With A Little Help From Her Friends II

September 29, 2017:

After her afternoon with Peter Parker, Zatanna Zatara pops by Tim Drake's converted townhouse in Gotham.

Gotham City

Tim's townhouse in Gotham City.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: John Constantine, Jessica Jones, Spider-Man, Bucky Barnes, Superboy, Wonder Girl, Impulse, Batman, Alfred Pennyworth

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

For better or worse, someone like Tim Drake is a creature of habit.

He is precise, and thorough. He likes things to be done a certain way, and as such prefers to do things a certain way. While not generally much of a problem on an immediate scale, in a larger sense this can make him predictable to those who know his habits and preferences. If he isn't patrolling, there's a limited number of places he's likely to be. Gotham University, Titans Tower, or the Nest.

All this information is, of course, in the psychological profile he has written up about himself, on his own computer network. It isn't exactly the same as the profile one might find on the Batcomputer, but they're more similar than they are different.

And yes, of course he has a frank analysis of himself that he wrote up and secreted away.

Who wouldn't?

He was not, currently, on patrol. He was not spending the evening on campus, studying away in the study room which he and Zatanna had claimed as their territory at the university. He was not at the Tower.

Or Wayne Manor.

Or his penthouse in New York City.

Or one of his backup Nests he'd seeded there, or in other parts of Gotham.

The lights were out in his townhouse, not far from the Gotham University campus. Even in the Nest itself, the lighting was dim, the computer system reducing unnecessary energy draw by focusing the lighting wherever it sensed the hideout's master to be: On the training level, working himself to the bone in a whole other way. It might've been easier to do this at the Tower, but there were things he could only do here, in his own space. Work he could do without worrying about Iso or Fairchild or Spider-Man wandering in. Secrets on top of secrets on top of secrets… But, that was the life he'd chosen for himself, wasn't it?

On the top level, the computers whirr and beep, processing information, working. He wasn't the type to be content whittling away at a single problem, not when there were always more of them than there were people working to solve them. He had to do more. He would do more.

But while they do their thing, Tim does his. In a pair of white-striped black athletic pants and a Captain America logo t-shirt, of all things, he's a blur of motion. The humming, thrumming whisper of his staff carving through the air is barely audible over the music - as it always is when he's caught training, aggressively paced music designed to keep his tempo up - as he works through forms, swinging at opponents that only exist in his mind's eye.

It would've been easier at the Tower. He could've used the Mud Room to create actual enemies. He lacks for people to spar with, lately… Time was he would train with Bruce or Alfred or Dick, but currently…

You think that would be good enough, Little Bird? a woman's voice, a memory, speaks to him. Wry, cruel amusement. A predator watching prey try to learn to fight back. If I were fighting seriously…

He stops. Starts again from scratch. Faster. Harder. Colder.

—-

While she could always teleport withing the Nest, and really, it would be child's play for her, she respects Tim's privacy too much to do that. So somewhere within his gym area, Tim would hear the telltale indicators that Zatanna Zatara has come to visit him, triggered the moment she applies her thumbprint in the hidden detector within his aquarium. At this point, all of his fish are accustomed to her occasional visits that they don't even swim away anymore when her fingers slip inside.

Bootheels take her down the stairs and towards the space Tim often uses to spar with himself, the telltale strains of Imagine Dragons finding her ears when she makes her way inside. Fall has arrived in Gotham; gone are her shorts and sundresses, replaced by a fashionable black jacket, her ripped black jeans and their underlying fishnets, and her boots. Her lengthy tresses are spooled in that loose, careless bind that doesn't look so careless, at least not for her face. She has no backpack, if nothing else, the development of her bookbag spell has rendered that unnecessary, enabling her to walk free and unencumbered.

She doesn't disturb him yet. She leans her shoulder against the doorframe and watches him go through all of his forms, a slight smile lifting at the corner of her mouth. It's late, all the lights are dim, the computer is running through billions of calculations per second, and he's still working. Even when surrounded by friends, now, as the Titans make up the most of Tim's social circle even outside of costume, he still manages to fall into the long hours in which his mentor works.

"Hope this means you and Bruce aren't trying to one-up one another in terms of who can multi-task the most," she finally says.

But she is a magician; when she speaks up, shadows suddenly materialize on the space before him - dark, faceless, but tangible, ranging from different sizes and shapes. Even his own rises up from the floor, and while she speaks, she snaps her fingers behind her. The stygian collective lunges for him, fast in a way that only magic could explain, all seven of them attacking at once.

"You know, you could have just done this in the Mud Room back at the Tower," she suggests. "I tried looking for you there, first. What are you up to that you gotta hide from everybody?"

—-

Of course, he knows.

