Let There Be Light

January 07, 2017:

After his meeting with Giovanni Zatara, and eating a few pages of the Liber Consecratus, John Constantine enlists Zatanna Zatara's help to complete his latest gambit: To construct a compass that will potentially detect Bad Things. But as always, the two get more than they bargained for, resulting in Zatanna's brief flirtation with the end of her existence.

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

Characters

NPCs: Chas Chandler

Mentions: Giovanni Zatara, Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man, Captain America, Jessica Jones

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

By the time John returns to the flat from the waterfront near midtown, he is soaking wet. Not because it's raining. Not because it's snowing. Because he's /sweating/.

Six-hundred-and-seventy-some-odd years of matured magic, given a transfusion of Giovanni's particular brand of the stuff, and John just…ate it.

Chewed it up and swallowed it, and purged the bits that didn't matter.

Now it's wild inside of him, contained within the closed circuit of his body. His body has become a glyph — actually contains one, though no one has the eyes with which to see it — and his journey back to that peculiar bolt-hole of his is progressively more difficult as its effects begin to interact with his innate supernatural characteristics.

Ajna: the sixth chakra, the chakra of the third eye. Indigo in color. This is the section from which he took the pages he needed, and this is the glyph, the color, the essence of what he's consumed, shaped by several particulars unique to those pages, and what it does, as he negotiates public transit and crowds of pedestrians, is blow his third eye /wide open/.

It remains an open question as to whether or not John is…a sensitive. He swears up and down that he isn't, but he can see ghosts, sense nasty psychic emanations from events that have taken place or those soon to take place, and in general he likes to put this down to being 'a clever bastard.' The truth, if there is one, remains his alone to know.

What is /certain/ is that this folding-in of ancient magic has electrified his sixth senses, and he is assailed by a cacophony of sounds, thoughts, images, predictions, all increasing in volume and urgency, until it's difficult for him to find his way through paying for a plastic ring-bound case of sports drinks at the shop on the corner. He pays the wrong amount twice, unable to think his way through the cashier's thoughts—

(must be on drugs, it's like thirty degrees outside, who sweats like that in thirty degree weather, I think he's actually steaming, maybe he's sick, oh fuck me what if it's bird flu or something, I can't afford to get sick, he can't even count the right amount, maybe it's because he's not American but it says the number right on the bills no he's just stupid, definitely sick, shit)

—but he does finally manage, and he shoves his way through the door and down into the bunker, head swirling.

Blessed relief closes in on him as the bubble of wards surrounds him, closing him off from the full blast of the psychic faucet of humanity beyond. He stalks straight from the ladder past the couch, dropping the bottles on it, and all the way to the back, to the bathroom, unbuttoning his soaked shirt. The undershirt is sweated through, too, but by then he's reached the sink and what he wants more than anything is to /brush his teeth/ and get the taste of the book out of his mouth. Blood and ashes. The texture of skin—

He pushes that thought away, feeling his stomach turn over again. Covers his toothbrush with far too much toothpaste and jams it into his mouth, twisting the tap on.

—-

Just a few minutes ago, she was back in Gotham and the scene of the crime, accompanied by one Peter Parker and a photograph that has frozen his mysterious stalker in time. After a whitewashed rush through New York City traffic and heavy snowfall on roads leading out to the city, her mystic eyes managed to follow the image through the suburbs of Albany, ending in a house.

Zatanna steps through the portal she made, from the point in which she and Peter parted ways, though the concerned expression still lingers, memory locked on the look on her friend's face as he vanished in the city's ever-crushing sea of humanity, to get lost in it as an unremarkable speck. She knows better than anyone that Peter is anything but unremarkable, but the confusion and the worry that she remembers before he said goodbye tug on her stomach. This isn't the first time that she's wondered whether their problems are simply just beginning, all the more calling to question whether she was right in involving Peter in the first place.

He got himself involved, she thinks. That is what Spider-Man does. Peter would tell you that, himself.

But the guilt remains, sticking like tar between her ribs. They've confided in one another, but in retrospect, there isn't a lot that she knows about Peter's personal life. It would be arrogant, to just assume that he doesn't have other secrets, no matter how open he is.

She wanders back into the bunker soon after, stripping off her coat and checking the state of her wards on her left arm, rolling up her sleeve to inspect it. More of the luminescent blue-white sigils have faded, baring a patch on her lower arm, spreading from the bare line that keeps her wrist clear. Taking a breath, she tugs the cuff back down and moves further into the flat, checking the 'kitchen' area first. Chas is nowhere in sight.

