Recovery Mode

December 31, 2016:

After his discussion with Giovanni Zatara, John Constantine wastes no time seeking out Zatanna Zatara, and not just to update her on her father's status, and the two manage to make amends that run the risk of further complications later. As usual.

John Constantine's Magical Bunker - Brooklyn - New York City

It's John Constantine's extra-dimensional space in Brooklyn.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bruce Wayne, Dr. Jane Foster, Giovanni Zatara

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

The first thing she did in the late afternoon before the New Year was go back to Marty's Cameras and Lenses to put in the order she failed to request the day before, and not one to let a challenge lie, looked Marty in the eye and asked him if he was 'special,' one of those individuals that take up the limbo between the purely mystical and the ordinary, given his sudden and inexplicable affinity for glass and the quality of his work.

The answer she got was tremendously surprising, not in the least because she got one at all.

Before that, however…

Ugh, she thinks, remembering the empty tubs of Baskin Robbins Rocky Road that she had left in her open cell, scattered among the papers and books that she had left there, the fruits of her own research and experimentations scratched down on every sheet. The rate in which she consumed them had been downright /embarrassing/, though thankfully Chas had said absolutely nothing, nor did he even look remotely judgmental (he knows better, she supposes, unless he wanted to be subjected to yet another one of her crying fits). All he had asked her the entire time, really, was if she wanted another spoon when she accidentally melted hers in one of her trials.

Which meant, really, spending the entire day moving around New York, using her own two feet to get to everywhere she needs to be - to Starbucks, the park, Queens. It has been a long time since she's gone on what amounts to an all day run.

The brisk exercise helped, whipped color back in her cheeks as adrenaline scoured through her veins and elevated her breathing. Anything to burn off the calories, motivated by the very feminine desire not to expand her own waistline and somehow not fit in the black evening dress waiting for her in Shadowcrest - the result of a laborious, but exhilarating battle against Bruce Wayne's personal wardrobe professional, Cressley Carson. It was a much needed distraction that filled the hollow space within her chest, though it also came with it the petulant realization that nobody but her would appreciate her wearing it, anyway.

By the time she hits the block in which John Constantine's magical bunker stands, her feet are aching, her body suffused with the glorious, physical fatigue only a workout can provide. The chill of the weather is a welcome brush on her heated skin, evaporating the sheen of sweat stubbornly clinging to her skin and hair, damp tendrils kept away from her face by a careless ponytail and clad in lululemon workout gear - yoga pants, a longsleeved shirt, sneakers, all in black, of course.

She has a water bottle in her hand when she finally spots the building, taking a swig, her feet taking on a quick walk instead of her faster steps from hours earlier, her mind mulling over the other items on her self-care list; grab her things, pop back over to Shadowcrest for a long, hot soak in the bath and get ready for the prom, so to speak.

She feels it still, the ache, insistent enough to bleed from the corners taken up by other more immediate, sensory concerns. But the last few days have only encouraged her to carry it forward. She dwells, certainly, her passionate nature can't help it, but it hardly ever makes her useless or unable to function. It is pain, and while she doesn't look like much, she can handle it better than most.

—-

For an hour, John has been sitting outside of the bunker's temporary entrance and exit, fixed in space while he's been…away. Sitting. Smoking. Thinking.

There's still snow in the air. More now than there was when he was standing on the pier with Giovanni, an ever-increasing rate of it, promising a hell of a night for anyone who decides they want to try getting to their New Year's Eve bash in a vehicle…but then, tonight in New York is always a nightmare, it's just varying degrees of the same. The threat of white sidewalks is no match for the denizens of this metropolis, though. There men in tuxedos, drunken frat boys stomping by with heavy boots. There are countless women in high heels, most with hemlines so short that by the time they've disappeared from sight, even John feels he ought to have at least asked them for a name, because getting to know them the other way 'round doesn't seem right.

He only half sees any of it, and when he does it's a quiet voice arguing for one side of his ongoing debate: does he do this, unburden himself, set the record straight, and potentially cause even more harm than he's already done? Or does he let things go? Does he walk off into the city as it loses its mind, drown himself in golden bubbles, deafen himself with the sound of cheap plastic and cardboard horns, and bury all of his sorrows deep in someone whose name he would most definitely have no plans whatsoever to remember?

The glittering hedony appeals. It always does. But the fires are already burning, and there's just this last thing, this last piece of him, held over from a year that has been crueller than it has been kind. He doesn't want to take it with him.

