The Ghost of Ben Parker

January 31, 2017:

Worried about how the events in Ozone Park have affected Spider-Man, Zatanna Zatara hunts him down in the rooftops of New York City and discovers the brutal mistake that drives Peter Parker into doing what he does.

Above New York City - New York City

On top of an apartment building in New York.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Red Robin, John Constantine, Jessica Jones

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Scrying is often easier with implements - a drop of blood, a handful of hair. It is more effective than using a person's name, as there are some who are canny enough not to use their real ones while encountering the likes of her, but since Zatanna does know Peter's birth name and has a few of the pictures he has taken during the GAC's gala a few weeks ago, they are enough to send her senses weaving through the city in hopes of finding him through a mess of jumbled images and half-remembered streets. All signs, really, that he hasn't stopped doing…well, everything a spider can. And more.

After what is perhaps the twentieth mugging he has finished foiling tonight, she witnesses him finally giving himself some sort of reprieve and she wastes no time willing herself to that location. Perched on the higher flats of one of New York's taller buildings, she seems to melt out of the shadows, though it is nothing so covert as the likes of the Bat-people in Gotham. He would easily feel it somewhere behind him, a whisper of wind twisting in a direction away from the rest of the gusts that whip around such a high elevation. It doesn't trigger his danger sense, however, indicative enough that whoever intends to accost him this evening is not out to harm him.

It is well within the evening hours, millions of lights beckoning the eye like stars, giving the city's towering, concrete sentinels their eyes with which to witness everything that happens while it is under a cloak of shadows. It suits her coloring, her stark contrasts of light and shadow, but it's probably not so surprising to find a magician so at home in the darkness. She is clad in her usual blacks, though her jacket is zipped up, and there is another pop of color on her aside from the cold-rendered flush on her pale cheeks and the striking-unsettling blue of her eyes. Her scarf today is a lurid red.

She approaches Spider-Man without hesitation, toting two bottles in her hand. A couple of waters, infused with electrolytes.

"Taking a break?" she asks, offering one of them to him.

—-

Over the past few days, the front page of the Daily Bugle's website has looked a little something like this:

SATURDAY, JANUARY 28TH, 2017
SPIDER-MAN ON SPIDER-RAMPAGE?

A video linked to a largely inflammatory article shows a man seemingly (edited to look like) running for dear life before a blur of red and blue swipes past the screen in a smudge of color. The camera tracks upwards in a distractingly shakey motion to see the poor man (mugger) webbed up and hanging from the edge of a building.

There is a brief glimpse of the Spider-Man, his costume torn up in a way that somehow makes him look savage and dangerous; the fresh injuries dotting his body are much harder to notice before he swings away back into the depths of the city and the video becomes a shakey, incoherent flood of excited exclamations.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 29TH, 2017

SPIDER-SAVAGERY - SPIDER-MAN RANSACKS BANK?!

Footage plays in another shakey clip, of Spider-Man stepping over some fallen bodies, wiping his hands (cleverly positioned so that the masks the fallen men wear can't be seen). He seems to look around to the sound of gasps before some brave security guard leaps out and opens fire on him. Screams, shrieks, as the brave soul recording tracks the Spidery-vigilante bouncing dangerously across the back until he backflips out of a broken window, seemingly repelled by the guard's courageous act.

Or just tired of dealing with people shooting at him all the time.

MONDAY, JANUARY 30TH, 2017

VIGILANTE VICIOUSNESS - SPIDER-MAN'S REIGN OF TERROR CONTINUES

This one is just a picture of Spider-Man trying to catch a cat from a tree just as an old woman throws a shoe at him.

Clearly the implication is that he was going to eat it.

Like Alf.

Remember Alf?

TUESDAY, JANUARY 31ST, 2017

There are no headlines quite yet tonight. But just like every day since he left that base feeling nothing but a sucking sense of defeat, Spider-Man has been keeping himself unreasonable busy in that mask of his to the abject exclusion of whatever life Peter Parker had been clinging to before. His time outside has been working, constantly, as Spider-Man, preventing what crimes he can. Punishing what crimes he can't. Blogs, newspapers, websites all fill with mixed buzz of the vigilante's activities over the weekend, some claiming there must be more than one Spider-Man out there, with how much he's been sighted and reported doing.

More than one Spider-Man, of course, is a completely ridiculous notion.

And when he's not outside? Peter Parker is at home, at his Aunt's, in his room. The benefit of being a legal adult now? He doesn't have to work as hard to think of excuses for why he's out all the time now, why he always looks so increasingly tired with every passing day. Parties. Schoolwork. Regular work. Anything. He makes his reasons, disappears into his room, and works on developing photos, or just diving into the depths of the internet, researching things. People. Crimes.

More than once he finds himself in a futile attempt to look up the man who shot himself as if it could elucidate anything about why he would do what he did.

Tonight is no different. He feels the lethargy sinking into his muscles with every time he finds something amiss, every time he prevents a mugging, a robbery, anything, alternatingly getting praised or cursed. It all fades into a certain, comfortable numbness eventually; traveling across the city over and over and dealing with these things for years helps to desensitize you a bit, especially when you're fighting off encroaching exhaustion with a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that you're working yourself to the bone.

But he is. It shows in how he slumps on the rooftop of an apartment complex in Queens, perched at the edge of the building as he rifles through his phone for recordings he's taken for the night. It shows in the way he starts when he hears Zatanna's voice behind him, as if he didn't even hear her approach; but he did. He had to have, with those senses of his, spider-sense or no.

