A Small Price to Pay

March 16, 2017:

A deadly situation forces Red Robin to use the magical out Zatanna Zatara provided for him, and after she heals him, he is forced to tell her about the deal he made with Wong.

Shadowcrest - Cresent Hill - Bristol - Gotham

The ancestral home of the Zatara family.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Wong, John Constantine, Jessica Jones

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It's been a week.

Whenever Zatanna got back to Shadowcrest, she'd find things waiting for her: Notes for the classes she'd missed during the past few weeks, all gathered painstakingly by someone whose identity she could probably guess right off, even if Kasim didn't tell her exactly who had left them behind. A copy of a doctor's note, impossible to tell from a completely legitimate one, explaining to Gotham University that she'd been diagnosed with mono and wasn't able to come in to class for a few weeks.

It was probably pretty low on her list of concerns, considering she was in Hell and all the forces of damnation were after her soul, but now that she was back in the mundane world it might be some kind of comfort.

SOMEWHERE ELSE IN THE CITY

Gotham being Gotham, of course, things haven't been exactly peaceful or quiet. The Joker was working to stir up more chaos with the Mists, and there'd been a few more mysterious deaths than usual, lately. But what had caught Red Robin's attention in the most immediate sense was a human trafficking ring down by the docks. It was the Odessa Mob, he was pretty sure. He'd resolved to make it just a recon mission, careful of his arm that was fractured during the fight with the hellhounds, just to look and see and maybe plant a few bugs and cameras… But everything had gone wrong.

Badly wrong.

It had been like they were expecting him, and events had only worsened from there, events seeming to actively conspire against the caped vigilante. He managed to get away, eventually, barely. Found himself laying in an alleyway, black hair spilling freely from a half torn away cowl, a thick melange of blood and spittle drooling from his mouth onto the filthy alley floor. He was dying, he was pretty sure.

Which sucked: He'd kind of hoped it would be cooler than this.

Painfully, laboriously, he managed to work off his left gauntlet, smearing blood from his mouth onto the fingers of his right hand, dragging it in a fitful motion over the invisible brand Zatanna had cut into his skin. She'd said, when she gave it to him, that she was sure he'd never ask for help unless he was dying. Well… She always was clever.

As such, whatever peace and quiet Zatanna had sought out, late on a Thursday night, was broken when a badly beaten Tim Drake suddenly appeared, slumped on the floor.

—-

She was in her living room, busily catching up with all of the schoolwork that she has missed. While she would have preferred to stay with John while he recuperated from a Chas Chandler-induced bed rest, she really could not put off reams of missed homework any further, and she has tackled the mountain that had been left for her with the grim determination of a young woman who is relieved to do something vaguely normal again. Though some part of her wonders whether this was some sort of mild-mannered revenge, for worrying her best friend by ending up in Hell of all places.

So on a low coffee table, books have been strewn about and Zatanna is busying herself in finishing the last few pages of her Biblical Aramaic assignment when part of the space warps and twists around itself. It catches her attention immediately, not just because she's in Shadowcrest and because magic is involved, but because she recognizes the strains of her /own/ magic. Whatever is happening, it's being caused by whatever it is that she's done, or left behind somewhere.

Her confusion is resolved immediately when a familiar red and black-clad vigilante spills unceremoniously on her floor; at the very least Tim Drake can no be assured that whatever she had cut into him, she did it correctly. But his broken form has her pen falling from shocked fingers, eyes wide and lips parted.

"Tim!" Pulling herself off the throw pillow protecting her posterior from the hardwood floor, she immediately reaches for him, rolling him over. She's reluctant to move him, when she doesn't know the extent of his injuries. She spies the blood, a thumb hooking underneah his cowl to draw the leather off his face, leaving his black locks in a tangled mess.

"Oh god, oh god, what happened?!" Not that he's in any condition to talk, but the young woman is already withdrawing the obsidian obelisk she keeps in her back pocket, calling up her usual litany of healing spells. This….will not by painless. She had told him before that stitching him back together often delivered hurts commensurate with the severity of his injuries when he received them. She moves to twist the cowl about itself, to press it down on his tongue for him to bite against, just in case.