"John?" she calls, passing the couch, reaching down to pick up one of the bottles that had been scattered on the cushions, furrowing her brows at the presence of the sports drink. What the?

She moves further in, catching movement from the bathroom. Picking up the pace, a hand reaches to curl into the doorframe, peering inside. "I met up with Spidey today," she tells him. "He— "

She doesn't expect to see what she finds in there, a flash of bright but disturbing color and wisps of indigo smoke pouring from his shoulders. She catches the whiff, tastes it in the back of her tongue. John may swear up and down that he isn't sensitive but she most certainly is, rendered as such due to her own mysteries and whatever it is that is locked inside her. Whatever report she is about to make dies on her lips.

"Oh my god!" She can't help it; her eyes go wide and he would see them in the mirror. "John, what did you /do/?!"

—-

He knows she's out there. The minute she comes through the hatchway, he knows. He would've known anyway, even if he hadn't just ingested distilled essence of third eye magic, but it makes the particular flavor of her presence almost overpowering, even over the strong mint of the toothpaste.

He spits, rinses the brush, dips his head, rinses, spits again, and leans to wipe his face on a towel hanging off of a rack freshly bolted to the interior wall.

When he turns, she'll see it in his eyes more than anything: heliotrope flickers, the way occlusions in opals catch the light and strike sparks of different hues.

"Work, love," he says through a cutting smile. He finishes undoing the last two buttons of his shirt and shrugs free of it, tossing it aside. He leans and busses her cheek — that's safe enough — as he slides past her and back into the main room, toward his things, because the undershirt is next to go. Given the slick of perspiration on him, and the heat he leaves behind when he leans in, dry clothes may be a premature decision, but the call to comfort wins out over the burden of an extra load of laundry.

Certain of the tattoos in his flesh leak plum light, though no one without a connection to magic would see it. Symbols down the ditch of his spine, script framing a deep scar on the outside of his left side, just above the hipbone, half-visible above his belt. Others, likely, but he disappears behind the one of the folding screens they've recently put up in order to give everyone slightly more privacy. "Just came from meeting your da. Handed off the book." His voice briefly muffles as he tugs a dry shirt on, emerging again with a hand that rakes back into that tousled crop of brown-blonde hair. That, too, is slightly damp. "And the /letter/." One of his brows creeps upward. "Did you mean him to open it while I was right there? Because if so, we oughta talk about all of that /grandchildren/ business.."

What he contains is driving him on a tidal wave of energy. Speaking, but still moving. Digging into boxes in search of things he's going to need for the next part of this process — to focus this wide-open sensitivity to Everything down to a specific purpose, in a specific way. Halfway through one box he stops, pivots, retreats to the couch and tears one of the bottles of electrolyte drink away from the rest, cracking it open and tilting his head back. He makes a good attempt at draining it all in one go.

—-

'Work, love.'

Zatanna stares at him incredulously as he keeps brushing his teeth and proceeds to do what he can to - what was happening?! Light scores over the sweat-sheen on his skin, indigo smoke continues pouring out of him, and the changes - to anyone else, he would look as if he had just come in from a particularly hard run, but in her veil-piercing stare, she can pick out the ways whatever he did has changed his essence. Whatever well was there, some other potential of John's that hasn't been fully explored, has been crowbarred open, akin to what she had experienced in New Year's Eve, only…

"Well, /yes/, because it's always work," the young magician sputters. "But you /know/ what I— "

He kisses her cheek and wanders off, and she's staring at her own befuddled face in the mirror, the tingle left on her skin and causing sensation to ripple from that one point of contact to the rest of her, anchoring her memories to the ferocious kiss and the loud crack that followed afterward when his face /exploded/. She has yet to fully process what just happened, but the small reminder that things have changed between them /again/ has her grasping mentally to find her footing.

Shaking her head hard, she twists on her heel and follows the wake of frenetic activity the Englishman leaves behind.

"No, wait, you have to /explain/ this!" she protests. "What happened at 'work'? Why is there…you're /too/ open! Are you sure you're stable? Let me take a look, you can't just— "

She's nagging. She knows she is, but she can't help but worry - whatever is clinging to him, whatever's changed him, it's /old/ and she remembers what her father has told her about what Time does to especially powerful magic. She drops on the couch, because she's certainly not going to follow him to the changing screen, frowning mightily in his direction, her brows knitted and her lips slightly pursed in a way that makes her look petulant in the most infuriatingly feminine way.

