Bawaajige Nagwaagan

January 26, 2017:

Zatanna Zatara visits Tim Drake in his townhouse/hideout in Gotham City to make sure, among other things, that he gets some sleep.

Red Robin's Secret Hideout - Gotham City

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: John Constantine, Jessica Jones, Bucky Barnes, Dr. Jane Foster, Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, Conner Kent, Stephanie Brown

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Bawaajige Nagwaagan - n. literally "dream snare" in the Ojibwe language. A dreamcatcher.


Her texts to Tim Drake have been brief and perfunctory, and not just a little mysterious - inquiries as to where he is, for starters. She did not expect an unfamiliar address, followed by the remark that this was his place. As in, he owned the property.

Then again, she isn't terribly surprised - the Drakes weren't exactly destitute, and even without Wayne money to bolster his coffers, she imagines that Tim would still have a significant stake in his father's business even if he had absolutely no desire to take the reins in its daily operations. Still, the idea of a nineteen year old owning prime real estate is somewhat startling to her. Having been on the road almost ever since she was but a wee child, the thought of owning something so stationary was something that has never occurred to her. Her father owned properties - Shadowcrest, the prime example, once upon a time he held an apartment in Hong Kong, and she was certain that they still had the townhouse in London, but none of these are /hers/, and she figured these were investments that those who are older would make.

But that is her - she who constantly lives in the moment. She rarely ever plans ahead, that's what Arnie, her manager, is for.

So when she arrives at the building, she can't help but stare at it for just a few moments, trying to mentally reconcile that the name on the deed was Tim's - either his real moniker, or some sort of alias, because she wouldn't put it past him to pretend to be someone else, considering the secret he keeps and the activities in which he engages. This seems to be a preferred modus operandi for the capes-and-tights crew, a new area in her life in which she's trying to carefully navigate, knowing just how devastating those associated secrets can be. It isn't just Tim, either. Peter Parker's operations may be simpler, coming from more humble origins than Tim himself, but that doesn't mean his work, and therefore the necessity of keeping his identity undr wraps, is so much less essential because of it.

She wastes no time finding the secret entrance, because of course there is one.

When she finally descends on Red Robin's hideout, she doesn't just look like her old self - she looks /more/. As if pulling her from the brink of death and exposing her to the entire breadth and width of her staggering potential have evolved her into a better version of herself. Ice-blue eyes gleam with their own striking-unsettling light, the cold outside burning color into her pale cheeks; pale skin that is downright luminescent even under harsh fluorescent lights and even the shade of her hair - darker than black, liable to melt into invisibility in the shadows of night and the more terrifying parts of the world.

She is dressed in her signature blacks - a fitted couture jacket with its unique silhouette, a black lace overshirt pulled over a blood-red tanktop and her favorite pair of ripped, black jeans and the characteristic mesh of her fishnets worn underneath. Her Prada boots put her on eye-level with Tim Drake, certainly, but Red Robin wears platforms to disguise his height and in that persona, she is around two or three inches shorter than he is despite them. She carries that familiar bookbag as well as a handled paper bag laden with items.

Those eyes sweep over the hideout, her lips pursed in a low whistle.

"Where do you get all these wonderful toys?" she asks in lieu of a 'hello', setting her bag aside and stripping off her jacket, dragging the length of her hair out from under the neckline of her shirt. It is wild and free today, but she fixes that almost immediately by bunching it up behind her head and working an elastic band through it, quickly fashioning a careless knot that still leaves plenty of those glossy, ebon streamers to spill free.

—-

Tim knows all about places that are 'home' but not 'his'; the old Drake estate is long gone now, but Wayne Manor was like a second home to him even before the death of his father. He still has his room there, it's still a place he could call home, but…

Well, what nineteen year old doesn't want some independence?

Legal trickery and holding companies blur the paper trail between the young man and the ownership of this place, just in case - he's taken similar steps with his still-secret New York City residence, a spacious penthouse that nobody knows he owns - but it is, nevertheless, his.

The interior of his 'apartment' is decorated tastefully, it's luxurious without the opulence and the weight of years that sits on Wayne Manor… It looks like the home of a young adult, albeit one with plenty of money. Spacious and well-appointed, with something of an open concept, and everything neat and organised and in its place.

Not far from the door is his bookbag, and a notebook sits on his dining room table. Zatanna would recognise it - it's the one he copies notes from class into for her. It has been freshly added to, with a few pages in his careful organisational style and his neat hand… And then some more added in a different handwriting. Copied perfectly from his notes, yes, but it is almost unmistakably a more girlish handwriting.

The first thing that Zatanna would be confronted with when she enters his lair, the secret door sliding shut silently behind her, is the sight of the multi-levelled facility, stretching to the building's roof, and down below the basement. The second thing she would be confronted with is music, high-energy guitars and drums pumped through a very excellent sound system.

Then she would find Tim, in the gym.

He's halfway up the wall when Zatanna comes in, stripped to the waist and barefoot in a pair of black athletic pants. What he's climbing is some kind of rack, built into the wall, by means of a wooden staff; his whole body contracts and then stretches as he pushes upwards, 'jumping' to catch his staff on the next level up, a punishing exercise that tests seemingly every muscle from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. Tense, leap to climb again.

"Santa Claus likes me," is the distracted response from the young man now most of the way to the ceiling, his breathing laboured. He's been at this a while, it was obvious. Weights, punching bag, they all show signs of use. He ignores the exhaustion, the pain, the sweat. No time for weakness.

There are scars, too. More scars than anyone his age should have. On his back, on his arms. Cuts, stabs, claws, bullets, burns. The tapestry of a life spent in a shadowy war.

"Figured the entrance wouldn't hide from you for long. You're the first other person to come in here." Tense, leap, higher still.

—-

She finds his bag and his notes, but Zatanna does not touch his things, the mark of a young woman who would rather be let in rather than prying. Descending to the opulent apartment (can it even be called that?), she pushes her way through the doors in her way leading into the gym, the noise of her arrival drowned out by the crash of cymbals and rip-roaring guitar riffs. She does not expect to see what she does, going through them, pausing in her tracks as she watches Tim Drake /fly/ from a lower level to another. She hesitates in her steps, wondering whether she should come back once he's done…

"Imagine Dragons?" She grins at him from where she stands, resting her shoulder on the doorframe and crossing her arms over her chest, adopting a lean. "I learn something new every day, I kind of just pegged you as a Maroon Five or Bruno Mars kind of guy." Nothing wrong with the latter though, she likes his music.

…what /is/ he doing?

Training, she imagines. Unlike Jess with her superhuman abilities and John's magical acumen, Tim relies on physical conditioning and his brilliance to do what needs to be done, though by what she's seeing now, the idea of considering her best friend as a mundane human being continues to fly out the window. It isn't the first time she's seen him without a shirt, having pulled it up before when she first realized that he had absolutely no give under his clothes. While the look on that expressive face is appreciative - like John, she's committed, not /dead/ - it is the evident scars on him that catches most of her attention, a human roadmap to a life prone to physical suffering. All at nineteen years of age. She can't help but wonder just how early he started, to already have accumulated so many.

He had mentioned that he lost his mother when he was fourteen. Surely, not…?

"I was raised by one of the world's most legendary escape artists," Zatanna points out, finally pushing herself away from the door to head further into the training area. "When it comes to finding hidden passages, I know almost all the tricks, even without…you know." She wiggles her fingers to suggest spellcasting.

"Though if you'd like to test that one day, you can always see if you can beat my time in getting out of Zatara's Ten Padlocks," she tells him, propping a hand on her hip, referencing the trick her father pioneered; an infinitely more complicated version of a similar one invented by Harry Houdini - contorted in an impossible position and shackled in ten places. "Something tells me Bruce passed on what he learned to the rest of you."

Watching him for a moment, she sighs, pulling her fingers through her hair. "Tim, have you even slept? And I don't mean just…snatches of a few hours here and there. Actual sleep." The tired circles around his eyes have not gone away, and judging by the state of the other equipment in the room, he has been pushing himself. "Come on, I came all the way here to visit, take a little bit of a break."

—-

"Better for exercising," is the brief response.

Tim isn't thinking about being watched, or what sort of aesthetic he might be presenting stripped to the waist and sweaty, finely honed muscles straining. He /definitely/ isn't thinking about whether or not Zatanna is enjoying the view, because letting his mind slip down those paths now would be beyond disastrous for him. He already feels ashamed enough for what he admitted in that stairwell, in his weakness, in his selfishness. He doesn't need to scourge himself any further.

He keeps climbing higher, though his salmon ladders aren't as fast as they should be. He's tired, a bone-deep weariness that his refusal to rest properly has prevented his recovery from. He doesn't let himself stop.

Higher. Higher still.

"My time could be better," he mutters. Bruce has him beat with experience with the art of escape, and Dick has always been a natural at anything that required contortions and flexibility. But it's still a confirmation of Zatanna's suspicions: The skills Giovanni Zatara taught Bruce Wayne, Bruce himself passed on to his assistants. They were things Robin needed to know, to do the Work, to survive in the world in which they found themselves. A world where being trapped by a pair of handcuffs could mean an agonising death at the hands of a madman.

He gets to the top.

"I slept at the Manor," he tells her. A few hours. "And last night." Two, three hours at the most, and only because he was pretty sure Stephanie would repeat the brick incident if he didn't at least make the effort. He tried, at least. Surely that has to count for something.

Tim exhales slowly as Zatanna admonishes him to take a break, and he presses his bare feet against the wall, slipping the staff out of its perch on the salmon ladder and then pushing with his feet, flipping backwards, landing on his feet nearly silently, on the mats that cover the floor, his staff slanted up behind his back. To an outsider, the landing looks perfect. Crisp. Flawless.

Tim is already berating himself for a dozen tiny mistakes.

"You're the one who should be resting," Tim says, his dark blue eyes briefly lingering on Zatanna, the relief at seeing her back to her old self - or really, even more than she had been before, as though the blossom had come closer to full bloom by her near-death experience - tightening his throat. He walks over to the bench, picking up a remote and turning down the music, and then picking up a length of white towel, starting to dry some of the sweat from his dark hair. It hoods his view, as well. Hides his face. That helps, a little.

"You almost died, Zee. You shouldn't be up and about already, what if there's some kind of complications?" Tim's never heard of anyone pulling the torn-away pieces of their soul back together by sheer willpower before, shockingly enough, but he can't imagine something like that comes without consequences.

—-

"Then why do you still look tired?" Zatanna wonders; she clearly isn't fooled - not just because she knows him, but also because she is surrounded by people who are constantly sleep deprived. "Come on, Tim, I'll let off if you can look me in the eye, tell me you're well rested without me picking up the lie." And it is difficult, in his diminished capacity and having spent a life of tricking whole groups of people with her tricks, to pull that off. Though she has absolutely no doubt that Tim Drake is perfectly capable of pulling off the impossible, when he has the mind to.

At least he is obliging her request. At his landing, she even gives him a small clap, as if he had just put on a show, though her smile fades a touch, watching him turn his back and rub his face and hair with a towel. She can't help the urge, doesn't bother to, rolling her head back and looking at the ceiling above her head, drawing whatever strains of patience there are from the heavens, and a marked effort in staunching the well of guilt frothing somewhere in her stomach. It is his words, eventually, that draw her out of it, that clues her into whatever he was that he could be thinking. Much like Jess and John, Tim was never prone to just expressing his emotions, no matter how heavy the load.

"The only complication I've managed to gather so far is there's more under my father's seal than I thought." Though she doesn't say in so many words that the discovery has terrified her, unable to articulate her fears there. She has told no one of the extent of that, though everyone by now is now fully aware as to the danger that presents. "And…" Her voice trails off, ice-blue eyes flicking to his profile.

No, she decides. Not yet. Later.

Moving closer towards him, once he's done toweling himself off and turning to her, her hands lift, gently cradling his face with both hands. Her expression gentles; writ clearly over those pale lines is her worry, that open, inadvisably vulnerable, boundless affection.

"Look," she begins quietly. "Humor me in this a little, okay? Now that I know who and what you are, it's not exactly easy for me to come to grips knowing you've done nothing but look after me ever since we met. Helping me study, making me taste normalcy, getting me away from serial killers, retrieving my blood….keeping me there while in the throes of brutal physical agony. Can't it be my turn? For a change?"

Heedless of the sweat, his half-stripped state, she slowly releases her hands in favor of wrapping her arms around his neck, lowering her face against his shoulder. Fingertips find the damp, longish locks at his nape. She turns her face, the better for him to hear her next few words.

"Otherwise I'm going to HYDRA and getting Bucky and Jane back /without/ you now that I know where they are," she murmurs. "Don't make me leave you behind when it's time to save the world, Tim."

The /dirtiest/ of pool.

—-

He doesn't even try to take her up on that challenge.

Tim doesn't know that Zatanna is afflicted with a guilt of her own, and couldn't imagine why she should be even if he had an inkling. It was his fault, his mistake. He tried not to, but there was just something about the magician that drew him in like a spell unconsciously cast; her beauty, sure, but he was no stranger to beautiful women, being rather wealthy and hardly tough to look at himself… Her energy, her vivacity… She was /alive/, and open, and so full of enjoyment of the world and love for other people, and how could he not long for it?

But Bruce was right. It was a complication. The life he lived - the life he'd /chosen/ - left little room for that sort of thing.

It was better, what had happened. The right people had gotten what they wanted.

Tim listens, though, when she meets his stubborn insistence that she needed to rest as well with her own observations of her condition. But there's something she's not saying, and he knows it even before she starts and fails to finish a thought. Something she doesn't want to say, maybe doesn't even want to admit to herself, and…

She's close.