He draws a short breath to calm the single heavy thud of his heart — just one pounding beat, one beat fueled by adrenaline — that follows his decision, sliding his hand into his pocket and thumbing on the screen for his phone. Sliding the screen over to the text messages. Wondering how the hell to start that conversation. Maybe he could just text Chas. Tell Chas he'd seen Zatara. She'd find /him/ then. He wouldn't have to initiate any—

Or he could suddenly sense her coming straight up the sidewalk toward him, a candelabra lit and burning in the darkness of mundanity around them.

He lifts his head. He thought he'd be ready, that there wasn't anything left in that pain to surprise him, but he was wrong. Crystallized anxiety and injury lance down through his chest into his stomach.

He doesn't bother getting up. He's sitting right next to the door. This is happening.

—-

Threads of magic distinct to him crash into her senses the closer she gets to the building and the wave of fresh hurt it brings threatens to take her breath away, stopping in her tracks and letting those she had left behind on the snowy ground fill up with the white, icy motes falling from the sky. Somewhere within her sternum, her heart leaps, crashes into tired bones, as if sensing what's to come and throwing every effort in for a one last ditch attempt to stage a jailbreak and flee, and leave her chest open to welcome the Winter cold in its place.

It occurs simultaneously; she doesn't have time to turn her heel and head in the other direction when she sees the figure sitting by the door, the familiar fair-haired head lifting and knowing that she was there.

For a while, nobody moves as snow fills the distance. Caught offguard as she is, Zatanna's face runs through an entire gauntlet of expressions - surprise, shock, disbelief being the most prominent of these, warring with those bubbling from the cast iron cauldron in her stomach. Guilt is most potent, twisted along with the vestiges of her white-hot anger, sorrow.

And relief. It swells in her chest, painfully expanding her lungs. There are few who know the lengths John would go through to put himself back together again and seeing him whole almost makes up for everything.

Almost, almost.

Swallowing, putting a concentrated effort in pushing down the rock that has somehow wedged itself in her windpipe, she moves forward. Panic rises, filling her brain with the sound of a disturbed hive, thousands of bees stirring in her skull. It makes her jittery, nervous energy vibrating from the tips of her fingers, over her wrists and up her arms, climbing the full length of her spine. But her feet don't pause from her stride and the closer she becomes, the more determined she gets.

She doesn't stop until she's directly in front of him, her ice-blue eyes moving over his face, her own inscrutable save for the traces of understandable exhaustion.

There's a glance at the door, though it isn't long until she's looking at him headlong again.

"All new low tonight," she tells him. "They're saying around eight degrees. You should probably come inside."

She pauses.

"I was just about to grab my things." If it helps, though she doesn't say the words out loud. "I can be out of your hair in a few minutes, that way you and Chas could…"

Her voice trails off. The implication is there, that assumption that he was there to see Chas. But if that had been true, he would have gone inside already.

The line of her mouth softens, her lashes lowering over her eyes.

"I'm…" She draws it out, feeling her fingers clamp tighter into her water bottle. "I'm glad you didn't leave. I felt sick, how we left things the last time. I didn't know what to do, when you were suddenly just….here….again."

—-

The span of moments during which she just stands there, remote and impossible, seem to go on forever. He's made his decision, but she gets to have hers, as well, and god knows they haven't always made the same choices. It's a verdict he will accept, but for the time it takes her to deliberate he feels like a defendant, everything in his life suspended until she renders.

And does.

A cloud of white breath leaves him all at once, the only visible sign of the breath he had been holding. When it becomes clear she's going to keep closing in he does finally rise, slowly, reaching his full height only as she draws to a halt. Close like that, every inch of him feels like a magnet within the event horizon of its opposite polarity, held back from seeking to meet that opposite only by some outside force, all invisible pull.

Always brave, always willing to throw herself body and soul into the crucible of emotional exchange, she is the first to speak. And she continues to speak as he stands there, looking, able only to distractedly start to shake his head when she implies that he's come back to see /Chas/ — which, yes, but, /no/ —

Only she gets that. Of course.

He's silent because he has no idea how to begin. Eyes like cut stones sweep and slash over the small tics and movements of her features. She is excruciating.

Finally, he finds the right words to begin with: "I'm sorry."

The words are rough, heavy little pebbles, coarse. A few moments later, he manages to find a few more, and all the while this is happening he is fighting tooth and nail to wear an expression without faults in it. Does a good job of that. It's too bad that he can't do much about the roiling fabric of energy around his person. "Can I…can we talk? There's something important."

