Of Fate and Free Will

February 09, 2017:

Takes place after Heartbreak Hotel. Zatanna Zatara finds Tim Drake in her father's inner sanctum, in which she starts showing him the ropes of the occult world, and tells him about the harrowing encounter with the Brujeria in New York.

Shadowcrest Library - Shadowcrest - Crest Hill - Bristol - Gotham

Giovanni Zatara's library, Shadowcrest Manor.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: John Constantine, Jessica Jones, Dr. Jane Foster, Bucky Barnes, Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Naturally, Tim has not stirred himself from the sanctum.

Since he's established that he hasn't gone insane and yes, there's a mummy and a stuffed dodo and a griffon's head mounted on the wall, and that all of them talk, and they're actually pretty friendly all things considered, the lure of new information, of knowledge outside of his usual ken was enough to keep him more than content to hide out there. In any case, he knew that none of the other humans - or, well, mostly humans - would really want him around at the moment. Zatanna was, in her usual manner, going to devote herself to trying to comfort Jessica's broken heart, and he was at least sixty percent sure that Quill and Kitty were going to bang.

Either that, or the young woman was going to kill the spaceman; in either case, his presence wouldn't be appreciated.

He honestly isn't sure how long he's been in Giovanni's sanctum, time having sort of fallen by the wayside as a concern while he talked to the strange librarians and wisely avoided prodding any of the curious artifacts that might be around, so he didn't discover the hard way which of them were 'ornery' and which were not. Magical doodads weren't his area of expertise by any means, and besides which… There were all sorts of /books/.

By this point, probably nobody was going to have any of the tea or the ice cream that Kasim had been preparing, but thoughts of either didn't intrude on Tim's thoughts, anyway.

Instead, he was hunkered over a tome, completely engrossed in it. Calling what he was doing 'reading' is sort of like reducing what a swarm of piranha do to 'eating'. Factually correct, sure, but there's a difference in magnitude. It fails to communicate the sheer lethal efficiency. By the time the mistress of the house finds her wayward guest, he's so focused on what he's doing that he might not even notice her approach.

Which would, really, be a first.

—-

It's very well that Zatanna has managed to leave Peter Quill and Kitty Pryde to their devices, because like what Tim Drake suspects, she's fairly sure that her intrusion will not be appreciated. And with Jessica out like a light, there's not much else to do but to hunt for her wayward guest. Between the library and the kitchen, she is fairly certain that she'll know where he has ended up - it isn't every day that one gains access to Giovanni Zatara's inner sanctum, though most of the books within aren't even the most important ones in the man's collection. The sum total of his knowledge, condensed in four books, the Liber Zatarae, is nowhere in sight, as well as the others that he managed to find throughout his travels that he deems /too/ dangerous to just be lying around.

Not to say that there aren't many dangerous objects here; there are. So many, but Abelard, Chauncey and Hassan have been the guardians of this repository for years, masked as the most ridiculous animated dead things to prevent the unwary from knowing of their true natures. The man was a legend in the world of the occult and arcane, if there is any art that he has managed to master, it was misdirection.

His heir slips through the double doors guarded by the large demon and angel statues, the two closing with an ominous echo of finality. After exchanging words with the inner sanctum's guardians, she manages to find Tim hunkered over a tome, engrossed in its pages. The look of it from the side enables her to identify it almost immediately: Da Vinci's 'Scritti Letterari'…the real one, and not the version that the world knows, a fantastical collection of the famous renaissance man's scientific observations of the natural world disguised as fables featuring animals and sentient elements. What Tim actually /has/ is a treatise on the basic principles of Magic and its scope across the world in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but since it was penned by Leonardo Da Vinci, his theories are still relevant in the modern arcane world and written in his usual straightforward style - one of the very rare magicians in history that has eschewed the more egotistical, pompous prattlings of his colleagues in favor of driving to the heart of the matter.

It fits, for a man who was both learned in Science /and/ Sorcery, and was a pioneer in both fields.

"Daddy made me read that from cover to cover when I was sixteen," she tells him, leaning against the table he is using and slipping her hands into the pocket of her jeans. "And I think it was one of the first books that he made John read, though he was much more lenient with him. He gave John three months to finish it, he gave me only one. Typical of John, though, I don't think he even took a month while it took me the whole thirty days." She is still dressed in the same clothes she was wearing since they parted ways in New York City a couple of days ago, though by the faint scent of fabric softener on her, it is at least apparent that she's stayed at a place where she could do laundry the entire time - John Constantine's place in Brooklyn being the most likely location. But whatever has managed to occupy her time in the city has not left her room for much rest, or at least much restful sleep. She looks exhausted, though not in the usual pain, drained way in the days leading up to the theft of her soul.

"How did it go with Jess and the portfolio?" she asks. "I would have asked her but…" Her voice trails off. She doesn't finish the thought, Tim was there when Jessica had her meltdown.

—-

Tim doesn't even look up when the doors close, or when Zatanna moves to lean against the table he's sitting at; most people would probably feel at least a certain degree of worry, being now sealed up inside the sanctum of a for real, no foolin' wizard, with its guardians and said wizard's daughter. Especially given the house's general spookiness.

But Tim Drake's trust of Zatanna is absolute, and as soon as he knows that she's in the room with him, whatever concern he might've developed is smothered in its crib, the minor distraction from his reading dissipating quickly. /That/ is what should worry him, really, after the conversation he'd had with Batman about the dangers of complications, but he can't bring himself to think about her that way.

Perhaps the fact that he can't see Zatanna as dangerous to him is the most dangerous thing of all.

He hears her approach, of course, and as is typical her presence has a way of filling up his senses, demanding his attention; the sound of her feet muffled by the carpet, her breathing, her voice. The scent of her, of clean clothes and a dozen other things - including a hint of strawberry, now, though he knows exactly why. But his sight, at least, is fixed on the book. Even for him it's a complicated read.

He isn't used to that.

He likes it.

She tells him about the book and her history with it, her father's strict expectations of her and how they compared with what he'd demanded of Constantine, and there's a faint nod from Tim, acknowledging that he hears her. His right hand sets down the pen he's been taking notes with - of course, he's been taking notes - on one of his spiral-bound books from school, and shifts over to where his smartphone sits. He unlocks it, swipes the screen.

"I found a video of your house," Tim informs her offhandedly, pressing play on a youtube window.

It starts playing an old Backstreet Boys song, the music video set in a haunted mansion.

Only after that does Tim turn to look up at Zatanna, frowning a bit when he sees how tired she looks. Tired enough to make him wonder if she'd even slept since he last saw her at the train station in New York. He doesn't criticise her for not getting enough rest, though.

That would be hypocritical.

When she asks him about Jessica and the portfolio, Tim pauses the music video, and then settles back in his borrowed chair, scrubbing one hand through his hair, pushing the dark strands out of his face.

"It went mostly fine," he says. "She seemed a bit upset that she hadn't found the file herself, and she gave me some of her own related notes. She mentioned that lawyer, Murdock, and it… Seemed pretty obvious that you were right about her having a thing for him." Even more obvious now. "So I sort of maybe suggested that she should try talking to him, before it was too late. And, well," he gestures, in what he thinks is the direction of the guest room where that whole debacle happened, based on the mental map he's tried to construct of Shadowcrest's impossible interior.

—-

'I found a video of your house.'

"What?"

Zatanna turns her ice-blue eyes at the Youtube video he plays, her expression turning flat. "Thanks a lot, Tim," she tells him with a laugh. "Now I'm going to have that song stuck in my head all night. Everybody, by the Backstreet Boys. I haven't slept much the last few days as it is and you're going to make me think about Nick Carter doing a pale imitation of Michael Jackon's Thriller? /Travesty/! If I toss and turn tonight, I'm blaming you. /You/….wait…oh god…what's happening…? What's…"

She pushes away from the table, her movements jerky enough as if taken over by an unseen force. "Oh no," she says, eyes wide in feigned horror. "No! Nooooo…!"

…and proceeds in sliding her body sideways, performing /the entire choreography/ of the atrium dance sequence.

To her credit, she is /pretty good/. Being a Theatre Major in Gotham University has improved the quality of her showmanship, and being part of the program has certain specific Dance requirements. On the other hand, however, it's still a Backstreet Boys music video and the dance moves can't help but be ridiculously outdated, entrenched deep into the nineties. She doesn't even bother to follow it, really, when her movements are this exaggerated. If she was doing this in a Gotham nightclub at this day and age, she'd probably get laughed off the dance floor and embarrass /everybody/ she has decided to go with.

Hell they're in a library and it's embarrassing to watch /now/.

But she's still laughing when she finally stops, hopping up on her feet and moving back to the table, pushing her backside over the edge of it and letting her booted feet dangle off the ground. Her palms flatten over the wooden surface, her head canting over to her friend when he finally puts the phone and his notes away in favor of a conversation. "Must be the same packet she gave John and I from her contact." Some mysterious hacker whose identity Jessica was keeping under tight lock and key. "I should have thought about sending you copies of that, but considering what I was dealing with at the time, it felt like another lifetime since she…"

Her voice trails off when the rest of her brain catches up with what he says. Brows lift slightly at Tim's confession and his involvement in the events that caused Jessica's meltdown. There is, however, no censure, and there's a curious light in her eyes when she addresses her friend.

"Do you feel bad about it?" she wonders. "Honestly, Tim, I would have advised her the same thing. She was…" A frown tugs on the corners of her mouth. "She was more mad at herself that she wasn't over his rejection /instantly/. Because she's an adult, and adults move on. And they do, but that's after a mourning period and I'm…" Her eyes shift sideways, empty tubs of Baskin Robbins' Rocky Road dancing in her vision. "…/well/ familiar with the existence of those."

She sighs quietly. "I can see why it's such a shock, though," she murmurs quietly. "Jess' never been in love before. I wouldn't have believed it if it came from anyone else, but it's her."

—-

Being as he is generally an excellent read of other people, Tim figured that Zatanna would have a certain appreciation for now-ancient pop music, even boy band songs that were released before she was even born. Even if she /hadn't/, though, it would probably still have been pretty funny.

That she goes and escalates it is not really surprising, though Tim is left staring at the magician as she goes through the exaggerated dance choreography, eventually shaking his head ruefully, quiet laughter escaping him. Showmanship is of course as natural to someone like Zatanna as breathing… And given her temperament, there's no way she would consider embarrassing herself like that an impediment to running with a joke. Certainly not in front of him, or it seems her father's magical guardians.

She rejoins him, settles her derriere on the table, while he slips his phone back into his pocket and closes up his spiral notebook, though he can feel his fingers itching to take more notes, his curiousity as to what else he might find inside of the Scritti Letterari tugging relentlessly at his thoughts, as though he didn't already have quite enough on his plate as it was.

When Zatanna mentions not having thought to give him the information packet she'd gotten from the PI sooner, he shakes his head; because he knows that she /was/ dealing with a lot at the time, like getting betrayed by pretty much everyone she's ever known, and having most of her soul ripped away.

