To Choose This Life

February 04, 2017:

Red Robin enlists Zatanna Zatara's help to follow up on Spoiler's leads - back to the Excelsior Hotel where Gottfried Muller, real name Hermann Steinschneider, had been staying in the days leading to the disastrous GAC centennial gala. They find a significant amount of information, though as usual, it yields more questions than answers.

Excelsior Hotel - Gotham City

From the Excelsior Hotel to the converted Monarch Theatre, Red Robin's hideout.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bruce Wayne, Azalea Kingston, Bucky Barnes, Dr. Jane Foster, Ritchie Simpson, John Constantine, Jessica Jones, Conner Kent, Stephanie Brown, Giovanni Zatara, Ra's al-Ghul, Alfred Pennyworth

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Though it had taken effort on Tim Drake's part, he did everything he could to keep his promises to Zatanna. To get some rest, and take a few days off in New York City. To socialise like a normal human being, to take in some of the sights and sounds and food of the Big Apple with his friend.

Questions and concerns had nagged at him, of course, but Tim knew the importance of taking a break every once in a while… Especially after he'd so recently worked himself nearly to death in the effort to save the gothic magician's soul, and then come perilously close to a much more violent end when they went to deal with those responsible, and to rescue Barnes and Foster. That Zatanna was later able to heal his wounds didn't negate the toll it had taken on him: The human body isn't meant to be riddled with bullets, after all.

Stephanie's surprise visit to the penthouse, and the information the blonde had brought, had made Tim's fingers itch to research, but he'd only made a very cursory examination of what she'd brought, adding it to his existing casefile. She'd brought trouble with her too, but that was in the Spoiler's nature. Turmoil and worry.

But he can't make other people's decisions for them. He can't plot out their every move. He has to let them do things on their own, and trust that they can handle themselves.

For him, though… It's difficult.

As promised, they'd taken the train back to Gotham together, Tim and Zatanna, chatting and laughing as the landscape of New York and then New Jersey slid by, until the grim city enveloped them once again. The place where people like him were all that stood between the innocent citizenry, and a bottomless pit of chaos and fear.

And he'd kept his other promise, too: To call her, if he needed anything.

"The Excelsior Hotel," Tim said to Zatanna, later that night in the hideout that lurked past the secret door in his townhouse. He was in his costume, checking closures and straps, making sure everything was sitting just so. His cowl settled behind his head, like a hood. "According to my contact, that's where he was staying when he was in Gotham." No point in exposing Stephanie unneccessarily, even if Tim had given her Zatanna's number - and Constantine's - just in case she needed help with magical peril. "From what they said, what I assume to be those Cold Flame guys have been snooping around there, as well as the sites relevant to the Kazinsky case. The tannery, and where he died at Arkham." He paused, consideringly. "From what they said, there's been people snooping around the Third Eye, as well." And Tim, of course, had been gripped with the possibly irrational concern that it was in some way his fault. He was the one who went to ask Gerry Craft for information, after all. "My contact went to warn Mister Craft, and will try to look after him. I don't know what sort of clues might still be remaining at the hotel, but I figured if anyone could find something mystically useful there, Zee, it'd be you."

He, of course, would take care of the more mundane investigation.

And with that, he headed towards the rooftop access, tucking his hair under his cowl as he pulled it into place, settling the earpiece, the lenses. Turning on the voice modulator.

"Need to draw as little attention as possible," Red Robin said, drawing his grapple gun with one hand, and holding his other out to Zatanna. "It'll be a smoother ride this time, promise." He even smiled, reassuringly.

THE EXCELSIOR HOTEL, DOWNTOWN GOTHAM

The rooftop was quiet. They usually were: The sorts of things that happened on rooftops in Gotham City at night tended to chase off potenial bystanders, and besides who would want to be lurking on the rooftop of a hotel in early February? Besides, you know, costumed vigilantes and their associates.

Red Robin knew what room they were looking for. He even had a key he'd made to unlock it, after engaging in a little creative computing with the hotel's mainframe. He was on guard, though. Cautious, careful. Even with Zatanna around, there's no telling what one of those cultists could do if they got the first shot off… And a sneak attack from a lightning bolt or a gout of flame from the depths of Hell would leave him just as dead as a bullet through the brainpan. His cowl's imaging systems provide him with all sorts of information normal eyes could never see; the earpieces improve his hearing, until he could detect a heartbeat rooms away. But carelessness could get them both killed.

When they get to the door of the right room, Red Robin gestures at it, and then at Zatanna; presumably, he's wondering if she detects any weird magic stuff.

—-

EARLIER…

Zatanna stares at the outstretched hand extended to her, before ice-blue eyes lift to those white lenses and cowl.

"…I swear you're doing this on purpose," the magician tells him. But that does not stop her from moving to fit herself against him, and squeeze her eyes shut. The better to keep herself from screaming once they lift off the roof, and go swinging to the very top of the Excelsior Hotel. She manages, somehow, to prevent herself from shrieking. It's only because she knows they're about to break and enter a very posh hotel that she manages to be quiet.

Relatively quiet.

She may have used a muting spell on herself so only Tim can hear her when they're finally in the air.

NOW

As the two of them slink down the hallway to the double-doored suites the hotel is known for, she has to spend a couple of minutes leaning against the wall, her heart in her throat and her blood rushing in her ears. Her knees are weak and she locks them together as she attempts to regain her composure. "I'm never going to get used to it," she tells Tim, her voice quiet and breathless. "Never, ever, ever…"

Unlike Red Robin, she is dressed in much more mundane attire - black jeans ripped in places, fishnets worn underneath, a slim-fitting jacket left unzipped in acknowledgment of the onset of Spring, over an embroidered black shirt pulled over a sapphire blue tanktop. For tonight's excursion, she has bound her hair into a tighter plait, coiled around itself and secured at the back, though those errant wisps remain free to frame her face. Boots take her up close to his height, though given his platform boots, he towers over her by a few inches.

As they move, she gives him a curious look, a teasing slant over her mouth. "You know, I was half-expecting you to just buy the hotel or pretend to be a guest so you could just…you know. Slink in Gottfried Muller's own suite." Her expression becomes more serious when she gets to the door. "I knew he was staying here, but Jess wanted me out of it and that was how she got taken." Her hand is already fishing out the obsidian obelisk from her back pocket, deftly spinning it in her hand. Stored magic, practically Magic's popular brand of TV dinner. But to her credit there's no distaste on her features when she uses it, still too hesitant and wary to use her enormous potential. Ephemeral wisps escape the wand's tip when it touches the doorknob, a quiet whisper escaping her lips.

They rise, twist. They catch onto the traces of expended sorcery, faint as it is - the sickly green color contrasts sharply with the signature blue-white of Zatanna's power, and those eyes squint faintly at what she sees. "Well, they were definitely here, alright," she murmurs. "Not too recently…maybe a few days ago judging by how faint they are. In a few days, all of this will be gone."

She lets Tim handle the electronic lock and keypad before they venture into the suite. Opulent, extravagant, the classic Victorian aesthetic reminds her of her father's inner sanctum in Shadowcrest, almost expected from a man who has lived for a little over a hundred years. The fixtures are expensive, left to cast a dim, warm glow in the main living space, gleaming over dark wood and hand-crafted furniture. There is a bar, laden with liquor bottles - expensive stuff. The floor-to-ceiling windows are heavily draped, meant to trap sound - her bootsteps click on the space's hardwood, her knees bending to examine the Tiffany statue on top of the low coffee table.

"Sulfur," she tells Tim, taking a whiff. "Though I don't know how long it's been around - traces of Hell can linger in a place for years. I guess Steinschneider really has been meeting with the infernal, a space like this would definitely have Mammon visiting. Ugh, maybe I was hoping too much that Hell's not involved in whatever it is that's happening."

The main room extends to the kitchen area and the dining room, though there is an ornate archway leading to the master suite, where the bedroom and bathroom is.

—-

"I can't buy /everything/," Red Robin reminds her, the amusement in his voice still audible despite the electronic masking that blurs it, deepens it into something that would never be recognised as the voice of Tim Drake. "Besides," he adds, "they weren't selling."

It couldn't hurt to /check/.

The keycard works, of course - Red Robin hadn't expected otherwise, trusting in his own work and the unfortunately rather shoddy electronic security at the Excelsior, the door opening with a quiet beep-beep-beep as it submits to the costumed vigilante's expertise. He makes a faint grunt of acknowledgement at what Zatanna says about the recent traces of /other/ visitors, the individuals Spoiler had traced having been there a few days before. Once they're both inside, he shuts the door quietly, not wanting to draw any extra attention should someone else come down the hallway. Instead, he starts scanning around, even as Zatanna's bootheels click on the hardwood floors, conducting her own investigation.

"I suppose this means we're not the only ones looking for Steinschneider," Red Robin muses out loud, using the spots where Zatanna's mists linger as a kind of trail, checking for prints, the lenses of his cowl gleaming faintly as he uses a built-in mechanism rather than a hand-held blacklight. Nothing much useful, or of interest, which about matches what he was expecting… Fingerprinting someplace like a hotel is chancy to begin with, given the volume of staff and the turnover of guests, and when you add wizards and Demon Princes to the mix…

Giving up on the fingerprinting for now, he moves virtually silently despite his boots into the center of the main area, another device coming out of his utility belt; he sets it down, and then moves out of the way.

Beams of blue light lance out from either side of the device, flickering in and out of existence as they sweep over the interior of the room, committing every nook, every cranny to digital memory. Building a 3D model of the interior on Red Robin's own computer, information fed into his cowl's heads up display, as he searches for anything out of place. Hidden spots, constructed hollows.

Soon, though, they'll need to continue.

"Someone's been staying here. I guess Steinschneider didn't keep the place rented after he left Gotham. That might confuse things." Truthfully, the vigilante doesn't have high hopes that /his/ investigative methods will bear much fruit in here tonight, which is why he made sure to bring the Mistress of Mysticism along. Slowly, carefully he moves towards the ornate archway.

Perhaps they'll find something more useful in the master suite.

—-

"Well, the Excelsior's pretty popular. It's usually booked up throughout the year, from what I've heard. Though I guess that also means either Steinschneider doesn't intend to return, or if he does, he'd be staying at some other place. Which would make sense, considering the lid's blown wide open on this little hideout," Zatanna supplies, pushing her hair away from her eyes, curiosity there when she watches Tim do his work, though high-tech gadgets are certainly beyond her. She doesn't know what the costume is capable of, though considering the sizeable amount of cash that probably went into developing it, she can already surmise that it can probably do a lot more than it looks - much like John's silver lighter.

His devices would register, indeed, many fingerprints…from waitstaff and prior guests, and from unwanted presences such as the members of the Cult who have attempted to case the place already for clues regarding their quarry. He would be right there - they aren't the only ones looking for alias Gottfried Muller, though it still remains an open question as to why they're looking for him.

"Any ideas as to why?" she asks, watching with interest as those blue lasers commit the entire room to memory. The readings that are generated suggests that there is a safe hidden in the painting hanging over the bar. "Why the Cult would be after Steinschneider now? Admittedly…the organization does act like some kind of magical mafia, maybe after he skipped town, he still owed them something so now they're looking for him. Doesn't explain why they'd be interested in his great-grandson, though…" It seems John has at least showed her Red Robin's concise but very detailed e-mail about the Spear of Destiny. "You think they might be after him also? I mean…he could be innocent in all of this. I know what it's like, the sins of the father and all."

Should Red Robin check the safe behind the painting, however, he would find it empty - it looks like yet another one of those more mundane hidey-holes meant to cater to the rich, as they're the only ones who can afford a suite as opulent as this. And when they reach the master suite…

"Whoa," the magician whispers.

Whatever she did at the door, those wisps that detect sorcery at work, seems to have taken up residence in the master suite. The sickly-green cloud hovers thickly on the space above the bed, the small pathway leading into the decadent marble bathroom. There is another colored haze as well, pressed up against the far wall, fainter than the more virid traces and on the verge of fading completely. She gestures to that area with a wand.

"Jess mentioned she was thrown against the wall in order to pull her in Steinschneider's nightmare labyrinth, that must be his signature." The magician looks somewhat disappointed. "I honestly have no idea what the hell they're trying to do here." She attempts a recall with a flick of her obsidian obelisk and murmuring a few words.

"…no, they look like detector spells also. Would explain why they concentrated on the bedroom and the bathroom, if they really are trying to look for him. Biological traces would be more plentiful here."

Should Red Robin use his devices, he would find other things: there used to be a desk by the window, though he would observe that by mundane sight, given the faint outlines of something block left on the carpet. He would find a couple of other safes - hidden crevices in compact spces in the bathroom, and in the bedroom closet. However, there would also be another crevice - a little more difficult to get to, an old vent, underneath the bed and at the very far wall, right under the massive mattress' headboard. The huge piece of furniture will have to be moved in order to get to it.

A two person job, physically. But he did come with a witch.

—-

It's a good question.

Why /does/ the Cult want him now?

"They never got what they were after," Red Robin agrees, checking the safe, checking a few other areas just in case. "He left without upholding his part of the bargain… They never got you." It certainly fits the facts, at least as Red Robin has seen them, though why the Cult needed Steinschneider to do that escapes him for now - not enough data. "That's what triggered at least some of this. Kazinsky stumbled on you by accident when he was looking for his thirteenth victim. He… Changed when I was fighting him. Possessed, I guess by Mammon, who realised what his pet serial killer had brought home. He was laughing about it. I'm guessing it was because of you that Mammon was driven back out."

