Mistakes Were Made

January 05, 2017:

Zatanna's backup plan has her reappearing in the path of one Chas Chandler as he returns to John Constantine's flat, injured, unconscious and betrayed. As John contemplates notions of vengeance, everything once again up-ends.

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

Characters

NPCs: Chas Chandler

Mentions: Bruce Wayne, Giovanni Zatara

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Chas Chandler couldn't be blamed if he had expected a quiet evening.

John was out at a bar, and Zatanna was out seeing a friend. This guarantees him a few hours of peace and quiet to continue organizing the bunker as a perfectly functional living space. The triumphs shared by the trio in New Year's Eve have carried over in the following days hence, and the three of them have managed to reach some sort of social equilibrium in the flat. It calls to memory the days in which Zatanna was constantly around John, her adoration plain for everyone to see, flitting around with them to dive bars, punk concerts and the hunts that furthered her education in the dark arts in the U.K. They were peaceful days, better days, a bit of a reprieve from John's normally tumultuous life.

He would be out replenishing the groceries, stepping closer to the exit which leads to the bunker, when the usual tumult returns.

Zatanna appears; there's no sound save for the rush of a whispered wind, stirring the snowflakes that fall from the sky. She sprawls directly across Chas' path, his arms laden with paper bags, and she lies there unmoving, her black-clad form stark against the accumulated snow rendering the front steps of the building impossible to see. She has no visible injuries, but there is blood, yes - drops flecking on pristine white, clinging to the index finger of her right hand.

She breathes, deeply, but her repose is not natural - her eyelids look bruised and sore, blue on the edges. Her pallor looks sickly, when she usually radiates a healthy glow.

She has landed on her chest, her cheek leaving a heavy imprint against a snow-covered step. Her blouse's hem slightly lifted, he'd find more blood at the small of her back and upon further investigation, he'd find the letters scratched on her skin, still fresh, still bleeding. They couldn't have been made all too long ago:

CJCYN

John Constantine. New York City.

Backwards, of course.

But the bunker's protections do not allow teleportation /directly/ inside, so the enchantment has deposited her outside instead.

A faint buzzing sound emits from her backpocket, the outline of her smartphone visible.

—-

Chas abandons the groceries entirely, just leaves them on the sidewalk and picks her up off of the ground, lifting her as though she didn't weigh anything at all.

The doors of John's new flat move around the city in accordance with an entirely random schedule; the three static entrances and exits that exist are heavily booby-trapped and masked with illusions. This is one of those three, and she is /lucky/ that Chas was using it, given the availability of the other two options. A whispered word, the presence of a keystone, and Chas' unique biosignature together grant him passage without incident. Long, brisk strides carry him over to the sofa where he hesitates, changes his mind, and reangles himself further toward the back, where the warded cell he helped John build stands empty save for what creature comforts they were able to provide her during her time as its temporary tenant.

That's where he lays her down. He checks her pulse with one hand, then her breath against the inside of his wrist, while his other hand fishes into her back pocket for her phone, pulling it out and glancing the screen. The name on the display is surprising, but he has no idea what kind of trouble she's in, and for all he knows, time is running out to remedy that. He uses her phone to call John.

It rings quite a few times before it's finally answered. "You only ever call me instead of text if I'm in trouble," is how he answers the call.

"You're not in trouble, she is. She just…/appeared/ on the ground outside of your place, John. On the street. Unconscious. You need to get here."

There is no other exchange. The open hissing sound of the line and the vague babble of voices in the background go suddenly dead.

It's fifteen, twenty seconds later that John's footsteps are heard in the main part of the flat. /He/ can set doors up for himself in the walls, but — at least at this juncture of his career — it costs him to do it, another few precious hours of his mortality drained away in the act of piercing a hole through space and time.

During those fifteen or twenty seconds, Chas has been examining her as thoroughly as he's able. He simply stripped her of her shirt entirely after finding that he couldn't raise the sleeve enough to examine the wards on her arm, the speckles of blood on her fingers, and after that he began oh-so-carefully feeling around the curve of her skull for anything that feels…out of place. That's all the time he had to do, even moving quickly, before John's striding through the door, tossing his coat on the floor behind him, outside of the cell. "What've you got."

"I don't know. Not much. Wards are still there. Her pulse seems slow. Maybe drugs? She scratched something into her back. Spell?"

