Life on the Other Side of the Night

April 02, 2017:

True to her promise, Zatanna Zatara helps Red Robin in one of his own ongoing cases for a change. After dead Eastern European gangsters lead the two teens in a high speed car chase and an exploding warehouse, Tim informs her of his history with Ulysses Armstrong, and just why he is after him.

Dockyards - Gotham City

The warehouse district, close to the docks.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: John Constantine, Batman, Spider-Man

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

EARLIER

The Nest was well lit, when Zatanna arrived, the hidden door behind the aquarium in Tim Drake's townhouse admitting her as it always did, as she was on the short list of people who both knew where the switch was, and whose fingerprint was recognised by the system. On the upper floor, the custom-built supercomputer was working away, processing a number of different, disparate tasks at the same time: Ongoing searches related to the Steinschneider case, while also scanning Gotham's various news services and police records for deaths that fit a very particular profile. Others, on and on and on and on.

Spinning a dozen plates, never stopping, never resting. Much like the young man who built the system.

Below, Tim himself could be found in the equipment workshop, fiddling with some device: It looked like a civilian drone, but smaller and sleeker, its electronic guts opened as he worked with a soldering iron and other tools. Concentrating, he didn't look up as Zatanna arrived.

However, on the worktable there was also a gift-wrapped package, with a tag that just said 'Z' on it.

Once the Princess of Prestidigitation opened the package, she'd find what appeared to be a black tank top with a faintly plastic sheen to the material: Lightweight armor for her vitals, something she could conceal under her clothes. There was also a domino mask, black and birdlike, but more elaborate than the sort vigilantes in the Family usually wore; it was designed to look like lacework, something almost Venetian in its styling, and its lenses were a dark purple rather than milky white.

"I hope it fits," Tim said, not looking up from his work. "I had to eyeball your sizes. It should be snug."

NOW

Gotham City in early spring was… Gloomy. Even for Gotham City. Especially at the docks.

The Redbird was parked in an alley not too far from the rooftop on which they lurked, surveilling the warehouse where Red Robin had nearly been beaten to death not too long ago. No point in worrying about that, though. There was work to be done.

"The mask is connected to my computer system," he explained quietly; better for Zatanna to know what it could and couldn't do, since he'd made it from scratch for her. "It works like mine… There's neural induction contacts built into it, they pick up specific impulses and translate them into commands. So if it's too dark, you just… Think about being able to see, and the low-light mode will turn on. Imagine in your head what it looks like in the movies when they show body heat, and the thermograpic will activate. There's some automatic stuff, too, flare compensation in case of a flashbang or somebody turning on the lights when you're in night vision, but… Anyway, try thinking about the body heat, then look down at the warehouse, and tell me what you see."

—-

Four months into their friendship and after numerous stressful situations, some things about Zatanna Zatara have remained constant and one of them is her ability to find simple happiness in surprises.

Tonight, she has decided to honor one of her promises and go on one of Tim's excursions for a change, to see how the other side lives. After all the help he has given her with her magical problems, it seems more than fair to lend her aid in turn, more aware, than most, as to just how deadly her best friend's extracurricular activities truly are.

Situated in the Redbird earlier, she can't help but be impressed by the car; sleek, crimson and black lines and probably stuffed with everything a teenaged crimefighter needs, though she hasn't managed to ask him what sort of surprises could be found under the hood….and every other crevice in the vehicle. Having donned the protective vest under her clothes - they are simple and nondescript today, a black, longsleeved turtleneck over a pair of black jeans and boots - she feels as well defended as she is going to be, though the headgear Tim fashioned for her is a curiosity in itself. She is young, technology is not beyond her mental grasp, but this is something else entirely.

The work is gorgeous, though. He knows her well enough to be able to anticipate her tastes - black, with a flair for drama.

"Is there anything you can't do?" she wonders and for the most part, the question actually does not sound all that rhetorical. Blue eyes hidden by violet lenses shift over to him crouched at the rooftop, her own position much more casual, leaning against the wall with her arms tucked behind her, listening to his instructions before turning her head to regard the warehouse and its environs. "What are we looking for?" she wonders.

Visualization, to turn her thoughts into reality, is something with which she is accustomed; magic works in very much the same way. She tests the lighting option first, switching it on and off by just thinking about it. But when he asks her to look down at the warehouse, she moves, a silhouette detaching from the darkness to shift closer to his position and look down, while thinking about body heat.

"Nothing yet," she murmurs.

—-

'Is there anything you can't do?'

"Never learned how to dance," Red Robin replies. "I was gonna, back in highschool… You know, for prom. But, uh, there was a whole thing with the Riddler and I ended up not having a date anyway, so…" He's at least mostly serious when he relays this anecdote, close enough to the truth that it serves as a reminder of his recent argument with Stephanie, with the festering old hurts it had dredged up, the corners of his mouth tugging down in a frown beneath his cowl.

No time for that now, he reminds himself.

Now, or ever.

"The warehouse is being used by the Odessa Mob, real nice guys," he explains, hunkering down on the edge of the roof, perfectly at his ease despite the surely lethal fall he would suffer if he just shifted his weight a little. "They don't play by the same rules most of the local outfits do. When I tracked them down here before, they were using it to hold women they were shipping overseas. It's, um…"

He sighs a little bit, a slow exhalation.

"They're getting women addicted to a drug… Blue Belladonna, they call it. Hallucinogen, usually delivered as a vapour, but they say it's more intense injected directly into the tear ducts. No unsightly marks. It's fairly easily purged from the body so it doesn't do a lot of systematic damage, either… So they're marketing it to mostly healthy, middle-class women. You know, something with a pretty name to get them out of their grey dreary lives. Then once they're well and truly messed up… Onto the boat, and they vanish forever."

There are a few heat signatures visible in the warehouse… But not many. Clustered together, most of them seem to be sitting or laying down.

Otherwise… There appears to be nothing.

—-

He can practically sense the flattening of her expression when he details the fact that his prom was interrupted by the Riddler. "Of course," Zatanna muses, face reflecting a slight hint of exasperation. "Never a dull moment with the likes of you and me, yeah?" With his profile inching towards a frown, her hand reaches out to squeeze his shoulder gently. "Anyway, there's plenty of time for that, I think. And honestly, between you and me? You should probably learn. You never know when you'd have to disguise yourself as someone else and have to in order to blend in."

She pauses. "Er…that's…what I figured from spy movies and stuff anyway. I know, I /know/, the real life stuff is more complicated than that but I figured if you're going to act as a swiss army knife of different skills, you should round it out."

She keeps her voice low, despite her litany. But with the press of business at hand, her masked eyes turn to the warhouse again to quietly listen to what he says about the Odessa Mob. What he describes, however, drains color from her already pale face.

"…human trafficking?" she whispers. It is easy to get lost in the kind of evil the supernatural brings to their world; so much so that it is just as easy to forget that demons aren't the only things that are capable of it. Human beings have a tremendous capacity for it, and the reminder twists her insides and knots them painfully. It strikes a personal chord, not just with her being female, but also she has spent several times in the last few months getting drugged against her will for one reason or another.

"Are we out to get these guys tonight, then?" she wonders. "I know you, though. You'd probably want to grab the information you need first so you could significantly cripple…I don't know. Distribution?" She glances over at Tim, brows furrowed. "And figure out where they're manufacturing it? With what it's called and how it's administered, it sounds pretty designer."