And then she proceeds to do work. Ripped muscles, broken bones start stitching together. Wounds slowly knit shut.

—-

Oh good, a part of Tim's brain thinks, distantly. It actually does work.

What's left of his cowl pulls away fairly easily, as he lays on his back on the floor thanks to Zatanna's urging. His pupils are dilated - he's definitely taken more than a few hits to the head - and it's difficult to focus, but he does look at her. Maybe it's okay, if he's going to die. At least the last thing he'd see would be her.

Terrified.

Anxious.

Because of him. No, actually it turns out to be small comfort. It was a mistake, he thinks to himself. He should've just stayed in the alleyway, or activated his distress beacon, or…

She puts something in his mouth. Leather, part of his cowl. He knows what she's doing. He bites down on it.

What follows is incredible agony, an experience unfortunately not unique in his young life: All the pain of all the damage he'd sustained, from his fractured arm to his cracked ribs to the concussion that nearly kept him from getting away from the mobsters, all at once as Zatanna's magic puts his body back together again, his flesh obeying her arcane command. Bones knitting, contusions vanishing. His whole body tenses, the sheer torture of it almost too much to bear, the pain stretching the moment out into what seems like an eternity.

But when it does pass, he sags to the floor limply, his face pale, his hair matted with sweat.

"Ow," Tim says, after spitting out the remains of his cowl. It's definitely an understatement. He tries to continue in a more casual vein: "Hi. How are you?"

—-

The butler is already there before Zatanna calls for him; her will is attached to the house, and with the man himself being a construct of Shadowcrest's will, it isn't surprising that he has already anticipated his mistress' next commands. He carries a silver tray and a pitcher of water on ice, with sliced limes inside of it, as well as a folded towel. He sets these on the coffee table, before he pivots on his heel and leaves, shutting the double doors leading into the living room behind him.

At the casual greeting, the raven-haired magician stares at him wordlessly, before she takes the towel and pats the side of his face with the corner. "/How are you?/" she utters disbelievingly. "Really?! At least you actually used it when you needed it." She eyes his condition with a critical stare, before she relaxes slowly but surely. "How are you feeling? All better? Here, have some water."

She hands him the towel, so he can get rid of the sweat on his own. Reaching for a glass, she pours some of the cold liquid within, handing it to her friend once he's sat up and tested the integrity of his body. Concern fills her eyes. "Rough day at work today? What happened?" she asks. "I'd say it must be a relief going back to the sort of investigations you usually do, but I guess you can always— "

She pauses, squinting at him carefully. With the emergency having passed, she senses something else on him; powerful and potent, but not hers, or John, or anyone else's mojo that she can recognize off the bat. It isn't Gerry's either, another magical contact of Tim's.

The young woman doesn't ask yet, though. Instead, she lets him drink his water.

"Anyway, I'm fine…recovered, and out of Hell, which is a vast improvement from the last couple of weeks. God." She scrubs the side of her face. "I can't believe it's still March. Time moves differently in Hell, it feels a lot longer there because it is. I'm still trying to adjust to the time difference. You? Save for the…" She gestures to him, her expression softening.

"Back to business, huh?" she asks with a hint of a smile. "Thanks for bailing us out of Hell. I can't even imagine how weird that must've been for you."

—-

'At least you actually used it when you needed it.'

Not for the first time, though it seems there's no way for Zatanna to know that. Tim meets Zatanna's disbelief and her critical examination with a slightly self-conscious, boyish grin - that might be more effective if his chin weren't bloody - as she pats at the side of his face with one corner of the towel in her hands. Once she hands it to him, though, he does sit up, towelling away the sweat in his dark hair, the fabric also coming away with a smear of blood from his gloved palm, leaving it on his head like a hood as he takes the offered water.

"Rougher than most," Tim admits into the silence caused by the magician's pause, though of course he notices that, as well. Notices the way she's squinting at him. But he doesn't offer anything, any more than she asks; he doesn't know /what/ she could be looking at him like that for, after all. Maybe he caught something on the way through the portal, or in any of the other horrible situations he was in during his investigation. Instead, he drinks his water, letting the cold, clear liquid refresh him. His mouth did feel awfully dry, all the moreso after Zatanna's healing.