Very close, in fact, her hands cupping his cheeks, cradling his face, looking at him with an expression that hits him like a fist to the sternum. Worry and affection, directed at him. He can't bring himself to look away from her face, his dark blue eyes caught by her icier-coloured ones.

He doesn't understand why. She'd offered him space, after he'd told her how he felt, and she'd given him the response he knew he would receive. Tim had turned it down, because she'd needed him, because there was no way he was going to abandon her, especially not when she was slowly drifting away into oblivion. Of course, she would've wanted him around then, but now…? Wouldn't it make more sense to establish boundaries, to pull back? She hardly needed to rely on him, now.

She gets closer.

Tim can barely stand it as she curls her arms around his neck, her fingers finding his damp, touseled hair, her face pressing against his shoulder and then turning towards the side of his neck so she can speak. His vision swims, a little; it's a kind of cruelty, at the moment.

She probably thinks the threat to leave him behind for the final push against HYDRA is the worst part. At the moment, it scarcely registers.

The towel drops from his hand, his fingers twitching, hands starting to move… Then stopping, almost dropping back to his sides, before he slowly, hesitantly curls his arms around Zatanna. It hurts, and he can't stop himself.

"It's not like it was on purpose," Tim mutters quietly. "What guy isn't going to try and help the hot new girl in class with her studying to impress her? The rest of it… You do manage to get yourself into a lot of trouble."

—-

"Please. You're Tim Drake. Remember all those jokes I made about girls throwing their panties at you? I was pretty sure that has /some/ root in reality."

She knows. Zatanna has, for a time, enjoyed a good relationship not just with Tim, but the rest of his brood - Bruce himself, Dick Grayson. All capable, handsome young men who turned heads, who had their pick of Gotham's bevy of beautiful, dangerous women. That was precisely part of it, why she was so confused about the attention, and why she was so surprised when her friend confessed what he did. There were so many others, she was even half-certain that he had a few waiting in the wings, hence the lack of response to her earlier flirtations. But assumptions are what they are, it wasn't as if she expected to find out about /this/.

But yes, she offered. Ever sensitive to the needs of those around her, she had told him immediately, as she was wont to do, whether he wanted his space. He refused, to her relief, but it was perhaps naive to think that they could go back to the way they were. And selfish, somewhat cowardly, to try to. She knows, because she can't not - that is something to table for later, though. /After/ she makes sure that he manages to get some rest. While his hesitation is palpable, she would be lying if she didn't admit to herself that there is plenty of relief there, also, that he has managed to hug her back.

She gives him a squeeze, before releasing her arms. She seems satisfied with his implied acquiescence.

"I will take all of that…" She gestures in a vague circle over him. "As a yes. So meet me in your kitchen, yeah?" She starts turning then, only to pause. She points at him with her index finger, squinting mildly. "Don't make me come back down here to get you. You're not the only one who knows how to string someone up."

He probably needs a shower, she thinks. And a change of clothes. That would probably take some time, unless he elects not to do any or all of those things. Still, she moves back up the stairs, and to the living area of Red Robin's hideout, still marveling at what she finds when she emerges back into the loft. There's a flick of her eyes at the piano, remembering the one Bruce has in his own conservatory. She had absolutely no idea that he played (otherwise why would he have one) until she visited.

Whenever Tim manages to find his way to the kitchen, he'd find her twirling a knife, cutting a whole banana and a few kiwis to manageable chunks - the grocery bag on his counter suggests that she went shopping just before she got there. There's a full ice tray near her, situated close to a blender, all indications that she intends to use them shortly. Her back turned to him, he'd find her foot lightly tapping on the floor, to the rythmn of a song inside of her head. Setting the cutting board aside, she cracks open a bottle of tart cherry juice, and uses a can opener to do the same to coconut milk - tastes better than almond milk, and doesn't have the same deluge of unwanted carbohydrates like regular milk.

She uses the knife to drag the pieces of fruit in the blender, the flush of red from the cherry concentrate turning pink once the coconut milk is added. The ice follows. Turning to look over her shoulder, she gives him a smile.

"I didn't really have a lot of opportunity to ask you how you've been after everything," she says, closing the blender and hitting the button to create the smoothie she clearly intends for him. "We didn't exactly talk about it when we all had that midnight chow-down back in Brooklyn, but I've been doing this for far too long not to know that…" She hesitates. "Tim, I know it wasn't easy. Even if you didn't get sucked into those worlds. After everything else you've told me, I /know/ you."

She stops the blender. Finding a glass, she pours in the contents, and moves over to where he stands. She sets it in front of him.

"Low sugar," she helpfully informs him. "Anti-inflammatory properties from the cherries, bananas and kiwis for your melatonin. Drink up."

All of which she could do with magic, but she isn't, despite the power that she has in her disposal. She could tell him to sleep, and he would do it. The fact that she has scarcely touched it save to do what is crucial and absolutely necessary speaks volumes of how the incident has affected her, even without her usual fashion of unloading what she feels on anyone who would listen.

—-

It hurts.

The pain is good.

He deserves it.

Tim makes no effort to keep Zatanna from pulling back, from moving away from him, satisifed as she is that he seems to be going along with her on this. He doesn't answer about the possibility of women 'throwing their panties at him,' because he's always avoided the interest being a wealthy young man brought. He wasn't Bruce, keeping up a playboy persona so that nobody would have a reason to think of him as anything else, or Dick who had gotten himself into the scandal pages on more than one occasion, owing to his having, er, a lot of love to go around. He'd dated a few girls, sure, but they'd been normal enough; Jack Drake had wanted his son to attend normal schools instead of shipping him off to private academies, and the Drakes hadn't been so unreasonably rich as to make that unfeasible. He'd had one thing he'd actually call a real relationship, and he'd managed to mess that up quite effectively.

But maybe that was better, too. Stephanie deserved to be happy.

Tim watches Zatanna go, watches her head up and back out into the more publicly acceptable face of his residence, one hand lifting to rub at his forehead once the hidden doorway shuts again behind her.

"You're an idiot, Tim Drake," he mutters to himself. But he knows Zatanna isn't exaggerating about what might happen if she has to come back and get him, and he turns towards the shower not far from the gym area.

When Tim emerges from the secret door into his apartment proper, his dark hair is plastered down by water rather than sweat, and he's wearing a different pair of black workout pants, paired with a red t-shirt. She has, of course, made herself right at home in his kitchen as she'd warned him she was going to do, though until he'd stepped out to see her standing there Tim had found himself dreading - and, a little bit, hoping - that she would've thought better of it, and he would find her gone.

But she smiles at him, and he can't help it; he smiles back, a more genuine smile than he's managed in days, the expression neither tight nor grim, but the more boyish expression that had become familiar to her since they'd become study partners and friends, his teeth clipping lightly into his bottom lip.

"I'm not the one who nearly died," Tim points out, taking one of the stools at the kitchen's counter, his elbows resting on the top and his head propped up by his hands. "I'm fine," he insists. "What the others faced wasn't real. Do you think I envy them that? The thought of being presented with a world where my father and my mother are alive, but aren't really the people I knew?" A world where Bruce Wayne grew up with his parents? Where Dick Grayson did, even Jason Todd? A world where Stephanie's father wasn't a supervillain, where even Zatanna's family was whole? A world where all the people he cared about were safe and happy, even if they didn't know him? Even if he had to live with the knowledge that they didn't know him, would never know him?

Wouldn't that be a fair sacrifice?

He exhales a slow breath, shakily, looking at the glass sitting in front of him. There is a momentary suspicion there, in those dark blue eyes, as he regards the smoothie. Is it bubbling? He didn't see all the ingredients she put into it… What if she did some kind of witch potion thing to it?

But he takes a drink, regardless. He doesn't really think Zatanna would do anything to hurt him, and indeed the idea doesn't even occur to him… But she very well might put something in there to knock him out.

He would, in her place.

—-

The sight of that familiar expression has Zatanna's smile growing, parting her lips and hinting at a bit of her teeth. Nothing so effusive as the brilliant glare she has demonstrated on him in a few occasions, but the restraint somehow makes it warmer and more genuine than its more bombastic cousin.

She waits for him to take a seat, and expectantly watches as he takes a drink - all signs of someone who may have put something inside of it, but after a few moments, Tim would experienced an utter dearth of deleterious effects. For all the time she has spent the last few weeks getting drugged by people she knows, she has developed enough abhorrence with the practice that it would be unconscionable, to her, to do the same thing to a friend - and her best friend, no less. The smoothie is cool, sweetness from the bananas and kiwis balanced out by the tartness of the cherry concentrate, flavors enhanced by coconut milk. It is cool on the tongue and superbly healthy, though it's tough to say whether she insisted on all organic ingredients. Then again, considering her own dietary restrictions - and she never did tell Tim the story as to how she became a vegetarian in the first place - it was probably not surprising that she knows where to shop for such items if necessary.

But that sense of satisfaction grows, that he is letting her do this, though her own doubts remain. Moving over to his side of the counter, she hops up on the cold granite, her legs folded by the knees and dangling off the edge. She never does sit properly.

"I don't think you ever really envy anyone, Tim," she says, though she acknowledges privately that could be erroneous - he has demonstrated nothing but confidence around her, a degree of self-awareness that is uncommon for people their age. "But I think you've probably assessed the allure also." She tilts her head up to look at his ceiling, another smile tugging on the corners of her mouth. "Honestly now that I'm thinking about my friends I really only know of /one/ person who would stay. Because he's an unrepentant hedonist and he would have probably broken his perfect world from the inside out just to keep up with his demands. In retrospect, maybe we should have brought him. He could have just destroyed the machine just by going in one of those portals, the strain would've been too much for it."

If there was anyone who could /exhaust/ a utopia, HYDRA-generated or otherwise, it would be Peter Quill.

"I had to ask, anyway," she says, glancing down at him from her slightly superior height. "I've…never seen you lose it before."

The frustrated, angry roar, made all the more monstrous by the thing he uses to disguise his voice. The sudden, uncontrolled burst of violence destroying the terminal that held the logs that contained details of Bucky Barnes' torment. Things were moving too fast for her to address it in any significant way, but now that they're in quieter, safer environs, she does.

"Not in that way, nothing so explosive. After that, how could I not worry? How could I not ask? I'm…" She exhales, lifting her hand to absently rub the side of her face. "I'm not going to pry, if you don't want to talk about it. But it wouldn't be me if I didn't offer, or address it." Because that's what she does - no matter how thorny, or volatile the minefield is, she will simply race across it without a care as to how badly it damages her in the end.

—-

'I don't think you ever really envy anyone, Tim.'

He's glad she can't see his face right now, looking down at the drink and the countertop as he is, with her sitting on the counter itself beside him. It's human nature to want what you can't have, Tim knows this, and he knows that he's far from immune to it. To envy other people their normalcy, even though he'd given it up willingly. Peaceful lives, regular sleep schedules, the ability to just spend time with friends and family without the constant awareness that you might have to excuse yourself with a lie at any moment, if danger arose.

Lately, though, what he envies is something much more specific. But he won't admit to it, of course… Why would he? What would that accomplish, except to do more damage than he already did?

Instead, he busies himself with the smoothie. It's not like the ones he usually makes for himself, in keeping with the nutrition plan devised by the Batman. It's different, fruitier… And worse, there's an inescapable difference of food or drink prepared for you by somebody you have an interest in.

You're an idiot, Tim Drake, he reminds himself.

But Zatanna reveals why she was concerned about him, the particular trigger that has caused her to worry. He remembers that moment, that outburst, that anger. He remembers it perfectly, as clearly as the sickening satisfaction of crushing one of the guards' faces at the aircraft hangar with the butt of his own gun, a gun powered by energy stolen from Zatanna's very soul. He feels guilty, again - it's one of the few constants, lately, in the torrent of conflicting emotions scouring him whenever he forgets to keep them walled away. Guilt at having worried her. Guilty for…

"What they did to those people was sick. Monstrous," he says, quietly. "I wanted to hate them, Tasha and Karl, for being a part of what was done to you. But what if they were victims as well? Brainwashed, turned into good little workers, chipped in case they never needed to be dealt with easily. And they're doing it to these other people, Barnes and Foster. And I thought about… What if they'd done that to you, too, on top of everything else?"

He shakes his head, glaring down at what's left of the smoothie. He'd thought about it too, when Stephanie had offered her help - or, more accurately, told him she was going to go nose around whether he liked it or not, because Stephanie Brown was always going to be Stephanie Brown - what if she got too close to something and they got her?

What if they got /him/?

"I actually checked myself, you know, I did a bunch of scans of my head, just in case. I'm clean. No weird implants, anyway." Which, of course he did.

But that's not all of why, and Zatanna knows that as well as he does. And knows that she knows.

"I've been on edge since they hurt you," Tim admits. "That's why I couldn't hide from… Things… Anymore. I was terrifed, and angry, and I couldn't find /anything/, and what is the POINT," his palm slams onto the countertop, "of all this detective SHIT," and again, harder, a clenched fist, "if I can't help…" He trails off, stops himself, slips off of the stool to pace on the floor, gesturing with his arms as though to brush it away. He's not supposed to be like this. He's supposed to be detached, logical. Even Batman had been surprised.

Slow, deep breaths. Find your center, find some calm.

"I'm compromised, emotionally," Tim says, as though Zatanna couldn't tell. "If you want to leave me out of the rest of dealing with HYDRA, I'll understand."