—-

Perhaps the Demon Prince of Excess has a particular interest in the City of Yesterday, as Red Robin learned during the fight in the tannery, months ago… But he's never saw a need to lay the blame for human evil and cruelty at the feet of supernatural forces. No, regular people are capable of horrors without any influence from the fire and brimstone crowd: The mundanity of evil is far more horrific than its more flamboyant manifestations.

And Red Robin has seen what the Odessa Mob can do, even before he ended up on the wrong end of them the other week. He's seen them gun down cops in broad daylight, fire into a crowd of highschoolers just to get at one.

Hot blood, more leaking from the wound with every heartbeat, each weaker than the last.

Apply pressure onto the injury, wait for the paramedics to arrive.

Chest compressions; check airway. Breathe, breathe.

He pushes that memory away, too, intrusive, vivid. His powerful ability to recollect is an incredible asset in his line of work… But it can also be a terrible burden, at times. No matter how painful, how horrific, he doesn't forget.

"The rumour is the women are used to provide children for wealthy families unable to conceive. Baby farms in eastern Europe. The first priority is finding any captive victims and getting them out safely. Step one: Save lives," he says, holding up his index finger. "Step two: Disable any active hostiles." He holds up his middle finger to join the first. "Step three: Search for intel." His ring finger lifts. "Then if we've got time left, you can teach me how to waltz."

Turning to look at Zatanna, the vigilante gives her a tight smile, his face otherwise obscured by the cowl.

"Shall we?"

When they do, the warehouse is… Quiet.

Not the quiet of emptiness, but the quiet of fear, the silence people create when they hold their breath, when they try to make themselves seem as nonexistent as possible in the hopes that whatever terrified them will pass them by, like a rabbit going stock still in a field trying to hide from the owl hunting it.

And there is a smell, the coppery tang of blood thick in the air, the rank stink of offal and early rot.

Somewhere, someone lets out a panicked sob.

—-

With their objectives outlined, Zatanna gives him a grim nod, though the last earns him a slight incline of her head, brows lifting from underneath her mask. "I'm a filthy millennial, Red," she tells him with an amused look, which still somehow manages to permeate through her new headgear. "What makes you think I know how to waltz?"

Then again, he wouldn't be wrong. She was a theater major and that, on its own, requires a particular set of skills. "Besides, that endeavor sounds more fun if it was a group activity. Maybe we can have your other friends come." Conner, Stephanie and whoever else. "And I can teach all of you. I'd like to meet some of your other friends, too. I mean…it'd be nice to hang out with people our age for a change, as much as I love hanging out with John, Chas, Jess, Bucky and Jane." That's not at all surprising, and given her extroverted nature, that she can fit in with the twenties-going-on-thirties crowd as well as she does with other teenagers, but the current composition of her present circle is apparent enough.

But with the invitation, she stands up from the edge of the rooftop, and leaps. She has no issues there, when she's the one in control of her flight and descent.

Breaching the warehouse is easy enough, and as she creeps as quietly as she can through the darkness, she stops short. She recognizes the stench of blood, the undeniable leavings of a recent evisceration hanging thick in the air like wool. She ought to be distressed, really, that it's familiar enough that she knows it by simply sniffing the air.

She taps Red's shoulder, gesturing towards the shadows. She hears someone crying, and as usual, she is going for it. She flashes him a thumbs up, before she slips off in an attempt to look for whoever it is. As instructed, she mentally commands her mask to give her the infrared option in an attempt to navigate. And since she is no ninja, she performs the same trick she used when she had first found the clock in Wayne Manor, quietly magicking her boots to remain silent.

—-

Her question as to why he expects Zatanna to know how to waltz is simply met with a silent look from Red Robin; the cowl really makes it easier to just stare at someone, though she can probably imagine the raised eyebrow underneath. It's the sort of thing she'd know, as he figures it. She's the one who grew up in a house where they listened to music on phonograph, after all.

His dad was an archaeologist, and even he used CDs.

Getting into the warehouse is almost too easy, when the last time Red Robin had tried this close of an approach he'd been caught out almost immediately. Then, there were guards, there were men all over. Now… They just seem to be gone. He finds it worrying.

As Zatanna taps him on the shoulder, he turns to look at her… And she flashes him a thumbs up before taking off on sorcerously silent steps, her departure making his mouth flatten into a firm line. That's her all over, though, isn't it? Rushing in heedlessly. He doesn't try to stop her, though, and for the moment he just has to trust in her ability to take care of herself - yes, she was more than capable of surviving Hell, but he's been coming to the conclusion that there's… Not just an arrogance about the magically powerful, but a blindness. The Cult of the Cold Flame hadn't considered for a moment that Steinschneider would hide his secret documents with anything other than magic. Steinschneider hadn't entertained the idea that anyone would search for his things mundanely, or bothered with any conventional traps or security.

And maybe one day Zatanna, so capable of dealing with devils and demons and evil sorceries, wouldn't even see the gun that put a bullet in her pretty head.

For now, though, the wrongness in the warehouse doesn't seem to be one of active danger, so Red Robin doesn't give chase, instead turning his attention to other things. A blue light glimmers in the air over his left wrist as he calls up the holographic input and display of his suit's computer, typing commands to the bat-drones skimming silently in the air around the warehouse, surveilling the outside…

And then he finds a body, crouching beside it.

"One of the mobsters," he mutters, doing a quick check; the sound of his voice quiet in Zatanna's ear. "Gunshot wounds… Some blade work, too, somebody had a real fun time with these guys."

The Princess of Prestidigitation would find he source of the sobbing, and the heat signatures she'd spotted earlier: A group of ten women, locked in a cell.

"Oh God!" one of the women cries out as soon as Zatanna's figure resolves from the shadows. "Oh God, we thought it was him again… Or maybe those other m-men had come back. Please, you've got to get us out of here!" There are other bodies, more dead men with guns. The women in the cell range in ages from eighteen to thirty, and they all look terrified, sleep deprived. "It's been two days since he… Since th-they all… Please, please get us out of here!"

—-

Hopefully that eventuality of that bullet to the head would not come to pass. There's a very specific person in her life who isn't above raining blood and death at the loss of her.

That isn't to say Red Robin's observations aren't accurate on some level; Zatanna is a specialist, magic is her forte, but otherwise she isn't a legend like her father, and neither is she a seasoned investigator like half the people she knows, or a superspy assassin like Bucky Barnes. Saving lives, however, is something she has done numerous times in the past and she's proven her capabilities of that in spades. And since this is their first priority, she doesn't see the need to delay that very serious business.

That and she can't help but remember what the cowled vigilante said about what this entire operation was for. Women, helplessly addicted and shipped off to get impregnated against their will, their offspring sent off to the highest bidder. The thought makes her shudder, and the part of her that maintains that stalwart belief that the world can change if there are enough proactive, good people in it drives her to find these victims and set them free. Blood rushes to her ears, almost deafening her; she can feel her breath shortening as adrenaline burns through her veins and sets every dormant synapse on fire.

"Be careful," she tells him quietly, her voice wreathed with the faintest crackle of static.

The sight of the victims give her pause: "Red, I found them. I'm getting them out." When she reaches the cell, she presses her finger to her lips. "Shhhh," she whispers. "There's somebody else here, I'll get you all out okay? But you have to be quiet."

