fantasy and fallacy
When she comes out of her room on the evening of the third day, her stuff in boxes everywhere, her teammates tip toe around her like she's a ticking bomb without a timer.
"I'm fine," she says, a thousand times. She can't take how loud the careful silence is so she goes back inside, makes a fort out of blankets and pillows and hides.
Robin cracks the door open and says, "Can I come in?" A pause, then, "I have chocolate."
She doesn't know what difference it'd make so she lets him in, and he crawls into the fort with her and hands her block after block of chocolate until her stomach hurts and she thinks she's going to throw up.
"I'm sorry," he tells her. "I know what it's like to—"
"No," she cuts him off. She doesn't want to hear it. Somewhere inside, she knows he's just being nice and that she should smile and nod and thank him for the candy but she won't, she can't. "Your parents are dead. My father is being kept as a hostage and he'll never be released. And he's stuck in there forever because I was stupid and I thought I could control Fate." She doesn't know she's shouting until she stops and her chest is heaving, her neck hurts, her throat is raw. "You don't know what it's like. You don't know anything."
"Zee," he whispers, undeterred, a hand on her back, moving in soft, slow circles. "Lay down. You need to sleep."
She needs to find her father. What goddamned good is any of this power if she can't use it to save the only thing that really matters?
"Get out," she says as quietly as she can. He leaves, and the door closes behind him like a period at the end of a sentence. Abrupt. Final. Absolute.
The first thing she does is confront Fate himself. She sends out a message and he meets her at the top of Mount Justice. Her father's eyes look at her from underneath the golden helmet. Even in darkness, Fate glows.
"Why have you summoned me here?" he asks.
She has a speech ready, some spells she wants to try, a plan she told herself she would go with, but all she can say is, "Please, release my father. You can have anyone else. Just not him."
Fate observes her for a moment. She holds herself as steady as she can, keeps her feet planted firmly on the ground, even as she feels her knees start to shake. Stay calm, she thinks, and Robin's words float out from some memory to her. Stay traut.
"No," he says, and he's gone in a flash of light and Zatanna stays on the mountain until the sun comes up and she's so cold she can't feel her fingers.
Robin opens her door and finds her packing a weekender bag.
"Going somewhere?" he asks.
She doesn't owe him an explanation but a, "Yes," makes it past her lips anyway.
He leans against her door, surveying her through his sunglasses as she zips the bag, throws it over her shoulder, and faces him. They don't say anything. She remembers maybe liking him but she can't feel anything but the need to be gone, away, active, busy, and here she isn't anything but idle.
"Take off your glasses," she commands.
He frowns but does as she bids, and the blue of his eyes makes her catch her breath. She stares at his face, open and waiting, but nothing comes to mind for her to say.
"Stay," he says quietly, pleading. She sees it in his eyes, the worry, and he looks more human than she has ever seen him. "We can get through this. We're strong, we can make it."
He sounds so sure, and she wishes she could believe him.
"Goodbye," she whispers into his ear as she passes him, and she doesn't see him again for a very long time.
Morocco is the first place she goes, to the wizard, Al Sahir, and he tells her that Zatara is lost.
"Magic is what binds him to the helmet," she argues, tears burning in her eyes but she will not let them fall because we're strong, we can make it. "Magic can unbind him too. We just have to find out what spell."
He shakes his head, his eyes dark and wise and lined with black, and she knows he feels sorry for her, but she doesn't want pity, damn it, she wants results.
"There's a spell for everything," she insists. "There's a way out of anything."
"Not this time, child," he whispers in a thick accent. "Not this time."
She storms out into the African sun and feels it burn her skin and wishes it could burn this whole city.
Batman contacts her and requests a meeting but she ignores it. He calls her once a week, then once a month, then he stops. She wants to feel triumph (she is finally alone) but instead she feels abandoned (she is finally alone).
She reads through ancient tomes salvaged from ruins in ancient Egypt and translates the old pictures into something she can understand. There are spells here the old ones knew that her father never taught her, ways to travel, words to whisper to raise the dead. She finds a spell that can lift a malevolent spirit from the body of a righteous man and she memorizes it, whispers it a thousand times, and comes out of the library with dusty fingers and black ringing her eyes, and she is ready.
Dr. Fate comes when she calls him, and her father's eyes watch as she circles him, planning her attack, and she squeezes out a tear from eyes as dry as the desert sand she stands upon to throw him off her scent.
"Why have you summoned me?" he asks.
She shouts the words, lets them draw power from the deepest parts of her, opens herself so fully that the magic surrounds her, fills her like a drink, and she is so complete in that moment that she hardly even feels the absence of her father that had been weighing her down for so long. She hears Robin's words, small and insignificant, we're strong, but he has no idea, no idea how strong.
Fate falls to his knees, then collapses on the sand, and when she turns him over, her father's eyes stare blankly at the sky. She tries to remove the helmet but the shock that it sends through her body almost knocks her unconscious. She lies back on the sand and feels blackness slide over her, but she pushes it back and forces herself onto her feet, her knees wobbling together, feeling so weak after having so much power travel through her. She has never felt magic so powerful, so heady, so raw and so very old. But magic so old is not enough to separate Fate from her father, and when she tries again to heave the helmet from him, the resulting surge knocks her out cold.