Doubt encroaches. Even for John. "I won't — it won't take long and you can get your things, if that's what you need to do, but just…if you would hear me out. Just…for a minute." The request is delicate, tentative. It sounds strange even to him: he expects, he demands. He assumes. That is how he crashes his way through his existence, and that of others; how he /dares/. But this?

/By her leave/, and that only.

—-

"I'm sorry."

Her lips form the words simultaneously with him, but while the sentiments are the same, the way their voices carve out the syllables contrast sharply. Hers is a breathless rush, pushed out and left flying in the space between them as recklessly as per the young woman's nature, regardless of whether it would be accepted, or if it would simply open yet another circle of fresh hell that they've not explored with one another just yet. She says it easily because she means it, has wanted to say it since the last day, and the moment the words leave her lips she feels most of the weight she's carrying burn away with the frozen wind. It isn't to say that it doesn't hurt, it does, but the acknowledgment of her guilt, her complicity to the mess they left behind, puts to rest the skeletons rattling in her conscience.

It takes her a few seconds to realize that he had just opened their reunion with the same words and for a moment, Zatanna stares at him wordlessly, mouth parting. Snowfall clings on the lower curve, glittering as it melts.

A minute, just a minute.

Uncertainty seizes her, then, brief but for a solid minute, she feels it - it is uncharacteristic, for someone who has always thrown herself off the edge with her arms spread, freefalling and uncaring of the hurts waiting for her below. In a way, it's a confirmation of a kind, of just how badly their last conversation had gone.

But as always, it doesn't last. She gives him a small nod, taking a few steps so she could open the door and they could descend back into John's flat in Brooklyn….and the traces of gluttony she left behind.

She bites back a groan, crossing the floor quickly so she could snatch up the tubs and dump them in the nearby trashcan. "What happened?" she asks him, dusting off her hands and retrieving a bottle of whiskey from the cupboard as well as a pair of glasses.

—-

For John, it isn't his apology that eases the iron bindings around the ribs — it's hers. And strangely, it isn't because she's sorry, but because if she can say that, if she can /be/ sorry, then maybe there's something still left in all of this worth salvaging. For her to be sorry is for her to by definition still care, and that, more than anything else, makes it feel as though he has more room in his lungs.

He puts it to good use, hauling in a deep breath and squinting up at the sky while she opens the door. The moon is visible only in fleeting glimpses between the frost-heavy clouds.

Salt and ice grit under his feet as he turns to follow her inside, to whatever is waiting for them at the end of what he's come here to do.

It takes him a moment to strip out of his coat and hang it up near the door. His earlier adventures with Jane Foster left a mark: she'd slammed on the brakes and peeled across two lanes of traffic to fix him with a furious stare, and the seat belt had been unkind to the shoulder the Empusa had so unceremoniously skewered. He flexes and rolls that shoulder very slightly to consult with his aches and pains. Tender, but not terrible.

By the time he turns around she's cleared the floor, but he catches her in time to see her dump them in the trash, and in spite of himself and all of the uncertainty about what will happen, the corner of his mouth ticks upward on one side. Not much. Just a little.

Gone by the time he's slowly seating himself on the sofa, already grateful that she's bringing the glasses to participate in the conversation. He's going to need it.

Shit — maybe both of them will.

He has the sense to wait until she's put the glasses down on the table before he answers her. "Three hours ago, your da paid me a visit."

—-

Even if they somehow didn't need the whiskey, and she suspects they will, by virtue of personal experience, it was still nice to be prepared.

Zatanna ditches her shoes by the door, padding with socked feet over to the sofa. Whatever trepidation there is as to what manner of new complications that brought him here now, manifests only in her eyes, but otherwise she shows the same lack of hesitation as she did outside. She sets the two short glasses down on the table, and unlike the last time they had a drink together, she settles on the couch next to him, pulling her heels up on the cushions and tucking them under her thighs. She never did sit properly, whenever she was in a place she was comfortable enough in to let her hair down; here, it has less to do with him, however, and more with Chas, who spent the last few days making absolutely certain that she has everything she needs.

She pulls the stopper off the bottle, pouring the both of them a double shot each. Her own gets picked up between deft fingers, cradled in no time between her palms. His next words have her turning towards him immediately, the sleeping coils of her temper stirring once more, again - it's around her eyes, that iridescent blue dragon, though for the first time in days, it isn't directed at him. Frustration rolls over her face in an agonized mask.

"Why you?" she asks.