He still has nightmares about that, jumbled in with the memory of having almost dropped her when they were in that 'perfect' world. A permanent lash to add with the others, the deaths of his parents and his stepmother. The dreamcatcher Zatanna had brought him helped, of course, though he still wasn't sure if that was a placebo effect or not. But they lurk in the back of his mind, regardless. Things that never happened, things he couldn't stop.

Reminders to be more, to be better, faster, smarter.

"Yes," Tim answers immediately and honestly to Zatanna's possibly rhetorical question. That she would've said the same thing to Jessica in his position - maybe not exactly the same, but close enough to be sure - doesn't really mollify him any. He gave Jessica advice that led directly to her getting her feelings hurt. Crushed. It's not like he doesn't know what that feels like.

'Adults move on.'

That puts a sour twist in Tim's stomach, though he doesn't let it reach his face, instead watching Zatanna as her mind wanders to her own past history of trying to eat her feelings. He doesn't say it, of course, that he hasn't moved on. That he's tried, but it's like quicksand, and the more he fights the deeper he sinks in.

It's his fault, of course. His weakness, his foolishness.

"I'm worried about what her 'mourning period' will do to her," he says, though he doesn't go beyond that. They both saw how she was in the guest room, and Tim certainly doesn't want Zatanna to find out about his other interference in Jessica Jones' life. That way lies further danger.

—-

"Tim, you shouldn't feel bad for giving good advice," Zatanna tells him with a small frown. "It didn't turn out the way she expected, but I don't know if she would have been content with not knowing either. Because with the way our current crew is running, nobody knows what's going to happen. And…"

She falls quiet, ice-blue eyes directed inward. A jumble of images cascade, uncontrolled, through the darkened pathways leading from the mental attic of her memories - of blinding light searing through thick, roiling darkness and holy flesh revealed underneath. Those precious few seconds of utter perfection, of flawlessness so heartbreaking that it made tears spring into her eyes before it was forced to /fall/, torn away from everything that it was before by a pair of hands determined to spare her from the act of doing such a grisly deed herself. The brittle collapse of bones, of derisive laughter slipping into her mystical senses from far away and the sound of her name hissed from thin, leathery lips and blackened teeth…

"…everything could end at any time," she continues. "I think we owe it to ourselves to lessen the number of regrets that we take with us if the worst ever happens. There are so many people in my life who constantly worry about what's /going/ to happen, but that's precisely why I choose to concentrate on the now."

But what he says about Jessica's mourning period is sound. Tim majors in Psychology, she has absolutely no doubts that he's already pegged the private investigator with a diagnosis that would put most practicing psychologists to shame, and he's only an undergrad. There's an acknowledging nod there. "Yeah, me too," she says. "It's what she needs but Jess is self-destructive and superhuman. But…she's come far from when I first met her. She isn't alone, she has friends, people that she's close to and who she can trust to watch her back. It wasn't like that a few months ago."

She tilts her head back to look at the library's vaulted ceilings. "She wouldn't hesitate to be there for any one of us if we're having a hard time. In fact she's done this several times already. For a bit, we're going to have to return the favor."

—-

It hardly seems like a deep analysis to Tim, but then he's well aware of Jessica's alcoholism, of her self-destructive nature. And, after their previous conversation, he's pretty sure he has a working idea of why. Why she closes herself off from the world, why she hates herself so actively. Why she's never been in love. It wasn't just the loss of her family, though he knows full well how traumatic, how damaging that can be. No, he saw the shadow of something else there, something that weighed on her just as much if not moreso. And then, when she was talking about Bucky Barnes, he saw it clearer.

He saw someone who knew full well what it meant to have control stolen from her, as Barnes had. Who knew what it was like to be turned into another person's tool.

"Yeah, she tried to set me up on a date," he notes, his brow furrowing faintly. It's germane to the idea of Jessica and her being there for other people, though of course it had just made things more awkward for Tim, and just of course he'd shot the whole idea down out of hand. That just… Was not going to happen, especially not with some traumatised girl who'd been kidnapped and locked in a bunker for four years.

"You were somewhere else there for a minute, Zee," Tim observes, looking at the magician with a more scrutinising light in his dark blue eyes, his mouth set into a firm line. Red Robin, not Tim Drake; he's always tried to compartmentalise the two, even though neither persona is really… Fake. Just different sides to the same person. "Makes me feel like there's something you're not saying, about 'everything ending'."

He really hopes all of existence isn't in impending peril again, he's barely gotten over the /last/ time.

—-

"Wow, did she?" Zatanna wonders; she does look surprised, that Jessica would extend her hand that far - but what happened in Ozone Park has only tied those who were involved all the more tightly to one another, like a platoon sent off to war together. Going through extraordinary, harrowing circumstances together and emerge out of them alive and with some new scars would forge some kind of bond among all of them. Still, the idea of Jessica playing cupid is one that she did not expect hearing about. As her father was once fond of saying to her before - people were unpredictable. The moment when you think you know someone, and something happens that surprises you.

Still, she doesn't ask about it further, and for many reasons - not of the least of them their own conversations, Tim's feelings and her present emotional entanglement with a man to whom she gave her heart well before any relationship between them would have been acceptable in polite society. Some would say it's barely acceptable /now/, but she could hardly expect anyone else outside of the two of them to understand. Only one out of seven magicians survive their first level of education, and only one of seven of those survivors survive their second, and so on. Whoever manages to end up in the sphere her father and John operate is guaranteed to be two things - absurdly powerful, and tremendously lonely. There is a price to everything involved in the Work and unfortunately, personal connections are some of the first commodities to be sacrificed in the name of knowledge, power, or both.

Magicians grow up fast. Some would argue that John was thirty before he even reached the age of twenty - the horrible events of Newcastle only accelerated that. Zatanna is no different, though she makes an effort to suspend belief there, when she could still break out cheesy dance moves.

Called out for her sudden reverie, ice-blue eyes fall back on Tim and his detective face. There's a hint of a smile, but she is also hesitating for the /exact same reasons/ he is thinking about himself, though she would have no way of knowing that, and neither would he. They just survived Ozone Park. But the truth of the matters is, signs of what is happening now have been occurring well before it. Well before the Cult of the Cold Flame had become visibly active. Well before Muller's efforts with the Liber Consecratus.

"There is," she says, glancing down at her boots. "But I don't know where to begin. I don't….even know whether anything's actionable right now, either. I haven't really told anyone but Spidey and even then I really couldn't tell him anything /definite/. I just…told him to keep an eye out for anything weird while he's out there. And what I /could/ tell you is…"

There's a self-deprecating laugh. "Oh, Tim. If you thought the shit I've told you before was /weird/…"

—-

Odds are, anyone who could refer to what they do as Work with an audible capital letter could sympathise.

As Zatanna had been told by the Batman, what Tim and the rest like him do isn't just a job… It's a vocation, a calling. A crusade. They are fundamentally normal people - albeit people who are themselves, what, one in a million? Or maybe one in a billion, with the capabilities they possess, the will and determination to use them? - who life seems to have picked out in one way or another for this. The Work, the war. Night after night, trying to prevent Gotham City, and the world beyond it, from sinking into an existential abyss.

What would happen, if Gotham were truly lost? There are after all forces beyond the merely mundane operating in the city, but even without that consideration, what would be the cost of the city becoming a psychological, even psychic abcess on the face of the planet? Nothing but a pit of misery and despair?

And so, perhaps Batman was right. Perhaps they were all chosen by the Work, rather than the other way around. Their families stolen, one way or another… Even Tim Drake, the one who 'chose' this life. Wasn't he set on this path by that dreadful day at Haly's Circus? Witnessing the deaths of Dick Grayson's parents, seeing the Bat in action for the first time?

So did he choose, as he said? Or did it choose him, equipped with the knowledge to guide him into the life he lives now?

He watches her, with his 'detective face'. Not like the Dark Knight, who projects a calculating coldness with his stare when he wants to… Tim is intent. Picking apart every gesture, every movement no matter how minor. Dissecting every word, every inflection, every choice of grammar, verbiage. Thorough, relentless. But not cold. not unfeeling. She laughs, self-deprecating. She suggests that whatever she's not telling him, whatever she /hasn't/ been telling him, is weirder than any of the things she already has.

"Do you not trust me?" he asks, the question quiet and pointed. The tone is not exactly accusatory, but that's a dangerous question to ask under even the best of circumstances. He can't help but feel hurt at the possibility, though… He had trusted her, trusted her with one of the most dangerous secrets he knows. Put his life, and the lives of people he cares about, in her hands. "Or do you just not think I can handle it?"

Perhaps he can't, a bit of doubt suggests. He's the one who's felt like he's wandering blind in a world he doesn't understand, and any step might drop him into something deadly… But if she doesn't tell him things, how is that going to change?

—-

Laughter fades abruptly when Tim asks that dangerous question. For a while, ice-blue eyes stare at him incredulously; whatever else she was about to say next, because when has she ever really balked at answering anyone else's questions?, die on the vine at the sudden emergence of that. It's as if the air between them suddenly grows still, laced with incredulity and no small measure of confusion. But it gives, because it must. Because Zatanna has a temper, has never taken a few steps back whenever something needs to be addressed, for good or for ill. There have been times in her life when her dealings with people could have gone a little better if she just maintained a cool head. But she is hardly ever anything less than passionate.

Her jaw works, tension coiling at where that delicate hinge meets the side of her neck.

"I'm the one who spilled everything first, Tim," she begins, pushing off the table, turning to face him. The beginnings of a crimson flush start their slow crawl over her cheekbones. "Unless you forgot. Before I even got to truly know you. You're the one who waited until I was days from dying before you thought I was even /worthy/ of any of your secrets and even then I was the one who approached you, and then you go turning that around on /me/ because shit's become so weird I'm trying to figure out how to explain it to you when I'm not sure I understand it /myself/? You're seriously asking me that while you're in /my/ house, sitting in the middle of /my father's/ library with free access to most of /his/ things?"

Lips press into a firm crimson line. She turns her head away to look at the nearby shelf.

"It's not as if I've done anything in the last few days to make you doubt that I do, either. Not that I know anyway, so either you're projecting or you're trying to manipulate me into spilling, and I don't deserve or appreciate either."

—-

She's right.

Tim knows that she's right, of course, that she /doesn't/ deserve to be spoken to like that, especially not after everything she's been through… Though the way she throws his own secret back in his face can't help but put his hackles up, a flash of anger in those dark blue eyes, and it puts him on his feet as well, though he could hardly be said to tower over her, especially with her in heels. It's not anger at her, not entirely; frustration at what a mess these secrets make of things mingles in there freely, along with lingering self-recrimination at having revealed himself at all. He could've lied, could've left. Let her hate him, which would've made keeping his distance and his secrets a lot easier.

And then maybe she'd be dead now, Constantine and Jessica Jones lost, trapped in their 'perfect' worlds. Maybe a lot more people would be dead now, if he hadn't made that choice.

But guilt knots at his guts as she reminds him where he is, reminds him that her residence had been apparently instructed to allow him entrance, to allow him almost free rein, even into her father's library. That the guardians of the place had treated him with a welcome that one wouldn't expect to some random person who just wandered in.

He isn't the sort of person to shy away from the truth, when he sees it. And here, it's staring him right in the face.