The Englishman radiates efficient, focused intensity, eyes flicked over her, and then — "Support her head." — gently, carefully rolling her over, crouching and leaning to the side to get a furrow-browed look at her back, at the scratches there, puffy and red.

"Whatever it was, she knew it was coming," he says distractedly. "Alright, lower her back down. I've got something for this."

It's not /fun/, what he has. She is not going to enjoy it. But it will work.

"Watch her. Yell if anything changes."

Chas nods, and does so. He gets one of her slender hands in his, and rubs as though he were trying to improve her circulation. He's good in a crisis, Chas: calm, for the most part, though his brows are knit and his eyes are worried.

John is rifling through things in the main part of the flat, and hissing oaths under his breath as he struggles to find what he needs in the remaining boxes yet to be sorted while everything is under construction.

When he returns, he has several things: a polished-smooth wooden box made of something like ebony, an armload of towels a bucket, a washcloth. The bucket has water in it that steams just enough to suggest it's on the hotter end of tolerably warm.

He sets it down with a thunk beside the bed — his bed, jesus, he'll be in the market for a new mattress after this — and drops the towels more or less on her legs in a pile. "Get some of those under her, and the other ones on top. Shoes and jeans off. You can leave her unders."

Chas does not question, he acts. There isn't any discomfort in stripping her down to her underwear: this is a medical emergency, and the man has a daughter. He's as quick as he can be while still being careful with her, having to shift her weight around in order to slide towels out beneath her and spread them, and then wrap the others overtop.

While he does this, John kneels on one knee near her shoulder, flips open the box lid. Deft hands do fast work: he tears open a single-use alcohol swab packet, turns her arm over and cleans the inside of her elbow, tossing the used pad on the floor. From within the box he pulls a length of surgical tubing, wrapping it about one of her arms, tying it off — a junkie's tourniquet, really. There are several in the box, and one of these he uses to roughly tie her hair back, with Chas' help to lift her head.

Then the syringe. Then the bottle of slightly luminescing liquid in the clear bottle, the drawing of it, the focused search for a vein.

"This is not going to be fun for her," he tells Chas. "But we don't know what it is, so I'm going with the nuclear option. Be ready to hold her down if it's necessary."

The injection.

It is one of the purest substances in creation, what he's injecting into her body: pure in every way. So pure, in fact, that it rejects the presence of anything else. All toxins. All drugs. Everything /impure/. /Everything./ And it does this the way that a magnet repels its opposite polarity: via the most expedient route possible.

In the case of human tissue, this is the skin. And when John pulls that tourniquet away — as he does, now — and that liquid courses through her, she is going to get a purging the scope and depths of which dip down to the very bedrock of her soul.

He's only just gotten things straightened out. He is not going to take any chances.

—-

There's no twitch, not a groan, not a sound. If John was anticipating a violent reaction, he doesn't get it - which may or may not ameliorate some of his and Chas' worries.

But even for a mage, Zatanna Zatara wasn't exactly normal, while the arcane mysteries that she calls her own are different from his, they are nevertheless unique, possessing a soul of such potent, pure magic that it may very well be that she is already inured to this sort of thing, as she has lived with it her entire life. Much of her origins are a mystery to her, and once again, this is a secret that Giovanni keeps close to his chest; he has told nobody else, not even his own daughter - perhaps the risks are greater than the reward that would follow if the young woman knew to what extent she could drive herself.

Or others. Other sorcerors, other mages.

But at the moment, pale, wan and unconscious, she looks regrettably ordinary, her vitality drained away by the multitude of pharmaceuticals in her system. Stripped to her underwear, her mystical fortress is plain to see, glowing blue have for the missing strip on her inner wrist, it hasn't depleted during her time out. There is at least that, her own magical defenses are still holding, no matter how deep into unconsciousness she is.

She did, however, use magic.

It clings to her; there had been a fight, which is all the more confusing considering what has felled her, ultimately, are the compounds in her system, and not some mystical attack. Wisps and strains of it tickle John senses, picking at notes half-remembered. Whatever it was, it wasn't….their usual brand of sorcery. It doesn't feel like from Heaven, or Hell, or Limbo. It feels completely and utterly otherworldly.

