Concessions

December 31, 2016:

As John Constantine intends to spend NYE alone at a pier, a token in his pocket draws out the last person he expects to hear from.

Characters

NPCs: Giovanni Zatara (NPC'd by Zatanna Zatara)

Mentions: Zatanna Zatara, Bruce Wayne, Jane Foster, Gottfried Muller

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

New Year's Eve, 2016.

It had started off slowly for John, almost placid by the standards of his typically turbulent existence. A steady job teaching a naturally gifted but still-inexperienced mage, collecting fat paychecks from her father — one of John's oldest still-surviving friends — in the cushy surrounds of their London home. A break from dealing with cults, possessions, and emergencies that had him flying out of Heathrow at all hours at little notice, off to who knows what literally god-forsaken parts of the planet.

And then things had changed, virtually overnight. In retrospect he had understood it had felt overnight only to him: what he'd taken for a pupil's playful but ultimately meaningless infatuation for her instructor had tilted and slid off in wholly another direction. And he had tried to resist. He had tried. For once. Maybe the events of the two years prior to landing that job, and the contentment that came along with grasping just how /good/ things were for him as a result, were enough to rouse the better angels of his nature from whatever torpor usually keeps them silent.

Hadn't lasted long, though. Retreated until he'd had his back to the wall, literally — so persistent; an excellent quality in a student — and then there had been her eyes, that close, and slender fingers picking apart the knot in his tie, and then…

He's spending too much time thinking about that. It ended with what he believed was the loss of his friend in her father, and that stung just as much, although differently.

There had been other things this year to be proud of, but not many. That thing in Louisiana that he did. The things he was doing now.

For the most part, though, 2016 was a year he felt ought to burn on a pyre if at all possible, and most of the rest of the world seemed to agree. Nobody had enjoyed this year. And Carrie Fisher was dead. Somewhere deep inside, a teenaged John who once harbored a secret and ferocious crush on that fiercest, most competent of women in cinema was still in mourning.

So it had been a year of the loss of good things.

An hour ago, he returned to his hotel from visiting one Professor Ritchie Simpson at a college north of the city with one Dr. Jane Foster, to set the next part of his plans into motion. En route, in her car, she'd made a choice that John knew would change her life forever. After the year he'd had, he didn't dare to imagine it might be for the better, but the future was still unwritten. If there were any solace to be had on this day, that would be it. A liminal time. The bridge between one year and the next, one self and the next. It was strangely appropriate that the last week had taken a scythe to him, razed him down and cored him out. He thought of the Tower card in his tarot deck, belching fire and black anguish. Destruction of the old, to make room for the new.

So this empty John buys a bottle of Scotch — good Scotch — and takes it with him in a brown paper bag to the concrete seawall near the piers, to sit with his legs dangling over the filthy water, a ticket to London in his coat pocket. The ship is scheduled to leave at 8:00pm — half an hour from now — and he intends to watch it sail out and off into the distance, as though he could bid goodbye to everything associated with the man who bought that ticket in so doing.

Happy bloody New Year, John Constantine.

—-

He would feel eyes watching him.

It's nothing overt, but something he would feel in the layer just underneath the spectrum where all physical senses are attuned - it tickles the back of his neck, brushes over his hair. It comes from nowhere and everywhere at once, but it is brief, fleeting. Just long enough for /something/ before it fades off again, dissipating into the cold, night air like something imagined. The signature would be nobody that he would recognize, something that could prove to be either relieving and worrisome. John Constantine will at least be reassured that whoever it was, it wasn't anyone within his immediate circle trying to find him.

But who was it?

In the end, he wouldn't be able to tell.

Such precautions had to be made, Giovanni Zatara decides privately, after receiving the report from his scout. When it came to his daughter, he prefers to do everything himself, but his present circumstances do not allow enough room for that sort of paternal indulgence. It chafes him, but nobody would ever determine that by looking at his face, ever the inveterate sophisticate, never one to let anyone see him bleed or perturbed.