'Back to business, huh?'

"Pretty much how it goes," he replies, quietly. There's always more to be done. Always the Work, and very little time for anything else. "I'm just glad you're okay. That little adventure was enough of that place for me, and you guys were in there for weeks. Not that I'm surprised, though," Tim adds. "You're one of the strongest people I know."

—-

The boyish grin earns him another one of hers in turn, Zatanna curling her legs underneath her and pulling her fingers through her hair as he admits that the Work this evening was more than even he anticipated. "You should take it easy," she tells him with a slight furrowing of her brows. "I know you, Tim, you probably ran yourself ragged with everything else that's happened, a couple of days off won't kill you. In fact it might save your life." But he's heard all of that before, she has always been there to shove him into rest, if Stephanie doesn't beat her to it.

"Besides, you're a smart, logical guy. You know what happens when you try to do something strenuous when you're not one hundred percent."

Inclining her head, there's a hint of a laugh. "I'll always be okay," she assures him. "Somehow. It's not as if I know how to quit, until circumstances beyond my control force me into it. It's not as if I can settle for anything else, considering who my dad is. It's not in me to be a disappointment to the family." The tone of her voice makes it blatantly obvious that she's only half-serious about that, though. But she means every word about pulling through whatever crisis there is. She is, if nothing else, resilient.

Watching him for a few moments, she lets a small frown tug on the corners of her mouth. "There's something on you," she tells him, peering close at his face. "Some other magic. It's not mine, or John's, or Gerry's, even…I would recognize those. Were you dealing with someone else in the community while we were gone? You putting my lessons to good use already?"

—-

"That makes two of us," Tim reminds Zatanna.

For his part, he sounds mostly serious.

He's no stranger to the pressure of having to live up to an illustrious parent, even if in his case it isn't his own flesh and blood. He is acutely aware of the legacy he's taken on, of the /weight/ of it. That's part of what drives him, after all… What pushes him to do more, to be better. To always say he's fine, even when he isn't. Perhaps especially when he isn't. It's what makes him equally unable to quit, even when he's wildly out of his depth and his element.

When she speaks again, though, she calls attention to something he'd half-worried about for ages now, ever since he went to the Bleeding Eye, ever since he spoke with Razor. What if it wasn't just Zatanna's escape spell that the other woman had noticed? What if what Wong had done left something that could be sensed as well? All but confirmed, now. Any hope he had of hiding it from her is gone. It's all over but the crying, as they say.

Carefully, Tim sets down the empty water glass, and then just are carefully he undoes the gauntlet on his right arm, pulling it away before he rolls back the sleeve of his suit, the outer later and the pressure layer underneath. On his right wrist, it gleams, like metal on his skin - luckily it's still cold out, and he's been able to get away with long-sleeved shirts, but he's already invested in a few short leather bracelets and the like. A style choice, to wear over the visible mark - what was once two hundred and seventy links now worn down some. A few. Minutes gone out of that twelve hours he bartered away, though it seems tonight's escapade might've repaid as much as half an hour.

"It was Wong. Some contact of Constantine's, the one he got your dragon pearl from. Jones and I were tracing every lead we could find, once we were sure I wasn't overreacting." Mostly true: Zatanna would no doubt well know that Tim would never have even approached the PI about the disappearance if he wasn't sure. "Once I managed to convince his people to not shoot us and dump our corpses in the river, the man himself was pretty easy to deal with. A businessman."

His dark blue eyes watch Zatanna as he speaks, though his expression is almost impossible to read. Wariness, perhaps that she might get angry with him for dabbling in such dangerous affairs. Or perhaps he's remembering what else Razor said - that people like Zatanna will use up people like him without even really thinking about it. That 'headblind sidekicks' get thrown to the wolves, more often than not.

—-

Wong. By the look in those ice-blue eyes, she is familiar with the man.