Slowly, he closes his eyes, rubbing at them with the heels of his palms, fingers threading through his own dark hair.

"You're right," Tim says, trying to push Red Robin away. Compartmentalise, isolate. "I'm sorry, I just… I'm frustrated. Trying to operate when I don't know the rules, or when any step I take is going to turn into a bottomless pit. Possibly literally." It reminds him of when he first started out; information in drips and drabs, everything on a need to know basis. His more recent independence perhaps a reaction to not wanting to be the good little soldier anymore.

His hands scrub through his hair, pushing it back again, letting it slip forward in lazy touseled spills of midnight. He seeks calm, to push away his frustrations and everything else, leaving guilt and shame in a sour, oil puddle at the pit of his stomach.

"You don't deserve that. I'm sorry," he repeats. "And… I did want to tell you before. I just thought it was better… That it was safer if you didn't know. When you told me about what Bruce did, I almost…" Almost spilled the whole thing, the very secret that his adoptive father had assaulted Zatanna to try and protect. Almost acted like he didn't believe her, let her learn to hate him and cut him out of her life entirely. Would either of those choices have created a better path?

It doesn't really matter now, does it? Things are how they are.

Maybe if she threw him out now, told him to never come back, it'd be better for everyone.

"Just… Talk to me about this. Tell me about it. Please," Tim appends, nowhere near too proud to ask. "Maybe trying to explain things to me will help you understand it better, yourself."

—-

The apology diffuses the growing powder keg before it can truly ignite, and make a mess out of everything. Zatanna's open nature also enables her to get hurt easily, for all of her emotional exposure, it isn't as if she has managed to grow calluses from those past encounters either. Who she is, the kind of personality she has managed to develop, simply wouldn't let her. But as quick as she is to anger, she is also quick to forgive, and Tim counts himself as a member of a circle in which she is able to dispense that boon more easily than she does with others. Ice-blue eyes soften, and tension unbraids from her slender shoulders.

He proves that he is projecting; he is at least straightforward there, his frustration finally emerging from the cool reserve he uses as armor, of a kind. But the revelation comes with a hint of surprise there, as the young man has proven himself as many things; a friend, a brilliant mind and a cunning, capable tactician and fighter. The fact that he feels frustrated because he 'doesn't know all the rules' surprises her, because were she asked, she would be the first to say that Tim is doing /just/ fine with his particular set of skills. They've gone through a unique ordeal together, and he is still alive. Not many would make such a boast.

"Tim…you and Jess are doing /incredibly well/ despite not having been raised the way John and I have," she says, words implicit of the fact that she has accepted his apology. "If anything, the two of you are the reasons why we know this much about the people we're going to be dealing with in the future. I know nothing about investigation, and John's skillset is more bent on manipulating people and circumstances than almost anything else. I don't know if we could have gotten as far as we have if we hadn't come together. I'm actually quite confident that we probably couldn't have."

She takes a few steps closer, reaching out to take his hand, squeeze his fingers in an effort to get him to face her. "Seriously though, you could have told me sooner that you felt that way," she tells him quietly. "I've been hoping that my reassurances are enough but if it would make you feel better to know some of the ropes, I can teach you. Just…tell me next time, yeah? If that's what you need, you know I'll do what I can to help you. Even if it's just to better understand this stuff." A wry smile tilts upwards at last. "You've been tutoring me at the University, maybe it's time I return the favor."

She doesn't intend to /teach/ him magic - and quite frankly, the fact that he operates on ground level has been precisely one of the many reasons why his perspective has been so valuable. But there /are/ rules and practically speaking, he ought to know about them.

"We can start whenever you'd like."

And she can apparently start by telling her about 'this'. Talking to him about New York. He'd feel it immediately, the goosebumps and the hint of a shudder, stress rolling over the fine bones of her long, pale fingers.

"I think you better sit down for this," she tells him quietly. "I'll have Kasim bring the cart over."

She turns, to tug him further towards the heart of Giovanni Zatara's inner sanctum. Somewhere at the back, the endless rows of shelves, stretching across and up, as far as the eye can see, is a central seating area, with a large antique desk and several comfortable couches. She takes up the end of one, letting go of him once she's seated and patiently waits for Kasim's service. It gives her the time, to try and figure out where to start.

The broad-shouldered, bearded Hindu man arrives; odd that Zatanna hasn't pulled a bellrope or anything to signal him, as if he knows by instinct just what the mistress of the house needs. It isn't normal, unless the man himself is a mindreader. A conclusion that Tim could have made just by observing him, though that wouldn't be entirely accurate. Shadowcrest's sole butler is not human, but a metaphysical construct, the will of the mansion personified. The ancestral home of the Zatara family is /alive/.

He makes coffee - ice cream drowned in espresso for the young woman, and whatever Tim likes. He does not bring food, probably enough of a sign that whatever story the magician is about to tell, it isn't one that is conducive to encouraging any appetite.

Zee cradles her cup to her, waiting until Kasim leaves before turning her attention to her friend. "It started happening a couple of months ago," she tells him. "Shortly after I returned to Gotham."

She might as well start from the very beginning.

—-

She doesn't tell him to get lost, to never darken her doorstep again.

Tim isn't sure if he's relieved or disappointed.

It's not exactly easy for him to admit that he feels like he's floundering, trying to operate in this world that he doesn't quite understand… His training has, after all, engendered a certain aversion to demonstrating or admitting weakness and vulnerability. Red Robin needs to be more a force of nature than a human being, a myth that's temporarily taken the shape of a man. Perhaps Tim hasn't ever completely internalised that lesson from the Batman, which has at least left him with the ability to make friends, to show a kind of humility even when dealing with people in his costumed guise that keeps them from /rejecting/ him the way they so often do the more high-handed Dark Knight, but still…

His mind is his greatest strength, he knows this. As tiny as the percentile of humanity his physical abilities would be counted among might be, he's no match for Bruce, or for Dick, and that's just counting unmodified humans. Metahumans, super soldiers, gods, aliens, monsters from the darkest pits; most of them could probably crush him easily in a straight contest. His mind is his true weapon, but without understanding the rules of the arena he's trying to operate in he can't wield it effectively, any more than a boxer could win a fistfight in microgravity.

Zatanna gives him assurances, though they can't help but feel a bit like a sop for a frustrated child; her hand finds his, squeezing his fingers, and he looks at her, but…

It's another reminder, another knife of self-recrimination in his gut. Even if it hadn't been for Constantine, how could she have returned his feelings? There's a whole world that she lives in that he can't experience, let alone understand. It would be like expecting her to date an idiot child who was deaf, half-blind and could barely speak.

"I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm kind of a control freak," Tim says, self-deprecating in the face of her quiet admonishment. "Not really good at admitting weakness. Can't imagine where I learned that from," he adds, facetiously. The shadow of the Bat hangs over him, almost visibly. "But yeah, I mean… At least enough so I don't feel like a blind idiot trying to disarm a nuclear bomb all the time."

He pushes a little, asks about the thing that has obviously affected her, and immediately he can feel her physical response to… Fear? Primal terror? Immediately, he pushes away his own feelings, shoving them back into that spot in the back of his mind, where they can't bother him beyond a faint buzz. They don't matter. His pain and guilt and all of that are irrelevant.

Instead, Tim's hand squeezes Zatanna's gently, trying to be reassuring as her fingers tremble a little, the hint of a shudder.

She suggests he ought to sit down for this, and so Tim is easily tugged further into the inner sanctum, whose impossible vastness makes certain parts of Tim's brain recoil. The room is simply too large to exist in the space that it does, though part of his mind mutters something about dimensions folded on themselves, and another part urges him to ask Zatanna if her father has a sonic screwdriver.

Instead, unless stopped, Tim sits down on the same couch as Zatanna, at the other end, turning and tucking one leg under himself - careful to not put his foot on the sofa, he's not a barbarian - as he watches her try to figure out what to say, and…

The weird part is that he /isn't/ surprised by Kasim's arrival. His own lack of astonishment makes the short hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, a kind of weird dread mingled with distant acceptance that this is the new bar on what normal is.

"Thanks," he says to Kasim, mindreading super butler or magical construct or whatever he might be, because again he is not a barbarian, and he still kind of feels like Alfred would find out somehow, and nobody but nobody wants Alfred Pennyworth to look at them with profound disappointment in his eyes even while his face maintains that British stiff upper lip stoicism. Tim's coffee is, of course, as black as night in Gotham City; Zatanna has thus far been spared the coffee /he/ makes, which also doubles as an engine cleaner, but it'll keep you awake all night.

And then it's the two of them again, though Tim remains acutely aware that the library's guardians are still there. Waiting, like everything in Shadowcrest, for Zatanna's least command. When Zatanna speaks, he of course listens.

It's one of the things he's very good at.

—-

The librarians of Shadowcrest are silent.

Abelard, Chauncey and Hassan seem to be perfectly content to keep the chatter to a minimum, or even less than that, when Zatanna decides to hold a quiet meeting with her best friend in her father's inner sanctum. But while Tim is conscientious enough to keep his feet off the couch, the young woman has no such qualms. She has spent many nights here, even moreso now that her father has disappeared, pulling off her boots and letting her pale feet and black pedicure on the couch. She sits crosslegged on the cushions, rests her back against the soft plushness of them. The affogato is one that she savors, and she has managed, in what is a miraculous show of willpower for a young woman who likes ice cream way too much, to limit her intake to one cup a day. She sips at the warm, creamy concoction, ice-blue eyes wandering to Tim.

"It was strange at first, and I thought it was just me," she continues. "This feeling in the air that something was off. I'm normally a deep sleeper, but something kept waking me up at night - not dreams, or even sounds. Like…when you get paranoid sometimes in your sleep, sensing that there's something in your room that shouldn't be there, but you force yourself up and you see nothing. That kind. That went on for a few weeks, and then other things started creeping in. I go outside and my skin tingles, and there's always this…faint buzzing at the back of my head. Nothing that any normal human being can detect by ear, like radio white noise but for the mystical senses. And then I found from Gerry that there's /something/ out there that's making people in the community antsy, that it wasn't just me, but him and a few others in Gotham."

Her fingers curl over her mug a little more securely. "I thought I was just being paranoid at first, and then John shows up."

To anyone who has yet to truly get to know the British Magus, the significance of it would be lost. But in the world of the occult, everyone knows what that means. "Some other business brought him back to New York, and I guess he found my name on the paper - after you rescued me from Kazinsky's tannery. That's how he knew to look me up and before then, I haven't heard from him for four months." After we broke up, is what she almost says. "Some other business took him to New York and it's this business. I know the concept of Fate isn't really something that many people swallow easily, but fortunately, and very unfortunately, it exists for John and whenever he darkens someone's doorstep, it unfailingly means something serious is going down the wire. He's in the same business as Daddy, I have a feeling that it's one of the reasons why he brought him on as a student in the first place. Daddy only ever took three in his entire life." Tim can probably guess who the third person is.

