Opening the Door

January 18, 2017:

Still riding high from his investigative breakthrough regarding the Spear of Destiny, Tim Drake waits for Zatanna Zatara in their usual study room, only to receive some dire news from the friend he is desperately trying to save.

Gotham University - West Side - Chelsea - Gotham City

A study room in the undergraduate library in the Gotham University campus.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, Jessica Jones, The Winter Soldier, John Constantine

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

EARLIER

Despite his moment of startled realisation while he was visiting the Third Eye, Tim Drake's investigation has hit a minor roadblock. As soon as he got back to his hideout - one of the many 'subsidiary' Batcaves hidden in useful places in Gotham - he started collating the information he'd gathered, typing it out from memory. At the same time, he was running searches, looking for a hint of who the descendant they needed to find was… A search which had proven, in the short term, to be fruitless.

He frowned at the screens of the Bat-computer, weighing his options. SHIELD might be able to get the information, he knew they already had agents involved in the Hanussen case, but he was leery of visiting that well too many times, potentially exposing himself or Zatanna to the organisation's scrutiny.

Dark blue eyes shifted to the file on the young woman at the center of all of this, a file he had not added to - not yet. Not until he had a chance to sort things out with Batman. Known associates… Jessica Jones was a private investigator, she might have access to sources of information he didn't, and…

Eventually, he fell asleep in his chair.

NOW

Tim felt relieved, anyway. The situation wasn't resolved, not by a longshot - he was careful to not get too far ahead of himself, to not get arrogant and sloppy when there was some very dangerous work still to be done - but the sense of accomplishment, of having cracked the case in a major way, had asserted itself. Soon, Zatanna would be safe from the Cult of the Cold Flame, from Mammon, from Hanussen. He knew full well that there would always be other predators in the dark, and he supposed that someone with Zatanna's legacy would always draw their attention, between the temptation of her power and the litany of enemies that her father had no doubt accumulated.

But this, at least, would be dealt with. She could have some normalcy, some safety, at least for a little while. What else could anyone really hope for?

Dark hair half-covered Tim Drake's face as he sat at the table in 'their' study room, a half-empty travel mug with still hot tea sitting close at hand, though he hadn't really touched it for the past few minutes. One elbow rested on the tabletop, propping up his head with that hand as his eyes drifted half-closed, as he tried to pay attention to his physics notes.

He'd barely slept since the gala. It was starting to catch up to him. But he was hoping that Zatanna would make their study session, even if there was no way for him to tell her the good news… But with all the time she'd spent squirreled away for her own safety, it would be nice to see her without having to act like a stranger.

—-

The door opens quietly.

Taller than the average woman, slender, Zatanna's steps are light despite her boots, the wooden appendage clicking shut behind her as she moves. While Tim doesn't see her given his position of seeming sleep, he'd sense her presence. She is no ninja, not trained for stealth and she sees no reason to mask her approach here. There's a quiet thump of a bookbag on a seat next to him - odd enough, considering that she usually sits across from him so she could see his face when they converse and study. There's another heavy sound, a couple of heavy college textbooks, slipped on top of the table, as quietly and silently as possible.

He'd feel it then, her fingers drifting lightly into his hair, a gentle effort to wake him.

And when he looks up at her face, he would recognize her…and not.

Whatever has happened since the last time he saw her, when she pulled them out of Switzerland, there is a marked change to her now. She seems /less/, for the lack of a better term, as if set upon by a subtle illness, the sort that eats someone from the inside out, a worm working its way out of the apple instead of within. The comparison is apt, given what happened to her, those eyes having glimpsed yet another betrayal that leaves her, mostly, as a hollowed out husk of her usual brightness. Her eyes less vibrant, her pallor devoid of its usual healthy underglow. The darkness of her hair is also less - closer to charcoal than the deep midnight that makes it blend seamlessly in the evening hours.

"Tim…"

There's no easy way to say this.

She delays it, and slowly sinks on the chair next to him. "Hey…late night?" she asks.

—-

The sound of Zatanna's footsteps is a familiar one; Tim schools himself to listen to how the people he knows walk, until he can recognise them by the sound of it. It's good practice for other things, and it's a useful skill all on its own, letting him know when someone familiar is approaching. In the past, he's used it to hide compromising materials - both of the vigilante nature, and the, er, more personal - from people he knows shouldn't see them. It also prevents accidents, given the dangerous ways he could respond physically to a perceived attack.

There's a faint mumble from the young man, instead of a sharper response, when he feels those fingers in his hair, the deft and agile appendages of a master of prestidigitation, a touch so light and ghostly that it could almost be passed off as a dream.

"Hrn?" Tim wonders muzzily, dark blue eyes a bit bleary as his attention is drawn upwards, drawn over to Zatanna, who looks…

He's struck with the memory of the time she'd come into the study room after her betrayal by Bruce. She'd practically glowed then, divine essence running through her body and making her /more/; brighter, more striking, more beautiful. Now she looked… Almost the opposite of that. Dimmed. Stretched thin. Her dark hair looks dull, her pale blue eyes washed out, her Snow White pallor now seeming sickly, almost the chalky greyish white of a corpse.

It wakes him up the rest of the way, immediately. Sharp, sickly sour fear spreading through his chest, turning his stomach. They can't have been too late. Not after everything they'd all done. Spider-Man, Constantine, Jessica Jones, himself. It's not fair. It was solved.

It's not fair.