—-

The fact that he checked himself after their harrowing discoveries in the hospital does not surprise her at all. Tim Drake didn't exactly strike her as the reckless type, even when she was oblivious to his crimefighting persona.

Zatanna watches him, her stare angled down from where she sits. It doesn't allow her to glimpse his face, but that might be a blessing in disguise. But he speaks, because she asked - knows deep down that he will always try to answer her questions to the best of his ability, given that he knows how she feels about honesty, whenever they decide to unlatch their usual boundaries and connect with one another as people. His admission doesn't strike her as surprising, remembering the night on top of the rooftop when he revealed his face and showed her his fatigue. It does, however, make her glance down at the space between her knees, her fingers curling tightly against the edges of the granite counter. She had already been told that this wasn't her fault, feeling guilty for not being strong enough or capable enough to prevent what happened - a confession that had made John angry more than anything, before sinking into his own fear. That he wasn't able to do anything.

She finds Tim mirroring this to some (some? really, Zatanna) degree, when his palm drives into the surface near her, jolting her head up with a start, staring at him when his fist pounds downward and leaves ripples of his anger behind underneath her. She doesn't follow when he wrenches away, takes a few steps to regroup and then…

She closes her eyes, lifts a hand to rub her closed lids. For a while she says very little else, leaving the rest of his words hang heavily on empty air.

But that's not to last. It never does, with the young magician.

She slips away from the counter, landing lightly on her feet, to close the distance between herself and her friend. With his face averted, it is hard to gauge the expression in his eyes, but she doesn't force him to look at her. Her hand reaches instead, to touch his shoulder lightly, until the palm curls in, to form a cup just above the very boundary of his collarbone and squeezes tightly.

"You're not a robot," she reminds him quietly. "Tim, I know that this is the kind of life that'll get you hurt if you make big mistakes, but sometimes we can't help but /be/ emotional. Take it from an expert, if that's your gauge for effectiveness in everything, then I'm compromised all the time. It doesn't…it doesn't automatically mean you're worthless, or useless, or that you can't help. None of us got out of that without having felt like the world was going to pieces, and now that we know that something huge is happening, we can't just…/check out/. Wash our hands of it and let other people get hurt. That's not me. That's not Jess, and as hard as it is for some people to believe, that's not John either. And that…leaving things unfinished, unresolved. Knowing that things'll get worse unless this is definitely stopped…that's not you, Tim. You /solve/ things. You /finish/ things."

Her hand reaches for his other shoulder, and unless he resists, she'll attempt to turn him so he can face her. She meets his eyes unflinchingly and he would find it, still. That worry, her endless concern. Her grip tightens on him.

"This kind of situation takes from everyone," she continues quietly. "It can't be helped. Everyone I know who does /something/ for the greater good…Daddy, Bruce, John…they pay. Oh, god, they pay so much. Daddy…" That expressive face shifts then, anguish twisting over her at the thought of her missing father, the state he was last seen in and the bits and pieces of his own breathtakingly dangerous situation. "…has been paying the price for /decades/. But you can't let this, or anything else after this, take /more/ than its fair share, or it'll use you up before your time. You'll forget what you're doing this for, why you do this in the first place. You owe it to yourself to be /super stingy/ in that regard. Don't let the work take more from you than it deserves."

—-

He's supposed to be better than that. Smarter. Two steps ahead.

But he couldn't find anything on his own, no matter how many proverbial bushes and wasps' nests he'd shaken. Tim had been on the point of asking Gerry Craft if he knew anything about the Tarnhelm when Zatanna had found him, tracking down Red Robin to try and get some answers about how it was that he knew something he shouldn't have known - a mistake on Tim's part, a slip when he was speaking to Jessica, already letting his tiredness, already letting his compromised emotional state get him wrong-footed, forgetting his compartmentalisation, forgetting his information security.

He should've known that Jessica would've learned what had happened, from Constantine or from Zatanna herself, sooner rather than later. But he had to know if she had any information that might have gotten him a lead. Already, his emotions had gotten the better of him. He'd been thinking with his heart, not his head.

Zatanna gets close, again; Tim is well aware before she gets anywhere near him, and there is no surprise, no flinch when her hand finds his shoulder, gently grasping him through his red t-shirt, until she can give him a tight squeeze. He wants her to stop; he wants her to never let go.

"I'm not like you, Zee, you're stronger when you let your emotions guide you," he says, closing his eyes. Still trying to find a calm center, focus, stability. That's what he needs now. "I need to be cold, calculating. That's where I operate." Her other hand is on him, trying to turn him to face her. He resists, only briefly, before he's looking her in the eyes, meeting her gaze just as unflinchingly as she does his.

"It's not /me/ getting hurt if I make a mistake that worries me."

He's long since been resigned to that, and she would see it in those dark blue eyes. He's done the math, run the simulations: The odds that Timothy Jackson Drake lives to be 30 years old is maybe 50/50. Past that, if he continues to operate, like Batman does, things drop… Precipitously. He knows what's waiting for him, and it's a short lonely life and a cold grave.

But not for everyone else. He can't accept it for anyone else.

Tim knows as well as Zatanna does the kind of price others pay for doing the Work, having spent the past several years of his life watching it do exactly that to the Batman, and in many ways himself. The magician might not have even recognised Tim if she'd met him when he was younger, left Gotham and then returned when she did. When he was happier, more open. Being Robin was never a game to him, but he'd always seen it as more of an extracurricular than something to set his future in stone. He used to smile more. Laugh more.

The mention of Bruce and Giovanni reminds him, though, of the blisteringly embarrassing conversation he'd had when he'd returned from New York, and Tim stares down at his bare feet, his toes wiggling on the tile floor.

"Bruce knows that you know about me," Tim says, trying to redirect the conversation a little, trying to steer it away from having to discuss the possibility that the work has already taken everything there was to be taken from him. "Um. And the, uh, the other thing, that I told you. Apparently the World's Greatest Detective thing counts for something," Tim adds, in a slightly bitter mutter. "Anyway, I told him that you," he lifts his hand, gesturing with a quick slicing motion under his chin. "But you should know that he knows. Just about me, so for God's sake pretend you don't like you know about him, too. And," he adds, lifting his eyes towards Zatanna's again. "Apparently your father was at the Manor recently and gave him a real chewing out."

—-

"I'm very much aware that we're two different people," Zatanna replies, her expression flattening. "What I'm trying to tell you though is that you shouldn't be whipping yourself for losing your shit sometimes, because that's gonna happen whether you like it or not, or think that you're useless because you demonstrated some actual human feelings while you were working. That you're no good to anyone because of it. Because that's not true. It could just be because I have more faith in you than you do in yourself, but I haven't seen you be anything less than capable, Tim. Even when you were 'emotionally compromised'." There's an indescribable look there, wondering just what the hell kind of CIA-blacksite-bootcamp Batman had thrown Tim in for his training.

She slowly releases his shoulders once he finally meets her eyes. The talk about mistakes has her chuffing under her breath, and for a moment her lips purse. He'd see it there, because he is too insightful, too intelligent, too familiar with her not to - that she wants to tell him that everyone makes mistakes. That almost nothing goes according to plan because it is virtually impossible to account for so many human and environmental variables. She wants to, but she doesn't, because just as well as he knows her, she also knows /him/ - he would find that notion unacceptable, because he sets himself to /unbelievable/ and impossible standards, and that is a fight that she is simply not willing to engage in today, not when she had come to make sure that he gets some sleep.

She glimpses his hesitation, the way he lowers his gaze to his toes. Dark brows scrunch up faintly, furrowing. Searching his face, her lips part to say something else, when he derails her from whatever it is she is about to say by mentioning her father. It is always a guaranteed distraction, interspersed with the news that he had talked to Bruce and that he knows that she knows, and the other thing. She would be lying to herself if she didn't acknowledge that both encompass two different but interconnected set of worries.

Her teeth press into her bottom lip, glancing away from him - it would be in her dossier in the Batcomputer, how Giovanni Zatara has only one known weakness and she is standing in front of Tim Drake. It is a mutual one, and one would expect absolute adoration there, at the news that the man she loves the most in the world had descended upon the Batcave to deliver the cold, uncompromising reprimand she has known him to give on occasion. But there is conflict on her delicate features as she has not fully processed everything that she has learned about him; the fact that he is in terrible danger, that the fight is taking its toll, or his betrayal over the summer when he orchestrated events to dash her heart into pieces.

Or more recently, the other secrets he had kept from her. The books he inscribed inside her. The truth about her mother, which she had to read from said books and not hear from the man himself.

"John told him about what happened to me and Bruce," she supplies finally, tucking her hands in her pockets, her expression unreadable - not because she is suppressing emotion but because there are so many present that it is difficult to determine which prevails. "I would have told him myself but….it's impossible for the two of us to be in each other's presence, right now. Whatever Daddy's facing, it's determined to keep him away from me." And thus tearing the man away from the only thing in this world that he loves unconditionally, and segregating her away from the only family she has left.

After a pause, she sighs, moving away from him, suddenly exhausted herself. Reaching into the bag she brought, she dips her fingers in and withdraws a box. She sets it on the counter and pulls the lid open. "John made something for you and Jess," she tells him. "A ward, for protection. As a thank you for the other night." She draws out the small object, showing it to him. "Probably something that ought to be sewn in the lining of your costume so you don't lose it or break it on accident." It's a very small cylindrical vial, with crimson drops within it. Blood?

Blood that is behaving like a lava lamp, when it moves on its own.

"It's a pinch," she explains. "Break it when you're in dire straits. It'll protect you from physical attacks for a time." She hands it to him for his inspection, a small smile lifting at the corners of her mouth. "He doesn't do this often, you and Jess must've made an impression."

—-

She's right.

He would find that idea unacceptable.

Tim is of course in no rush to tell Zatanna about the sort of training he endured to get where he is, and surely half of it she wouldn't believe, even as a world-travelling magician and illusionist who does /actual magic/. Sometimes even he doesn't believe it, and he lived through it.

For the moment, though, the subject of the unrealistic, unbelievable, frankly impossible standards that Tim Drake sets for himself is left mercifully alone, though there will surely be plenty of opportunities in the future for Zatanna's frustration with that part of her friend's psychological makeup to see open air. She does have that fiery temper to her, after all.

And as she's seen, Tim has a temper himself, no matter how he keeps it buried under those deceptively calm waters.

Tim is of course quite impressed that Giovanni would go out of his way to go yell at the Batman for messing with his daughter, because lots of powerful individuals honestly wouldn't, given the Dark Knight's fearsome reputation. But what he sees in Zatanna's expressive face, in those big pale blue eyes, is a litany of different emotions instead of a singular one; a story of complicated feelings towards her father, no matter the adoring way he's heard her refer to 'Daddy' in the past. There's a shift in her manner, in her body language, as Zatanna becomes one thing Tim has never seen her be in the time that he's known her: Closed off, her expression becoming unreadable from the sheer number of conflicting emotions she's experiencing, her hands slipping into her pockets in a posture of isolation. Not as defensive as folding her arms, but still.

"Oh," Tim says, quietly. "I'm sorry to hear that. I shouldn't have brought it up."

It isn't like he would've known, but it seemed curious to him how people referred to Zatara, and yet he seemed so absent from his daughter's life. He supposes it makes a kind of sense now, if he can approach others, people around her, but not Zatanna herself.

Tim's brow furrows, feeling a surge of sympathy for Zatanna and her father both. He knows, after all, what it's like to not be able to see a family member.

She moves away from him then, and Tim watches her go, as she moves to her bag, producing a box from within it with far less theatricality and showmanship than he would've expected from her, after those youtube videos he's seen. The mention of it being something from Constantine, something the magus had made to help protect him, in thanks for what they'd done in the rescue of Zatanna's soul - and, not for nothing, the rescue of Constantine himself from his 'utopia' - brings back that sour, guilty pang.

He doesn't deserve it.

But when Zatanna hands it to him, Tim holds the item up for curious inspection, lifting it to one of the overhead lights. He feels strange, holding something that is ostensibly magical, though the feeling is purely one generated by his own mind: He's wary of these sorts of things, something he can't quantify, can't understand, can't predict. It's hardly as though he can take it apart and see how it works, after all.

Though he'll still end up spending some time in the lab examining it. Carefully.

"I appreciate it," Tim says, and he does; the sincerity is clear in his voice. "Is that blood in there? He wouldn't have needed to do that for a friendship bracelet."

—-

"Oh, Tim, it's fine," Zatanna says with a sigh, working her fingers over the granite countertop. Looking up, her smile returns, inclining her head slightly. "After what I told you about my father, I can't blame you for thinking I've been thirsty for word of him. And I am…despite everything else that's happened. Thanks for telling me. Truthfully I worried a little, when John told me he was going to handle it personally." There is a pause. "Daddy has a history with Bruce in the same way as he has one with John. They were both his…boys, I guess. But with Bruce, it was…" She hesitates. "They shared a tragedy and they helped each other through it, so it isn't really surprising that Daddy elected to come see him instead of what he usually does. And honestly I was worried that was going to end up in something that they can't find their way through. It's not as if Bruce has an overwhelming amount of allies, and honestly neither does Daddy. They need each other, still."

The glass is sturdy, at least, and small, barely two inches. In painstaking detail and in John's elegant calligraphy, mystical symbols are carved on the smooth surface, the very top sealed with wax. The blood within spools and shifts, defying Physics at every twist into itself - as if living. As if it was an organism and not something drawn from one.

