A Not Too Absent Father

January 08, 2017:

Bruce Wayne is confronted by his angry mentor, the legendary Giovanni Zatara, for the events that happened in And Into the Fire, marking this as the second time Giovanni has returned from the nasty business of preventing disaster to simultaneously yell at and assist one of his two surrogate sons.

Wayne Manor - Crest Hill - Bristol - Gotham City

Characters

NPCs: Giovanni Zatara (NPC'd by Zatanna Zatara), Alfred Pennyworth

Mentions: John Constantine, Zatanna Zatara, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Jason Todd, Spoiler

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

When Alfred opens the door, he would find the pale visage of one of his oldest friends staring at him from under the brim of his top hat.

Even back when Bruce was a child, as a young man, Giovanni Zatara always seemed old, as if the travails he had suffered in life had significantly aged him while he was in his prime, a living effigy of the oldest principle of magic in all of its forms: It costs. The toll is heavy, and the sacrifices are many, and this is especially true of the tall, elegant sophisticate standing before the Englishman, wrapped up in his charcoal-black loncoat and the blood-red scarf twisted around his collar, a slash of lurid color amidst a darker sea. This legend of the mystical world had been a product of a shamelessly manipulated human history - whole centuries have been harvested and shaped, relationships were orchestrated and torn asunder, just to produce this favored child of Fate, a burden he has carried ever since he was a young, lower-class boy in the suburbs of New Jersey. Is it a wonder, then, that he has always looked aged beyond his years?

At some point in his life, however, the aging has stopped. He has looked the same for decdes, still straight-backed, still long-fingered. His ice-blue eyes - Zatanna's eyes - remain steady and forward and unlike his passionate daughter, he is an immovable rock; torturous decades have shaped him into an emotional cypher.

But for all of his exploits - events that only a scant handful of people know about - he prizes his role as a father above all else.

This is the reason he has come without warning, and why his normally impregnable, inscrutable stare is filled with the lightning flashes of a temper barely held at bay. It isn't just the offense levied on the one thing in the world that he loves unconditionally that causes this, but the other glaring possibility that one of the only three students he has ever taken in has lost his way. And after decades of hopeful novices darkening his door, begging to be taught, he has gone /beyond/ selective, tapping those who he knew, based on the readings of his former paramour, had the potential to shake the world with their gifts. And out of the three of them, Bruce was a standout, because he didn't have the Gift, and so the idea of the Great Zatara teaching someone outside of the community was even more unheard of.

Hence the sleeping dragons of his temper. He knows this will be complicated but it needs to be done.

"Alfred," he greets. "Where is he?"

—-

"Giovanni," Alfred says, looking taken aback for only a moment. A smile crosses his face, though it's tinged with a moment of worry. Giovanni's temper smoulders, rather than flares, and he can see the signs in his friend's eye.

Still. He offers the fellow a grip of the hand. They'd been in a few foxholes in their years. "Thank God you're here," he tells the dapper magician. "It's been quite a mess in the last few weeks. Can I take your coat and hat?" he says. "Or are you going to vanish them up and keep me from doing my job?" A little levity— just to lighten the mood, if not relieve tensions.

He beckons Giovanni. "Master Bruce is in the caves, and I think you'll be best suited to talk to him down there," Alfred says, moving to the east wing. "He's… blimey, I'm worried about him, Gio," Alfred confesses, clearly looking embarassed that he's betraying Bruce's confidence. "He's always been off but… lately, I don't know. He's pushing the kids harder and harder, and yet he's taking in new ones off the street. He bloodied himself up good trying to protect Zatanna, and then…" he gestures vaguely at the west wing. "I don't know what it is. Paranoia, or guilt, or… I worry he's finally snapping," Alfred admits. He takes Gio via a circuitous route— avoiding all the internal security cameras. No need to surprise Batman. "Maybe you can help him suss out what's wrong."

—-

He is already pulling off his gloves, tucking it in the breastpocket of his coat, reaching out to squeeze his old friend's fingers in a handshake. For a moment, just a moment, the look of him softens. With Thomas and Martha gone, it is only Alfred who remains from their close circle of associates, faded memories surfacing from his weary skull. Gotham was a difficult fit, always has been, but Giovanni thrives on conflict, and while his family has always been marginalized by the other wealthy families of Gotham (Carnies, they said, particularly the Elliots), who treated him like a charlatan at best, he remembers Thomas' friendship and hospitality.

There is a glance, past Alfred, to the portrait of his ghost, standing by his wife and their very young son.