"Yeah," he says, rubbing at his eyes with the heels of his palms, straightening up in his seat and stretching. "Research project." The best lies are the ones that aren't quite. "Big deal, very important. Deadline breathing down my neck."

The bona fides of his own normalcy thus established, distancing him from any supernatural investigations or any situations in which he had to break a magical cultist's jaw, he's able to frown faintly at Zatanna, letting his worry show naturally on his face rather than trying to hide it.

"Are… You okay? You look sick, Zee. Is it the flu? Do wizards get the flu? I thought they just got like… Dragon pox, or spattergroit."

—-

It's the concern and the quip about wizard illnesses that get her, and nearly takes her the rest of the way. There had been a resolution, before she opened the door. That she would blaze in the room despite the way she looks, and be her usual self. She'd tease Tim relentlessly, they'd talk about campus gossip, she'd wheedle him about letting her off on the reading, because she'd been really busy, and listen to him chastise her about how she'll never graduate at this rate, with her playing hooky all the time. It would be an escape, pulling the parachute into a life that seems so far removed from her now and for all that she cared about John and Chas, and enjoyed their company, the Englishman's face tended to remind her about the things the two of them have endured in the last few weeks and she /could/ use a break from that.

But when she's confronted by this - honest concern, from her best friend in Gotham City, it takes everything in her not to fall into pieces in front of him. How she manages to scramble and collect enough of these shattered foundations to lean against before she tips over into the abyss of her own despair is downright miraculous.

Oblivious to Tim's growing dread - she is no mind reader, no psychic - she reaches out to take both of his hands, leaning forward until her elbows brace against her knees. Those lackluster eyes fall somewhere between their bodies, locking on the floor. The tip of her tongue passes against the small divot of her lower lip, to wet it, to buy herself the time to collect the words in a way that won't unravel her when she says them.

"Tim I…I put in for a leave of absence at the university. Just for a few weeks. I'm hoping for the best, really. I'll have to stay in New York for a little while longer…but I'll be in touch, though! I have your number, and I've got my laptop. I can still keep up with the reading long distance and…" She laughs. To her credit, it's still warm and genuinely meant. "I don't think it's in me to disappoint my favorite tutor and all."

She sighs, and looks up at him, flashing him a small rueful grin.

"I can't….seem to stay out of trouble, after all. I'm just glad you haven't managed to get swallowed up by all of it, despite being around me."

Her fingers unconsciously squeeze his. A little tighter. A little more securely.

"Have I told you lately that you're great?"

—-

She does not joke back.

This sets off extreme warning alarms in the back of Tim's head.

He knows something awful is coming, something truly terrible, though he can't imagine what. He destroyed the blood, the bowl in which they'd kept it. It was gone, reduced to ashes. There's no way the Cult of the Cold Flame could've used any of it. Something else Constantine had said nags at him then, tugging at his attention, that destroying it would work fine unless they'd done something undefined to it - probably very technical magical gibberish that a layperson like Red Robin would never have understood. What if they had? What if destroying the blood hadn't fixed anything?

What if it had made things worse?

But Tim Drake doesn't know any of this. Tim Drake is relatively normal, even if he is very rich, and even if his adoptive father might be an insane person who drugs co-eds.

He turns to face her, where she sits beside him, his mouth slightly parted, his dark blue eyes worried, uncomprehending. Her hands take his, but she feels… Different. The warmth he'd come to expect from her was gone until she felt almost clammy, the softness of her fingers and palms dried out. Like a hidden illness. Like a dead woman walking.

She's avoiding the issue, he can tell that quite easily, dancing around the real problem in a way that only increases the sinking feeling of dread. But Tim Drake wouldn't know that. Tim Drake doesn't know about secret magical organisations, or something apparently wearing her father's face. He doesn't know about Princes of Hell who want Zatanna's soul. Yet he still feels a twinge of guilt when she expresses relief that he hasn't been swallowed up by trouble.

'Have I told you lately that you're great?'

"Zee, what happened?" Tim wonders, squeezing her hands in return. His chair scoots a bit closer, until his shoes brush against her boots, until his knees rest against her own. "You're talking like you're never gonna see me again."

—-

She is so bad at this.

The self-deprecating thought has her twisting her insides and for a long moment, Zatanna is silent, watching how their fingers intertwine and how he shifts closer until their knees touch. It's all she can do, she isn't sure how well she'll be able to keep her composure looking at her best friend in the face - her normal, well-meaning, extremely brilliant best friend, who had a crazy foster father and somehow managed to take all of her weird stories with the benefit of the doubt. As strange as it is, the thought is enough to fill the yawning crevices inside her with warmth, filling up those empty spaces temporarily with /something/. Softer emotions, warmer ones, the kind that enables her to feel like her old self…that she hasn't managed to lose everyting that she is.

Now, more than ever, she can't afford to be weak. To wear her vulnerability so openly for the sharks to scent. But this is Tim, who she trusts, who has managed to keep that trust after what had happened with his foster father. Tim, the only person close to her who hasn't made her life more difficult since returning to Gotham.

Her lashes blink. She feels the telltale sting, the beginnings of that damning moisture. She slowly fills her lungs with air, and lifts her head slowly to meet his eyes.

"Don't be dumb," she chastizes him. "You'll see me again."

She hesitates, and with a quiet groan, she continues: "Some other outfit decided whatever I've got, my soul, my magic, was worth taking after all. They sent….someone who I thought was a friend to grab me so they could do it. Bucky Barnes, he was in the gala with us. It…he's never been right in the head, my private investigator friend Jessica Jones thinks it's some kind of mind control, but I was helping him and….he seemed to be getting better. He /was/ better, Tim. And suddenly it just…" Her eyes close.