The quip about the friendship bracelet has her grinning broadly. "Almost exactly the same words I told him," she says with a laugh. "I gave him shit about a few beads and maybe some puka shells and he was all…" She waves a hand to the side. "Britishy about it. /You wot mate/ and all of that." It was an exaggeration, that wasn't really how he replied, but there is genuine affection there, when she speaks about the Liverpudlian magus. Everything about her seems to soften for just a moment as she glances away. Adoration in spades, but also something else.

Worry. Reminded of those violent night terrors. Shapes in the dark that she is unfamiliar with, because he hardly ever tells her anything about what plagues him.

It does draw up recollections of that rooftop again and after glancing at the empty glass he has left on the counter, the way he toys with John's ward, curiosity writ in those dark blue eyes, she can't help but hesitate. There are plenty of other things to talk about, and she would rather she just /get a move on/ with her original purpose and shove him into his bed to make sure that he actually gets a good night's sleep. But there's always…

…and it isn't easy. Her openness, her emotional accessibility, her willingness to be so vulnerable, all of it may give the impression that she makes conversations such as this effortless. But it isn't. Nobody ever relishes being vulnerable all the time, but Zatanna remains in this state constantly for reasons of her own. Reasons that even someone like Tim and his expertise in Psychology might even find too difficult or strange to grasp. And so she takes a breath, turning once more so she could look at her friend directly in the eyes.

"Tim…about what you said…"

Her fingers twist into the lining of her pockets. She removes them to hook elegant digits over the beltloops of her jeans instead.

"I know you said…you don't intend to go anywhere," she says quietly. "And…oh god, when you told me that night, I was so relieved. At the state that I was, I didn't think I could…no matter what I said. About not blaming you if you decided not to talk to me for a few days, or weeks, or months. Whatever was easiest for you. But after everything, I just…" She chews on her bottom lip. "Do you want me to…not?"

Not what?

"It…I didn't know, what you would prefer. Whether I just acted the way I usually did around you or back off a little. I was hoping…" She scrubs the side of her face. "God, some selfish part of me just wanted to keep us at the way we were before but I know I…oh, Tim. I don't want to hurt you. That's the last thing I want. But I don't know if I would hurt you more if I pulled away, or if I stuck around and do the things I do like…" She gestures - to the used blender, to his glass, the act of stopping by. "And you could make it so difficult too, because whatever I did, you would just…/let me/. Because you've always just let me be myself around you, no matter what it does to you, and I know you. You're probably telling yourself that I have /no reason/ to feel guilty but I do. Because it's you and I don't want…."

Paris. Rain splattering on the window. The sound of breaking glass, flying shards cutting her cheek…

"I don't…ever want to be too much for someone to take," she finishes softly.

—-

'I thought I could fix it,' Tim had told Bruce in the cave.

Batman had, it seemed, construed Tim's words to refer to his revealing his own identity to Zatanna - that by getting the Dark Knight to unveil himself to the gothic magician, he could cover up his own mistake - but what Tim had hoped to fix was the rift that had been created. Bruce and Zatanna were both legacies of Giovanni Zatara, after all, both people who existed now because of what he taught them. Wanting to repair things between them was good, wasn't it?

Wanting Zatanna to not have to look stricken whenever Bruce Wayne was mentioned was a good thing, wasn't it?

"I tried to get Bruce to come and talk to you, but he'd rather wait, for now. He doesn't want to reveal any more secrets without getting the others to agree," Tim says, wanting to make sure that Zatanna understands the current situation. Not that he expects anything less than a death grip on the secrets she's been entrusted with, of course, but it's good to know what she is - and isn't - supposed to know.

"I hope I get to meet your dad some day," he adds, but what he means is that he hopes her father is okay, and is able to overcome whatever he's dealing with, and that Zatanna is able to introduce them one day. And also that hopefully he doesn't do anything that brings the wrath of Giovanni Zatara down on himself.

He doubts he'd get the merciful consideration Bruce Wayne did.

There's a faint chuff of amusement from Tim, the closest thing to a laugh she's heard from him in nearly a month; he can imagine exactly how 'Britishy' Constantine would've got over any allegations of making friendship bracelets… For all that the magus goes around looking rumpled and like he's never met a comb or a razor before, Drake can tell that Constantine is a man with a keen sense of the outward appearance he wants to project.

But he's hardly alone in that, is he?

There's that sickly feeling again, that sour pang in his gut at the obvious, genuine affection in Zatanna's voice, but Tim smothers it, snuffs it out with a ruthless, brutal efficiency, hoping to take some more emotion with it. Zatanna had reminded him he wasn't a robot, but maybe that wasn't a good thing. If he was as aloof as he should be, as cold and logical as he should be, then he wouldn't hurt right now. He could do what he needed to do, without worrying that his emotions would drive him to some idiocy, to some terrible mistake that would cost lives.

She speaks; it's a blindside for him at the moment, an emotional sucker punch that he doesn't need. His eyes shift when she says his name, when she brings up 'what he said', his dark blue eyes moving from the ward to the woman. He knows what's coming, he thinks: This will be the moment where she tells him that she needs space, that she doesn't need some other guy who's interested in her hanging around while she's trying to make her relationship work. It would be the smart play, for her. Why would she want to deal with him pining like a lovesick puppydog?

He knew he shouldn't have said anything. He shouldn't have taken off his cowl. He should've lied, or just left.

He shouldn't have said anything after Bruce did what he did, either. He should've just let her storm off, let her think that Tim Drake would close ranks with his adoptive father, that nobody would listen to the weird little Carny girl claiming Bruce Wayne drugged her for some nefarious purpose. Let her hate Tim Drake, never speak to him again.

He could've still protected her as Red Robin, and avoided… Everything else.

Avoided torturing himself over something he'll never have.

But what Zatanna /actually/ says is not 'get out of my life, loser' or anything even remotely along those lines. She speaks, and he listens, he watches her, and he is almost perfectly still, hardly seeming to blink or breathe. Even his upraised hand, still holding the ward, doesn't move, doesn't tremble.

"You really shouldn't feel guilty," Tim says, moving at last setting the ward down with the kind of extreme care of someone who isn't entirely sure the tiny object won't blow up or suddenly turn into some terrible /thing/ that's all teeth and eyes. "I should, and I do. I shouldn't have said anything, I shouldn't have put you in this position… I already knew what you were going to say, anyway," he adds, because of course he did. He has eyes to see, and ears to hear. He knows how to read people. "I just… I'd hoped…" He cuts himself off, forcing his mouth shut, his eyes squeezing tightly, his fists working open and closed for a few seconds, furious at himself.

No, Tim, he tells himself. Shut up, Tim.

"No, that doesn't matter," Tim decides of his own previous words, out loud. "Zee, I just want you to be yourself. I just want you to be happy. If anything, I expected you to want me to start leaving you alone, but I… You know, there were a million times when everything about my training told me I should just… Stop. That I was getting too close, too attached. That I should've let you walk out of the study room after you confronted me about Bruce, and let you hate me forever. That I should've kept my cowl on, on that rooftop. Lied, or just left. But if I had… You might be dead now. And because I'm an idiot, I know I couldn't go on like that. In a world without you."

Near death, she'd haunted him every time he'd stopped to close his eyes. What would happen if she'd passed? Would he ever have been able to sleep again, or would it simply have been the nightmares? No relief, just those terrible dreams. His mother, his father, and now her.

"I just want you to be you, Zee. I just spent the, what, week? Doing everything I could short of /literally/ turning Gotham City upside down to find anything that even remotely looked like a lead to help save you, to help get you back to you. Be you. I can take a lot, believe me. The rest…" He gestures, waving it off. How he feels, all of it. "…It doesn't matter. It's better this way."

—-

"He'd like you," Zatanna says, and that isn't a throwaway comment. Nobody knows Giovanni better than his daughter, and at Tim's declaration that he would like to meet her father, it earns him a faint little girn. "He would." She was certain of it - Tim had all of Bruce's best qualities and very little of what makes him a difficult human being to get to know. That isn't to say that the young man himself doesn't have his own challenges, however. This current conversation was one of them and as he attempts to absolve her of her guilt, she can't help but sigh quietly.

She watches him as he finally moves, close to the counter where he could deposit John's ward, watching as the viscous crimson within it pulls in and around of itself. He isn't telling her anything that she hasn't already guessed herself, from the moment the words leave his mouth. Some part of her wants him to be angry, to lash out and exorcise whatever hurts he may harbor somewhere within him - to accuse her of leading him on, or something, anything, regardless of whether that was true. Knowing full well that he was simply too smart and aware to make that conclusion, when he had probably already guessed from their conversation on the park bench that she wasn't over the older man who had left her.

If he glances at her, he'd see that face soften, and look somewhat stricken. When he says he shouldn't have said anything, or put her in this position, that he already knew what she was going to say and that he hoped. Each word twists at her, drives the spearpoint further into her ribs, so much so that she can barely breathe because she knows. She knows how it feels, because she has /been in this position before/, and being able to relate makes it so much harder to hear it from him because at the moment, he is reminding her very much of herself. And even worse, the sheer rarity of it, from the likes of him. It is never easy to put one's heart on the line, but for someone like him to do it regardless is…

She knows it hurts. She has stood where he was standing before. She knows it is excruciating.

Her eyes close and she lets herself drown in it. The needless self-recrimination for letting himself feel for someone and letting them know. That it's somehow a bad thing and even now he's still worrying about how /she/ feels about being placed in a position where she has to wonder about her own boundaries and the friendship she has with him when it's not…

She takes a few steps closer. A gentle hand reaches for his. If he lets her, she'll let those pale digits intertwine with his and hold.

"I was told recently that suffering isn't noble," she tells him, glancing down at their conjoined fingers. "And that pain is incidental to Life. Tim, I've been where you are. I know how hard it is, so it's…God, you don't have to talk like it's all of your fault, because no matter how powerful the mind, sometimes the heart has other ideas and that's /human too/. If anything, you're not the one who's hurting me just by standing next to me and that's what I can't help but dread. Because unless you tell me that you can't take it, I'll just keep doing this. I'll keep being accessible, and I'll hug you when you're sad. I'll wheedle you constantly until you tell me what's bothering you, and I'll heal you up when you're hurt. I'll tease you and I'll keep trying to make you laugh and…I know that can be too much. So if you need me to curb it for the sake of your sanity, I…" She swallows. "I can do that. I can do that for you."

She squares her shoulders at that, her jaw taking on a defiant tilt. Determination sparks within the depths of those ice-blue irises.

"I meant what I said earlier," she tells him. "That it's my turn to look after you. Even if it means…/not/ looking after you as hard, or as insistently as I want. I just…I /need/ to know, Tim." Her eyes slip shut. "Because I don't want to drive you away if it hurts too much to be around me. You're my best friend, I can't…I can't."

—-

It isn't in the psychological makeup of Timothy Jackson Drake to deflect blame to other people, which almost certainly is what helped the Batman figure out that his former sidekick was trying to manipulate him during their conversation in the Batcave about Zatanna.

After all, it isn't just that Tim is smart. He /knows/ how smart he is, that his mind has been refined, trained, honed as a weapon just as much - if not even moreso - than his body. He's supposed to be smarter, better. He's supposed to be thinking two, five, ten steps ahead, considering all the angles, watching for every danger.

And then Zatanna Zatara walked up to him, slipping past his guard effortlessly… And without even meaning to, much less realising she'd done it, she took a part of him.

But Tim has learned a lesson from this. Batman was right, women are a complication.

Better to be alone, at least in that.

So Tim crushes little bits of unworthy emotion inside of his heart when they well up, and suffers the rest willingly. Not because he thinks it's noble, or because he gets some warm tingly feeling at being the martyr, the poor nice guy left out in the cold, but because it hurts. Because he deserves it. Because he thinks it will make him get over it, get over Zatanna, and scar him so he remembers. So that it never happens again.

It's better this way.

Her hand finds his, her elegant fingers tangling with his own before he has the presence of mind to pull his hand away. It's a kind of cruelty, to be so intimate in rejecting him, but Tim embraces it. Let it hurt more. He deserves that.

The comment about the nobility of suffering gets a sardonic smile from Tim, but he doesn't interrupt her. He lashes himself for his weakness with her words, wanting to be the only one that hurts. It's better this way, he reminds himself again. But she offers to /not be herself/, if that will make it easier for him, to pull back, and he knows that it would crush him if she did. If she pulled away, still a friend but more distant, without her touches and her teasing, without her closeness…

It would be like getting rejected all over again. More fundamentally, more absolutely than the first. It would hurt, brutally, savagely. He might never recover.

He almost asks her to do it.

Almost, looking into her ice-blue eyes as she tilts her chin so defiantly, he tells her to pull back. To leave him alone. To get out. Maybe that would be the smart thing to do, the better thing to do. It would be for her, definitely.

"No," Tim says, quietly, weak when it matters most. "No," more firmly. "You're not going to drive me away. Not unless you tell me to get lost."

—-

Conflict simmers over her expression as Zatanna watches his face, and everything about her at the present moment reflects it. Tim would be a more difficult read, if she has not been placed in this same position before, but at this realization - that he was doing what she would have done, says what she would have done - she is fully aware of what he could be experiencing, even if he replies in so few words. Empathy in this instance was a double-edged blade, it would have certainly been easier if she was clueless about heartbreak, if she hadn't spent two years chasing after someone who she thought she could never have, or even didn't take her seriously when she was so upfront about her confessions, and carrying the torch forward even after not just one but two devastating breaks from that person. She knows. In this situation, at least, it would be tremendously difficult to hide from her.