And the safest, easiest way to do this is…

"Okay, try not to freak out, but…"

Zatanna extends her obsidian obelisk, pointing it to the back of the cell. There's a quiet, whispered word, and the wall melts away, reality bending to her whims. Traffic rushes through the street, and across from them stands the Gotham Police Department headquarters, its gothic architecture extending upwards to the heavens, topped with the Bat signal that they've tried to explain away on multiple occasions.

"Go on," she urges. "Get out of here."

—-

"Did she say 'Red'?" one of the other women, older, maybe thirty years old pipes up. "That's what he said his name was. The one who did all this, and then just… Left us here. He said we were bait!"

There's tearful, nearly hysterical agreement from the other women, by now all of whom are on their feet, some of them being supported by others. Bewildered glances are cast at the way the back of the cell suddenly becomes somewhere else, a rumbling crack echoing through as a cold spring thunderstorm opens up, lightning flashing, white light filling the warehouse.

In blood, across the floor, is drawn a symbol, one that would be very familiar to Zatanna Zatara if she looked at it. A circle, with the stylised silhouette of a bird's head in the middle.

"He said was… He… He called himself Red Robin…"

As if summoned, as if on cue, the caped and cowled vigilante crashes through a stack of old cardboard boxes, locked in a grapple, a deadly life or death struggle… With himself.

The two spill across the floor, across the symbol drawn on the floor in the now dried, rust-red blood of dead mobsters, two figures in nearly identical red and black costumes. Nearly identical: One's belt is different, his gauntlets lacking the bladed fins on the forearm, the body of the suit a jacket with a short hem that extends below the belt; and he is larger. More than half a foot taller than Tim Drake ever was, his frame broader.

And he is above all stronger, slamming the smaller Red Robin's head into the concrete, a cheshire grin of pure sadism on the visible part of his face as one large hand clamps onto the smaller figure's throat, squeezing.

The women scream. They panic, they bolt, following Zatanna's instructions after a fashion as they run into the developing thunderstorm, towards the GCPD main headquarters.

"I knew you'd come back," says the larger Red Robin. His voice uses no modulator; it's just low, and rough, and filled with an intimate glee at this confrontation. "I was really, really hoping they'd kill you, you know? That you'd just crawl off into some HOLE and DIE. But really… I knew better, I knew they wouldn't be enough to take out someone like you, so I had to kill all of them. It's good though, right? I knew you'd follow the leads. I knew you'd come back to save the women. And look, I left them all alive! Unlike you, I don't kill innocents."

"Ghhk," replies the smaller Red Robin, having trouble talking at the moment; there's a quiet, metallic *pop*, a faint acrid ozone sizzle, as the device at his throat is crushed, taking the electronic fuzz out of his choking sounds.

—-

The rest of what the women are babbling earn them a confused look from the raven-haired magician. "What?" Zatanna utters, trying to catch up with what is happening; as usual, the circumstances she is in spiral rapidly out of control and for a moment she stares at the cadre of weeping women in front of her, fixed on their frightened faces until the slash of lightning heralding the brewing thunderstorm turns her attention to what is splashed in blood on the ground.

The fact that they were captured by some doppleganger has her lips pressing in a line, shaking her head. "No," she tells them. "Red Robin didn't do this, he brought me here to rescue the rest of you, he…"

Oh god, I better go find him.

Just as the thought flashes through her head, already on the verge of spinning around, she jumps at the loud crash, her heart leaping to her throat and hammering wildly. She barely registers the bolting of the victims in the cell, making headway through the salvation that she has provided. And while part of her fears that she might have to face an actual doppleganger, some part of her is strangely relieved when she realizes that the other Red Robin is easily discernable from the other one. She doesn't have to figure out which Robin was which - whoever the other person is, he is very distinctive from the Tim Drake she knows.

That does not mean that he isn't dangerous, however, but at the very least she knows against whom she should levy her efforts.

In another situation, she would ask questions; whatever is happening, it sounds personal, and whatever event he was referencing, he seem to be implying that her friend has somehow managed to kill innocents when she knows murder is not part of Red Robin's code.

First thing is first, however. She has to get the cowled vigilante away from his bigger, rougher version. The obelisk snaps out before her.

"Der esahp!"

The Other Robin couldn't be blamed for a moment's confusion when he finds his quarry just slipping from his grasp, Red Robin's body suddenly growing intangible and slipping through his fingers like shadow, dropping on the floor and solidifying once his knees hit it. The magician doesn't stop there, another spell hurled from her limiter:

"YAWA OG!"

The wave of invisible force slams into the bigger man's chest, in an effort to just throw him back away from Red and into the darker depths of the warehouse. She's already running, reaching over in an effort to help pick up her friend.

"Okay, I wasn't expecting this," she breathes. "Who the hell is this guy and what's he talking about?!"

—-

"NO!!" bellows the Other Red Robin, as the young man he's trying to choke to death starts to literally slip through his fingers. Insubstantial, saved by the magic of Zatanna Zatara. The large man's attention shifts, turns towards the magician herself, his head tilting slightly to one side. Trying to figure out who or what she is. He hadn't anticipated her, hadn't expected the presence of anyone but Red Robin himself. "Wait," he realises. "You're— "

'YAWA OG!'

The man's large frame is hurled back violently by Zatanna's magic, the distant sound of a collision echoing in the largely empty building, populated only by the three of them and corpses, now.

Red Robin gets up shakily, with Zatanna's help, rubbing at his throat with one hand. She wasn't expecting this, the raven-haired young woman says.

"Yeah, that makes two of us," he replies, in his normal voice, but pitched lower. "We need to leave. He'll have a backup plan… Probably more than one. And the warehouse is almost certainly rigged to explode." He talks like he knows the other man, the 'doppelganger', just as he seemed to know Red Robin. "I got some information off of a computer before he jumped me, hopefully it's enough."

There's a quiet beep from Red Robin's suit computer, and he brings up the holographic display; a view from one of the bat-drones outside, tinged blue, showing the arrival of a few Humvees, each disgorging a group of burly, angry, armed eastern European men.

"Yeah, that figures," he mutters. "Backup for the mobsters. If they catch us in here things will get a little… Dicey." He could manage it, probably. Assuming whatever force adjudicating his bargan with Wong doesn't decide to siphon off some of his promised potential during. But there'd also be the Other Red Robin to deal with, and he'd definitely be preoccupied with trying to keep Zatanna safe…

"Time for Plan B."

He swipes the holographic display, changing the view. Buttons, readings, indecipherable to anyone who doesn't already know what they're looking at… Until another camera view resolves itself, this one low to the ground. In an alleyway. It rapidly leaves the alleyway, swinging down the delivery path towards the warehouse, past a Humvee, past men in tracksuits—

— Outside, shouting. Gunfire, the screech of rubber on asphalt —

And then the Redbird crashes through a metal garage door, sleek in black with its red-mirrored canopy, twisting sideways as it careens to a perfect stop maybe a foot away from Zatanna, the top already shifting to open, to let them in.

"So… How do you feel about high-speed chases?" Red Robin asks her.

—-

Wait, you're—

"— incredible, I know, now fuck off!!"

And with that, Zatanna banishes the bigger man to the back of the warehouse, stooping to assist Red Robin off the ground. While the mask hides the expression in her eyes, she radiates both worry and apprehension. The fact that he talks about the man as if he was a known entity puts a few baffled lines on the visible parts of her face. "What do you mean more than one? How many backup plans can you have in a place like Gotham?" she cries, because it's a legitimate inquiry. The idea of being able to see ahead in a place crawling with crazy costumed lunatics with a dozen different agendas for every day of the week was stretching the realms of possibility even for her, and she was magic.