"I'm the one looking for him," she continues exasperatedly, taking a heavy first swallow of her whiskey. "And I'm more than confident that he's smart enough to know that this'll be easier for all of us if he just told us what the hell was going on. God, even a voicemail would be fine….e-mail, a text." Nevermind Giovanni was very much a dinosaur when it comes to modern technology. "/Something/."

It leaves her just a moment, perhaps too exhausted in the end to keep the embers burning for too long. "…is he alright, at least?" she asks quietly, her stare falling into her glass.

—-

All things considered, she takes it better than he expected.

In her shoes, he would be /furious/. Furious and, if he's honest with himself, more than a little hurt. It surprises him that the reaction isn't more explosive, but then she knows her father better than anyone, doesn't she?

"He looked fine," John says after a long moment of deliberation. It isn't clear whether Giovanni is alright, physically or existentially, and John is reluctant to commit to that kind of optimism without full knowledge.

"It was me because…"

/Here we go./

John looks down at the glass in his hand, lifts it to take a long pull of the contents. Not all of it, but half, easily, and then he leans forward to brace his elbows on his knees, glass held in the expressive hands between. He is angled toward her enough for her to see the angled profile of his face rather than only his back or shoulder, but he can't quite bring himself to look at her for what's coming. He directs his focus into his glass.

"Because someone's cast something that makes it impossible for him to be near you. He said he can't even breathe the same air you're breathing. He…" Pause. "He misses you. He would be with you if he could. But he can't."

He swirls the glass in one of his hands, dangling from his fingertips. It inserts enough of a pause for him to separate that from what follows. "I think he expected me to have a laugh about it at his expense, honestly, because…thing is…"

In spite of knowing he'd felt Giovanni alter the hex, a deep part of him, a magician's instinct, rebels against the thought of going any further. He's become so accustomed to the state he was in previously that it takes immense will and trust for him to even begin to start talking around the subject of his sudden departure. Every nerve, every cell, every part of his facial bone structure expects there to be a cataclysmic change.

"Thing /is/," he continues, pushing himself, "He'd done the same thing to me, earlier this year. Only until tonight, there was this added condition that I couldn't say anything about it. Not to you, not to anyone. Unless I wanted consequences. And I didn't. He changed that for me tonight. I asked. So that I could tell you. And before…"

He thins his lips into a hard line, lifts his head to look out across the expanse of the room, the angle of him cutting shadows across the place his adam's apple is suddenly visible. "Before I say anything else, I'm just going to say I don't want you to think I believe this is going to just…fix everything. Alright? Whatever the reasons, I know what you went through when I just disappeared that way, and for you I don't know if the reasons have to matter. You still got burned. None of this is going to change that. I'm not an idiot. I know that. I don't…I'm not expecting you to just forget that it ever happened. But."

He ducks his head again, tilts it over to the side, listening to his pulse thump along in his chest. Given how on-edge his nerves are, he thinks he's doing remarkably well, keeping his voice quiet like this. Level.

"But. I wanted to you to know. I didn't choose to leave. I had no choice. And I'm sorry I didn't tell you. Maybe I should've, hex or not. I didn't, though. And all of this…shit…all of this fighting, arguing…I wish it hadn't happened. It wasn't what I wanted, coming back."

It begins as a brief pause as he tries to formulate his next sentences, but on the attempt he discovers that he's not sure he knows what else to say, so a very obviously temporary hesitation turns into a full silence after some moments — a silence he nods into. A small nod, confirming all of those things he's just said, to himself.

It's moments more before he finally chances a slight tilt of his head in her direction, and another moment before the eyes follow, reluctantly gauging whatever is on her face.

—-

She is more hurt than furious, but save for that brief look, she doesn't emote much of it - most of her reserves have been consumed by the strain, or so she thinks, feeling those foundations once more creak and buckle at the additional burden. It slowly overtakes whatever balance she has just reclaimed from her day's run and Zatanna can't help but wonder privately whether she should have elected to remain numb after all.

But she wasn't one to fear emotions, no matter how cutting, how savagely it could make her bleed. Her displeasure is evident, but there is resignation there as well, of a young woman who is very aware that when Giovanni Zatara does something, it's for a good reason and once again, circumstances prove her right. But she doesn't waver from looking at the side of his profile as he talks about her father, allowing herself some semblance of relief that he is alright and that he is still alive…

Until he tells her about the curse.