"And then that feeling just kept growing. It's been really difficult to ignore, lately. It started intensifying after the Commission's gala and it unnerved me enough that I asked Spidey to keep a lookout for anything weird in New York. I couldn't even really explain anything to him then, because…I mean…" She gestures vaguely. "These were just twists in the gut at the time, something there but unsubstantiated. And then…"

New York happened. She frowns down at her cup.

"When we split up to talk to Jess and John that night, I was prepared to give him a briefing about what we found," she says. "And I got partway through when…"

She takes a swallow of her affogato. "Do you remember what I did on you?" She nods to his left forearm. "I did something similar for John a few days after the gala, because he asked me. Apparently he had a contact that gave him something and he devised a way to build something out of it. A compass that can detect something specific. So I performed the cutting, the ritual. And then I was instructed to sprinkle something on the wound and that I should be really careful with it, so I did, and it…oh god, this is when it gets really weird."

Zatanna lets out a slow breath. She can practically anticipate the look on Tim's face already before she utters the words.

"…do you remember the first few lines of the Book of Genesis?"

Uh oh.

—-

Tim listens.

He's good at listening.

He sips at his own coffee, which is definitely not as perilous to the stomach lining as it would be if he'd made it himself. He listens, and he watches Zatanna, his dark blue eyes fixed on the gothic magician as though she were the only thing in the world, which at the moment she might as well be. He's pretty sure that very little outside of the sanctum could manage to intrude on it at this point, particularly if Zatanna didn't want it to… So, in the interim, everything past those double doors might as well not exist.

What Zatanna tells him is, he can tell, foundational: It takes the things that he already knows, and it provides him context. The rescue at Kazinsky's serial killer lair, the sense he'd gotten from Gerry Craft that there was something wrong going on. It's not really a paradigm shift, but it allows him to build a greater framework, to understand where the pieces he already has go in a larger picture, even if that picture itself eludes him as of yet.

What she says about Constantine, and the cosmically significant nature of his very presence, gets a faint nod from Tim.

"That tracks with what Mister Craft said about him," he says; Zatanna knows full well that Red Robin had gone calling at the Third Eye, though of course even while he was doing that the magician herself was enduring something terrible. He'd been riding high on the feeling he'd found some kind of significant lead, and meanwhile someone he cared about was suffering.

Not that, in truth, he could've done anything about that even if he'd known, even if he'd been on hand to try and intervene.

He'd probably just be dead.

He listens, still, tilting his head slightly to one side, almost like the bird for which his costumed identity is named, though the mention of the carving she'd done on his left forearm makes the skin there tingle, even itch faintly; surely, a purely psychosomatic response, his attention called to the branding he'd let her do with that obsidian blade, where one slip could've opened a vein fatally, or severed nerves and tendons and left him crippled, almost certainly forced to retire from being Red Robin.

And /then/ she starts talking about the Bible at him.

Tim's head remains slightly tilted, his brow furrowing now in a look of mild disbelief, because of course this sort of thing is still kind of a bridge too far, for him. If Thor can exist, though… Maybe it's one of those cases where if enough people believe something firmly enough, it doesn't matter if it's literally true, it just becomes /truth enough/.

Which is a harrowing thought all on its own.

"Uh… 'When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth being untamed and shapeless, God said, Let there be light,'" he quotes from memory.

—-

Of course he would quote it from memory. Zatanna smiles at him faintly, though it fades immediately.

"What I had to sprinkle on his arm were fragments of the Primordial Darkness," she says slowly. "As in…the thing that came before. Absolute nothingness, the complete lack of existence before God said the words to create light. The ritual and the symbol that John constructed enabled him to bind some part of this force to him and that's when I knew that whatever it was that was happening is somehow connected with this element. It…Tim, this thing is serious. One touch and someone, something, could be /gone/. No scream, no pain, just…utterly erased. As if you were never born. It almost took me while John was trying to shut the thing into the blood-paths I carved into his arm for him and I had absolutely no idea how to drive it back until I got desperate enough to unleash everything I had in one shot. I had to sacrifice my wards to give myself the time to flood the space with as much pure light as I could."

She remembers it, watching her protections simply fade, expose her skin to something so all encompassing and ancient. She remembers it reaching for it, how hungry it was. It makes gooseflesh scatter all over her back and she resists the urge to shudder by drowning it in her cup.

"A part of this thing is on John, and he uses it to track its influence," she continues. "That's what happened in New York, in the middle of what I was telling him about the Steinschneiders. The compass acted up, and we chased the bearings. It led us to the High Line…the elevated arboretum close to the Garment District, the one with the train tracks. There was a creature there, made out of it. The Darkness. I know - intellectually, it's /impossible/. It is nothingness, so the fact that a piece of it is running around in almost human form is /ridiculous/. I thought so, and he thought so. Tim, this /shouldn't be happening/." She is emphatic, stressing out the words. "But it /is/. And what's worse, I thought that was /all it was/ and I was so…so wrong. So I cast a barrier to try and keep it confined, because the last thing we needed was for it to run loose when we started chasing it, because it could just /erase/ whatever it touches - whole buildings, people, and…oh, Tim, you know how crowded New York City is, it would've been disastrous. But considering I've seen what it does to protection wards, I knew the barrier wouldn't last long. We had to move fast. So John…"

His face floats in her mind; the haggared expression and /skewered/ to the ground by the thing that was supposed to help them detect it. "He had an ancient tablet with him. He intended to use our encounter with this thing to try and figure out who's responsible for all of this, because taking it down would've only been a temporary measure for the bigger problem. But before he could, whoever was responsible for it used the compass against him. I had to fight it and pick up where he left off and…"

Tim would see it on her expression. She had been /terrified/. Exhilarated, yes, for she is always at her best when she is facing insurmountable, impossible odds head on. But considering her past experience with the Primordial Darkness, could anyone begrudge her of terror, having tasted what it could do to a person?

She describes it after; were it any other person, she would have skipped to the important parts, but this was Tim Drake, and he wanted to learn and out of all of her acquaintances, he is the one who would absolutely insist on the details. So she leaves nothing out. She tells him about the way she used the cars in the parking lot underneath the garden as misdirection, used her sign language while her mouth is occupied with another spell to pin the creature between two vehicles. How she used that delay as a stepping stone for her next trick, to plant an invisible screen in between herself and the Darkness-beast, a pocket in which Time slows to molasses as set up for /another/ trick - to give herself more seconds, because the thing moves like lightning. She explains that she used her penlight and anchored it in the snow, and used the same words of creation to intensify its beam from thin to blinding, and focus it directly on the creature's center mass while it was trapped in that small pocket of slow-moving Time.

In the past, Tim has witnessed her perform small feats of magic. Most recently, he had seen her rip her soul back from HYDRA's clutches, and tear a hole in another world to bridge her magic with Constantine's to pull them all back to the New York she knew. He has always known that she was, at the very least, clever and inventive in her own right. She is knowledgeable about occult matters and perhaps this is the only reason why she has been able to do what she could, so far, given her lackluster performance in all other academic matters.

This would, however, be the first time she is giving her best friend a glimpse of herself when she actually /fights/. When she is in a position where there is absolutely no choice but to throw her magical might into the ring, in spite of all of her self-set limitations out of that horror and fear that she would destroy herself and everyone around her. Clever yes, artistic, yes, knowledgeable, yes….but Zatanna's true area of expertise may very well lie in the sorceror's battlefield.

"And then I grabbed the tablet, to pick up where John left off, because whoever sent this….thing managed to detect the compass in John and used it to pin him down and…do something." Her expression tightens there. "Consume him from within, maybe. So John may have been fighting it off but he couldn't exactly get up so I had to finish what he started and…"

She sets her empty mug on the table. Leaning forward, elbows braced against knees, her face in her hands.

"…and then things became even more insane."

—-

The thing is that Tim Drake's atheism is a relatively recent development. Like his cynicism, it was not his starting condition: Once upon a time, Timothy Jackson Drake went to Sunday School, and if he was never really a believer in the active sense, it was still a culture he grew up in.

But the battle Tim has fought for the past several years cost him that. He believes in good and evil still, though he knows that the line between the two is often far less distinct than one might hope… It's just that he believes in /human/ good, and /human/ evil. The existence of other things, older and stranger than the hairless apes that cling to the surface of their little blue world, doesn't change that. Most, he's sure, are just those same impulses writ large.

What sits across from Zatanna now is the detective, rather than the college student… She'd recognise the subtle shift, the way he becomes intent again as he had earlier at the table, watching and listening not passively, but an act of observation and study. Seeing how she reacts to her own words, how she chooses to say things. Dissecting it all inside of his head, turning it this way and that, trying to understand it.

It's important that he does this, because it lets him wear that poker face, betraying nothing as the magician tells him that she was nearly erased from existence by this thing she and Constantine had faced, the very idea grabbing his heart in a cold fist. It's important that he does this, because it lets him continue listening and observing despite that harrowing thought rattling around in the vaults of his mind, now. That it could've erased her, and who knows how many other people in a city like New York.

He'd quoted the city's population at Spider-Man, sitting on a rooftop with the other young costumed hero, sharing a pizza. To remind him of how many lives they'd saved by stopping the utopia machine. Not that it negated the lives that /had/ ended, the people they'd been unable to save, but because it was just important to remember the successes as the failures, in their line of work.

And once again, perhaps, those teeming millions were saved without ever realising they were in dire peril.

Tim doesn't fault Zatanna for her terror, as he feels a fair share of it just hearing her relate the events she'd gone through; he sits slightly forward as she talks, setting his coffee down on a saucer, carefully. The cup is already empty; he wasn't the sort of person to slowly enjoy a coffee. For him, it's about the caffeine and not the experience. It's about the wakefulness it can provide, staving off the body's demands of sleep.

The idea that Zatanna is comparatively speaking kind of a magical bruiser sits weirdly. She doesn't /look/ the part after all, but what has that got to do with magic? And it's not like Tim doesn't know women who look more like models than mixed martial artists who could throw cars around without breaking a sweat. Besides… He's felt it before, the storm of her power. Trying to tear him apart as he held onto her, encouraged her, tried to be a physical and emotional anchor for Zatanna as she forced her torn and shredded soul back together. He has no real perspective to figure out her relative 'weight class', or what that would even /mean/ for a magician like her. But you don't need to know the Beaufort scale to know that a hurricane is able to kill you.

'…and then things became even more insane,' she says.

That seems unlikely, but he'll take her word for it.

With Zatanna leaning forward like that, Tim shifts a bit closer on the couch, until his knee bumps lightly against hers. That intent focus subsumes everything else - he's concerned, but obviously Zatanna is all right, and he's sure that if Constantine were in a bad way she'd still be in New York - but still he's there in a way that reminds her that he's there /for/ her, not merely to listen to her. That as insane as things get, he's still trying to provide some stability, just as he did in that abandoned hospital. That he's concerned for her wellbeing, just as he was in Lernaea. Fortunately, this time he's not also getting riddled with bullets for it.

"Take your time," Tim says. "Just explain it however you can."