She wakes up covered in sand, her tongue dry, her stomach rolling around, and Fate is gone. She screams, balling her hands into fists, feeling the power start to heat up her blood, swirl sand around her like she's the eye in a hurricane of anger and desperation. You're wrong, she thinks as wind howls around her and she digs her nails into her palms and draws blood. We are weaker than we could ever have imagined.
It has been one year. Everything she wants blurs into one thing: the gilded helmet on her father's head. But it isn't her father's head anymore.
In New Orleans, she meets with Madame Rousseau, and the old woman gives her a book so old that it's falling apart in her hands.
"Blood magic," Rousseau says, her vowels drawn out, and she shuffles over to where Zatanna sits on the small round table in the dark parlor.
"I'd rather not dabble in magic so obscure," she says, but the old woman doesn't hear her, or pretends not to.
"You and Zatara are bound by blood," Rousseau tells her. "Tap into that power and expel the spirit from his person."
Zatanna touches the old pages, the pictures drawn, the symbols labeled, the words a part of the paper, the paper a part of the words.
"Very old magic," Rousseau mumbles.
"I have tried old magic," Zatanna argues. "It didn't work."
"What did you try, girl?"
"An exorcism of sorts."
"He doesn't need an exorcism. He needs blood."
She pays the woman and leaves before the bill she has given her fades back into the plain paper it really is.
She practices on a man she stopped from attacking a woman in a shadowy alley in Gotham.
"What are you doing to me?" he whimpers, unable to move, his limbs shaking as he stands suspended against the cold brick wall. She slices into his forearm and gathers what she can, letting the crimson drip into a glass jar, and when she is done she seals his cut and stands in the darkness, watching as he struggles against his invisible restraints. She could have just used rope, transfigured any garbage lying around the ground into twine to tie him up but there are spells in Rousseau's book that render that kind of magic obsolete. Zatanna is discovering a whole new kind of magic, and it feeds her blood and enriches her body like the four course meals she can't eat anymore.
She pricks her thumb and drops a tiny stream of her own blood into the jar, mixes it by swishing it around, and whispers the magic words.
The man's eyes roll back into his head and he straightens up, a vein pulsing wildly in his throat. "I am at your service."
"Tell me your name," she says.
"Where are you from?"
"What is your greatest fear?"
"Death," he answers, and she sighs impatiently. There are worse things, she wants to say, and at the last moment she realizes she has broken her concentration and the man comes back to life, the blue of his eyes honing in on her, and his breathing becomes shallow.
"How are you doing that?" She hadn't noticed how blue his eyes were. It tickles her memory, something old and hidden away, like a dream she told herself she wouldn't forget and forgot as soon as the sun came up. And then she remembers: Robin. "Let me go, please! I won't do it again, I swear it—"
"Silence," she snaps. She whispers another command into the jar of their blood and his eyes close as he pleads with her and she finds looking at him is easier now that Robin isn't in her head.
"I thought you were a hero," he whispers, broken, scared, and the laugh that erupts from her shocks her too.
"There are no heroes," she tells him. "Those are the truest words you will ever hear."
Jamie Howard becomes her servant in Gotham. She doesn't spend much time there, all her contacts and libraries being in more ancient parts of the world, but when she finds a spell she needs to test, there is never a more willing subject.
"I am at your service," he tells her when she enters his apartment. "What will you have me do?"
She trails a hand over his face, down his arm, and his eyes, blue and crystalline, watch her every move. "Practice," she says, and she pushes him onto a chair and pulls out her wand. "Practice till we make perfect."
She breaks into his mind and steals all his secrets, learns every path within and where it leads, and she knows that with such knowledge of how to navigate the mind then she is sure to stand a chance against Fate. She develops a plan, practices on Jamie until his mind is hers, and tells herself she is ready to rip Fate from her father.
It has been three years. The power that courses through her calls for blood, and she is ready to oblige.
She calls Dr. Fate and he answers, standing in the middle of a field in Oklahoma, and she traps him in a protective circle she found carved into the earth belonging to an old Native American ritual. Her father's eyes watch her without emotion.
"Why have you summoned me here?" he asks.
She sends a razor at him and it returns to her coated in her father's blood, and she drips what she can into a vial the size and shape of a teardrop, blending it with a drop of her own blood and whispering into it.
His body becomes as rigid as a board, his arms snapping to his sides, his legs together, his eyes rolled back into his head. She is glad she can't see them anymore.
"I'm so much stronger now," she says, and her blood sings and the magic lifts her off her feet. "I will not ask, as I have before. I command you to release my father or I will destroy you, Dr. Fate."
He doesn't respond. She delves into his mind and is kicked back out, so forcefully that she falls heavily to the hard, unforgiving earth, and the wind is knocked out of her, the static taste of magic on the tip of her tongue from her failed excursion into his head.
Her concentration shot, Fate awakens and puts his hand out to attack her, and she dodges swiftly, duplicating herself until there are fifty copies of her, ready to strike back.
"I am a Lord of Order, your tricks won't work on me," he intones. The protective circle breaks. Zatanna feels the charge in the air and runs.
She stops by the river and sees her reflection by the light of the full moon, and shame burns her like fire.