Even terrified and drugged, she'd had the presence of mind to try to escape… And when she'd realised just /what/ had actually captured her, she'd had the guts and the cleverness to fight back. Probably saving Red Robin's life in the process.

Connecting those particular dots only deepens his fondness for her, only increases his respect, his pride.

But he can't let himself linger on those thoughts.

"They're still after you," the caped and cowled vigilante says. "Following Kazinsky's trail. Nosing around the Third Eye. They're hunting for more than one target."

Including the great-grandson, yes. Yes.

"The great-grandson might be connected to the Spear of Destiny, I haven't entirely written that possibility off yet," Red Robin muses out loud. "After all, he might be living under a different name, we didn't have anything to go by except Steinschneider. But, more concretely… He might be all the family Steinschneider has left in the world. That makes him leverage. Someone Steinschneider might actually care about, or failing that someone with the same blood… Right? Does magic work that way, sympathetic links between family members? Or…" He pauses, thinking. Thinking. His head tilts to one side, the slightly hooked nose of his cowl enhancing the birdlike aspect of it, borrowing from his namesake. "Wait… Does magic pass along family lines? Like… Specific abilities?"

It's not something easy to wrap his head around, for Red Robin, but at least his lifelong love of fantasy novels and tabletop games gives him some kind of framework to start from. Even though it's probably completely wrong in places.

The question is tabled, at least in the short term, as they enter the master suite and find spooky things happening. Some kind of… Something, caused by Zatanna's earlier willworking to detect the traces of other magic in the hotel room, in this case finding what is no doubt a much /larger/ amount of magic than the faint wisps they'd seen elsewhere. The mention of a nightmare labyrinth draws a faint frown where the vigilante's mouth is visible - he doesn't want to get pulled into any nightmare labyrinths - and he moves cautiously to avoid the areas where the magical traces linger altogether, not just the fainter wisps that seem to designate Steinschneider's own particular bit of nasty work. He scans the room again, creating another one of those 3D models, finding more potential hiding spots. Safes, and…

"Help me move the bed," Red Robin instructs, moving towards one side of the headboard, and waiting for Zatanna to take up the other before they can start to shove the thing out of the way. He's strong, but in the realm of mortal men, and Zatanna… Can probably use some magic to make it easier to move the thing. She seems to be leery of big shows of power, for whatever reason, and he doesn't want to give the Cult of the Cold Flame /or/ Steinschneider any more reason to pay attention to what they're doing than absolutely necessary.

Thus, elbow grease.

—-

"I knew his symbol when I stumbled drugged into his bedroom," Zatanna says, recalling what happened in the Red Hook tannery, goosebumps crawling down her spine as she revisits the event mentally. God, it feels like a lifetime ago. "It was scrawled on the wall, and there were candles and a spellbowl. Spellbowls are common household implements back in ancient Mesopotamia, often used to /protect/ a household from demons. But the purpose was crudely perverted into doing the opposite, that's how I knew what he intended. Remember when I told you that magic comes with a price? For something like that, if you're not willing to give up your own life, you better be prepared to offer up others." A sheepish look falls over her pale mien. "I had no idea you were fighting him in the main factory floor, I just knew that if I didn't reverse the bowl's purpose, I'd have bigger problems than a serial killer."

She finds it in her to laugh, in spite of the fact that the two of them are currently committing a felony. "God, seeing you now in that get up…to think I kept worrying about you all that time about what would happen to you if you got up too deep with me. Maybe all of this really was meant to be after all. We were going to discover who the other really was, I think."

Especially with what is happening now. Hesitation fills her eyes, at the remembrance of the white noise in her head, the bristling sensation she feels in the air. It hasn't stopped, from the trip to Gotham from New York - too insistent to be ignored.

One thing at a time, she thinks, discarding the thought. With the Cult's new activities in Gotham and the fact that Gerry Craft might be in trouble, there is plenty to sink her teeth into.

The reminder that the Cult isn't done with her has her sighing quietly. "It's just probably another way to just get at Daddy," she mutters. "Maybe taking advantage of the fact that he can't be around me right now. That would be a kick in the ass, wouldn't it? If something happens to the only family you have left, your flesh and blood, and you can't even be around to prevent it? It'll be like my mother all over again. And using…whatever they managed to dredge out of the muck of Hell or human sacrifices or whatever to bring that fake Giovanni Zatara back to life. It's only a matter of time before a reckoning happens between me and them, Red."

There is determination in her expression, and a great deal of outrage in those eyes. She has always been directed by her temper, and it's miraculous enough by itself that Zatanna hasn't elected to kick down the doors of the Oblivion Bar and bring the war directly on the Cold Flame's doorstep.

When Tim asks about magic and how it's passed on, there's a bit of a blink. "A normal person can learn magic," the young woman replies slowly. "But it's difficult. It's easier if you already have a natural affinity for it, like the blood, as you said. Or if you were exposed to it at a point in your life when you were forced open." Like what happened with Professor Richard 'Ritchie' Simpson of Ivy University and, she suspects, Dr. Jane Foster after her first adventure with John Constantine. "Or passed down through family lines. The greater your pedigree, the higher your potential. Daddy came from tremendous magical stock, for instance - I can trace my ancestry directly through Cagliostro, Nicholas Flamel and Leonardo Da Vinci." Are they all seriously magicians?! "And…I'm not even going to get into what my mother is. But yeah, Red…all of that makes sense. Or maybe if they can't get Steinschneider, they can use his great-grandson for…something. We really need to figure out just why they want him."

Meaning they might all have to go to Germany, not just to end Steinschneider's ambitions and the Cold Flame's designs for him once and for all, but also save an innocent life.

His instruction on the bed has her turning towards it. "Oh god, it's huge," she mutters, but she does what he asks. She grasps the end of the board, and the bottom of the frame, bending her knees. And once Red Robin gives the signal, she grunts, and shoves the bed aside.

The vent is exposed, coated with dust - the bed is probably too cumbersome to move daily for a thorough cleaning. But that means that any marks left behind are visible…and they are. The clear signs of fingers are evident on the layer of dust. Someone was fiddling with it recently.

—-

The costumed vigilante shrugs his shoulders, a little bit.

"Nobody knowing I was there was the whole idea, at least until it was time to strike… Mind you, I was expecting him to put up less of a fight." The change had been profound, when Kazinsky's infernal master had taken over his body. The strength and speed the demon had imbued that frail mortal body with would've been more than enough to kill Red Robin if he'd made even the slightest mistake… And sooner or later, he would've. Without Zatanna's interference, that wasn't a fight he was going to win.

Not that knowing that had stopped him any, even when he thought that Kazinsky was just hiding some metahuman abilities and maybe a split personality, a suspicion that became harder to hold onto when the demon spoke his real name. But no, he wouldn't have stopped, even then. Wouldn't have fled to save his own skin, and to surely doom the young woman who had been kidnapped that night.

"If only I hadn't figured arresting Kazinsky would be the end of it," he adds, self-recrimination thick in his electronically blurred voice. He had no reason to suspect otherwise, at least until Kazinsky's mysterious death… But no leads to go on from there, anyway. Not until later did it become clear where that event fit in with the rest of the puzzle.

"The funny thing is I was thinking the same thing about you," Red Robin notes, on the subject of worrying about what would happen to the other if they were too closely connected. His amusement is more wry, though. "That's why I… Held back. A lot of people I've cared about have gotten hurt just because I was in their lives, and finding you in that tannery… I didn't want you to become another one of them, Zatanna. I thought it was safer, if I was a bit distant. And we all saw how well that worked."

Which is to say, poorly.

But it worked out for the right people in the end, he keeps telling himself. Maybe eventually he'll even believe it.

"What if it's not just your father, though?" Red Robin wonders. "They weren't just talking about capturing you, they wanted your soul. Mammon wants it. What if it's like with the Tarnhelm, wanting your power?" Though, he guesses that if Mammon really is a literal Demon Prince of actual no foolin' Hell, the seizure of such a good soul, such a powerful soul that would otherwise be a force against the infernal on Earth would be a tremendous coup… And, certainly, if they want to hit Giovanni Zatara where it hurts, what better way than to make his daughter a plaything of the Downstairs crowd? "And that copy of your father… Mister Craft mentioned something called the Third of the Fallen, that could mimic someone down to the very essence, or give that ability to another. He made it sound like a worst case scenario, though."

Well, Red Robin doesn't know what he can do about that stuff - he may be a man of virtue, a pure soul, but he is by no means a man of faith - but that doesn't mean he won't try. It's in the job description, after all: Saving lives means saving souls, too.

And hers, perhaps above all others.

"You won't be alone," he tells her, when she mentions her reckoning. "I'll go with you as far as I can."

His own anger is better hidden, especially compared to the outbursts he showed when Zatanna's soul had been stripped from her, but it is not /gone/. It bides its time, skulks in the shadows of his heart. It waits, with the cold certainty that it will have a moment to strike.

That Zatanna's magical lineage traces back through Alessandro Cagliostro, Nicholas Flamel and Leonardo da Vinci gets a bit of a dubious look from Red Robin, one that's visible even with his face mostly obscured by his cowl… But the look fades quickly, as he's gone long past the point where he can easily view these things as /too/ ridiculous to be true. Even with the vague claims that her mother is somehow something even /less/ likely, the woman having been described to him in the past as the healer who saved Giovanni Zatara's life.

"If his abilities are the same as Steinschneider's originally were, then he's some kind of clairvoyant. Maybe that has something to do with it?" All he can do are throw out ideas, theories. Try to piece things together from his own, relatively mundane, perspective.

It's… Frustrating. Like trying to operate in a world he can barely sense, let alone understand. A blind man, trying to figure out his surroundings by touch, with no idea if any given step will suddenly kill him. But he's not alone, at least. He knows people who are part of that world, who can give him some guidance. But then comes the nagging doubt that he's dead weight. That he should get out of the way and let the professionals do their jobs.

Not that it's ever stopped him before.

'Oh god, it's huge,' Zatanna mutters about the bed, when he says they need to move it the hard way.

"That's what she said," is the quiet response, before they're able to put their backs into it, shifting the bed noisily, an unavoidable cacaphony of wood dragging on wood. And there's the vent, recently moved.

"Can you see anything weird about it?" Red Robin wonders as he hunkers down beside the vent, scanning it thermographically, with a brief pulse of ultrasound, with a scan for electrical currents. He searches carefully for mundane traps, while Zatanna can hopefully discover if it had been warded by magical means.

—-

"I guess it takes all kinds," Zatanna says quietly, as the two of them delve into how it was before. "I'm a magician, Red. Secrets are my life, so I know very well how specific kinds can destroy a good thing." Which would probably explain, among other things, just why she chooses to be the way she is on a personal level. "Between you and me, I'm glad our friendship's survived everything so far. Though this does mean…well. More of this." She gestures vaguely at the master bedroom, laughter hinted in her tone. "Breaking and entering, sneaking around trying to figure out what an international cabal of sorcerors want with immortal mages and clairvoyants. One day, you're going to have to take me in one of your excursions for a change." She winks at him. "See how the other side lives."

Though she probably still won't like swinging between buildings in a tether.

When he starts on Kazinsky, she shakes her head, ice-blue eyes lifting from where she is looking at the headboard, once they've peeled it away from the wall so they can get to the vent pressed up against it. Moving around his side of the bed so she can take a look at the vacated space, a hand lifts as she passes, squeezing his shoulder. "Don't, Red. You're not a mindreader and you can't see the future," she tells him quietly. "All you can really do is solve one problem at a time, yeah? You can't be everywhere at once, and it isn't as if you've come across something as involved and supernatural like this until I came barreling in your life. There's no way you could have anticipated this."

He isn't wrong, about her soul. There's a resigned look on her face at that, and her fingers loosen from the kevlar weave of his costume. "It probably is more than that - more than the vendetta against my father, anyway," she acknowledges. "But unless we know more, we're just guessing, at this point. I'm hoping this entire excursion sheds some light in what they actually want and…as much as I hate to admit it, save for kicking down the doors of the Oblivion Bar in New York or going back to Switzerland to try and attack the temple again, I don't think we're going to find any better leads than Steinschneider and his connection to everything." Though concerns about the Third of the Fallen has her shuddering quietly. "That's beyond the worst case scenario," she replies. "I'm /hoping/ that's conjecture and nothing else. There's gotta be another way, another method. Because if that's true, that means…"

No, she can't think about that. Not right now. There's no /way/.

The reassurance that he'll help her as much as he can, go as far as he can, has her smiling at him faintly. "I know," she tells him. "Likewise. I mean it, Red. Your problems are my problems, also."

She instead focuses on his next point on the German, and his descendant. That one gets a more affirmative nod. "Most definitely a possibility. Not all children born from sensitives are sensitive, but if the Cult is…they wouldn't be interested in anyone that didn't have talent. Non-practitioners are practically a different species to them. Not worth the trouble acknowledging, or saving. If they got caught up in their business, they won't hesitate to snuff them out."

For someone not involved in the occult world, though, Red Robin has managed to crack a few leads wide open. He may feel blind, but he and Jess have been their top purveyors of information as far as the case is concerned. Were she asks, she'd say that they're doing just fine.