It's possible that Tim knew she was present as soon as she arrived in his townhouse, whether she appeared suddenly or took advantage of the fact that he'd given her a key. It would be pure foolishness to assume that just because the front half of his residence is designed to be a civilian home that it isn't fully surveilled.

But either way, he knows when someone is entering the Nest. Even with the music, even with his focus on what he's doing, he hears the telltale signs, the nearly silent activation of the hidden door. The subtle shift of the air inside the climate-controlled environs of his hideout. The sound of booted feet on metal. A hundred clues, a hundred hundred, all there waiting for someone trained to notice them, trained to observe them and divine meaning from them.

There are few people who could've simply walked through the door. Three of them are women, as the sound of the entrant's gait suggests. Only one of them wears boots like that.

It's a strange thing: To Tim Drake, the sound of Zatanna's footsteps is as familiar as the features of her face.

"No. He has me beat on that," the young man says, once the magician speaks up and breaks what had until then been her silent observation. But Zatanna isn't idle, even when she speaks. She offers him something to fight - making shadow training curiously literal - things that start to move right away.

First, he goes low. Staff swings around behind himself as he drops under the lunge of one shadow, aimed to take the legs out from under the assailant behind him. A predictive tactic, rather than simply observing and reacting. Using his own shadow as the source of one of those things seemed like a logical choice, to him. Then forward, up, moving, whirling. The staff is a weapon of simultaneous offense and defense. It's easy to think of it in terms of just one or the other, to think of using just one end: Tim uses both ends all at once, never still. He uses it like he was born with it in his hands.

Because if he hadn't, the woman who taught him would've made sure he died with it in his hands.

"I wasn't going to drive all the way to New York just to practice," he says in the middle of this, which is a perfectly sensible reason and at least partially true. "Besides… I'm just trying to clear my head."

He says, rolling over the back of one of the shadowy assailants, one foot hitting the bare wall so that he can step up and off of it, flipping over in an axe kick at what would be the shoulder of a flesh and blood person - the sensitive, fragile spot where the neck and shoulder join. Though his technique avoids lethal blows, as Zatanna has seen in the past he doesn't shy away from dealing out extreme pain and even permanent, crippling injury. Depending on how things went after the debacle in Germany (the Cold Flame definitely seemed like a 'minions who fail get executed' type of evil secret society) there might be wizard cultists with gamey legs and grudges against the vigilante, and a couple of permanently blinded magical ninjas. But at least he didn't break the Rule.

"Who says I'm hiding?"

—-

Who says I'm hiding?

"Well…you are a ninja."

One by one, the shadows fall at the precise swings and arcs of the staff in Tim Drake's hands. If nothing else, watching him fight was akin to sitting down in front of the television and gearing herself up for another Jackie Chan marathon, as she often preferred action movies to any other genre there is in the entire history of cinema. Still, knowing that her best friend is capable of such martial prowess at his age is awe-inspiring to her, as usual not one to hold back in expressing her admiration to those who can do so much without the aid of magic. She is no genius, she is incapable of building gadgets, or putting together clues. She isn't even all that practiced in hand-to-hand combat, though her father has ensured that she has at least experienced formal schooling in that since she was a little girl. She struggles with her academics, unable to balance them with the Work as capably as others she knows - Tim, especially, but Peter Parker also, who goes to an Ivy-league college.

As each wraith falls, they shatter into dark fragments before they bleed back into the surrounding darkness of the ill-lit gym area. Zatanna even claps for him a little, her mouth tilted upwards in a lopsided smile.

"That sounds like a futile endeavor," she tells him. "Clearing your head. I've been in Wakanda in the last few days trying to help out with Bucky's situation there, but I popped back in a few hours ago so Spidey and I could catch up." Her brow furrows a little bit, remembering the look on his face when she had asked him how he had been. "Does he seem a little…I don't know. Off to you lately?"

She unfolds the arm folded behind her back, wiggling a warm bag for him. "Anyway, I brought you something I'd like you to try," she tells him. "All the way from Africa. If you're not busy, I thought we could eat and talk a little. Conversing with him reminded me about a few things, but if you want to keep going down here, I can wait a little. I should be heading back soon, though. Bucky's situation over there is pretty grim."

Hesitating for a moment, she smiles at him somewhat sheepishly. "Sorry for not updating you as much as I would like, or am able," she tells him gently. "I thought maybe I'd give you a break from everything you've been doing for the Titans lately, and…you spent a lot of months helping me deal with my problems as is."

She shakes the bag again in emphasis. "I really recommend you take a break, though," she tells him. "These are really good."

—-

It could be argued that Tim's continued formal education is basically just part of his cover. The classes at Gotham University are hardly enough to stimulate the young man's mind, really, and half the time he feels like he already knows as much, if not more, than the professors teaching the classes. Perhaps it would've been more interesting to him, if he'd gone to another school, a better one. Perhaps he would've actually found some kind of a challenge, there.