She turns towards John fully at that, her frustrated expression falling away to something more urgent. "Did he say who cast it? What kind of curse is it?" she asks; at least some uncertainty is exorcised and there is relief there too, albeit on the verge of being swallowed up by a rising panic. "Where is he going now? Does he have any idea where to start? What about— "

Her litany of questions would have continued; John would realize in the middle that this is what she thinks, that he had come because her father had a message that he couldn't deliver himself because it had been rendered impossible. Later, she'll allow the urge to sob, to dispense with some of her accumulated misery that her father had not returned because he wanted to abandon her, but because he can't. And knowing him, he's trying to fix it.

Fiery determination surges within her; he'd be able to see it in her eyes, on her face, how her body practically bursts with her usual vitality - Zatanna Zatara was always at her best when there is something nigh-near insurmountable to conquer.

And then he veers off to…

The change is almost immediate. Her face scrunches up in confusion when he opens with…..how he doesn't expect this to change anything.

What?

As the rest of it tumbles forth, blood drains out of her face, her fingers frozen on her glass. Her heart lurches, does a devastating freefall into her stomach to get lost in the abyss of her bowels, to live out the rest of its life swimming in her own bile. He has scarcely gotten to the part when he says that he didn't want to leave when her face turns away from him, her disbelieving eyes staring at the far wall. The shaking starts, unsure whether she'd be able to contain it.

"John…" she begins helplessly. "Wait, I…"

I don't think I'm ready to hear this.

It is what she wants to say, but much like John Constantine so many months ago, she has no choice. Emotion bubbles into her throat, threatening to suffocate her in its throes. Before she knows it herself, she stands up, nearly dropping her glass, draining the rest of it in hard swallow before she leaves it forgotten in her grip. Her body seized by the desire to preserve itself, she finds herself crossing the space towards the nearest window; even now, her usual moxie doesn't allow her to leave the room.

Trembling fingers reach out to grab the handle, pulling it open and letting cold air pour into her lungs.

She says nothing, not yet. Once again, once again, she doesn't know what to do. Doesn't know what to say.

Except what he expects, perhaps.

"…why…?" she chokes; her voice is small, young, pulled down by confusion. "…he's never…I've had…you can't…it's not true…"

But there's no conviction behind it.

Because she remembers; thanks to the journey into Muller's horror maze, the memory is all the more fresh, as if it occurred yesterday instead of so many years ago. Giovanni's mask of impotent rage, the bottles on the table, the kiss of jagged glass as it cut her cheek. Her father spent his entire life hence making it up to her for that one incident, there is nothing he wouldn't do, no road he wouldn't cross, no lengths he wouldn't go, to keep her safe.

"John, no…" she continues, it's almost a whimper. "It can't…no…"

The walls close in, threatening to crush her, crush everything as the words they've exchanged come flooding back in full blast, screaming from her memories, pushing her down, holding her head under the water as she drowns in it. Guilt, for having blamed him all this time. Betrayal, from a man who is desperate to reclaim whatever love he lost in Paris, who always thought he knew what was best for her.

She tilts her head back and closes her eyes.

—-

This is not something that John wants to watch. He's not at his best with emotional women, even when he's emotional himself — though to be fair, he's not good with his own emotions, either. The kind of emotional honesty involved in even spelling out for her that he didn't /choose/ to leave is so rare that, if related to the majority of his prior love interests, most of them would flatly refuse to believe he was capable of it. Sitting there, he himself has a hard time believing, but after four months of holding it down, that poison, it had to come out, no matter how uncomfortable it made him to follow through.

So he doesn't want to watch her suffer, some butterfly stuck with another of his pins, but he doesn't allow himself the indulgence of looking away. /This is what you chose./

'Why?' she asks.

He clears his throat, a barely-there sound in the quiet. "Because he loves you, an' he knows what a shit-arse I can be."

She finally comes to a tortured rest in front of a window that doesn't actually look out onto whatever is on the other side of that wall. A flashy little piece of magic, that, but Chas had said he was going to go out of his skull from claustrophobia without a view, and John had conceded that some fresh air would, in fact, be nice. Thus: a window that opens on Elsewhere.

She's the first one to actually use it. For no reason he can immediately identify, that makes him feel something better than everything else he's been feeling.