The comment about grandchildren has her groaning. "The /aim/, you cheeky bastard," she begins. "Was to embarrass him thoroughly and I wanted to make it perfectly clear that his innocent angel hasn't been innocent since forever ago and it was my every intention to stuff that envelope with an overprotective father's worst nightmare, let me /have/ this! And don't change the subject, John."

Seeing him rifle through his things, she rolls her head back and sighs, a look both bemused and exasperated directed at him as he moves for a box, and then changes his mind. His tall, broad-shouldered shadow falls over her as he stops near her to take up one of his bottles.

"What can I do to help?" She rephrases the next question in a more productive way.

She /can be taught/!

She's already half-rising from the couch. "What are you looking for and what do you intend to do now? I mean…" She gestures up and down at him. "Work, right? So let me help, I'm here anyway and the load will be easier if you use me."

—-

He finally has to come up for air, heaving a breath and lowering the bottle, of which perhaps only an inch of liquid remains. His energy bubbles, percolates. It isn't like her overcharge from the night she burned through some small portion of her soul to save Jane Foster, precisely. It's not an overflowing tide of power, unchained and bleeding out of him, but it's something extra, stuffed in alongside everything else, with full run of his body and control over all of his senses: he is a cage for something, for the time being.

It does make him sensitive to every little flutter of emotion in her, every way that the spidersilk of her occult energy drifts and snares the air around her. He can feel it when he gets close to her, like the soft drift of her hair when she bent over him that night, and the tips of her hair tickled his nose.

It must not feel terrible now that he hasn't got an entire metropolis vying for his attention, because it has him in fairly good spirits, all things considered. Better than the last two weeks. He tosses her a careless smile. "That's the problem, innit? Can't let you have it."

As though predicting her shove, he twists his shoulder back and away with a lean out of her arms' length, drains the remainder of the bottle, and pitches the empty at the trash can some ten feet away. It nails the bottom, never touching the sides, followed by the cap.

"I'm actually counting on your help, as it happens. I can cut on myself if I have to, but I'd rather not. It'll be neater if you're the one doing the cuttin'. There's a— well any knife will do, but I'd prefer sharp for obvious reasons. And then there's a bottle of, eh…" He pivots in place, looks at the boxes still piled around them. "Sand? Not sand, actually. Looks like sand, though. Only blue. Dark blue. Ah, bollocks, I hate moving."

—-

There is no shove, but he /does/ get the afghan for his trouble, whipped at him sharply at his crack on not letting her 'have it'. "Oh my god, you do /not/ want to play this game with me right now. I still haven't forgiven you for all of that." Zatanna plants her hands on her hips. "And who /does/ that anyway, John Constantine? Kiss the girl's that's in love with you and then you go 'oh by the way, I'm off the menu, sorry love' while she's /this close/— " She pinches her thumb and forefinger together. " — to tearing her own bra open and jumping your bones. Your timing is /the worst/! You're /lucky/ you're cute!"

He'd feel it though, as open as he is. She means /every/ word, but her exasperation is tinged with affection, the brimming, nigh-near scorching heat of the way she just /feels/ things - frustration, elation, the wild and crazy, breathless love that could only come from a woman unafraid of being so vulnerable. For all of her words and the creative ways she illustrates her thoughts, at the moment she can't really hide the fact that in spite of all of it, she /loves/ this and she wouldn't have it any other way.

…well, almost any other way.

But the idea of /cutting/ into him dims that crackling supernova. "…are you…" She hesitates. "…alright, well, I better get to it, then. What do you need me to cut on you?"

She pivots at that, moving to the kitchen, opening up the drawers to produce a fork, and silently thanking Chas for his ability to keep things organized in such a messy, messy life. Twisting metal in her fingers, a command transfigures it into a surgeon's scalpel, holding it up and pursing her lips. She changes her mind, clearly, when she passes her fingers over it, metal shifting to glassy black rock, palming the blade-sharp obsidian knife carefully over her hand.

"Might as well do this old school," she says.

She tucks it in at her waistband by the small of her back, and proceeds to go through the other boxes in search of this blue sand.

"What's the aim, then?" she wonders, looking over her shoulder as she pores through a box. "I cut into you and then you…what?"