The Archer line has her inclining her head at him, amusement implied on the line of her mouth, before she crouches down on the carpet, squinting at the vent. "Nope," she says after a few moments of silence. "I can't detect any magical booby-traps." She does see the marks, however, imprinted on the dust…and realization flares in her eyes. Leaning back, tilting her head towards the ceiling, she can't help but smirk.

"Aha. No wonder. All those detector spells. The Cultists probably relied on just that thinking that if Steinschneider kept anything helpful here, he would be using magic to prevent anyone from discovering it. But he's been around for a hundred years and he knows his biggest threats are people like John and me - people from the community. And we're sensitive to that kind of power. If he really was hiding something important, he would know /not/ to use magic." And she had described them well enough, what Cultists think of non-practitioners.

Should Red Robin inspect the vent, there are no other triggers. He'd be able to pry the vent open, and once he reaches inside…

He'd be able to pull out a cardboard portfolio with some heft to it, the cover fastened to the rest with a string. Edges of yellowed paper can be glimpsed crumpled on one corner, its color dulled with a sprinkling of dust.

—-

There's a faint sound from Red Robin, somewhere between agreement and amusement.

"There's no shortage of international cabals, trust me," the vigilante says. "Though usually the ones I deal with are less sorcerors and more immortal ninja assassins. But, if you want to go scrounging in the muck with me, that's fine too. You should probably wear a mask, though. Hate to see that pretty face become the talk of Gotham's underworld." Zatanna's a magician, and she can probably handle herself… But what about other people? Tim Drake isn't the only 'normal' human she's befriended at Gotham University, surely, and the sort of people that Red Robin deals with wouldn't show them a hair more empathy, a moment's more consideration than the Cult of the Cold Flame.

Less, maybe. The Penguin or the Black Mask would gladly torture a few of Zatanna's classmates to death, if she'd interfered in their business.

Demons and Princes of Hell are all well and good, but in Tim's experience humans don't need some infernal inspiration to commit the most disgusting of atrocities on one another… Just good old fashioned human ingenuity.

He does nod, though, at Zatanna's attempts to keep him from tearing himself up about what he might've been able to do if he't taken some hypothetical other route; the touch on the shoulder helps, felt through the layers of leather and kevlar weave, the lightweight plating, the memory material of his black cape. It's just pressure, but he knows what it is.

Helps, but doesn't completely banish it: He was always one to blame himself, for not having thought a hundred steps ahead of everyone else, for not having predicted and accounted for everything. It pushed him, as it always would, to do more, to fight harder. To destroy himself, perhaps, in the name of the Work.

His reassurance that he'd stand with her gets a smile; that expression, and her reciprocation, makes him look down in rueful embarrassment. She was always like this, always open, and he tried to hold back from her even as it pulled him in like gravity. His heart aches, but there's something sweet and good in the pain, too. Something he knows he wouldn't give up, even if it meant the hurt would go away.

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

"Lots of possibilities, then… Lots of things that might be the case," he says quietly. About the Cult's interest in Zatanna, and their interest in Steinschneider's descendant as well. "You're right though, no point in getting caught up in guessing when we've got a perfectly good lead to follow." The thoughts will stay in his mind, though, filed away. Waiting for something else to connect to, pieces of a puzzle hungry to be completed. This is what he does, after all. Zatanna bends reality to her whim… Red Robin finds the pattern in the chaos.

When she notes the lack of magical wards or booby traps, Red Robin's mind jumps to the same place hers does. Of course, if you want to hide something from mages, you don't use magic. Especially mages who might ignore a more mundane solution.

"Interesting," the cowled young man says, already prying at the vent cover. "Exploiting the arrogance of other mages, but falling victim to it himself." The lack of security against a mundane search is just… Insulting. He lifts out the cardboard portfolio, and the corners of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. He tries not to get ahead of himself. It could be nothing. But he feels that sense in the pit of his belly, like the moment before jumping off a rooftop. Dread, excitement, anticipation. Like a kid on Christmas morning, except you never know if one of your presents is going to be full of bees.

"Interesting," he repeats, carefully replacing the vent cover and then rising up with the portfolio, resting it on the bed. There's no time for anything but a cursory check, here. They'll need to push the bed back into place, and they should check those other hiding spots, and then leave before the room's occupant, or anyone else, returns. Gently, carefully he starts to undo the string, to open the folio, and at least scan over some of the papers.

—-

A mask. "Like one of those domino ones that the Dark Devil wears?" Zatanna wonders, unsure whether Azalea and Tim know each other outside of their disguises, so she errs in the side of caution. "Wonder if that'd look good on me, it's sort of like one of those masquerade ones I've seen handcrafted in Venice when I spent some time in Italy." Ever the adventurer, being the daughter of Giovanni Zatara has probably taken her to many places, introduced to their more mystical and wondrous workings. "That was when I was young, though, I don't think I've worn a mask ever since. I'll probably use some kind of glam— " She trails off as she stares at him, when he obliquely refers to the League of Shadows.

"Immortal /assassins/?" she asks out loud. "So this isn't really your first time tangling with someone who can't die?" And Tim was still alive?! Then again, she isn't really all that surprised, considering. He was more tactically inclined than anyone else in her acquaintance. "Wow, Red. The things I didn't know about you before. Are they…I mean…you're not a mark for these people, are you?"

His glance downward has her nudging her shoulder against his. "Hey, look up," she tells him lightly; she is fully aware of the fact that it isn't easy being around her, as grateful as she is that whatever else has not diminished their friendship. Privately, she acknowledges the selfishness of it, of feeling that way, but Tim made his choice and she has decided not to let that get in the way of their interactions. The rest, as they say, is up to Fate - whether it will last, or be driven to the ground due to the two of them being incredibly, painfully human. She has never been one to worry about the future, however, more than content to focus on the present and what is in front of her. And presently, what is in front of her is…

A dusty portfolio full of papers. Papers that may hold plenty of information. She can practically taste her friend's excitement - he is, as ever, an avid consumer of facts, the kind who files them away in that prodigious memory only to be recalled in order to satisfy his desire to see a pattern in all things. It has helped them considerably, so far. All she can do, really, to aid is to fill in the gaps of his knowledge - what he doesn't understand about her world. Though if this keeps up, he'll probably end up being well-familiar with it also.

And she is happy to facilitate this. If they are going to be around each other, helping one another, he will have to know the ins and outs of her sphere…and she will have to know his, in turn. Dealing with criminals, Gotham's seedier, but mundane (or as mundane as the world gets, for a city, it can't help but be strange and confusing in its own way without magic) underbelly. The avenues in which people pass on tidbits and useful knowledge. Her father has always impressed upon her the necessity of accumulating enough skills in the event that she can't rely on her own gifts for something, after all. She is learning plenty from Tim just by seeing him work, the things he says.

The papers are old - records that predate the digital age. Data that Jessica's hacker/information broker would not be able to retrieve from electronic systems. The first thing Red Robin would find, at the very top, is a decree from a court in Berlin, detailing how Hermann Steinschneider's estate was distributed among his heirs. There is also a will, clearly never filed with the court, a fact that is curious enough given the nature as to how wealth is passed down by law; an area that Zatanna has no experience in, but which Tim will have /plenty/ of experience in. Another cursory inspection through the sheaf would find detailed information on all the man's relatives. Either he has collected them himself or has had a private investigator of his own looking into them.

Another quick scan would reveal that, in the mess of convoluted family workings that he will have to parse out later in the quieter confines of his lair, that Hermann Steinschneider's existing family has been dwindled down into two: Reiner Steinschneider, only son of his youngest son, Armand Steinschneider, and Adelaide Weir, the wife of Erika Steinschneider's youngest son…his eldest daughter.

"What the hell…" Zatanna whispers softly, looking over Red Robin's shoulder. "Did he actually just lose track of all of his relatives that he's looking into them now or…wait. Look at the dates."

They are not recent. Steinschneider has been collecting information on his family and their movements for /decades/.

"Red, why would anyone collect this much information? They're…they're his family. But it's like…he doesn't know /shit/ about any of them." Her voice trails off, but Tim would probably follow where she is going.

These are not the actions of a man who has kept in touch, or has even declared himself, despite his clear interest.

—-

'Hey, look up.'

He does.

Red Robin is who he is, after all. Whether it's by dint of some natural gift, or because of the training he's endured since he fell into the orbit of the Dark Knight, he has an enormous capacity to press onward no matter what. Even when it's difficult, even when it hurts. Even when he knows he'll never have what he wants.

He /is/ the type to worry about the future, because thinking ahead is in is nature, but he has no fear of his friendship with Zatanna collapsing. He knows better than that. The veil of the secret that had cost him so many friendships, and other relationships, didn't hang between then anymore; it had taken her near death to push him to the point of tossing it aside, but there was no going back on that. Instead, they could be honest.

And that's not nothing; he nudges her shoulder right back.

"Yes, sort of. They know who we all are, but they're…" He trails off. How to put this? It is sort of a complicated situation. "Well… Let's just say they'd rather turn the Batman and his associates to their side than kill us… But they'd kill us if they have to."

This leaves out key things, of course, like the League's role in training Batman, and thus indirectly Red Robin himself, in much the same way as Giovanni Zatara; Bruce Wayne's connection to the al Ghul family, and the little souvenir his time with them left behind, now running around Gotham in the guise of the current Robin.

"It's a long story," he adds.

He feels like he says that a lot.

The papers give them something else to focus on, Red Robin's featureless white eyes studying the paper, the dark blue eyes behind those lenses scanning quickly back and forth, committing to memory just in case. Names, dates, places. Information that they could've used weeks ago, and it was sitting right there the whole time. But anger and frustration are distant, at least for the moment. He's thinking. Turning things over in his head, this way and that, looking at them from different angles.

"A dead man, watching his family from the shadows. He couldn't reveal himself… He'd already been murdered once, who's to say he wouldn't have brought lethal attention onto his family? And then later, what? 'Hi, I'm your grandfather, I know I died years ago and I was a Nazi, but how are you doing?' Not really the type to show up for birthdays and Christmas." But there's more to it than simple sentimentality, he's sure. Steinschneider wasn't the only one keeping track of his descendants, after all, unless he'd been willingly sharing the data with the Cult of the Cold Flame. Something to do with genetics? With inheritance? Something passed down, or something he was waiting to see emerge?

Behind the white lenses of his cowl, his dark blue eyes continually return to the will. Never filed. Never enforced. Maybe the key to all of this.

With the difficulty and steely resolve of someone pulling themselves away from a good book, Red Robin forces himself to stop reading, making sure everything is neatly packed in the folder before tying it back up. He'll need to look into it more later, where he can take his time.

"We need to push the bed back into place," he tells Zatanna, moving ot one side of the bed to do exactly that; once they have, he makes a quick, cursory search of the other hiding spots he'd noted in the bathroom… And barring anything of interest /there/, well…

Then it's time to go.

—-

"Are they going to be a problem? Because I have to know, now," is what Zatanna says regarding the League of Shadows. Because a huge cadre of assassins that can't die sounds like a ridiculous, but deadly sitution that she ought to be on alert for. Though even while he's quick to give his reassurances that they are more interested in keeping the Batfamily alive than kill them off, she /does not trust this/. She has never trusted shadowy international organizations, and her latest misadventure with HYDRA's ambitions has not improved this.

"And I have time for long stories," she appends.

The rest of what he hypothesizes is sound enough, pondering of the many reasons why Steinschneider would not have wanted to declare himself to his family. "But he had a wife, didn't he?" she wonders. "If that was you…if it was someone you loved, the mother of your children, wouldn't you want…? Nazi or no, if you were betrayed, if you were killed and then suddenly realized you weren't…wouldn't that be the first thing you would do?" To her, student of human nature, that doesn't parse. She is largely of the belief that whatever happened to Steinschneider has been catalyzed by his assassination attempt, and the rest was just a tumbling house of cards after. But before he was an immortal sorceror, he was human, wasn't he? A Nazi sympathizer, certainly, but even some of them were capable of being good parents, and as a student of history, she knows that there were many who were coerced to support the regime out of fear or self-preservation or both.

Still, there's no sense in speculating too much when there's a wealth of information to be dissected. It could be some or all of what Tim has said also.

She helps him return the bed back to its proper place. The rest of the hiding places in the hotel room would yield nothing but the personal effects and valuables of the person currently staying in the suite - a French real estate magnate that Tim would be familiar with, who leads a life similar to Bruce Wayne's day persona; fast cars, indulgent vacations and beautiful women.

With that, it is time to leave the Excelsior, and back to Red Robin's hideout in Gotham.

They take Zatanna's way this time; teleportation is efficient, though she is very well aware that he does not like the method, and it takes them just outside of the converted building that he has purchased as a separate living space and a Robin's nest. It doesn't take them long to enter, though she has excused herself from its more secret underbellies to fix the two of them something for the late night. She leaves the portfolio with him, as she wanders up the stairs and vanishes.

He would hear her bootsteps return after a few minutes, the cadence of them familiar to him by now, when she returns with two cups, steam rising from the top. She sets one of them in front of him while she sinks into a nearby chair. It looks like coffee, but it isn't - creamy white is floating on the top, and when he tastes it, it's vanilla ice cream sprinkled with cinnamon, drowned in espresso. Affogato - strong caffeine and dessert in one, just another reminder that Zatanna wasn't born an American citizen, though his background checks on Giovanni Zatara would indicate that this legend of the mystic world was born not all too far away from Gotham, to a lower-middle class family in New Jersey. A mundane beginning, all things considered, for an extraordinary man.

