Because Someone Has To

February 08, 2017:

Zatanna Zatara suffers unwanted attention to lure Batman out of hiding in order to orchestrate a much needed discussion, and pave the way to a possible mending of their shattered friendship.

Red Hook - Gotham City

A rough part of Gotham.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Red Robin, John Constantine, Jessica Jones, Bucky Barnes, Dr. Jane Foster, Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Azalea Kingston

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Whoever Red Robin's contact was, he, or she, was not exaggerating in the slightest. Ice-blue eyes stare upwards as she returns to the scene of Kazinsky's crime, where she had been taken and locked in a large meat freezer in what feels like forever ago, her hands slipped in her pockets as she watches wisps of her own sorcery tangle and detect the other magical expenditures in the air. Not to say that she had any doubts - Tim wasn't just rich and brilliant, he was also connected, in both the light and dark sides of Gotham. To find that his contact was on the ball generates little to no amazement because at this point, she has long since accepted that when it comes to the Work, her best friend is a seasoned operator. The fact that he had told her recently that he started when he was /fourteen/ had been rather shocking, already attempting to solve cases all around the world at so young an age, and often on his lonesome. She remembers her father's reluctance to even venture away from him in their many excursions. She simply just wasn't as independent as he was in the age he started.

Zatanna sighs quietly. In the dark, clad in her signature blacks, save for the lightning vibrancy of those pale irises, her pallor and the way the cold has whipped color in her cheeks, she blends in seamlessly in the dark - in many ways, she is comfortable there also, having had no choice /but/ to be. Being the Great Zatara's daughter has brought her to some of the world's darkest and most dangerous places, she would not be of any use to her father if she had balked at it.

The thought of everyone else being able to talk to him - John, and she heard it from Tim that Giovanni had visited Bruce as well - chafes her. She tries to ignore it, because it can't be helped, with the disastrous curse that prevents the two of them from being in the same room together. But thinking about him these days curdles a sour note in her stomach every time. She missed him. She acknowledges that, on some level, the way she usually is with people has just gotten worse if not just to full the absence, the hole in which his overwhelming presence usually fills.

She steps away from the tannery, she won't be able to find much use there, and steps onto the path leading her back to the lights. It has her passing by a pulsing storefront, loud music blaring from the windows, and a whole biker gang loitering on the steps, exchanging glances as she passes by, before they follow. While she keeps her face forward, she can't help but inwardly roll her eyes.

Here we go again.

Oh, Gotham, she thinks exasperatedly. Never, ever change.

One of them takes initiative. Tall, blond, spidly and wearing his sunglasses, still, despite it being the dead of night (she hates him already), a tattooed hand reaches, fingers curling over her wrist to draw her to a stop. Silver teeth gleam at her in the dark.

"Hey baby, where you goin' off so quickly?"

Zatanna's expression is as flat as a board.

"Piss off."

—-

Seven of them, a good measure for anyone— but hardly the bikers of yore, where chains and leather would predominate and men with beards and testosterone might have carried at least an ounce of self-possession.

No— poseurs, is perhaps the better word. Cheap leather that no self-respecting biker would get caught wearing. No chaps. Chains and padlocks abound, but seem little-used. Like vigilantes, even career criminals attract emulators, and it seems unlikely that any of the crew has the chops that would have seen them through prison in one piece.

Which does not make it any less dangerous, these fellows who have so little sense of their own mortality that they accost Zatanna at night.

"Aww, c'mon lady, don't run off," one of the others hoots, joining the chorus of catcalls like a pack of howling coyotes spotting prey. Two skip ahead, blocking the sidewalk— a third intercedes near the street, neatly cutting off Zatanna's escape. Hungry, dangerous eyes flicker over her with lewd appraisal, someone stroking the black curls addressing her shoulderblades.

"Woah, that is some /hair/," someone mutters. "C'mon beautiful, spend some time with me," someone adds, leering.

In the shadows across the street, five stories up, a sixth gargoyle has joined the five adorning that floor of the building. Coiled and crouched in shadow and cloak, Batman watches with narrow-eyed speculation as Zatanna walks right into the middle of a situation no sane woman would have entered.

He squats patiently, ignoring a cramp in his knee, and watches the little drama unfold.

—-

She may not look it, but she is very much aware that she's about to get touched inappropriately and Zatanna is not the sort of woman to tolerate it. A /god/ has tried to molest her before, and her response was to bear its host-body onto the ground and command the entity to talk to her, then later bound it up and made it subject to its host's will just so Xiuhnel the Cloud Serpent could see how the other side lives. Seven bikers are nothing and really, at this point nothing is stopping her from saying one word, to vanish in the mist and leave these degenerates scratching their heads once they realize that it's no trick of the light, and she /can/ just simply do that - bend reality to her will and enable her to escape.