—-

Cushions depress under the shift of his weight - with the couch being so comfortable and plush, it is easy to detect movement. While Tim is no body builder, and while he prides himself on his cerebral gymnastics, his athleticism isn't something to dismiss out of hand either. He is deceptively heavy, when he sinks down next to her and she notices the change in proximity immediately. Ice-blue eyes lift from the cradle her hands make for her face, to give him a glance from the top of those delicate digits. He'd sense her smile on the corners, but again, this is brief. She can practically scent his doubt, at the purported insanity of what she's about to say next.

She's about to put them to rest.

"I finished John's spellwork," she continues. "The tablet was in cuneiform - Akkadian, I don't know if you've ever come across it in your classes in the University. So old that experts can only speculate at how the words are pronounced. But when that happened, the thing I pinned down with my time screen and the penlight suddenly turned towards me, ripped away from the beam. What I did /ate/ through the layer of Primordial Darkness and…oh, Tim. I was wrong. I thought someone managed to control it into taking some kind of sentient almost-human form. But it wasn't that. The Darkness…it was /coating/ something else. Something with the figure of a human being. A human being with wings. Only it wasn't human. It was…Tim, it was an /angel/."

What.

"As in a member of the Host. God's first children. One of /those/ angels. And while I knew they existed I have /never/ seen one before. Not in my entire life, and there was one in New York, just…like one of those sea birds that crash into oil spills in the ocean. This absolutely beautiful, perfect, flawless thing trying to fight off something that was trying to erase it. It made sense then, a /little/. The Darkness didn't take on the form of a creature at all, it just latched onto something with enough resistance due to its nature to stave off the effects of its erasure. Because they're holy. They're practically made out of light, and they're powered by Grace. If there's anything that could hold out against it, it would be that. But even then….I didn't think it was possible. It /shouldn't/ be possible. But this impossible thing was right in front of me and it was in agony. But for a moment, I didn't know what to do. I was so…Tim, if you could've only seen it. I've neevr seen anything so /perfect/ in my life. So much that my brain's trying to…" She gestures to the side. "Trying to remember it and I don't know if my brain could even do it justice. And then…"

The next words come out in a breathless rush: "I saw Heaven. It was just as beautiful and flawless and perfect. Like this window into another world, right in the middle of its open chest. I know it sounds /insane/, but I would never…I mean I'm creative, but I'm not making this up at all. It was right there in front of me, in my time screen, slowed down while it moved and I saw everything, every detail in slow motion. But then…"

This is when it gets confusing to her. Zatanna's brows furrow in consternation

"John freed himself somehow," she says softly. "He came up behind it and…he maimed it. He tore its wings off and the Darkness ate away at the body. It's…" She swallows, remembering it - beauty so bloodily torn asunder. "…it's the fastest way to make them fall. To make them unable to return to where they came from. So the image changed. I didn't see Heaven anymore. I saw…"

Zoht. Ahn. Ah.

"A circle. People chanting when I finally connected. I'm a languages major, Tim. I've studied as many as I could, and I couldn't identify what they were saying. What they looked like - old, leathery, like they were tanning under the sun too long. Black teeth. Rattling voices. White hair and dressed in these weird skins. John said the tablet would be able to show me who was responsible for what's going on, and I was staring right at them. The skins had a symbol on it…like a U, but with dots. I'll draw it for you later. Everything they did, though, while I was tethered….it felt old. Beyond old. And so far away….it felt like a window into something I wasn't supposed to see, instead of a door. So on some level, I knew I couldn't reach in there. Maybe. But I had to try. Now that I saw them…" Determination flares in her eyes. "I wasn't about to let them get away. So I reached. I tried to get answers. And then…"

Her teeth dig into her lower lip. "One of them turned and looked /right/ at me. And called me by name. I've never come across these people before, and it's not as if they look like they get out much. But one of them /knew who I was/ and I almost lost my nerve."

Almost.

"But I tried to command them. To tell me who they were. The one that recognized me started laughing, and the more he…she? I couldn't tell. But the more they laughed the angrier I got. So I reached and /yanked/. He or she or it fell over and….the /sound/ that came out of it. It didn't sound human. It was horrifying. And then I felt something start to come at me through the connection but I was stubborn and I tried to hang on for as long as I could, trying to shake this thing down for answers long distance. But I had to shatter it in the end, before whatever it is got me. I don't know what they were trying to do but I thought it was wise not to find out. After everything what happened with HYDRA I wasn't about to get /that/ reckless, not when so many people tried to help me stay alive already."

—-

Doubt is the natural response to pretty much all of this.

The world is full of strange, strange things, but what Zatanna tells Tim is by almost any stretch of the imagination pure insanity. That the 'creature' of Primordial Darkness was an angel, soaked in a slick of the stuff that existed before there was stuff, able to hold back the force trying to /unmake/ it, but… What? Driven mad? Do things like that get driven mad? Could they be called sane by any human metric in the first place?

Tim, naturally, has trouble believing any of it. The angel, Zatanna getting a glimpse of its perfection and through it Paradise. It all sounds completely insane, but she has no reason to lie to him, and he's pretty sure she's as sane as… Well, as sane as he is, for what that's worth. If it was anyone other than the gothic magician telling him this, he would dismiss it out of hand. Some kind of illusion at best, if not an actual delusion.

That possibility nags at him, as of course it would. That someone made Zatanna perceive all of this, for whatever reason. That it was an elaborate ruse being perpetrated on the young magician. Because it is completely, absolutely nonsense crazy.

Especially when she describes the way John Constantine mercy killed the angel, tearing off its wings and in so doing doomed it to utter oblivion, the Primordial Darkness presumably destroying it. It has a perverse kind of logic to it, but maybe that's just because he's seen the movie Dogma before. Maybe his brain is just searching for any way to get a handle on this, grasping onto the first thing that seems to make anything resembling sense.

But Zatanna persists, and Tim continues to listen, as she tells him of what she saw after the angel was maimed and doomed, as her vision of Heaven was replaced with something… Else. Something out of a horror movie, especially as the magician reveals that one of the subjects of her vision saw her, knew her. That they resisted even her magical might, laughing off her commands. That the whatever-it-was tried to do something to her while she tried to force it to answer her, and that she doesn't know what, but Tim's opinion is leaning towards 'something horrible'.

Tim's brow furrows, and he lifts a hand to scrub through his hair, consideringly. Weighing what he's been told, turning it over in his head. Trying to think about it from every angle, even if he isn't quite sure what all the angles /are/, as of yet.

"That's pretty fucked up, Zee," Tim says, finally.

—-

She is very well aware that this is completely, absolutely nonsense crazy. Even for the likes of her, when she has just stressed on her best friend that what she saw in New York should be impossible even in /her/ world, where the most insane things could happen. At his remark, though, she can't help but laugh. It sounds a little unhinged, turning her ice-blue eyes to look at him: "/Right/?!"

Zatanna frowns at their coffee cups on the table. Maybe she should have asked for alcohol instead.

After a few moments of silence, she speaks up again. "John's alright," she says, though by the frown she directs on the furniture in front of her, she isn't particularly happy about his situation. "The skewering was a metaphysical one, once the angel died and once everything shut down, he was left with a headache and that's it." The Darkness compass, constructed from bits of the ancient stuff, was still lurking through his veins. Now that she knows that the creatures she saw through the portal can use it against him, she is all the more anxious to get it out of him, and the only way they can do that now is to figure out what's happening and stop it.

Leaning back into the couch again, she tilts her head back. "The U symbol…" Her fingertips lift, tracing the burning mark into the air for him to see; the tops of which fold out into two prongs, a dot placed on the inside of each to suggest an eye. Looking at it another way, the sigil, in the end, looks like a double-headed serpent.

"I consulted one of Daddy's books, and John pulled out one of his. Apparently there's a few variations, but the symbol points to something called the Brujeria," she explains, once again her Spanish inflection flawless - Tim would recognize the term given his own command of the language, the word for 'Withcraft'. "A group of Argentinian shamans said to have existed back in the days before the Flood. Don't know how they managed to peg them as 'Argentinian' considering there was no Argentina back in the days of Noah, but maybe the term was meant to be geographical than cultural." As in traces of them were found in the country and nowhere else. "And considering all the crazy noise on Mystic Radio, there's too many supernatural factors out there now that we can't say for sure that it's really them. Because if it's really them, it's /impossible/, Tim. They're extinct. Supposedly God wiped them out along with the rest of the world in the Great Deluge and what they were and the ancient magic they wielded were so vile that even /Hell/ wouldn't give them safe harbor."

A hand comes up to pull through her hair. "But the Primordial Darkness is beyond old," she says. "The Brujeria is also beyond old. That kind of coincidence is something we can't really dismiss outright." And she knows Tim would agree with her, he doesn't believe in coincidences, he told her once. "It's just…it's just really hard to swallow."

Her lifted fingers move over her closed lids, rubbing in slow circles. She is tired. She has /tried/ to sleep, has made an effort to do so, but it continues to elude her and now at least, her friend knows why. "It's the only 'big picture' lead we have though," she says quietly, her head rolling sideways and her eyes opening again to look at her friend. "John says there's enough happening everywhere that it won't make a trip down to South America necessary but I don't know. I'm considering going anyway."

Zoht. Ahn. Ah.

The rattle, the brittle cracking of bones and a slimy tongue worming through blackened teeth. She is very much aware that they know who she is. And as frightening as the prospect is, if she has to, she will go. She can't not. She will always choose to tilt instead of withdraw.

—-

Tim isn't generally given to that sort of language, either, so the fact that he actually makes the remark that he does shows just how strange the situation is. The way Zatanna laughs, a bit of wildness in her the tone of her voice, betrays more quickly than anything else she's said or done just how outlandish /she/ finds it. And given the world that she's lived in for the past twelve years or so, that something would be too strange, too impossible for even her to wrap her head around…

Well, it's a bit intimidating. Not that it changes anything.

"That's good, at least," Tim says when Zatanna affirms that Constantine is basically healthy, though he can already guess what would be troubling her about the British magus' situation; Tim might not be an expert on matters arcane, but he certainly grasp things, like how the 'compass' would continue to present a vulnerability. Still, it's a relief to know that he's all right; whatever other foolishness might be in the detective's head, wishing ill on Constantine doesn't enter into it.

Dark blue eyes watch as Zatanna traces the symbol in the air, and she'd know that he's already memorised it, already stored it away in one of those myriad rooms inside his mind, as though her magic were burning it there instead of into the air between them. He's still rejecting the idea of things from a bronze age creation myth happening literally, but he files away what Zatanna tells him anyway, because even if some of it is pure metaphor that's been passed down for a few thousand years, it still might be /important/. Even if it's only important because a bunch of ancient evil shamans /think/ it is.

Just as Zatanna surmises, Tim agrees with her that the connection is obvious, because as he told her he doesn't believe in coincidence. Not absolutely, of course… Sometimes things /do/ just happen, but in situations like this? No such thing. If you see a bank robber hanging around a bank, sure there's a chance he's just there to open a chequing account, but odds are he's there /to rob the bank/.

Tim watches her, as she rubs at her eyes, as she shows all the telltale signs of weariness, of someone who has been unable to sleep. He knows them, of course. It wasn't so long ago that he was demonstrating them himself, working himself nearly to death despite his efforts to stave off physical and mental exhaustion. Caffeine and centering techniques can only do so much, though. In the end, even he couldn't keep going.