"It went all wrong," she continues quietly. "I fought. It's one of the only reasons why I'm still here. They had this helmet called the Tarnhelm….some kind of magical parasite. It grants power to the host, but at the expense of consuming the host unless the host lets it feed. And that's where…most of me ended up. I don't know how long I have, so I'm going to make the most of it by getting it back."

Her fingers thread more securely through the gaps of his.

"So yeah, you'll see me again." The corners of her mouth lift. "I didn't say what I did as a just in case thing. If things take a turn for the worst. I just wanted to let you know that I thought that, is all. That I'll always think that. You're great, Tim."

—-

Bucky Barnes.

The name doesn't mean anything to Tim, it's not something he recognises either in his normal life or in the caped and cowled one he lives in between. It wasn't as though he ever asked the name of the gun-toting fellow who'd been brought along by Constantine as backup. But would it be better or worse if he did know?

What she tells him is horrible, another violation she's been forced to endure. Not simply her trust being taken advantage of, to lure her into a situation where she'd been drugged and only barely escaped - once from a serial killer, and then from a family friend - but used to attack her with some… Device. Another magical artifact used for nothing but misery. Stripping away her soul like a predator gobbling down chunks of bloody meat, taking the very thing he knew the Cult of the Cold Flame, the man who wore her father's face and name, and a Prince of Hell all sought to take from her.

He'd worked so hard.

They all had. Constantine, Spider-Man, Jessica Jones. They'd risked their lives. He'd destroyed the blood that had been stolen from her, taken - though he doesn't realise this - when she tried to protect him from that mysterious attacker on campus. It wasn't fair.

It wasn't fair.

"Who were they?" Tim wonders quietly, his voice tight. Tight with the effort of not shedding tears of his own, his eyes glistening before he squeezes them shut. Tight with the anger that grips his heart, a squeezing, crushing hand working in concert with a second, named despair. "Who on Earth could do something like that? Who /would/?"

Her hands tighten on his, and he squeezes his eyes shut more firmly. A wild thought appears in his head, manifesting itself seemingly of its own volition.

Tell her, it says.

Mercilessly, he quashes it. What good would it do? And if she wasn't going to make it, at least she wouldn't spend her last days thinking of him as another person who lied to her. Even if he had.

"I just… I can't accept that. That you're going to die because of this. It isn't fair," Tim says, revealing a little of his internal thoughts. "You deserve better than that, Zee. You deserve so much better than what life keeps giving you."

—-

She doesn't know that he has been looking after her all this time. She doesn't know that he had kept her from becoming yet another victim, doesn't know that he had been in Switzerland to help John Constantine and the rest. She doesn't know that he had been looking into artifacts, going over his head, involving himself because he wanted to make sure that she survived this and mete out some justice for the sakes of the bodies left behind. She doesn't know any of it - what her best friend has put himself through for the sake of her.

But Zatanna does know that he is not taking this well.

It stems from the way he clutches his fingers, the telltale glint of moisture and the quiet, tight words that he forces out of his mouth when he asks for the identities of who did this. How his teeth are visible, even just a little, the way they clench behind his lips. Alarm drips, as if intraveneously fed into her veins, a much needed shot to a heart that feels heavy and barely beating somewhere within her chest, resuscitating it with a few precious, burning seconds of life. Emotion, the sensitive trigger that never fails to remind her of her usual thirst for genuine human connections, causes her to stir from her half-torpor.

As always, the needs of those around her take precedence, no matter what is happening to her. That endless, boundless heart, which they at the very least let her keep, wouldn't be satisfied with anything less.

"Bucky said it's…a worldwide organization, that it's guided human history and events behind the scenes for a very long time," she supplies quietly. "That Bucky was their chief instrument in the twentieth century. That nobody escapes it."

The words are absent at best. Suddenly that is the last of her worries.

She shifts closer, her one knee slipping between his, so she could lean forward and disengage her hands from his, wrapping her arms around his neck and embrace him tightly. Her fingers thread through the shorter, darker strands clinging to the back of his neck, her chin anchored at where his neck meets his shoulder. Her eyes fix on the far wall behind him, and she watches her vision blur - how she manages to keep her own distress at bay is magic in and of itself.

"So don't," she tells him quietly, turning her cheek into him and closing her eyes. "Don't accept that. You shouldn't, anyway. I'm gonna /get it back/, Tim. And I have help. I have so much help, so don't…don't do this. I know it's hard, but I've endured harder. More difficult. More painful. And I don't want…God, Tim. I don't want you to be sad for me."

She eases back. Hands, gentle, warmth fringed with an encroaching chill, lift to frame his face between them so she could look at him right in the eye.

"Okay?"

—-

It didn't feel any more fair to Tim that now, of all times, Zatanna was worrying about /him/.

He hadn't had parts of his very essence stripped away, his very soul raped and exploited for the machinations of some secret organisation, after all. The worst he'd endured recently was some roughing up and some lost sleep. From a physical perspective, he's had worse months.

She tells him of some worldwide organisation that she can't, or doesn't, put a name to, that claims credit for wide-ranging secret influence on human society. His first thought is the League of Shadows, but this sort of thing doesn't strike him as Ra's al Ghul's style. Maybe it's just that he can't reconcile the idea of the Demon's Head having an agent named /Bucky/.