She snatches her wrist away, and the one going for her hair gets a backhand from the same set of fingers. She points at the one who dares.

"/Not/ the hair." Her voice is as dry as a desert, but she is being incredibly serious. "I just had it done. Treatments and everything to keep it this way considering how long it's getting, do you know how much that costs? Not just the money, but the /sheer time investment/? Sitting on a chair for hours with…" She gestures vaguely with one hand, the Italian in her too potent to resist when she gets going. "Gunk and /foil/ all over it while the haidresser chats you up and you're trying to read the magazine she gives you, only you /can't/, because she's talking about her boyfriend and she's about to cry, and you're the sympathetic type but you also don't want tears all over whatever glorious magic she's trying to do with your hair? So /no/. Not the hair. I've spent /way too many hours/ sitting on that goddamn chair just to get this back! You don't see me fooling around with your— what /is/ that? Hair gel? Your head's a brush fire waiting to happen and it's /still winter/. The dryest season in Gotham City! For the love of god, put some serum in there, man."

And this, in the end, is what Batman gets to hear in the deep dark of these alleys. The accostee suddenly becoming the accoster, lecturing those who dared about hair care.

—-

The bikers are firmly staggered by the explosive verbal tirade about the nuance of hair care. The firm 'no' and the hard look in her blue eyes would be enough to stop most weak men, but the added weight of flowing, furious Italian-borne words and the whipcrack of her tone as she denounces the entire world in fast, furious chatter leaves them utterly at a loss for words.

The seven, forming their loose circle, slow the oppressive presence of their closing periphery, and exchange uncertain, startled glances.

Abruptly one of them starts laughing. Long and hard, hilariously amused at Zatanna's brash words. "God DAMN this bitch got a mouth on her," he gloats. He grabs Zatanna's forearm again, with a meaty set of fingers hardened by manual labor. He might be of a bit sterner stuff than the others, and there's something cruel and ugly glittering in his eyes as he tugs Zatanna towards him with a lot of easy strength. The heavy bloat of his gut belies the scars on his knuckles.

"C'mon sweetheart, let's go in the alley here and talk. I got a whole thing for your hair you're gonna /love/," he says, his words tainted with halitosis and crude suggestion. The others, emboldened by him, start increasing that pressure around Zatanna once more, the circle closing around her as they start shifting her towards the alleyway.

"Anytime, Zatanna," Batman mumbles under his breath, watching. Waiting. She could undo them with a word, after all.

—-

She isn't doing anything.

Why isn't she doing anything?

There could be many factors - she just had her /soul/ ripped out of her, reclaimed, certainly, judging by her coloring and the fact that her usual spirit has not been diminished in the slightest. But can someone truly be able to claim that he or she is whole again after an experience like that? Without any damage to the way she reacts mentally, or physically? And how would something like that affect her magic? The latter, especially - the last week or so has given her a glimpse of what Giovanni Zatara has sealed within herself, and the act of tearing it out of her, for her to get back, has put her in the unhappy position of seeing for herself what her father had been hiding from her all of her life. The experience, on top of it being brutally, physically agonizing, had also been terrifying in significant and equal levels. To the point that she has taken up storing magic in items just so she doesn't go 'over the cap', as it were. Anything to prevent her from going over the mystical threshold in which she loses all control and destroys everyone and everything around her.

A fear that she has not confided in anyone else - not John, or Jess, or Tim, or Bucky or Jane…anyone.

Any and all of these things could be the reason why the big, heftier man manages to grab her by the forearm, insistent on his lewd suggestion. Her head tilts up, bravado vanishing from her features. The exasperation remains, but there is resignation there, too.

"I've had a really rough couple of months," she says, one hand reaching up to scrub her face. "And I'm still recovering from everything, so could you not? Don't suppose I can just /pay/ you guys to go away? I have cash."

—-

Batman presses his forehead /firmly/ into his fingertips.

"/Cash/?" What had started as some over-aggressive flirting has now, very quickly, become a robbery in process. The criminals who had been leering hungrily now gain a hawkish, quick expression, and their voices drop to a murmur. They move quickly to block view, shoulder to shoulder, and the big fellow maneuvering Zatanna around mostly pushes her towards the brick wall they'd been loitering again, allowing someone else to start digging at her purse. Someone snaps, a punch is thrown, and there's a sudden clamour as the men start squabbling over who gets to get to the purse first.