She pulls up her legs, as always, cradling her cup with both hands and savoring the taste of its contents. Her eyes wander around his base of operations in awe of it; it's a different animal from John's bunker, its more technologically-oriented counterpart.

"Money really is the best superpower," she murmurs appreciatively.

—-

'Are they going to be a problem?'

"Inevitably," is Red Robin's response. Sooner or later, Ra's al Ghul is always going to be a problem, and not one that he can necessarily tackle head on. Fortunately, he can't imagine that the Head of the Demon would have much immediate interest in their current situation, or someone like Zatanna. Though his goals were as ruthlessly utopian as the HYDRA plot that was so recently defeated, sorcery was a bit out of his wheelhouse. Still, there's always the possibility. It never hurts to be careful.

Another reason to try and keep Zatanna's nature a secret from as many other forces as possible. Hiding her from SHIELD might be a lost cause now, but he'll be damned if he'd let the League of Shadows try and get hooks into her.

Possibly literally damned.

"There's a lot we don't know yet," Red Robin reminds Zatanna, as she wonders, as she finds it difficult to quite grasp the idea of Steinschneider deliberately avoiding his family, his wife and his children. Too many questions still in need of answers, though he hopes to find a few more in that folder, and the will that it contains. "It could be he was trying to protect them. Or it could be… That dying and coming back changes you. The League of Shadows… It's not that they can't die, Zatanna. They just know the secret of bringing people back from the dead, a secret that's kept their leader, Ra's al Ghul, alive for centuries. But it drives you mad."

Nothing comes without a cost, as Zatanna knows full well. It only makes sense then that the price for something so precious - life, health, youth, as much as you could ever want - would be terrible.

Not being a thief, Red Robin leaves the items of the room's new occupant unmolested, doing a last sweep of the hotel suite on their way out to make sure that nothing was left behind. Of course, then Zatanna shows them how they're going to get back, a revelation that makes Red Robin's mouth compress into a firm line where it's revealed by his cowl. He doesn't complain, though.

Fair's fair.

It wasn't as bad as the previous times at least, so there's that much to be said for it. Certainly no hurtling at speed through a portal, as during their quick transit from the private hangar to the abandoned hospital where Constantine and Jessica Jones had been imprisoned in their 'perfect worlds'.

Once they get inside his lair, Zatanna excuses herself to head into his apartment, and the vigilante himself heads up to the lab, to get to work. He sheds cape and cowl, not tossing them recklessly about like he did in his New York City penthouse, but putting them up carefully on their rack, along with most of the outer layer of his suit. The pressure underlayer keeps him decent enough anyway, though it clings. His computer comes alive, additional displays including holographic projections, though he dismisses these for now. The work he needs to do is going to be rather more analog.

When Zatanna returns to the secret door, she would discover two things. One, the button behind the aquarium has been replaced: It has a fingerprint scanner, now.

Two, her fingerprint works.

The lair is cold and metal, in comparison with the relative soft warmth of his townhouse apartment; suggestive of the division between Tim Drake and the Red Robin persona, the way he changes whenever he puts that cowl up over his head. The lower levels are silent now, the training room and the workshop, equipment storage and, at the very bottom, the 'motor pool'… As with most things about his hideout, it's less elaborate than the Batcave Zatanna has yet to see, with just a red racing motorcycle, and a mean looking black supercar, its windows tinted red and the shape of the windshield evoking a bird in flight.

Branding is important, where he comes from.

Tim tries the offered not-quite-coffee, though it isn't what he was expecting it to be at all, the sweetness catching him offguard; he glances over to Zatanna, where she sits in the extra chair, setting the mug back down and licking some of the ice cream off of his lips.

"Sweet tooth, huh?" Tim says, with a fond amusement. Well, he's not going to complain about the strong coffee, anyway. The murmur about his ability to finance his own base like this elicits an uncomfortable shrug from Tim, who knows that there are plenty of problems he can't solve just by throwing cash at them. He turns his dark blue eyes to the now spread out contents of the folder, opening the will to start reading that. He's going to need to scan things, but later, later.

And then he frowns.

"Why would Steinschneider leave this behind?" he wonders. "Even if he had to leave Gotham in a hurry, this seems like the sort of thing he would've made sure to get… Unless he was expecting to come back for it, or figured he didn't need it." Could the man have wanted someone to find it? If that were the case, surely he'd have made it easier for someone of a magical inclination to discover… Why, after all, would he expect any mundane to be investigating him, much less want them to get their hands on his secrets?

A quiet groan, and Tim scrubs his hands through his dark hair, pushing it back out of his face.

"No, no point in second-guessing. He's not infallible. Have to work from the assumption that this is legitimate."

So again, he turns his attention to the will.

—-

Her fingerprint works and when she descended, there's one thought: How did he even get my fingerprint?

And then she remembers he's a Batling.

Once settled, she smiles from over the lip of her mug, eyebrows lifting from her eyes. "I like ice cream," she tells him, apropos of nothing. Sometimes she likes it a little /too much/, remembering the Autumn in which she spent indulging herself way too much and gaining twenty pounds that took forever to shed. But she certainly doesn't tell /him/, that, considering just how mortifying her tendency to stress eat really is. While blessed with youthful metabolism, she still needs to work to keep her figure, being both Italian /and/ Turkish descent. Sometimes genetics are just that unforgiving, and she's certainly not like the growing populace on the planet that still manages to be superhero svelte no matter what they do or eat. Sadly, /that/ particular talent has escaped her, perhaps the universe's way to balance out the enormous power potential inside her body.

"He kept it locked away pretty tight," Zatanna says. "And he /did/ have to leave Gotham in a hurry, well before Batman or anyone else could send a tip to the local airports to keep an eye out for a man who looks like him." Though he could just as easily glamour himself to look like another person - but considering how much magic he spent in the gala, he may not have had the strength for it. "But yeah, that's what I was thinking, either he'll return for it or he doesn't need it anymore, discarded in favor of a quick exit. He could have set the thing on fire before leaving, but considering how beat up he was after the gala, and how much magic he used, he was probably too weak to cast anymore. Sometimes that happens, the effects vary, depending on the mage, but even immortal sorcerors can't cast in perpetuity. Mana needs to be replenished especially when you're spending so much of it."

She has /never/ had this problem; thinking about it brings its own sense of dread, but she tempers that down in favor of the moment. So far she is the only exception she knows of regarding the costs of magic. Those rules - that of equivalent exchange among others, have never applied to her.

Watching him groan and scrub his fingers through her hair has her smiling. "Is this part of the detective's thinking process?" she ribs, mischief present there. Easing her body from the chair, she moves over to where he is, leaning over to take a look at the will and the date.

"About a couple of months before he was assassinated," she observes, though she has no doubt that Tim has already gleaned that - it was on the very top of the page.

Ice-blue eyes scan the text quickly. "I guess you're /also/ fluent in German? No wonder you said you could catch me up in my own classes." Seriously, is there nothing Tim can't do? "God, Tim…" Back to his name, now that he's out of the costume. "Keep this up and you're going to make /me/ develop an inferiority complex. Do you know how hard that is?" Little Miss Confidence.

The text, once read through, is emphatic with one glaring fact - save for obligatory amounts and the family home left to his wife and children, all other assets were intended for…

"…who the hell is Greta Muller?"

Zatanna moves to the rest of the portfolio to sort through the sheafs of paper in there. She finds no mention of the name in there. "This is the first time I'm hearing about her, and she's not in any of these papers. So she's…not family? Who the hell is she, then?" She looks up at him. "Think there's a connection between that and his chosen alias?"

He was known as Gottfried Muller before they uncovered his real name.

—-

Zatanna had left her fingerprints all over the place, the last time she'd visited… And the ease with which she'd managed to infiltrate his sanctum was a reminder that she wasn't the only clever person who could theoretically gain access to his apartment. The solution had seemed obvious, and a full biometric scan, or a retinal reader or something would take more work than was probably necessary.

Besides, it was another show of faith in her, wasn't it? He had made his hideout more secure… And trusted her with the ability to come in anyway.

Not that he could keep her out if she /really/ wanted to come in.

"I'll keep more in the freezer then," is the distracted response the magician gets when she admits a fondness for ice cream, because of course Tim Drake doesn't know about any stress eating the Princess of Prestidigitation might've gotten up to, or the deleterious effects it had on her figure. At least she knows that if she were to overeat now, a combination of regular life-or-death battles and a little Batman Boot Camp could tone her up just fine.

After all, look at Tim: A computer nerd built like Brad Pitt in Fight Club.

What she tells him about magic-users and mana is helpful under the circumstances, giving him more reason to not second guess himself out of finding something useful in this potential treasure trove of information… And it's also filed away, stored in one of those rooms in that ever-growing palace inside of his mind. A recently established room, where he keeps the things he's learned about magic since being pulled into the orbit of Zatanna Zatara.

"Only when the detective is frustrated," Tim responds to Zatanna's teasing, as she moves to lean over his chair instead of lounging in her own. Her eyes scan the pages he's looking at, picking out the date, but then the rest of it? She wonder if he's fluent in German, suggesting that she might develop an inferiority complex simply because of the improbable breadth of skills he's developed.

"Ja, sicher," he replies, on the topic of his fluency. "Ich kann Ihnen sagen, wie schön Sie in mindestens zehn Sprachen sind."

The will reveals some curious things, or at least /one/ curious thing, in the person of Greta Muller. Not exactly an uncommon name in Germany, which could make looking her up difficult… Though even as he's thinking that, even as Zatanna starts looking through the other papers, his hands are already dancing over the projected haptic-hologram keyboard of his computer system, searching for the name on a variety of sources… But there's going to be a lot of mud to sift through in order to get at any gold.

"I don't believe in coincidences anymore," Tim answers Zatanna's question. "Whoever she was, she must've been someone extremely important to him… Not to mention, she never got all those things she was bequeathed. This will was never filed, so all of Steinschneider's assets were intestate, passed to his next of kin. Maybe she was a secret lover, or a bastard child he preferred over his legitimate ones. That could be part of why he kept himself hidden from his family… But there's nothing in there tracing Greta Muller or her descendants…"

—-

"Oh god, please don't. I don't want to…." Get fat. "…succumb to the temptation. Do your sacred duty and help a girl out, Timothy Drake."

She suddenly feels guilty about one cup of affogato. She definitely does /not/ want to go back to that period in her life. Sobbing over the man who left her, unable to fit in the jeans she's wearing now, getting stuck in a toilet in Barcelona, wasted and miserable and relying on two perfect strangers to pull her out of the literal hole she was in by lubricating her copiously with bathroom soap. Never again. She will /sign up/ for Crossfit and suffer the laughter of everyone else she knows before that ever happens again.

Granted, if he ever /wanted/ her out of his apartment and lair in record time, he could just propose a Bat-training regimen. She still sees it now and then, a fourteen year old Timothy Drake thrown off a building by the Batman, in hopes that he would find his wings mid-air and fly. She doesn't know if her heart could take that sort of grueling physical punishment. She keeps in shape enough to be striking on stage, but she is in no means an Olympian-grade athlete like Tim and his other colleagues in the capes-and-tights community. She would probably die in less than five minutes of what Tim puts himself through every day.

Questions regarding his fluency in German meets a reply in the form of practical demonstration. Ice-blue eyes still on the portfolio, the rejoinder has her lifting them to fall on his profile, lips parting in faint surprise. She majors in Languages - ancient and modern - at Gotham University, and she has already resigned herself to become one of their interpreters in the event the inevitable trip to Berlin goes underway. What Tim says confirms that he, too, is a polyglot, and is at the very least conversant in ten languages.

But the compliment earns him a smile, teeth glinting from the parted line of her mouth like stars. "How long have you been waiting to break /that/ out, Timothy?" Zatanna teases him with a laugh. "Ambushing me like that, you really /are/ a ninja." There's no blush, since she's shameless most days, but the lack of one is compensated for genuine warm, open affection. Self-esteem, completely restored, for the time being.

Returning to the subject of the will, she looks through the rest of the portfolio again, pulling up the dossiers on Reiner Steinschneider and Adelaide Weir, pursing her lips as she scans through the German notes. "Yeah, no. This file suggests he was solely concentrating on his family - people related to him by blood, and who they married." This on the subject of Weir, who is a relation by marriage. "Nothing on Greta Muller or…any other Muller, really. I wonder who she is, if she didn't bear him a bastard child."

Still, he is right - it's going to take forever to find the Greta Muller that's relevant to them. The fact that the one they are trying to find probably existed seventy or so years ago does not make matters for them any easier, but considering Tim's systems, he can probably just run them overnight to check and cross-check other references and whittle down the contenders. The scanner did not escape her notice.

"Productive night, though, in any case," she says, giving him a smile, laden with no small measure of admiration. "Impressive work. I've never actually seen you…you know. /Detective/ before. Kind of takes me back to my days of reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys as a kid."

—-

She seems pretty vehement about him not stocking up on extra ice cream, for some reason; Tim is left confused, because she /just said/ that she likes ice cream. Though he supposes that she wouldn't want to overindulge. He knows full well the importance of moderation, especially when it comes to less healthy food.

