal I could ever be, anyway," Tim notes. "I was raised to a privileged life in a city that spends half its time teetering on the brink." And, well, she's not wrong about Bruce in any case. He's never known him to be a completely sane man. But he can't help but remember Christmas at the manor, and how warm Bruce had been with Jason, with Barbara, even with Stephanie.

It was… Troubling.

He watches her as she stares at her fingers, as she goes over the possibility of him screwing her over. It's a completely rational concern, and Tim doesn't seem particularly put out by the fact that she raises it. Instead, he moves one of his hands. Slowly, carefully, he shifts it towards the middle of the table, and he turns it palm up, so she can see that it's empty. For her to take, if she wants.

"There are a lot of things in this world that we have to take on faith, and I know at the moment you don't have any reason to do that. I won't do anything to screw you over, Zee. I promise. I'll try and get Bruce the help he apparently needs… And I will be careful," he adds. "I prefer having you around to not, Zatanna."

—-

"That's what I thought so, also," she tells him. "I want to be able to just have fun, sometimes. Be who I am, dance like nobody's watching, that sort of thing. Plus…all that adventuring. If I'm going to help people along the way, I'd like to be reminded as to why everyone else is worth helping. Worth saving."

Zatanna sighs, drawing her fingertips over her face, rubbing her eyes. Thankfully, makeup technology has progressed far enough in the digital age to be able to concoct every smudge-proof, waterproof substances there are, none of it wipes off on her fingertips.

Tim's words about his privileged life has her quirking a faint grin, thankfully reclaiming some of the equilibrium she has lost upon stepping inside this room just a few moments ago. "And rich people can get into some really weird kinks. Remind me to tell you about this really disturbing club in the U.K. sometime." Where the creme de la creme of British society get together to engage in some of the filthiest depravities ever witnessed by human eyes, a place to bleed out every abnormal thirst so as to keep their appetites away from the civilized world.

As for getting screwed over…

Anyone would keep that to herself, but as always Zatanna raises the issue point-blank, while the person she suspects is in the room. But that is her all over, straightforward as usual in communicating what she feels, gives her opinion so freely for one so young. Though to her credit, she doesn't lift her head then to challenge Tim with a stare, to dare him to take offense to it. But like she said, she hopes. She remembers it clearly, even walking up the craggy steps to the study where Bruce ultimately felled her, she was still hoping that he would explain, that he would tell the truth.

But as her classmate extends his hand over the table to her palm up, she is once again rewarded with the notion that perhaps, perhaps, not all of her faith has been misplaced. Slowly, her own fingers crawl forward, touching the tips of her digits gingerly over his own, before they make the gradual slide into his palm. Her earlier tension relaxes at his promise; there must be something in his expression, just then, that makes her believe him because another smile plays over her mouth.

"Thanks, Tim," she replies quietly. "I'll hold you to that." Mischief returns, briefly illuminated in her pale blue irises. "Though you might wanna withhold judgment on that last part, you never know what'll happen between now and later, you know."

—-

Some of the peril has passed.

Not all of it, because Tim knows - with a twinge of guilt for the secrets he's still keeping from Zatanna - that now anything she viewed as a betrayal would be even worse. There's a firebrand temper there, the legacy of her Italian ancestors perhaps, and it would flare up in an instant and consume him if she perceived him as screwing her over, stabbing her in the back. If he used the rope she'd given him to hang himself in the way she fears he might.

He can see how she regains some of her old self, some of her mischief and light and humour which had been sacrificed on the altar of the betrayal she'd felt at Bruce's actions. It's a relief, because he knows the dangers in staying wound up tight and distraught, and because it means she's relaxing around him, accepting his assurances at least a little bit. Of course, this return of the old Zatanna comes with an allusion to some disturbing anecdotes about disturbing clubs.

His imagination can, unfortunately, fill in the blanks - there are parts of Gotham where the most blood-curdling of vices can be indulged, after all. Yet one can always imagine worse.

But she does take the offered hand, if slowly. Her manicured fingertips brushing gingerly, carefully against his, before she slides her hand into his own. He doesn't flip out then, doesn't use this as leverage for violence; he just curls his fingers around hers, and squeezes gently. The warm pulse of life of another human being.

"Nah," Tim replies to her mischievous retort. "It's a better world with you in it."

Which is why Red Robin is going to show Hanussen just how scary a mere mortal can be.

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