"Maybe I should've kept it to myself. I thought about it, you know? After he told me. Just letting things go the way they'd gone, the way he wanted. He and I both thought, when he cast it, you know…that would be it. I've a reputation, don't I? Nobody would tell you different, if I upped and left. An' you being…" Young? Impressionable? Passionate? "…you, I think we both imagined you'd forget about all of it soon enough. Find a nice lad at school and, you know…I'm sure he believed I'd shack up with some bird soon enough because I couldn't help myself, and that'd be it. He probably thought…no harm done, eh? Little bit of sufferin' now, less down the line." He does finally tear his eyes away from her silhouette, looking down as he leans back off of one elbow, lifting his glass to his lips. "Still does," is the mutter he makes into the glass.

"But I've done enough things to enough people that I'm not proud of without having to shoulder the blame for something I didn't."

—-

Because he loves you.

"If he loved me, he'd let me make my own decisions," Zatanna says, bitterness crawling all over her aggrieved whispers. "If he loved me, he'd let me make my own mistakes. I'm not exactly afraid when I decide to, am I? I knew what I was getting into with you - he may not believe me. Hell, as far as I know, /you/ don't believe me, but I've never once balked at making a decision, no matter how painful it could be for me in the end. I'm…" She takes a deep breath. "I'm not /flighty/. Nor am I fickle, and when we started, and even the prior year before, I…"

/Loved/ you, John.

The thought slips through the cracks in her muddled brain, resting heavily there. She ought to congratulate herself, for having the courage to admit it even just to herself, to think about the words again, after everything else that has transpired from the moment he returned to the States to the last few nights. But something about it feels wrong, somehow. It sits uncomfortably in the back of her head.

Silently, she glances down at the glass in her hand, contemplating its surface before lowering her arm.

She peruses the landscape outside, takes in the air that's not New York's. Her eyes burn, but once again, she somehow manages to stop the fall of liquid, nevermind that nobody was going to blame her for it now. Taking a slow, deep inhale, she reaches out to close the window back up.

She moves back to the couch, depositing herself on it; the way she does so is almost boneless, and for a moment, her face holds nothing but heartbreak. How many times? How many times will it have to this month, when it's barely been put back together after the first time?

Slowly, she reaches out to take the bottle, pouring another double shot into her own glass.

"…what do we do now, then?" she asks, words worked around the cotton stuffed at the back of her throat.

"Because I don't know what to do, John." Setting her refilled glass aside, she pushes her face between her hands, fingertips slipping through the sweat-drenched tendrils of her midnight bangs. "About my father, about…"

She hesitates.

"Well, I suppose we ought to get him back at some point," she mutters. "So I can personally eviscerate him."

—-

"We'll get him back. He said he would be in touch with me, and that's…something, right? He was open to letting me — and therefore /us/ — help him. It's the best we've got, for now. It has to be. So we just do what we bloody well can until we know more. And you're already doing that."

He's just beginning to think about getting up when she comes back, and he passes his glass off to his other hand, reaching out to set it noiselessly down on the top of the low table.

Leather hisses on cloth as he shifts, his more substantial weight depressing the cushion beside her. He is deliberate and slow, careful, because he doesn't know anymore where the boundaries are. Has…a rough idea. Knows he will know if he comes close to crossing one. And he wouldn't usually dare, wouldn't even chance it, but the look on her face, the relief he feels even in spite of all of the pain he's causing…

How he keeps just tearing her chest open, over and over again, whether he means to or not.

He angles toward her, elbow of the arm closest to her on the plush back of the couch, and lets that hand tilt ever-so-slowly down toward her face, to the strands of hair that cling like drying rivulets of ink to her fair, flushed skin, still luminous with perspiration. The curve of her cheek, down to the delicate point of her chin. Just to touch, to thread fingertips into her hair, thumb along the high line of her cheekbone, beneath those eyes she most assuredly got from her father.

"I missed having you 'round, Zee." There is some regret there, hung in the background of uncommon tenderness.

—-

"I am," Zatanna says with a small sniff, taking another swallow of her whiskey. It helps, feeling the burn; perhaps the more she is exposed to it, the more inured she'll be, but she isn't sure whether that is actually something she wants. She prefers to keep things fresh, whatever is available that lets her feel alive, having learned quite early that Life is only as one makes it and for all evidence to the contrary, she is determined to be happy.

But the lure of business can't come at a better time and she leaps at the chance, letting go of the bloody, tattered muscles of her thrice-gutted heart to seize it with those long determined fingers. She turns her head to face him, her eyes bright and set; he doesn't know about the latest development and now that he's back, willing to make amends, the fact that he didn't /leave/…

"The person we're looking for," she begins. We again, the word soaks warmly into the pool of liquor filling her stomach. "I know someone who /saw/ the last place— "

The cushions shift; Time stops when he reaches out, the rough touch of a working man's fingers slipping through her hair, her skin and setting her nerves on fire. The words fade, their premature death falling through air thick with tension, and as the world stops around her, her mind blows backwards to the summer. Everything aches again, but it's sweeter this time, her pulse throbbing once, insistently, at the hollow of her throat, liquid heat slipping down her chest, pooling somewhere in the base of her abdomen.