But the suggestion to leave does have her nodding once, because it's as sound of an idea as they were going to get. They have information, the hostiles were neutralized, though not by them, and the most important thing was that they managed to save the captives and they were all hopefully under protective police custody now. For her first foray to the other side of Gotham's darker underbellies, she already considers the evening a success.

Except it's not over. Watching the hologram display Red Robin calls up, she doesn't catch onto what she is looking at until she realizes the camera is moving, as if mounted by someone escaping the building. Like a movie, the sounds she hears from the outside, a hail of gunfire and the yelling of distant voices, she watches the route their quarry takes.

And Red decides they were going to chase him.

"Does the B stand for Break Everything?" she wonders, right on time for the Redbird to explode through the garage door, squealing into a stop near them. With the doors lifting in a hiss, his last remark flattens her expression.

How do you feel about high-speed chases?

"We really are going to break everything if you're relying on me to drive." Not that she would say no, because the Redbird is a pretty incredible piece of motorized machinery and her blood is up. She's not even sure that's what he's implying, but she's moving already to hop into the driver's seat and wait for him to get in position. "You gotta tell me where to go, though!"

Oh, god, how does this thing work?

She manages; steering wheel in hand, she guns the engine and floors the gas pedal. The sleek bat-machine roars at her command, practically flying out of the garage and landing on the concrete street, tires squeeling as she twists it into the corner. Behind the wheel, she drives as if she intends to fly; she was bad enough in a rental jeep, as Peter Parker had discovered a couple of months ago. With an actual death machine, painted in red and black? She is a hundred times worse.

She even has the gall to whoop excitedly while she floors the gas pedal again to take off after the escaping Pseudo-Red Robin.

—-

Zatanna driving had not, in fact, been his intention.

But she's settling her perky derriere into the driver's seat, and Red Robin was often bad at denying the magician things… Besides, she's probably a perfectly good driver, right? Maybe she's not a trained pursuit driver like he is, but she's a remarkably able young woman, and maybe she can magic it.

"You can drive stick, right?" he asks as he slips into the passenger's seat. There was no time to have a debate about it anyway: The men from Odessa would be barging in to the warehouse any second now, looking to put some extra holes in anyone they found on their property who they didn't recognise. Especially one of Gotham's vigilantes.

The Redbird is no rental car, that's for sure.

The fastest production car in the world is the Henessy Venom GT, with a top speed of 270 mph. The Redbird, built along similar lines to the Batmobile, makes the Venom GT look like a golf car, with a sprint speed of about 300 miles per hour; when pushed, it was able to make the trip from New York City to Metropolis in a frankly ridiculous thirty minutes.

And now, Zatanna is driving it like a god damn maniac.

"Who taught you to drive?!" the vigilante wonders from the passenger seat, as the Redbird takes more gunfire from the Odessa mobsters, rounds sparking against the car's armor. They'll be following too, soon enough, piling back into their Humvees; vehicles nowhere near as fast or nimble as the Redbird, sure, but driving in the city puts some limits on just how much Zatanna can put the pedal to the metal.

The canopy is, of course, a heads up display: A map is projected on it, showing the Redbird's current location and the surrounding streets from an aerial view, and a glowing dot of the target they're following, as the Other Red Robin makes his getaway. They were still in the docks, though, still in one of the worst, and most dangerous, parts of Gotham City. That meant, though, that there weren't really any people around. No civilians to get in the way and get hurt. Definitely for the best, given how Zatanna drives, and how the Ukrainians were shooting at them, and…

"Rocket launcher," Red Robin says, looking in the rearview. "Be right back."

At that, he opens the passenger side door, launching a grapple line with a quiet *paff* of compressed air, and reels himself out of the Redbird, directly towards one of the pursuing Humvees.

Approximately right when another one of them comes careening out of a side street, directly towards the black and red supercar currently under the control of Zatanna Zatara.

—-

You /can/ drive stick, right?

"I spent most of my life in Europe, that's almost all they have there!" Zatanna shoots back, having the presence of mind, even, to look absolutely offended. "What do you take me for?!"

All said just before she drives her foot down into the gas and sends one of the fastest cars in the world shooting from the hole it made in the Odessa mob's garage, peeling into the streets of Gotham. She is not as familiar with these streets as Tim and she spends more time in New York City than she does in the docks and seedier areas of this drab, gray, dangerous metropolis. But her reflexes are sharp and despite her appearance and reliance on her reality-bending capabilities, this is not her first car chase. There were nights in London where she has had to hunt with John sans Chas, and given the man's inability or unwillingness to drive, she has often taken the wheel and has been responsible for getting them away from some very dark, very hungry entities.

Like the thing that chased them out of the Caligula Club, and ruined Zatanna's appetite for meat forever.

It helps that she has a near three hundred-and-sixty degree view of where she is going thanks to the digital outerlay attached to the Redbird's canopy, helpfully called up by the young man who owns it. She has absolutely no familiarity save for the basic tools she needs to be able to maneuver the vehicle in irresponsible speeds. Thankfully, the lack of civilians assuages her conscience - she doesn't have to worry about killing anyone, and she is distressingly comfortable with property damage.

She manages to side-swipe a fire hydrant at a sharp turn right, the heavy thing flying in the air, heralded by a geyser of water spraying upwards in an unforgiving arc. She winces openly.

…alright, perhaps not so comfortable with property damage.

When Red indicates that there is a rocket launcher involved, Zatanna turns wide eyes towards him. Not for long, though, that would be deadly, turning her attention back to the front. "Do you have one, or do they have one?!" she cries, only for the signature *paff* of his grapling gun to assail her ears and soon he is gone, leaping on the other cars to either prevent one from going off, or retrieving one, for god knows what reason. Either way, she's almost certain that sooner or later, something was going to explode.

"Great," she mutters, trying to keep a bead on the glowing red dot she is pursuing. "Why don't we all just— "

She is moving fast enough for the Redbird to zip mostly past the humvee tearing out of the sidestreet, hurling itself just outside of her blind spot. The brutal crunch and twist of metal has her screaming, fingers clutching the wheel and her heart lurching to her throat as the vehicle clips the Redbird right on its tail end, shoving it to the side and sending her spinning wildly out of control. She pumps the brakes, shoulders hunching over as warning lights flash in the relative darkness of the driver's compartment, scratching tire treads into the concrete and knocking away trash cans and mailboxes in her crash course towards the side of a building.

Zatanna manages to cry out a word, lost in the cacophony.

The car loses its tangibility seconds before it just phases through the building, still spinning until its out of it to screech to a halt inside another street. Breathing raggedly, she can barely hear the transmissions from Red Robin's own comm as she attempts to keep her heart from bursting out of her chest and escape.

"Oh shit," she breathes. "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…."

Somewhere against her back pocket, she feels the unmistakeable vibrating of her smartphone. Right on cue.

She doesn't look at the text. Not yet, she can't. Instead, she puts the Redbird back in gear and peels out of the side street, to go back on the wider highway and continue chasing after Red Robin's doppleganger.

—-

It was one of the Humvees behind them, in fact: The Ukranian gangster weren't deterred by the fact that the Redbird seemed to shrug off small arms fire, and went right for the anti-tank weaponry.

The supercar practically seems to fly away from Red Robin under the magician's control as she speeds along and he moves in the opposite direction after jumping out, reeling himself in to the heavy vehicle where someone is currently lining up a shot to turn the Redbird into scrap.