But he is very much so, the fact that his daughter's signature keeps appearing and disappearing within his ridiculously vast, internal magical radar does not sit well with him, though he attempts to bury those twinges of anxiety with everything he has. To take a sip, just a little, has been an urge that has grown nigh-near overwhelming in the last few months, but he resists because he knows it is the last thing he needs. Like everyone else in his acquaintance, he has promises to keep - not just to Zatanna, but to Bruce Wayne, the boy he knew transformed into the Bat of Gotham.

That was another regret; he wonders whether he has done the boy a favor or doomed him to a life of suffering, teaching him what he did, but as a father, he has learned a long time ago that children ought to be allowed to make their own choices and learn from their own mistakes. When it comes to his own daughter, however, no matter how insistently every logical bone in his body screams at him to remember this, there are circumstances in which he simply /has/ to intervene, and John Constantine was one such circumstance. Anyone with a child would understand.

At the very least, the prevailing months and what has happened to him have dulled the edges of that sharp, ice-cold temper. Karma has a way of balancing the scales, and for all that he has done for the world, he is not exempt from that rule.

John would sense another rush as reality warps, bends and splits in the middle, somewhere behind him. /This/ signature, he would know very well, like the back of his hand. Oxfords and dress slacks step out from a world beyond this one, his usual magician's dress eschewed in favor of a nondescript charcoal-black longcoat and a red scarf. The top hat, though, is distinct to him, and he still wears gloves, a set of fingers curled over a cane.

He is exhausted, but signs of such linger in the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes and nowhere else.

He picks up a purposeful stride towards the man sitting on the edge of the pier.

—-

Magicians of a certain caliber are a peculiar group.

Novitiate mages are extremely social, searching, networking, reaching out, trying to find silk-thin threads of connection with something that has only teased itself, and with other people like them: they number one in hundreds of thousands. They are clawing for the truth, searching for answers, for doorways that lead further into those hallways of mystery.

Above them are those who've had time to wander those halls, open a few doors and — if they are lucky — close them again, only somewhat scarred for having dared. This crowd is infinitely smaller. The cullings between one degree and the next are vast. Most die. Of those who don't, many embrace sense and turn their backs on a world made of what seems like nothing but teeth, escaping the meat grinder at the last moment, at the low price of only a lifetime of nightmares. The ones who remain in spite of everything become secretive, private. Paranoid. They trust little that they see to be true, trust those around them even less. They network because they must to survive, but they view everyone as equally likely to kill them as to help, and this is why they've made it as far as they have. They know as little about one another as possible, share as little as possible.

It is a thing of exceptional rarity to emerge beyond that into the sphere that Giovanni and John inhabit. There are scant handfuls of magicians like them, each one with a story unique to themselves, their lives full of the impossible, the incomprehensible. All of them have been touched by Fate in some way, or had contact with things beyond the understanding of mortal men. They are exceptional because their purpose is beyond their control, and in some way or other — some more elegantly than others — they have somehow risen to those challenges, and lived on.

For them, the cloistered secrecy and paranoia might remain, but it's buried beneath other things, other instincts. They have transcended it entirely. They know one another because they have no other choice. Fate throws them together, braids them up. They are intimate in that way, and after living such lives as they live, they accept the peril of that with greater equanimity, because there is no time or energy for anything else.

There can be no question that John knows, the very moment that zephyrs of energy stir behind him, who it is that has come calling. It's written in even the smallest tilt of his head to one side, so minute that anyone other than Giovanni would fail to see it at all.

His back expands with the long breath he draws, frozen in time. The emptiness inside of him trembles, threatening to fill with emotion, but the emotions are too large to all fill him at once, and as he hasn't decided on which one it is, for the time being that emptiness remains a void teetering on a razor's edge.

He does not turn around. Held in limbo, he waits silently for whatever is coming.

—-

There are few people in the world who know with considerable detail as to what Giovanni Zatara has done and continues to do for it, and they were all women, one of whom is no longer in the land of the living.

Or so he thinks.

Sindella had come into his life at his prime but before her there had been another, a seer without peer, and while what the two of them had something unique even for the likes of their kind, it wasn't meant to last; she had seen his future and was so distraught by it that she refused to go beyond what they already had. Still, her very nature allowed her to be privy to those details, on top of what they already shared. To Zatanna, he has imparted those stories willingly, not just out of the desire to reclaim some of the adoration he lost in that one rainy, ill-advised night in Paris but because she had to know the extent of the risks the likes of them bring to those around them, though he suspects that particular lesson has yet to fully sink into his headstrong child.