He was just too tired to notice.

"AH! MAGICIAN CREEP!" begins the young man, spinning around on the edge of that building in a way most people would deem suicidal. He barely even teeters as wide white lenses turn on Zatanna, expressionless and only emoting through the slow whirr of a squint.

"Jeez, you — that Red Robin is a bad influence for you," he declares roundly. "Sneaking up on me like that, I'm gonna get a spider-heartattack, and I don't even know what that'd -be- like because I literally just made it up!"

But for all his joking, his voice just doesn't have that edge to it that it normally has. A certain sort of alertness, or energy. Just… tired. And trying to sound like anything but that.

He stays like that, in silence for the longest time, before he finally reaches out and takes that bottle, falling back on the ledge of the building facing Zatanna. He doesn't yet open it; just closes and slips his phone away into that utility belt as he stares down at that bottle.

"I'm… just… … yeah. Breather. All that club-hopping I do. Super-exhausting, right?"

One could practically feel the forced smile even behind the mask.

—-

"Well, you better drink it all," Zatanna tells him. "That bottle cost me five dollars." As if it was the biggest inconvenience in the universe, though judging by the way her expression softens, he can easily determine that she doesn't mean it.

Moving forward, a long leg lifts so she could get on the ledge herself. For all of her (undignified) screaming when Red Robin took her for a ride across Perfect New York, she doesn't balk at joining him on the precarious edge - indicative that whatever prompted her shrieks had little to do with a fear of heights, and more to do with the fact that she had absolutely no control over her freefalls when she was relying on the other masked vigilante to get them to safety. She shifts, so she could lean on the space next to her friend, cracking open her own bottle so she could take a ocuple of sips. Electrolyte water always tasted better to her than the regular spring.

The last few articles about Spider-Man didn't really escape her notice - New York was full of newstands in every corner, and superhero antics were always top sellers. She can't blame the world for it; there's always something about the unreal and the fantastic that captures people's imaginations, just another was to escape the mundanity of every day life. But it does worry her. She had given him a few days before approaching him, as the way he left Ozone Park didn't really /encourage/ any approach, but as always, her worry wins out and she is very familiar with the fact that it wasn't as if Peter could talk to anyone about what happened there save for those who were involved…and out of all of those, she was the only one who knows who he is.

"Honestly, you struck me more like a arcade and coffeehouse kinda guy," the magician quips at him, taking the time to watch the distant cityscape in all of its fluorescent and neon-dusted glory, shifting so she could sit on the wall and curl her knees over the edge. She rolls her head back, inclining it over to the masked vigilante, though it doesn't take too long or much deliberation for her to reach out and rest her hand on his shoulder lightly.

"I'm worried about you," she tells him, every straightforward with her feelings. "What happened was rough, and you took it really hard. I wanted to at least come and see you before I even thought about returning to Gotham."

She doesn't ask him if he's alright, because his reactions when she last saw him speaks for itself.

"What happened to you in there, Pete? I looked back when we were trying to get to Bucky and you were just gone."

—-

"Five bucks? Seriously?"

Spider-Man wags that bottle back and forth, tilting his head almost horizontal as he peers at that bottle — as if a five dollar bottle of water might slush around differently than a normal one.

"… well, I guess it -does- got what plants crave…"

Eventually, though, spandex-covered drape across the vigilante's thighs from his crouched position on the ledge; the bottle bumps against his calf, unopened, as Zatanna settles beside him. Behind that mask, Peter Parker keeps his unfocused stare forward. The benefit of that mask, beyond hiding his identity: it's that much harder to tell just what the person beneath it is thinking. For people like Batman, it's a useful intimidation tactic. For Peter, well. It's just another way to keep him safe.

"Well, I am," he asides to his companion, voice conversational but quiet, like someone going through the motions. "I just do all my clubbing at, y'know, arcades and coffeehouses. Which might explain why I get kicked out all the time…" His free hand lifts, scratching the side of his head. "… I always thought it was just because I'm, like, a terrible dancer. That's a -huge- load off. I — "

That hand settles over his shoulder, and the forced banter of Spider-Man stops. It's easy to feel how he momentarily tenses up at the touch beneath that spandex, dense musculature corded tightly for a long span before it's finally forced to relax. I'm worried about you, Zatanna says, and finally Peter lifts up that bottle to unscrew it. He tugs that mask halfway up, bringing the mouth of the drink to his dry, chapped lips to sip.

"… wow, that really does taste like five bucks," he murmurs, like a convenient distraction. "I mean I… I…"

Peter Parker's learned how to put up a strong front. It's part and parcel to wearing the mask. But he's still barely an adult. And it shows in how those legs draw up on that ledge until his knees are burying up against his chest, the way his lips curl in a pained way that makes him wish that mask was tugged down — the way he buries his head against his knees as if to just disappear from the world.

"Why would someone do that— ?" wonders Peter, and he can't help but remember how Avram looked. How warm his hand was still. He knows, objectively, the reasons why someone would. Logically. But this is something far beyond logic.

"Did he think it was a way out? Like — an escape? It's not. It's just — it's just cowardly. You make up for your mistakes, you — you — try to make it right. You shouldn't get to… to escape that. You shouldn't… Everything about him was just so…" Peter's hand clenches tighter around that bottle, material pressing inward as his fingers tremble faintly around it. She asks what happened to him.

He falls into silence again in response, staring down at nothing beneath the blank white of his lenses.