Robin, or as he is called now, Nightwing finds her in an excavation site in Turkey, standing over the dig while a team brings out carts and carts of books. She doesn't know it's him until she sends a probe into him and the memories that resonate from him taste like chocolate.
"My, my," she says, her eyes flitting over him, taking in long legs, broad shoulders, a face older and different than the one she used to know. "We have grown."
"We have," he tells her, and he pulls her into him, wraps his arms around her, and her head fits under his chin like they were made to do just this. She takes a breath and smells the city, the smell of exhaust and cigarettes and she pulls away and tosses her black hair over her shoulder defiantly, staring up at him, at the dark shades that cover his eyes, and she is glad they are covered. "I've missed you. I've been looking for you."
"You would've found me sooner if I'd wanted to be found," she says.
"Does that mean you lured me here?"
A digger approaches her and whispers in Turkish that they are closing up for tonight. She dismisses him and shouts an order at the man watching the carts of books to take them to her apartment. Nightwing watches her, his lips parted, awe pouring out of him in waves. She wonders if he was always this easy to read, or if it's her powers amplifying her mind.
"I've been lazy," she says. "I don't think I've been covering my tracks so well."
"Not as well as you used to."
"Why are you here?"
He takes a step closer, puts a hand out, and he takes off his glasses. She can't believe she's staring into them and feeling as small and stupid as she did the day she left the team, so much weaker and helpless, without any of the heat pulsing through her that she has now. He has grown, he looks older than he should, and his eyes plead with her now as they did then. We're strong, we can make it.
"Come home," he tells her.
"I have to save my father," Zatanna says.
"No, you don't."
She thinks she could slap him. "Oh? And who will? The League?"
"Your father knew what he was getting into," he presses, stepping ever closer, and she takes a step back and feels concrete behind her. "Do you think he sacrificed himself so you could spend the rest of your life trying to help him?"
"I have to help him," she says, and her voice breaks, to her horror. No, she thinks, she's strong, but she's being crowded against the wall, Nightwing's hands light as butterfly touches on her, until he takes her hands and gives them a squeeze.
"When was the last time you slept for eight hours? Or ate a real meal? Or let someone touch you?" His hands trail on her arms and she wants to shake him off and show him that instead of eating and sleeping and fucking, she has become a weapon capable of anything, of everything.
"I want to help you," he whispers.
She pushes him and he staggers back, his hand touching the now singed material of his shirt, his eyes wide and a little afraid.
"I don't need your help," she says and she leaves Turkey the next day and makes damn sure her tracks are well covered this time.
Jamie Howard lets her into his apartment, and she is tired and jetlagged and there are old, fragile books in her carryon bag.
"Take these, put them in the airtight safe when you're done translating them," she says, handing him the bag and going straight to the kitchen. "I want them ready by morning, am I clear?"
She spins around, a bottle of water frozen on its way to her mouth. Nightwing sits on the couch looking out at Gotham, in full uniform. The domino mask is so familiar that the squeeze around her heart startles her.
"I suppose the Nightwing makes a habit of breaking into people's apartments," she says.
"Not if those people have been stripped of their free will," he replies. His distaste is palpable, his shock masked by disgust. She wonders if he knows she can feel it now, feel everything he feels, just by letting her tongue dart out past her lips to taste it in the air.
She sits beside him, kicking off her shoes and tucking her legs beneath her, observing him. "Black and blue suit you," she tells him.
"You like it?" He glances down at the symbol stretched across his chest, behind which she knows is her handprint, probably scarred over by now but still a little raw, because magical fire isn't the same as real fire and she didn't mean to hurt him. "I made it myself. But let's talk about all the things you've made. A slave, for one." He ticks them off his fingers. "An enemy of Dr. Fate, for another. He said you took some of his blood. I'm no magician, but blood magic sounds like some pretty bad stuff."
"You're right, you aren't a magician," she evades swiftly.
He places a hand over his face and leans back against the cushions. "Zatanna," he says. "Zatanna, come back. Come back. Please."
"To what?" she snaps. "To my friends? To the League? To the Cave? So I can help these stupid people? Why? If I can't help Zatara, then they don't deserve to be saved. Let them burn. I don't care."
"Zatara cared," he insists. "He gave his life to help the people."
"Don't," she shrieks, and her fingers burn but she balls her hands into fists and reigns the power in bit by bit until her voice is calm enough that she can whisper, "Don't you talk about him like he's dead. He's alive, as alive as we are, and Fate is wearing him like a dress."
Nightwing's hand is on her back, moving around in circles, and she can feel his warmth through her shirt. "If he could've, Zatara would've found a way out by now. It's been years, Zee."
"He doesn't know what I know now." She shakes his hand off her. "I'm more powerful than he ever was. There is a way. I'll find it."
He's silent for a long time, and Zatanna doesn't know she's crying until he wipes away her tears and pulls her into him, and he says, "We can make it," but she doesn't know if she can anymore.
He leaves in the morning. She thought at length during the night that she ought to wipe his memory of this place, of what he saw of Jamie Howard, but she knows it wouldn't have made a difference. He would find his way back to her somehow.
She travels to Egypt again, wanders around sites weathered by time and the elements. Statues are worn down, hieroglyphs are barely visible, temples broken and caved in. In the end, everything returns to the earth. So why do the heroes bother trying to keep a balance that won't matter when it all comes crashing down? And why does Dr. Fate persist in protecting a world that will bury itself either way?