By contrast, while Constantine wouldn't know all of it, he knows most of it - the boy was one of the three he had decided to teach, third in line to the throne of his many secrets, and after him, he had refused to do so for anyone else, no matter how many potentials had threatened to break his door down for a glimpse of his expertise. It went beyond selective, bolstered by his inner sense that guided him towards those who would always cause the most and effective ripples over the world's fabric. He, after all, was one such one, his birth and circumstance orchestrated and manipulated well beyond the date when he was actually born; whole centuries, relationships, were tugged, shaped and set on fire /just/ to create him and plant him here.

His steps take him to the side of John, though it's nothing too close, a distance of a couple of feet, his bold, pale profile cutting the dark underneath the brim of his top hat, his breath escaping him in tortured wisps. He is as tall as John remembers; lean and lanky, as far as physiques go, he was hardly the superhero type.

But tired, and depleted.

Turning sideways, he extends a gloved hand down to John, not to help him up but…

"May I see it?"

It isn't a demand, but a request.

"What she gave you."

—-

The only thing keeping tension out of John's lean frame is the certainty that Giovanni didn't come here explicitly to hurt him. Had he wanted to he would've led off with it. It might be polite for lesser magicians to converse politely before a formal duel, but there wasn't any room for that sort of thing with the likes of them: it was jugular first or oblivion. Or worse.

Still, some microscopic steel thread of it needles its way into John and up through the hollow center of his spinal column when he's asked — politely — to willingly hand Giovanni the only part of Zatanna he thinks he has left, aside from the memories that have been keeping him up at night. There is a very real resistance to doing that, a visceral rejection of the idea. What's to stop the man from walking off with it, the way he walked away from his own daughter? The way he walked off and left John hamstrung?

Eyes the color of a deepening sky tilt down to view the literal reflection of the same in the slate-brown water below. He doesn't know what Giovanni wants. He doesn't know why he's here. And sometimes, in life — as in magic — you simply don't know. All you can do is choose. The difficult thing is that in both cases, the risk-to-reward ratio can be anything but straightforward. And yet, undeniably, if you never try the key in the lock to see if it works, you'll never know if the door would have opened.

/What the hell,/ John thinks, the thought weary and numb. Why worry about one more mortal wound? You can only kill a thing so many times.

…well. Usually.

So he stirs enough to slide his hand into the inside pocket of his coat on the left side, retrieve the pretty little gleaming thing she gave him, and hold it up. He doesn't look to the side, or up. He aims his squint out at the horizon, and at the ship he was supposed to be on, its lights beginning to radiate warmth into the blue of dusk. Still docked. Still preparing to depart.

—-

A gloved hand reaches down and plucks the lighter from John's grip; it's a light gesture, and one barely felt, as appropriate for one of the greatest masters of sleight of hand this world has ever seen. Peeling lambskin off his left palm, he closes his fingers around the metallic, gleaming object, feeling cold iron bite into the center of his palm, the way Winter wicks around the heat left behind by John's pockets. Giovanni's expression is unreadable as he tumbles it over his fingers, examining his daughter's handiwork with the sharp scrutiny of a teacher; for a moment, there's no paternal pride there. Zatanna is quick to tell anyone that her father heaps her readily with affection, but she never tells anyone about the other side of him - the other person that lurks under the elegant veneer, the often cruel taskmaster and harsh critic. He was hard on his students, but always the hardest on his own flesh-and-blood, not out of cruelty, but simply because out of all three of them, he wanted her to survive the longest.

His thumb rolls over the sigils, brows furrowing faintly at what he sees - most of these engravings are unfamiliar, even when bringing his extensive knowledge of the arcane to bear. These inventions are new, knowing better than anyone else just how creative his child could actually be and even he doesn't know what half of these things do; that's definitely saying something.