She doesn't argue the point. She takes a slow, deep breath, and exhales it just as gradually. "Okay," she tells him, the word leaving her almost inaudibly. "Just so you know, I never will. Tell you to get lost, I mean."

There was some solace to be had, at least, in that while Tim's infatuation was real, it wasn't anything dangerously deep. That he wasn't so far gone that it would put everything about them in considerable, mortal peril. She thinks. She hopes. Oh, god, she hopes. It took what seemed like forever to finally get to know him in a significant way, having spent the first few weeks in Gotham just hovering above the surface, wondering whether he actually liked hanging around her or whether the sentiment was one sided. To lose it all now would be…

She didn't know, but she knows herself enough to realize that it wouldn't do to lose the only other person who has been honest with her when it well and truly matters, at the expense of himself. To a young woman who has tasted almost nothing but betrayal and heartbreak in the last month, almost ever since she arrived back to the United States, that was a precious commodity she can't bear to let go.

Ice-blue eyes fall on their hands. Slowly, she turns them until the kitchen lights above their heads catch his inner wrist. Lifting it, her other hand closes over his own and she gives him a small smile.

"The ward gave me an idea, actually," she says, the tone of her contralto shifting to a lighter tone. "Like I said, I'm aware that the other life you lead is ridiculously dangerous, but it would be impossible for me to just come running when you need me. I've got plenty, but being able to just know you're in trouble is just slightly out of my realm of expertise, since I'm not psychic and my skills in divination aren't really all that great right now. But I can give you something as a last resort. An escape, and a direct line to me." She falls quiet for a moment, giving him a /look/ from underneath her lashes. "Because knowing you, you probably wouldn't call me unless you were actually /dying/."

There's a challenging bent there, more around the eyes than anything, as if daring him to tell her that she was wrong in her assessment there.

"Between the two of us, you're the one who doesn't leave much to chance, yeah?" she points out quietly. "Let me do this for you. It'd…be permanent, though. And it'll hurt a little. The inner wrist is best but I can put it wherever you think is most convenient, the back of your shoulder or on the back of your hand, or…it'll leave a mark when I'm putting it on you, but it'll disappear when it's done." No distinguishing characteristics - she is very new at this entire secret identity business, but she is more than clever enough to be able to make intuitive leaps.

—-

'At the expense of himself,' might as well be Tim Drake's personal motto.

Perhaps that's the real lesson he learned best from the Batman, rather than anything about investigation or detective work, or anything about fighting: To give everything he has for the sake of others, leaving nothing for himself. His time, his health, his sanity, his future, all offered up on an altar to save other lives. To try and create some semblance of peace and order for others when he will never know anything but war and chaos. To let other people be happy, when in many ways he never will.

He's resigned to that, though, or so he keeps trying to tell himself. Besides, he knows full well that the odds are against him having to suffer too long. Batman has certainly beaten the odds when it comes to surviving so long doing the Work, but that doesn't mean his proteges will. Tim Drake is a mortal man, after all, with no powers or anything of the short, and he keeps putting himself in these situations. Planting himself between a Prince of Hell and the young woman whose soul he craves, and refusing to get out of the way, for example.

He'll be lucky if he survives to graduate from university, much less to reach the 'pushing thirty' age group that the girls around him all seem to prefer. A mysterious death, a cold grave, maybe his costume on display in the Batcave, a memorial to all he'd done and another way for the Bat to remind himself of the lives Gotham had claimed.

The world would still turn. The War would go on.

"Well… Then you're stuck with me," is Tim's response to Zatanna's insistence that she would never tell him to get lost. He doesn't understand why she wouldn't, why his feelings aren't a nuisance to her. Isn't this the sort of thing that's supposed to ruin friendships? Isn't it the sort of thing that women are supposed to hate, the boy she only thinks of as a friend mooning hopelessly over her while she has someone else?

He feels like an idiot for it, himself. Like a stupid, selfish child, though he's pretty sure he knew better when he was fifteen years old and running around in a yellow cape.

But Tim could no more pull himself away from Zatanna, no more push her out of his life than he could give up oxygen… And it was ridiculous. He'd known her since November - barely two months, and most of those he'd spent holding himself back from her, lying to her - and yet he knew that however long the rest of his life was, Zatanna Zatara would be a fixture of it.

She turns their arms, looking down at his inner wrist, bared by his t-shirt's short sleeves. There's a long scar there, faded by years and careful treatment, from the base of his thumb down to the crook of his elbow. It would be easy to miss, just a fine white line against his complexion, and there were others too, smaller, faded, just as old. Those ice blue eyes would know to look, though; they were the eyes of someone who saw what other people didn't, after all.

Yet she gives him a smile as she lifts his hand, as she tries to inject some lightness as she talks about the 'idea' Constantine's ward had given her. Most of what she says is well outside of Tim's area of expertise, or even familiarity, and it borders on just being some gibberish about an 'escape.' A 'direct line to her.'

He frowns, when she alleges that he wouldn't call her unless he was actually dying, when it came to 'work emergencies'. He opens his mouth, apparently about to try and say something in his defense, to indeed dare to call her wrong in that assessment, but he thinks better of it, shutting his mouth with a quiet, disgruntled sigh instead.

It will leave a mark, she says, but one that will disappear when she finishes. Finishes /what/, he can't begin to imagine. Some sort of spell that will let her track him? That seems like a potential security risk to him, although he's already let her inside of his hideout, hasn't he? The only thing still secure from her would be the Batcave, and even that wouldn't be if she really put her mind to getting in.

"If that's what's best, then do it," Tim says, shrugging his shoulder a little to indicate the arm Zatanna is currently holding. No room for half measures.

—-

There is some part of her that wonders whether /her/ feelings are a nuisance to everyone else around her, being the human conduit she is for more volatile emotions, and half the people that comprise her inner circle are those who would rather not acknowledge them. Should Tim ask her flat out, however, she would probably give him a straight answer. When has she ever not, when someone extends his hand and heart to her so willingly?

Ice-blue eyes catch the scars - the white line and the multitude of smaller ones that have been carved into his flesh. When he answers at last, Zatanna looks up at him with a glance that's half-concerned and half-exasperated. "Do you always go for the most dangerous route?" she wonders. Then again, considering who she was talking to and who had raised him, transformed him to become this way, she really isn't all that surprised. Fingertips brush lightly over the scar and she can't help but frown at it - having had some experience carving into someone, though for magical work and not for intentions bordering on homicidal, it had been a very deep wound, and while clearly tended to carefully, it speaks of something that it still remains despite all the treatment available to the likes of a Drake, or a Wayne.

She slowly lets go of his hand, moving over so she could go to the kitchen and rummage around for a fork. Drawing her fingers over it, she hesitates before a whispered word leaves her lips and it changes in her grasp. Transfiguration is a simple task, for the likes of her, and ever since her foray into the aether to seek out the massive darkness HYDRA is keeping somewhere in Ozone Park, she has not attempted to do anything bigger than small feats or tricks - quiet, subtle signs that what had happened to her and what she discovered about herself was one that she found more than just a little bit alarming.

When she turns to look at him, the fork has been transformed to an obsidian blade - one of the sharpest substances on earth. Ancient Aztecs used similar ones for human sacrifices, its connection to arcane work is undeniable, as opposed to more modern instruments such as scalpels. This, she washes with hot water, and scrubs with the anti-bacterial soap she finds by the sink before wiping it dry. She retrieves a towel as well.

She gestures for Tim to take a seat back at the counter, moving to take her place next to him, setting the towel down over the surface. At his chosen arm - the left, she reaches out to take his limb gently, her own fingers curling into his to brace it on the cold granite to brace it, thumb twined around his while the rest of it cups his knuckles. Bringing the point of the blade up, she lifts her eyes to meet his darker blues.

"If there's no way out, if you've been heavily injured, you just need to wipe some of your own blood over it like this…" She passes her thumb across the life-giving veins pulsing underneath his skin. "It'll take you directly within line of sight of me. I'd have to carve the instructions carefully so it takes you someplace safe in the event I'm out in the open. Think of it like a program, yeah? Except out of magic instead of ones and zeroes. It's going to be like an invisible tattoo…it's permanent. All spells like this usually are, until the caster dies."

Her other set of fingers move to drape lightly on his inner wrist, guidelines to the work she is prepared to do slowly etching into his skin. It tingles when it happens, but the sensation is neither sharp or too unpleasant. Glancing down at his chosen method, his chosen place, she can't help but smile ruefully. "You must really trust me."

The observation is a quiet one. She lifts her head to look at him. "I'm not taking that for granted," she tells him. "It must've been hard to tell Bruce that you told me, since you've kept this a secret for so long. I don't want you to ever regret it, putting your trust in me. Your faith in me. I hope so, anyway."

The point of the blade turns down to the center of his inner wrist. "I'll try not to make it hurt too much," she says quietly, her stare falling on his forearm.

Though whether she is referring to this process or everything else, it is difficult to say.

—-

'Do you always go for the most dangerous route?'

"Only when it's the best option," Tim replies, without hesitation, his dark blue eyes fixed on Zatanna's face. The feeling of her fingertips along his forearm is… Pleasant, but he tries to shut it out; the rarity, these days, of someone putting their hands on him for a reason that doesn't involve grievous bodily harm… The softness, the elegance of her long pale fingers tracing along the white line of where his forearm had once been laid open, despite his armor… The psychosomatic tingle of being touched by someone for whom your feelings are more than merely friendly, like electricity in your veins, followed by a jolt of adrenaline, a release of dopamine and serotonin.

That he knows what's happening doesn't change its effects, human biology generally being rather indifferent to what the curious accident of consciousness thinks. He feels good.

He feels weak, and ashamed.

Tim watches Zatanna go as she moves into the kitchen again, as she uses that little bit of magic to transmute one of his forks into something else entirely, as she washes the newly-created obsidian blade with hot water and soap, to render it as sterile as she can for what she's about to do.

And then he's sitting at the counter again, and she's beside him, his left arm laid on the countertop over a towel. A gentle firmness in the way she holds his arm down, the way she braces him, but he makes himself look her in the eyes when she turns her gaze to his. He doesn't flinch, any more than she does. He listens as she explains, as she tries to put what she's doing in a frame of reference that he'll understand, what she will be carving into his skin.

When she touches him again like that, this time to make the guidelines for what she's about to do to his flesh, the tingle isn't one he imagines, its character rather different as well. But he doesn't move, doesn't stir. The stillness in how he holds his arm is very nearly unnatural, as he forces his heartbeat to slow when it wants to speed up being so close to Zatanna, the scent and warmth of her filling his keen perceptions. No twitch of muscles and tendons, just control over his own body.

Permanent, until the caster dies, she said.

Then he'll make sure that it /is/ permanent.

"Of course I trust you," Tim says, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, something as natural as breathing and blinking. But she's right that it wasn't easy to tell Bruce that he'd told her - if events hadn't conspired to ensure that his and the Batman's paths didn't cross, he might never have had to tell his foster father that at all. She would've known the truth about Tim Drake well before she'd come so close to dying.

Maybe she would've looked at you differently then, a small voice inside of him suggests.

He'd like to think that didn't have anything to do with his plan to get Bruce to admit the truth after what he'd done in response to Zatanna's near-discovery of the Batcave. He'd like to think that, but he isn't so sure it's the truth.

"I won't regret it," Tim assures her. "It was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do."

Or was it?

He doesn't look at the knife, as it comes down towards his skin. He looks only at Zatanna, letting the rest of the world fall away, to shrink until there's nothing else. This will hurt, he knows. The pain is good, though. The pain is something he deserves.

'I'll try not to make it hurt too much.'

Her voice so soft and quiet, her eyes fixing on where she's about to work.

"I'm used to pain, Zee."

—-

"I know," Zatanna says quietly, when he tells her that he is accustomed to pain. Those closest to her are, scars etched indelibly on their bodies and their minds, their souls. "That doesn't mean that it doesn't make me sad to hear that from you, though."

The point of the blade depresses lightly into his skin, and she gets to work.

Her knifework has always been a thing of beauty. She was naturally artistic, creative. Fingers well-practiced in the arts of prestidigitation turn themselves to a different purpose now as she sinks the sharp edge deep enough to make it last - superficial cuts won't do - to sear into active nerves under layers of skin, forcing blood to well in crimson ribbons over his skin. She works carefully, her obsidian instrument poised precariously between his life and death, working through the intricate swirls and lines that make up her design. It is her work - in the vastness of the realm of the arcane, there is nothing else like it, wrought from her own prodigious cleverness for her Art. She is not above invention - what Tim and Peter Parker do with gears, calculations, chemicals and technology, she does with magic.

Blue-white threads of power spool from around the blade once enough blood has been shed, the towel underneath his forearm collecting the spent rills in an effort to keep the mess at a minimum. She does not take a break. She does not pause. Her eyes remain open, enough to focus on what she is doing, but her lips move near-silently - backwards speech, reminiscent of something ancient that found its roots somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, deep in the dark heart of Africa where all civilization was said to have sprung. From a time when the first race has split into two, one that would eventually birth the race of humans and the other…

…her mother's people. A recent discovery, and one that she has not had a chance to tell her best friend about yet. Wonders if she should. He already knew she was unusual, but she wonders whether his promises to stay would last if he knew that her destiny would eventually lead her to the mountains of Turkey and whatever Fate has in store for her there. A dangerous pilgrimage that she has every intention of doing alone for fear as to what it might do to others if she does not.

The scent of ozone, of electricity, the coppery tang of blood, fills her nostrils as she works, as she sears her brand on Timothy Drake, in hopes to one day prevent him from dying before his thirtieth birthday.