—-

The day has been full of new things that feel like old things. His encounter with Giovanni and their cooperation with the book, his trip back to the Dogshead Tavern with Steve Rogers — that pub holds a special place in his heart — and now Zatanna, throwing soft things at him and giving him lip the way she used to, before everything went wrong. He's been ragged since their first skirmish, but between the headway he's making with professional matters and this unexpectedly graceful slide into normalcy in his private life — well, relative normalcy, at least — it feels as though someone's taken the time to slide his soul into a warm bath. He could soak in the emanations of her affection for hours and never once think of anything else. They are nectar. A drug. They make him understand, briefly, how Gary must have felt, until the heroin turned him in a ruin of himself.

She won't hear his amusement, but she'll be able to see it in the continued crinkle at the corner of his eyes and the sharp, wry look he wears while he digs through the boxes for something that is going to, to err on the side of understatement, really fuck up his day.

"You cut this pattern I'm going to get for you. Left wrist I should think, Heart might be better, or neck, but heart'll be difficult to see and neck is hard to hide. Then, we sprinkle the— /ah/. Here we go."

It's a standard mason jar, and it contains exactly what he said: grainy stuff so dark blue it looks almost black. Only sand is probably the wrong word; it looks more like splinters, or maybe tiny crystals. Slick and sharp, though very small. "Do me a favor and make sure you don't touch it directly. I don't know if there are still any of the Tears left in you, and I don't know what would happen. Better safe than sorry."

He crosses over to the new adult-height table with its grouping of four chairs, sets the jar down, and drags two of the chairs around toward the corner of the table, before peeling off and going in search of a notebook he'd spent the prior evening preoccupied with, sketching…something.

"Ate part of the Liber Sacer. Just a very specific part. Asked your da first, obviously. Right now it's like an antenna without a tuner. I'm picking up bleedin' /everything/. This ought to dial in something very specific. Something we can use to predict ripples in— oh, good choice that," he says as he straightens with notebook in hand, catching sight of the dark volcanic glass blade winking in the small of her back. He turns to face her, hands it across.

It's full of sketches of endless variety, but the page that's marked has a complex symbol on it that incorporates a lot of things that don't typically go together. It incorporates multiple dialects of demonic script with Enochian symbols around the outside of a broken circle. The center contains sacred geometry, but the most striking feature is the central glyph. A mystery, a meaningless tangle of elegant lines. "This is you. You'll want to get it right. The measurements matter. …A lot."

He pulls enough of himself to the fore to combat the rolling tide of sensory information, trying to convey the gravity of the thing: "I'm counting on you."

—-

For someone so young, she soaks in his instructions like a sponge, even while she's moving to set the process up - she puts the boxes away once the blue sand is found, and even manages to find a box of plain white surgical gloves in one of them, which she takes with her as they move to the middle of the room in which to perform this latest bit of work. Placing the carton on the table, she takes up one of the chairs he has placed on the corner of the table, digging out the obsidian blade and setting it aside before moving off again to hunt for the package of alcohol swabs that she saw on the floor of her cell, the night he injected her with the Tears. She manages to find them, and brings the load to the table as well.

Once the notebook is presented to her, she inclines her head at the glyph, the arcane sketch committed to memory, though really she doesn't need to - it is a curious thing and one she savors examining in every detail, not just because it is something unique and customized for a very specific purpose but also so she could soak in the remembrance as to how surprisingly beautiful his penmanship is. Seeing it again causes another pulse of that blinding, emotional burst.

"I'll be careful with the sand," she says reassuringly, snapping the rubber gloves onto her wrists, before one hand cups the back of his left hand, the other swabbing alcohol on his wrist and up his forearm, though her touch remains tender and gentle. Setting the swab aside, she places her hand over the sketch.

"Ypoc." Magic constricts to a fine point, the mystical fabric that sheathes all things dipping at her command. Digits encased in latex drape lightly over his left wrist.

It's like a tattoo, the copied image appearing on his skin, not unlike the same process used to transfer an image from paper to pores.

She picks up the blade, her ice-blue eyes ticking upward to look at him. "Ready?"

She threads those long, nimble fingers between his own, from the hand that cradles his knuckles and tightens it, leaning forward to brace some of her weight against it to keep his limb in place. The other tilts the point of the obsidian blade into the broken edge of the incomplete circle in the center, and begins to cut.