It becomes harder to think when Zatanna comes closer, when she pulls him into a tight embrace, worrying still more for his emotional state than her own. She's someone who grew up in a world of magical, existential threats, he supposes… And she sees him as a normal person, who isn't part of the costumed strangeness that goes on in the world, with all its aliens and mutants and science experiments gone wrong.

She holds him, and his arms wrap around her in turn, clinging to her as though he could physically restrain her from leaving the world of the living, sadness and fury spinning around inside like the winds of a storm.

It's only when she eases back that Tim's grip loosens at all, as her hands cup his cheeks, holding his face between them, making him look at her. His eyes are big and blue, the dark hue of a summer evening as the sun starts to go down. They glisten with those tears he refuses to let himself shed, Zatanna might see something else there. A spark. Anger. Determination.

"You can't expect me to not be sad when something horrible happens to somebody that I… That I care about." He can't go down that road, can't let himself think about it. That's even more dangerous.

"But I believe in you, Zee. I know you'll get back what they took from you."

—-

Somehow, despite all odds, Zatanna manages to grin at him. Not as a response to what he says about not being able to help his emotions in the face of dire news, but the expression of faith he tacks onto the end.

She draws his face closer, lower. The young magician tilts her head back, to peck him lightly on the forehead, against skin and the strands of his hair. Her usual warmth ebbs, like live coals left to fade in the elements, fringed with a seeping cold that has not yet touched their glowing centers to snuff them out entirely.

"That's better," she remarks, pulling back away and giving him a smile, her thumbs rolling lightly over his cheeks. Drawing her hands away, those shorter digits and both her index fingers conspire on some mischief, pinching them lightly.

"That wasn't so hard, was it?" The question is as light as she can make it, finally easing away so she could take a breath, tilting her head back. "/Phew/. For a minute there, I thought this was going to be more difficult than I initially thought." Nudging her bag sideways, she draws her notebook out and her pen, propping her chin on her hand and giving him a glance.

"Can you promise me you won't worry about this too much? You already need more sleep as it is," she says, half her mouth buried against the heel of her palm. Recalling the spark, that strange, curdling bit of anger she glimpsed in the depths of his eyes, she inclines her head. "And that you won't do anything reckless like call the attention of shadowy organizations bent on world domination just so you could…I don't know. Flash your checkbook at them and buy my soul back? I won't be happy if anything happened to you because of me, Tim."

She could suspect, but by the way she looks at him and the manner of her speech, that probably is not the case. Slowly, she pushes his tea back to him, nudging it pointedly so he doesn't forget it, so he could take a sip and find some comfort in a warm herbal brew.

—-

It isn't as though he has a lot of leads to go on, given that it is a shadowy organisation, and those sorts of things generally don't advertise their existence. He has a name, the name of one of their agents, who it seems befriended Zatanna with a wounded gazelle gambit, betraying her in the end. She's suffered so much treachery, it's remarkable to Tim that he was even able to get her to talk to him again after what happened with Bruce.

He's glad that when she arrived at the stronghold of the Cold Flame, she didn't arrive in time to see whoever, or whatever, was wearing her father's face. Hopefully an old enemy engaged in some kind of trickery, from what Gerry Craft told him, since it seems the worst case scenario there is extremely bad.

On top of anything else, she didn't need to see that. Didn't need to even have to encounter the idea that her father might've been in any way connected to the attempts on her life and her very soul.

"I'm an orphan, Zee," Tim says without any heat to it, simply a matter-of-fact statement to explain what he follows it with. "I've gotten all my emotional breakdowns out of the way early."

It's not quite true though, that second part.

He feels sad, and angry, and sick. For all that he talks about putting his faith in her, and her ability to make sure she can get back what was stolen from her, he can't help but imagine the worst. Can't bring himself to shy away from it, even if he does other thoughts. He told her before that he much preferred the world with her in it, and it was a simple truth. Though he'd spent the vast majority of his life thus far not even knowing that Zatanna Zatara existed, in nearly no time at all she'd turned the idea of a life without her in it into something intolerable.

"You don't think they'd go for it?" he wonders, apparently trying to grasp for a little humour in such a dire situation. "I could write a pretty big check, if it would get you your soul back."

She pushes his tea towards him, and he just stares at it, as though it might suddenly generate some useful answers for him. It won't, of course, it's just a drink in a travel mug. It doesn't possess any arcane insight, it doesn't have information about secret societies. He can't push Zatanna further for answers, assuming she even has them… Because of course, there's nothing Tim Drake can do about any of this.

"I can't promise I won't worry, Zee," he says. "That's what happens when you care about people. You worry about them. And I…" His brow furrows a bit. "…Don't… Want you to die. I don't want you to be less than you are. I want you to be alive, and happy, and… Here."

The young man exhales slowly, scrubbing one hand across his face. It's a complication. Maybe he would've been better off if he'd let her walk away, after she confronted him about what Bruce had done. Nothing would've stopped Red Robin from staying on the case, and he could've stayed aloof. Unentangled. Cold and calm and practical.

"You really just breezed into my life, you know. Barged in, in your thigh high boots and your little Chinese dress," yes he remembers what she was wearing the first day he met her. That is perfectly normal and not at all weird. "And you made the idea of you not being around just… Intolerable. Probably without even trying."

—-

'You don't think they'd go for it?'