"Uh… Okay, then," Tim agrees, not bothering to hide that he's a little bewildered, now. "I just thought you might like it."

His attempt to be nice and accomodating to his friend - although he supposes that, as a magician, she could conjure infinite ice cream if she were so inclined - thusly stymied, and with him blissfully unaware of the mortifying recollection currently dancing through the theatre of Zatanna's mind, attention returns to the work.

Not that he would expect her to do /his/ workout, especially not to start. In most of the civilised world, it would probably qualify as torture, and he doesn't even push himself as hard as the Batman does, to combat the natural effects of aging. And it could always be worse… Imagine the sorts of things someone like Captain America might expect her to do as exercise, given the prodigious physical abilities of a super soldier.

It scarcely bears thinking about.

Tim can't help but feel a certain satisfaction at getting that surprised look from Zatanna when he confirms that yes, he can speak German, among several other languages… The compliment he slipped in as well getting him one of those brilliant smiles, her natural lack of shame keeping her from blushing, but her warm and open nature treating him to obvious affection in its stead.

"Couple months," he answers her on the subject of how long he'd been waiting to 'break that out'. "Though I figured if I was going to compliment you like that, it would be in a more appealing language than /German/." Generally a rather harsh tongue, with its hard consonants and its clipped cadence. "More like 'vous êtes si belle, comme la lune elle-même,' or the like." Of course, his accent is perfect. To speak another language the way an American would simply wasn't good enough. He had to be able to pass for a native speaker.

"And I really do know ninjutsu," he adds, a bit put out.

As the computer runs its search and cross-references, Tim sits back in his chair, drinking the rest of his own affogato. Already, he's considering a plan of attack on what to scan. Digital copies will be more reliable, not subject to the inevitable vicissitudes that faced physical objects. Digital copies could be shared, spread around for safety. Jones would need some. Maybe SHIELD? Peggy Carter had been trustworthy so far.

His dark blue eyes look sidelong at Zatanna as she compliments him on his work so far, and he sets the now empty mug aside, giving her that boyish smile of his, teeth clipping lightly into his bottom lip.

"This is just the glamorous stuff. The rest of it will be a meticulous slog through who knows how much useless information to try and separate out the useful bits. But somewhere out there is the answer to the question 'who is Greta Muller,' and once we have that we might actually know what the hell Steinschneider is actually up to."

Of course, Tim knows full well that even that piece of information might not lead them to some fantastic revelation that clicks the whole thing into place. Detective work isn't like that nearly as much as he used to hope, no matter how good he is at making deductive leaps. It's the thoroughness that gets the job done, not the flash.

And Tim Drake is nothing if not thorough.

—-

The French compliment is even more blatant. Zatanna can't help but laugh, her brows lifting as she regards him sidelong. "So how many months did you spend in France so you could get that perfect?" she wonders, as the flawless inflection indicates that he has spent some time there, though at this point, she shouldn't be surprised. But that does open the door to further queries into her friend's life, as everything he says does nothing but tell her that graduating from Batman's School of Vigilantism treads through more arenas than looking good in a skin-tight costume, or ridiculous fighting prowess and a certain degree of forensics know-how. "I guess my French could be better," she admits. "I never liked spending time in the country, despite the food and the clothes."

She doesn't explain why, but mischief returns because it always does. "Besides, I'm more partial to Spanish. I spent a lot of time in Spain when I was sixteen and this really cute guy came up to me, sized me up and went 'tantas curvas y yo sin frenos.' " Her contralto is suited for it, armed with a tongue so deft she can make speaking backwards seem flawless, complete with the soft rolling r's. "And I couldn't believe it. I think I was surprised enough that I /laughed/ before kissing him on both cheeks and told him that was the last thing I expected as a pick-up line. I still made out with him, though, because if you could be funny in any language, you're set for life."

The boyish expression has her grinning faintly, looking up from the papers in her hand and visibly endeared. It was, by far, her most favorite face of his. She withdraws Reiner Steinschneder's dossier and hands it to him. "Well, considering he's only got two living relatives left, I'm taking he's the great-grandson the Cult is talking about monitoring," she tells him. "He doesn't look at all like him, though I guess I can see some of the family resemblance around the eyes and nose. He was born in the late eighties…so around John's age."

The dossier indicates that the man has led a relatively simple life - the Steinschneider estate and money seem to have depleted by the time the later generations got to it as there is no indication that he has lived anything resembling a well-to-do lifestyle. His parents are deceased, he has no siblings, and after graduating from Berlin University's College of Music, he occasionally appears as a concert pianist, but otherwise spends much of his time helping an elderly German gentleman run his pub in the city's downtown area. His last known residence is listed as a modest apartment complex in Prenzlauer Berg, in East Berlin. He has no criminal record, save the occasional visits into the drunk tank - he /does/ work at a pub, after all.

"Doesn't even look like he's got the talent," she remarks, furrowing her brows. "If he was clairvoyant…I don't know, maybe he would have used it by now to win the lottery or something. But I'm not discounting the fact that he knows better than to do that, there are rules - what happens to a mystic when he uses his talents to unduly enrich himself. Or maybe he's well familiar enough with his family history to know better than to dabble in all of that." She waves the other dossiers of Steinschneider's relatives. "The rest of them spent their lives living in luxury, but they all either died from diseases or accidents. No discernible pattern, though, not in age or means, so if I had to make a guess, Karmic backlash from talent abuse and not a curse. John might have another theory, but he'll need to take a look at these, I think."

He seems set on finding the mysterious Greta Muller, however, and she nods quietly in agreement. "Yeah," she murmurs. "Hope we figure out who she is. It could explain a few things."

There's a glance at the computer, before she slowly sinks back down on the chair she vacated, putting the papers carefully back in the rust-red portfolio.

—-

"Only a few weeks, but I wasn't really working on the accent while I was there," Tim admits. "Batman sent me to study qi gong techniques under a man named Rahul Lama, a master of healing and meditative arts who lived in Paris. He also knew how to use them to kill, but I never learned that part," though he has of course pieced out how to use the techniques he does know in a lethal manner… Not that he ever would. "Because he got murdered by a vengeful disciple." Yes, like something out of a kung fu movie. "Then I sort of fell in with a corrupt FBI agent and two of the world's greatest assassins, chasing down a drug kingpin who wanted to flood Hong Kong with tainted heroin…"

He trails off, rolling his shoulders in another one of those faint shrugs of his. As though to say, 'yeah, I lived through an improbable action movie plot when I was barely a teenager, but it's no big deal'.

Tim doesn't get to ask her why she doesn't like spending time in France when she apparently likes everything /about/ France, because of course her mischievous nature waxes, and she tells him about her preference for Spanish, wielding it mercilessly in her story about what had happened in Spain when she was sixteen. Tim looks at her, his dark blue eyes slowly tracking up and down her form before he starts turning red and then glances quickly away.

"Ojalá hubiera pensado en eso," he mutters.

And yes, of course, his Spanish is perfect, too.

Simple process of elimination would seem to suggest that Zatanna is right about the individual the Cult of the Cold Flame is observing, and Tim flips through the dossier on Reiner Steinschneider curiously, though at the moment it's the magician's insight that might be the most important here… What sort of arcane patterns might stand out to her, to suggest to her if the descendant they're looking at had some kind of magical ability.

It could be that he was simply someone who preferred to lay low, to not draw undue attention to himself with whatever unusual abilities he might've inherited… Or it's possible that Zatanna's first impulse was correct, and the man is as magical as Tim Drake.

"What about the other descendant? Is it possible the Cold Flame overlooked them because she's a woman? I mean… They seemed like kind of a sausage party, and if there's anything macho underworld boys' club types are, it's sexist. Probably the same whether they're magical or mundane."

As for the rest…

"I'll make copies of everything. Jones might be able to scrounge things up through more conventional means, and yeah… Constantine could see something we don't."

—-

"Why is it that every time you tell me a story about what you do out there, it immediately sounds like a hardboiled action movie?" Zatanna wonders out loud, finally finishing her cup of affogato, the amused line of her mouth pressed into the rim. This fades though, because under the glaring light of their present reality, it only emphasizes the idea that Tim Drake was embroiled in some dangerous undertakings himself, with and against some exceptionally deadly people. The fact that there's a corrupt FBI agent in this latest glimpse of his life is utterly unsurprising, but the involvement of two of the 'world's greatest assassins' and a drug kingpin does indeed remind her of one of those kung-fu movies that attempt to cram in everything. The fact that he mentions Hong Kong has her lifting her brows.

"One of my favorite places in the world," she tells him, though that is a story for another time. "So let me guess, you speak Cantonese also? Did you get a lot of looks from the locals once they realized a gwai lo could communicate in the local lang?" There is good humor present there but it does lapse under the weight of the tale. "Jesus, Tim. Maybe I should give you another exit or something if you're going to be tangling with this sort of thing a lot. I know it seems easy for the likes of me to think that no danger out there could compare to the shit I'm familiar with, but I don't. Think that, I mean."

It would explain all the scars - so many, for someone so young.

The quietly muttered Spanish and the growing flush has her smile returning though, inclining her head at him. "Oh, stop," she chides. "I wouldn't change a damned thing about you, and you know it."

Regarding the other descendant, she shakes her head. "She doesn't really fit the bill considering she's not blood related. She's the wife of a Steinschneider, so if we're going with the theory that the Cult is interested in the bloodline, she isn't really a candidate. But it won't hurt, I think, to look into her also. She might know something if she's tied to the family. Her last known residence is listed in the dossier also."

Copies are good. With a nod, she rises from her chair, moving over so she could hand the portfolio over to Tim.

"All of that's sound," she says. There's that admiration again, and pride. It is rare, to witness him sink himself in aspects of the Work that he actually enjoys. To find patterns, to suss out a puzzle, to exercise that formidable, prodigious brain. To solve things. To finish things.

"Don't know if we'll be able to find much here, and sorcerors don't exactly sign up for social media accounts. I don't think we'll be able to prevent ourselves from going to Germany. Though really, I could always scout ahead. Something tells me that there will be protests about me going alone, though."

She gestures vaguely to one side. "So with that, you can tell me about these immortals who are after you and Bruce. I mean, yeah I know you said they can die…I guess the more accurate term in my lingo would be…I don't know. Necromancers. If what they know is just how to bring someone back from the dead and insane. Sounds about right from my experience."

—-

"Are you kidding? If you tried to make a movie with half the stuff I've done, you'd get laughed out of the pitch meeting." Even Tim knows the stuff that he does on a fairly regular basis is completely ridiculous, which is why he knows that the odds of his living to graduate college are… Let's say low. Making it to thirty would be a miracle. One day, maybe soon, he'll zig when he should've zagged, or someone will get lucky. What will it be? A gun in an alleyway? A crowbar in some deserted warehouse? An overzealous League of Shadows assassin sending Bruce Wayne his head in a cardboard box?

A missed jump? A piece of gear failing him at the wrong moment? A bomb?

A monster? An evil sorceror? A demon straight from the pit?

It'll be something, he knows. Sooner, rather than later.

"One of those assassins, Lady Shiva, took me under her wing for a bit. She taught me how to fight better, how to use a staff to offset a child's lack of height and reach and strength. It… Amused her to try to turn one of the Batman's proteges into a killer like her. When I refused to take a life, she said she'd take mine instead. Well… She hasn't caught me yet." Maybe that will be it, he thinks to himself sometimes, when he ruminates on the inevitability, the train coming down the tunnel. He's fended her off before, yes, with trickery. But one day he won't be able to run anymore.

"But yeah, I speak Cantonese. And Mandarin," Tim confirms. "Also Japanese, Korean… Russian, some Arabic, some Farsi… I've been trying to pick something new to study, actually. You know, just as a hobby. As for the rest of it, dead is dead whether you're killed by a shotgun to the face or Avada Kedavra. I'll admit, I'm out of my depth with a lot of this magic stuff, but in some ways it's not really all that different. And I've tangled with a few people before who came from the spooky side of the street." Not to mention whatever the hell Klarion Bleak is.

Besides really weird.

She chides him for his rueful comment in Spanish, claiming that she wouldn't change anything about him, but still he can't help but wonder if things might've turned out differently if he'd been more bold, less aloof. More open and honest, at least about the things he could've been honest about. Ruthlessly, he tries to crush those thoughts, but they just skitter away. Later, when he's alone and trying to sleep, they'll be back.

"If Steinschneider thought she was worth keeping tabs on, then there's no reason we shouldn't check too," Tim agrees on the subject of the other 'descendant'. Thoroughness. What happens if they leave a stone unturned, and it ends up having been the hiding spot to something that would later bite them in the ass?

So when Zee hands him the portfolio, Tim rises as well, taking the paperwork over to the scanner. To carefully, methodically, sheet by sheet transfer to the documents therein into an electronic format, retaining their legibility. It will take some time… But not as much time as the automated search being run for Greta Muller, visible taking up part of the computer's enormous screen. Only the first pass, and already the number of results is… Daunting.

"You're not going alone," Tim concurs over his shoulder as he scans more pages, almost like clockwork. "If I find out you do - and believe me, if you go alone, I will find out - I'll just use this," he lifts his left arm, demonstratively. For all that he dislikes teleportation, especially the magical variety he's been exposed to most recently, it would be foolish to think that he would let that daunt him. That he wouldn't use everything available to him. He is who he is, after all. Implacable.