She doesn't move when distilled Purity floods her veins, rushing through it like hot magma, burning away all traces of the cocktail that Bruce Wayne had forcibly shoved into her. There's a twitch of her fingers, once or twice, in reaction, and her breathing relaxes, separates itself from the drugged haze; it's lighter now, and natural. Her usual vitality pushes up from underneath her skin and even in the fitful half-light in the cell, she looks downright luminous.

Physically, she'll be fine.

But she remains asleep. It could be exhaustion, it could be shock. It could be all manner of things, but emotional toils have always weighed on her the heaviest, unsurprising for someone who goes through life the way she does, with her reckless voyages across unstable battlefields that so often mark human interactions. Whatever happened, it hurt her deeply, after weeks of suffering the same.

And so she remains in torpor, for at least a couple of hours.

—-

Every last foulness in her body, whether the drugs or the natural byproducts of living in the modern world, already present, will come out of her pores. Everywhere. It is a messy business, magic or not. That is what the bucket and cloth are for: for clearing it away. It's a mercy that she remains unconscious — that process is painful, nauseating — though it leaves John uneasy.

He and Chas both attend to clearing the drops of purged ichor from her skin as they appear, and the towels beneath her do the rest. When it finally does stop, he chucks the washcloths into the bucket and instructs Chas to dump it.

She should be awake. It should have happened differently. It should have been a sudden tear into consciousness, an overflowing of things violently pressed from within to without. It was not. And perhaps that owes itself to some native state of purity brought on by what she is or what she contains, but the very difference of it, even if it seems less traumatic, makes him wonder if he hasn't missed something important.

Eventually, they clear the towels away and replace them with a sheet and a heavier blanket. She seems stable, better, but she's still unconscious.

Chas eventually feels the crisis has passed enough to go check for the groceries on the slim chance that they might still be there — they aren't — and then tells John he's going out to get more, but he won't be going far. John tells him it's fine; that if this doesn't work, he isn't sure what more he can do.

He sits down beside her, leans forward, braces his elbows on his knees, and settles in for his long vigil, contemplating the spidering cracks in the superficial surface of the cell's concrete floor.

—-

Her foray back into the waking world is a gentle thing.

It starts with a shift, her heavy head turning into the sheets underneath her, the strong waft of chemicals stinging her nose - aftereffects from what her pores expended just a couple of hours ago. Her lashes flutter, her eyes roll behind closed lids, and her body twists fitfully against the sheets. It isn't a nightmare, she doesn't moan, but her body remembers the last few minutes it had suffered before it was felled by something…

Human.

Human hands, human fingers. The juncture where her neck meets her shoulder throbs in remembrance. She jerks upwards on the bed, her hand on her throat, her bleary eyes swimming with fuzzy images and it's dim, and dark, and it's the darkness that makes her remember.

She was in a network of caverns and she had just shattered some shoddy spellwork, only to uncover something more intimidating underneath. Glowing, green light, and something in the darkness. And she had sent it….somewhere…

Zatanna swings her bare legs over the edge of the bed, blindly groping for support. Disoriented, confused, her default mode is still /movement/, no matter the physical toll, ever restless. But this is how she has been taught to survive, unable to keep lying down for long unless she has to. The fog clears quickly, however, given the juice pumping through her system and familiarity returns to her when she gives it a chance.

She knows this place; it smells familiar, looks familiar, and there's a body sitting next to the bed.

"John…"

She lifts a hand, scrubbing into the side of her face, wiping at her eyes. "Am I dreaming?" she asks him. "Did I make it?"

—-

It is a long wait for John.

He has a lot of time in that silence to think, and none of his thoughts are good. It reminds him too much of another long night spent at the bedside of someone he cared about, holding his hand and listening to him scream until there was so little of him left that John could not understand how he could scream at all, or what he was screaming /with/. That had been more harrowing, the more violent of the two bedside watches by far, but the roil of emotions is not so distantly different.

After everything. After everything they went through to get to this point. All of her suffering. He remembers the look of incandescent, vital /joy/ she felt as she stumbled half-drunk on power into his flat, book in her arms. /I did it,/ she'd said, glowing. Proud of herself. Rightly so, John thinks.

And now this.

It could /be/ the end, for all he knows. The mystery of it eats away at him as he sits there, eroding some of the equilibrium he regained over the last week. Without knowing more—

All he can do is wait.