And… It was easier, knowing she was right there, watching over him as he slept.

He should tell her to try not to worry about it, to find a way to get some rest. Indeed, he knows several ways to get her to sleep despite her mind's reluctance to allow it, and at least some of those wouldn't require him to drug her or anything. He should tell her to listen to Constantine, that he's probably right about her not needing to actually go poking around in Argentina where she might run afoul of who knows what. That's what he should do. Counsel patience and care.

"If you need any backup, let me know," is what Tim says instead. Out of his element, out of his depth almost certainly, but his help comes freely offered regardless.

—-

"Ha ha ha. Like I'm going to be allowed to just hare off to Argentina by myself chasing the likes of them," Zatanna says with a laugh, seriousness for the time being banished from her eyes in favor of a lighter expression. "John would be furious, especially since he knows what I know, Jess would make me feel guilty and I'm not discounting the idea of Bucky getting there /before/ me with enough weapons to arm a third world country's revolution. Not like it wouldn't be such a bad place to go. Birthplace of the tango and all of that. Besides, in the end, he's right….there's plenty to do here on this coast as it is, and it's not like we can do anything until he confers with his contact who sounds like he knows more about what's going on than we do."

His contact, who John has not provided much detail - not a name, or an occupation, or even a location. But that's nothing new coming from the British magus, who tends to guard his secrets rather jealously. All she knows about this mysterious figure was what she has already told Tim - that he somehow managed to get ahold of pieces of something that came before everything. Though she vaguely recalls that lazy day on the couch after her first encounter with the stuff. Something about meeting him down in Louisiana…

Shaking her head, a rueful smile tilts over at Tim's direction. "Anyway if there is such a trip in our future, you'll be one of the first to know. As it stands we're already going to Germany at some point. God, if only I had your brain. I'm already dreading about the classes I'm going to have to catch up on once we get back."

Some degree of relaxation seems to have returned to the young woman, however, drawn there by Tim's reassurance that he finds the entire recounting just as insane as she does. She was never the sort to be comfortable bottling everything up, and now that the outlandish story has been communicated to someone else, she languishes in the sensation of those valves loosening, the build up of heat and steam easing away.

"Nothing to do now but follow what we've got. One thing at a time, yeah?" She is very fond of saying this, a quiet, personal mantra, to remind herself now and then that things often do not appear so overwhelming if one doesn't look at or tries to handle everything at once.

Straightening up from the couch, she turns her attention back to her friend. "Anyway…you said you wanted to learn the rules. When did you want to start?"

—-

For his part, Tim shrugs faintly. Whatever his self-confessed preferences for being in control, he's smart enough to know when to let other people decide the best course of action… And that definitely includes situations where he knows they know better than he does, like this one.

"You might end up needing to do some summer classes to catch up," Tim points out, when Zatanna admits her concern about how much work she'll be behind on, once they've gone to and returned from Germany. It's a very real threat that she might end up in a situation where she can't simply catch up for some of her classes, that she might have to re-attempt one or two over the summer semester. Though she managed to do well enough in the first semester, even though she'd transferred in more than halfway through, didn't she?

"Fortunately, you know somebody who's very smart and way too obliging for his own good who can help you out," he adds, with a certain degree of self-deprecation. It would just figure that he makes for a perfectly good tutor even in the classes he /isn't/ taking, wouldn't it? Sometimes it seems like he's only going to school to get the degree, rather than to actually /learn/ anything.

'One thing at a time, yeah?'

It's a good perspective, though it's not one that Tim himself has ever been very good at hewing to himself. He's the sort of person to always have more than one iron in the fire, to juggle different things until he's pushed to his limit. It wasn't as though he only had the cases related to Zatanna to keep him occupied, either; Gotham had no shortage of things that needed investigating, especially now that the Dark Devil had discovered a gang using some kind of super-steroids, and even if he had no interest in Jessica's attempts to set him up with her formerly bunker-dwelling client, he was still going to help out with /that/ investigation as well.

And there was school. And there was…

"I'd be happy to start right now," Tim answers, because of course he does. He was never one to start later what he could start now. "But you look tired, Zee. Maybe it's my turn to make sure you get some sleep?"

—-

"At the rate I'm going, I'll be faceplanted in no time anyway," Zatanna says with a hint of a smirk. "I'm not blessed with the ability the rest of you seem to have, going on and on with no sleep. I'm incapable of staying awake past a certain threshold." She can't help but think of Jane, who works in an effort to prevent herself from sleeping. Remembering her now makes her wonder whether she shouldn't do for her what she had done for Tim, and had tried to do for John, and nail a real Ojibwe dreamcatcher behind her headboard.

But he wants to start right now; brows lift at him. "Never one to procrastinate, huh?" she wonders, turning her attention to the front of the library. "Chauncey? Abelard?"

The dodo can be spotted turning from his pedestal, dead eyes falling on the two teenagers at the back. "Mistress?" The griffon head shifts against the wall.

"Could you get Hassan to bring the Scritti Letterari here, and the Atlas?"

The skittering and heavy footsteps are signs enough that Giovanni Zatara's custodians have set themselves to the task of going around the space, presumably to collect the books necessary for Tim's current endeavors in learning some of the rules of a new game. Withdrawing her obsidian obelisk, the young woman taps their empty mugs, to replenish their drinks - traces of their former amounts are still left, and it's a simple task for her to make more of them from what was left unconsumed. She pushes the mug of pure black towards her friend, and picks up her new affogato. She purses her lips faintly to blow at the steam.

"I'm still learning myself so I'm not exactly qualified to teach magic to anyone," she tells Tim. "And honestly, I'd rather you not learn any, though theoretically anyone can do a little hedge magic if the instructions are placed in front of him or her, like a home cook following a recipe. But your ground-level insight is valuable, Tim. John and I are typically so caught with what we know that we tend to tunnel vision into things - that's one of the reasons why you and Jess have been so incredibly helpful to us. But helping you navigate this stuff, that I can do. That's actually some of the first things I learned from Daddy."

She curls her fingers around her mug. "Remember basic Philosophy classes? About how we really know nothing? It's doubly true when you're dealing with the arcane. The regular rules don't apply, so when you come across something you know logically is impossible, chances are it /is/ possible so it's better that you get over that stumbling block pretty quickly. And with that said…"

Zatanna lifts a hand to rub the back of her neck. "The 'rules' are a little nebulous in the sense that usually, for an actual practitioner, there are no rules. But there has been advice passed down from the previous generation of mystics to the other - risk management guidelines, that sort of thing. I'll let you borrow some books on that - like the one hundred-and-sixty-one Ardanes that govern how one coven should contract with another and so on. Daddy compiled these and other things for me in a binder I call the Atlas. It's hefty reading, Tim, I'm not going to lie. But considering you remember everything you read anyway, I won't be surprised if you finish it in a week." There's a quiet grouse at that.

It's difficult being the academic inferior of almost everyone in her present circle.

"Right now I can cover the most important ones. I know you already know this one but if you don't take a life, your soul's in the clear. Trust me when I say that if someone tries to make a deal with you that requires the sacrifice of a life, don't take it. Any life. Cats, dogs, frogs, it doesn't matter. Doing that generally means entreating with entities and unless you've had experience dealing with those, stay away from that. No matter what. Not even if you're assured that it's just a means of communicating with /something/, because that's a slippery slope into thornier paths."

She takes another sip of her mug. "With that said, there are certain entities bound by their own rules. Celestials and Infernals, for example, have very specific ones that limit their interactions with the real world and human beings, supposedly because any more than that and barriers between Heaven and Hell will just start breaking down if too much crosses over from either side, and the Universe generally likes the world where it is. So most of the time, demons and angels operate through human agents, or manipulate through influence - think of it as a cosmic chess game, and even /then/, they have to be let through the doors willingly. Because God or whatever Creator you believe in granted mankind free will, and it's probably the most powerful magical instrument that our lot's ever been granted." And this is probably the reason why Mammon hasn't directly manifested in front of anyone she knows, even though his influence is clearly felt. And why he just hasn't come through hell to rip out her soul himself. Because he can't.

—-

A pressure point would do it.

It seems ridiculous, like something out of an old tv show… But Tim learned how to influence the flow of energy through the body during his time training with Rahul Lama, who was in life one of the foremost masters of qi gong living in the mundane world, and not in some isolated magic city. It hardly counts, beside the sorceries wielded by Zatanna or Constantine, but it's saved his life on more occasions than even Tim Drake's prodigious memory can easily recall, and it's one of the major reasons he's in such ridiculously good condition despite the hellacious punishment that's been visited on his body over the past several years. But he knows there's a spot where, with pressure applied properly and with the correct intent, sleep can be induced.

Though, when he thinks on it, he's not exactly sure he wants to know what happens if the flow of energy through someone like Zatanna is manipulated or disrupted. It could be dangerous. Also she'd probably get mad.

"Nobody can go without sleep forever," Tim says. "Not even me, not even Batman. Once you hit about two weeks, your body will /make/ you sleep, one way or another. Besides, I've been getting plenty of sleep lately. Four hours a night, usually."

She's right that he isn't one to procrastinate, though he did offer her an out… One that she elected not to take, instead calling for the sanctum's other residents to get what they'll need, and bringing that obelisk out once again to refill their drinks. He doesn't comment on that, on the use of some kind of intermediary; partially because he still doesn't know the rules, and he doesn't know if there's some kind of expectation where that sort of thing is concerned… But he knows he's seen her work without it, or any tools, as when they were trapped in Lernaea. The possibility that the obelisk is a /limiter/, rather than another sort of aid, flits across his thoughts. Something to tap the vast storm of power more safely? He has, after all, experienced that vast storm, and was nearly destroyed by it.

"I don't really want to /do/ any magic," Tim says, though that isn't quite true. He does have a scientific curiousity about the actual doing of it, though he has no interest in delving deeper. "I just want to be able to understand what's going on. Plus… It might help me understand /you/ a little better, too."

He's half-blind idiot child, mostly deaf. Completely unaware of things she sees, feels, hears without even thinking about it.

But at least he can try to learn something. At least he can try to use his brain to make up some of the difference, to close that gap. To not be a burden, either in their work or in their friendship. So he listens as she teaches.

Perhaps he shouldn't be surprised that the most important rule in her Work is the same as the most important rule in his: No killing. A matter not just of moral comfort but of practicality as well, as the Bat Family's vigilantism is only as tolerated as it is /because/ they don't kill, and indeed go out of their way to save lives whenever possible. It's just that the authority Zatanna refers to is a little bit higher up.

The mention of human sacrifice causes Tim a bit of pain, as well it might, and he reaches for his refilled coffee to try and hide it. Janet Drake, sacrificed by the Obeah Man to whatever entity he served. His father only barely survived the same ritual, as he'd told Zatanna before. His mother laying in her casket, no wounds, looking like she'd just fallen asleep. But no matter how he'd shaken her, how much he'd cried and screamed, she wouldn't wake up.

No.