—-

Banter is a staple in Spider-Man's repertoire but tonight, it sounds unnatural - a piece of a puzzle with its edges all wrong, crammed at the corner of a picture where it doesn't belong. Zatanna does not have the luxury of wearing a mask, though he is familiar enough of her to know that would be out of place anyway, when she is so terrible at hiding; who she is, what she feels, how she's feeling, all laid bare for the slings and traps of others. It has gotten her in considerable amount of trouble, from external forces to her peers, and those closest to her. But for all the danger to herself that tendency poses, it also brings her in enviable positions such as this, sitting right next to one of New York's burgeoning heroes, reminded that underneath radioactive spider powers, a human being exists. The way he tucks his chin into his knees squeezes at that well-exercised engine inside the cradle of her bones.

This isn't the first time this week that she has tried to comfort a friend - Red Robin was not immune to the scars rent by the events in Ozone Park, kept out of sight and secret from the rest of the populace as unsung heroes drifted their separate ways into the night, never to be lauded for the things they've done. But every time she does, it brings a wave of fresh heartbreak. She is familiar with this, being the only child of a near-mythological figure. She knows how much the Work takes from everyone who engages in it, but it is never easy to watch when the costs take a toll.

She shifts until she's closer, until she's able to wind an arm behind her friend so she could clasp her fingers around his farthest shoulder. Her head tilts, to rest her chin against the closest, spandex-covered curve and she gives him as warm and tight of a squeeze as she can. And when those limbs and digits relax, she doesn't move away, midnight-black hair forming their own webs against the clinging fabric of his costume, tangled down his back and hers. Her eyes fill with them; worry, yes, always that most of all, but a deep-seated melancholy also.

Uncertainty, too. She doesn't know what to say for the time being, and whenever she doesn't know what to do, she always latches onto her first instinct. It prompts her to hold onto him while he turtles into himself and laments the decisions of more experienced men. She wonders whether some part of him fears that also, and that maybe this is why he can't help but wonder and beat himself up over it…if he knows, perhaps he could prevent it in the future, or worse, prevent it from happening to himself.

"I don't know," she tells him at last, because she is almost always honest, her quiet voice filling the scant spaces between them, nearly rendered inaudible by high-altitude winds. "I wish I knew, so I'd have something to tell you, but all I have are guesses. I don't know if he intended to escape punishment, doing what he did. He was old, Pete…I don't know if he had long to live. Don't know if he would have had long enough to be able to make up for everything he's done, because chances are, there was a lot of bad things. Did a lot of bad, seen probably a lot more. Only reason why I could think of why he wanted to shove everyone in a perfect world where nothing bad ever happens."

Her voice trails off at that, ice-blue eyes turning to the surrounding landscape.

"We rejected him, too," she continues. "What he was trying to do. We didn't 'get it,' maybe. After he lost, maybe he thought he didn't have anywhere else to go but down. There are people who have killed themselves for less."

She turns her face to look at his bowed head sidelong. "I hope you're not putting that on you, though," she confesses. "Whether or not you were able to stop him in the end…he made his choice. Even if you could have, if he was determined enough to go, something tells me he would've found a way. There's just some things we can't stop, no matter how hard we try. I know, that's not exactly a pep talk, but you're smart…I'm pretty sure you know that already. It's just…I know it's hard to accept. Even harder for the likes of us who have no idea how to quit. Can't even fathom the notion."

—-

There's no resistance from Peter as that arm slips about his shoulders, no resistance to the chin that perches upon the other. But there's no give, either. As if too tired or too walled off, or both, to be able to meet halfway. He just stares, fingers clenched along his legs, waterbottle gripped taut in his hand as his thoughts stray, from those flashes of Golubev, to the sight of that man so gruesomely dispatched by the Winter Soldier… to staring at the sky in a world where his greatest mistake never happened, knowing full well it was not a world he could allow himself to stay in.

Objectively, Peter Parker knows this was a victory for them, especially the people who fought so hard to free Bucky Barnes, but right now, it stings as badly as any loss for him.

"I wish I knew, too," is his initial response, voice distant. "I wish I — I wish I was faster. I should've seen him, should've been paying attention, should've— " So many shoulds, but it hardly matters now. Hidden from the world, his lips twist, unable to help but replay all the ways things -could- have gone… but didn't. "Even if — just — there was something he could've done. Anything. Anything that wasn't just…"

Running away.

It's the first time real emotion wells up in his voice for the night, and it comes in a conflicted cocktail of regret, of frustration, of anger — unable to really be sure of just -what- he's supposed to feel. There's so much more that bothers him about that night, that frustrates him, but ultimately, it always comes back to that. That straw that broke the camel's back.

Which is perhaps why, when Zatanna talks about rejection, Peter is quick to adamantly shake his head. "I didn't — I got it!" insists the young man, his free hand pressing into his scalp as if to push through hair carefully capped within spandex; the gesture just edges his mask up more, revealing more fatigued features. "All I wanted to do was stay there! I kept trying but I couldn't — I just couldn't! Even though I — I know what — I know what it's like when you… you…"

His face just buries further, lost between his knees. His voice is muffled, smothered in a tired helplessness.

"… I know. When you… make a mistake you can never fix or make right. I know what…"

His words die on his throat. He takes the offered distraction, a hint of a rueful smile glimpsed from his position. "Dumbest smart person in the world. Can't even put together some old Nazi's gonna have a gun," he mutters, voice tired in its wry, self-deprecating humor. "There's things I can't… things I can't stop. I know that," he says, even though he sounds more like he's trying to convince himself than anything else.