She works in silence because she has to - any additional distractions would be disastrous, and she may very well kill him. But once the blade comes in full circle, after the last flicking flourishes are made, she withdraws the blade and staunches his wound with gentle care. She folds the towel gently over his forearm, applies a light pressure over it. It hurts the way it would, he did just get carved into after all, but the glow remains through the mesh of hot, ruby life and it seeps through the cloth.

The young magician whispers a quiet word to lock it in place, to finish it. It is no ward of protection, not like what John had given him. But she has given him a way to save his own life in his darkest of hours.

The pain fades, eventually, to a dull throb - practically nonexistent for the likes of him. It will be sore for the next few days. Slowly, she unwraps his arm, looking up at him finally so she could watch him inspect her handiwork.

The mark is gone. There is no sign that she has done anything to his inner wrist, save for the indicative soreness flushed through his tan.

"How do you feel?" she asks, touching the affected area lightly with just two of her fingertips. "It'll be a little sore for about a day, but tomorrow it'll feel like I didn't put a knife to you at all. Promise me that you'll use it, alright? I don't care how early or late it is, I'll put you back together."

—-

Tim is no more inclined to disturb her than Zatanna is to disrupt her own work.

He knows anatomy, he knows the dangers of knife work where Zatanna is currently carving into him with a blade of obsidian. The veins there are vital and vulnerable, and a wrong cut could send him to the hospital (if he's lucky) with all sorts of questions asked about why one of Bruce Wayne's sons is cutting himself. Or she could cut a tendon, damage key nerves, leaving him with reduced or nonexistent facility with that hand, crippling him, forcing him into retirement.

Tim doesn't watch what Zatanna does. He doesn't look at the knife, at the way his skin parts for the extreme sharpness of the obsidian edge, or the way his blood wells up like crimson ink to fill in the arcane marks that she makes on his body, marking him forever. Instead, he watches her face, watches the way she concentrates, how her ice-blue eyes move as she works. He absorbs the sight of her, drowns himself in it, even as he hates himself for doing so. How her lips form those nearly-silent words, each one of them alien to him and rendered all the moreso by the way she speaks backwards, foiling his expertise at lip-reading.

The harsher smells of what she's doing overwhelm the scents that Tim Drake has come to identify as distinctly 'her,' his own blood mingling with the curiously ozone-like stink of lightning.

At no point, not for a moment, does Tim flinch. He does not make a sound, remaining still, remaining silent. As though Zatanna were practicing on a simulacrum rather than a living person.

The pain is good, he tells himself, as the injury stings and throbs, as Zatanna applies gentle but firm pressure with the towel, staunching the flow blood trickling down his arm. He deserves it, for not being more in control of himself. He doesn't try to ignore it, to wall it off and isolate it the way he would otherwise. He embraces it instead, tries to let the physical pain shake him out of everything else.

It doesn't work.

It's only after Zatanna completes the spell, after she pulls the towel away from his forearm that Tim looks to see what she's done to him, and what he sees is… Nothing. No sign that she'd laid his flesh open with a knife, much less in some arcane pattern.

'How do you feel?' she asks him, her fingertips gentle against the skin where her mark hides. He works his fingers, flexing them, moving them quickly to make sure there's no loss of deftness or response. His body is, as far as he can tell, perfectly fine.

"I've had worse," Tim answers her question, looking at his forearm with frank curiousity. Squinting at it, even. It's likely that Constantine's 'pinch' won't be the only thing that Tim examines carefully in his lab later, in this case to ascertain that there's no mundane way to reveal the markings.

For the rest, though…

"I promise, Zee," Tim says, after letting out his breath in a brief sigh. "Though you'll understand that I'm going to try to make sure I never need to use it."

—-

She gently releases his forearm, letting him lift it should he like, but this does give her room to fold the bloody towel and release the spell on the obsidian blade. It returns to its original shape as an innocuous silver fork. "I'll throw this in your washing machine later," she tells him, nodding to the splotches of blood staining white. With the mark gone from his forearm, only to be rendered visible when activated, the only signs that something has happened to his body are there.

Zatanna braces her elbow on the counter, her other arm draped on a thigh. His words in the end has her smiling at him brilliantly, her head inclined by virtue of the way her chin settles on the cup of her palm. "Please do," she tells him. "And I wouldn't expect anything less. If you can do all what you did down at your home gym with just a few hours of sleep, I can't wait to see what you can do when you're fully rested and whole. Plus…I don't even know how long you've been doing all of this." And if she were being utterly honest, she's afraid to ask. "I started when I was around six or seven and I still make a terrible amount of mistakes. I'm sure there are professional military contractors out there who can't pull off half the stuff you do."

Again she can't help but wonder about the training regimen Tim had been put through in order to become part of Batman's war.

She lets the silence linger, and when she speaks again, she carefully shifts the conversation to another direction - something a little more time-sensitive, after having reminded herself handily of his capabilities.

"When I was under…" Lashes fall over her eyes, her memories tumbling over the brutal, physical agony she has experienced in the hospital, sweat breaking out of her skin as she twisted, and writhed and screamed in what felt like an eternity. "I wasn't alone. Someone was out there…in the aether, pulling the rest of me along. I had to chase after myself. It took everything I had left to just catch up to it, but someone else had a grip on the rest of me. Someone with just as much willpower. Someone older. I don't know who it was….it could have been the man in the Tarnhelm, the one who took my soul in the first place."

She lapses into silence, before continuing:

"Before I was able to wrench myself free…" And proceed to try and fight the loss of her control as everything else came flooding inside of her like a mystical geyser. "…I felt it force my soul to make a connection. To something that /shouldn't/ be connected to this reality. The only reason why I felt it was because I was that close to the rest of me. I wrenched myself away after that, but that's what happened. Whatever it is…what I have was used to…I don't know. Either to fuel it or amplify it." Her eyes shift to rest on Tim's own. "Whatever it's become, this monster HYDRA created, it's here now. It's in New York."

In Ozone Park. Queens. Peter Parker's neighborhood. The idea of whatever this dangerous thing is lying so close to where another friend rests his head braids visible tension over her slender shoulders.

"It's in Spidey's neighborhood," she tells him quietly. "I haven't told him yet. I'm going to. But that's where I'm going this weekend, with everyone else I can scrounge up. Emotionally compromised or not, I'm not going to turn you away. I meant what I said earlier, Tim. About you solving and finishing things."

—-

She smiles.

It shoves away everything else, the pain and the fear and the self-recrimination. The guilt, the exhaustion, the uncertainty. Nothing else matters in that moment except for her smile.

Tim returns it with one of his own, though not nearly so brilliant. There's a certain self-deprecation in his expression, because of course he knows, and she knows, and they both know that the other knows that he isn't about to stop doing those incredibly dangerous things that he does, and that sooner or later he will end up in a situation where Zatanna's brand on his wrist would be the only lifeline he has left. He can already think of a dozen situations in the past several years where he would've used it, where it would've saved him further hurt, further suffering.

'I don't even know how long you've been doing all of this.'

Tim doesn't tell her. Not yet, anyway; he knew that she'd started young, younger than he had, when she was presumably first introduced to the mysteries of magic that lurked in her blood. From everything he's heard about Giovanni Zatara, it's not surprising to hear that his daughter would've been a prodigy… Though Tim also imagines that Giovanni would've tried to keep his daughter out of it as long as he could.

Of course, Tim has no way of knowing which side of Zatanna's family her power truly comes from.

Tim doesn't break the silence that follows, though his expression settles into a pensive frown at the idea of how young Zatanna had first begun training in the mystic arts, and his frown only deepens as she tells him more of what had happened when they were in that hospital, when she wrenched around in torment until it seemed like she might break her own back at any moment. All he remembers, of course, is what he could see from the outside, with the mundane senses available to a very mortal man… But even then, he'd been able to feel the storm of magic that raged around and through Zatanna, that threatened to tear him apart as he moved closer to her, tried to restrain her, to hold onto her with something physical at what might've been the very end. Tried to encourage her to hold on, because it was all he could do.

He had no powers, no mystical might to help her.

But rather than wallowing - that can come later - he listens, attentively, trying to grasp and make sense of what happened even as she relays her experience to him. The only change in his expression comes when she mentions the man in the Tarnhelm, the man who took her soul.

His eyes go cold, then. Not emotionless; furious.

In a moment, it's gone.

"So… What, the 'utopia' thing wasn't the plan? Those machines were just built as part of something else?" He wished he could've gotten more information about that off of the HYDRA computer, before it destroyed itself. Something more. Something useful. But now there's some /thing/ that was unleashed using Zatanna's very life force, in New York City.

In Spider-Man's territory.

"Even if you'd actually taken me up on what I said," Tim admits, with a certain ruefulness, "I would've just followed you there secretly anyway. So, yeah, I'll be there. It beats sitting at home waiting to hear what happened."

—-

There was a time in her life when Zatanna Zatara had thought much like Tim did - that magic wasn't real, that it was all smoke and mirrors, technical machinery and know-how lent to the purpose of delighting and deceiving audiences. Her father had known that she would be exposed to his secrets, eventually, but being an instrument of Fate, a man who had come to existence after centuries of greater forces manipulating history and human relationships to produce him, he saw it fit to let it guide his daughter into making the discovery herself, and it happened when she was young, following the strains of music down her father's study to watch his antique phonograph change its records by itself.

It would be hard to believe, certainly, that the Great Zatara had simply let his daughter discover it for herself before taking the steps to ensure her survival in a world fraught with danger and wonder, but as cold and impenetrable as he is to everyone else, he had given her what any good parent would have given their child: a choice. To pursue the mysteries she had stumbled into, or let them go. And the young woman sitting next to Timothy Jackson Drake has clearly chosen the former. She can't deny the magic in her, the thing that keeps her restless, fidgety, and unable to sit properly for long periods of time, than she can the necessity to breathe.

Tim can be expressive when he wants - she watches cold fury lace the blue of his eyes and part of her dreads what it means. Red Robin in the field was dangerous, capable and canny, but for all that she has been silently brought into his world of high-stakes vigilantism, she knows there are rules. She knows that for all the violence he is capable of, Tim Drake has not taken a life.

She has to hope that he won't start now.

Mention of HYDRA's utopia has her smile fading. There's a hard glance on the granite countertop, her lips pressing into a grim line, reminded that the machines have been so powered by her soul that they were triggered just by her walking near them. "I think the utopia thing is definitely the plan," she says. "But I find it hard to believe that they'll manage to tailor-fit a perfect world for everyone in New York City or beyond. What I felt under the cloak was massive and what I'm honestly afraid of is that HYDRA might do something like impress /their/ idea of a utopia on millions of people. And I don't know about you but I don't exactly want to see what happens when we end up living in a peaceful world run by an organization that split off on its own when it decided that /Hitler/ wasn't doing enough."

Cold apprehension worms down her backbone at the thought of it. Closing her eyes, she lifts her hand to rub the bridge of her nose.

"And even if I was enamored of the idea of living in a world where everyone was happy, I can't just let things lie after what they did," she tells Tim quietly. "Not just for trying to tear my soul away from me, but for what they did to their own people. What they're doing or will do to Jane….and even if Bucky was used to take me in, I want to save him, too. After what they did to him, I can't…I won't accept that he's so far gone that he can't return to what I saw from him before. Maybe I'm being naive, but I know something of second chances lately. I can never begrudge anyone of one."

With a great capacity for anger comes an equivalent one for forgiveness. It was inevitable, for one with such a reckless, open, vulnerable heart. Betrayed how many times over, heartbroken how many times over, and yet it doesn't appear to have been diminished. Familiar with tragedy, but never ever ruled by it.

With a sigh, she turns her head to look at him. The smile returns, however faintly.

"We can talk about it more after you get some sleep," she says, slipping down from the stool and reaching for the bag she brought, as there's another item there that she intends to place in his house. "Where's your bedroom?"

—-

There are rules, yes.

Rules are what separate them from the chaos and the violence, from just being more of the maniacs who've plagued Gotham City at one time or another. Rules are what grant them some veneer of… Not legitimacy, but tolerability, ensuring that while they work outside of the law, their vigilantism is met with a surprisingly mild police response.

Of course, they don't all follow those rules. The Red Hood's methodology is much more /direct/ than that of the others who were trained by Batman, especially given his willingness to use guns and lethal force. But without a doubt, all of them have been tempted to cross the line before. All of them have witnessed something so terrible, encountered someone so vile, that a permanent solution must have seemed like the only way to go.

But that isn't quite what Tim is dealing with now: He is not facing the harrowing possibility that he might need to take a life, that there may be no real alternative, but wrestling with the /desire/ to kill. He felt it before, when his father was murdered, but Jack Drake took his killer with him into the void.

It adds another facet to the conflict inside of him, these days. To the emotional and psychological complications he's dealing with, all of which it seems could be tied back to the arrival of Zatanna Zatara into his life.

Like a grenade lobbed into the middle of his existence, just as he'd gotten comfortable with things. Everything had been upended, disrupted.

Of course, he didn't blame her. He blamed himself, too weak to prevent himself from developing feelings for her.

That the machine was designed to rewrite reality on a grand scale is troubling, but Tim knows it makes sense, fits the facts - such as they are. It was harnessing Zatanna's power, and what is magic other than a force that changes reality according to the will of the user? It had been his initial theory as well, given what had happened and the mad ramblings of the technician Tasha… But he hadn't known that some Lovecraftian Thing That Must Not Be had come along for the ride, too.