The latch onto humor, in spite of what she had just said to him, draws a laugh out of Zatanna, pen spinning deftly in hand as she looks at him with lifted brows. The fact that she still can, despite most of her soul missing, or whatever other betrayals she has suffered in the last few weeks, might very well be magic itself - something small, but at the very least suggestive of the fact that whatever remains of her, she has managed to secure the most important fragment. "/No/, Timothy Jackson Drake," she says, pointing the instrument at him emphatically. "And not only that but they might also try to take yours, so please don't. I'm already pissed enough as it is that they dared do this to me, imagine what would happen if I had to storm the castle to get what's yours and mine back. I may not be responsible for my actions, if that happens. You don't want that on your conscience, trust me."

She could also be talking big game. For all of her adventures, the young woman isn't exactly prone to violence. Bouts of temper, emotional explosions, reckless treading into danger and the unknown, yes, but she's never swung a fist towards anyone who didn't deserve it.

Though she did slap Batman once, but that counts as one well-deserved.

Turning back to her notes, she jots down a few additional ones on the margin, though when he moves, scrubbing his face the way he does, her attention flits back over to where he sits. At the halting, hesitant words, she can't help but pause, wondering what about her that tends to draw, and miraculously receive responses from, those who aren't all that comfortable with their emotions.

"Tim…" Something softens in her eyes. "…I mean, you're right, I can't stop you from worrying but I'm not gonna. I'm not going anywhere, I promise." She inclines her head. "Besides, right now, I /am/ alive. And I'm happy. And I'm here. These're things I don't intend to take for granted. One thing at a time, yeah?"

She flips another page, and as she scans over what is written, a grin pulls at the corner of her mouth, ticking upwards.

"Didn't think the outfit made all that big of an impression," she teases him, lifting her brows. "Sometimes especially these days, I wonder if I meddle too much. My track record in that regard tends to be fifty-fifty, I guess not everyone thinks I'm charming." Her eyes lift to find his profile. "I'm glad you stuck, though. I'm glad we met, Tim."

—-

The ability to make someone laugh, to find happiness even in the most dire of circumstances, /is/ magic.

It might not be fireballs, or teleportation, or the exorcism of soul-hungry demons, but it's magic nonetheless. Transmuting a little bit of darkness into light; showing that great yawning pit of despair and sorrow that waits to devour every heart in a moment of weakness that there is a measure of indomitability, of grace, that abides no matter how wounded a soul might be.

"I doubt they'd find mine very useful, it's not like I have magic powers or anything. And I played a lot of Grand Theft Auto one summer, so it's probably irretrievably soiled."

Unless someone wanted a virgin sacrifice, he supposes.

From one of his books, Tim takes a small sheaf of notes, all printed quite precisely with headers and bullet points and he even highlighted everything in different colours, sliding the papers over towards Zatanna. He made extra copies for her, of course, as part of his study guide.

Even though it meant getting that much less sleep.

"You're happy sitting in a library study room with a bunch of physics notes in front of you? Because speaking as a hopeless nerd, Zee, that's really lame." Tim says, with a bit of teasing again. If normalcy is what will make her happy, then all he can do is try to make her feel a bit more normal, a bit more like it's any other evening after classes, and they're just studying like normal people.

Even if it's a lie.

Not all lies are bad, after all.

Besides, she's more than capable of teasing him right back, and she proves to be just as big of a liar, behaving as though she didn't know exactly how much of an impression her outfit on her first day of class made. As though it hadn't been calculated to do exactly that. He looks at her sidelong with an expression that could charitably be described as unconvinced by her words, and he seems no more convinced that she actually does worry that she meddles too much.

"Were you meddling, then? I haven't seen you meddle much at all… Maybe it's just that you don't meddle with me?"

—-

"I'm sitting with my best friend," Zatanna begins with a defiant tilt of her chin and a broad grin. "Who is giving me /shit/ about electing to spend time with him in my darkest hour, by the way. So yes, happy as a clam. And don't make me demonstrate, I might not be my usual self, but I can still make small tricks happen. Don't make me turn your notebook into a dancing mollusk just to prove to you what a happy clam looks like. They have faces, Tim. Faces."

It's a fiction, she knows. But a much needed one - while she has never been afraid of dying (though she may change her mind about this at zero hour), and has yet to really develop enough experience to fear how it would affect those she leaves behind, the fact that the young woman is /determined/ to live is rather genuine. It could easily be her acting skills, that whatever despair she is feeling, she is hiding under wraps. But she has just started to live her life, and unlike her many years on the road, she has /people/ now. People to call her own, people to bolster, support, care about and love. To make them laugh, to brighten their lives, and in turn, enrich her own.

His unconvinced expression has her nudging her boot against his nearest ankle before taking a glance at the very organized notes he brought. His last question, however, has her brows lifting. The question was unexpected, and considering that Tim generally doesn't ask personal questions - though he has become more comfortable with that, these days, ever since their confrontation about Bruce's behavior - she can't help but regard him with the silent contemplation this latest development deserves.

"I didn't have to meddle with you because you were unique from the beginning, Tim," she says at last. "/You/ approached me, first. Helping me pick up my books, lured in by my tricks. You know that rarely ever happens to me? Normally I'm the one who makes the first move. It's kind of how I knew our impromptu lunch wasn't just going to end there."

She falls silent at that, and then she shifts, crossing her legs, hiking them up - she never does sit properly, when she's in a place that she deems safe. "Truthfully there are things about you that remind me of a couple of people I know….people who don't take kindly to people prying. So if I was ever serious about being friends with you, I knew right away that I couldn't do that. I figured….you'd be the kind of person who'd let me in when you were ready. Until then, I figured it was fine if I was the only one doing it."