He twists, lands on the hood as though this were the most normal thing in the world to be doing, cape fluttering behind him as he offhandedly tosses something at the car's windshield: Pitch-black gunk covers the glass, blocking the driver's view completely, and he wrenches the rocket launcher from the hands of the man sticking out of the rooftop as the Humvee suddenly lurches to one side.

Despite the rain slicking the hood, Red Robin doesn't move, as though something were sticking him there.

"Nope," he tells the man, hammering the mobster across the head with the metal cylinder of the very weapon he'd been about to use in a single brutal swing; the man collapses, sinks back down into the Humvee. The rocket launcher, now bereft of its entire trigger assembly, follows. And then another object: A smoke grenade.

A heartbeat later, the caped and cowled vigilante is swinging away from the Humvee as it careens off of the road, swooping onto the next vehicle.

Like Zatanna, the driver of the Humvee that crashed into the Redbird has trouble keeping control of his vehicle: Unlike her, he doesn't have any ability to make reality bend and warp itself at his command. The heavier vehicle bounces back away from the spinning Redbird, hitting the median badly and ending up flipping, crashing, bits of metal and glass flying every which way as the wheels keep furiously turning.

It isn't long after Zatanna gets the car back into gear and on the road that the whole thing gives a sudden shake, a dull *thud* as a roughly human-sized weight lands on the roof, hunkering down to cling to the vehicle despite its extremely high speeds.

"Caltrops," says Red Robin's voice out of the car's speakers. "Hit five, then two, then five on the console. Now."

Under other circumstances, he could do it himself, but he's trying to hold onto the roof of the car as it streaks down the street.

The red dot gets closer: Still moving, but the Redbird is moving faster.

—-

She keeps her hands on the steering wheel as the Redbird roars back into the wider streets of Gotham's wharfside, keeping track of the red dot that they are following. The young woman grits her teeth, her heart thumping wildly through her ribcage, still, as she keeps up her pursuit. Ice-blue eyes narrow dangerously from behind her elaborate, high-tech accessory, lips peeling back faintly to bare a hint of her teeth. The chase is on, and despite herself, she feels both fear and exhiliration war in her gut, setting her blood on fire. Scared shitless, yes, no question, but Zatanna Zatara is tenacious when she feels like there is something that needs doing, and someone has to answer for whatever happened in the warehouse with those women.

Tim needs the information, after all.

She nearly leaps out of her own skin when she hears the thump of a human body on the roof of the Redbird. How Red Robin has managed to catch up to her while she is driving this fast in the supercar will have to be a mystery for the ages, or some kind of Physics-finagling that would effortlessly sell a bunch of Michael Bay movies to the masses. Still, with the instruction filtering through her comm, her fingers move towards the console.

"This thing has caltrops?" she wonders. After a pause: "Do they explode???"

Well, what did you expect, Zatanna Zatara? The thing costs millions of dollars, you've been running from a spray of bullets for however long now and there's not even so much as a scratch on the windshield. Exploding caltrops are probably the /cheapest/ things stuffed in this thing.

She punches the buttons: Five, Two, then Five again. Somewhere behind her she hears a hiss, and through the roar of the engine, the unmistakeable, metallic pings of objects hitting concrete register distantly.

"So do you have a plan for when we're within ninja-distance of this guy?!" she calls out.

Her phone vibrates in her pocket; another text.

—-

The answer, of course, is that Red Robin was already on his way before Zatanna got the Redbird moving again: His own heads up display on his cowl's lenses letting him know the position and the status of his vehicle the whole time.

"It has lots of things," he replies to the question about the caltrops. "Grapple lines… Oil slick, smoke generator… There's a ram that can deploy from under the front bumper… But no, they don't explode."

His own pause.

"Not those ones anyway."

Behind the Redbird, the deployed anti-vehicle caltrops make short work of another Humvee's tires, leaving the heavy vehicle skidding out of control and colliding sidelong with a telephone pole even as automatic weaponfire sprays against the Redbird's black finish; sparks fly, bullets barely missing Red Robin, and the whole thing leaves more scuff marks behind on the previously flawless paint job.

Does he have a plan, though, for when he gets within 'ninja-distance' of the other Red Robin?

"I always have a plan," is the reply through the car's speaker system. "The problem is dealing with whatever he has planned." The vigilante sounds serious here, fully convinced that whoever they're chasing will have his own contingencies.

Ahead, the vehicle they're chasing slows, stops. They can see it, now, a racing motorcycle not unlike the one sitting in the Nest's motor pool. The larger Red Robin sprints quickly into another dockside warehouse, disappearing into the darkness.

—-

The Redbird peels around another corner closing in on the red dot. With a glimpse of the other Robin flying into yet another abandoned warehouse, Zatanna smirks grimly.

"Well, this smells like a trap," she tells Red Robin; the last few months have at the very least enhanced her genre savviness over the kind of business in which she's embroiled. "Brace yourself, I'm about to hit the brakes."

He would get that warning before her boot depresses into the corresponding pedal, the Redbird skidding sideways when she turns the wheel to stop a few feet away from the motorcycle that looks almost exactly like the one in the Nest. Doors hissing open, she extricates herself from the driver's seat, glancing at where the humvee had impacted the sleek supercar. Espying the dent, the scrapes, the missing metal chunks and the ruined paintjob, she flashes Red Robin an apologetic expression. Her face lends quickly to it; he can practically gauge the look in her eyes despite the violet lenses.

"Sorry," she murmurs, looking sheepish.

Her hand digs for the smartphone in her backpocket to look at the texts she had received. John Constantine flashes on the caller id:

'ok?'
'If I don't get a text back, I'm coming over there.'

Crap.

Her thumbs fly quickly over the keypad, though considering she's also moving quickly while she's doing this, she doesn't pay too close attention to what she's typing. She fires it off, before whipping out her obsidian obelisk and pointing it at the motorcycle, absolutely unaware of the fact that she just sent the British magus a tomato emoji.

With the other bike, she goes for a classic: she turns it into a pumpkin.

"Well, if one of his contingencies involves riding off into the dawn on a giant gourd, I'll really be impressed," she tells Red as she moves quickly for the warehouse. "Please tell me he doesn't know where you live and stole your bike, because that one looks almost exactly like yours. Do you have a psycho stalker fan or something? Who the hell is this guy?"

—-

"You seemed like you were enjoying yourself," Red Robin says from the top of the car, when Zatanna apologises for the Redbird having gotten all dinged up. "So I'll let it slide, this time."

Privately, though, he resolves to never let Zatanna drive a vehicle he's in, or within 500 miles of, ever again outside of an extreme emergency. She drives like a blind person on amphetamines. How did she even pass her driver's license test?! Did she just wear a short skirt and distract the examiner?!

His head tilts as she furiously types on her phone, sending a reply text with a sort of frantic quickness, and only then does he actually hop down off of the top of the Redbird, his cape fluttering faintly on the way down.

"The ol' ball and chain?" he wonders, watching as she turns the motorcycle the other Red Robin had used into an actual and completely out of season pumpkin. Well, he supposes it's the right time of night for that sort of thing. He turns his attention to the warehouse, scanning it, looking for any hint, any sign of what might be waiting inside for them. If the other Red Robin had come to this particular warehouse intentionally, then he definitely had something up his sleeve.

Yet here they were, walking towards it anyway.