Naturally, when he heard that, he had to wonder if maybe /that/ wasn't the real point of it all.

"No, you're right," Tim tells Zatanna. "It's all of one piece anyway… Their 'utopia', what they've done to people. It's all taking away free will. That's the only way you could make /everyone/ 'happy'… There are always going to be situations where what makes one person happy will leave another one hurt or sad. That's life."

And possibly a little too real, at the moment.

Tim is still watching Zatanna when she turns to look at him, when she flashes him a faint smile, rather than the brilliant thing from before. But it's still a smile, still something pleasing to see. Objectively, he knows that Barnes is a victim of HYDRA, but he also knows that if he had to make the call between saving him or saving Zatanna, he wouldn't even hesitate.

It's difficult to look past what someone else has done, even knowing that theirs wasn't the will behind the act. And Tim is, after all, emotionally compromised.

He has the gall to look put-upon when Zatanna brings up his needing sleep, but of course she isn't the only one to try to make sure he got the rest he's been denying himself lately… And he knows that she could make him do it. Alfred could best him with grandfatherly concern, Stephanie could judo-flip him onto his bed and glare at him to suggest she might break his legs if he didn't at least try to rest, but Zatanna could just… Make him. Speak the words, and he'd do it.

Any defense he might have to offer against his need to sleep, any insistence that he was fine and that he got three whole hours of sleep the night before, vanishes into nonsensical sputtering when she asks him where his bedroom is.

It's upstairs, of course.

There's more than one bedroom, though the others have clearly never been occupied: Furnished, they still feel 'empty', in that intangible way a room without an inhabitant does. The master bedroom is decorated somwhat somberly, in greys and blues, large windows that open out onto the small balcony over the street currently covered by blackout curtains. It has all the things one would expect from a bedroom: A ridiculously large bed, night tables with lamps and clocks and all those sorts of things, a closet, drawers… And there's a shelving unit set into the wall by the bed, recessed, with books. Books, and pictures in frames.

Pictures of people.

A man and a woman with dark hair; Zatanna would see something of Tim's features in both of of them. Another picture of the man, with a different woman… He looks older, greyer, while she has a vital, athletic look to her. Other faces she would recognise, of Bruce and his sons, of Alfred. A girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, who looks like a cheerleader. A young man around Tim's age, with similar colouring, who looks like a Greek god's workout motivation poster and grins like an innocent child. Memories, connections. Reminders that he isn't alone.

Muttering under his breath, Tim crawls onto the bed - it's low to the ground, rather than set on a higher frame - making it up to the pillows before rolling onto his back, rubbing his hands over his face.

"Welcome to where the magic doesn't happen," he jokes.

—-

"Well, we'll deal with that on Saturday," she remarks. "We'll just have to do the best we can once we get there."

She ignores his sputtering, because of course she does, pretends she doesn't even /hear/ it, pivoting around so she could clamber up the staircase towards the apartment's (more like a townhouse) second level, Zatanna toting the bag with her and letting Tim identify which room is his. What she sees surprises her, those ice-blue mirrors canvassing Tim's private space. There's a slight incline of her head over the blue-and-gray color scheme, the blackout curtains, the various clocks and the large bed - too big to be a standard king, suggesting some customization work, but one that inevitably goes to waste considering how little sleep Red Robin actually gets in his days. The tendency can't help but remind her of Peter Parker also, who always looks exhausted every time she sees him, in her frequent trips to New York.

This sort of visit might be something she would have to do for him as well. She can't help but privately wonder just how she managed to get here, in the company of masked, crimefighting vigilantes. Her entire life has been spent, thus far, shifting between the mundane world and the mystical places that unerringly called to her nature, but never did she expect that she would establish close relationships with the Others in the world - those capable of great feats without the aid of any magic. She had always thought, in the end, that never the twain shall meet, as far as she was concerned. Fate has decided otherwise, it seems.

She watches him as he moves past, as he crawls into the bed and rolls on his back. There's a faint smile, somewhere between exasperation and fondness, before she stops at the bookshelf and the pictures within.

"The colors are a good choice," she tells him. "Blue and gray are great for sleeping, if you'd only take them up on it. I honestly didn't know what I was expecting. More Victoria's Secret angels and cool cars on the walls, maybe." It's obviously a jest; it took one lunch with Tim Drake to enable her to determine that he wasn't prone to the typical pitfalls fame and fortune generally brought to young, handsome men with connections to spare.

His last quip does earn him a peal of light laughter, a silver streak of sound in the dimly-lit space. She angles her head over to flash him a look from where she stands. "/Now/ you're just trying to make me feel bad," she tells him, reaching out to pick up one of his framed pictures off the shelf to take a better look. Bruce and Alfred.

"Besides, you're wrong in that," she continues. "There's more magic in simple, every day life than you think. The first things Daddy ever taught me is that memory…" She gestures with the photo she has in her hand. "…is magic. So are dreams. And yeah, sex, too." She thinks about telling Tim about Tantra, but considering the content of their earlier conversation, she decides against it. "So really there's plenty of magic in a person's bedroom. Where you lay your head. More often than not, the last thing you remember, the last thing you think about in the day, occurs right here, and those leave some very strong impressions. It just takes a certain type of person to draw from all of that."

Contemplation wreathes gently over her pale mien, though she doesn't hold it for long, setting it aside to take a look at the faces of the others in Tim's life. She recognizes Dick Grayson, but the rest are a mystery.

"I didn't know you hung out with Abercrombie models," she tells him, referring to the blonde and the young Adonis with the blue eyes and the snug, black t-shirt. There's an appreciative look at the last, but of course there would. Committed, not dead. "Who are they?"

Slowly, she leaves the shelves, closing the door. Her slender form folds into the edge of his bed, closest to where he has dropped himself. Her hands reach into the bag until she pulls out the last of the items she has brought for him. The item comprises of two circles, one larger one with a smaller one dangling from it - hoops wrought out of aged, supple willow, woven in loose, web-like patterns over the center. Dyed black and accented with dark crimson feathers and beads, the young woman has managed to somehow find one of these items in his colors, but he would recognize it for what it is. Dreamcatchers were commonly sold in tourist trap souvenir stores all over the United States, after all, and while what she holds in her hands is familiar enough, Tim would get a sense, just by looking at it, that this is different. It is nothing overt, nothing tangible - perhaps it is simply its nature, or the fact that an actual magician is holding it in her grasp.

"This isn't the same crap you'd find in a mall," she tells him, as if anticipating his skepticism already. "This is an actual bawaajige nagwaagan, literally 'dream snare' in the language. Gerry Craft…" There's a look at Tim at that, an indicator that she knows Red Robin has been asking about her in the Third Eye. "…knows an Ojibwe shaman who lives in the midwest. He made this."

—-

"I've met Victoria's Secret models," Tim notes from where he's laying, watching Zatanna. He feels a curious sort of trepidation at having her in his room, not merely for the more obvious reason - although yeah, those too, definitely - but the vulnerability of it. This is his space, and there's nothing about it that's put on to control the image he shows to the rest of the world. Still, it's a bit late to be worrying about that now. "Mostly they talk about what they don't eat, then they go off with Dick someplace."

Lingerie models would of course be right up Dick Grayson's alley. Or vice versa.

The laughter from Zatanna elicited by his joke about the lack of action that's ever gone on in his bedroom does make Tim grin in turn, though her suggestion that he's just trying to make her feel bad gets a shrug from him rather than anything in the way of attempts at denial.

Of course, she makes him pay for it, talking about magic in a more literal sense, in the magic of the everyday, and then she goes and brings up sex, which draws a reddening flush out in Tim's cheeks and ears, the young man finding himself uncomfortably warm as he tries to not think of anything untoward.

He just hopes that she's distracted enough to not notice. He can just imagine the sort of conversation that might come out of that, which could result in something incredibly embarrassing like Zatanna finding out that he's still a virgin.

Of everything he doesn't need, he needs that least of all.

"The guy is Conner, he's an old friend of mine," Tim explains, leaving out words like 'space alien' or 'clone' or 'leaps tall buildings in a single bound'. "And, uh, that's Steph. Stephanie Brown," he adds, more cautiously, on the subject of the blonde. "She's… A long story." Though the way he says that, there's no doubt that Zatanna can guess what at least a few of the chapters of that story are. But he keeps the picture, nevertheless. A reminder of happier, simpler times.

Dark blue eyes watch Zatanna as she moves towards the door and shuts it - rather unnecessarily, since nobody is likely to get into his house without being invited, Tim having taken special care when it came to security - the sound of the door shutting seeming thunderously loud to him even though it's only a very quiet click. How she sits on the side of his bed, pulling something else out of her bag, though the fact that it turns out to be a tchotchke is a bit of a disappointment, nevermind that it fits the colours of the Red Robin.

Though as he thinks on it, it's clear that there's something more to it than just some cheap souvenir.

His skepticism is forestalled, and Tim's brows raise curiously as Zatanna talks about the dream snare, though that melts away into an expression of elaborate innocence when she brings up Gerry Craft, and shoots him that look; so innocent that any judge would convict him on the spot.

"Are you worried something is trying to get into my dreams?" Tim wonders, his brow furrowing slightly. "The only thing haunting me is the stuff already in here, Zee," he says, tapping his forehead with one hand. "And that's just stuff I have to live with. Besides… We avoided the thing I kept having nightmares about, anyway."

—-

"That's too bad, because eating is amazing," Zatanna replies, ever the hedonist when it comes to the simplest of life's pleasures. "I mean, I'm a vegetarian so it's not like I can eat everything I'm curious about, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy what I do put in my mouth." Though there's a curious glance at Tim there when he implies throughout his comments about his older brother, though she does roll her eyes upwards in an exasperated fashion. She /can/ see that about Dick, considering how effectively he turned heads when he was a guest lecturer in her Criminal Justice class. But the fact that Tim doesn't seem interested in any of them was somewhat of a curiosity. John would. Then again, John would almost anything.

She seems to have missed his flush of embarrassment - thankfully, for both their sakes, when she finally turns around and maneuvers her way to his bed. As she fiddles with the dreamcatcher, there's a curious glance when her friend starts detailing the other important people in his life. She's never actually seen Tim hang out with anyone else on campus aside from herself, though considering his obvious interest, that might have been deliberate - to keep her company to himself, as it were, as young men were often wont of doing. But there's a smile as she listens.

"I'd like to meet them both someday," she informs him. "Conner and Stephanie. Not a stranger to long stories though, but if you're still keeping her picture around, that says more than volumes, Tim. You're coping a lot better than I did a few months ago." But that isn't surprising either. Zatanna wasn't exactly reserved when she decides to feel something, and whatever heartbreak past relationships have given her in the past, she probably sunk into with all of the self-destruction it could allow without rendering her irreparable. "Are the two of you at least still friends?" She can, indeed, read between the lines. Not just because of her status as a walking emotional wrecking ball, she was also terribly, reprehensibly female.

When he calls him on her worry, her ice-blue eyes stare down at the carefully constructed web, willow spun in such a delicate pattern in the middle of the conjoined circles that she is afraid to touch them for very long. She toys with one of the dark crimson feathers instead, letting her fingertips roll over the beads attached, recalling similar ones that she has purchased and learned to construct, humid days in John's flat in London where she tried to hide a few behind the headboard. Days when she /knew/ about his violent night terrors but was reluctant to say anything because she also knew that any slightest misstep, any unwelcome trodding into the darkened theater of his psyche would send him shutting the door to her entirely.

They didn't help, because John Constantine's nightmares were so horrible that they would outright shatter the dream snares.

She knows exposure to magic effects those who live outside of that world differently. She isn't sure how it'll affect her best friend, whose image haunts her occasionally, grabbing onto her and holding fast while she was caught twisting and writhing in a devastating arcane maelstrom. If she had lost control completely, it would have been over. If she had let go of the reins in that precise moment, she would have torn him apart….and everything with him.

After everything they've been through in the last few weeks, how can she explain to him that there might be more? That every time she goes outside, the sense of something large and dangerous sets her mystical senses on fire. That white noise fills her mind at the darkest hours of night, and claws at her skin. That whatever it is, it isn't just happening in Gotham. It isn't just happening in New York. It was everywhere.

"…yes, and no," Zatanna tells him quietly. "Dream demons are a thing, for starters and these can filter out even what's always haunted you, and lessens their effects unless they're so…inhumanly severe that the dream snare breaks. I've seen it happen before, but only in very extreme cases." Like John's. "Asibikaashi's blessings are that powerful. That and I'd like you to be protected from what could be out there, especially when you're vulnerable. Especially if you're going to insist on being around me. I…" She lowers the dreamcatcher, shifting on her seat so she could face him lying on his bed. "I've been told by a friend of my father's once, that it's only when you lose everything worth keeping, when you start rotting from the inside because of all of your suffering, that you start to become a very powerful magician. I don't believe that. I never will. Anyway…hopefully this works. I mean all this isn't worth much of anything if you don't actually get deep, restful sleep, yeah?"

She leans up over him, to affix the dreamcatcher above his headboard.

—-

'But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy what I do put in my mouth.'

"Phrasing," Tim Drake says quietly.

Joking about it helps avoid thinking about it, and at the moment he hardly needs to let his imagination wander down any of those sorts of paths. Not that he seems the type to, of course, as Zatanna has astutely noted… His responses to her flirtations in the early days of their friendship had mostly been to endure them rather than to play along, to the point that she'd certainly never imagined he was interested in her at all. Part of him wonders if things might've turned out differently, if he'd behaved in a more receptive fashion early on; but really, he knows better. He'd lost before he even started.