His head snaps up the moment she moves, and as she extends hands outward, searching for something by which to orient herself, he finds them with gentle care. Something explosive in his chest decompresses. The relief is so intense that for a moment he feels dizzy with it, as though he'd lost a pint of blood.

"Yeah, love. It's me. You made it. Take it easy."

—-

Bigger, rougher hands find her own and the solid, real weight of them is almost enough for her to reorient her focus. Those large, expressive eyes find him, one side of his face soaking up the warm, orange light from the flat's vintage bulbs, his eyes a darkened blue and his expression spent. For a moment, she says nothing; her hands are over-warm within his, though while it hasn't been all that long ago that he's touched her so gently, it feels like something new and fresh every time. Her stare doesn't move away from him to take a look at those points of contact, though, looking at him and almost through him, though it isn't something brought upon by some manner of delirium - not like what happened in New Year's Eve anyway.

The pieces fall slowly, fragments of a terrible dream manifested in reality. Slowly, but surely, she remembers.

The Hunter Spirit, the cold, buffeting winds of Jotuunheim and the bitter taste of betrayal from someone she trusted and cared about. Going back further and further to the last few minutes she spent in the bunker, and the days before, standing by the window as John confessed his reasons for leaving and her feeble protestations, and youthful assertions that she was a grown woman and what she had almost said to him then.

She was wrong.

That minute, that second, she was wrong.

Her fingers loosen; they leave his hands, but only so she could wrap them around his neck. It's nothing violent, or forceful. It doesn't come from a place of sexual desire, and unlike her usual exuberance, it's a gentle, tender thing that enables her to slip her fingers over the shorter strands at the back of his neck, just above the collar, her chin resting on his shoulder and her tortured eyes staring upwards towards the ceiling.

"John," she utters, the single syllable heavy with heartbreak, her eyes closing. "Oh god, John."

She feels it rise, the urge to cry; she struggles with it, this is one too many times already, and what just happened doesn't deserve her grief.

—-

He waits, with a patience born almost entirely of experience. He can see her traveling some distance within herself, the sheen of softness that tells him she is simultaneously sitting there with him and somewhere else, as well. If there were drugs involved, or blows to the head, she might be trying to piece together fragments of what happened to her, and John needs her to do that so that he can find out who it is that has just risen to occupy the second position on his list of people to Deal With. If it were not for the time constraints on solving the question of who it is that has her blood, they'd have gone straight to the very top.

So he's quiet.

And then she comes back to him, and what she brings with her is not the information he's waiting for, the fiery report, the leap to action against someone who /dared/ to transgress against her — he's used to that from her — but the sound of grief, lodged somewhere deep.

It turns something over in his stomach. The list of things that could've happened to leave her sounding shattered that way isn't long. Not even for Zatanna, who feels things more, he thinks, than most.

She leans in, delicate with her embrace, and he folds her in against him, every bit as careful. As though she were made of glass, which she most assuredly is not. Shapes familiar: his arms know where to brace her, his hands know where to settle, old and unconscious memory, habit from happier times. He secures her there and aims the intensity of his gaze over her shoulder beneath slightly knitted brows, expression sliding toward apprehension.

One of those hands passes lightly down from the back of her head over the spill of her hair, slowly untangling strands with infinite patience, gathering errant locks and folding them into the whole. Slow strokes meant to soothe, and fill the span of time during which he has no idea what to say, afraid to push her into whatever it is that she's struggling against.

And wondering, all the while, what the hell happened that led to /this/. That even could have led to this. Wondering, and worrying that it may be something he doesn't want to know.

—-

She was wrong.

She was so wrong.

Her bottom lip tenses in an effort to keep it from trembling and she tilts her face into his shoulder in an effort to quench the way her eyes sting with misery. Tremors, small, minute, slip down her spine and his gentle treatment serves only to intensify them. Even now, she feels a touch of guilt, putting him through this - John was never comfortable with openly demonstrating emotion, and were Chas here, she might have had the presence of mind to subject him to this instead. With Chas, she could unload. With Chas, she could wallow and drown herself in the torments she has opened herself up to, knowing that his paternal instincts would take over and he would know the right things to say. And she wouldn't feel at all guilty about it.