No, he doesn't have time to wallow in that. He closes that door again, he focuses on the now, on what Zatanna is telling him. It's important, it's something he needs to know. Something he asked to know.

"So that's why Mammon was able to possess Kazinsky," Tim says, indirectly moving to the same point Zatanna thought but did not give voice to. "Because Kazinsky had already let him in, especially with the women he'd sacrificed. But he couldn't go after you directly even once he realised what you were there… But he knows who I am. He called me by my real name, what's keeping those Cold Flame cultists from busting down my door? Or going after the Manor, come to think of it?" The possibility that they aren't worth the bother certainly occurs to him, though it's a bit hurtful to his pride especially with the knowledge that they /had/ gone after some blind lawyer. Maybe Jessica was right about their unwillingness to go after anyone who might be able to fight back.

—-

'Plus…it might help me understand /you/ a little better, too.'

There's a wry twist to her mouth there, Zatanna glancing down at her mug. "I want to understand me, too," she tells him. "But I don't think I'm ready for that journey, yet."

She doesn't elaborate on it, pushing the thought aside. Now that she has other things to worry about, it simply gives her an excuse to procrastinate from opening those doors and seeing what sort of horrors and wonders are waiting for her there. Even now, she feels it call, now that she has been introduced to her inheritance - things that she hasn't really examined in depth, herself, for it would require looking deep and she isn't ready for that. Oblivious, however, of Tim's very accurate deduction that the obelisk she has been using functions as some sort of limiter, she focuses on his questions instead.

"Of course he knows who you are," she says, and he would see her shift uncomfortably. The idea of Tim being addressed by Mammon /directly/ does not sit well with her. "He's a Demon Prince. Down there, he's management, and that's not something you can or should dismiss so easily. And that brings us to another rule - everything's bound by Fate. Everything. I hate the idea of Destiny as much as any free-thinker does, but as John is fond of saying, Fate 'don't give a toss whot you think'." Her accent is exaggerated, more cockney that the Englishman's Liverpudlian. "So as powerful as they are, Celestials and Infernal are subject to that, also. They can influence, sure, but if they outright /interfere/, they sign themselves up to some serious cosmic retribution and much like everything else, they like existing, so they don't do it. When…" She hesitates, as always when she has to explain her father to someone, but she continues in spite of it. "I asked Daddy once why he decided to teach Bruce his tricks, and all he said to me was that the world was going to need him, one day, and as one of Fate's instruments, it was his duty to make sure that he gets there. If that's true, and you're tied to Bruce's fate, then…" Her voice trails off, knowing that Tim will catch on. It all leads to the conclusion that a demon revealing his true identity to the Cold Flame Cultists would be tantamount to direct interference.

"It's the same reason why whenever John shows up, people in my community tend to listen, no matter their personal feelings," Zatanna adds. "John's a Chosen. Fate guides him. He follows where it leads."

Taking another drink of her affogato, ice-blue eyes lift to meet Tim's again. "Which brings me to the next rule. Cosmic retribution is real. You can trickle it down to the ways it manifests, like what I told you before - magic costs. The more powerful it is, the more expensive it is and the liability is nothing you can offset with material wealth. Hours, days, weeks of your life. A month's worth of good fortune. The soul of your firstborn. It's not always instantaneous either - effects can take months or years before they show up on your spiritual ledger. As powerful as Daddy is, the cost is great, too. He started aging well into his prime, for instance. And when he became what he is now…"

She glances away, her eyes fixing to a point somewhere in the library away from him.

"…he doesn't enjoy music anymore," she confesses quietly. "He used to, very much. He thought it was everything. He taught me it was everything. He's lost it now. Sometimes the things you love are the first to go, so even the Great Zatara is not immune. Honestly, the only person I know who doesn't pay any price at all is…"

Me.

The acknowledgment sits uneasily in her stomach, because that /shouldn't/ be right. It goes against everything she knows, everything she's been taught about the world she lives in. And if it isn't right, if that shouldn't be possible…

She puts the thought aside as she turns her attention back to Tim. "Same reason why magic shouldn't be used to avenge an act of violence," she tells him. "Cosmic retribution applies there, also, though certainly the penalties are less severe than outright interfering with Fate's wheel. So sometimes…when hate is strong enough, sometimes the practitioner doesn't care. I told you about free will, right? How it's the most powerful magical instrument given to us. That's one of the reasons why - being able to make that choice, like pulling the trigger of a gun. The choice to suffer the consequences, no matter how great. And when you use magic for that, the consequences are great, indeed."

—-

To be fair, Tim wasn't a big fan of it either, especially in retrospect. At the time, it seemed more like Kazinsky was some kind of human with a split personality or something, and only one of them had access to his superhuman physical abilities. It wasn't unheard of, for the stress of those sorts of abilities to cause mental problems, after all. Knowing after the fact what was actually addressing him just made it more… Unsettling.

Maybe it made the case more personal, too. He remembers what it said through the possessed form of Michael Kazinsky, remembers the hissing voice. How it talked about their efforts to save Gotham as though they were a source of amusement, of light entertainment for Mammon. How it declared that he had to be punished for interfering directly in the sacrifice.

Personal, for claiming responsibility for some of the harm that was done in Gotham City every day. Personal, because he'd gotten in the Demon Prince's way. Not that he was short on reasons why it was personal, since Zatanna had becone the target of the Cult of the Cold Flame and their master.

So while he can accept the existence of someplace that roughly matches the (largely apocryphal) Christian idea of Hell, that there are powerful beings who exist there, who might as well be called demons, and that there is a more than physical essence to a person which is of interest to those beings, the idea of Fate is one of those places where he balks.

"But that doesn't make any sense, how can 'Fate' be a real thing but humans have free will?" Tim asks, because of course he was going to. It's the question that would grate on him, like nails on his mental chalkboard, until he did say it. The idea that he was somehow tied to someone else's 'fate', that his existence was somehow… Subordinate, grates on him as well. He made the choice that led to his becoming Robin, the choices that led to him sitting there on Zatanna's couch. Didn't he? Perhaps he should be glad, if that connection and the seemingly arbitrary cosmic rules certain classes of being were forced to live by provided him with a measure of protection.

Instead, he finds it insulting.

But he listens, anyway.

He listens as Zatanna tells him about how the universe keeps itself balanced, the arcane cause and effect, Newton's third law for wizards. Actually, for all he knows Newton /was/ a wizard, the man was famously fascinated with alchemy. The last of the magicians, as Keynes called him. But Zatanna's description of the price of magic shifts from the abstract to the horribly specific, as she talks about the costs her father has paid to do the Work that he does. He keeps hold of his mug with one hand, but the other shifts to press against her knee as she tells him about her father's lost love of music. Sometimes the things you love are the first to go, she says. His wife, his music… And perhaps his daughter, in a way, since he can apparently not contact her directly. But maybe Giovanni can find some comfort in knowing that Zatanna is alive and reasonably whole, and that there are people who are extremely dedicated to keeping her that way.

He notices the thought that she doesn't finish, but it's not hard to guess what she was going to say. That she was unusual, the exception to that rule. That, connecting the idea with what she said earlier, she doesn't understand why. Doesn't understand what she is.

That makes him feel very sad, in fact. A deep, horrible ache of sympathy like a crack in his heart.

"So when the Cold Flame cultists started throwing fireballs at us, was that just their fanaticism driving them over the edge, making them willing to use their magic like that? Because at that point they just didn't care about the consequences?" He supposes that makes sense, given that what they were doing would likely be viewed as earth-shatteringly important. Possibly literally. If he hadn't destroyed the bowl and its contents of Zatanna's blood…

—-

That's a good question, and one for the philosophers: How can Fate and Free Will operate in the same space?

A dry look falls on Zatanna's face at that. "Because God's an asshole and he likes being confusing," she tells him blandly, and she sounds as if she is terribly serious while she says it. "Best way I can explain it is that the Wheel can be fickle, too. It turns depending on the needs of the universe at the time, which is why even the best seers on the planet get the future wrong, sometimes, because those needs change regularly. So if a person makes a choice, and Fate decides to roll with it, and it does decide to do that more often than people think, it shifts accordingly and recalibrates. Practically speaking it's more malleable than everything else that's been said about it. It has to be. If it wasn't, I think we'd all be done for."

A resigned look falls on her face. "And I already know what you're going to ask next: so how does Fate decide when to 'roll' with someone's choice and when to keep on what it decided originally? My answer to that is I have no damned idea. That's not an answer meant for us mere mortals. Even if it does decide to roll with those choices, though, we're not absolved from paying the price of those, either. I'd call it the worst zero sum game ever, but that wouldn't be accurate either. There were some choices made that turned the world into a better place."

She finishes her cup of affogato, setting it aside. She contemplates on making herself another, but decides two in one night is probably an unforgiving prospect for her waistline, and so manages to hold herself back from it. The squeeze on her knee has her looking down at Tim's hand, and she looks up to give him a smile, reaching down with her own, coffee-warmed palm to splay light fingertips in between his knuckles.

"Daddy wouldn't change a thing," she tells him. "It's the choice he made and considering his tremendous sense of responsibility, he will forever be a custodian of that choice until the day he dies. No matter how much it hurts." She searches his face quietly with those eyes. "I think you understand that very well, yourself."

His next question has her nodding. "For the most part. I told you before they were fanatics. No price is too great to achieve power, that includes not giving a damn about the consequences. And it shows, if events in Switzerland didn't make that clear for them - their stronghold breached, a couple of their own sacrificed, several deaths among their number." Thanks to Bucky's grenade launcher. "But they'll keep paying the price, Tim. There's plenty enough who follow them to keep on for decades."

A shadow falls over them. Whenever they look up, Hassan the Mummy utters a few unintelligible words (remarkable as it is, considering his tongue has been gone for centuries) before handing Zatanna Da Vinci's Scritti Letterari and the Atlas - a large, black binder fastened shut with metal rings. It doesn't look all that intimidating until Tim inspects it more closely - the pages are /very thin/, and there are lots of them.

"Thanks, Hassan."

The mummy shambles off, and she puts the tomes on the coffee table. "Take care of these, okay?" she says. "They're priceless."

—-

Oh, says the nerdy part of Tim's brain in response to Zatanna's explanation about Fate. Like in the Wheel of Time.

If anything has given him any degree of preparation for his ventures to the spooky side of the street, it hasn't been his training with Batman or any of the others who have mentored him in the past, but his nerdy hobbies. Reading fantasy novels, playing Dungeons & Dragons. They've at least given him some kind of vague framework, and if none of them are what anyone would call 'correct', they at least provide enough touchstones that he felt like that proverbial blind man feeling his way, instead of a blind man with no sense of touch wandering aimlessly in an abyss.

"If it really was a zero sum game, then there wouldn't be much point to it, would there? Nothing you could do would really make a difference. Nothing could get better, or even worse, so whether you tried or not it wouldn't matter… Whether you succeeded or not, it wouldn't matter. Sounds to me as much like Hell as the perfect world HYDRA tried to create."