The meaty one with the beer belly, however, keeps eyeing Zatanna lasciviously, tugging at the front of her shirt as he bulls towards her.

"C'mon baby, I bet you'll like a little free time with— hrrk," he grunts, and his eyes roll up into his head. Something seems to whistle off into the distance, but it's largely missed by the sounds of the scuffle, and they all stare in shock as the big fellow falls backwards like a poleaxed ox, to fall on the ground with an immense, wet *thud* as he plants ass-first onto the concrete, completely unconscious.

They all stare at Zatanna in shock, her purse left to swing from her arm for the moment.

—-

That was always the best and worst part of Gotham. In this sprawling urban puzzle where Hell meets the smattering of good intentions its more conscientious citizens have left behind, money always, always talks.

Zatanna sees it in their eyes; the greed lighting up their stares, proverbial beacons of ill will. She hands the bag over to one before they could even get too close, letting the biker take it up, to see what's in there. Save a few reprehensibly feminine things - a compact, a tube of lipstick, a notepad, a small bottle of hand moisturizer and a package of Kleenex, he wouldn't find any of the cash he was promised in there. She has taken to storing her valuables digitally by phone, lodged in her back pocket, to pull out whenever necessary. Her wallet safely ensconced in its half-magic, half-technological vault of backwards incantations and ones and zeroes, she will never have to worry about losing her credit cards ever again.

She does visibly wince, though, when that pricey bottle of Prada Candy bounces off the ground in their haste to get to whatever wealth she may be carrying with her at the time. She has never been a fan of stronger scents, and that was one of the only ones out there that she could wear without feeling like one of the Crest Hill Girls that Tim has so not-so-fondly mentioned in the past. The blondes with their tennis skirts and country club memberships. It's highly doubtful that despite her own wealth and her budding fame as a stage performer that at this point in her life, the magician has ever visited one of those in her short life.

But the push is the last straw. She finds her back against the wall and the large shadow moving over her. She can only sigh.

And then he falls.

He has enough heft that when he collapses on the ground, it shakes. She feels the impact's vibrations curl over the toes of her expensive boots. Ice-blue eyes wander upwards towards the rooftops, and then towards the rest of the group as they stare at her, thinking /she/ did it.

"Whoa, no. No. I did /not/ do this. You see these arms? You really think I can knock out a guy that big with one punch?" she says, holding her hands up in a show of not-quite-surrender.

Finally.

"But the lot of you are in really deep trouble now, so I suggest you guys just leave before you all get hurt. If it isn't Batman, it's definitely one of /his/, because if it was someone from the other side, he or she would probably join you guys in making my life more annoying than it should be. So just disappear, yeah?

—-

If she had named the Devil, the men would cross themselves. As it is, a few lick their lips in fear and all look around uneasily. As if invoking Batman's name is somehow a summon for him.

"Jeeesus," one of them mutters, finally. "Bitch. Fine. We're leaving, we were just foolin' around anyway. Don't take it so personal." A few spit on the ground, as if leaving luck behind, and two scoop up Ted and haul him off on weak, limp knees, his head bobbing back and forth drunkenly.

"That's the third time in five days you've deliberately picked a street fight," comes a familiar, low rasp from the alleyway. Movement detaches itself from the shadows, and a pair of surreal, pupil-less eyes focus on Zatanna. Batman stares at her for a beat, then retreats furthur into the alley. It's shadowed, but otherwise clean, more a short walkway between two adjacent buildings. Conveniently, the lights are out.

Batman stands half in a little puddle of spare light from across the street, just enough to outline a bit of his mass. Cloak pulled forward, only his mouth and eyes are visible.

"Either you have a nihilist streak or you're hoping someone will swoop in to help you. Fine. You have my attention."

—-

Walking over to her fallen bag, she picks it off the concrete, dusting it off and proceeding to replace the items that have fallen within. She could easily replace them, but Giovanni Zatara had come from humble beginnings, and Zatanna wasn't the sort to waste anything, even when she has those millions in a hefty trust set aside for her use. She quietly inspects the bottle of Prada Candy in her hand, turning it over and ensuring that it hasn't been cracked or chipped, before returning it in the small pocket on the side of it. There's an angled glance to the rest of the group as they drag their friend back to the storefront in which their bikes were parked. There's a fleeting idea there, a hint of meanspirited mischief, of reducing those crotch rockets to useless, melted slag.