Still, he doesn't understand why he gets an exasperated eyeroll at his apparent lack of interest in lingerie models.

It's not that they weren't physically attractive, they were just… Boring.

That Zatanna wants to meet his other friends doesn't surprise Tim too much, because it was true that most of the time they'd spent together on campus was just the two of them. It wasn't completely deliberate, not really, but he would be lying if he claimed that hadn't been a factor. He did have some other friendly acquaintances on campus, and…

"Oh… Um. Steph goes to school with us, actually," Tim explains. "And yeah, we're still… It's complicated, I dunno. Sometimes it's fine, sometimes it's not. She, uh, kindly finished copying the notes I was making for you from this week's lecture, actually, after suggesting that she'd put me in traction if I didn't lie down." There's a lot he doesn't say, of course, partially because, well… It's not his to tell, is it? He's already done enough damage by revealing his own secret identity to Zatanna, and dragging Bruce at the very least in through guilt by association. He doesn't need to compound the harm by outing Stephanie as another member of the capes and cowls squad.

Especially since he still doesn't approve.

She could do a lot better than running around as the Spoiler, getting herself into fights.

What Zatanna tells him about the dreamcatcher strikes Tim as patently ridiculous, but then again he did not very long ago let her carve open his wrist with a knife to permanently mark him with a magical spell. He's torn by two normally complimentary sides of his nature, one telling him to keep an open mind and to consider all the possibilities, and the other reminding him to focus on the real, the practical, the provable.

Of course, he knows magic is real. He's seen it, dealt with its consequences. A mortal man scurrying among gods, hoping to not get crushed like an ant at any moment.

"You shouldn't believe that," Tim says, on the subject of what that friend of her father's said to her, while she hangs the dreamcatcher above his headboard. "It's demonstrably false. Your dad is a big deal magician, right? And he's got something very much worth keeping, Zee. He's got you." Constantine would be another example, he supposes, but he doesn't really want to think about that.

—-

'Phrasing.'

"/Really/?" Zatanna exclaims, poking him on the shoulder and laughing. "Where the hell was this two months ago?" The eyeroll hadn't really been for Tim - largely it was for Dick, who, if she were ever asked, embodies his nickname in very appropriate ways.

She remains seated on his bedside, after she's hung up the dreamcatcher, a palm resting on the mattress and her head turned so she could look at him along her shoulder. The fact that Stephanie Brown is a Gotham University student as well does not surprise her; for all she knows that was how she and Tim met, though she can't help but wonder what had driven them apart. Was it the secret again, or other more human factors? She doesn't pry, however - she is just starting to learn that her best friend keeps as many secrets as everyone else around her, after all, and she isn't in his life for the purposes of discovering all of them.

"You know," she begins instead, quirking a brow at him. "This would be around the time where I /should/ be ribbing you about not really being over your ex while confessing you like me." There's fond exasperation there, but good humor also. "But I know sometimes it's not that simple…it never really is, when it's this kind of thing. Emotions, right? They don't really follow any logical patterns. And the heart is capable of feeling for many. That's why human relationships are so goddamn messy."

His reassurances at the last, the kind words he says about her father, has her smiling ruefully. "Well, maybe if he let me in once in a while, I'd be helping him now instead of floundering and trying to make my own way without him." Her statement is factual, there is no bitterness in her tone, rather the youthful resignation of a young woman who has accepted that for now, she is on her own. Admittedly, the knowledge was a heavier burden to shoulder a few months ago, but ever since returning to Gotham, she has learned to adapt to it, and even embrace her newfound independence. Though it doesn't feel as if she's changed all too much, were she asked, she'd claim she was still mostly the same Zatanna as before she returned.

With a few more scars now, but as John told her in the aftermath of everything - pain is incidental to life.

"I don't," she reassures Tim. "But I shouldn't be surprised to hear that coming from him. That nugget of ill advice came from Uncle Sargon." She pauses. "…one of the founding members of the Cult of the Cold Flame."

She lets that hang in the air for a moment, before she shifts. Twisting at the torso, her hand moves over to gently push his hair away from his eyes.

"Anyway, try and get some sleep," she tells him. "I'll stay with you until you do and once you get your eight hours, I'll wake you up for work." She has reading to do anyway, and she can do that while he tuckers in and gets some much needed rest.

That, and she's not letting him get away with somehow waking himself up in two hours after she leaves. She's a smarter person than that.

—-

If Tim were to make a list of things he didn't ever want to do, one of them would definitely be to have a conversation about his ex-girlfriend with a woman he's romantically interested in.

It's not just embarrassing, but it also seems like bad form. Women don't want to hear about those sorts of things, right? He's sure he's heard that somewhere before. And yet, here he is.

"Ughhh," Tim groans when Zatanna accuses him of not being entirely over Stephanie while having admitted to liking the goth girl herself, but of course things are never simple. He doesn't bother trying to deny it, because he knows Zatanna would never believe him, no matter how much of a simple and factually true statement it was.

Of course, he's completely over Stephanie. That was ages ago.

"Sooner or later, we all have to make our own way without our parents," he says, quietly. Of course, for some it's more literal than others. Some lose their parents to violence or tragedy when they're quite young… Others later. But he knows what it's like to have a parent who doesn't really let you in, to be left stumbling blindly in a world you barely understand. Even so, he had to forge his own path, at least somewhat separate from his foster father's. Deep down, he knows that no matter how much he respects Bruce, he doesn't want to /become/ him.

She mentions the Cult of the Cold Flame, and her 'Uncle Sargon', and that of course connects to other information that Tim has already gotten… Information that Zatanna quite likely knows that he knows, depending on whether or not she'd been to see Gerry Craft, or if she'd seen the email he'd sent to Constantine. He remembers what he'd been told, in the Third Eye, and what he'd witnessed at the stronghold in Switzerland. But he doesn't say anything about it, instead laying there as Zatanna's hand, deft and elegant, reaches to push his dark hair out of his eyes. As she bids him to sleep, promising to stay with him.

Which, at least, saves him the embarrassment of asking her to stay.

"Okay," he says, rolling onto his side, curling one toned forearm under one of his pillows. His eyes slide shut slowly; under normal circumstances, he can put himself to sleep instantly. Lately, though, it's hardly been normal circumstances.

His other hand reaches for hers; blindly, but he can perceive without seeing, knowing where her hand is from memory, from a hundred hundred other clues.

"Talk to me while I do, please," Tim asks of her. "Just so I can hear your voice… Tell me something. You never talk about your mother, not even to mention her. If it's okay, tell me about her."

—-

"I know," Zatanna says quietly, in response to how children leave the nest eventually, her eyes falling on where her hand presses against the mattress. "It's just that…I wasn't in any hurry to do that. For the longest time, Daddy was all I had."

It was true then. Recent events have changed that outlook. Enough, at least, to let her father's wishes stand for the time being - to not go looking for him, though one has to wonder how long that will last, considering the state in which John had last seen him. Weary, exhausted. Whatever he was doing was taking its toll, and knowing the Great Zatara, he has once more invaded the breach by himself. Reflections from the last week, as she slowly faded away, has made her all the more resolute in her assertions that she wasn't ready to say goodbye to anyone. Now that she has reclaimed what she has lost, she is determined not to.

The bed creaks under Tim's weight. She watches his darker hand reach out to take her fingers, prompting her to look at him when he tilts sideways and starts to do what she asks. Certainly she could have always cast a spell to get him to sleep soundly and dreamlessly, that was within the realm of her abilities and a gentler seduction into the act, compared to the grandfatherly guilt Alfred Pennyworth is so deft at wielding, or the threat of bodily injury Stephanie Brown would exact on him if he didn't. But she doesn't - not just because she is still wary of using her powers, remembering what she has experienced and felt when she had been forced to look at the vastness of it, but also because she would never compel him that way. He trusted her. She wasn't about to squander it.

Her fingers tangle with his, her hand curling over his knuckles. Surprise flits over her expression, blindsided by the request. The quip is there, ready to launch - to tease him about taking one of his books from the shelf to read him a bedtime story. But considering the sudden seriousness of the way he says it, how quietly he phrases the request, she doesn't have the heart to treat it like a joke.

But her mother…

She folds her other arm over her knee, which she tucks on top of the other, crossing her legs and slanting them against the edge of the bed. She is quiet for a moment, but not because she is hesitant - she always makes this seem effortless after all, Zatanna. But rather because it takes her a moment to determine where to start.

"…I didn't know much about my mother until recently," she tells Tim. "I barely knew her, all I remember of her really is her scent - cinnamon and some kind of flower, and that she died in a very violent car accident when I was just five years old. Her name was Sindella. Daddy calls her Sindy. They got married in Europe several years ago, and I was born there. When she died, we moved to Gotham and I stayed here for a while."

Her raven-haired head tilts faintly upwards, enough to shift those stray, inky tresses down her back, left loose from the careless knot she favors.

"Daddy told me how they met, once. He was in a formal duel with another mage who was wreaking havoc somewhere in Turkey and it was the only way he could guarantee that innocents wouldn't be caught in the crossfire, because formal duels between our kind have rules and both parties involved can set them." Because of course Giovanni Zatara would insist on an honorable bout as a way to neutralize a volatile situation, and spare lives. "He defeated his enemy, but he was gravely injured in the process. He collapsed somewhere at the foot of the Tahtali Dagi mountain range, in Turkey's Antalya province and when he came to, this beautiful woman was tending to his injuries." A small smile tugs upward despite herself. "It was love at first sight."

Slender shoulders lift in a shrug. "That's all I knew about my mother for the longest time. She was beautiful - blonde, if you could believe it. With green eyes. She was a healer, or so I was led to believe anyway, and she saved my father's life. When she died, Daddy was inconsolable and it took me to grow up a little to realize what was going on inside of his head. All that power. All those lives he saved, and he couldn't even be there when it truly mattered. The curse of all magicians, they say."

Some part of her dreads who she will lose, once it was her turn.

"He never looked at another woman again. I remember some of my earliest memories involved him calling for her in his sleep, asking her why she left him. She is…my father's most persistent ghost."

—-

Fortunately, Tim Drake's capacity for surprising other people remains intact.

The request is sincere, as is the curiousity behind it… Zatanna spoke often of her father, but never of her mother, to the point that one might start to wonder if she hadn't been born in a conventional way but had rather been created in some act of wizardry. Maybe Giovanni Zatara designed his perfect daughter and then gave her life with his magical might, or maybe he found her in a stone circle under the light of a full moon, like something out of a fairy tale.

His eyes stay closed, his head turning more against the pillow to half-bury his face, dark hair falling over the rest until he's practically completely hidden from view. His breathing slows, deepens, but he's still listening. The sound of Zatanna's voice, the touch of her hand, the knowledge of her presence is all there is as he slowly, methodically coaxes his muscles to relax. It's difficult… He doesn't /want/ to sleep, he wants to act, to do, to fix things, solve things.

But he did promise.

His hand squeezes Zatanna's a bit tighter when she talks about her mother dying again, even if she was too young when it had happened to really remember it. He knows what it's like, to lose a mother - he lost two, after all. Janet Drake to the evil of the Obeah Man, and his stepmother Dana to the same incident that killed his father.

It's a wonder he's as sane as he is.

"Not just magicians," he says quietly, distantly. He's still listening, but he's close to sleep. It's the cruel irony of life for people like them - people who have the will and the ability to act where others can't - that there will always be something they can't stop, for all their strength. That something they can't stop will, sooner or later, happen to the people they care the most about.

"I wish you'd gotten to know her," Tim adds, his voice clotted with the increasing inevitability of sleep, as he feels himself truly start to drift off, and for the first time in days he doesn't fear what's waiting for him when he does.

—-

Her hand squeezes back. Zatanna's lips lift in a smile that's more rueful than anything.

"Yeah," she says. "Me, too." There's melancholy there, but no outright sadness, the sort of tone that contemplates the varying possibilities of what could have been, had she been given a chance. The world that HYDRA promises everyone could provide her a taste of it, but considering what the price had been, she knows now that she would never touch it for all the gold it promises.

She had been too young to establish a lasting bond with her mother, she has at least been spared that, unlike the young man clutching her hand, who has lost not one mother but two. But she falls quiet there when she realizes that Tim is on the verge of falling asleep, when he finally succumbs to the building exhaustion in his bones. And for a long moment, she says nothing else and lets her friend drift off towards whatever dreams he may have. Ice-blue eyes flicker towards the dreamcatcher hanging above his bed and she waits to see whether it holds or shatters.

When it doesn't break apart, she releases a breath that she doesn't know she was holding. Slowly, carefully, she eases her hand away from his once she's certain he's dead asleep. Slowly standing up from the bed, she moves towards the door, to silently open it and vanish through the frame. But she isn't gone long.

She returns with a cup of tea, and the small laptop that always takes with her on her bookbag, and her boots doffed off her feet. Setting the mug on one of the bedside table, a hand gently draws the blanket over Tim, fitting it just under his shoulder, tucking it around him for warmth - Gotham winters were bitter cold, and she can feel the slight chill from the windows. Pulling a nearby chair closer to the bed, she tucks herself into it, drawing up her legs as she never does sit properly when in the company of someone she is comfortable with, toes and their black pedicure dangling off the edges of the cushions as she draws up their Physics syllabus and gets to work on the next set of reading.

There she will remain, when it's time for him to wake up, a third cup of tea on the table and diligently working away at whatever it is on her computer. There to fix him some, should he need it, and see him off for the night's work, as it is never done.

And as a young woman who does plenty during the dark hours, she knows this better than anyone.

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