But maybe that's for the best, too. It's easy for him to balance the Work with his university career when he can do his schoolwork in his sleep.

When the last shadow falls, and Zatanna claps for him, of all things, Tim stands up, staff collapsing to a concealable length with a flick of his wrist: That hand he holds behind the small of his back, his other hand swept to the side as he bows to the magician with a bit of a showman's flourish.

Though Zatanna should hardly worry about her relative lack of experience when it comes to mundane combat.

Tim has plans about that.

The explanation for where she's been - when the last he knew, she was off in England - gets a curious look from the young man, but he doesn't bother to criticise her for not keeping him fully updated on her whereabouts. Yet, there's a weight to what he doesn't say, too. The empty space where an admonishment might be. Yet, when she brings up Spider-Man seeming 'off', the weight behind that withers away, too.

"My fault," Tim admits. Zatanna, in her own way as keen an observer of people as the young detective, would know the traces of guilt there. The kind of guilt that comes from doing what you know is right, but is bound to hurt someone anyway. He's already putting the collapsed staff away, on a rack with other weapons. The magician has seen them before: A variety of polearms, swords, knives, escrima sticks… Some of the weapons blunted for practice, some of them clearly not. The first step to knowing how to counter a weapon is knowing how to use it.

He's listening while she talks, offering him something that smells like a snack, wanting to talk to him, admitting that she needs to go back soon, teleporting back to a mysterious and inscrutable country in Africa that doesn't usually allow visitors. Nearly sheepish, she apologises for keeping him out of the loop. Frames it as giving him a break.

There's a faint sigh from the vigilante, a resigned shake of his head.

"You keep trying to bribe me with food. You really are Italian. Well, if I kept practicing I was gonna make you join in. Speaking frankly, you and Iso are the weakest fighters on a team in a situation where you couldn't use your powers… I've got a mind to fix that."

He lets that sit there for a few long moments, before:

"Not right now though. C'mon."

Grabbing a sports bottle full of what's probably one of those Batman Diet smoothies that tastes like old boots, he starts out of the training area, and up the stairs towards the computer lab.

—-

My fault.

The subtle hint of guilt on her features has Zatanna furrowing her brows at him skeptically. "See, whenever you say that, I don't know if it's actually your fault, objectively. It's not like I'm not fully aware of your tremenduous propensity to take on so much that when a course of action fails in some way, you think it's your fault." Speaking of saying things frankly. Not that her voice is laden with censure; his sense of responsibility is one of the things she admires the most about him, but that does open him up to a lion's share of guilt, even when he doesn't have to. "But you can explain that to me once we're upstairs."

Ice-blue eyes flick to the array of weapons in the rack, before she pivots to follow him upstairs, though if he thinks she's going to let him hang out in the computer lab while they talk, he would be mistaken. Should he try, a gentle hand finds the inside of his elbow, to hook him towards her and up the stairs leading to the living areas of his converted townhouse. There's a skeptical glance at his sports bottle, knowing very well what's probably in it, wrinkling her nose at the sight of it. But that soon fades in short order whenever they find the light of his living areas and an amazing kitchen that sees too little use from her best friend.

He isn't wrong about her lack of physical prowess, though she does give him a suspicious side-eye at that. "You can't just let me stick to what I'm good at, huh?" she wonders, amused. Letting go of his arm, she moves further into his kitchen to look for a plate and a bowl, and starts unwrapping what she has brought.

Freshly fried lotus chips, a healthier snack from the other that she has brought, find the bowl, along with an array of dipping sauces - some kind of creamy Wakandan aioli, and a fiery red substance made from some of the local peppers. The other bundle is comprised of freshly baked coconut donuts, situated in a small pile on the plate. She bustles around the kitchen as if she belongs there, if nothing else only propagating every stereotype people know about Italian women everywhere. Light steps take her to the refigerator, to find some water, and to the coffee maker so she can brew some black gold.

"Whatever you think you did to him was enough for him to ask me about eveything he can do to help with what's going on, so I primed him on the Brujeria stuff as well as your Ulysses problem. I also told him about your bright lights project, he's pretty handy with engineering also, so I thought he could help with that as well as tinker around with the hard drives that we managed to pull from Auspex International's offices. John and I are still working on the problem with the body." After a pause, she looks over her shoulder at him, smiling ruefully. "He wants me to tell you to be careful, with the General, because of what often happens when someone is out for revenge."

Hazelnut-flavored coffee starts filling the room with its distinct aroma.

"Besides, the two of you have seen some shit together. It'd be nice if the two of you got to know one another a little better."