She walks with her hands out on either side of her, transmitting, receiving, until she finds her way to the courtyard of a long buried place, sand dunes plentiful, but the spirits of ancient warlocks restless in the air. She siphons their power, watches as their ghosts wither and die and she feels their shock and betrayal. They wanted to be taken off the mortal plane. She takes instead their powers and leaves them to wander forever.
"Why?" she hears in the wind that brushes past her, lifting her hair off her shoulders, and she whispers, "Why not?"
She takes everything they have and it leaves her full, fit to burst, with enough power to burn the whole world down to the core. But it isn't enough, it will never be enough, and she sits in the ruins of a once great civilization and feels death all around her.
It has been four and a half years. She has forgotten what her father looks like. She hasn't thought of him in weeks.
Nightwing travels to Mexico City with her, a baseball cap on his head pulled low over his face, his lips pressed into a firm line. He doesn't like this, it is made abundantly clear, but it's better to know what she is up to than to find out from another victim. She doesn't want to admit that she likes the company, likes the tang of his carefully withheld fear. It is like the sourness of an orange, sudden and sharp and overwhelming. She leans into him and touches her nose to the skin behind his ear and breathes in his apprehension.
"What are we doing here?" he asks.
"Visiting the old Aztec ruins," she tells him.
"Sightseeing," he says, half a smile on his face. "I can do that."
"Take my hand," she says.
He hesitates before slipping his hand into hers and she steps forward into a pocket dimension and then out on the top of an Aztec pyramid, overlooking an expanse of jungle so dense that it's like a blanket of green below them.
She doesn't realize that he's hyperventilating until she feels his hand twitch in hers and she turns, finding him on his knees on the weathered stone, gasping for air, tendrils of shadowy smoke clinging to his arms that she banishes with a look.
"What was that?" he whispers, shivering.
She glances down at herself and sees nothing, feels nothing but the hum of energy rushing through her veins. "The tunnel we used must have been too dark for you."
"Too dark?" He looks up at her and his cap has shifted. Blue eyes cut through her like she isn't even there. His fear is kept at bay with the sickly sweet, cloying taste of masked repulsion. She repels him. "What have you done to yourself? You don't even look like Zatanna anymore."
She stares down at him and watches the wave of emotion subside until he is sitting on his heels at her feet the way Jamie Howard sometimes does and she feels pity for him.
"Get up," she says. "You came here to help me."
He shakes his head, and the laugh that cuts through the air is like a blunt knife, harsh. "No. You don't need my help. I didn't come here to help you. I came here to see if there was anything left I could save."
"And you just go around offering salvation to everyone, don't you, Nightwing?" she hisses. "I don't need it. I can do this on my own. Go home."
She turns to leave and he says, "Dick."
"Dick." He sighs, and it sounds old. "My name. It's Dick. Dick Grayson."
It takes her a moment to realize that she didn't know his name. It strikes her as odd. "Why are you telling me this?"
"I don't know."
There's power all around, spells scrawled onto the walls by the Aztecs, the blood of sacrifice sunk deep into the earth. She has work to do. But she sits next to Dick—Dick Grayson, she says it in her head like it's a spell, over and over until it isn't even a name anymore—and lets him take her hand.
"Stay," he says in a voice so low that she hardly hears him, and this time, she does.
He has a safehouse in Blüdhaven that he shows her like he's proud of it, but it's a dump and she isn't even high maintenance.
"It doesn't look like much, but it's completely off the grid," he says. His voice bounces off the high ceiling and the metal walls, surrounding her the way her magic does, like she's the eye in a hurricane of Dick Grayson, his voice, his smell, the taste of concentration and dedication and loyalty on every inch of the place and for the first time in years and years she feels like home.
He takes her into his arms and runs his hands through her hair and says her name like it's a prayer, "Zatanna," full of reverence and hope and it falls over her like a blanket of security, warm and strange and different. And at once, it hits her, that she's been running for such a long time she has forgotten what it felt like to be standing still.
The power inside her flares, spikes, demands to be felt, but she clamps it down to its lowest form and conquers it. Dick pulls her closer and something feathery and light pours out of him, dances on the tip of her tongue and darts away before she can taste it, fresh like air but weightier, and she knows without knowing how that it's love.
In Nepal, she finds a village in the mountains where they tell her there lives a wizard. She follows directions from scared villagers that shy away from the magic that pours out of her, whispering prayers as she passes by. She arrives at the door of the man she seeks with a blizzard hot on her trail and they regard her as a bad omen.
The wizard allows her inside. His face is twisted, gnarled with age, time. Inside it is cold, bitterly so, and she sets a fire in the hearth with a snap of her fingers that burns brightly, illuminating a completely empty room, and the wizard is nowhere to be seen.
She addresses the empty room, the heavy black curtains covering the windows, the bare stone floors that her boots click-clack against. "I am here to ask if there is a way I can save my father from Dr. Fate. I've been searching for a long time, and I've mastered magic he has no knowledge of. I can help him now. If you'll help me."
She receives no answer, nothing but the wailing of the wind as it batters against the house. She waits for a few hours, falls asleep on the floor before the fireplace, and when she wakes up, she is still alone. She pulls herself to her feet and searches for him.