He hands Alfred the walking stick, the coat, but the hat he keeps. Underneath, he wears a waistcoat, an impeccably tailored button-down shirt and slacks. He wears Oxfords, of course. Even after all of these years, he wasn't about to disappoint Alfred Pennyworth by wearing anything else.

"I am certain that you have done all you could, as always," he tells the butler. "You are a credit to your profession, my old friend. I cannot promise that he will take my words to heart, but I swear he will listen to what I have to say. I am not giving him a choice."

He exhales, closing his eyes.

"I never had any sons," he begins. "Much like him, I have taken surrogates. Both flawed, broken men, just as I was. I heeded the call of Destiny and chose them, so it stands to reason that their failures are my own." He pauses, and angles a look towards Alfred. "Do not tell anyone I said that."

There is a slight twitch of his mustached lip, but with a slight tilt of his top hat to his old mate, he strides towards the west wing, into the study, and through the clock, his form becoming intangible with a whispered word. Down the craggy steps leading into the caves, he descends upon the Batman with brisk, businesslike, but unhurried steps.

Wherever Bruce is, whatever he is doing…

"I am the last person in the world to excoriate another for crossing a line," Giovanni says from somewhere behind him. "But in this instance, you have /tremendously/ overstepped."

—-

To his credit, when Giovanni's voice hammers on Batman's ears, he doesn't whirl. He pauses, just for a moment, head lifting. "Giovanni," he remarks, his voice lower and somehow even raspier. He turns then to look at the fellow, and the only word that describes him is… haggard. At least four days of stubble, maybe more, and his eyes are a bit bloodshot. Even for a fellow accustomed to little sleep, Batman looks like he hasn't rested in days. His cloak and cape are hung up nearby, leaving him in his grey body armor, and splayed out on the backlit table in front of him are dozens of books, a small altar, and the trappings of a minor summoning ritual nearby. Magic stinks in the air, the scent of sacrifice and incense, and a lingering perception of broken magical constructs guttering out like candles.

"Your timing is impeccable," Bruce says, dryly. "If you'd come here a few days ago, the wards would have alerted me to your arrival." He gestures at an emptied, inert sigil on the wall— the work of svartalves. "I've had to take a crash course in mysticism with the events of the last few weeks. It runs a bit deeper than you ever let me believe," he tells the illusionist.

—-

There is an impassive glance towards the altar, the books on mysticism, the implements for a ritual. Ever inscrutable, those ice-blue eyes wander over these new signs, of an obsession that burrows deep….that goes beyond the realm of salvation. His pulse throbs, by his jaw where it meets his neck, and that simmering temper only grows, blue conflagration that threatens to consume everything it touches.

And it does.

"Nrub," he whispers. The syllables seethe through his teeth.

The summoning circle erupts in holy fire, burning away the candles, the chalk, torching them utterly. It catches on the altar's tablecloth, the books, scoring through the stench of unstable, unusable magic, the incense, wild winds of his command whipping through the cave and bringing down the other broken circles that he could sense. And all the while, he does not look away from Batman.

"These secrets," he says lowly, frost and fire tangling in his syllables. "Are /not/ meant for you."

He points to a chair. "You will /tis/." It pushes across the floor, into the back of Bruce's knee to catch him in the seat. "And you will /netsil/, and you /will/ listen well, boy, because this incident has pulled me from several important endeavours that require both urgency and delicacy, principles that I /hope/ you still understand if you ever have any hope of helping anyone ever again. Because from what I remember, /that/ is your mission. To aid, not to harm."

His eyes narrow at that.

"And you have /done/ harm. Tell me, is there a grand plan, once you have finally succeeded in turning the entire world against you? That you would make your own sons /resent/ you, that you would /disrespect/ those who have called you friend? And you /have/ done that, for all of the justifications you must be telling yourself. This is not just your secret. The secret must be kept at all costs. Lives are at stake."

A hand swipes to the side in a cutting gesture, his voice rising. "You have protected /no one/ the night you decided to /violate/ my daughter in ways I never thought /possible/ coming from you. I have /obliterated/ men for less grievous offenses and you /dare/ speak to me like it is /business as usual/?"

—-

Batman stares at the conflagration destroying the textbooks, the artifacts— all of it. He doesn't blink. He must sit, because Zatara /commanded/ it. But at the demand of a question, Giovanni lifts his own implied prohibition on silence.

"That was ten million dollars worth of single editions and rare books banned across the world," Batman tells Giovanni. The reprimand goes unsaid beyond that. Batman and Giovanni are both men who understand that knowledge is the greatest of weapons.