—-

A slim arm, wrapped in the leather of a fashionable jacket, curls around his, and just like that Tim's intended course of action changes.

That might be an apt representation of the past ten months.

The vigilante is drawn along by the witch, back out of the Nest and into his townhouse. The lights there aren't automatic, but it's not like it's hard to illuminate the interior; it's not all that surprising that there would be light switches close to the hidden entrance to his hideout, the easier to darken his home when he retreats into his lair… Or to brighten it up when he emerges.

You can't just let me stick to what I'm good at, huh?

"Look at who you're talking to," Tim replies, with amusement of his own. "I can't help you refine your strengths, Zee. But I can help you shore up your weaknesses. If you never end up needing it, great… But better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it, right?"

But that was him all over, wasn't it? That drive to be thoroughly, methodically prepared.

Tim watches as Zatanna bustles around in the kitchen - and, if she checked, she would find that he has in fact been eating the pasta she brought over and froze - unable to keep himself from feeling a certain guilty pang, before he forcibly pries his attention away, his weight dropping onto the sofa, the plush cushions on the back half devouring him while he stretches out his legs, resting the heels of his bare feet on the large, square coffee table. Alfred would be aghast.

"There's someone else with powers like his," Tim says, after remaining silent throughout Zatanna's summary of her conversation with Spider-Man, or at least the parts she could safely share with him. He knows that she knows the webslinger's secret, just as she knows his. And he is, despite his every instinct, trying not to pry. "Not Silk. Another young woman, though. She's not from this reality, she's from a different timeline, one where events went another way. He knows her. Knows who she is. Or, I suppose it would be more accurate to say he knew this world's version of her. I think she's someone he cared about. Someone he failed to save."

This doesn't really explain to Zatanna what he's blaming himself for, though, does it? It just sets the stage. Shows her the lay of the land.

"I think she needs our help… That we have a better chance of getting her home than if she just wanders around hoping to get zapped back to where she belongs. Once I deduced the nature of their connection, I… Manipulated him into agreeing. I played on his guilt. I told him about Spoiler, and how she died, and the effect that'd had on me and everyone else who knew her, in costume and out. Now he's on board, and I just need to work on this Spider-Woman. It was the right call, but I know it's going to tear him up."

—-

Checking the contents of his freezer, the fact that he is eating her food has her lips ticking upwards in a faint, approving smile.

That was, indeed, just like him. It wasn't in his make-up to leave a blindspot unguarded.

She laughs, and as he sinks his tired body on the couch, she arranges a tray of food and moves over to the living room, setting it on the table and nudging his feet off it in a manner that would make Alfred Pennyworth proud. "Lotus root chips and coconut donuts. I left a box in the Tower, but chances are Impulse's already eaten them all." She takes up the spot next to him, then, picking up a cup of coffee and taking a sip, her pale gaze wandering over to him as he sinks further into the cushions. She hands him the bowl, for him to sample.

With his explanation tumbling forth in more comfortable environs, Zatanna's lips part, to let him know that she is aware of someone running around with powers like Spider-man's, but when Tim reveals that it is someone else other than Cindy Moon, confusion settles on her features. "Wait, there's another one?" she wonders. "Just how many spider-people are out there?" Was it the same spider? Because if it was, that insect has been a busy one, just biting everyone else it could think of. Her imagination starts to run uncontrolled in that direction soon after, of a small radioactive spider leaping on random passerbys in New York, biting them before slinging away, cursing them with Peter Parker's powers.

Teeth crunch into a lotus chip.

But when Tim clarifies, her lips press in a thin line. "She's not bad news, is she?" The theory that Giovanni Zatara's copy had come from another dimension is fresh in her mind, and has been since their run in with him in Switzerland.

I think she's someone he cared about. Someone he failed to save.

"…aha…" comes the soft response. "That would explain it." Her eyes lift to search Tim's face. "Is this conclusive though, or another one of your super-detective deductions?" Not that she would ever doubt his ability to put anything together, but if these are conclusions based on clues, there might be something else coloring the landscape. She certainly had not expected such a thorough response from her best friend, nor did she expect anything so personal. Now, she can't help but feel guilty for asking at all.

She has always preferred other people let her in by their own accord, after all.

And when they finally get to the source of Tim's guilt, the raven-haired magician frowns at him. "So in other words, you did it again, huh?" she remarks, dryly. "Tim, people aren't chess pieces, you can't just…"

Glimpsing the look on his face, however, she sighs. "He's already dealing with a lot," she points out. "This isn't the only thing…Ozone Park really messed him up, you know? And whoever this girl is, she's not the only one he's lost who he's beating himself up for. I…" She sighs, scrubbing the side of her face with one hand. "…then again even without the Titans, he'll probably just go out of his way to help her out also, no matter what it does to him. That's the kind of guy he is. Still, I think you should have made him come to that decision on his own." She gives him a sidelong glance.