But to assume that John isn't capable of caring is one of the major reasons why the weeks past have gone the way they did, she remembers the sting of that particular lesson very well. So as quick as that sensation visits her, it vanishes almost as quickly. But she doesn't sob, though he can feel the urge. It tightens her body against his, the urge to brace the floodgates tight.

Deep down, Zatanna can't help but wonder when it all became so wrong - that in a span of just a few short days, the man who left her - forced to leave her - had been the only one of the three closest connections she has that /hasn't/ betrayed her in the ways that matter.

So quietly, softly, her eyes opening to fix on the point past his shoulder, she tells him.

She tells him everything.

She tells him about her father's history with Bruce Wayne - how he had walked back into their lives, twenty-three, still young, wanting to learn from the Great Zatara. How Giovanni had been a struggling alcoholic at the time and how the two men have managed to pull each other out of the pits of their grief, connected by the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. How their families enjoyed a close friendship over the years, but somewhat estranged, when Giovanni took her to Europe at ten years of age - six years before she met John.

They had been estranged for eight years when Zatanna came walking back in his life, and he pledged everything he had access to in order to help find her father. And he had been there ever since - a benefactor, a friend. She tells him about the son he lost, and the promise she made to his butler, another old friend of her father's, a tight-knit circle forged among Gotham's elite, to be there. And how she agreed, because it is the very least she could do.

She tells him about the texts and his worries. She had come to see him in person, to assure him that he had nothing to worry about and that she was fine.

And then…

It becomes more and more difficult, her quiet voice thickens in every syllable. How she felt unstable magic, and how it felt like a bomb. How she feigned her excuses so she could go and investigate, what she found behind the clock and how she fought. How she confronted her friend and benefactor and asked for the honesty she has managed to provide him despite the risks to herself, despite everything else.

And he had…

"I knew," she finishes, tired again, quiet again.

"I carved the spell on my back just in case. I went up. I hoped…I hoped, John. Instead, I…"

The blocked strike. The look in his eyes. /Remorseless/. /Unfeeling./

"I was so wrong, John," she finishes in a whisper. "Oh god, I was so wrong."

—-

She tightens her hold on him, and he answers that in kind, careful but present.

And silent.

He tilts his head just a little when she begins to tell her story, a better angle for his ear with her chin resting on his shoulder, and his gaze tracks off through the shadows of the cell into the warmth of the main room, though they see little of what's there. They're unfocused as he paints the mental pictures she describes for him, and in spite of himself, in spite of everything — his still-present anger, a tiny pinpoint of diamond-hard heat; the way she sounds as though she's in mourning; the thought of Chas finding her laying virtually face-down on a sidewalk in the middle of the street, in the cold — he's interested in what she says. Old stories about Giovanni, about her family. Pieces of her, and pieces of a mentor who gave only those parts of himself he felt necessary.

The interest loses much of its character of curiosity as he hears her begin to circle the focal point of her pain. He can hear it in her voice, strains of suffering that tarnish this otherwise silver, spritely thing in his life.

Bruce Wayne did this.

Bruce Wayne.

Did this.

/But why?/ Because she discovered his home had a secret passage? That he'd been dabbling in magic? Given the history she outlines it seems so outlandishly extreme.

The answer, of course, is that the man has something to hide. What that thing is, John does not know, and at least in this moment, he doesn't particularly care. What he cares about is the way her voice is shredded down to a final whisper as she outlines this latest betrayal, another abandonment. And he has been so, so careful the way he holds her, trying with everything in himself to be supportive, calming. Striving for that.

But it gets him, finally. It gets him. All of her self-confidence, a practical conflagration of it, guttering because someone abused what she'd given them. The way he had, hexes notwithstanding.

The pressure of his fingertips increases. Just a little. Just enough. The anger senses an opening and flares like a flame doused with gasoline, shortening his breath.

He turns his head just enough to speak quietly into the drifts of dark hair between them. "I'm sorry." His crown settles on an angle against the side of her head. "I'm sorry, 'tanna."

There is a long silence. Long enough for that creeping tongue of fire to work its way up his spinal column and catch in his brain stem. In that moment, he understands a little fragment of the man he now knows is Bucky Barnes, with his icy, remote eyes and his pitiless offers of violence. His voice drops, pitched to little more than a whisper edged with ghosts of sound, a secret spoken close to the shell of her ear, in strands of tress like ink.

"Do you want me to do something about him?"

—-

The most vengeful parts of her wants to say yes.