Which is, of course, how Zatanna steers things back to the topic of the League of Shadows, which he'd brought up before. A dangerous topic, in its own way even more dangerous than her knowing the secret behind the Bat, because even if Ra's al Ghul might not seek to use the magician's soul the way other villains have, he would not hesitate to destroy her if she put her nose in the wrong place. She doesn't have the scant protection the Detective and his 'heirs' do.

"They're called the League of Shadows. They're assassins. A secret order that exists all across the world, every member a deadly killer who would slit your throat, or their own, without hesitation if they thought it necessary. They want to save the world, Zee. From humans. Too many of us, you see, so their master engineers disasters. Cataclysms. But he… Respects Batman. He wants Batman to acknowledge he's right, to acknowledge that this is the only way to save the world, and to join his crusade. Their leader is a man named Ra's al Ghul, and he's lived for centuries, because of something called the Lazarus Pits. They're… Like a chemical bath, or a hot spring. If someone dead or dying goes into one, it will revive them, and make them younger the longer they stay in the pit. If someone alive goes in, they die. But when you come out of the pit, revived, you're not the same. At first, you're berserk, driven to violent insanity… But even once you calm down…" Tim shrugs again, shaking his head. "Supposedly the Lazarus Pits occur under certain circumstances, where leylines converge. I'd always thought that leylines part was nonsense, but…" Now he's not so sure.

—-

"I don't know about that," Zatanna banters with a laugh. "Some of the most ridiculous movies are also some of the most amazing. Hudson Hawk? Kingsman: Secret Service? Every Jackie Chan movie imaginable? So if you ever spend too much of your money doing this superhero business and bankrupt yourself, just so you know, there's always that. And take it from someone who grew up with a legend who does stage shows in Vegas just to hide the fact that his magic is real - after that kind of exposure, /nobody's/ going to even think that the Red Robin stuff is real. You'll be in the clear forever."

She is clearly only half-serious, however. The idea of Tim selling his adventures to Hollywood is downright ridiculous, but her imagination tends to do that. It's half the reason why she has succeeded in being an entertainer, all of that creativity, the ability not to take herself too seriously.

As Tim rises to go to his scanner, she takes up the seat he has just vacated, pulling her legs up on it and leaning back, her head tilting and her lashes falling closed. It isn't a posture, however, that suggests fatigue - she has gotten plenty of rest since Ozone Park and spending time with those she scares about while she was in New York has done wonders in putting her in a state of mind that is conducive to tackling the things she ought to get back to. Like loose ends regarding Steinschneider, her father's old enemies, and maybe get back to performing again, now that she wasn't /dying/.

But one thing at a time.

She's learned her lesson there, really, haring off by herself, knowing how it would upset a great many of her closest friends. It's been a struggle not to equate their concern with a lack of faith that she isn't strong enough or capable enough to tackle obstacles by herself. It has taken a few stressful situations, and no small shortage of fights and confrontations, to impress upon her that is simply not true. And she would like to think that she is capable of learning from her mistakes, also.

He waves his left arm just as she opens her eyes to look at him, and she smiles broadly there. "Note taken," she says, cognizant of the fact that Tim literally has the means, now, to go directly to where she is whenever he needs to, and that could be useful too. She had thought that he would use it as a last resort, an option in the event that all others are closed off to him. She did not anticipate that he's already thought of other ways to use it to his advantage. And really, that, too, was Red Robin all over.

Ice-blue eyes grow intent, though, when he answers her questions honestly about the League of Shadows, her expression running a gauntlet of other emotions - curiosity, yes, but apprehension also, concern most of all. It is easy to assume that Batman and his family would confine their operations in Gotham, that they would concentrate their efforts against insane drug dealers and ridiculous mob bosses, costumed serial killers and God knows what else crawls out of Arkham Asylum every week. But to hear about this entire cadre of highly dangerous people shocks her; she doesn't know why, when she has been exposed to eldritch horrors that lurk in the dark since she was very young, but for some reason this does. Of a man who has lived centuries, directing the moves of highly-trained killers all over the world, because he thinks there are too many humans, who believes that mankind is a virus leeching out the Earth's vitality.

And that grows also, when she hears about the Lazarus Pits. She is a sorceress, she can't help but be interested, but what the League uses them for, what they bring /back/. Bringing someone back from the dead is always a tricky operation. Even with the foremost experts she knows, that is hardly a flawless undertaking. There is always a cost…

"There would definitely need to be a magical component," Zatanna says slowly. "There's no going around it, when you bring someone back from the dead. Death isn't just a cessation of everything your body is capable of in life, it also means that your soul is severed from its host, out there to be claimed by either Heaven or Hell once judgment is rendered. While science is able to reanimate dead cells, a person really isn't /back/ until that spirit is returned and that's not something you can do with medicinal or chemical know-how. And even then, it's not a process that's foolproof. It costs. So I'm not surprised these people don't…come back like how they were before."

She links her hands together on her lap, her worried eyes falling on her friend.

"Tim, how interested are they in you?"

—-

Tim would use it as a last resort.

Despite his reluctance where teleportation is concerned, and his general lack of familiarity with matters magical, there is actually a note file on his computer right now filled with questions to ask Zatanna about the 'exit'. He was hoping to compile a full list before sending it to her, because of course it's difficult for him to make use of something if he doesn't understand what it can and cannot do. What would happen if he tried to use it while holding onto something, or someone else? Or if he was grappled? Would it maintain his relative velocity if, say, he was falling? Or in a moving vehicle when he triggered it?

A lot of questions, stemming from Tim Drake's need to interrogate, to /understand/. He's debated going back to the Third Eye to see if Gerry Craft could suggest some useful books so he could at least grasp the foundational principles. Something introductory. The Arcane Arts for Dummies.

Though now, knowing that the Cult of the Cold Flame was watching the blind man, he doubts it would be safe. Another visit by Red Robin could trigger all sorts of unpleasantness if he's identified as one of the people from the attack on the cult's sanctuary… And a visit by /Tim Drake/ could be disastrous, known associate of Zatanna Zatara that he is. He doubts it was an accident that it was when he was with Zatanna on campus that night that they were attacked, instead of when either of them was alone, or Zatanna was with some other school acquaintance.

And he knows that Mammon is aware of him, of both of his identities. Information that could well have been shared with his servitors, or could /end up/ being shared with them if it became relevant.

So, naturally, he's letting Stephanie venture into the Third Eye instead. They don't know who she is, they don't have any reason to suspect her or any connections between her and Zatanna. She should be safe.

She'd better be safe.

"Good," Tim says, when Zatanna acknowledges his point and its inherent, axiomatic correctness. "It wasn't just me showing trust in you, when I let you carve that into my arm, after all." She was trusting him to be careful with it, to be responsible with it. Any way you sliced it, it was a link between them. And links were always dangerous.

"Supposedly each pit can only be used once, though there's some conflicting data about that. Naturally, Ra's al Ghul tries to maintain a monopoly on the Lazarus Pits for his personal use. I doubt rank and file members of the League get the privilege of being brought back to life, but maybe they view that as a potential reward. Serve well, live forever. Classic bad guy schtick."

She talks about the afterlife, about Literal Heaven and Literal Hell, and Tim still can't quite believe. He can accept that a human being has a certain intangible essence, a soul that makes them who they are and animates them: He saw what happened when Zatanna was deprived of hers, he could see and hear and /feel/ the difference, even with his own completely mundane senses. But the rest of it…? And how does that square with the existence of the 'gods' of other pantheons, he wonders. They've both met Thor, after all, and he's friends with a daughter of Zeus…

'Tim, how interested are they in you?'

"Me, specifically?" he wonders rhetorically, starting to scan the will next. Already, he's plotting to include a translation in English, practically writing it in his own head even as he carries on his conversation with Zatanna. "Not very, I imagine. It's Batman that they want. The rest of us are incidental, except in how we might help them accomplish their goals."

—-

Would that really surprise him, that Mammon would know, now that he is aware that Hell exists? People are marked for Death the moment they were born, it stands to reason that those who run the afterlife and all of its forms would be familiar with the brands existing within an individual's essence. But unlike humans, though, they are bound by celestial rules; the reason why demons and even angels are so resentful of human beings, who aren't bound by them, given free reign over creation as they are. The reason why Mammon cannot simply come up from Hell to take her soul, should he want it, and why he uses human agents to exact his will on Earth - because they can go where and do what he can't.

These rules are some of what Constantine has mastered already, why he can easily exploit loopholes that govern the intricate maze all of that represents. Some part of her is tempted to provide Tim with those tomes, to give him a master list of those bulletpoints. To see just how well he strategizes and exploits what he finds in those pages. But the last thing she wants to do is encourage him to even /speak/ with the Infernal, to negotiate with them in their terms. The idea of it curdles her stomach, knowing just how dangerous it is to just open one of the circles so a conversation like that could happen, let alone…

Besides, it sounds as if Tim has plenty of dealings enough with demons of his own.

More information about the Lazarus Pits. He'd find the unmistakeable flare of interest there; all the wonders and horrors she has seen, and she's never come across one. She can't help but be fascinated on an academic level, though the fact that a pit can only be used once does not surprise her also. "Probably the universe's way of balancing out the fact that something like that exists. To be able to bring someone back in perpetuity after a mortal death is something that's so powerful it requires a lot of magic. I can't really say for sure unless I see one for myself." And he would see it there, the desire to go /find one/ if not just to fill in the gaps of her knowledge, but thankfully, at the moment, she knows better than to do that, with what she has just heard about the League. "I bet it drains the power of those leylines also, since this Ra's guy doesn't sound like he's putting anything of himself into the effort of bringing someone back, so there's absolutely nothing lifting the burden on those convergences."

What he says about the League's interest in him personally, however, leaves some conflicted feelings also - part of her is relieved, but much like the Cult, if there is no significant investment in the talent being scouted, that person is little more than chattel, to be discarded if he proves himself to be more liability than benefit. There's a visible frown on her features at that.

"Well, they sound like bad news. If they ever come sniffing around you and if you need my help…" He knows that already, but that bears saying. It wouldn't be right, if Tim repeatedly pulls out all the stops to ensure that she is safe, and not do the same in turn.

Slowly, she rises from her chair and stifles a yawn. "Anyway…it's late," she says, slipping her hands in her pockets. She digs out her phone, sorting through its digital photographs. Finding what she is looking for, she spins her obsidian obelisk deftly in one hand, whispering a word to draw out her Physics notes. "I should probably head back to Shadowcrest and get some sleep. I don't know how you do it, Tim. I hope you at least put in some classes this semester that don't start until noon. Speaking of classes, though, here…for next week's lecture."

—-

In all likelihood, Zatanna is right to not want to expose Tim to any of that to any degree more than she has to.

The Work requires a certain ruthlessness, and it allows the bending, the breaking of so many rules as long as they aren't the big one. Knowing Tim as she does, having seen something of what he's capable of… A keen reader of other humans like the Princess of Prestidigitation would probably be able to tell that if he were pushed far enough, Tim Drake would pick up any tool available to him to get the job done, to save other people, no matter the cost to himself personally.

Especially since he doesn't have faith. He doesn't really believe in an afterlife, in a judgement that comes after slipping one's mortal flesh. In his heart of hearts, he knows that after he draws his final breath there will be nothing. That his father, his mother, his stepmother only 'live on' in the sense of their worldly legacies, the people who remember them after they've gone.

As pure as his soul might be, his willingness to cross lines if necessary, his lack of real belief in things like eternal damnation, could very well lead him to make a terrible and irrevocable choice under the right circumstances.

"Don't worry," Tim says when Zatanna trails off with her offer of help. "If the League comes after me and I need help, you'll probably find me bleeding on your floor." He has no illusions about himself. He's good - very good - but he's no match for Ra's al Ghul in a physical fight, and there are certainly other League members who could match him or best him… And it's rare that they work alone, anyway. "They don't like to give a lot of warning, they're pretty rude that way."

Since, you know, /ninjas/.

He turns to look when Zatanna starts to rise from the chair; the computer is still working, still cross-referencing Greta Muller, still scanning and collating those vital pages of information they'd liberated from Steinschneider's hotel. It's late, she says; he supposes it is, he often loses track of time when he's absorbed in the Work. It's worse than when he was in high school, especially when his father was still alive and he had to make a more concerted effort to maintain his secret identity at all times… Since Bruce adopted him, and especially since he set out on his own, it became easier to slip into the nocturnal rhythms of the Bat, sleeping less, doing more.

He's about to say something, something about his classes, or about getting the scanned information to her, or maybe about lunch tomorrow. But she does… Something. Something magic, with her phone and that weird obelisk.

Everything else disappears from his head.

He reaches out, takes the notes that previously did not exist, looks down at them with a pensive frown. They look real, look right. He sees past notes, copied by him while she was 'ill', even the ones that were finished by Stephanie when she threatened him with grievous bodily injury if he didn't try and get some rest. Zatanna didn't just make them. So…

"How… What? Where did you have these hidden?" Tim asks, a certain feverish light in his dark blue eyes as his brain shifts into a higher gear. Thinking, theorising. "Can you do this with anything? Is there a limit? Size? Weight?"