It's almost galling, how just one touch can affect her, still.

It's the rarely used name that spurs some reaction out of her, her own hand coming up before she realizes it's even happening, the butterfly touch of her fingertips sliding between the knuckles cupping her face, threading in between digits. Those eyes hood until only slits of those ice-blues remain visible, her face tilted in increments to respond to the heat of his palm, the damp corner of her mouth resting against the fleshy heel.

Finally, finally, there's a smile, muted by all the lacerations that she has suffered, but it touches her eyes.

"Couldn't fathom why you wouldn't," she tells him. "I /am/ pretty great."

Softness, seriousness, the smile fades, sass to agony at the drop of a hat, hinted by just the change of the shape of her mouth. She was always so expressive.

"…John…" she begins, hoarsely, her eyes filling with something else. "…the night you left, I /wanted/ to hurt you. I…"

—-

/That/, he is interested in. Very, very interested in. The person they're looking for. And he has every intention of asking about that.

In…

…In a minute.

Two minutes.

Blue eyes hungry for anything but suffering take in every small nuance of her answer to his touch. To the last and most minute detail they replenish things he'd had little stock of for the last several months, and what little he'd had left had been drained since everything seemed to come apart at the seams. The emptiness, that hollow, a sucking void, and these are just droplets, but they are /something/. They replace numbness with — if not peace, then as close a thing to peace as John is ever permitted. Because he made a choice, and there they are: things are better. Not perfect. Not /fixed/. Just…better.

It's more than he would have let himself hope for, two nights ago.

And more than hope. A lot more than that. Things almost as dangerous.

His eyes slide down from the contact of his thumb to the slow arc of movement that tilts her lips toward his skin. Can feel her breath. His heart cramps around an eager pulse, his next breath shallow — and the one after that, and the next. The entire world reduces itself down to that one point of contact, and the core of him feels like a guitar string being tuned up beyond its tensile strength, and that's when he feels the soft, tingling warning note in his sinuses.

Bitter and sweet, always together.

What she says breaks the spell. None of the rest of him moves, but he finds her eyes, and his crinkle at the corners, glittering with familiar, sharp-eyed humor, his smile small but devilish. "Oh, you're pretty good, yeah. I don't know about /great/…" But it's only teasing. Only a trace of the John that /usually/ is: the one who has to be an ass, who can't help himself.

It doesn't last, though. His expression turns bemused, then fills with rue. He doesn't have to shake his head much for her to see that, this close, and the ghostly contact of his hand becomes something more firm, fingertips arrayed in the delicate curve where her head meets her neck, leveling her focus on him. "Don't do that. Don't do that to yourself. There's no point, is there? It's what it was. But it /was/. It /isn't/, anymore. And it never was what you thought. How can you be blamed, at all?" He hesitates, and then tries for another slight smile, turning his head to look out at her more out of the corner of his eyes. "Unless you still do want to, in which case, let's have it out, shall we?"

—-

I signed up for it.

What did I expect?

I know better, now.

These are words that she has spoken to anyone who ever decided to ask about John Constantine and his status in her life, often illustrated with exasperation and evasion. And while she learns quickly from her mistakes, there is a set of certain ones that she can't help but make time and time again, not because she is headstrong, not because she is foolhardy, or due to her severely handicapped instincts for self-preservation, but because of her curiosity and hope that the next outcome would be different and better than the last.

Because in the end, there are some things worth trying over and over again.

It's just a question of what those things are.

Zatanna's eyes follow the way his stare tracks down to where that small corner of her mouth touches his skin and it unlocks the floodgates, white-hot chemicals screaming through her system, coaxing the staccato beats of her heart to reach a frenzied crescendo within her chest, and blood to roar in her ears. Those humid nights in London, those repressed memories of breathless hours, disastrously yanking at the merciless levers that unleash her passions and no small amount of teenaged hormones.

How long has it been?

The glimpse of the devil in him has her flattening her stare at him in warning, exasperated but good-natured in its understated humor. "Ass," she drawls, but the word draws a grin, splitting the seam of her mouth to give him a glimpse of white against crimson.