John, above anyone else in her life outside of her father, knows that it exists. The passionate aspects of Zatanna Zatara aren't just confined to the softer emotions of love, and pain; sadness, happiness. When she gets angry, it's akin to witnessing a volcanic explosion, or an asteroid crashing into a livable planet, and that same bluster, that same white-hot fire, overtakes her when she is faced with something that she must conquer. That tendency extends to her people, those she calls her own, fuzzy half-remembered fragments of the occasional bar fights when someone /dares/ to touch him or Chas in a manner she doesn't like. She is capable of tearing into someone with her bare hands when necessary, no magic spells needed, though while he knows, she had never given him the full story as to where it comes from - always another time, not so forthcoming about her own family history, or what her father is like behind closed doors.

She wants to. She wants to ask. Fire and lightning coruscate down her spine and he can practically scent the fact that she wants to. Oh, god, she really wants to.

Those dark lashes shutter when he whispers the offer in her ear and she's reminded of those who have dealt with the infernal. Not to say that John was the Devil, though he could be, but certain rules apply - to use magic to avenge an act of violence has serious repercussions. And while Fate favors John Constantine, she doesn't know if she wants to take that chance just because she is so desperate to salvage what remains of her already tattered heart.

With what she had done, what she had carved on her own back, so quickly, like instinct, to return here for shelter, only solidifies, bolsters, strengthens the decision she makes. It's a choice. She knows it's the right one.

But it takes her a long time to make it; time enough to consider all the loopholes.

Finally, when she speaks, he would feel her shake her head.

"No," she tells him quietly. "Things may work differently around you, but I don't want to chance it. Not now, not after everything else we've been through. I can't risk it. I can't risk you."

The only thing that could override that reckless, insurmountable temper.

Her grip on him tightens, her eyes squeezing shut.

She was so wrong. She was so wrong about /everything./

"I still care," she continues, after a long, heady, drawn out silence. "I never stopped. I still love you, John."

—-

Everything is condensed down to a humming filament of exquisite tension for the time during which she deliberates with herself. He is absolutely motionless save the minute rise and fall of his chest when he breathes, and perhaps the steady thud of his heart.

John Constantine has never asked for permission in his entire turbulent life. He does not ask because he's her attack dog, waiting on a leash to be turned loose on the things that cause her pain. He asks because he wants to do it, but there are lines even John won't cross. This family has history with Giovanni. Whatever his personal grievances — and they are now /legion/ — there is enough respect in him for the older magician that he's willing to give her the opportunity to stay his hand.

But oh, if she had said yes, and given him her blessing: how much sweeter the reprisal would have been.

He accepts her final decision, silent and committed, though it does little to quell the twisting core of his displeasure.

And then—

And then everything upends. As usual.

His insides are blood, shadow and fire, dark things with edges, his ribcage a furnace fueled by all of his myriad sufferings in the last several weeks, and the knowledge of how close he may have come to seeing more of it. What might have been lost. And then she gets her fingers into it, some tiny fissure in his sternum he didn't realize was there, and pries him open at the last moment he could ever possibly have expected that to happen.

Lips part. Time locks.

All of the air in the world is replaced with a vacuum he can't draw another breath from. Standing amidst the bonfires, ashes and embers of his wrath, his wits are not with him, and he takes that simple confession straight to the heart, without any recourse to weight it first.

He believes her. He wants to believe her. He assembles something like a thought, and questions whether or not he can believe it, because she's emotional, she was drugged, because she's vulnerable and feeling abandoned and he's been here. So what if she's wrong? What if she only thinks that's true because everything else has been so painful by comparison?

And the injection he gave her—

There's a whisper of cloth as his arms loosen their hold on her, hands slid to her shoulders.

"When you turned up with something in you we weren't sure what it was, so I…" Hesitation. "I gave you an injection. Potent stuff. Tears of the Host, love."

Because it could be that, too. The grief of an angel is rare beyond most mortal imaginings, and to capture it, bottle it, a nearly impossible feat. The concentration of it, of innocent and unconditional love..

Ever-so-slowly, he encourages her to allow some trickle of space to pour in between them — just enough that he can get a look at her. See her face. Her eyes. See the way she's looking at him. Something, anything.