There are doors leading elsewhere into the house and she checks each one, finding it dark and empty and cold. At the end of a corridor is a set of stairs and when she emerges on the second floor, she finds herself in another world. Here, it is warm, almost too warm, and she removes her heavy coat, dropping it on the floor. The reassuring weight of earth all around her and the waves outside crashing into the rocks is familiar. Lulling. After a moment, she realizes she's in Mount Justice.
She walks further, slowly, her footsteps inaudible, her breathing in check, sure that she has entered into another dimension, but something hurries past her, leaving her hair in her face, and she brushes it out of the way impatiently and sees Wally, coming to a stop by the end of the hall, his red hair windswept, and he calls, "Double time on those cookies, Megan!"
She takes a few steps forward and sees the kitchen and beyond it, the living area. M'gann is busy at work, standing vigil before the oven, a smudge of flour on her face. She spots Conner sitting on the couch, flipping through a book, a blank look on his face. She wants to call out to them and then notices the freckles stretched across Wally's face, the crack in his voice as he teases M'gann, and she knows they won't hear her. Wally is still sixteen. She is only observing.
Still, she watches them, Wally flirting, M'gann licking dough off her fingers, Conner calling over to them to keep it down so he can study. She feels none of their emotions, no fear, no sorrow, nothing at all, just as she used to before.
She goes up to her room, not knowing what to expect, and finds her younger self lying in bed next to Robin, and she sits on the floor and listens to their conversation, silly and stupid as it is, full of the dreams of children, the wordplay he used to like, their faces smooth and clean of lines of worry and stress. She doesn't know how long she stays until Robin gets off her bed and stretches his arms over his head.
"I'm due in Gotham," he tells the younger version of herself. "Patrol with Batman."
She watches herself smile and Robin places a careful kiss on her cheek before he leaves. She stays in her room as her younger self leaves and trails her fingers on the carpet, rubs her face against the blankets falling off her bed and breathes in deep. She knows this is not the past; when she left, her room was still boxes piled up on each other and not as homey as this. This is not the past, this is what the past should have been.
"Why are you showing me this?" she asks the empty room, and she receives no reply. She pulls herself up and leaves the room, and knows at once that she is no longer in Mount Justice. She finds herself between dimensions, in the tunnel she uses to travel small distances, and she feels the press of darkness on her skin, underneath her fingernails, in her mouth and nose like an odorless, tasteless smoke that is everywhere and nowhere. Power burns inside her and she walks through it, waiting to emerge on the other side, and she finds Dick on the ground, hunched over, coughing, suffocating.
"No!" she screams, grabbing his arms, trying to heave him up, but he is heavy and her power is waning, diminishing bit by bit until there is no more heat in her veins, just ice, and she falls beside him and shivers and convulses uselessly.
The weight of the cold disappears suddenly and she opens her eyes, finding herself in the safehouse in Blüdhaven, and Dick sleeps soundly on the couch, an arm draped over his face. She feels wetness on her cheeks and touches them, expecting to pull back and find blood on her hands, but they're only tears.
"There is no way to save him."
It's Dr. Fate, glowing and golden, hovering over the ground, filling the entire warehouse with light. Dick sleeps on, oblivious, and Zatanna cannot get off the floor, cannot peel her eyes away from her greatest enemy.
"I will," she tells him. "I can."
"There is no way I will release him."
"You will!" She leaps to her feet, a surge of power pulsing through her like it's alive, shooting out of her fingertips, her mouth, her eyes, everywhere, until Dr. Fate is sprawled on the floor and the warehouse is on fire.
"Zatanna!" Dick yells from everywhere and nowhere, and the fire is covering everything. She dispels what she can, trying to follow his voice, feeling heat bear down on her, the smoke filling her lungs, burning her eyes, burning everything—
And then it's over. She pats herself down, checks for injuries the way she will never forget Batman taught her, but she's fine, and she's laying on the floor before the fire she set in the hearth the previous night. And the old man sits before her, watching.
She sends out feelers and comes back empty. It's as though she is alone, when she clearly isn't.
"You're hiding from me?" she asks.
She receives no response.
"You went into my mind," she says. She pulls herself off the floor, her eyes flickering between the wizard's. "How did you penetrate my defenses? It shouldn't be possible."
Still, he doesn't speak, and Zatanna is unnerved. She has gotten so used to the power that leaked from her bringing back the thoughts and feelings of those around her. Here in this room, she is utterly on her own and the silence is stifling.
The old man smiles. He has no teeth.
"Teach me everything," she says.
She crawls into Dick's bed in his safehouse and he jolts awake abruptly, startled.
"Zee?" He relaxes instantly and falls back onto the pillows, putting an arm around her and pulling her close. She takes a deep breath and smells his relief, his surprise. "What are you doing here?"
She touches his arm, feels old scars and sees creases on his skin from the fold of his sheets. The wizard projected her dreams and her fears into her mind, past defenses she had thought were impenetrable, but the image of Dick in the darkness of the tunnel, choking on his own despair, had been burned into her brain. The truth is that she misses him, and the fresh, light taste of his affection, and the callouses on his palms, and the barely noticeable tan lines on his face from his mask. Lying next to him as he buries his face in her hair feels like the most natural thing in the world. But Zatanna has a task, a way to accomplish it, and Dick has become a weakness. We're strong, she thinks. But we will be stronger apart.