Having the ability to choose, even the ability to create your own meaning wouldn't offset that intrinsic, baked-in level of futility. It would be less like a world to live in, and more like a sick experiment in what happens to conscious minds when they realise that nothing they say or do matters, even to other people. That even if you made someone else's life a bit better, someone else's would get a bit worse to compensate. Or if you made someone feel good today, that just meant they'd feel that much worse tomorrow, the balance ensured.

Surely, then, awareness would bring only madness and despair.

In the spirit of trying to make the world a better place, and trying to make another human being feel better, Tim reaches out to offer comfort to Zatanna when she tells him something which is frankly, existentially horrible. She gives him a smile for it, and Tim flashes her one in return, the feeling of her hand against his own causing a faint tingle, his body responding to an otherwise purely psychological reaction to being touched by her. It's nice. It feels good, when he was the one looking to make her feel better. And, of course, a certain sense of shame and guilt comes along with that good feeling.

"It's rarely me that pays the price, Zee," Tim says, though he does understand exactly what she means about her father. "I know, one day it's going to be," maybe in Germany, if that's where they're headed next. He can't help but analyse the possibility. The others have powers to protect them, magic. The likeliest casualty, then… "But if there's some cosmic force collecting payment for /my/ decisions, it keeps hitting other people around me. My parents, my stepmother." Friends, their lives torn apart because he was in them. Other girls he's liked or dated, forced to relocate because of him. In one case, dead because of him. Worse than dead. "Tell you the truth, Zee, there's a lot of choices I wish I could change or take back. But not the big one… And there's not much I can do but live with the consequences of what I've done." However long that is. But maybe his luck will hold out. Maybe it'll be him that keeps going, and others who will pay the price. Until he's alone in the dark, like Bruce tries to be.

Yet still, it's not as though he's going to stop.

If Tim has other questions about the Cold Flame cultists, perhaps trying to tie it into what Jessica Jones told him before, he's cut off by the reappearance of the mummy, his dark blue eyes turning up to the disconcerting figure. But before long, he's looking at the binder, the Atlas, with undisguised curiousity. Thick reading, as she said. Most other people would probably balk at it, at this point; Tim only gets more curious, just as with the voracious way he was going through the Scritti Letterari before.

"No other kind of book," Tim tells Zatanna, mildly put out that she felt the need to tell him to be careful with /books/. "But don't worry, I'll get them back to you in the same condition you lent them to me in. Fair warning, though, I might have more questions after I'm done." Might, he says, as though there were really any other possibility. The spiral notebook still sitting on the table she found him at has /ten pages/ of notes already.

—-

"Are you sure they were due to your decisions though?" Zatanna wonders, inclining her head at Tim. She has no cause to doubt his words, but she also knows /him/, and is very much aware of his tendency to blame himself for not being the perfect vigilante crimefighter who makes all the right, cold, reasonaable decisions. "People work in cross-purposes all the time, Tim. And I know how hard on yourself you can be." While she has not been shy in pointing out that he is not a robot, she knows that the instinct has been drilled into him by an unforgiving taskmaster. It is something she can relate to, Giovanni Zatara being the kind of instructor he is, but she is just as young as he, and they have their lives ahead of them to improve. It seems too much to expect themselves to get it all right in the first shot, or the second, even the third or fourth.

But she doesn't push. Instead, she squeezes his hand gently with her fingers.

The promise of more questions has her smirking. "Well, I wouldn't expect any less from the indomitable Timothy Drake," she teases him, moving to stand up from the couch. Plucking the books off the table, she hands both tomes to him. "Keep them safe. It's late, though, and I should probably try and sleep, and attempt to move past the craziness of the last couple of nights. There's more guest rooms on the second floor, also, if you want to spend the night. Though if you did, I know what'll happen anyway. You'll read all the books I gave you, write down your notes, and the first thing in the morning, you'll be in the library looking for more."

She inclines her head at him. "That's if you skip out on the night's Work anyway, and I'm still not convinced you actually take breaks unless I make you."

—-

'I know how hard on yourself you can be.'

Tim would like to defend himself from that statement, but just as with earlier - just as with when his frustration bubbled out irrationally in a question of whether or not she trusted him - he finds it difficult to deny the truth when it's put in front of him. He's a detective, after all, and like the man who helped to train and refine his natural talents, his inclination is to face up to conclusions even when they're personally uncomfortable.

Perhaps ironically, then, this is part of what helps him be so hard on himself. But Zatanna isn't pushing him, she's just trying to get him to consider things from a different perspective. To remind him that causes are usually more complicated than just one person's decisions. Not one thread leading inexorably to a given end, but a tapestry of them running across and over one another, to ends that no one can see. Her hands squeezes his, gently, and then she's moving, rising from the couch, lifting the books and handing them to him.

Of course, he takes them, even as she teases him with her words, and flashes him that smirk.

Tim rolls his eyes a little bit.

"You seem to have a pretty high opinion of your influence on me, Miss Zatara," Tim teases her back, once she brings up the possibility that he only takes breaks because /she/ makes him. Though it's true that he hasn't really been taking much of any lately… During the days in NYC after she'd healed his bullet wounds, at least, he'd only put on his costume to contact Spider-Man. Other than that, he'd just been regular Tim Drake, doing normal social things in the Big Apple. Even if his ex-girlfriend did barge into his penthouse that one day. "But I guess a night not spent swinging around the city can't hurt." Especially not when he's in a library full of new things to learn. The thought of it practically makes his mouth water, like a gourmand presented with a vast, sumptuous feast.

"So yeah… You get some sleep, and don't be surprised if you find me here when you get up. Seems like a fair exchange for that time at my place." He won't be watching her sleep, at least. Even he isn't weird enough to do that without permission or actual necessity. Of course, he probably won't sleep a wink, not when he has so much reading to do; not unless Zatanna comes into the library in the morning to find him out cold at the table, a distinct possibility.

He thinks for a moment, though, weighing whether he should say anything else, or if he should just let her go. But he remembers what she said earlier - strictly speaking, he remembers everything she said earlier - and then turns to look at the magician as she is, perhaps, on her way out.

"Zee," he says. "No matter what you find out about yourself, no matter what any of this stuff means, remember that I'll always…" The hesitation is brief to the point of being nearly invisible. The hesitation of the slightest fraction of a fraction of a second as what he almost says changes. "…be there. I'll always believe in you. Nothing's gonna change that."

—-

The thought does not even occur to her; why would Tim Drake want to watch her sleep when he has access to the more public parts of her father's private collection, now? If he knew what was in the Sub Rosa, deep underneath the stylized rose pattern of the custom carpet they were both standing on, he would probably /lose his mind/.

But that is a story for another day.

His own teasing has her laughing. "I call it like I see it," Zatanna says, her grin broad enough that dimple on her left cheek shows visibly. "But I'm glad you're staying, though /try/ and get some sleep too, yeah? The library isn't going anywhere and you can come by as often as you like. This space is sealed shut every time I'm not in the house, but it's not as if you'd come by if I wasn't anyway. Otherwise you'd have to deal with Peter, Kitty, a talking raccoon and a giant, walking alien tree all by yourself. Unless you want to try."

It's easy to believe that she is joking about this. But by looking at her face, he would find that she is /extremely serious/ about the talking raccoon and the alien tree.

She picks up her boots, and she's about to step away when his next few words stop her. For a moment, she says nothing, and he would be unable to gauge her expression, because for the time being, her back is turned towards him given her effort to go.

Her ice-blue stare finds the floor somewhere in front of her, long lashes shuttering over it. But she does turn around eventually, taking a few quick steps towards him and throws her arms around his neck. The sudden wave of emotion threatens to drown her insides, manifests as heat pricking from underneath her lids. She grips him as tightly as she can, with whatever mediocre physical strength she's able to give.

"I know," she confesses quietly, her nose finding the line of his shoulder.

I hope so.

She closes her eyes.

"I'll always believe in you, too."

—-

Tim losing his mind might be a very real threat when it comes to the sorts of things he's had to deal with since he fell inexorably into the orbit of Zatanna Zatara, though of course arguments could be made as to just how much of his mind the young man was already in possession of anyway… He does, after all, dress up in an armored costume and go out to get himself killed more nights than not.

Still, one thing at a time.

He suppresses questions about the implications of the library sealing itself whenever Zatanna wasn't personally inside of Shadowcrest, his head tilting to one side in that almost birdlike manner - reminiscent of his heroic identity's namesake - as she mentions a talking raccoon and a walking tree.

"Are you secretly a Disney princess?" Tim wonders, trying and failing to keep that image of her brilliant grin and her dimple from searing itself into his memory. "Is that where you get the whole Snow White look…?" It's only natural that he would assume that any talking animals or mobile trees would be part of the magic of Shadowcrest, after all, along with its seemingly omniscient butler and the library's strange guardians. "If so, fair warning, despite all the other stuff I can do, I'm not a very good singer."

He watches her go, carrying her boots in hand, and he sets the books she's lending him down before rising to his own feet. He hesitates, but he speaks at her back. Calls out to her, to offer some kind of assurance. She stops, her eyes turning to the floor, and he's not sure if she'll just keep going, or what. He wouldn't blame her, honestly, with everything she's been through. With the brief stumble in his words, indicative that he might've said something else. Something worse.

But then she's hugging him, clinging to him, gripping tightly as she buries her face against his shoulder. He feels a mix of things, guilt and self-recrimination fed by the way he enjoys her closeness; his arms curl around her in return, though, holding on to the magician. Because he's not strong enough to do what he should, he curses his own weakness. No matter how he fights it, he only ends up tangled up more thoroughly.

He can't help it; he lowers his head, burying his face in Zatanna's darker than midnight hair, and…

It doesn't matter, Tim knows. Nothing could be less relevant than how he feels. Especially right now.

Tim is who and what he is, after all. He's no master of the arcane, no superpowered demigod. He's a detective. He puts clues together. Things Zatanna has said, things she hasn't. Things she's done, things she's not done. She's scared, terrified. Not just of whatever is going on with the Brujeria, but of /herself/. Limiting her own abilities intentionally, shying away from admitting that she's an exception to what was as far as she knew an immutable law of her art. Who would want to face up what that might mean? Especially when the two men she actually loves are both very much not exceptions to it.

Gently, Tim's mouth presses against the crown of Zatanna's head, the lightest, most ghostly of kisses.

How he feels doesn't matter. What he wants doesn't matter. It hasn't since long before Zatanna came into his life in her little dress and her thigh high boots. Not since he first stepped foot into the Batcave, to take up the mantle that had been vacant since another teenager was beaten to death with a crowbar. Maybe even before that. Maybe all that talk of Fate is right, and Tim Drake's emotions and desires stopped being relevant that night at Haly's Circus.

"You should believe in me," he tells her quietly. "I'm a superhero, remember? And I'm a genius, too. So believe me when I tell you that you'll always be /you/, no matter what any of this means. And if you're ever scared, remember that you've got a badass superhero looking out for you. Demons, unspeakable horrors from the chaos before existence, ancient wizards, it doesn't matter."

A superhero who would die for her, as Zatanna saw in Lernaea. The only thing that kept it from being an actual sacrifice of his life was luck; if Zatanna had pulled them out of that other world a second slower, she would almost certainly have brought a corpse back instead of her friend.

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