He steeples his fingers under his chin, elbows resting on the arms of the chair. Exhausted and worn, his eyes are still sharp— still alert. Focused on Zatara as the man vents his spleen. The fire suppression system clicks on, but to no avail, the magical flames a conflagration of will, not of combustion. Batman ignores the water spraying down on him.

"Apologizing would be disingenuous, Giovanni," Batman points out. "If your plan is to intimidate me into abasing myself, you won't get much traction. If you want an apology— you're going to be disappointed," he says, bluntly. "You're not the person who was injured. If anyone has a right to an apology, it's Zatanna, and she'll get one— when circumstances make for proper timing," he tells the illusionist.

"You left us twisting in the wind, Giovanni," Batman points out. "Alone. With no resources, no guidance. Zatanna had to come to /me/ for help," he says. "Terrified. Isolated. So I armed myself with the only real weapon I have— knowledge," he says, gesturing at the charnal heap that was his library.

"Do you understand what was at stake? Zatanna's just barely taking her steps into the larger world— the ugly world where there are no absolutes, no black and white. And she was inches away from stumbling right into the one secret I've protected with a handful of exceptions," he tells the fellow, tone blunt. "A secret that if betrayed could end up threatening the lives of not just myself, but my sons, the girls— my friends and allies, even Alfred. Do you think he'd survive long if Joker or Kingpin knew where he got his hair cut?" Batman asks.

"For all your talk of secrets I'm not meant to have, you're forgetting that the secrets in this cave are not just /mine/ to give away freely… no matter how much I might have considered it." Not once does his voice raise or modulate, a cold contrast to the fury of the master magician.

—-

As the sprinklers activate, Giovanni remains dry, his weighty stare falling upon Bruce like a ton of bricks.

"And they are /not meant for you/," the elderly magician repeats of the library, words encased in ice, and underscored with heat. While taller than Batman, he is a spindly thing, liable to break in half should a punch ever connect. There is no superhero physique here, but that was never his role. "And while you pride yourself for undertaking any role you have to, /this/ is one that is far beyond you. You are destined for the physical world. Science. Physics. Gravity. Chemistry. That was what was foreseen for you. And you are now presently paying the price for daring to dabble outside of your realm, as you may have already surmised, considering how the last few weeks have gone for you. How else could everything have gone so wrong? You /overstepped/, Bruce Wayne. You cannot take on /everything/ and /everyone/ and that, I believe, is the problem. You do not see it yourself."

He inclines his head to the seated man. "And if you think that is what I am here for, you are terribly mistaken. /Again/. You have lost your way, in a manner in which I have never thought possible, and since you are not /listening/ to anyone else, perhaps it is time someone outside of the company you keep stepped in. Though I suppose it may very well be an exercise in futility, if you are ignoring /Alfred/'s counsel."

It's an assumption, but a logical one. He knows Alfred, knows that he would have said something by now.

His words about his daughter earns him a slight curl of the lip, though even now he is less forthcoming about his own circumstances. If he has abandoned his daughter, it is for a /very good reason/, and at the moment, he is unwilling to share it. "You speak as if you care for her well-being when your actions speak otherwise," he retorts. "She is my blood. I have raised her to follow in my footsteps, and not once have you considered whether she would honor /me/ by keeping your secrets, because she would have. Because she /respects/ me in a way that I thought /you/ did and a way /I/ respected you until you decided to burn that bridge in the most nonsensical way possible. What would you do, Bruce, if I assaulted one of /your/ boys?"

After a long, lengthy silence, he continues.

"I was mistaken. You protected /someone/ the night you harmed her. You protected yourself."

A hand waves to the side.

"Your paranoia. Your delusions of grandeur. Whatever ridiculous belief you have that distance serves you best when it has done nothing but suit you ill. There were warriors back in ancient times that have driven themselves into a frenzy to slaughter as many men in the battlefield as possible, but at the cost of being unable to distinguish friend from foe, and if I recall correctly, you are the /Batman/, not the /Berserker-Man/. Have you lost that ability? If so, you are already far beyond my reach."

—-

"Set aside your honor, Giovanni," Batman says, coldly. "This isn't a question of egos or pride. It's a matter of practicality. I don't trust Zatanna."

He lets that statement linger.

"You want to discuss paranoia? I'll raise a hypothetical for you. A woman shows up on your front door. One you haven't personally seen in ten years. She claims your oldest family friend is lost and missing. Conveniently, he's incommunicado, and I'm unable to verify or dismiss her story. She's beautiful, charming, and in need of help. Abruptly I find out that she's weaving herself into the periphery of my life both as Batman and my cover as Bruce Wayne. She's befriending my sons. Then I learn she's associating with violent vigilantes— and even with assassins." He rises up then— his own obdurate willpower finally overriding the compulsion to sit— and moves to a computer, dancing his fingers across it.