"People are capable of that, you know," she tells him. "Making the right decision without you leading them by the nose."

—-

Of course, when Zatanna offers him some of the Wakandan food she'd brought, Tim tries it.

Not that it keeps him from divulging the rest of what he has to say.

"I know," he says, when she reminds him that people aren't chess pieces. Of course, wasn't the magician herself the one who said that having more people to maneuver was a good thing?

"I know," he repeats, when she says that this mystery girl isn't the only one that Spider-Man was beating himself up over the loss of. It's conjecture, mainly, but he feels confident of his read on the facts. The webslinger was an openly emotional person despite his full-body costume… While there were certainly similarities between himself and Spider-Man, Tim was less demonstrative, less given to wearing his feelings on his sleeve. Their conversations had given him an idea of the shape of what drove the other vigilante, even if he'd restrained himself from inquiring too closely about the details. The shape of it was too big for just one life, Tim knew that.

There's a faint sigh from the young man, and he tries to sink further into the couch cushions, but as plush as they are there's only so much give to be found.

"I know," he says for a third time. He knows people are capable of making the right decisions without him leading them to it, overtly or covertly.

But, says a part of his mind that sounds an awful like the Dark Knight, why run the risk? Isn't it better to stack the deck in favour of the right option? To do everything he can to ensure that people do, in fact, make the right decisions?

"I knew he'd do it, no matter what it did to him. But sometimes people need a nudge in the right direction. I gave him the option to say no. I told him that if he didn't feel comfortable with it, we'd deal with her at arm's length." And he meant it in both cases… But he also knew that saying so would absolutely ensure that Spider-Man would agree. "Does it help any that I've felt shitty about it ever since?"

Not that he thinks he did the wrong thing - he already said the opposite. Just that he feels bad about it.

Which is something?

"Anyway, there's all that other stuff," Tim says, trying to change the topic, redirect the conversation. "The Brujeria and all that. Um," he scrubs at his face, thinking: As usual, he doesn't forget anything, but with the enormous amount of information he's got access to, there's always the question of separating the gold from the dross, and presenting things in a way that make sense to people who aren't… Well, him. "South America. The company that owns the servers iDol runs off of is an aerospace and defense contractor in Argentina. There's a couple of big red buttons about that I haven't gone and pushed just yet, because once I do they'll know somebody's nosing around. I've also been investigating the point man from iDol Outreach that was overseeing their work with Auspex. Fake identity, there's some possible threads in his invented history I might be able to pull on. It's also possible that they're trying to find a replacement for Auspex now that they don't exist. Jones suggested setting up a fake company a while back, I wasn't sure at the time if I wanted to use ourselves as bait, but maybe…"

—-

He says 'I know' three times and Zatanna can't help but roll her eyes, exasperation and affection present on that pale mien in equal measure.

Does it help that I've felt shitty about it ever since?

"At least you haven't stopped that," she agrees; the day Tim stops feeling bad about his penchant for manipulation is the day she would probably get seriously angry. In many ways, the fact that he has adamantly refused to adopt some of Bruce's most frustrating character flaws has been a tremenduous relief, and privately, she suspects that her friend probably doesn't want to, either, having seen the consequences of that behavior for himself - broken, friendless and hard to the point of near-inhumanity. The last thing she wants is for Tim to become the sort of personality that sees people as nothing but tools to be used and in that, he wouldn't be any better than the people in Gotham that he tries to stop.

But at the shift in the conversation, the magician hesitates before she silently relents, listening to what he has managed to find out about the Auspex hard drives while she chews on another lotus root chip. "It sounds like the kind of outfit that would have a crapton of digital security measures in place," she agrees; in that, at least, she is supportive of Red Robin being careful. Not just the fact that it's counterproductive to tip off those responsible that they are fishing about, but the last thing she wants is for the Brujeria to track down Tim's whereabouts. While he is excellent in keeping his real-life identity under wraps, Magic tends to find a way around that and considering how mostly-extinct the cult is, there is little documentation about their skills.

When Tim reveals that there is a contact person, her body straightens up a little, wondering if this is the man the hipster-developer at Auspex had been describing before the Primordial Darkness devoured him.

"I don't mind being bait," she says, because of course she would say that, as reckless as ever and more than willing, always, to be in the same room as the Big Bad. "I'm a theatre major, I don't need magic to come up with a disguise." That would entail researching the role; Tim would probably do the heavy lifting on that, but she would have to get a crash course from him as to what a developer such as that would know. That and she's not about to make him do this by himself. But the implication is there to take one up by more mundane means, much like what she suggested when Tim came with them to Berlin; John would just see through the glamour and that's simply not a risk she's willing to take.