The fact that it isn't a ward, though, is a glaring one. He would have expected, given his daughter's very nature, that she would want to leave him something to protect and defend him against the things that tend to follow him. For all that he wasn't happy about it, John held a unique place in her life, one that he shares; he'd be lying if he claimed he didn't feel some twinge of jealousy there.

He hands the lighter back to Constantine, depositing it back into his fingers.

"I had to be certain," he continues. "She keeps appearing and disappearing, and it makes her difficult to track. I thought I finally had a chance to ascertain her condition when her presence lingered here, but it is…." The pause is hardly detected, but there is one. "…dangerous." Well, it usually is for the likes of them, but the slight fumble is curious. "Instead, I found you along with a piece of her."

He replaces his glove back on his left hand, tucking it in his pocket.

"What are you doing here, John?"

—-

He gives it back.

John takes it and makes it disappear, the way that he does, quickly enough that it betrays some of the reluctance he was so careful not to show in handing it over in the first place. It settles back into the inner pocket, a weight against his chest to mirror the other one there, intangible.

The quiet tenor of the meeting has kept any of his visceral feelings from cracking him open like a crowbar to fill the hole left by other things, so he continues to persist in that state of /pending/, hanging suspended like Damocles' sword. It takes Giovanni asking him that last question for him to finally turn his head and tilt it enough to angle an eye at the man's gloved hand. That small movement is just a flake of snow at the top of a mountain, setting off a slow but expanding avalanche: he plants his hands on the grit of the seawall, draws one foot up. Slowly rises, straightens his spine, pushes his shoulders back until something between them pops, and quarter-turns to look at the man whose face has seemed to change so little since they first met over a decade ago. He's never been able to decide if that's because Giovanni aged early, or if he's remained young. Not that it matters.

"An' here I thought you came here to /gloat/," he hears himself saying. "About how that little spell of yours finally did the work it was meant to do." More words line up: hard words. Words with pain in them.

Time seems to slow to a stop for John in that moment: tiny flakes of snow, promising a heavy snowfall in the hours to come, drifting to a halt in the flash-frozen air, light gliding on waves sliding to a stop like fish caught in ice.

He has a choice he can make, here. He can unleash the fullness of his fury on Zatara, bite back at the man who bit him, and Christ does he want to do that. Make him bleed. Twist the knife. He knows he could, too, because Zatanna is in trouble, and Giovanni is impervious to many things — but not to that. John knows that altogether too well.

Or…

Or he could throw that on the pyre, too, and set the whole thing on fire, sending 2016 off into the past with a full salute of fuck-yous, even to himself. Maybe especially to himself. It means wrapping his hands around his hurt and pulling them in. Not pulling the knife out to put it into someone else, but getting bloody hands on the hilt and slitting himself open stem to stern.

Maybe it's the day. On any other day, he might've done things differently. He's angry and wounded, a cornered animal, and they like to bite. But something about the day…

His shoulders visibly fall. He lets go of everything he was going to say.

There isn't any accusation in it, no weariness, no anger, no sadness, no— no anything. Just John. Just the truth. Maybe he can do this one thing right.

"Where've you been, Giovanni? 'tanna needs you. You being gone is eatin' her up."

—-

He thinks he came to gloat.

Remembrance of the summer's tiff - more like an angry confrontation than anything - ripples over the older man's tired, but cool exterior; the tic that manifests on his cheek, situated above the high arch, betrays emotion simmering underneath. It was never easy to resist the way John manages to antagonize everyone around him just by being himself, but compounding it with a very sensitive issue for the both of them is yet another forest fire waiting to happen, something fiery and out of control on the horizon, unable to be quenched by whatever experience or long-suffering maturity he could muster.

As the boy rises to his feet and turns to him, he does the same. His feet plant astride, though he doesn't take his hands away from his pockets, ice-blue eyes - pale enough to straddle the fine line between striking and unsettling, identical to Zatanna's - fix on the Englishman when he finally deigns to answer him directly. He scents the frustration, the anger, and sorrow, too, so much of it. The emotions he associates with John tend to gravitate around the summer when he /dared/, but he knows the boy's history and how checkered, how chaotic, how disastrous and tragic it truly is.

It should make him more sympathetic. But this involves his daughter, and there are certain promises that he made that continues to hang over his own head.