Her smile lifts on the corners. "I learned a long time ago that if you come in expecting reciprocation right away, you'd only be disappointed. So I just take it all on faith and see who responds."

—-

Tim would of course prefer to say he was /careful/ with personal questions.

He didn't like to pry into other people's affairs, especially because he knew that once he started it would be difficult for him to stop. He was a voracious consumer of information, and that included details about other people. Their likes and dislikes. Their strengths and weaknesses. Like Batman, he couldn't help but create a mental file about people that he dealt with, though he at least had the decency to keep such things off of the Bat-Computer except where it might be necessary.

And besides… Asking personal questions was often an invitation to be asked them, and personal questions about Tim Drake had a way of being dangerous. There were too many spaces where compromising details could leak through, and those details could lead to other details, which could lead to revelations. A whole house of cards that could come collapsing down at any moment.

The reality was that he wanted to tell Zatanna the truth, since that incident with Bruce. But it wasn't his secret to tell, it wasn't his place to out so many people with a single admission.

And what would it accomplish, anyway?

'Zee, I'm Red Robin,' he could say, and she wouldn't believe him. Why would she believe him? Even if she did believe him, then she'd know that he'd been lying to her, had in particular lied to her when confronted with Bruce's assault on her. And then, quite rightly, she'd want nothing to do with him anymore. She'd never look at him with those big, pale blue eyes. She'd never smile just to see him. She'd never tease him, or laugh when he teased her, or…

No, it's a path he can't go down, and it would be especially cruel if she didn't survive the next few weeks.

She points out that he approached her first, and he supposes she does have the plausible deniability of claiming that it wasn't Zatanna herself who singled him out for unwitting participation in her trick, but rather the other student she'd recruited beforehand, but…

"Really? Zee, c'mon, you're gorgeous and as far as I've seen you only own short skirts and extremely tight pants. People don't approach you?" Tim would've expected her to be the sort who was surrounded by a bevy of admirers, between her looks and her personality. But maybe she confuses people, mixing her daughter of the night goth girl look with her peppy, vivacious personality.

She compares him to some mysterious people she knows, of the variety who 'don't take kindly to people prying', and a faint frown tugs at the corners of Tim's mouth, because he doesn't really try to project that. He generally shoots more for 'pretty normal guy, not really worth noticing, thanks' which is about all he can do to offset people noticing him because of his family name. Both of them.

There's a good /reason/ he doesn't go by Tim Wayne.

"Well… What about me do you want to know?" he asks, knowing full well that this could be an extremely dangerous line of conversation… But it's not like she has any reason to suspect him of any of the things he's actually hiding, right?

—-

"Yeah?" Zatanna grumbles, scribbling a quick, absent drawing on her notebook as she speaks. "Well these days, I can't even trust that anymore, considering all people want is my goddamn /soul/. Not like that's got to do these days with anything I wear, and it's all too cold these days anyway to go all out the way I usually do." And it chafes, just a touch, though if she were honest, wearing layers these days and taking a hiatus from entertaining has brought some modicum of relief in that she doesn't have to go out of her way to be as fabulous and bombastic as possible to accumulate all the likes she needs on Twitter, or in iDol, which she supposes is the new social media craze these days.

"But I more mean that…" She chews faintly on her bottom lip. "I've been on the road with Daddy all my life. That doesn't really lend any room for anything lasting. I moved around so much that I never really had a lot of opportunities to make friends, let alone friends my age. And when I do find the chance, I tend to come on really strong. I meddle, because I don't bother to hide my interest in a person…and that usually either keeps them close or drives them away. I try to curb it, I do, but most of the time, I can't help myself. I can't…not get involved. It's a thing. It's my thing. And it…" She lets out a self-deprecating laugh. "It gets me in /so much trouble/. So much trouble. Half the shit I suffered in the last few weeks, I probably signed up for."

It opens doors, however. Gives her even more avenues in which she could approach someone who has managed to secure her interest. It's enabled her to meet so many, get involved with so many. Especially in the last few days, that propensity makes her feel…well, not /whole/, but reassures her that the most vital parts of her are still hers to keep. No matter what happens in the end; even if it means dying, at least she is still herself, determined not to go out sputtering like a candle that's reached the end of its wick.

In the end, the open invitation surprises her. Ice-blue eyes tick over to Tim. "Well, I have plenty," she confesses. "On top of the trivial stuff - favorite food, favorite color, who your best friend is, what it's like growing up as a Drake. How your parents died, why Bruce decided to adopt you…" There's still some pain there, when she mentions his foster father. "What your type is." That old mischief. "If not so I can torment you occasionally by setting you up with someone pretty, or at /least/ be able to wing man you or something when I have to."

She pauses. "Mostly though, I don't really mind if you never tell me anything. Trust me, I'm used to it." There's a touch of dryness to her tone there, remembering the analogy she used with John before, about having to stumble around trying to find him whenever he shuts off the lights. It's apt, and could be more applicable than she knows with Tim as well. "I just want you to tell me you're okay once in a while. And if you're not…you know you can tell me anything, right?"

After another moment of careful deliberation, she straightens up and points at him. "Hey! Wait, you're not…this isn't like some last request thing, is it? It better not be, don't make me throw things at you!" In spite of the words, she laughs. "We have /time/, Tim. We do. Lots of it, I /promise/."

—-

These days, all people seem to want is her soul.