"No," the vigilante replies. "He's… An old enemy. It's a long story, we can talk about it later when we're back at the Nest. But I can assure you, If he knew where I lived, then he would've blown it up by now."

That is probably not as reassuring as he thinks it is.

The entrance to the warehouse is still wide open, and Red Robin strides through into the darkness, his lenses amplifying the ambient light, letting him see what little there is to see.

"So you and Sabrina the Teenage Witch decided to come after me, huh?" says a voice from the dark, the voice of the other Red Robin. "You never could leave well enough alone, Boy Wonder. You think I wouldn't recognise you, know you, after you stole my costume, my codename? You just keep taking and taking. Whatever happened to that cute little piece, wore all purple? Did you take everything from her, too, Robin? Did she get fed up with you, and all the blood on your hands?"

The young man standing beside Zatanna grits his teeth at the words from the shadows.

"Ulysses—" he starts to say.

He's cut off by laughter, the larger frame of the other Red Robin landing on the other side of the warehouse from them.

"So you do remember me, after all this time… I'm flattered! I really wanted to strangle the life out of you back in the other warehouse, but your little friend there didn't play very nice. So, I'll tell you what. Tonight, you get to live. Live with the knowledge that I'm coming for you, that I'm going to find you, and take away everything you care about. I'll show you that I'm smarter than you, better than you. I mean…"

He presses the switch in his hand.

Firebombs start going off inside the warehouse, old dry wood bursting into flame all around Red Robin and Zatanna.

"…Assuming you get out of here alive, anyway!" the other Red Robin shouts, diving out the docks and into the pitch black water.

—-

"I'm not exactly destitute either, you know," she tells him as they start moving forward. "I can pay for what I wreck."

The ol' ball and chain?, Red Robin asks, and Zatanna gives him an angled look and, despite herself, a faint smile.

"You've been around me for the last four months," she points out. "After being drugged three times, kidnapped once, got my soul ripped out, blood-cursed, chased by a Demon Prince and thrown in Hell, could you really blame him?" With that specific litany of her experiences leaving her lips, she can't help but frown slightly. "Wow, now that I've made a brief accounting of it, I'm really ashamed of myself right now…"

But with Red Robin acknowledging that this is probably a trap, she sighs quietly. "Well," she says. "Sometimes the only way to figure out what's going on is to spring it, I guess, but let's go." Because the sooner this is done, the quicker Tim can explain everything.

The darkness of the warehouse envelopes them once they step inside, though they do not have to wait for long before they're accosted by their quarry. Booted feet pause in their tracks, her violet-lensed eyes swinging over towards the direction of the voice. Only the faint heat signature is visible past constructs shrouded in the shadows.

The rant that follows is curious enough. Narrowing her eyes from behind her mask, Zatanna takes a few steps forward, jabbing a finger towards the accusing figure across from them. "Listen, beefcake," she tells him blandly; as always, she has no qualms bulling recklessly in volatile emotional minefields and she often tends to somehow find that chink in the armor that causes the loudest response. It appears that, on top of everything, she's about to also do that here. "Whatever we were doing in the warehouse had absolutely nothing to do with you until you made a bloody mess and decided to fuck off. If you wanted us to leave you alone, you would've just…I dunno, stayed in the gym stuffing yourself with protein powder instead of making tomato paste out of Eastern European gangsters, but something tells me you like the attention anyway. What, couldn't get enough of it in the locker room?"

Ulysses—

There's a glance over her shoulder. Tim knows his name?!

The surprise of this latest revelation has her nearly missing the glimpse of a switch in his hand. Ice-blue eyes widen. Throwing herself in front of Red Robin, the raven-haired magician throws both arms out and sideways, as if to block what's coming from her best friend.

The warehouse /explodes/, a ball of roaring, red-gold fire erupting from the center of the building. It blows out the foundations, razes through empty shipping crates like kindling. Rafters shatter from the wake of it, whipping around the conflagration's frenzied, molten heart. It is so massive that for a moment, there is nothing in front of them but fire and heat and ash…

…when the smoke clears, there is nearly nothing left of the building except for charred bits and remains, the perimeter of shattered walls, and two teenagers in the middle of the destruction, encased in a bubble of blue-white light.

It fizzles out, sputtering like interrupted electric currents. Zatanna's knees buckle, her body dropping on the ground, breathing raggedly, her face ashen and cold sweat trickling down her temples. "Oh god," she whispers. "Oh shit, that was close…"

—-

"Blame him, are you kidding?" Red Robin retorts. "I've been trying to figure out a good way to slip you tracking nanomachines since January."

That's probably a joke.

Maybe.

Where would he even get nanomachines, after all?

Inside, the confrontation doesn't go the way the vigilante would've preferred. He knew there would be a trick, a trap… That the man they were chasing would have a contingency in place, something to make sure whoever managed to follow him - be it a couple of masked do-gooders, or all those burly and heavily armed men from Odessa - came to regret it. Closing quickly with the other Red Robin might've been enough to put him off-balance, maybe he could've gotten the detonator off of the other man in time, as he had with the rocket launcher earlier… Or maybe it would've resulted in the bombs going off sooner, and him trapped in the middle.

Instead, the other Red Robin escapes, and Zatanna launches herself in front of her friend, as though she meant to protect him from the explosions with her body.

"Zee— !"

Of course, he should know better. Know that she'd use her power to protect the pair of them, the magical barrier she creates shielding them from the heat that would cook the air in their lungs, from the concussive force that would knock them down, rupture organs. And then the bubble vanishes, sputtering, crackling. The magician falls.

Of course, of course, Red Robin is there to catch her.

"Easy… I've got you," he says, managing to get there before she collapses onto the ground. "That was pretty badass, though. Thanks." Given the obvious strain she'd just put herself through, he doesn't hesitate - or ask - before he actually picks Zatanna up, carrying her towards the Redbird. At least this way he can make sure she's on the passenger side, and ensure that the drive back to the Nest is less of a terrifying journey to the edge of madness.

Back at the Nest - a quick trip, with a brief pit stop to get some drive-through, and don't for a second think that it didn't leave the staff at the fast food place extremely bewildered - Tim makes sure Zatanna is okay, before they head up to the upper level of his hideout, where the computer lab is.

He's already half out of his costume, shedding cape and cowl and gauntlets, leaving the utility belt and bandoliers draped over a railing, and then the actual body piece of the suit. The compression underlayer follows next, leaving him shirtless as he checks his throat in a mirror. No extra damage from the voice modulator breaking, at least - that's toast, though, fortunately he has plenty more - but there's obvious bruising from the large man's choking grip.

"I guess it's turtlenecks for a few days," Tim says resignedly, in a tone that suggests this is not the first time he's had to make that particular tactical fashion decision. There are new scars since the last time Zatanna saw him without a shirt on, reminders of his adventures since the day she'd barged in to make sure he got some sleep, the day she'd carved her spell into his wrist. Less new scars, perhaps, than might be expected, thanks to Zatanna's healing powers; the most notable is the ring of small marks that decorate his trapezus on one side, hundreds of them, as though some kind of giant leech had attached its hungry maw to him.

He reaches for a t-shirt, pulls it over his head.

"Computer, pull up the file on Ulysses Hadrian Armstrong," he instructs, and the system dutifully whirrs away, the largest screen lighting up with a picture of a young man with brown hair and eyes, his hair cut in a 'high and tight' military crew cut, though it looks like star-shaped tufts of hair were left on the otherwise clean-shaven skin. The picture is captioned 'Armstrong, Ulysses Hadrian, AKA The General (Age 14)'.