He lets it wash over him, and his former protege would see that he isn't completely unaffected. "You of all people know what follows you," he begins, his jaw hardening under his mustache. "Know what you do when things get too messy for your liking. You know, and I know, and my daughter knows, and you also know as well as I do that despite that, it matters little or none to her."

His voice rises, a decibel or two; there's only one topic that could bring that much passion out of him. "It brings me /no joy/ to cause her pain, and none to cause /you/ any, either, no matter what you must think of me now. It was not as if I had no inkling as to where you stood with all of it and despite what it looks, I did not exact these measures because of a lack of faith in your ability to make her happy, or to even reciprocate a fraction of what she felt for you." In fact, these are precisely the reasons why he placed the hex on him in the first place.

"I knew, even if /you/ did not at the time."

But he did it anyway. That is the galling part, the complicated part.

After a heavy silence, Giovanni sighs, his mouth twitching faintly. "Was I supposed to simply step aside, knowing what I know? About the both of you? She is all I have, John."

He turns his body to look out at the pier and for just a moment, his eyes fixing on a distant point and his expression reflecting much of it.

"It was selfish," he remarks, admitting that much, his voice regaining its usual level tenor. "Some part of me feared the kind of bloody pieces I would have had to pick up myself, once it reached its inevitable destruction. I did the only thing I could, the one thing I am best at." To head disaster off the pass before it could truly start.

"That is not to say I do not know what it is like, especially now. I miss her too, John. More than I can bear. Karma, it seems, has deemed it necessary to balance out the scales for meddling in your happiness by placing me in the same position as you."

He angles a single eye over his shoulder at him at that.

"That is why I have been gone, trying to fix my own condition and repel the /thing/ that has caused it, the thing that has been trying to enter our world for months with every intent to cause a significant amount of disaster, lured by machinations rooted here. Machinations that I am certain have already jostled your own radar. If I could have even breathed the same air as her, I would have. Nothing would have been able to stop me from being there when she needs me. But I am afraid that possibility is extremely removed from me, now."

—-

Truths, all of them. They would usually rankle, but the last week has been a gauntlet of facing up to those things. Which isn't to say that they don't hurt — they do — but they hurt for different reasons. Here is a man who has lived through the same sorts of suffering as John, the pains of loss for no reason other than that one is what they are, a thing that cannot be helped; a man John respects — for a time idolized, to the point of hero-worship, in the span between his childhood and his adulthood — and knowing that, he still condemned John to these /shackles/, taking advantage of a patchy reputation to sever something that brought him a temporary comfort.

Knowing why it was done, understanding it, sympathizing, even acknowledging that in Giovanni's shoes he would've done the same thing…that only goes so far when it comes to mitigating that feeling of betrayal. Irrational, yes. But very much like magic, emotions often are. The lack of logic does not give John pause in the least.

So it's an old kind of pain, too worn in to really get to him in this rare state of balance.

No, what gets him is when Giovanni says, 'she's all I have, John.' It causes a twitch in his expression, brows tightening around a chip between them. He has to look away a moment to keep hold of whatever neutral buoyancy he's achieved, still poised so precariously over a chasm containing too many things waiting to eat him alive…and if they get him, they're coming for Giovanni next.

That's the stance he listens from. The stance in which he finds out why his mentor has disappeared so suddenly from the life of his daughter.

All he can do is stare, struck absolutely /dumb/. Stare and be silent, try to process that, try to—

And then he ducks his head and…

It's not a laugh. Not really. It's a short sound that contains exhausted grief. But it's…it's just too much. He isn't taking any bitter, spiteful joy from this revelation, and that would be plentifully clear. But John Constantine finds the nature of reality to be nonsense fraught with absurd suffering, and sometimes all he can do is laugh, aghast, even while the blood runs.

"Christ," he says quietly.

Swallows.