"At least they're after you for what's on the inside?" Tim says quietly, a rare example of his mouth running away before his brain can catch it. It's not the sort of joke most people would appreciate, situated as it is rather firmly in the realm of gallows humour. Under the circumstances, given that someone had actually gotten their hands on the lion's share of Zatanna's soul, it might even be a profoundly insensitive joke to make.

But sometimes you just had to make light of things when they got grim. Having faced a lot of grimness in his life, since he made the choice to step into the world of capes and cowls and the like, it's a concept he's well familiar with. He's not quite the quipping sort that Nightwing or Spider-Man are, but at least he evinces some sense of humour, unlike the Batman.

He listens though, quietly and attentively, as he always does. Absorbing the information put in front of him, soaking it up like a sponge. He doesn't even do it intentionally, given how he tries to avoid prying into the lives of people outside of active investigations, but he simply can't help it. A life on the road with her father, when his own parents had always left him at home when they went for a business trip, or when his father decided to go rooting around in some old crypt. A quiet boy left to his own devices under the Drakes' household staff, with entirely too much time on his hands. Time enough to figure out the answer to one of the most dangerous mysteries in Gotham City.

'Half the shit I suffered in the last few weeks, I probably signed up for.'

"Don't say that," Tim says, firmly. Almost harshly. "Don't blame yourself, even a little, for what other people chose to do. These people that… Violated you, you didn't bring it on yourself. You shouldn't think like that. The world has enough closed off people in it."

Like himself, for example.

So he asks if there's something she wants to know about him, and true to her nature, Zatanna answers him honestly. A litany of possible questions that make it sound like she doesn't really know anything about him after all, none of the details that most people would describe as 'knowing someone,' anyway. He barely hears what she says after she mentions Bruce, after he recognises her lingering pain at the - to her, anyway - still meaningless assault she'd barely escaped. The mention of his parents, how he was orphaned, brings the memories of a fourteen year old boy back. It occurs to him that then and now have certain similarities.

That just makes him hurt worse.

She wants him to know she doesn't mind if he never really tells her anything, but for him to know he could tell her anything, and that adds a fresh leavening of guilt into his current state. But then she accuses him of treating this as a last request situation, even though it makes her laugh. They have time. She promises.

Well… He's heard promises like that before.

"When I was fourteen, my parents were kidnapped. They were wealthy, and fairly well known… Our house was on land adjacent to Wayne Manor, though it wasn't as big, you know? Still the upper crust. They were being held for ransom, and Drake Industries was going to pay, but their kidnapper…"

Tim exhales slowly, and for a long moment the only sound is his pen scratching against note paper. It's not something he talks about much. It's not something he /thinks/ about much, having thought he'd put most of that pain away somewhere it couldn't hurt him anymore.

"He was the leader of a cult in Haiti. Vodou, you know." He pronounces it correctly, too. Of course. "I'm told he'd decided he was going to sacrifice them anyway, give their blood and their souls up to his twisted versions of the Loa. He used some kind of poison on them, and while somebody broke the ritual or whatever up," somebody, in this case, being the Batman, "my mother died. My father was put in a coma, and when he came out of it, he was temporarily paralysed from the waist down."

—-

She could respond to all of it - an acerbic retort at the ready at how people are looking inside of her to take what they need, or a gentler reply at the firm chastisement she receives from him, about how there are too many people in the world who isolate themselves from others all too willingly. Zatanna knows, if not just because she is /surrounded/ by them - Tim himself, Jessica Jones. John Constantine's face was probably next to its definition in the dictionary, if there was ever a word that encompasses an absolute reluctance bordering on disdain for emotional vulnerability and availability at the same time. And yet, here she is, a nexus for these separate but similar personalities, only intersecting because she can't help but meddle. Can't help but insert herself and offer everything she has freely in hopes that one day, they would pay it forward. One day.

Despite what she has said, the very last thing she expects to come from him emerges from his own, twisting puzzle. In a way, she has given him a way out, to simply scour the surface of their relationship for the less harmful bits, if not just to illustrate that she means what she says, because she always does. How she isn't around him to mine him for his secrets, to feel, in some way, important because she knows things about him that other people might not. But the story, the glimpse in his deeply private life that he affords her, isn't just unexpected. It is downright…

Zatanna is very well familiar with Vodou magical traditions, having spent a few months in Haiti with her father, furthering her education in the delicate and brutal process of reanimating the dead, and to better understand spirits so she doesn't inadvertently offend them. Sacrifices are common, and she has never been sheltered from the darker side of her arts, for she has to understand them to be able to combat them. But the fact that what she is has struck so close to him is…

For a while, she struggles with it, as if she could internally twist the yarn to give it some comprehensible shape. But she is stunned, as if he had just struck her across the face.

"…oh, Jesus, Tim," she whispers. "I'm so sorry."

There is a glance back down on her notebook, wondering why, then. If this is what eventually caused tragedy to enter in his life, why would he choose to be friends with someone so tied to the same community?

"I didn't know, I…did they ever get the guy?"

She wants to ask - about others, what happened to Jack Drake. Temporarily paralyzed meant that he recovered, but Tim was an orphan. To have one parent survive, only to die later, that's…

She remembers her own father, exhausted and battling whatever it is he is facing without help. John had mentioned it was starting to take a toll, and her fingers close tightly around her pen.

—-

Truthfully, Tim never really knew if the Obeah Man was /really/ a magician, or if he was just someone who used the trappings of Vodou to manipulate his followers. Though he's had brushes with the paranormal, the truly supernatural, they tended more towards things that went bump in the night, things that could be explained in other ways, rather than the more brazen sorceries he's seen wielded since Zatanna Zatara walked into his life.