"But I should be — I should be better than this, Zee. I didn't want this, but I — I should be able to use it to make a difference when things really matter. If I can't, then…"

His sentence trails.

He can't even let himself humor the thought.

—-

She tends to do this, as Peter is becoming more and more aware, as the two of them start to get to know each other from the volatile springboard point in which their friendship started. A tendency of hers, Zatanna's, to say everything what's in her head and her heart if not just to see what sticks, to fumble through the constant roulette of complex emotions to try and gain some semblance of footing in this trickiest of human interactions. It tends to /provoke/, and nobody is more aware of the wounds that generates more than her, when she sees Peter shake his head vehemently and knows immediately that she has said the wrong thing. It curdles her stomach, in the way it often does, because as effortless as she makes this seem, the truth of the matter is, it is /not/ easy and she constantly chafes under the weight of its true difficulty, but she can no longer repress this proclivity to be herself as she can the urge to take a breath and keep on living.

It's the segue, however, that catches her attention, the heavy sense that Peter is wrestling with a ghost that she can't see, as capable as she is of seeing spirits, when he speaks of how he /knows/. That there are things he can't change, things that he can't prevent. Mistakes that cause ripple effects over the universe. She is only starting to learn this, herself, as she has never been truly mired in the business of heroism in the way her father has been for decades, so while it doesn't surprise her that her friend has prior experience to call upon, it's how he /reacts/ to the memory that startles her, enough to jolt her chin from his shoulder to look at his frustrated, half-revealed profile.

"…Pete, what do you mean…?" she asks, tentatively. Because /now/ she can't not ask. She can't just let it lie. And if she only understood, then maybe…

She is still looking at him when he tries to divert the conversation back to Avram Golubev, castigating himself for not having foreseen a HYDRA agent having a sidearm. "You were already exhausted by that point," she replies. "Damage to the mind and heart are always more difficult to shrug off than physical pains, yeah? That's not something your powers or mine can just shake off once we're in the thick of it. We're special, sure, but underneath all of that we're fundamentally human too. I'm not really here to tell you what to do or how to feel, but…"

We're not perfect and we never will be, is what she wants to say. But somehow, she knows that he knows that already also.

Her words trail off, letting his last words hang in the air, the weighted syllables a poor reflection of the conflict brought about by whatever he experienced in that perfect-imperfect New York City.

She sighs, ice-blue eyes wandering to her boots.

"When my mother died, Daddy was in another dimension trying to keep something from coming into this one," she begins. "I was with a babysitter, she was off running errands. It was a car acccident, the vehicle exploded on impact. Daddy never forgave himself, for not being there. All that power, that intense, personal bond that defies even mortal death, and he still couldn't change the outcome when it mattered the most to him. He's made other sacrifices after that, but that was the one that scarred him the most profoundly. Sometimes he still calls for her, while he sleeps. Asking why she left him, whether it was something he did. Whether it was because he was just gone all the time, or…"

A guilty look seeps into her expression. It is rare that Zatanna ever gives anyone a glimpse of the man behind the legend. In all of her life, she has only told this story to two others.

"Peter…even if that happens, not being able to do something when it matters most, and the more we keep doing things like this, I don't know if we're ever going to prevent it from happening /at all/ indefinitely, but you can't not keep trying, doing what you do. Because sometimes, you /can/, and you /will/. Make a difference when it matters most. Would you really be able to live with yourself if you just…stopped? While knowing that much, at least?"

—-

We're not perfect. We never will be.

It's something that Peter Parker knows painfully well.

It's the exact reason that no answer comes when that tentative question leads on with the expectation, or hope, of one. Uncertainty and hesitation screw at the corners of Peter's lips, dry and numb, but it's not a question of trust. He's trusted Zatanna with something he's never willingly trusted anyone else with.

Something that runs much deeper than trust is what stills the young vigilante's voice.

It's a hesitation that isn't there when she speaks on Golubev, though; a quiet scoff blows past his lips as she talks about damage to the mind and heart, not dismissively — but wreathed no less in frustration. "I thought I…" he begins, before his head slowly, so very slowly, tilts upward. His chin touches on his knees, complexion of his skin something haggard as his mouth presses into a line. "I felt so — so relieved, and so happy, and then he just…" He shakes his head.

"I can't let it happen again, Zee. I can't, they — maybe it's dumb or naive or, or, whatever, but I can't."

He knows it's impossible, to prevent it every time, to stop every bad thing from happening, to stop people from killing, much less stop people from killing those who don't even deserve it. But it's just not who he is to be able to think anything else. Anything less.

His gaze goes distant behind that mask, lost somewhere far away. But it's Zatanna begins to speak again that his gaze finally turns on her. When she talks about her father, and his guilt — her mother. The corners of his lips etch downwards into a pensive frown as Zatanna confesses that story, as guilt bleeds into her features. "Zatanna…" His gaze averts, something closer to empathy than sympathy filling his gaze. He doesn't know her father, and his only exposure to the great Zatara was a man who wore his face, but he knows — he knows how highly the man's daughter thinks of him.

And he knows that kind of guilt, too. The kind that never leaves. The kind that you can't afford to let ever leave.

"… I can't — I can't. Let myself stop," comes his answer, voice barely a whisper. "Because I…"

Once again, he hesitates. The sniff that comes from him is slightly muffled by the mask as he stares groundwards, focusing on anything but the friend sitting next to him.