Zatanna appears— then Batman, a line linking them. Then Tim. Then Dick. Then Azalea— Jane Foster— Winter Soldier, marked ASSASSIN— John Constantine, marked REPROBATE— and from each of them, spin a web of lines linking to gruesome homicide scenes, violent criminal actions, altercations, and connections to Nazi mysticism and forbidden books of lore— a web that goes on and one, with Zatanna firmly at the center.

"You're one of the most gifted men I've ever met, Zatara," Batman says. And there's sincere respect in his voice. "And you are an intelligent man. Separate yourself from Zatanna for just a /minute/. Look at this objectively." He waves a gauntlet at the web of intrigue and magical carnage around Zatanna. "This is not just a series of casual happenstance. Causal relationships form around her like glass cracking under a bootheel. This is a young woman with dangerous power, power unlike anything I've ever seen personally— power that I would have been better equipped to understand if I'd been taught more about it," Batman says, pointedly.

"It's almost impossible any mortal could penetrate my cavern without me knowing. But I can't fight an enemy I can't see or anticipate. With my only magical authority incommunicado," he tells Giovanni, "I had to improvise. When Zatanna entered the caverns, she blasted down my wards and attacked the sheepdog. I estimated that nothing short of a physical effort was going to stop her from going as deep into these caves as she willed it and I had an opening of half a second. So I took it."

He lets a moment of quiet linger. "I'm not proud of it, Giovanni," he admits, his voice lower. "She'll likely not ever forgive me for it. I don't blame her for that."

—-

"And that was your mistake," Giovanni replies, unflappable as always. "Tell me, Bruce. What is /practical/ about attacking who you know is a resourceful, clever young woman who can escape someone by simply /wishing it/? Or is cutting your losses and taking risks absolutely beyond you, now? Because I thought the both of us are /deeply mired/ in the riskiest business there is."

He gestures vaguely to the computer without even looking at it. The man is a dinosaur. Some would say that half the reason why he relies on magic so heavily is because he doesn't understand technology.

"When a Zatara moves, he or she inevitably causes ripples. /Fate itself/ was manipulated to bring me into this world and that does not even begin to cover what my daughter is. These are secrets I have kept from her myself, because I am a father, and I would like to shield her from the incredible burden that will inevitably fall upon her for just a little longer, but those parts of my origins are very well known to you, so I am amazed that you are surprised by the fact that she is in the middle of events that are currently shaping this city, and in others."

He looks at the web in the computer, eyes lingering on his daughter's image. There is emotion there, more sensed than overt, but the second it appears, ever deft, the trap slams shut upon it.

"You have all of this information and yet you do not know," he continues quietly. "She is in the middle of these interactions because she is so open. It has nothing to do with her power. It has everything to do with her heart."

He turns at that, slipping a hand in his pocket. A hard glance cuts over one bony shoulder.

"Something you would understand, if you were not so hell bent on convincing the world that you do not have one."

But there is remorse. It is that quiet tone that prevents the older man from leaving. Tilting his head back, he lets out a drawn exhale.

"The boy I taught," he begins. "Wanted to personify a dying city's thirst for justice. How can he keep doing that, if he does not understand its people?"

—-

"And that is the reason I put my own body between her and Muller when he lashed out," Batman says, his tone one of frosty riposte. "Because my /gut/ tells me she is a good person. Despite all this evidence, despite all this—" he gestures at the computer. "mess, my /gut/ tells me she is genuinely attempting to help people."

His eyes flicker to the display of Robin costumes, including one recent addition— made for a small boy, predatory, dangerous. Damian's. "But I've been wrong about women in the past," he says in a low voice, not looking at the portrait of Talia that sits with the other trophies and relics of his past.

"As I said. I had no idea of Zatanna's real power. She's beyond you, I suspect. Beyond anything any human can do. I understood a little. A fragment of it. And that's why I chose to help her. That's why I encouraged her, Giovanni," Batman says, his even poise wrapped around him as closely as a cloak. "Why I risked injury for her."

"She's also brash," he tells the bony magician, stepping close enough to him that they can talk conversatonally. "She's willful. Arrogant and explosive tempermental. That is an immense amount of power in the hands of a young girl."

"This isn't just about being Batman, for once," the Dark Knight tells Giovanni. "This is about protecting my family. /My/ sons." He grits his teeth, hard, forcing the words out.

"I've had to go to one funeral already, Giovanni," he grates, trying not to let the words seize in his throat. "I had to ID Jason's body at the morgue, and Joker—" He seethes, words lodging, and his eyes duck to the side as he mentally relives that moment.