Suppressing what she is, though. That would take some doing; the magical nuclear reactor in her would be harder to hide. And by the looks of her, she has not just already keyed into that complication, but she is already thinking of ways around it. Perhaps if she could strengthen her father's seal, or use what John used to vanish from the magical radar last year…

"Either that," she says, looking up as another alternative comes to her. "Or find out who gets the contract and go undercover at that company. It would probably be easier, right?"

—-

The truth is that Tim knows all too well that he could stop feeling bad about it. It wasn't in his nature to avoid frank self-assessment, and he knows that becoming a remorseless manipulator is a line he could easily cross. It might be the least damaging of the lines he could so easily step over… At least at first. Once he's truly started seeing other people as simply things for him to maneuver, it would be a short step to reach the point of 'necessary sacrifices'.

Because he know it lurks there, waiting, inside himself. The lure of absolute control. He'd often thought how much easier things would be if people would just accept he was right a priori and do what he tells them to do… A system to enforce that, to put total and complete power in his hands, to ensure peace and stability and a swift response to any and all dangers…

It's funny, because some people - Zatanna included - have remarked on Tim as a lifeline to normalcy. That he, without superpowers, without magic, exerts a grounding influence to keep them a part of the world of regular, everyday human beings.

It's funny, because that's increasingly how Tim sees them.

"The issue isn't them figuring out the source of the hack, I can trick that easily," he says, having guessed the particular thrust of Zatanna's concern about drawn attention. "The problem is once they know someone's been nosing around, they'll at the very least be on their guard… Assuming they don't just move everything and scrub the location."

It's what he would do, in their position. He'd already have a backup site ready to go, really, to ensure that there wasn't any loss of service with the app. But the destruction of Auspex without a backup plan already in place spoke of a certain sloppiness, or maybe just (literally) antediluvian omnicidal magic cultists weren't really up on modern technology.

I don't mind being bait, Zatanna says, because of course she does. Tim's response - a simple 'no' or perhaps a more vehement 'no fucking way' - dies on the young man's tongue as the witch continues speaking, and as he reminds himself that she's almost certainly the person best able to defend herself in such a situation.

He doesn't like it, of course. Endangering her - really, endangering anyone but himself - leaves the young man with a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Instead, there's a faint sigh from the young detective as Zatanna mentions the alternative possibility. Truthfully, he'd thought about that possibility, too.

"Probably easier. Definitely cheaper. Much more dangerous."

—-

Assuming they don't just move everything and scrub the location.

"Right," Zatanna muses, setting down the bowl of lotus chips; he isn't eating, so she insistently puts it on his lap and gives him a look to try and prompt him into doing so. Hands reach for her coffee instead, cradling it between her fingers as legs shift to pull her feet up on the cushions, curled underneath her - as usual, she doesn't sit properly when she is in a place in where she feels comfortable and safe. "That's the last thing we need, these guys have turned going underground into an artform, as it is, nobody's heard anything from them or about them after Noah's Flood, if anyone could believe it. Scaring them off would be really counterproductive also."

She seems content, really, to take Tim's advisement there - he is accustomed to looking at all the angles of a particular problem.

His reluctance to involve her is obvious, at least to her; the thought passes through those dark blue eyes and it prompts a stubborn expression on her features upon seeing it, and one that she doesn't bother to hide from him. "No going around it," she tells him firmly. "What if some bad magic happens? I'm not going to leave you out there on a lurch facing these guys, or anyone even remotely connected to these guys, no way. Don't be stubborn, you need me on this, if not just to watch your back. I'm fine pretending to be someone else, you just gotta help me educate on the kind of stuff they'd expect us to know."

Lips pull up in a mischievous grin. "We can be interns, or something."

He does agree with her there - that it is probably easier to insert themselves in Auspex's replacement, and the fact that it's cheaper causes a wave of relief to situate on her face and body. Ever since Tim has become involved in her life, she and their motley crew have destroyed an SUV, forced him to purchase a jet, and blew up a penthouse that he owned precisely for the purposes of monitoring things in Berlin. Millions of dollars, gone in an instant. The fact that he wouldn't have to make such investments around only for them to be possibly destroyed because of the unpredictability of their cases enables her to breathe easier, and assuages some of the guilt.

"…you know I can pay you back for the things we destroyed ever since you got involved with my problems, right?" she offers again, somewhat meekly. She's not as wealthy - one would have to be from the stock of Tony Stark to be able to match up with the sheer amount of money Tim has access to, but she is wealthy on her own. She is quite sure that some of the Zatara money hasn't even been cashed into modern-day currency, there's a ridiculous stockpile of gold and gems somewhere in the family coffers.