"… I wasn't… my aunt and my uncle, they're — when they took me in, they were the only thing I — I had. They're more than just… they're better than any parents I could ask for." He pauses, lips pulling tight as he sets that water bottle aside. "But I… when I got this — when I was bit, I wasn't like… like this. I didn't care about being a hero. I was just — I was just happy, y'know? To be the strong one, finally, to be — to be the one who could stick up for himself, who could kick ass at sports, to not be the scrawny, awkward kid anymore and I… all I cared about was myself. Having fun. Getting back at the people who made fun of me all my life. About getting money, and being like — being famous. Some stupid — stupid internet sensation, or some crap. Staying out late. Getting my name out there. 'The Spectacular Spider-Man.' Whatever, I… it was stupid. My Uncle Ben tried to reach out to me. I didn't listen. Figured it wasn't — wasn't any of his business. Not really my dad, so why should I have…? We argue, I storm out. Idiot. I was a…"

Like any dumb, irresponsible kid.

His hands lift as his words trail again; palms pressing into his forehead, he leans his weight into that contact. "… There was a — a robbery. I could've stopped it, you know? Even just… caught the person. I could've. But I didn't like the guy who got robbed, and I didn't care — not… not my problem. People — they get what they deserve. Serves the jerk right, right?" He scoffs ruefully, his voice layered with as much stammered hesitation as there is self-loathing. "So, I let him run off. I let him run off, but he's — he's not satisfied just with that. My Uncle Ben is out looking for me, because… because he cares, way too much, about someone who doesn't deserve it. And while he's out there, looking, he finds that guy, that guy I let go, and he… of course he does the right thing, of course he does, the thing I should've done, and I…"

His breath is a cold, hitched, uneven shudder of a thing to match the weak waver of his voice, sputtering uneven plumes of moisture into the air from pained lips.

"… I got him killed. I got him… it's just as good as if I pulled the trigger myself. My… m-my fault. And I — I — I can't —"

I can't ever make up for it. Can't ever stop.

—-

Being the kind of person she is enables her to get to know the people she cares about extremely well. Were she talking to John Constantine, such questions would never get a response, not in the way that her other friends are capable of giving. Thus far he is one of the very few who has managed to prevail against the urge to mirror her honesty, though she privately suspects this is as much to protect her and those around him as it is to protect himself, because vulnerabilities in his profession are deadly. If this was the British magus, she wouldn't have asked at all, all too familiar with crashing facefirst, savagely, brutally, against the fortress he has built around himself. Faced with such dead ends, Zatanna has adapted since, finding other ways to connect with the first love of her life without delving too hard into the darknesses of his psyche…and she has absolutely no doubt that there are many, having woken up next to him as he twisted in the agony of his own nightmares.

What she can't do with Constantine, however, she can do with Peter. Peter, with whom she has more similarities than differences, with whom she shares a similar spirit. It is that very nature that enables her to ask, knowing with some certainty that she will get some kind of answer. Something that will help guide her to reach out to her friend and attempt to alleviate the pain. That is her most fervent hope, anyway, because in the end, that is the purpose of her visit and her concern for him is at least half the reason why she has not returned to Gotham and see to her other responsibilities there, like school. How can she think of report cards now when she knows just how much the events in Ozone Park affected someone so connected to her? She finds the thought unacceptable.

Only that when the tale finally unfolds, she realizes immediately this is heartbreak that she can't touch - never to fix, not even to make feel better, and not just because this is the sort of wound that cannot be stitched through means that are normal and humane, but also because it is /the/ lynchpin, the thing that enables Spider-Man to exist as he is in the world they live in. She has powers and abilities far beyond mortal ken, and just how far beyond they actually are is the reason why she has been restless in her own sleep, these days. She knows if she truly wanted to, if Peter /asked/ her to, she could excise the pain out of him and leave the rest intact.

But she is the daughter of Giovanni Zatara - a man for whom history and personal relationships across centuries have been manipulated just to bring him into this world as an instrument of Fate. She would not be worthy of his legacy if she even contemplated doing something so drastic, even if her life had not already settled on the fact that she would never, ever, betray Peter Parker's trust in that way. So the choice that is there is, in the end, not a choice at all.

That delicate face contorts to reflect his anguish, though given his position there is no way he'll be able to see it unless he turns his head. It runs the whole spectrum of human emotions even as she dimly hears the shattering of glass somewhere at the back of her mind, a poor analogy to what she feels is happening within her ribcage. This is not her pain, but she feels it anyway and her ice-blue eyes brim with sudden, unwanted tears. Not just because she can't do anything about this, not just because her very intent was to try and make him feel better about what happened in Ozone Park, but because of that open, terrible empathy. Because she knows that if she had been in his shoes, she would feel the same. She would remember what happened to someone she loves due to her inaction when she has the power to prevent it, and rip herself apart.

She absolutely cannot say that it is the mugger's fault, and that Peter cannot hold himself responsible for the bad choices others make. She cannot say that his Uncle Ben made the choice to do the right thing and that he accepted the risks of what such an action would cause.

She cannot say any of these things. Not just because she already knows that Peter will not accept any of it, but also because she knows that if their places were reversed, she would feel the same. And worst of all, she cannot say for sure that the death of his loved one couldn't have been prevented by his intervention, because the cold, brutal truth of it is that he could have, and it is not in her nature to peddle hollow reassurances, as always driven by sincerity. She cannot give him anything less than that.

She doesn't know what to do. She doesn't know what to say.