"He's in jail. The way I heard it, he's spent most of his stay in the prison hospital. They… Well, they weren't gentle with him when he was arrested." He wonders if the Obeah Man being confined to a hospital bed isn't the only thing keeping him from just walking out. A master manipulator, bolstered with some kind of black magic; could a conventional prison hope to hold him?

It was the same issue as with Hanussen, to Tim's mind, and one without a satisfactory answer. He knows that others involved in the case surrounding Zatanna and the apparently immortal sorceror would want to kill him assuming they were able to strip his ability to revive himself away, whether out of revenge or because they believed it was the only pragmatic solution, but he can't countenance that. Surely there must be another way to neutralise him.

Surely.

"My father died later. A hitman, but not so professional that Dad didn't manage to shoot him back, and they both died, and…" He spreads his hands. They shake only a little, remembering. He doesn't have the nightmares very often anymore. "Bruce took me in because he was a friend of the family. Because he knew what it was like, to lose your parents to violence. I probably owe the fact that I'm not a /complete/ basket case to him and Alfred."

Tim exhales, slowly, lifting his hands to rub his face. He doesn't talk about this a lot… Or ever, really. It's not the sort of thing you have heart to hearts with Batman about, and so many of the others who know likewise have their own dead families following them around.

"So… Yeah. I don't really tell that story very often."

—-

Well, there goes going to Haiti to find said cult leader and give him a stern talking to.

Stern talking to.

Right.

The tension does abate from her fingers when Zatanna realizes that she doesn't have to mete out justice herself. The system worked this time around, and the man is behind bars. But the rejoinder that follows is equally devastating and if she was surprised before, she is staring at Tim openly now, her mouth slightly parted. A /hitman/? She shouldn't be surprised, because it is Gotham and it is riddled with crime, where the rich are just as vulnerable as the poor.

She catches a glimpse of those shaking hands and the way he pulls his fingers through his hair. Turning her eyes back down on her notebook, she can't help but smirk faintly at the pages.

"I kind of feel like a shit," she confesses. "Here I am telling you how grateful I am that you're so normal, except that you've suffered too. And I never even suspected that there'd be more. Or maybe I just didn't want to even think about the possibility because…"

Because she was being selfish.

She's capable of that, too, sometimes. Capable of sinking herself into fantasy, willingly deluding herself because sometimes it's the only way to get what she wants - and on campus, with her best friend, she just wants to be herself. Perhaps that was nonsensical also, considering Tim as such when today only illustrates just how little she knows about him. Admittedly, that's never stopped her before - from reaching out to someone. From helping an obviously dangerous individual while he bleeds out on the street. Or falling in love with a man ten years her senior while he was teaching her the ins and outs of Heaven and Hell, and the worlds in between.

Maybe she /is/ an idiot.

She feels that raging self-confidence waver, and she takes a breath, to bolster herself. Tim's words serve her here, at least. Too many people are closed off, he said.

His words on Bruce and Alfred earn him a pointed silence, glancing away. With some additional context, at least she has some understanding, now, as to why he seemed so reluctant to believe that Bruce was capable of what he did to her. But after a moment, she reaches out, squeezing his shoulder before she stands up from her seat, flipping her notebooks shut and stuffing her books in the satchel.

"Alright, that's it. Enough studying today." Not like they even /looked/ at their notes. "C'mon, let's get out of here. Let's go…somewhere. Somewhere off campus, away from dusty books and….just somewhere. You can pick, it's just that if we're going to be talking about this, we could probably do better than a study room crammed in a dusty library. Is there a place you like going? Just to hang out in?"

—-

"Everyone suffers, Zee," Tim says, quietly. He looks at her, pale and wan, like a black and white photograph, fading away from age and lack of care. Dying, right in front of him. It isn't fair. She deserves better. She deserves better than this, better than him, lying to her in what might be her last days. Lies of omission, to be sure, but she's never been anything but forthright with him. Vibrant and alive in a way so few people are, especially people in his life, in a way that drew him with the same terrible inevitability as a moth to a bright light.

It made what was done to her, what had been inflicted upon her, all the more repugnant. And the worst part was that he had no idea what to do. He was already in over his head, already wildly out of his element trying to solve the existing problem. This…

"Every person in all the world suffers their own personal apocalypse. People disappoint us, people betray us, people leave us. We disappoint ourselves, we hurt the people we care about. It doesn't matter if you're an Avenger, or a wizard, or just some kid trying to get through life. Anyway, I guess my point is, don't feel like a shit. There's nothing wrong with wanting a little normal in your life, especially when the rest of it isn't."

He knows that pretty well.

Of course, every time he tries to get something normal in his life, he always gets punished for it. Or someone else does.

He watches curiously as Zatanna packs up her books, figuring that she's going to leave. Heading back to New York, he assumes, where she'd be working with Constantine to try and solve her current and extremely pressing problem. He compartmentalises it, his anger, his fear, his frustration and despair… Even a kind of envy, that he can't offer her any overt help, where others can, like the difficult British magician. He'll have to find another way, his own way. Maybe he can turn something up.

Zatanna surprises him, then, by wanting to go 'somewhere'. His choice, she says.

"Yeah… Okay, sure," Tim says, starting to pack up his things as well, with a businesslike efficiency. "It's not too late out, I know this really good noodle shop in Chinatown…"

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