Lifts his head, looks into the eyes that cut him up a little bit. "An' I would love to be there for her, mate, but for some reason she can't bring herself to trust a man who just up an' walked out on her without any explanation, who can't even tell her why, four months after the fact. And the trouble she's in? 'tanna's bright, don't get me wrong, and she's good. And she'll only get better. But I've got ten years of experience on her, and in her shoes, even /I/ would be asking for help. Except…at this point, the two people who were supposed to be there for her, show her the way forward, they've both gone an' fucked off, haven't they? No forwarding address. So now she doesn't even want to /take/ my help, because she doesn't know if she can trust it not to disappear out from under her again. So now she thinks she's got to do it all on her own, because she can't rely on anybody else. I can't even blame her. That's the worst bit."

Almost the worst bit.

John lifts one elegant hand, lets it fall, expressing his loss for words. He cuts a look out over the water at the cruise liner, passengers all in a line queued up to ascend the gangplanks on either end.

"I'm not pretending I'm perfect. Bugger me, I'm not even going to act like I'm a good man. But with everything coming, don't you think…maybe…there are things out there that might be worse for her than I am?" He sounds helpless more than anything else, slightly adrift. Uncommonly vulnerable, which plays into his next act, which is to look back at his former mentor, lift both of his hands slightly away from his sides, palms up. In that moment he looks very much like the boy that Giovanni once took under his severe, exacting wing — the boy with the drunk father, the broken home, the poverty, the dream of something else. "An' she's not all you have, Giovanni. You have me. You /had/ me."

—-

Admitting the fact with so little words, that Giovanni, too, is suffering a curse that prevents him from even being in the same space as his daughter, is a fact so galling that it actually remains visible on the older man's face for the moment, knowing that circumstances have put him in a similar position in which he had banished John Constantine. It tightens every line on his face, the hummingbird pulse at the side of his throat ticking away, something hooked and barbed clinging to the back of his craw. The dumbfounded look on the man's face, and knowing what is to follow, has the aged magician looking away for the time being; there's a hint of relaxation returning, the cable coils of tension loosening faintly to allow him some reprieve from it. Giovanni Zatara has a healthy respect for equity, for balance in all things. If anything, the gesture is almost permissive, allowing one he so wounded to revel in whatever satisfaction that brings him.

He expects a laugh, but he gets a sound that's more agonized and exhausted than he expects. It constricts over his ribcage, some deadly, overlarge snake threatening to squeeze his tired old bones out of his wrinkled skin, jaws opening to swallow him whole. For a brief moment, he closes his eyes and savors it, acknowledges it for what it is - guilt, contrition, and a bit of relief that the world still has the capacity to punish those who do wrong against another.

John doesn't make it easier as he demonstrates just how well he knows the only person in this world that he unconditionally loves, the consequences rolling out under his feet, a carpet detailing the ripple effects of a single action and how much they affect the people that occupied his very small circle of intimates. He doesn't acknowledge the fact that the Englishman has a point; John knows very well when he is right and it makes little difference whether he confirms it.

Exhaustion weighs further into his bones and for a moment, just a moment, he reflects what he sees in the man before him - the boy he pushed and pressed, with the same, signature gestures that had stuck with him from childhood to adulthood. For a while, he says nothing, his weighty stare falling on his former pupil and his lips set in a tight line.

That was also accurate. There are worse things out there for Zatanna than John Constantine.

But just because he gives him several understandable reasons as to why he placed the hex on him doesn't mean that he gave him all of them.

'I've seen your death, Giovanni,' Xanadu's voice, quiet, husky, laced with the blatant exoticism of her heritage, whispers past the cobwebs of a distant memory. 'And I can't, my love, I can't.'

'My visions always come true.'

The faintest, most imperceptible smile pulls at the corners of the older man's mouth, laden with acknowledgement of the final truth that the boy gives him, stricken with the knowledge of his ultimate destiny and who will bring him there. It is not every day that Giovanni looks paternal, though other things burden this expression; there is sorrow, the heavy, savage, brutal kind that only a man who knows what's coming could carry, but determination also. Because he was right; he had him, John Constantine. He had him and he knows that had there not been cracks and chasms that impeded his progress, he would follow Giovanni Zatara into the breach.

He is many things, but he prizes his role as a father above all else and this is a boy that he has taught, raised into his secrets. For all of his eccentricities and flaws, he has one very important thing that he always looks for in any protege; the willingness to do what is necessary, no matter how much it hurts.