She doesn't even hear him approach until he speaks and in spite of herself, her heart dips into her stomach, to swim in the sour pool of bile waiting there. For a while, she says nothing, hard eyes staring at the ground and her purse presently forgotten, strap dangling in mid-air. Her jaw works, tenses at the hinges, wondering what she ought to say, what words she ought to deliver as an opening salvo to the man in the cape.

Finally, she goes the easiest route, to address his accusations: "I wasn't /trying/," she says, slinging her bag over her shoulder and turning finally to look at him, half-illuminated in the light as he is. "Trouble finds me most days. /Apparently/ it even has this tendency of donning itself in costume and following me all the way to New York when Gotham is supposedly its turf, accosting people I know." Reminding him of his confrontation with John Constantine in a pub bathroom, though she isn't just thinking of that incident. She thinks of Tim, too, and how he bought a penthouse in New York, now that his association with her has had him developing his own network of colleagues and contacts in the other city. Last she heard, he was talking to Spider-Man as well. "That was confusing, by the way, since it wasn't all that long ago that you were telling me to get out of town, and when I do, you follow me?"

She takes a few steps forward until she's toe-to-toe with the Dark Knight, tilting her head back to look at him; already taller than the average woman, her boots give her additional height, but the man was taller still despite that.

"Something tells me I've always had your attention anyway and it's bred no small amount of frustration. Fortunately, and unfortunately, I'm not the sort of person who dances around an issue just because it's difficult. So let's have it out."

Her hands slide in her pockets.

"And it got pretty difficult there, didn't it? I have a few things to say to you. But we should probably not be out in the open."

—-

"Fine. Let's talk." Batman's cloak flares around her— a flurry of motion— and he raises a hand to the sky. There's a *THUNK* of a pressure cartridge exploding, and a chunk of titanium flies skywards, thin rope whirring behind it.

"Don't let go." Batman says— and then one arm slips around Zatanna's waist and with an immense acceleration, the two of them hurtle skywards, tethered to the grappling hook that's whipping them towards the rooftops at incredible speed. He kicks off a wall, they swing, and for a moment— they're flying. Soaring through the air, his cloak behind him, and holding Zatanna under one arm like she's a football. Weirdly, he has no smell about him. Nothing human about him at all.

Then gravity kicks in and they accelerate a few feet downwards, but Batman lands them neatly on a rooftop and lets Zatanna drop an inch onto her heels.

By the time she's got her balance, he's a few feet away from her again, moving silently on the crunch asphalt tiles, and his cloak is drawn forward to conceal him from view.

Those empty white eyes stare into her soul.

"So talk."

—-

And then she sees /it/. The thing Tim always carries with him. The thing that enables him to scale, swing, and practically fly in between buildings. Batman would see it plainly on her features, she doesn't just /recognize/ it, she has /experienced/ it and she hates what happens when she's part of those tether-ziplining shenanigans in which she has to rely on someone else for /control/. Ice-blue eyes are wide as she looks at this thing that haunts her nightmares, and then up to those white lenses. And when she realizes that he is /serious/ about this, Zatanna balks, and almost changes her mind. Almost. Her lips part, and before she could say something, anything, to discourage him from the fact - that she may very well throw up all over the expensive kevlar-weave of his costume, he's seizing her around the waist.

"Oh you have /got/ to be kid— "

They fly. Batman will discover throughout their speedy traverse through the higher lanes and avenues of Gotham City that he would have absolutely no worries about her not letting go. Because the moment they lift off the ground, her arms throw around his neck and shoulders and she lets out a shriek that she manages to muffle by biting hard on her lower lip. She squeezes her eyes shut, and turtles in, because /oh god/ she will never get used to this mode of travel. She simply can't. She occasionally entertains horrifying visions of just how Batman trained computer nerd Timothy Drake how to do this, just seizing the former Robin by the cape and just throwing him off a high building, trusting the boy genius to find some way to fend for himself as he plummeted to his doom…

It takes her a while after landing to recover, resting a hand on the edge of the building and her other hand on her heart. Her knees are locked together, water or jelly filling the floating spaces underneath her kneecaps as she tries not to weakly succumb to gravity's demands. And this is not the first time she has wondered just what went wrong in their lives that this has become a tenable mode of transportation. It's not like they haven't heard of cars, or bikes, or jets! Why are Gothamites so insane?!

She takes a deep breath; the adrenaline in her has her raring for a fight, and she thinks that she is ready for it, but one look at the city from this height captures her attention and for a moment, she says nothing, despite his urging for her to talk.

The magician leans forward, folding her arms on the ledge.

"Red Robin told me he chose this life." She deliberately does not refer to Tim by his more personal moniker; she has learned quickly the importance of his secret identity. "Was that the same for you, too?"