"I was just leaving," she tells him.
He turns to face her, rubs sleep out of his eyes, and is alert once more. She wonders if he suspects her motives and plants an innocent smile on her face. He is not fooled.
"Stay the night, I'll walk you out in the morning," he tells her.
"No, I'm going to miss my flight."
His eyes scan her face and linger on her lips. "How long will you be gone?"
"A few days," she lies.
"No, really." He props himself up on one elbow. His hair is a mess. She runs her hand through it and he closes his eyes. "Tell me the truth, Zee. How did it go with that guy in Nepal?"
She doesn't answer.
"Are you going to see him again?"
"And? Can he help?" A pause, then, with a sad little smile, he says, "You aren't planning on coming back, are you?"
She hears his heart beat faster, a steady thump thump thump that she almost sees under the light shirt he's wearing. His eyes are big and wary, blueblue, and she remembers, so vaguely that it could have been a dream, staring at the domino mask when she was thirteen and wondering what she would find behind it.
She whispers into his mind, lets her feelers go so deep that she tastes his childhood, cotton-candy and popcorn and death defying acts, and he fidgets, confused, feeling the intrusion but unable to protect himself against it, only human in spite of it all. He stills, his eyes fluttering shut, but not before she sees the betrayal in them, and it is so bitter that she almost retches. She sets his head down upon his pillow, tucks him into his blanket, and he mumbles, "How long will you be gone?"
"A few days," she says.
He nods and sinks into a sleep so deep that she allows herself to sit by his side for another hour, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest, the occasional twitch of his jaw. She touches her nose to his neck and breathes in but the weightless love is gone, and as she leaves the safehouse for the final time, it's almost like her heart is breaking.
She brings another blizzard with her to the mountain village and the people bar their doors and draw curtains over their windows. Demon, they hiss as she passes them, but she doesn't care. She won't try to draw in her power. It lingers in every footprint she leaves in the snow.
She spends most of her time in her mind, sitting in bed with Dick in Blüdhaven, meditating with the memory of the taste of his mind on the tip of her tongue. The wizard grows younger in the presence of her raw power, the lines on his face smoothing out little by little until one day he comes to pull her out of her meditation and she sees a young man, hardly older than herself, standing before her, and when he grins, she is almost blinded by bright white teeth.
"Can you speak now?" she asks. It doesn't matter to her whether they communicate, but the blankness she feels when she tries to touch his mind reminds her somehow of Dick, and how his mind was full, bursting, always animated, always there.
He doesn't speak, but takes her hand and pulls her to her feet, sending her all over the world where she fights and overpowers magicians and brings them to their mountain retreat, hog-tied and blindfolded, and he teaches her how to breach magical defenses.
The mind of a magician, she learns, is not like the mind of Jamie Howard. She feels resistance at first, always heavy hitting, like a punch in the gut. They throw her out before she can dig her heels in and she winds up on the floor, breathless, her cheeks pink from exertion.
No, the wizard whispers into her mind. Not like that. Slowly. Find a weakness, a chink in their armor. Enter with caution, through that which they would never think needed guarding.
"How am I supposed to know a chink when I can't get in there and find out what it is?" she shouts at him but he doesn't respond, just smiles that smile of his as his face gets younger still and she goes outside and hides in a tunnel, the weight of the world pressing down on her from all sides, until she thinks the power inside her isn't going to burst her wide open and she comes back out to try again.
Minds break, defenses lock the brain shut, even from their master, subjects slip into catatonia, and Zatanna feels her grip slowly get away from her until she raises her fist and looks at it in surprise, seeing blood glisten in the firelight, and an unrecognizable someone sitting on the chair, waiting to be hit again. She hears Dick's voice in her head, We can make it, and she can't. She can't.
She gets another subject, braces him against the wall, and stares into his eyes, blue like Dick's, pressing into him until he whispers, "Get on with it, witch."
She does nothing, not for several hours, until her arms ache from holding him up and her legs feel like lead bars, and when his eyes start to droop, she send a probe, so slowly that at first she thinks she's receiving feedback from the villagers outside, and then she tastes it. Roasted chestnuts, burned and black and I'm sorry, Mom, but this is what you get for letting a twelve year old roast your nuts for you.
A little deeper, she sees the mother, blonde hair and a big smile, ruffling a boy's hair fondly and saying, "It's not rocket science, you know," and the boy runs off into a pile of snow and there are holiday lights up on the house, blinking red and green and red and green, and a dog barks somewhere, and she's pulled out, the magician's eyes wide open. He shouts, "No! Stay out! Stay out of my mind!"
She feels a smile on her face. "Oh, but we were having so much fun," she whispers, grabbing a handful of his hair and jerking it back, and she can feel fear rising from his neck and she devours it. "And I'm just getting started."
She travels to New York to track another subject, perhaps the last she will ever need. Moonlight reflects off puddles of rainwater on the black asphalt. People around her scurry past with light touches of apprehension skittering off their skin and they don't understand why, their bodies feeling the danger but unable to give it a name.