And as usual, when she finds herself in such a helpless position, she acts on her first instinct. Both arms come up, and she tries her best to wrap them around him tightly, knowing full well that there is no way she can shield him from his own self-recriminations…but she /must/ do something. She can't not. If not just to demonstrate that boundless capacity for concern, and affection - love, of a kind, and the assurance, however paltry, that he isn't alone and that for all of his sins, there will at least be someone who knows both sides of him who will take him as he is.

She presses her cheek against his shoulder. Lashes blink rapidly in an effort to hold back her own tears of sympathy.

"I wish I got to meet him," she tells him softly. "I think…if he's the kind who would do the right thing at great expense to himself, I think he'd appreciate what you're trying to do now. I think he'd be proud of what you're doing, picking up where he left off."

After a pause, she asks, even more quietly:

"…do you….want to talk to him? One last time?"

Terror grips her, knowing how much power that will entail. She remembers the seal inside of herself, what it all /looks like/ flooding into her in a white-hot maelstrom of brutal physical torment. But she shoves it down and tries to ignore it.

"I can…I can do that. I can call someone back, for a time. It…it won't harm the soul, the way I do it. But if that's…if that's something you need, I can do it for you. You…I know you probably think that you can't face him right now. But just know that if you truly, desperately need it, I'll do it."

—-

What could even be said? The way Peter refuses to even look at Zatanna as he speaks about this says there's really nothing he wants to be said. He doesn't want sympathy. There's no comfort for this.

Part of him expects her to simply be disgusted with him, and that… that wouldn't be anything less than what he deserved, would it?

But for all his reticence to talk about it, to even so much as mention it, it's still a heavy burden that he has kept all too himself for so many years. Even moreso than simply keeping who he is secret from friends and loved ones. Every day, looking at Aunt May, and knowing what he took from her. This — this chews at him. More than anything. More than even he knew. And to be able to finally confess that truth…

It doesn't make him happy. Doesn't necessarily relieve him. But at the same time, the simple act of talking about it — well, it lessens that crushing weight that has been burdening him since falling into that other New York, even just a bit.

His voice is thick and choked with shuddering grief of a freshly opened wound that can never be completely closed. His only relief is that the mask still half-covers his features, so that the tears that all other evidence points to can't be seen. He doesn't wait for sympathy, or forgiveness, because one simply isn't asked for and the other, well — it isn't hers, or anyone's, to give. But despite himself, he still turns towards the curl of those arms around him, forcing back the beginning of a sob as he hides his face against her shoulder.

Uncle Ben made him what he is today. And that's exactly why he could understand that world and where it might come from…

… just as much as why it's a world he could never, ever accept, no matter how much he might want to.

"He was — was a good father to me," he utters, voice cracking faintly, from who knows how much strain he's been putting it through these past few days. For as strong as he is, he feels so limp right now. Just… weak, and exhausted, in ways more than physical. "I didn't… deserve it. I don't think — don't know if I ever will. I just want to… to be the kind of man he thought I could be. I…"

He's still unsure if he's there yet. If he ever can be.

But it'll never stop him from trying.

It hurts, to talk about him. To remember. But with someone to confide in, that pain is dulled, ever-so-slightly. Even with the painful sting of memories. Even if there's nothing she can do to assuage that pain…

'…do you….want to talk to him? One last time?'

"I… what?"

It takes Peter a moment, to be able to digest what Zatanna is saying. He pulls back just enough to stare at her through those wide, white lenses before he hooks a thumb underneath the spandex and peels it back. Hazel eyes are bloodshot, puffy, and glistening with smeared tears. He looks, frankly, awful. Worn to the bone, ragged and weary. But his confused disbelief is what dominates his expression right now as he stares at Zatanna, unable to wrap his guilt-addled mind around the concept of speaking to the dead.

He wants to see Uncle Ben again. More than anything else. So much it hurts.

"I…"

So, so very much.

"… no. I… can't."

But he can't. But he's terrified. But he can't bring himself to face his uncle, his father. Horrified of what he might say. How he might see Peter.

The unknown is a truly frightening thing.

"I… want to but I… not right now, I — I'm not —" The words don't come. 'Ready,' perhaps. 'Good enough,' maybe. "… maybe one day… maybe. But… I just…" But, those hazel eyes don't stray now, even for a moment. He has no idea what such a thing would cost Zatanna, how much it would tax her and pain her. But the gesture is enormous. Incomprehensibly so. And for that, there's nothing but pure, undiluted gratitude in his eyes, in his expression. In his voice.

"… thank you. I mean I — offering me that, it's… just so… I don't— "

He pauses, to gather those scattered, overwhelmed thoughts into a single, cogent sentiment.

"… I don't deserve a friend like you."

—-

That sense of helplessness abates, at least, when Peter accepts the comfort she is trying to give him - not what her words provide but the solid certainty of her presence. As he tucks his head against her shoulder, her hand shifts upwards, cupping the back of his head and doing what she can to squeeze him into her. It takes some effort, considering that she is smaller than him in height and weight, but she tries. Her other hand rubs up and down his back, though she refrains from any quieting, shushing noises. Peter was a grown man after all - the aim was to try and make him feel better, not baby him.

And all the while, she listens. Zatanna presses her lips together when she hears the choked words - that Ben Parker was a good father, that Peter didn't deserve his care. Her raven-haired head shakes a little from side to side. She knows where it comes from, after the story he has relayed, the guilt must be insurmountable, but she finds that opinion difficult to swallow. Could one grievous mistake really outweigh everything else he is? "I don't agree with that," she tells him softly, sinking her face further against his opposite shoulder. "Peter, you turned out okay, and you're a good guy. I don't think your uncle would agree with tha , either. Parents are like that, you know? No matter how distant or no matter how harsh, if he took the time to raise you right, that means something, right? I don't want you to think that you're worthless, because you're not. And you're like…what? Eighteen? Nineteen?"