After a heavy pause, she speaks up again: "I would have understood. Maybe I would've been angry, because I never liked being lied to, but I would've understood. I tried to hang onto it, in the end. Remind myself that I have no cause to be the one doing the approaching. But I've had to do this recently with someone else who drugged me and hurt me and I promised that I would try to forgive him. If I can do that…if I can resolve to do that with someone I'm just starting to get to know, I can do the same for someone fundamentally connected to me. Someone who was close to me."

She inclines her head at him. "I told a friend who's in the same line of work as you that if we simply discarded our relationships with others just because of a mistake, we'd all be alone. I make a conscious effort every day not to be a hypocrite. So I will try also, with you."

—-

Batman is quiet. For a long moment. Long enough to leave Zatanna wondering if he's going to respond at all.

"No one chooses this life," Batman says, finally. "It's a vocation. A calling. You cannot choose the circumstances that life sends at you. You can only control how well prepared you are to respond to them."

Silent, stoic, unreadable, he stands apart from Zatanna, turned a few degrees away and staring down at a distant point on the spread of Gotham's urban structure. The city seethes and whispers all at once, pregnant with too many people in too small a confine. Always bursting at the seams, trying to find somewhere to give that pressure release.

He's quiet, then. Perhaps Zatanna's speech didn't register, or he's giving her a chance to expand on it, or clarify. He certainly doesn't volunteer anything to her in response— but in fairness, she did only ask him one question. He seems content with letting her fair speech float on the winds, otherwise unaddressed.

—-

"He might disagree," Zatanna tells him. "But he wasn't really the kind of person who will go with the opinion of another person without thinking about it first. Without forming his own conclusions. Red's brilliant. He told me he knew who you and Robin were when he was just a child, that he saw you go down a path that he wasn't sure you were going to come back from, so he applied for the job directly. So I can see why he would believe that….that he chose this. He could have elected not to say anything to you, but he did. I can see why you'd say that, too, though, because if he felt that he had to save you from yourself, after Jason, that could be a calling, too."

She tilts her head back, letting out a humorless, self-deprecating laugh. "When Alfred told me that I ought to remind you that there's a life after a death, I promised him I would try. But Red's been trying to do that for you all along well before I came into the picture. You were lucky…to have him all of this time. Him and Alfred, for years now. What you really needed was some way to get over your reticence in acknowledging what you still had. You never really needed me."

Ice-blue eyes fall on her interlinked fingers.

"You could have just turned me away the moment I showed up on your doorstep. I thought maybe I'd tell you that I wish you did, but that'd be a lie. I don't regret reconnecting. I don't regret trying to get to know you outside of all of this." She gestures towards the city, its silhouettes marked by millions of distant lights, winking like stars hovering closer to the earth, far away from the heavens. "I told someone else that no matter what happened in the future, I wouldn't have cared. That I'd rather have him in my life than not - no matter the pain or the mess that would follow. Would rather have the now than never. But you knew that about me already…what I feel about looking so far ahead I ignore what's in front of me."

She closes her eyes at that and inhales deeply; hints of exhaust, the distant strings of smoke, but otherwise the cold air fills her lungs and its sting is fresh, and mostly clean. Flattening her palms on the ledge, she pushes away from it, her hands sliding in her pockets.

"Take care of yourself, Bruce."

With that, she turns, to start making her way out of the rooftop. She doesn't look back.

Then again, she never does.

—-

"Stop."

It's a low command— premptory. Compelling. It carries easily.

Batman is still and silent as a statute. He shoves his shock to the back of his belly, his brain going into overdrive as that fantastic computer under his mask churns into high gear.

Tim had made the connection once himself. Zatanna was not the detective, the deductive analyst Tim was— but she was intuitive. Smart. Clever. She'd seen many pieces of the puzzle, a high probability that she'd seen enough to make a few major deductive leaps.

But the revelation of Tim's identity was certainly the last corner piece to help her realize the entire scope of the problem ahead of her.

"In the last twenty years, I have put thousands of criminals into Arkham and Blackgate," Batman rasps. He walks towards Zatanna, cloak flowing behind him, and making no effort to stop his heavy tread from carrying. "Murderers. Maniacs. Madmen. People who have no qualms about hurting children or innocents. Who will torture and murder just for a little leverage. I've made a lot of enemies. Anonymity is the only thing that keeps them from finding me— from finding my children."

"From finding my friends," he says.