"Wong's one of the few people John has left since his teenaged years," Zatanna says slowly, though the rest of the information is new. The British magus had presented her with the dragon pearl, but hadn't mentioned which of his contacts managed to acquire it for him. In retrospect, however, she should have guessed. Given the years in which he's known him and his specific brand of expertise, Wong would certainly be the most equipped to get something as rare as the cintimani stone in her possession. The man specialized in Asian artifacts and was as adept at procuring them as he was with his I-Ching. He was also fair. As Tim had said, Wong was a businessman first and foremost.

This isn't the sort of connection with whom she could just bust into his place of business and demand that he reverse whatever he had done to Tim. A set of deft fingers reach out to close over his wrist, tilting it slightly to take a look at the chain links. Taking it in slowly, she lets go after a few moments, scrubbing the side of her face exasperatedly.

"It's like that conversation in Daddy's library never /happened/," she exclaims, and while she doesn't sound angry, she /does/ sound incredulous. "It was one of the first things I told you, wasn't it? Don't take the deal because it's /never/ money or anything tangible that's on the line!" She tilts her head back and unleashes a mighty groan. "Please tell me you at least considered other alternatives!"

Elbows on the coffee table, she buries her face in her hands, releasing a drawn out breath.

"What did you give him?" she asks, her voice muffled. "How bad is it?"

—-

Dealing with businessmen is something that Tim Drake knows well: He's dealt with plenty, on both sides of the law, in the past several years. Perhaps he'd be even better at it if his father hadn't been barely around for most of his life, Jack Drake having been a keen dealmaker himself. Jack Drake, of course, would've salivated at the thought of a cintamani stone, out of sheer archaeological curiousity if nothing else. His son couldn't care less about a wishing stone, not right now.

Tim offers no resistance as Zatanna catches his wrist, as she turns it over to inspect the mark on his skin. Instead, he watches her as she studies him. Careful. Waiting. Half expecting an eruption - she had a flashfire temper at the best of times.

But it doesn't come, not yet at least.

"It was that conversation that let me know what I had to do," he counters, watching still as she buries her face in her hands. It was that conversation which let him go into the deal with something approaching open eyes… But, of course, it didn't matter. Once he stepped through that beaded curtain to speak with Wong, his course was already set. One way or another, he needed something from the Asian man. Under the circumstances, there was no real alternative. "I knew it wouldn't be anything simple, anything worldly. I knew."

And he did it anyway.

Of course.

She asks him right out what he gave up, how bad it was. Tim debates not telling her, or lying, as if he could come up with a believable lie that would be less bad than the truth; it's always the reflex, to hide, to obfuscate. A reflex that's already cost him, where Zatanna is concerned. A reflex he has, since the night he revealed his secret identity to her, been trying to fight. So.

"'Potential,'" Tim answers. "Twelve hours of it. Wong suggested it would help him protect himself from whatever's coming - something related to your encounter with the Brujeria, I'm guessing." He doesn't believe in coincidence. "So far it hasn't been so bad."

Untrue.

He's already nearly died several times because of it.

—-

It is telling that the Princess of Prestidigitation still manages to remain unpredictable despite someone knowing her as well as Timothy Drake does. She does not lose her temper, at least not at the moment. But then again, the explanations as to why would be apparent - she just spent what /is/, by all intents and purposes, a month in /Hell/. If that doesn't readjust someone's priorities in life, nothing else would. Either that, or she's simply too exhausted and too happy, really, to return to the world in which she belongs that she's liable to let go of some things she normally wouldn't.

Zatanna maintains that look of incredulity at her best friend, and she scrubs her face with a hand again frustratedly. "Your potential," she repeats flatly. "As in the thing you have in spades. The thing that makes you a genius. The thing that enables you to do all of the crazy, brilliant, impossible things you do. Sure. Twelve hours of that. No big deal, it's not like you /rely/ on that to survive your night job. And you couldn't just…I don't know, /detective/ your way into where you needed to be? That's what you do best!"

She sounds more frustrated and worried than anything else, but she manages to hold onto her temper. Her lips part, as if to say something more, but thinks the better of it as she just /sighs/. It's a heavy breath, and one that simply sounds resigned. Her index and thumb falls over her closed eyelids, rubbing slowly.