As for things being more dangerous…she can see that too. But if nothing else, it doesn't deter her. In fact, judging by the growing smile on the young woman's face, it only encourages her.

"So yeah, we should totally do it that way then."

Because of course she would say that, too.

"We just gotta find out who they'll turn to next." And that, she'll need his help on.

After a moment, she reaches out to rest her fingers on his forearm lightly. "Don't worry too much," she tells him simply. "Speaking of, any further movements from your psychotic fanboy?"

—-

There's a stubborn look on the witch's expressive face, and it's one that Tim is well familiar with already, despite having known her less than a year. No going around it, she says. He knows she's right, of course, which is why he didn't dismiss the idea out of hand, but his own expression betrayed him enough that she - a keen reader of people herself - noticed it.

But then, she knows him pretty well too, at least since he unmasked himself. She knows he wouldn't want to put her in any more danger than he absolutely has to.

Whereas he has a certain disregard for his own personal safety.

We can be interns, or something.

Tim meets Zatanna's mischievous grin with a flat look, eating some more of the chips she'd brought, since she went to the trouble of putting the bowl in his lap and then giving him a look that promised if not retribution should he not touch them, at the very least a future of hurt looks from those big, pale blue eyes in response to his cruel disregard for her tasty gifts.

And she calls him manipulative.

The meek offer of repayment for items lost in the course of their operations gets a lifted brow from Tim, as though he were genuinely confused why she was offering, and why there was a sheepishness to the way she offered it. They'd just been things, after all. And he was the one who blew up the penthouse in any case.

"No," he says, firmly. "I'm not taking your money, Zee. I'm not invoicing you, or asking for repayment. The only reason that fortune exists is to solve problems and save lives." And it's the only reason he himself exists, is thought but left unspoken. If it saved lives, he'd use himself up entirely. He'd spend every last penny he has access to.

Anything else would be a failure on his part.

"Besides, I've already got contractors rebuilding the place in Berlin. If we ever have to go back there, it'll be even nicer. And more secure." Which doesn't really address Zatanna's concerns, or her guilt, but at least it won't technically be 'destroyed' anymore, right? That's pretty much the same thing, right?

There's another sigh from Tim, this one elaborately put upon, when the prospect of this more dangerous solution draws an even broader grin out of the young woman, her smiles all bright enough to drown out the stage lights. But then her fingers are on his forearm, as she tells him to do something which is frankly impossible for him.

And then, she asks about the General.

"Honest to God, Zee, you need to make up your mind about me worrying," the vigilante says, not entirely seriously. "But, no, Armstrong is still laying low. Most of the Blue Belladonna distribution network has been messed up, but that just means they're going to find alternative routes… But I can't help but think that he's plotting something big."

—-

The flat look she receives at the suggestion of the two of them being interns at a software development firm potentially being scouted by an ancient evil cult has her expression shifting into a look so perplexed and innocent that it actually looks genuinely meant: "What? Is that so bad?" Because she had been entirely serious. The lack of proper access wouldn't even be much of a problem for the likes of them, all they need in the end is a way in and their skills and know-how would hopefully be enough to get them the rest of the way to what they need to find out.

Right?

But with his firm no at repayment has a small frown tugging on the corner of Zatanna's lips; they part with every intention to insist, but a familiar expression falls over Tim's face. His own philosophy as to what the money ought to be used for tumbles out and she sighs, rolling her head back to look at the ceiling. Still, she can't help but smile ruefully.

"Even I'm not immune to the comforts and temptations wealth provides, you know," she tells him, laughter underscoring each syllable. "You really are too good for this world, Timothy Jackson Drake."

But when he mentions the contractors, the amusement fades in lieu of a very flat expression. "Of course you did."

And no, that doesn't help her guilt at all, because he's just pouring more money in a space he bought for a very specific purpose. Then again, considering his own globetrotting activities, it isn't too much of a stretch in the imagination to think that having a base of operations in nearly every country that matters all over the world was part of Red Robin's ultimate master plan to make it a better, safer place.

There is some good news at least. There hasn't been any word from the General since the time he tried to kill Red Robin, and his innocent, helpful magician friend, Zatanna Zatara. But it means something bigger, and ultimately worse, down the line, as it often does. Still, there's a small hint of a smile there and she nudges him with an elbow. "You always think that," she tells him. "Not saying it's the wrong guess, you're probably right, but it wouldn't hurt to keep the rest of us abreast of developments there without us asking, right? I know you think he's your problem, he's made strides to make this terribly personal, after all. Just remember that your friends are willing to help, okay?"

And with that said, she picks up the TV remote.

"Now, tell me about this 'Gundam' and why you wanted one on your twentieth birthday."