"I am not good at apologies, Zatanna," he says. The words are obviously difficult to get out. "And some things I can't apologize for, because it wouldn't be real. You were perilously close to discovering every secret my family has. Someone we barely know. I made a calculation and I gambled on it. I am not happy I did it," he tells her. "I don't make a habit of hurting my allies. So I can't say that I am 'sorry' for hurting you, because if it's a choice between you and Robin, that choice was made long ago, and I'll make it again."

"But hurting you— betraying your trust. That hurt me deeply. It's a price you learn… as a parent."

He exhales. Final confirmation right there.

—-

She is about to reach the door of the fire escape when his command drifts over the high-altitude winds, weighty even now. The heels of those expensive boots stop in their tracks, her back to him and her eyes fixed forward. The hands within her pockets curl tightly into fists, her expression hidden by position and shadow. With her so turned, she nearly vanishes in the shadows, though it has more to do with the camouflage her clothing provides, and not any measure of trained skill. The luster of her hair, admired earlier, gives her away, when it reflects dim, ambient light so hungrily. Restless, always, fingers twist into the lining of her jacket, her breath escaping her in heavy mists - a few days ago, she wasn't generating enough body heat for that to even be possible, the ghosts of her life draining away by increments until there was nothing left of her. But now, much like the beats of that relentless, vulnerable human device sheltered by the cage of her ribs, they are strong, and drift away from parted lips like smoke.

Zatanna doesn't turn around when he starts to speak, but she slowly does, because she always looks at someone directly whenever it's…this. Whenever this happens. Her slender frame turns to look up at him - taller, broader, more foreboding in this form, but she remembers what his face looks like under the mask, the expressions he has shown her before suddenly surfacing from the back of her mind, the tremors of this encounter knocking down the boxes of that mental attic and spilling those photographs of him across the floor. All of them could be artifice. Masks underneath masks. Or perhaps the mask is his true face and the rest is just a carousel of different others meant to fit the man who has to be so many things just to be the one thing. She doesn't know.

"I don't know how many years you've been doing this," she begins. "But I'm not discounting the idea that it's been a while." Her lips press together, the fine lines of her expression tightening. "You're…what you are. In all that time, ever since I came back, did you not…" She sighs. "Save for my first request, getting me in the gala, I wasn't after anything else. I'm not…I didn't interject myself into your life to suss out whatever skeletons you had in your closet, all I wanted was to re-establish what our families had after almost a decade of estrangement. Because after Daddy left, and John left, you were the only other one who I could ask who knew him. Who was touched by him. Groomed by him. His other son, of a man who takes his fatherhood very seriously. You weren't a mystery that needed solving, at the time you were…" She swallows and glances to the side.

"…you were the only one I had left. The only one I could ask."

She falls silent for a moment before she looks up at him again.

"It hurt me too. Deeply. What you did. I wasn't even…I couldn't even feel much of whatever fury I could bring up, and I'm capable of dredging up /plenty/, but I was more…god, I was more heartbroken than anything. Because at the time I thought…I /knew/ I lost you. And Alfred. And maybe Tim, also. And I didn't even know what I did that was so wrong."

A hand reaches out, fingers splaying lightly over the middle of his chest. Her ice-blue eyes track to the traverse of her fingers, her head lowering.

"But I meant what I said," she says quietly, resolutely. "I can't do any less for you than what I've done for another person who did the same thing to me. I'm trying to understand…I /will/ try to understand. Because I can't say that I wouldn't have done the same thing to protect the people close to me."

—-

"I'm not hard to understand, Zatanna," Batman says, grimly. He steps closer to her, until they're well within arm's reach. This time, his eyes are visible— the cold, clear blue familiar to anyone who's met a Wayne.

"You just need to ask yourself two questions. What would Giovanni do if he saw someone threatening you? Anyone at all?"

"And what would you do to protect Tim? To protect your other friends?" He leans in just a little, eyes cold and intent.

"If anyone presented a real threat to your father, do you realistically think you'd stop for one second to do /anything/ to keep him safe?"

He straightens then— not trying to badger or intimidate her. To try and jar her thinking, instead, to a new track, to get her to ponder something she'd might not have thought before.

The wind tugs fitfully from behind Batman, his spread cloak stretching out past Zatanna, forming a barrier between them and the world. Hiding her from Gotham, from the world outside this moment of conversation as Batman waits for Zatanna to decide if she truly can understand him.

If anyone can.