—-

"That is rude," Zatanna says, her frown deepening once the pages are passed onto Tim - blithe words for a very serious and deadly possibility, but it is clear that what she says does not make light of it at all. "You better use what I gave you, then, Tim. They will /not/ be expecting that, at least." They seem to have very little knowledge of the concept of magic, if they're abusing leylines the way they have; siphoning off the world's natural resources to retain a monopoly on life everlasting. She can't help but let her thoughts wander in that direction - what would happen to the League, then, if these Lazarus Pits were destroyed?

She is about to ask Tim, to ask what he thinks, whether he's considered the possibility (which she is sure he has), but before she could do so, her small trick with her digital phone brings on a sudden change in him. Ice-blue eyes blink at him once; the expression is familiar, often glimpsed at certain fits of inspiration. Like the day they finally completed their Physics semester project from last year.

"…oh, this?" She wiggles her smartphone. "Something I invented while I was under house arrest in Brooklyn. I found a lot of eavesdropping devices in my usual bookbag, and college textbooks are heavy anyway, and I was going back and forth between Gotham and New York a lot so I started thinking of how I could lighten the physical load on me. I figured out a spell to store items in digital photographs taken by my phone, because I don't go anywhere without it anyway. And then using /that/, I was able to figure out a way to reverse it…pull out items from /existing/ pictures taken by a camera. It's super practical, so long I can take a picture I can take it with me."

The method is how she managed to return Bucky Barnes' World War II ID bracelet to him, after finding a picture of him wearing it in one of the grainy photographs in the Smithsonian's Captain America exhibit. His real one was probably somewhere in the Alps, still, buried in pristine snow forever.

She slips the device back into her pocket. "I mean, I can't…you know. So far I can only do this with items. Personal effects. It's not like I can pull whole people through pictures, or buildings, or zap us /into/ a picture that was taken from a different time as a shortcut for time travel. Not /yet/ anyway." The power requirements for such feats render her uneasy, feeling the curdle in her gut that has become more and more familiar, these days, whenever she is reminded of the burning, endless well of power inside her. "But things like clothes, books, weapons, documents…those are easy."

Curious of his sudden interest, she furrows her brows at him. "Why?"

—-

He puts the physics notes aside. He forgets they exist almost immediately.

Zatanna's explanation is met with rapt attention from Tim, the wheels turning behind his eyes as she wiggles her smartphone, as she tells him what she came up with and why she came up with it. None of the eavesdropping devices were his, at least; not that he hadn't considered the possible benefits of doing something like that, but he just never came down on the side of going ahead and doing it. And even if he had, he would've done better than just slipping something in her bag.

He's had access to her phone, after all. Far better to put a tracker in there, hidden under the back plate where she'd never even think to look. Still, now it would probably be crass of him to do it anyway.

Tim is already nodding when she explains the limitations on the magical method of storage. It makes sense that she wouldn't be able to store anything she couldn't take a picture of, and he doesn't want to imagine what would happen to a living being stored like that even if she could manage it. The idea of using it as some sort of method of travel, whether through space or time, hadn't even immediately occurred to him, but of course now he has to file the possibility away. But objects, easy. Yes. Easy.

'Why?' she asks him.

Tim's response is a beaming grin, a rare show of teeth from the normally fairly reserved young man one hand snaking out to catch one of hers, drawing her towards the steps down to the lower levels of his hideout.

"You're brilliant," Tim says as they go. "I never even would've thought of… No, no, this is too good. It's incredible, Zee." Down, past the training level, currently dark; dim lights pick up as they sense movement, as the master of this little domain moves from area to area. Into equipment storage.

The workshop is adjacent; Zatanna would be able to look into it and see all sorts of tools and materials, precisely organised, everything he needs to machine and wire his own arsenal of gadgetry. A few projects on the go, including a full rebuild of the suit he'd worn in the HYDRA base, the cowl's inner workings torn out and spread over a workbench.

Once, she'd held his cape hostage to make him go back to Constantine's place after they'd saved her soul, blackmailing him into socialising at least a little, celebrating her survival, rather than vanishing. He'd told her he had more than the one cape, then.

She would see he wasn't lying, now.

One case lies open and empty, presumably for the suit he is currently partially wearing, and another backup can be seen in a second clear storage case. He ignores these, though. Racks and boxes of equipment, enough to outfit a dozen Red Robins, more. What he reaches for is a larger crate, about seven feet long and half that wide, pulling it off of a low rack and onto the floor. He opens it, and inside is another suit, packed in foam. Utility belt, communications rig, the whole kit, packed for storage, just in case.

Crouching beside it, he grins up at Zatanna, flashing her that boyish look from earlier, his dark hair touseled and his teeth clipping into his bottom lip.

"You can store this, then, right?" Tim asks, gesturing at the crate. "Think of it as a contingency plan. Just in case."

He does love his contingency plans.

—-

The rest of what happens after her explanation is practically treading onto surreal territory, for Zatanna Zatara. A landscape worthy of Salvador Dali, when he flashes her that beaming grin; an expression that she has not glimpsed on him before. His emotional outbursts tend to catch her unawares, like sudden torrents from a placid lake, but she has never ever seen him smile so openly, would have never thought he was capable until he shows it to her for the first time. And then the sudden reach, to clasp her hand and tug her to the /lower/ levels of his lair, which she has never been to before. Discombobulated thoroughly, she wanders after him with slightly dazed steps, confusion on her pale features. What did she…?

'You're brilliant,' Tim Drake, super-genius/photographic-memory/multi-lingual ninja billionaire, says to her.

"…I am?"

'It's incredible, Zee.'

"It…is?"

She's led to the Nest's deeper underbellies, marveling once more as to the breadth and magnitude of this incredible space, at the sheer monetary investment dumped into the nooks and crannies that house anything a Bat-person could ever want. If this is what /Tim/ has, she can't even imagine the scope of what Batman's own lair would have. Probably billions of dollars' worth of equipment; high-tech gadgets, tools meant for forensic analysis, multiple computers - digital brains full of information. At this point, she wouldn't put a robotic T-rex or something past Bruce Wayne, maybe even a whale if there was an underground passage towards the bay…

Bootsteps take her past the workshop, which gets a curious glance. She knew that about him, too, that he's able to build things - before the impressive show of EMP devices that he handed out to everyone else, and one that she carries with her, unused as of yet, as it could be useful for later, stored in one of the photographs in her phone. But it is this treasure trove of…/Bat-things/ that capture her full attention once she's in it, those ice-blue irises scanning his costume, back ups and back ups for back ups.

He lets go of her hand finally and she's left there /staring/ at /everything/. She dimly hears him digging out something large at the back, and her steps take her further to his rack of costumes, reaching out to touch the familiar kevlar-synthetic weave, fingers splaying over the robin's head silhouette emblazoned on the center of the front harness.

"Jesus, Tim. You can fit an entire /army/ with…"

'You can store this then, right?'

She turns to look at him, with that grin, the one that only shows up when he's really pleased about something. Her gaze tracks over to the large crate and an entire kit full of the things he needs to operate.

"…so I'm your backpack," she jokes, walking over to crouch next to the thing, scrutinizing it carefully. "Yeah, this shouldn't be a problem at all. Like I said, the same principles can be used for an infinite number of possibilities, I just haven't explored them yet. You're not the only one who likes to invent things." She winks at him there, nudging her shoulder with his. "Mine's just…less objects and more…you know."

Fingers lift to draw out her phone in one hand, her obsidian obelisk in the other. She swipes through until she gets to the camera function, quiet words whispered under her breath, will and magic weaving together between devices. She lifts up the camera a little higher, to make sure that the entire thing gets captured and snaps a picture. The image is saved on her phone, the real thing remains in his lair.

"There," she says, tucking it and the obelisk back into her pocket. "Now I'll be able to grab it for you whenever you need it."

Watching his face, affection gentles the look of her. "You really like doing this, huh?" she asks. "I mean, despite the pain and after…everything. I don't think you'd be able to look the way you do sometimes if it's something you do purely out of obligation."

—-

Having spares of everything is important; Tim has done everything he can to incorporate the lessons learned by his predecessors' adventures, the Batman's long career under the cowl. The equipment is prone to loss or destruction, the suit itself is of course designed to take punishment that would otherwise cripple the fragile mortal body underneath, even if it means elements of the armor or other pieces being themselves destroyed in the process. Having spares, having extras, means that damage to one costume doesn't take him out of action for days or weeks.

The ones present in his own hideout aren't the only ones he has either, of course. There's another suit stashed in his NYC penthouse, and at least one more in the Batcave itself.

Jokingly, she complains about being turned into his 'backpack', but Tim's grin doesn't fade any, and he just shrugs his shoulder lightly in response. She's the one who invented a bag of holding, after all. She shouldn't be surprised that other people might figure out useful applications of it.

The wink and the nudge just make Tim's grin broaden; there's a… Delight to this, to discovery, to the realisation of another angle that can be played. To seeing something new, something fantastical… And a kind of shared delight in Zatanna's act of discovery and creation. He's not the only one who likes to invent things, as she says.

"You really are brilliant," he tells her, watching what she does; he closes the lid, making sure everything is buttoned up tight, just in case anyone started flipping through Zatanna's pictures. Just in case summoning it back out resulted in things getting spilled all over the place. "So it makes a copy, then, rather than storing the original in a pocket dimension, or something like that?" he wonders, seeing as the crate is still in place, and the magician seems satisfied that she's successfully done whatever it is that she just did. "It's amazing."

He sees the way her expression softens, witnessing this rarely-shown side of him… And then she asks him a very interesting question, a question that few people would be in a position to ask. His grin turns more rueful, then, and he remains settled on his heels, briefly weighing his response.

"I chose this," he tells her.

"When I was a little kid, maybe… Nine, I think, I was fascinated by the Flying Graysons. One time, my parents were in town and I begged them, I pleaded and cajoled to take me to the circus to see them. Very embarrassing acrobat phase. My dad pulled some strings and I even got to meet them, it was almost the happiest day of my life." Almost, he says. Almost, because… "That was the day they died. I was there, I saw it. And that was the first time I saw the Batman. Which became my new obsession. The Caped Crusader, and the Boy Wonder. Batman and Robin. I followed their adventures as much as anyone could. And I… Figured out the truth. The most dangerous secret in Gotham City."

It was his fascination with the Graysons that provided the key. Robin, performing a stunt only the Flying Graysons had ever mastered, leading him to realise who was behind the domino mask. And from there it was a short line of reasoning to figure out who was in the cape and the cowl.

"I didn't tell anyone. Not for years. I could tell, when Robin became Nightwing, when there was a new Robin… And everyone knew when he died. After that happened, Batman changed. He became darker, harder, more extreme. I knew that sooner or later he'd cross the line, Zee. I knew that Batman needed Robin. So I… Kinda aggressively made my job application. Everything that happened with my parents, that wasn't what drove me into this world. It happened after. I was already Robin when the Obeah Man captured my parents. Batman went down to Haiti to try and rescue them, but it was too late. I can't say it doesn't influence me and the Work… I want to keep anyone else from going through what I did, just like Batman does. But this life chose him, not the other way around. For me, this was my choice."

Tim sighs a little, scrubbing a hand through his dark hair, pushing it back out of his face. He looks around, at the equipment, at the suit in the clear case. He's still smiling.

"And yeah, I like it. I like helping people, I like making a difference. I like solving problems, solving mysteries. Sometimes… Well, sometimes it sucks, but you take the bad with the good. I've had a lot of opportunities to stop, a lot of /reasons/ to stop, to just be a normal guy," or as close to it as he could manage, "but in the end… This is the life I've chosen."

—-

'You really are brilliant,' he reiterates again.

Amazing, he says.

There's a laugh and yet another one of those sidelong glances at him. "Stop it, you're making me blush." Said by a woman whose more overt displays of embarrassment are extremely rare, and despite the words, none of that heightened color is visible; they are meant as a jest, but there is clear pleasure there when he says what he does, because coming from a genius like Tim, they are treasures. Some indicator that their friendship is one between equals and not out of convenience of any kind. She feels bad enough, that she has to rely on his academic superiority most days. To find /something/ that she can do for him is a relief, though he is always quick to reassure her that what she does for him, in turn, is plenty. Still, she will not stop trying.

As he settles down and ponders a response, she gives him a curious look, practically glimpsing the gears turning over in his head, wondering about its contents. Much like with Peter Parker, she isn't particularly hampered here. She knows she can freely ask. And she is about to, when Tim takes the initiative himself, and the story he imparts upon her is…

Well, considering that he already knew geometric formulas when he was seven, enough at least to calculate the number of jellybeans in a jar, she doesn't know /why/ the idea of him deducing the true identities of Batman and Robin at so young an age is so surprising. But it is. Ice-blue eyes widen faintly from where she sits, lips parting ever so slightly.

"And I figured it out….by bumbling into some Lord of the Rings type shit in the cave in Wayne Manor, and then getting bad touched by your dad." She can't help the incredulity there, still reeling from those bizarre circumstances. A hand comes up to instinctively rub at the place where Bruce struck her with that nearly-deadly precision, though the bruise has faded a long time ago. "/Jesus/, Tim. You really are incredible. It's just…your /brain/. I just….wow. /Wow/."