But that has a price, a grave one. One that the likes of him and John, and even Bruce, pay over and over again.

And as a father, he could not countenance it, if he continued having John Constantine. The boy has suffered enough.

That was selfish too, he decides. To do what he does, and not explain. Some part of him wonders whether this stems out of a certain reluctance to accept his final fate, that if he manages to tear apart these connections before they even began, he could spare the ones closest to him from the heartbreaking misery of losing him and what - /who/ - ultimately causes it.

But maybe no matter what he does, it will all come to pass, anyway. He has never feared death, a trait he and his daughter share, but unlike her, he has developed the history and experience to fear what would happen to those he leaves behind when they lose him.

"What do you want from me then, John?" he asks instead.

—-

Of all of the things he sees in his opposite, this man who was in many ways, as they are both silently contemplating, a surrogate father for John — not a replacement for a parent, but as near a thing as John would ever have — it's the small smile that ever-so-briefly appears that confuses John most. He cannot fathom where it comes from, what it means. He doesn't try. His own internal responses to things already make little enough sense to the people around him who haven't experienced what he has, and Giovanni has decades more of that kind of life under his belt. He may as well be an emotional cipher. John is already a maze at twenty-eight, but Giovanni has evolved into a labyrinth.

It's the smile he's thinking about, though, when the older man asks him that question.

Lots of things, of course. He wants a lot of things. Another man, aware of the power at Zatara's disposal, might rush to fill that silence with the litany, knowing that most of his wishes could be granted.

John has slightly more experience with the danger of wanting, and he spends a cautious few moments weighing his words.

"Let me help her. And then let me help /you/."

Contained within those things are numerous other conditions, of course. Things that would have to happen to even make such a thing possible. For his part, John only elaborates about one of them, because it is the most immediate: "Let me tell her the truth, for god's sake. At this point I don't know if that'll even matter, but you know how it is with me. Things don't happen to me by accident. I— do you know, I didn't come here for 'tanna? I had no idea she was here at all. I came here because of— " He lifts his hand, the narrow band of his watch gleaming around the bones of his wrist in the bright lights that have cut on in the growing dim. "— all of the noise. Yeah? This tide of…whatever. I land and buy a newspaper, and she's on the front page of the crime section. Gotham Gazette. Alright? I know what you wanted and I…" Hesitating, he forces himself to confess to his own personal failings. "…I know /why/. And sure, I'm angry, but I get it. I wish I'd had a da who gave enough a shite about me to go to those lengths to keep me well out of it. But what you want — hell, what any of us want, I don't think it /matters/, mate. Fate's not done with us. I don't know why, or what we're supposed to be, or do, or…I don't know. But until that's done, the Wheel's just going to keep throwing us at each other and everybody's going to come away with broken bones, every time, unless something changes. At least, if it's all going to go wrong, let it go wrong for the right reasons." A beat, a small sigh. He looks out at the dwindling queue, boarding the cruise vessel. "Or wrong-er, anyway."

—-

That lightning-blue stare feels like a ton of bricks as John mulls over his response, but Giovanni knows it isn't really necessary. Constantine knows how carefully he ought to tread, when he's asking the man before him for things. It was his very first lesson, after all, so many years ago, levied in the after-party signing of one of his shows.

When he finally imparts his conditions, there's barely a change on the older magician, his shoulders rising and falling at every breath, his placid exhalations steaming the air and drifting past his face like smoke. Somewhere in the distance, he hears it, the horn of the cruise ship signalling its departure from the harbor.

A gloved hand emerges from his pocket, fingers sweeping to the side, gestured in conjunction with a whispered word - backwards, always backwards, but too low for the Englishman to hear from where he stands. The other man's latent magical senses would feel something within him shift, move, like a multitude of switches and levers calibrating to introduce a new function in the overall framework of the spell that prevents John Constantine from saying everything he needs, wants, to say to the woman neither of them could be with at the present moment. They click, they twist, tremors of sensation climbing up John's ribcage and playing over his bones like mallets to a xylophone until finally, finally, they lock into place again, the resounding, final echo of the modified hex pulsing at the back of his skull.