—-

Her hand lowers when he shifts, when he moves, when he leans forward and stares at her through those disconcerting white lenses - enough for her to glean their color. Zatanna's jaw hardens at the hinges when he poses to her his questions, inclining her head a little bit at him. Because whatever those questions are, she has already considered them after Red Robin revealed that he was her best friend under the mask, the night when everything clicked into place. Otherwise, she wouldn't be wandering around Gotham's most dangerous, dark places by herself, with the intent to lure him out…anything but to return to Wayne Manor, because for all of her good intentions, she still doesn't feel safe there.

The relief she felt when Tim revealed that he had his own place and he wasn't really a resident in the Manor anymore was indescribable.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't consider those questions already," she points out, her exasperation plain on her delicate face. "I wouldn't have resolved to /try/ to understand and forgive you if I hadn't. Or if my other experiences haven't driven me to these ends."

She slips her hands back in her pockets.

"And that is already plenty. I'd hate to even imagine what you would do if someone betrayed /your/ trust. Because I'm willing to bet there wouldn't be much forgiveness. You wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now, because you think, or have at the very least convinced yourself on some level that you can't afford it. But I'm not like you."

—-

"I don't trust anyone," Batman says, almost automatically. Like it's a reflex. He grimaces a moment later, the words slipping from his mouth too swiftly to check.

"I've— been at this a long time, Zatanna. Long enough to be burned. To have trusted a few and either been betrayed, or had that trust subverted. There was a time, when I was younger, that… things might have been different."

He looks away, brows hard set. "But… then Nightwing came along. And then Robin. And after Jason was killed, I— I realized I couldn't afford the luxury of trust. Of friendships. Of letting anyone into my life again."

"The only thing worse than finding someone's betrayed you, Zatanna, is the realization you have utterly failed someone. That you let /them/ down. Jason trusted me, and I betrayed him by not preparing him for what happened."

"So…" His jaw visibly works back and forth, eyes hooded and angry as Zatanna so neatly forces him to /feel/ something. What is so compelling about this raven haired woman? "It's … not impossible I pushed you away because … I knew I would ultimately let you down." The Detective cannot let go of a train of reasoning, once he sees the inevitable destination.

—-

Ice-blue irises do not leave him when those defenses come up, because they must. Zatanna expects this, because there are a few others in her life who maintain the mantle of distance, whether out of necessity, trauma or both. She has absolutely no doubt that Bruce occupies these spaces and more; Tim has given her a few glimpses of his life, certainly much more forthcoming between father and son. She is familiar, now, with the kind of training he has pushed his sons into and she is willing to barter her own much-sought after soul that he made himself suffer through the same rigamarole.

The statement is automatic and the way the visible line of his mouth shifts suggests that he knows that the words come out too quickly. Instinct. Reflex. And while she knows he believes that's true, she doesn't think so. Not objectively. And she is ever so quick to call someone out on it - as she says, she does not look so far ahead into the future that she misses what is in front of her.

"That's not true," she tells him quietly, about him not trusting anyone. "You do trust someone. You've had Alfred all your life, and he hasn't left it." And he better not shove him out the door either, because that is another fight that is waiting to happen if he did. She is half-convinced that Alfred Pennyworth will die while in the service of the Wayne family, that he wouldn't even make it to the end of the property before his heart gives out, a part of the grounds and its history forever.

She falls silent after that, when the conclusion reveals itself. There's a glance sideways, another drawn inhale. For a moment, her thoughts coincide with his, though it is less rooted on how she manages to compel broken souls to do this, and more her own wonder as to what is it about her that drives others to think that they'll /fail/. Fail to protect her, to have to stand by and watch her die. Or disappoint her by doing something inadvisable. Or…

"I know Jason's death affected you a great deal," she begins. "I can't even imagine what that's like. I don't know what I would do, if I had lost Daddy the way you lost him. I can't say for certain either, if I would have reacted the same way you did, because I don't really operate like most people. I don't withdraw when I should. And sometimes I do when I shouldn't. Equal odds, really." Her lips curl upwards faintly, the ghost of a smile.

"It's bound to happen. Lives are rife with disappointment all over. That's inevitable, Bruce. I know you probably set yourself in impossibly high standards, but that doesn't make that any less true. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try again, either, once you decide someone or something is worth the risk. I do it all the time, and while the hurts are many, they are far, far outweighed by the other things. Good things, if you give it a chance."

After a pause, she adds:

"Bruce, you need to try and forgive yourself. I'm not at all suggesting that it is easy, it must be one of the hardest things you can do…to give /yourself/ a chance. But you should try."

—-

"I don't think I can, Zatanna," Batman says, after a lengthy silence. "And I'm not sure I have the right to. I saw his coffin slip into the grass and I had to reckon with the knowledge that he'd learned the ultimate lesson too late— how dangerous it can be when you trust someone."