This is starting to become a running theme with all of her friends.

"You put yourself out there everyday, working yourself to the bone, trying to do what's right. If you're worried about whether you'll meet his expectations, between you and me, I think you're already in the right track. You'll get there eventually, I know it. Besides, you have people now you'll help you there. Me, John, Jess, Red, maybe even your new friend, Cindy…" If she /is/ a friend, she still has no idea what that spider-girl's deal is. "…so long as you'll let us sometimes. Like what's happening right now. I'm sorry that…I'm sorry that I don't exactly know what to say, I wish I knew what else I /could/ say, but whatever happens now, if you call me, I'll be there."

She can't blame him for sounding so astounded at the offer, and her arms loosen when he draws back and stares at her - he finally takes off his mask and what she sees only causes her resolute expression to soften. Worn, haggard, she knew based on the articles in the newstands that he was pushing himself hard, but to see his efforts take an obvious toll has her heart sinking somewhere within her chest, suddenly reminded of Tim's own beleaguered state when she visited him just a day ago. Hands retract, come up to frame his face with her fingers, thumbs moving to gently erase the traces of moisture on his cheeks.

She already knew he was going to say no - if she were in his position, she would say the same. With so much guilt, no matter how much she misses someone, if she genuinely believed that she caused his death, could she ever truly face his ghost unless she was well and truly ready? Unless she had something to show for it? Some proof that she has done her best to make amends in this life?

The raven-haired magician gives him a small smile, it's meant to be reassuring.

"Yeah, well," she murmurs. "It's not every day I offer something like that. It's not something I do very often, but when I have enough reason to, it's…it's not beyond me. Calling someone back, if not just to have two people say goodbye to one another. It happens differently, depending on the tradition. In Vodoun, the spirit of the departed takes over the caster, and talks in his or her voice. The way I do it…" She hesitates. "You see the actual soul, hear his actual voice. His face, what he was wearing when he was buried."

Slowly, she lowers her hands, letting them rest flat on the ledge between them. "Anyway, don't be dumb." The last is quiet but chiding. "You know someone told me just recently that he wasn't good enough for any of the affection I could give him, and I said…well, who the hell gets to decide that but me? I told you when we first met that I thought you were a good guy, and I hope that whatever happens from here on out, you keep those parts of you that make you, you. The parts that made me like you instantly. Whatever you think I feel now after hearing what you just told me…that hasn't changed. I think you made a mistake, yeah, but who hasn't? If we just took away the friendships we've ever made from people who've fucked up in life, we'd all be alone. So.." Her smile lifts, fill with rue. "…sorry, Pete. But you're /still/ stuck with me."

—-

He might hold a lot - a /lot/ - inside of him, but Peter's never been one to hide just how he's feeling. It's less a matter of lack of guile, perhaps, and more a matter of emotional earnestness. The young man wears his heart on his sleeve. So he takes some small comfort in the arms around him, even if it is only a temporary salve — and so gratitude suffuses his expression as he hears Zatanna speak, listens to how she tries to reassure him. Earnestly. Just like her.

There's no response to those words though, at least not immediately, or verbally, nothing but the slight hitch of his voice as he breathes unsteadily now and then. His face hidden briefly against her shoulder, his gaze still distant. It still hurts. It'll always hurt. There's no helping that, no changing that. But even if he is inconsolable at a very basic level right now — even if those wounds are too fresh and too deep — he still takes those words to heart. Things to remember. Things to think on.

For now, he just lets the words come without argument. And at least takes some solace in the fact that he even has someone who he can unburden these things on. He was sure she'd be disgusted with him, that she'd turn away, and he couldn't really blame her if she did, even if it would have hurt.

But she doesn't. And not only that, she gives that offer; Peter still looks stunned, barely even budging as those thumbs wipe away bits of evidence of his tears. It's debatable whether he even feels the movements as those wide, hazel eyes squeeze into a blink. There's so much he doesn't understand about magic, even if he's quickly managed to grasp the basic concepts of it. The idea of drawing a soul from the beyond.

The fact that there IS a beyond.

Well. It makes him go slack-jawed, like an idiot, as he tries to comprehend all the possible implications.

But still, the answer that comes is probably inevitable. Slowly, the young man pulls away, abruptly cognizant of how he must look stained with tears. He sniffles mildly, attempting to clear his throat after to cover for the sound as his own, gloved hands lift to rub at his eyes. "That's…" he begins, trying to find the word to describe it all. "… crazy. Amazing-crazy. It…" His surprise is a nice distraction, at least, from his situation, from those memories. "… just. Damn. Holy crap. Y'know? I…"

He really can't even put into words his appreciation. He tries his best, but in the end — there's no way to properly express the sentiment. No way he ever could, especially so guilt-addled as he is. "But —" he tries to protest when she chides him, but her words override his before he can even finish. He looks down towards the cold surface of that rooftop, teeth sinking into his lower lip and brows furrowing together. "People make mistakes, but mine…" He shakes his head. He knows. You keep moving forward, even if you've done something awful, something terrible. You fight for the rest of your life if you have to in order to make up for it.

'…sorry, Pete. But you're /still/ stuck with me.'