—-

"No, it's a great idea," Tim says, feeling like a bit of an ass when she flashes him that perplexed and innocent look. Possibly, he shouldn't believe it… As a magician, deception is a part of who Zatanna is, but there's still something about her, her youth and the particular way she goes through life, that's left her untouched by the cynicism that paints so many of the people around her. "Still, I seem to remember somebody reproaching me for doing things the dangerous way, right over there by the kitchen."

It's the power, he thinks. Conner and Cassie are the same way: Things simply don't affect people like them, or like Zatanna, in the same way they do mere mortals. It's not a knock on them, it's just…

Of course, it doesn't escape Tim that other people might view him in the same way. With his wealth and talent, with that very potential he bartered with months before, the average person on the street must surely see him as removed from them as any Kryptonian, or demigoddess, or reality-warping witch.

"I'm a Wayne, there's certain expectations of me when it comes to displays of wealth," he says, on the topic of the temptations of wealth. "Nice houses, fast cars, beautiful women showing up at my place at all hours of the night." He keeps getting conspiratorial grins from the doorman at his building in New York. It really did not help that Steph showed up dressed like a schoolgirl that one time. "But in the end it's just about the mission. And I mean, not just the dressing up in a ridiculous outfit and fighting Kite Man or whoever… The Wayne Foundation does a lot of work in community improvement, schools and hospitals and parks and playgrounds. Getting at the root causes that make people desperate and hopeless enough that crime is the only solution available. That's why I started the Neon Knights youth outreach, to give kids an alternative to running around in gangs… The way things go in Gotham, the street gangs are practically just an internship program to see who's going to end up working for Joker, or Black Mask, or Two-Face. I was thinking about setting up operations in New York, too."

Too good for this world, she called him. She'd said it with amusement in her voice, with hints of laughter in her tone, but it left a feeling of sour guilt in his belly.

He certainly didn't see himself that way.

His pessimistic - he would say 'realistic' - assessment of the danger presaged by Armstrong's current apparent lack of activity gets him a nudge from the magician's elbow, who proceeds to cruelly slander him by saying he always thinks that (he does), and that he's the sort of person who would keep any further developments to himself on the basis of it being 'his problem' (he would). But before Tim could offer up any defense of himself on that front, Zatanna is going for the remote, and asking him about Gundam.

"I think Macross might be more your style," Tim says instead of anything about those grave matters that had been on the table mere minutes before. "But okay, Zatanna Zatara. It'll help you pretend to be some nerdy computer engineering student from Stanford anyway, once you know all about why giant robots are awesome."

—-

"I only reproach you when you do dangerous things alone in the way you always insist must be done," Zatanna points out. "Since I'm coming with you in this latest endeavor, it's not so bad. I mean, there's always exceptions to every rule, right?" The last followed by a brilliant, million-megawatt stageworthy smile, liable to blind those within sight of it.

But his words continue, and she listens, her lips against the rim of her borrowed mug. It isn't every day that Tim speaks about the legacy he has to share with the rest of Bruce's sons - Dick, Damien, even Jason, if the last word from Alfred about that situation could be believed. She knows very well that there are certain expectations; showing up as Bruce's date to the GAC's centennial gala had given her a faceful of it, amidst the flashing bulbs of demanding paparazzi cameras. So when he goes into detail about the work he's personally involved with in connection with the Wayne Foundation, and his thoughts of expansion into New York…

…her smile manifests again, gentler in its bent.

Too good for this world. It probably won't assuage his guilt, seeing that expression on her face.

"If there's anything I can do to help with that, let me know too, yeah? The Work doesn't have to be dark and apocalyptic all the time," she points out. "If anything, outreach is helpful, too."

But she would say that, wouldn't she? She who is constantly drawn to the emotional, human element in all things.

And there it is - naturally, he has a background for her undercover persona already, with that talk of Stanford (really, does he ever stop?) - though the revelation that a Gundam is a giant robot has her furrowing her brows. "Oh, so it's one of those anee-may things?" she asks, remote still in hand. "Okay, tell me about them. Is it a show? Can we watch it?"

Famous last words. If she only knew just how many Gundams there actually are.

A marathon later (in which she had to throw in the towel), it probably isn't surprising that when Tim Drake returns to the Titans Tower, there's a giant present waiting for him in the headquarters' sizeable hangar. If nothing else, it's a very irresponsible use of magic, but what's the point of having a near-limitless ability to bend reality if she doesn't indulge the people she loves now and then?

He'd probably gawk a little while he stares at the green-plated armored form of the GN-010 Gundam Zabanya in the face, a giant festive ribbon tied around its head.

But hey, if nothing else, his reaction would probably be worth it once she gets back from Wakanda.

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