He focuses back on Zatanna, eyes empty and unreadable. "Why do you care so much, Zatanna? Do you really think you can fix me— fix us? Try to make us into different people?"

"What do you -want- from me?" he asks— but the tone of his voice marks it as frustration born of ignorance, rather than bald accusation, looking at her face as they are drawn into the proximity of the close conversation.

—-

There's a small laugh at that, light and quiet. "Fix you? Oh, Bruce." That earlier smile turns towards the wry. "There's no fixing /this/." There's a gesture, up and down his battle armor, the dark Bat regalia that he uses to keep others at bay - his own personal Fortress of Solitude. "Seriously, I know I'm young but believe me when I say that recent events have only impressed upon me the sheer truth that I'm not put in this world to fix anyone. I'm just…"

Zatanna hesitates. "To be honest I'm not even so sure what I am, anymore."

But that is a story for another day.

She takes a small step forward, further into the darkness his voluminous cape casts over her, shielding her from view, a barrier between her and against the rest of Gotham, with him standing in between. Like the night of the gala, when he did his best to protect her before the demands of the public became too loud and chaotic to ignore. She couldn't blame him for that, either. The needs of the many, and all fo that.

"I care because someone should," she tells him. "And honestly considering what Alfred's had to deal with in the last few years, he probably needs all the help he can get. As for what I want /from/ you…"

She shakes her head once, lifting a hand to tuck a lock of long, raven hair behind her ear, fingertips tangling into them as she looks up to peer at him through those white lenses.

"I don't want anything that you're not willing to give freely," she tells him frankly. "That's not how I work. That was never my intention. I told you before, you're not a mystery that needs solving. If I treated people that way, I wouldn't be worthy of their trust, let alone their friendship, or anything more. So no…that's all on you. What you decide. And whatever it is, I'll accept it."

Her rueful smile returns, glancing sideways. "What I want /for/ you though? Plenty. I want for you to be a good father to Dick and Tim. I want for you to be a good master and son to Alfred. I want for you to do my father proud. I want for you to have a taste of what it's like to be happy again, and I want for you to be able to do more of what you've been able to do for the people of Gotham. Above all I want for you to live a /life/. It doesn't have to be long, but it doesn't have to be short, either, because I know a couple of people who would absolutely miss you when you're gone. I want for you to live a life that has more triumphs than regrets, to take with you when it's time."

Those eyes wander back to him.

"I don't know if you'll ever get all of that. But that's up to you. It always has been, Bruce. Meanwhile, all I can do is hope."

—-

If he gives the signal for it, Zatanna doesn't see it, but the white lenses snap aside, retracting into the mask. His eyes, blue, bright as Zatanna's— contrast to shadow and raven locks— meet hers. Though he seems locked into rigid immobility as she drifts closer, he doesn't retreat from her, staring at her with a thoroughly unreadable expression.

"That's a very altruistic statement, Zatanna," Batman points out. "And a fine sentiment. But those are all things that are good for other people. Good for Alfred. Good for the people you care about."

"But you're avoiding the question," the Detective says, pointedly— not missing one nuance of her motions, her glances away, the touch of hair. There's a wall around him, a high wall. And something unreadable in his eyes, hidden not just by his cowl, but certainly reinforced by it— keeping him withdrawn and refusing to help anyone open that door, no matter how close they are to opening it.

—-

"Right. For the people I care about. What, did you think that just because you karate chopped me on the neck and pumped me full of drugs that I'd /stop/?" Zatanna inclines her head at him, brows winging upward. "Especially now that I've made a decision to try and forgive you? I'm not flighty, Bruce. Extraordinary people fight in extraordinary ways. I do that with John, Tim and everyone else that's gotten close to me over the last couple of months. You don't see me suddenly washing my hands of them and vanishing into the aether, pretending they didn't exist."

The statement about avoiding the question has her shaking her head, a quiet chuff of laughter escaping her. "No," she says, lifting a finger. "I /did/ answer your question. You just can't accept it as an answer because it puts the onus on you to decide what you're capable of giving freely, instead the expected request or demand from me that you get to think about and decide whether you should humor me. Because that's easier. Is it really such a terrible thing? To sit back and think about what's really there?"

With that, she takes a few steps back, turning so she could lay a hand on the door leading into the fire escape.

"When I first returned to Gotham, your friendship meant a lot to me," she says, opening it and angling her face to look at him over her shoulder. "It still does. Be careful out there, Bruce."

Unless there's anything else, she descends down the steps, vanishing the moment she turns into another flight of steps.

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