She finds the magician's apartment in the city and opens the door with a wave of her hand, sends a pulse of power through the invisible barrier preventing entry. The man sits on an armchair before a blank TV screen and when she sees him, he smiles at her.
"Yes, I've been expecting you," he tells her.
She feels something else in the room, a dark smudge of anger and betrayal covering something softer and sweeter, and she finds Dick in the room too, standing to attention in the corner, his hands balled into fists at his side. For a moment she doesn't know if she's imagining him or not. She turns back to the man and says, "Stop."
The man looks around. "Stop what, dear?"
"Stop your trickery. Illusions won't save you now. You can come with me willingly, or I can transport you through a tunnel, but you won't like it."
The man looks to the corner and when she follows his gaze, Dick is gone. Perhaps he was never there. Somewhere inside, she feels something caving, breaking, but she has work to do and this is why she left Dick in the first place. Weakness, she tells herself, has no place with her.
"Rise," she says, and the man stands, his chin up, his eyes bright even in darkness. She remembers him, vaguely, from her childhood. Zatara's friend, maybe, or someone with ties to the League.
"You have become so powerful," he says, awestruck, and he puts his hand out to touch her but is slammed against the wall by her protective charms. "So powerful," he whispers to the floor.
She steps towards him, falls to one knee, and takes his chin in her hand, and his resistance is sturdy, like a steel wall. She walks alongside it, trying to find the chink, the way in.
"Your father would be proud," the man says, distracting her. "After a burst of anger, sure, he would be proud. Such power inside you, more than he ever commanded. But it will never be enough to rid him of Dr. Fate."
"How would you know?" she snaps at him. "You think you're strong? You are nothing."
She feels Dick behind her, his hand on her back moving in slow circles, and she presses deeper into the mind of the man slumped before her but is met with resistance again.
"Stop," she shoots behind her, but there is nothing there. She looks at the man, the way his eyes dart around the room, and she strikes him across his face. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing," he says hastily, and she hits him again. "I don't know, I'm not doing it, it isn't me!"
She binds and gags him and throws him into a tunnel as he screams to be let out, to be released, and she jumps in after him.
In the sanctity of the mountains, she breaks into her father's friend's mind so easily that her mentor, his face younger than ever, now only reaching her shoulder, places a hand over hers and tells her she is ready.
"Something's not right," she says. "I keep seeing... someone. Images of him. I feel him in the air."
The wizard says nothing, but squeezes her hand and smiles.
"What is happening to me?" she asks. Then, quieter, "Am I losing my mind?"
The wizard only smiles. Zatanna packs and leaves the next morning, and the village releases a sigh of relief that echoes with her until she boards her plane.
Jamie Howard is gone when she gets to his apartment in Gotham, and folded on his bed is a note in Dick's cramped writing: The League is after you. Watch your step.
She isn't surprised. Only so many magicians can go missing without warranting unwanted attention. She sees everything he felt, poured out into eight words, but most of all she feels him, his presence in the apartment, but she doesn't see him, and as good as she tells herself that is, she can't lie to herself.
She runs into Batman in Central City. Or, rather, he drops to the ground before her and she pretends to be surprised that she hasn't felt the brooding black smudge on her radar since he first started tracking her three days earlier.
"Batman," she says with a respectful nod. "To what do I owe the—" She stops abruptly, like the words were snatched out of her mouth as the light, frothy taste hits her, familiar and safe and home, and she breathes it in until she forgets her audience and looks around the empty street, waiting for Dick to pop out from wherever he's hiding. The building excitement fades into icy cold that bites down hard. She would have seen him coming if he was here. Another hallucination. Her excursion into his mind has stained her own, like ink that won't come off skin no matter how many times she scrubs at it.
She leans against the wall, staring at the masked figure before her, and feels tears in her eyes. The lines around his mouth soften. He steps closer, still angled slightly away in a defensive stance.
"Zatanna," he says in a low voice, and she remembers hiding behind his cape as Dr. Fate flew away and she realized she would never see her father again. She was weak then, and maybe she is still weak now, even after all this.
A weight presses down on her, heaviness that she has never known, and she wants to run, she wants to slide into a tunnel between worlds and hide, she wants to mourn, she wants to find Dick and kiss apologies onto his face.
She wants to find Dr. Fate and hurt him, dig deep into his mind and watch the light leave his eyes. The power inside her screams for his life, and she is finally ready to oblige.
The lie slips out easily, along with crocodile tears: "I think I'm being controlled. Batman, help me."
He doesn't think twice, taking her arm and calling his Batmobile, and she slides inside and tastes the familiar scent of Dick in the leather seat she sits upon.
It has been six years and the world has never felt so small.
He takes her to the Watchtower, puts her in a spacious room with a view of the gardens that produce oxygen for the vessel. She lays a hand against the glass and feels magical resistance, but she didn't plan on escaping anyway. So she waits, her feelers out and scanning, transmitting and receiving, Batman standing outside her door and then Green Lantern, Black Canary then Martian Manhunter. Captain Marvel opens the door and gives her a tray of breakfast filled to the top, smiles at her, and tells her it's good to see her again. She tastes his fear, but it sits behind a forest of sympathy.
"Where is Nightwing?" she asks him as he turns to leave.
"He's here, somewhere," he replies, waving a hand absently. "Do you want me to get him for you?"