"… h-hah. Guess I am," mumbles the young man, his voice still cracked and hoarse. "I… hope I can be that guy. I really — really do." That good guy she thought he was. His eyes squeeze shut for a moment, before his hands lift to grasp the rolled spandex of his mask.

"I… I should go," manages the young man as he starts to tug that red and black fabric downward, covering up fatigued features anew. "It's late, I've — you shouldn't have to keep staying up on my account."

There is the brief glimpse of a sad but grateful smile before that mask tugs down all the rest of the way.

"Zee — Zatanna — I'm… I'm glad you're here. If nothing else, I'm… I dunno, I'm just — happy you kinda — barreled into my life." A slight hint of humor returns, more rueful than anything, but there.

At least, it's something.

—-

There is a beyond, and Zatanna knows that it exists. She shakes her head once, and inclines her head at him. "You will. You're not that much older than me, and you've literally got the rest of your life ahead of you to make up for whatever mistakes you've made. You'll make it through, Pete, I promise."

With him imparting his goodbyes, she slowly stands up, glancing over at him, watches as he pulls down that mask to shield his face from view. Her arms curl loosely around her torso, chewing on her bottom lip in a hesitant fashion. "Like I said earlier, I'm not here to tell you what to do, but….god, you look so tired. Maybe cut yourself a little bit of a break tonight, yeah? We could go grab food or something, and you can tell me more about your Aunt May. And then I can take you home so you can get some sleep and you can start the cycle all over again. I get it, you're pretty super, but…if you run yourself too ragged, /you/ might get terribly injured too on top of everything else. And then you might fall in a dumpster and someone might find you and unmask you and you don't want that happening, do you?"

What is it about her and finding people in dumpsters?! Admittedly that hasn't happened to her in a while.

"We don't have to, of course, but…just keep that in mind, okay?"

She slides her hands in her pockets, loose locks of raven hair tumbling around the precarious hold her topknot has against the back of her nape, tangling at the collar of her jacket. His last words do have her blinking once, but she quirks a faint smile upwards. "I tend to do that," she quips. "Barrel into things. Like the boulder in Indiana Jones, just rolling along to see what sticks and what I manage to scare away. I'm….glad…that I haven't scared /you/ away, yet."

Because it could happen, with what she holds inside of herself. The all-encompassing maelstrom of uncontrollable power held at bay by her father's seal, a consequence of her heritage and whatever other secrets have been carved into her heart, blood and bones, whatever else has been manipulated to bring her into this world. She feels the obelisk in her back pocket, reminded that she has resorted to these measures, now. Anything to prevent herself from tapping too deeply into that well. She had almost killed all of them, back in that abandoned hospital, the very first time she was faced with just how much of it was in her body, just /why/ HYDRA wanted her. It was only because of John that they managed to prevent that from happening.

She pushes that away, however, still all too willing to cling to hope that whatever friendship she has with Spider-Man, it is significant and lasting. Strong enough to withstand whatever other secrets there are.

Her expression softens at the thought. Her smile returns, barely imperceptible, just a slight tick upwards of the corners of her mouth.

"Be careful out there, okay?"

—-

You'll make it through, Pete, I promise.

He knows she means it, but it doesn't make it feel any more like he will.

Not that it's going to stop him from continuing on, anyway.

That mask slides completely over Peter's head once more, white lenses squinting and widening with rhythmic, mechanic whirring sounds as if they were refocusing. The sound and sights of the outside world dim a bit, become easier to handle for those senses, as that featureless face turns towards the cityscape beyond, all light and sound and teeming activity. He closes his eyes behind the mask, mentally prepares himself. Back to it. Back to…

He is in the middle of standing and checking webshooters hidden in his suit when Zatanna makes her offer. He blinks, a motion almost echoed in the little contraction-expansion of those lenses as he pauses and turns at the waist to look at her. Even with him so thoroughly covered, the webbed vigilante seems to visibly hesitate at the words. The concern.

Just forget about it for tonight, a voice tells him. Just go out. Have something to eat. Share stories with a friend. Maybe even laugh. Maybe even enjoy yourself. Maybe—

"I… not tonight."

For as tired as that voice still is, it is laced with an apologetic tone. He looks aside, considers, and then speaks up once more. "Tomorrow. Tomorrow, whenever. Before you leave for Gotham again. We can… do whatever. I'll tell you about Aunt May."

He'll take a break.

It's the only compromise he feels like he can offer, right now.

"… you'd like her — I think you'd like her." He hesitates, and ventures a joke:

"Just, um — don't try her walnut date loaf. I don't care what she says. That's — that's never been good. Historically."

It's weak, but there; Spider-Man steps up onto the ledge, those cold winter winds buffeting his spandex-clad body at freezing temperatures. His body tenses — and then he looks back to her one more time when she smiles so faintly. 'I'm…glad…that I haven't scared /you/ away, yet.'

"I… hah. I guess we both have to remind each other, huh?"

He doesn't know the full depths of Zatanna's potential. He has guesses, estimations, just based on what HYDRA were using her soul to fuel. He has no idea the kind of power output a -soul- would have — trying to figure out the potential energy of one's spiritual existence probably requires way more expensive equipment than what he even has at a campus lab — but to do what they did…

… regardless, regardless of what she might not have told him, what either of them might not know about the other, the next words come far easier than anything he's ever said tonight:

"You're stuck with me. Every annoying bit of me."

Be careful. He considers.

And all he can offer is a small, brief salute before he teeters and falls off the edge of that building to swing off towards the lights of the city.

Falling back into the fray.

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