The weight remains, but its nature has changed.

Giovanni turns at that, tucking his hand back in his pocket as he starts moving up the docks, though he pauses in his steps to look over his shoulder at his former student, his expression hidden by the angle of his collar and the angle of his top hat, the edges of one side of his mustache and a single eye, the aquiline shape of his nose, the only visible aspects under the fitful light of the evening.

"You may tell her that I owe her an explanation as to what transpired between the both of you," he says. "And that once my own conundrum has reached a resolution that she and I can discuss it. You can be as uncharitable as you like - the fault is mine, after all. Place the onus in her hands to weigh your words and believe you, if she has the heart for it, as she needs to learn that it takes two people to mend a rift. You cannot be the only one doing the work, after all."

That single eye squints.

"But the rest of it stays," he says with a grunt, picking up his steps as he flicks a hand in an arc before him, reality splitting once more to provide him an entryway to wherever he has been spending all of his time. "I /am/ still her father, John. I am not an idiot."

Adjusting his hat, he takes a step into the rift, angling another look over his shoulder at him.

"Once things have settled here, we can talk about the possibility of your assistance with my predicament." He pauses. "I suspect my current problem is just one of many loosely interconnected ones that you and I and others will have to brave either separately or together, so some coordination is imperative. I…"

Fire. It licks at his face, eats at his clothes, melts at his flesh until it peels away layers of muscle to reveal the bones underneath, spreading, intensifying, the stench of burning skin and boiling fat in the air, leaving nothing but greasy ashes…

"…I will keep in touch."

With that, he steps further into the dimensional crack, the line sealing shut behind him.

—-

John's pulse quickens to the sensation of magic being worked on him. It's everything he can do — now, just as it was then, when it was first applied — to restrain his instinctual urge to fight back against it. He could have, and he knows that Giovanni knows that. It might have been enough to resist the hex. It might have twisted it, had it apply only in part, and therefore have produced some even more unbearable result. But it hadn't been the risk of souring Giovanni's magic that had restrained him all of those months ago — it had been part of his debt to a man he owes more than he has been able in his time to repay. And a courtesy, perhaps — the same reason he hasn't looked into a means to dispel it himself. Respect, of a kind. Grudging, angry, but nevertheless.

He can feel it worming its way through him, something foreign, but something foreign that he's grown accustomed to the shape of. The changes make it new again. He will be aware of it for days.

But it's something, at least.

Not the giddy relief he expected. Maybe he's been too emptied out to feel that now. If anything, there's something almost daunting about the prospect of trying to broach the subject now, something intimidating and dangerous, but nevertheless: a small mercy. Whether for good or ill, he ought to be grateful, and dredges up something like that. His nod is barely visible as he ducks his head, the mist that he exhales in a long breath far easier to see.

Something about John sharpens when they come to the matter of /Giovanni's/ predicament, however. He lifts his head and watches with honing focus, eyes slightly narrowed at the small wedge that his old mentor even allows him to see of his face. /Dirty pool,/ is what he thinks, though he can hardly criticize.

"Do that. I mean it," John says, striving for firmness, as the spectre of the world-famous figure is eliminated in the most grotesque of all possible ways.

The waterfront returns to its urban silence, which is not really silence at all. The cruise ship blares a horn, finally begins to pull away from the dock. And for whatever reason everything comes crashing down on him then. All of it, every last bit of, from his complicated feelings about Giovanni to his even more complicated feelings about Zatanna, his friction with Chas, the tension in his meeting with Ritchie, his guilt over involving Jane Foster in his schemes; the sick wrath he feels about Muller, the helplessness to fix any of it.

It knocks the breath out of him, a massive rogue wave of things held at bay by Zatara's presence, suddenly rushing in. He catches a sound alarmingly like the start of something saturated with grief in his throat and covers his mouth with a hand, closes his eyes.

It passes. Eventually. He swallows to clear the knot in his throat, and watches the cruise liner dwindle, recollecting himself.

Eventually he looks down at the watch around his wrist. 10:00pm. If he makes good time, he might be able to set one last thing on fire before the New Year.

It takes him longer than he expects to get a cab.

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