"Well. Far be it for me to get mad at someone for being reckless," she grouses. "I'm not exactly the poster child for caution. It's not like I can do anything about it either that wouldn't make everyone else I know mad, and quite frankly I'm just glad to /be/ with everyone else again that I'm not willing to do that. Wong deals fairly with everyone else, besides." And John would probably be absolutely furious with her if she attempted to get in the way of that arrangement. It isn't as if his ire has stopped her before, but Wong was one of the last tethers John has left of his early life. She is not about to recklessly burn that bridge.

"I'd go into the 'I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed' thing, but that would be cliched and I'm really not disappointed either. It's hard for me to determine whether I wouldn't have done the same thing you did if our positions were reversed, especially since I'm not a detective and I'll probably need all the help I can get for that sort of cerebral gymnastics." She shakes her head once, giving him a look.

"I just hope you know what you're doing, Tim," she tells him. "I /warned/ you."

Why the hell doesn't anybody listen to her when she's serious?

—-

"I can't create clues out of thin air," Tim notes, bristling faintly at Zatanna's frustrated sarcasm. "I had nothing to go on. I tried to follow you with this," he lifts his left arm indicatively, "but it just took me outside of the Abyss Nightclub, which I couldn't get into. Even the Wayne name didn't get any traction, and it's been a /long time/ since that happened. Wong offered one of his I Ching readings for help, he named the price, and I paid it." He does not bother to say that the other man offered to let him share the burden with Jessica Jones; Tim has certainly not told the PI about that part, either. He does not say that Wong offered more than just the I Ching reading.

He does not say that he nearly took up the other, more dangerous offers.

That he nearly went back after finding out where Zatanna and Constantine were.

That he would've done anything, suffered whatever necessary, paid any price to get the young woman sitting across from him right now back into the world.

"You did warn me. I listened to your warnings, Zee. I was as careful as I could be… But I do know what I'm doing. I did what I always do: I made a choice. I paid a price in the hopes that other people wouldn't have to." The story of /that/ is written on his skin, under that costume. Enough scars for a dozen lifetimes. New ones, accrued over the past few weeks: The spot where the summoned demon had bitten him was probably the most impressive. Beach season might be awkward.

"Honestly… I'm not looking to renege on my agreement. I don't regret it at all… It's a small price to have you back." He knows he could've done more. But would it have helped, would it have saved them faster? Or would it have caused other problems, instead? Wong had offered no guarantees, after all, only possibilities. "But… Is there a way to hide it? From being sensed, I mean. I can't afford to have something like this connecting Tim Drake to Red Robin."

—-

Her expression softens at that; it's largely the reason why her temper hasn't been triggered. Were their situations reversed, would she have done any different to bring him back from Hell?

"You need to learn how to share the burden, Tim," Zatanna tells him instead, though her sarcasm has faded in lieu of something infinitely more gentle. "It's not like you're alone in everything. You're not. On top of Batman and the brood, you have me, Jess, Spidey, John….you have a lot of people you can turn to. And the rest of us would be just as happy to help you. That's kind of one of the perks of rolling with a crew, you know?"

Reaching out for the pitcher, she pours more water into his glass. "But yeah, that's fair," she says, glancing down at his wrist. "There's a way to hide a magical signature if you really don't want it pinging off other people's radar, but that's going to require some research in Daddy's library. John's a whiz at it." She remembers when he had erased all trace of him from all magical radars in the time they 'broke up' a second time, after she was convinced that she burned their bridge completely and there was no returning for either of them. "But I've actually never tried to do that before."

After a pause, she slowly rises up from her seat, and extends a hand down to help him up. "So come step into my office," she teases him, mischief in her eyes. "We'll see what we can do about your condition."

She's worried, still. Who wouldn't be? The price he paid could be deadly to him, but he's made his choice and at the very least, he's got a way out - she's ensured it. It would have to be enough, for now, until they somehow find something Wong wants more than his twelve hours of potential.

Once Tim is up, she turns to head out of the living room, and up the stairs towards her father's inner sanctum - to find a way to mask traces of Wong's magic on his wrist and keep others from her community from somehow divining that he and Tim Drake are the same person. She can, at least, do that for him - help him keep his secret. After everything he's done, it's really the least she could do.

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