"He didn't just kill Jason, he murdered him. With a blunt object. His last minutes in life were filled with screaming pain and terror. You can't— you cannot imagine, Giovanni," Batman rasps, eyes filled with a cold wrath and raw pain to mirror the early intensity of Giovanni's earlier fury. "So in the moment, I had to make an unthinkable choice. You know a thing or two about rocks and hard places," he reminds his mentor. "Where there is no good option. Only an option with the least collateral. Zatanna might hate me, and… she's earned that right. I don't begrudge her that."

—-

Those ice-blue eyes fix on the broader, younger man. "Traits," Giovanni replies, when confronted with the litany of his daughter's blessings and flaws. "That you exhibited yourself, at her age. Even a little older. And while you have matured, some of them remain. You are still a very angry man, Bruce. And I understand that also, we cannot do what we do without giving into it just a little."

His lips press in a tight line. "You went against your instincts - caused by your grief perhaps and I do not begrudge the fact that you are in mourning, and I can indeed imagine it because I am currently separated from the /only thing/ in this world that I can still call my own, with no way to fix it unless I go out and find it."

He falls silent, ice-blue eyes ticking over Bruce's face.

"Our families have been close for many years," he says. "We have always helped one another, and nothing illustrated that more clearly than when we bolstered each other from the pit in which your parents' deaths have left us and before you arrived, I have made my daughter /suffer/ because I was weak after their murders. After Sindy's accident. And she knows very well what you have done for me and for her. After all of it, what about our relationship made you believe that harming my daughter would generate the least collateral damage? Our family would have never harmed yours, and in harming my own, you may very well have cost yourself not just one friend, but two. Trusting her, trusting /us/. The bond between our families. That was the option that would have cost you nothing, Bruce."

He exhales. "I do not know how clearer I can make that, save to drill it into your brain forcibly, but even now I am staying my hand, if not just to prove a point."

With that, he takes a step to the side, moving to the entrance of the caverns leading back to the study.

"I cannot advise you as to what to do from here on in," he tells Batman. "Unless you ask. But that will require you to actually see beyond your grief, and acknowledge what you still have. Just as I have done."

—-

"I've never stopped trusting you, Giovanni," Batman points out to his mentor. His father by any other name. "And for you— I'd do anything. Including trusting Zatanna," he says, steadily, regaining his composure. That's a weighty statement from Batman— that carte blanche that he offers. Unconditional. "But absent you /being/ here to make that request before this mess began, she was a stranger to me. If someone claiming to be my child showed up at your door begging your help, I'd hope you'd treat them with distrust until proven otherwise."

He exhales slowly. "Whatever you think of me," he says, before Giovanni leaves. "Don't make my children bear the burden of my faults," he asks. He makes it a request. "Their life's hard enough without adding my sins to their burdens. They might need to lean on you, or Zatanna. Let them earn or lose your trust on their own merits."

He waits until Giovanni's mostly gone, before adding: "And… thank you. For caring enough to come."

—-

"Do not give me that, Bruce." Giovanni looks at him, a dark brow slowly lifting upwards. "You are, they say, the World's Greatest Detective. Your instincts are not so far gone that you would let a doppleganger slip past you. And even if you doubted her identity, you have the skills to verify it. /Without magic/." This is pointedly made, he is /serious/ about the Batman's role in the physical world and if anyone would know it, it would be one of Fate's greatest scions. "I know this because I have watched you grow and unlike most of your family, I have experienced the depths in which you truly care. Which is one of the reasons why I am furious." Despite the words, said with all of the icy civility the gentleman magician is known for. "You are /better/ than this."

He stares hard at the far wall.

"Second chances come very rarely," he says. "I do not believe you are so far gone into the new pit that you have found yourself that you do not recognize this. I mean it, Bruce. Try and look past your grief. Enjoy what you still have. Encourage your sons, do not make them resent you, and if you do, make sure your reasons are absolutely infallible. And for the love of God, /apologize/ to the man who has shown you more love than a dozen fathers." He means Alfred. "He sets your bones, stitches your wounds and has remained by your side despite your flaws, anger management issues, /breathtaking/ paranoia, and no matter how many times you have ignored his advice. Only after then maybe you will be ready to make amends."

He pivots at that, though he turns his head enough so one eye is visible from his shoulder, gleaming from under the shadows of his top hat.

"I will always come when my children desperately need me."

That qualifier is absolutely crucial, ever the master wordsmith.

And with that, after a few steps through the Batcave's entrance, he is gone.

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