He needs to be sure, he thinks. Because he can't afford to believe that, and then have it turn out to have been something else entirely. "You…you've been through a lot. You don't want to say something like that, wake up tomorrow and…" Regret it? Change your mind? Realize it was a mistake?

It doesn't matter how he'd have finished the sentence. She'll understand what he means.

Might understand the racing of his heart. Might understand the way he's looking at one side of her chin, rather than up at her, in spite of his best intentions, uncertain as to exactly what it is that he's going to see there. And he's still got the dart of it in him, the part that slipped through when he was dwelling on vengeance, and he hasn't quite been able to extract it. Those words. They stick. He cannot quite convince himself not to believe her.

—-

She is too weary to resist it, when his hands slip over her shoulders, to pull back just a little so he could see her face. She moves like something boneless, swaying at his whims, an instrument waiting to be plucked by commanding fingers. Zatanna doesn't fight it, when curiosity, self-preservation, excitement, fright or all of the above propel him to plant a scant distance just so he could look at her eyes and gauge what's there. And when he does, when he does, he would find it familiar.

She was never the sort to be shy; being bashful is anathema to the way she lives her life, boldly, recklessly, the first to try new things, the first to jump off the cliff, just to say that she had done it. She would swing on ropes between buildings, fall free out of a plane, and bull into another person's life once she decides that he or she is worth it, bringing with her that same, bright vitality that matches the molten core of that magical supernova inside her. She was free with her heart, always has been, willing to carve her own chest open for people to take a look at it, to hold for their own or stab and eviscerate it at will. And while the hurts tarnish it, it always manages to regain its luster, somehow.

She had been seventeen when she first told him the words, and when she said them, she looked him right in the eye and smiled. He didn't believe her then, and while one could easily assume that she said it repeatedly at that age, she never had. She only said it when she meant it - when she was happy, when she was sad, when she was worried. These occasions are fewer than one would think, coming from Zatanna, but these sentiments were only conveyed when she felt that she had to.

This wasn't the first time she had said them in their latest iteration, either, with 'still' after the I. He would remember it, right after she seduced him in a rash plan to settle what she thought was something unresolved between herself and her first love before she finally moved on with her life. That plan never quite achieved the results that she was aiming for, but she embraced his trap with the eagerness of a young woman who always threw herself body and soul into something, or someone, worthwhile.

Maybe he didn't believe her then, either.

But she looks him right in the eye and even after everything, what she has told him, what she has endured, she smiles at him. It's nothing like that reckless, wild grin from a year before, having endured and suffered so much in the last few months. Experience chips at that more innocent ghost.

"Oh, John…" Longing. A hint of exasperation.

"Four months later and nothing's changed."

—-

It's not something he can understand. That fearlessness. The vulnerability, the openness. That is anathema to /him/ — and for good reason. Many good reasons. By the time he was her age he'd already destroyed more than one life. Already damned an innocent child to hell through his own hubris. Once he'd started, he hadn't /stopped/, either. People just kept drifting into his life and being pasted by his circumstances. Not even his time in Ravenscar had been able to put the pieces back together again, and in many cases those periods of hospitalization had actively made things worse, for reasons he has never discussed with anyone. Ever.

Before Newcastle, his life had been urban poverty, a father who resented him, violence. He was once molested in a car, hitchhiking to London. Sort of. And that man had ended up, entirely by accident in the scuffle that followed his advances, with a straight razor blade buried in his face.

Tragedy after mishap after failure after loss.

She smiles and he can't understand it. She says those words like they're easy to say. Like the name of a thing isn't the essence of it, and speaking it doesn't make it vulnerable to Fate's many cruelties. Hearing them, being on the receiving end of them…

In the dim, he shakes his head just slightly. One hand lifts, a cradle of fingers, thumb hovering uncertainly near her cheek, her jaw; the other slips back down the line of her back to the small of it. Raised, swollen skin reads like braille beneath his fingertips where she carved a spell into her own back. They wander, tracing out the letters as he tries to come to grips with himself.

Him. His name.

She came to him.

Blue eyes darkened by the pocket of shadow in the cell drip down her features, settling on the curve of her smile, and his thumb finds its purpose there, a ghostly touch that traces the place the flushed rose of her mouth meets the pale white of her skin. He can taste her breath when he inhales to speak.

"Everything's changed."

Sometimes you have to lose a thing to understand what it was.

CONTINUED...

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