"He's a genius," Tim explains. "Computers, explosives, tactics… And he's a narcissist, a megalomaniac. Obsessed with the great generals of history. He wanted to be the next Alexander the Great, conquer the known world by age thirty."

A second picture. The same young man, but a bit older, with his hair worn long. Already, he's grown larger, more physically imposing. 'Armstrong, Ulysses Hadrian, AKA The General, AKA Red Robin (Age 16).

"His family is dead because of me."

—-

"What, hey— !"

Her knees feel like they're filled with water, though her drop is largely more out of relief than anything else. Before Zatanna can protest, however, Red Robin's already swept her up, to start carrying her to the Redbird. Her arms scrabble for balance, clutching at the front of his costume instead when he very decisively takes her back to the car.

"Red, I'm not…I can walk, I promise! It's just that….wait…this is a protest, isn't it? You're just trying to make sure I don't get to drive again, aren't you? Oh, come on, I'm not that bad…!"

After reassuring Tim for the dozenth time that she is alright, and sending a quick text message to John to let him know that she is also fine, and that she will offer proof of life in a little bit, as Red Robin strips the costume off him, she is busily unloading the two bags of fast food that they managed to procure from the local joint and its bewildered late-night staff. There are cheeseburgers and fries for the young man, and a fish sandwich and fries for her, and two large cups of diet cola. Poking a straw through her drink, there's a furrowed-brow look towards the computer, slowly taking a seat on the nearest chair, pulling up her legs, given her propensity never to sit properly in a place in which she's comfortable.

"I can take care of your turtleneck problem in a bit," she tells him with a small smile.

Fingers move to shove a fry in her mouth as she listens to the computer's drone, the electronic dossier called up with Tim's voice command. Her contemplative chewing stops in the middle, ice-blue eyes falling on the profile displayed on the large screen. "Ulysses, latin name for Odysseus and all the Trojan War references that comes with that, and Hadrian as in Hadrian's Wall Hadrian?" She sniffs. "With a name like that, you'd think he was programmed to think that early. What ever happened to just normal names like John or Jane?"

Something she's probably wondered for a while, considering Giovanni named her Zatanna. It wasn't even a normal Italian female's name!

But Tim's assertion in the end is much more serious; all levity fades from her expression as she looks over at him. After a long, gauging pause, she gives him a slight shake of her head.

"Could you explain that?" she asks, unwrapping her sandwich and taking a bite. "Because I find that really hard to believe." She knows Tim, who can't help but take every loss he encounters hard and with no small sense of personal responsibility. She can guess that this case is probably similar, but she asks because she has to in order to understand, especially if he's serious about going after Tim and everything he cares about.

—-

"Not to mention Ulysses S. Grant," Tim notes. "But yeah… Maybe his parents were prescient. Maybe it would've all been avoided if his name was Norbert."

It all depends on where you fall on the nature vs. nurture debate, perhaps… Or maybe there was just something wrong with Ulysses from the moment he was born. Something that made him brilliant, but mad. Evil.

Either way, Tim had promised her an explanation earlier, and Zatanna expects him to deliver on it. So he eases himself down into another chair, sinking into it - the chairs are in fact quite comfortable, with excellent support, because you never know when you might be sitting in one for hours, and there's no point in doing this job and being uncomfortable for no reason - as he considers his words, rubbing his face with his hands before pushing them through his sweat-damp black hair, shoving the longish dark locks out of his face.

"When I was Robin, I faced off with Ulysses a few times. Like I said, he's brilliant, and dangerous. Even at fourteen years old, he was manipulating his family, his teachers. He managed to navigate the Gotham underworld at that age, moving in circles where most grown men would get eaten alive. He even got his chance to be a real general during a civil war in the Middle Eastern nation of Dhabar, but I managed to stop him before he could cause a real tragedy, and he ended up… A guest of the ruling government there for a while."

"A few years ago, while Batman was gone, he came back. I was trying to step up, to take care of things in Batman's absence… It was tough enough before I had someone specifically gunning for me in particular. Ulysses tried to get the gangs across the city to rise up and tear the whole place apart, and he was doing it as Red Robin. He'd gotten… Well, you saw him. What he couldn't do with training like mine, he made up for with raw power and ferocity. The first time I confronted him… It was in a warehouse, like before. He'd bombed it, I barely got out alive." He'll probably never forget the feeling of those burns, and reflexively he brushes a hand over the back of his head. He can still feel it in some small spots; the scarred tissue where the hair doesn't grow, hidden by the way he keeps it longer.

"But he called me out again, had to face him or Gotham was going to burn, Zee. And I thought…" He swallows, turns quiet. There's something sad and haunted in his dark blue eyes. "…I thought I could manipulate him, the way Batman would've. The only people Ulysses cared about were his family. His parents, Edward and Helen. His younger siblings, Matthew and Hillary. So I got a contact in the GCPD to bring them. I thought they'd make him hesitate, that they could get through to him where I couldn't. I thought…"

Years later, it's still difficult.

"Ulysses had the whole street rigged to blow. He was playing a sick game, trying to get me to choose who I could save… And when he set off the bombs, and the cop car with his siblings in it… Because I had to be clever. Because I thought I was so brilliant. They were just kids, Zee. Eleven, twelve years old."

He looks up at the screen, at the file of Ulysses Hadrian Armstrong.

"He blames me for it, and he's right. It's my fault they were there. I knew he'd try to blow things up. And so I created my very own archnemesis. Or, you know, another one at least."

—-

"…this really isn't killing my theory that there's something in the water in Gotham that makes everybody a genius," Zatanna tells Tim, her voice faintly resigned at the thought of another ridiculous genius running around in costume, though for the purposes of mayhem and villainy than solving the city's problems. But after eating half her sandwich, she sets it aside to take several pulls from her diet cola, listening quietly until she listens to more of his history with Ulysses. The idea of Batman just being 'gone' from Gotham is unusual, her brows lifting a little; she assumed that he took jurisdiction seriously, with what he said in the GAC centennial event last year.

But really, should she really be that surprised? Bruce seemed very much a 'do what I say, not as I do' kind of person. John was similar in that regard.

By the time Tim reaches the hostage situation, an uneasy twinge settles in her belly. While young and embroiled in troubles far removed from the 'street level' situations that the Bat Family tends to resolve, she can almost see where this is going. Hostage situations were tricky and it is rare that they ever come off without a hitch, or without people dying. While the recounting was brief, it was terrible on its own, even worse than she imagined, really. It wasn't as if Tim wasn't correct in some way; Matthew and Hillary didn't have to die. They didn't have to be there.

Watching Tim's hunched figure across from her, his eyes on the screen, her mind moves back to Spider-Man on an apartment building's rooftop, his head on her shoulder as he sank himself in the memories of his greatest regret. It was a mirror, in a way, a situation flipped on the other end.

Easing up from her chair, she walks over to where her best friend sits, her hand reaching over to touch the sweat-dampened locks of his hair, letting them drift through the tangled, dark mass. Ice-blue eyes wander over to him, her expression eloquent in its sympathy, its gentleness faintly pained.

"I know a guy in the same business as you who blames himself for losing someone he loved because he chose not to do anything when he could," she tells him quietly. "You didn't do that here, I know, but I can't help but think that…this kind of thing has a lot of damned if you do, damned if you don't. And I know you, Tim. You can't not do something if you think you could to save others."