Batman's change - Bruce's transformation, has her stare wandering away from him for the time being, to look at the crate. She had confronted Bucky recently about his brainwash-induced betrayal, and it was only after she looked him in the eye and spoke to him that she was able to decide whether to forgive him. Not so much because of what he did to her, as crazy as that is - were it just her, there would not have been a question at all as to whether she would be able to. But she remembers the look in his eyes when she sank into the floor, buoyed by his arms as he lowered her on the snow, her tears as she begged him not to do this to John. John, cursed to destroy everything and everyone he cares about. John, who has already lost so much, who has lost /almost everything/. John, who believes that he doesn't get to have the things that make life worth living because of it - friends, love, even a purpose.

The fact that things remain unresolved with Bruce grates at her, chafes a knot that she is reluctant to acknowledge. Because by all rights, /she/ was the wronged party. And yet…

…it's not so black and white, is it? She understands on some level that he only did what he did to protect his family. To protect Tim. Could she really judge if she was placed in the same position?

"I knew about Jason," she confesses to him, sinking further into the floor, crossing her legs as she faces him. "Jason Todd…the one that came before you. Alfred told me that Bruce was really broken up about it. That was why I was so insistent of coming by the Manor just to see him, so I could…I didn't think I could fix it, mind. That kind of grief, I'm not even sure what I could have done. But Alfred mentioned it to me, encouraged me to try and remind him that life doesn't stop with a death, so I did. And I thought I was helping. Alfred and Daddy are old friends, you know? I thought with him gone, this was the least I could do. I had no idea that…you went out so you could do the same thing for him well before I came into the picture. What about that?"

They are more alike than they know themselves.

And the declaration that Tim chose this life has her smiling at him, the words only confirming what she knows is true. "Me, too. This life. I didn't always know that magic existed. Daddy was…even for the likes of him, he was special. One of Fate's favorite instruments. But he never forced me into the Work, or the world I live in now. He waited until I discovered it for myself, and it was only after that he told me, and even then he gave me a choice. And I chose this. I chose this, too. I knew it was going to be hard, and terrifying, but I don't think I could ever turn my back on what I am." Her fingers fall to rest lightly on her chest. "I always knew there was something in me. I just didn't know what it was."

She flashes him a broader grin at that, white suns over a crimson horizon. "It's funny, yeah? We're so different, but we're so similar also."

—-

It would be the kind of curse that Tim could understand, surely, because for all that he chose this life willingly, for all that he's rejected opportunities to leave it… This life is a hungry beast. It devours, it takes. It strips away everything. Family, friends, lovers… Died or lost because of the lies, because of the secrets. It's consumed Tim's faith, and much of his optimism, stripped away layers and layers of what used to be a more cheerful, more outgoing, happier Timothy Jackson Drake, leaving something colder and harder in its wake. Calluses on his heart and soul.

And every day, Tim tells himself that it's better this way. Better that he hurt instead of someone else. Better that he's alone so that someone else doesn't have to be. Yet that sense of righteous martyrdom gives him no relief, no sense of self-satisfaction. He knows what he signed up for, he knows the path he chose to walk with open eyes, has seen what it's done to others. He knows what's waiting for him: A battered heart, and a battered body, and a cold, lonely grave.

But that's part and parcel of the aspects of this life that he enjoys, the problem solving, the helping others, the saving lives. You take the bad with the good, as he says, though 'sometimes it sucks' is a hearty understatement. But he still has friends, and he still has hope. The life he lives hasn't stripped away all of that from him, not yet.

"That's Alfred for you… Always taking care of everybody. We all owe him more than we can ever repay… Bruce, me, all the rest of us. After my father died, he did as much as Bruce to make sure I didn't slip away, didn't go crazy. I think that's like half his job, trying to make sure we don't go off the deep end." Any more than they already have, since they do go swinging across rooftops in ridiculous costumes, and kick crime in the face on a nightly basis. "As for me… Gotham needed Batman, and Batman needed Robin. I just did what I thought I needed to do. What I thought was the right thing to do." History would seem to bear him out as having been right, but there were so many opportunities for things to have gone horribly wrong. And now there he was, carving out his own identity in the world, trying to take what worked about Batman and the others, trying to cut away what didn't work, and to synthesize something new from what he found there.

Tim listens, attentively as he almost always does, when Zatanna smiles at him and relates something of her own story. He'd heard similar things said about Giovanni Zatara and the mysterious workings of Fate where he was concerned before, but of course the man's daughter would have her own particular perspective on him, a different one than Gerry Craft, or Bruce Wayne. Her grin broadens as she compares the two of them, a grin that only ensares him further, when he knows he shouldn't let it. There's a gravity to Zatanna Zatara, that bright spirit and the open, caring way she lives her life, that draws people inexorably towards her.

Tim knows he's trapped, in a way, but that's fine. Better to feel sad and happy at the same time, than just sad.

"Maybe we are. Though when I was sixteen and made out with somebody I barely knew, it was after she hit me in the face with a brick. And we were both in costume," he notes, with more than a little ruefulness. No pick up lines for him, apparently.

"How did you learn about magic, though?" Tim wonders, curiousity getting the better of him. "I mean, if your father went out of his way to keep you from knowing about it until you discovered it on your own… Was it something you did? Did you… I dunno, did you try pulling a rabbit out of a hat and wind up with a flood of rabbits instead? Or just one giant one?" He assumes that she started her training in /stage/ magic at an early age, with the expectation that she'd follow in the family business. From what he's seen on Youtube and other video sites, she's developed quite a body of work in the world of practical illusions, and also the image of a little Zatanna trying to mimic some of her dad's tricks is extremely adorable.

—-

It's a life rife with loneliness, but in spite it all she hopes that she alleviates some of that for Tim, though that trip to his bedroom in the last week has given her a tremendous relief, to know that he still holds his family in high esteem. To know that he has /other/ friends outside of her - Stephanie Brown, and Conner Kent, and god knows who else, really. Her best friend embodies all the good qualities Batman has, but without the rampant isolation that often makes him lose sight of what it means to be a sympathetic creature. She supposes that he can't afford it, but she doesn't believe that either. How is one supposed to help people if one doesn't understand them? Keep them and the rest of the world away enough and a person loses that tether, that avenue of understanding. She simply can't comprehend it.

His words on Alfred, however, do soften her up. Even if she could go back and place all the fault squarely on the butler's shoulders for setting her up for yet another heartbreak, she doesn't find herself capable. Alfred, she knows, has given Bruce all the love that his parents could not give him by virtue of them being cold in the ground, and she has absolutely no doubt that he has done the same for Tim when he lost his parents. The fact that he speaks of the British gentleman with such fond affectation makes that clear. "I'm glad he does," she says quietly, sincerely. "He has this way of making you miss him when he's not around, also." Shifting, she eases herself against the crate, her back resting on it. A knee bends so she can drape a forearm on top of it.

His story about making out at sixteen /in costume/ does earn him yet another laugh. "Is that a big draw?" she wonders, curiosity lighting up her eyes. "The mask, the cape? I figured with all the mystery, hopped up on adrenaline after the night's Work, you'd have plenty of others at least trying to explore what that's like." People are drawn to the unknown, the excitement and dread of what lurks in the shadows. She knows this very well. "/After/ she hit you in the face with a brick, though?"

There's a pause. She glances at his costume. The hood. /All the leather/. And the handcuffs that are part of the kit she's leaning against. She slowly squints at him.

He can practically /see/ where she's going with that without her even saying anything.

"So…are you the dom or the sub?"

She has to ask! Then again, was that so surprising in this crowd? All the secrets, the adrenaline, the dangerous situations. She's reminded of that one scene in Last Crusade where Indy and Elsa started making out ravenously while they castigated one another with their most blatant character flaws. But a brick?! Wouldn't that break bones?! Or at least a few teeth?!

Tim will never know how much he has /saved himself/ from all sorts of embarrassing questions when he asks her about her own discovery. For a few minutes, she gives him a blank stare, trying to wrest away the image of some masked, voluptuous female crimefighter perched on a roof, spouting a righteous speech before throwing something heavy and rock-solid /right at his face/, and then leaping on him to suck his face off while he was probably bleeding.

Gotham girls are /insane/.

"I was around five or six," she says. "Have you ever heard Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain? Daddy choreographed his shows to that piece without fail, every single time. I heard it constantly growing up and…he's Italian, so he has a huge appreciation for classical music and opera, but I was way too young to do that and I got bored with it really fast, so I thought as a prank, I'd switch up the record to something more modern. Something I thought was less…you know." She waves her hand. "So I go up to the antique phonograph he always uses, and I switch out the record for…I forget which album. I think something by the Beatles. I replace it and I step back, proud of myself. And then suddenly the record I placed just…/hops/ off it and rolls back into the cover, and then the Mussorgsky record hops back on it and starts playing again. When I confronted him about it…god, I didn't know if I was afraid or excited. Maybe both. But he gave me a choice, and I made it, and I never looked back."

She tilts her head back to look at the ceiling. "He told me that science was undependable," she continues. "That people were unpredictable, and that music was everything. I didn't know how true that was until he took me to Vienna a few years later. And that's…" Her smile turns up again. "A story for another time, I think."

—-

And yet Tim often finds himself wavering, shifting closer to the way Batman does things. The heavier costume of Red Robin, with its cowl instead of a domino mask. Spending less time at the Batcave, less time with the other parts of their strange little Family, working on his own, absorbed in his own projects and cases. Especially since certain conversations, he's found himself wondering at times if maybe Batman's path would spare him further hurt. If Bruce wasn't right about complications.

Better to be happy and sad than just sad, he reminds himself.

And worse, he knows the truth, deep down: He could never bring himself to cut Zatanna out of his life, even if he /knew/ it would stop the pain along with the joy her presence brings. In just a few short months, she had carved herself a permanent place in his life, without even trying to. Taken some part of him away without realising it, never to be returned. It was his own fault, his own foolishness in not stamping out his feelings before they'd gotten out of his control. He deserved the hurt that followed, he knew that too. For his stupidity, for his childishness.

But that miasma of self-recrimination doesn't grip him as tightly now as it had before, haunting him instead in the moments where he doesn't give his mind something else to occupy it. It nags at him, lurks waiting just behind his shoulder.

"What?" Tim wonders. "No. I mean… I don't know, is it? There hasn't been a lot of… Exploring. And it wasn't /right/ after she hit me with the brick, that was a misunderstanding. I thought she was working with a criminal we were trying to apprehend, but she was actually trying to stop him too, and when I tried to grab her, she… Yeah." He had been lucky that her swing wasn't very good, that she wasn't all that strong at the time. He sees he squinting, though, and then the glance at the costume, and other accoutrements, and he feels a sense of dread. He knows - he just /knows/ - that she's about to say something terrible.

'So…are you the dom or the sub?'

Tim's face turns nearly as red as his costume, his ears burning, his mind's eye going to some weird places. "What… I… What?! No! That's not… /Dammit Zatanna/," he grumbles, certainly not wanting to admit the terrible truth. Not to /her/, of all people. Telling the woman he's crushing on that he's still a virgin at nearly twenty years old, despite being rich and handsome, would probably cause him to spontaneously combust from sheer humiliation. "I only handcuffed her once or twice— You know what that's not even the point, let's just not talk about this…"

Much safer to talk about Zatanna's origin story, and how she discovered the world of magic, yes. Stories about the magician as an adorable little moppet are exactly what he needs to get his mind /away/ from dangerous subjects.

Even at a young age, it seems, she was getting up to mischief and mayhem, which is suggestive of the possibility that some people - people like Tim Drake and Zatanna Zatara - developed aspects of their adult personalities quite young. Tim shifts position as he listens, drawing his knees up to his chest and burying his still-red face against them, curling his arms over his head in what might be an effort to protect himself from whatever other terrible things the magician might say to him, though fortunately it's just a story about a phonograph changing records on its own. Under the circumstances, a vastly preferable kind of strangeness.

Tim, of course, doesn't agree about the undependability of science, nor the unpredictability of people - many people are extremely predictable, after all, and groups of people even moreso - though it isn't as though he can deny the power of music… And then she mentions something about Vienna, trailing off deliberately, flashing him that smile as she tells him it's a 'story for another time'.

Dark blue eyes glower from behind a curtain of dark hair, from between his arms.

"You're a tease, Zatanna Zatara," he notes.

—-

His full blown embarrassment only has her grinning widely, completely and utterly unrepentant. The fact that he is red on the face is absolutely no deterrent to whatever mischief she's clinging onto, and the remarks about the handcuffs /do not help/ at all. And she's laughing, because she can't /not/, pointing at him in an accusatory fashion. "Even if you said otherwise, you totally just outed yourself just now! The bashful boy routine doesn't fool me, Timothy Jackson Drake. Not when you're handcuffing strange women once or twice after sucking faces with them. Is it the anonymity thing with the mask? That you're able to do that? Or…"

But he buries his head in his arms, hair spilling over his costume, and she tries to quell the urge to laugh all over again. "Tim, I'm /joking/!" she cries, oblivious to the fact that he's never done it, because of all the things that he already suspects - rich, handsome, intelligent, well-meaning and more than just a little bit manipulative, she wouldn't have been surprised if he started around the same age she did. "Really, no judgment. Hell, /look at how I dress/. I'm the last person in the world who'd think that's weird."

She hasn't even told him about the Tantra!

His head shifts. She spies that blue eye, his own accusing mirror. Her smile leans towards an easier, more innocent bent.

'You're a tease, Zatanna Zatara.'

"Please," she scoffs, tilting her head to rest her temple against the curve of his shoulder. As they sit side by side.

"You already knew that about me, don't act so damned surprised."

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