She nods, her heart jumping up to her throat. When he comes to her at last, standing as far from her as he can while still in the same room, she reaches out and tastes the acidity of betrayal.
He stands in heated silence. She traces the shape of his mouth with her eyes and realizes how much she has missed him.
"You told Batman you were being controlled?" he asks sharply. "Why did you do that? To get him to bring you here?"
"Fate won't come to me, after Oklahoma," she says. "So I had to come to him."
Dick punches the wall and leaves a dent in the metal. "Why won't you let it go?" he shouts. He rushes to her and grabs her shoulders, sits beside her and searches her eyes behind his mask. "Zatara made his choice. How do you think he would feel if he knew what you're doing to yourself? You've ruined yourself. You aren't even Zatanna anymore, you're someone completely different." He releases her, faces the wall, and whispers, "How could you do that to me? Is nothing sacred anymore? Would you go into my own mind and then just leave like nothing even happened?"
Her hand is on his face before she knows it, in his hair, running down his back. He looks like Robin again, too small for any of this, and a heavy blanket of sorrow covers them both.
"I see you everywhere," she tells him, and she doesn't know why, but she keeps going. "Everywhere I go, I feel you there. I think I'm going crazy."
He laughs, but it's pulled taut and sounds like he's choking. "You aren't going crazy. You're in love, you idiot."
Love. Perhaps he is right. But she doesn't want to think, and she doesn't want to feel. She lays his head down on her lap and pulls off his mask, and he stays until the lights in the garden go out for programmed nighttime, then he gets up to leave.
"Tell me that we're strong," she asks of him. "Tell me we can make it. I want to hear you say it."
He lingers by the door, his face angled away from her, and she can't see his eyes. "I don't know if I can," he says, and he leaves, the door sliding shut behind him with a hydraulic hiss, and she feels him walk downstairs to the zeta tubes and vanish from her radar.
Fate comes to her on the morning of the third day. She can feel Batman outside, darkness coating him head to foot, but he does not enter. Fate closes the door behind him with a look, then turns to her.
"You are not under anyone's control but your own demons," he says, his voice crashing and ugly and nothing like her father's. "Why have you come here?"
She stares into her father's eyes and hits a wall of solid stone, walks along it to find her way in, and he shakes his head.
"Your tricks will not work on a Lord of Order," he tells her. She ignores him, digging deeper, searching, searching, and she doesn't realize her hands are cold and shaking until she falls back on her bed. The wall is impenetrable. But she isn't really surprised.
"You are wasting your time," he says.
She balls her hands into fists and bites back the spell on the tip of her tongue. Her blood sings, her core is burning, burning to destroy him, she's so close that it falls over her like a shadow. There are spells on the tip of her tongue, curses learned from scratches on ancient walls of fallen civilizations, things she knows that only few others have ever dared think about, but Dr. Fate predates it all. She realizes now, as he stands before her, gold and glowing, that his magic is older than she can put into words. Nothing she tries will ever work. She could spend eternity learning, honing skills so dark they cast shadows on the words she utters, alienate everyone she has ever cared about, and in the end it wouldn't make a shred of difference.
She starts to cry. Fate watches balefully, hovering a few inches off the ground, more than anything she could ever want to be.
"Please," she whispers, "let me see him. Let me talk to him, just this one time. I will never ask anything of you again."
He says nothing. She feels her heart break, bit by bit, until she covers her face with her hands and falls apart right down the middle. A hand falls on her back, another takes her chin, and she opens her eyes and finds Fate sitting beside her, but there is a life in those eyes she never thought she would see again, and she realizes that it's Zatara.
She chokes and blabbers and at one point screams, and Zatara whispers assurances into her hair and strokes her face and rubs her back the way he used to when she was a child.
"What have I done?" she cries into his shoulder. "What have I become? I've failed, I've failed you."
"No," he says. "You've lost your way, but you'll find it again. You are so powerful now. You can do more for the world than I ever could."
"Come back," she pleads, grabbing handfuls of his suit. "Come back, you don't know what I am now. You can fix me, I want to go back to the way I was."
"I have faith in you," he tells her, and he stands. "You can do it. I know you can. I love you."
"No, wait!" She has so much to say, so many questions to ask, but before she can even blink, he's Dr. Fate again.
They look at each other, Zatanna a shaking mess of frazzled nerves, Dr. Fate cool and controlled as always. He opens the door and walks out. Batman pokes his head in, sees her tears, and clears his throat.
"I'll get Dick," he mutters, and he leaves the door open behind him.
She is aware of Dick's presence in the Watchtower the moment he zetas through the portal and she counts the seconds, the moments, and everything in between until he finds her on the floor, curled into a ball, and he curls himself up around her. She is all cried out, dry as sand, shivering and shuddering and Dick holds on to her until she settles down and turns to face him.
For a long time, he says nothing, lying beside her on the hard floor, his eyes clear and blue. She feels his relief, brisk like a sea breeze, and starts to wonder if it's hers too.
She has things to say, things she wants to kiss into his skin until he's marked with her apologies for life, and the power inside her is raw and hot and demands to be felt but not right now.
Right now, she whispers, "Tell me we're gonna make it," and he whispers back, "We're strong. We can make it."