She says nothing about what she thinks regarding what happened, because objectively, it is all true. He didn't have to bring Ulysses' family into it, but he did and they paid the price for his gambit. But she doesn't know whether she wouldn't have done the same in his position, if she believed it was the only way to talk him out of something so disastrous, and nor does she know whether she wouldn't blame herself, either, if she had, so she can't tell Tim that he can't blame himself for this.

"It's not your fault he's crazy," she says instead. "That he keeps doing what he's always done. You said it yourself, Tim. He's always been unstable, always been evil. At the very least, you shouldn't take responsibility for that….he was already there, well before you came into the picture."

—-

Naturally, Tim has the same policy: His expectations for everyone else, and his expectations for himself seldom line up.

It's probably not difficult to guess where he learned it from.

He knows that she's moving, hears all the subtle audible cues of the chair shifting as her weight lifts from it, her boots against the hard floor. Knows she's coming closer, that she's going to try and comfort him. He doesn't deserve it, at least in his mind, but what can he really do short of physically avoiding her? Zatanna's nature seemed to be to feel openly, to leave herself emotionally available to the point of self-destruction.

For someone like him, it was difficult to resist, nevermind the myriad reasons why he should. He lived in a cold, dark world, and she was warm and bright.

And, well, he was more than a little self-destructive, too.

There's a slow, quiet exhalation from Tim as he closes his eyes, leaning his head into her stroking fingers. She might even feel it, some of that old burn scarring at the back of his head, as her pallid digits drift through his ink-black hair.

"Spider-Man," Tim says, when Zatanna brings up the 'guy in the same business' as him. It's not a question. He doesn't know the details of the trauma that shaped the web-slinger's dedication to heroism, but he saw the shape of it after their conversation post-Lernaea. Spider-Man had behaved like someone who'd failed before. He'd asked if Red Robin though there were some things people could do, mistakes they could make, that could never be balanced out by doing good. It had been obvious that the wall-crawling vigilante had meant himself, not Gobulev, not Bucky Barnes.

Remember the mistakes, he'd told Spider-Man. Remember the times you fail. But remember that they don't erase the good that you do.

But, well.

Do as I say, not as I do.

"I wonder about that, sometimes. Would he be as crazy, if it wasn't for me? I left him to face justice in Dhabar… What if I'd brought him back here, where he would've gotten some kind of counselling? What if people like me… What if we just turn this into an arms race? Ulysses went from a power-mad kid into trying to become my own personal Joker. And it's not like he's the only one to become crazier, more dangerous because he hates me." A quiet, almost rueful laugh. "I'm pretty good at that… Making people hate me. Batman gets all these villains with a grudging respect for him, I get guys who try to kill anyone who might be me in the hopes of catching me with my pants down."

—-

"If you didn't, someone else would have," Zatanna points out, a faint frown tugging on the corners of her mouth. "Maybe even someone less capable dealing with his crazy than you. And once he managed to end that person, he would have gone on to the next, and the next. I don't know that for sure, but if the guy's always been the kind who fixates, then maybe that's would have happened. All I know is that…" She releases a breath, shaking her head. "If you keep second guessing yourself when things go wrong, you're never going to get anything done. You're not going to be able to do what you set out for yourself to do and in the end, all you can do is the best you can. I know, the standards you set for yourself are impossible, but you're not God, Tim, and I have it on good authority that even he doesn't get it right one hundred percent of the time."

The burns inflicted on him a long time ago scrape over her fingertips; considering the man's use of firebombs and the story Red Robin just told her, she has a few logical guesses as to where he had received them. After a moment, her hand slowly falls away, fingers tucking into the pocket of her jeans.

She doesn't confirm nor deny that she is talking about Peter Parker, though Tim's identification is definite and conclusive.

Her free hand comes up to pull her own hair through her fingers. "Anyway…we'll get this guy. Maybe it won't be too late for him if he gets the help he needs, but we have to catch him first. And somehow, I think he won't be all too hard to find considering he seems hell-bent on getting you."

She inclines her head to the table where she unpacked their fast food. "Come on," she says. "Let's go eat before everything gets cold, and then we can talk about something else that doesn't involve crazy guys before I go and make sure John hasn't climbed out of his skin with worry."

—-

"I get plenty done," Tim says, quietly. It's just that it's never enough. It never can be, really… That's just human nature, that there will always be a need for people like him. He can't deny that he's second-guessing himself - and, indeed, it's something that he often does, though he usually tries to keep it to himself - or that he sets impossible standards for himself, so he doesn't even try to argue.

But those are things that drive him, in the end: The need to do more, to be better, keeps pushing him to improve his abilities, to increase his knowledge, to maintain that edge. Taking his failures apart and studying them, even if it comes with a generous leavening of self-blame, helps him to keep from repeating his mistakes in the future. To understand what works, and what doesn't.

"If He actually exists," which Tim is still not particularly convinced of, even though he has met A God and one of his best friends is the daughter of another one, "I have a few complaints I'd like to lodge about how He set things up."

But, slowly, Tim opens his eyes again, and lifts them to look up at Zatanna. We, she says, obviously meaning to stick with him on this case. It's helpful to have her around, of course… And why wouldn't she want to, given his own statements about seeing through the problems that dog her heels?

"You sure you want to keep on with this? It's not exactly immortal Nazi sorcerors or antediluvean horrors or whatever, I'm worried you're gonna get bored," he says, not entirely seriously, rising out of his chair. "I mean, the odds of either of us getting eaten whole by a giant whale-elephant hybrid with five mouths and spider eyes is… I dunno, definitely less than one in ten."

Still, eating and not talking about dangerous psychopaths does have a certain appeal to it.

"Oh… I finished those books you lent me," Tim says. "It took a couple readthroughs to really… Anyway, I made some notes…"

He's lying.

He made a lot of notes.

—-

If He actually exists.

Zatanna's ice-blue eyes wander over to the computer screen; whatever incoming words have been halted by a sudden, contemplative pause. Suddenly, she is back in Hell, her hand in John's and her head resting against his shoulder, as he softly tells her about the First of the Fallen. Not many people know that Satan and Lucifer are two different beings, and while Lucifer was the first among the Host, he was not the first who fell. That honor went to Satan, who spent his early life providing God with advice. There's a glance sidelong at Tim, the young woman's face indescribable at the plethora of emotions that she finds there.

What would Tim say if she told him that before God created humans, he pulled the First out of his head and gave him life? That He made strides to liberate himself of his own conscience, and when that conscience decided to get in his way, God cast him down? That the entity they know as the Creator was incapable of guilt, of remorse?

I think he's had enough bad today, she decides in the end.

As Tim rises from his chair, she falls a step next to him, moving towards their food. "What? Are you kidding? This guy sounds dangerous if he's willing to set an entire city on fire just to get one guy, so yeah, I'm in it until it's over. Besides, you went to Hell for us, Tim….this is seriously the least I can do. Plus I'm not in a habit of just letting things like this lie. Someone wants to go after a friend of mine, there's no way I'm not going to help. Besides, you think like him, you move like him, but you're not Batman, Tim. You know when you need help and you're not afraid to ask for it."

She takes a seat back at where fast food is waiting for them, retaking her sandwich. The look on her face when he lets her know that he finished her books and made notes…

"…well, we're going to have to tackle those later in our usual study room, knowing you," she groans, pushing a carton of fries towards him.

"Now eat."

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