His hold shifts and she follows his direction, the tilt of her head taking in the deft pressure his fingers press into that tender hinge. He absolves her of the crime, but the guilt remains and he knows better than anyone else just how powerful that is. It sticks to her bones, not in the least because it /wasn't/ like her to be vindictive. To be so vicious.

"I think I've had it out with you plenty the last few days," she points out dryly, as usual unafraid to address the elephant in the room, though for the time being, it seems to have been banished to the wilderness in favor of the moment. "So no thanks. I'm /exhausted/, John, and I'm certain you can relate. All I want to do is peel out of my sweaty clothes and get in the bath and…"

The hour hits her. She tilts her head back against his fingers, stray wisps of her midnight hair curling on one side of her neck as she /groans/. "Right. I shoulda gone home minutes ago."

Slowly, she slips away, pushing on her feet and scrubbing her face, remnants of his warmth clinging to her cheek and leaving tingles at their wake.

Striding across the room, she retrieves her bag, turning to look at him, gesturing with one hand helplessly…and somewhat awkwardly. "Night's not over for me yet, but when I get back, I'll update you." She inclines her head at him, brows lifting. "Before then, though, I think you should stay out of trouble tonight since I can't guarantee that I'll be able to do the same." She grins again, stage lights on a darkened stage.

"/One/ of us has to be responsible."

—-

She was going to have to go no matter what. It doesn't matter what kind of frisson there may still be — it's not permitted, and John, at least, knows that, even if he hasn't quite gotten around to explaining as much to Zatanna. So he'd known already that the moment would come, but even /so/, as she retreats, and he lets her go — damp hair sliding out and over the rills of his fingers, like black water running through — he feels that empty space fill with cool air, a deluge of unwelcome distance. Necessary, and even wise, probably, but not what he would've chosen, given half a chance.

Ah, well. It's difficult for him to nurture any kind of grudge against Giovanni as yet, still too relieved by the way things have played out to resent the itch that's going to go unscratched as she disappears off to — where? He considers asking, and then thinks better of it. Half of the reason they'd clashed is because he'd pushed too much of himself onto her liberties, and in this state of something nearly like bliss, he decides to try to learn from that mistake.

Whether that will last or not, who can say?

He pivots in the sofa, out of his angle and into a deep recline. "If it's me we're counting on for that," he says, dryly, "We're already in trouble, luv." Humor enough. What follows lack the humor, and the way he says it, it sounds more like a request than an advisement.

"Be careful, will you?"

—-

While the distance is one that is unwelcome to him, to her, it and the excuse to leave is a bit of a relief, despite her urges to the contrary.

Too much has been said, and while she is thankful and grateful, and even /happy/, that they've made amends, or at least reached some kind of accord, she has yet to regroup. A creature of unrepentant passion, she is fully aware of what happens when physicality occurs directly after emotions have been allowed to run wild, unable to trust whether sentiment or instincts have been at play in those last few precious moments.

But Zatanna has learned her lesson well; he claims he missed her presence and this time, she elects to believe him.

What she doesn't trust are her own desires, still fumbling her way to recovery after the beating she has taken in the last few weeks. It is underscored by the warning fear of falling back into her old pattern of blind devotion, using her love as the sole justification for it when, as she's learning so quickly, there may not be anyone out there that deserves such a thing. Certainly not her former lover, and probably not even her father; the news of his betrayal sticks like tar somewhere between her ribs, unprocessed fully as of yet.

Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she wanders over to Constantine, to the back of the armrest in which he reclines. Leaning over him, the length of her careless ponytail brushing over the top of his nose, she smiles.

"I'll be careful if you be good," she tells him, twisting away to head for the door.

"And I'm sure Chas will tell me if you aren't!"

It's definitely a trap.

—-

"That's a shite deal," John murmurs, his closing eyes opening to the tickle on his nose, his head twitched away to the side, but there's the momentary ghost of a grin in spite of himself. He rubs at the itch.

Chas will tell, she says.

"Bollocks. Chas." He hasn't, as it turns out, finished making amends. He'll need another drink before he can pick up the phone for that conversation, but then at least he suspects he won't be drinking alone after that. Maybe they'll even be able to toast in the new year.

"Go on wi'you then," says the man on the sofa, placing one foot on the edge of his own coffee table. "An' I'll deal with the turncoat."

John Constantine is pretty sure that /everything/ about what's happening is, in some way, a trap. But then, isn't it always?

He can think of worse traps to be caught in.

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