Her bladework is delicate, and meticulous - Zatanna was always good with her hands, and she was naturally artistic. She applies the right amount of pressure, just enough for blood to well and for the glyph to remain - a superficial scratch will not work here, and she works point and edge through enough layers to ensure that the thing is as permanent as scars go. Smooth, too, and careful, her head hunched over her work and the tip of her tongue caught between her lips, brows knitted in a fashion that's both focused and contemplative as she follows the intricate lines. He wanted precision, and precision is what she gives him in with the gradual trace. She doesn't take the time to mop up the blood, knowing that magic is all the more potent when it's continuous - the same principle as to why a circle shouldn't be broken while in the middle of a ritual.

—-

He sits. They sit. They have to. She is cutting with one of the sharpest substances known to mortal, mundane man over the soft inside of his left wrist, beneath which his veins carry his heart's blood to all of the rest of his extremities. Mere millimeters are all that stand between her artistry and his swift death, and if she ever needed any more evidence that she has some part of him that virtually no one else can lay hands to, this would be it.

'Ready?' she asks, and will find him already looking at her when her eyes rise. Irises darkened by the thing he contains, the thing they are about to bridle, they glitter with his typical humors, but carry something else within them, as well. Some kind of knowing intensity, given animus by the knowing choice to submit in such a fashion, handing his entire life over to someone else's care. "At your leisure, doctor."

It hurts far less than it would if she used a blade less sharp, but it still /hurts./ For her sake as much as his own, he tries to restrict his discomfort to tight eyes and gritted teeth. His pulse ticks delicately by beneath her fingertips, a fragile thing. Mortal.

Blood runs. Air stings his neatly severed nerves, where electrical impulses fizzle into running blood. Where her fingertips pass close to the sanguine fluid on his flesh, ghosts of indigo light seem to rise from it like the shifting veils of the aurora borealis, drawn to the concentration of magic within her. It's in his blood. In his everything.

"Before you finish and we add this final ingredient," he says, with a glance aside at the shivering material in the jar, "I want to ask you for a favor, Zee. When your friends and I go looking for the people trying to steal your soul…" He doesn't dare shift. He glances down at the ribbons of blood leaking out of his forearm, and then up again at the young woman drawing them forth. "Will you stay here? For me."

—-

To her very infinite credit, even as he asks her for the last, Zatanna doesn't lift her head from her work, or stumble over what he's asking her to do. Whatever offense that generates, she manages to quell - not just out of the reluctance to dislodge the delicate equilibrium they've reached with one another, but also because their last few rounds have instilled upon her the lesson of giving him the benefit of the doubt. Though that doesn't mean that she willingly shutters herself from what he's doing /either/. She literally has his life in her hands, a dangerous instrument cutting into his flesh and if she turns her attention the wrong way, he could possibly bleed out and breathe his last here.

That, and he uses /that/ name, in /that/ tone, and the coup de grace: For me.

"Dirty pool, John," she tells him, her contralto low but mild as she works the blade over to the next few lines. "I know you worry, but I thought we had an understanding. It's my blood, it's my fault it's in the wind in the first place. Are you worried that if I join the group, they might break through and I might get controlled, or something? My magic will hold, assuming it happens sometime this week. And if it's not that, why don't you tell me the story? I'm not going anywhere just yet."

She reaches the last few lines, and this is the only time when she stops. Setting the blade at the corner of the table, dripping point laid out in a way that's suspended in empty air, she looks up at him, finally, her expression open, but frank.

A thumb pops off the cork on the jar, before she leans over again. "How much? All of it?" she asks - it stands to reason if the measurements of the glyph ought to be precise, the amount of sand should be as well, and once she receives the instruction, she keeps her face away from the dark-blue dust, heeding his warning about the effects of the Tears, sprinkling the contents gently over the open cuts on his forearm.

Her grip on his hand tightens at that. They aren't done, after all.

—-

"It's only dirty pool if I'm doing it for selfish reasons. Or only selfish reasons. And I'm not," says John, brows knitting just enough to crease the skin between them. "And we do have an understanding. That doesn't mean I'm never going to have concerns. Would it be enough for you if I told you it isn't just me doing the asking? That your da asked that I make the effort?"

His question is ill-timed, because she finishes her cutting, and as he is actively bleeding and this all needs to take place before coagulation sets in, he has no time to wait for an answer. He glances at the jar, then up at the woman looking down at him with her eyes like frozen stars.

She is not going to like the answer, he suspects.

So he accompanies it with a quirk of the lips, blade of humor in the eyes, as though this were a grand adventure to have. "I don't know. I'm expecting it'll be obvious when it's enough."

He answers her tightened grip, but does not look down. "And the answer is 'I do.' I do that. Because I can't help it." Another twitch at the corner of his mouth, one that threatens to become something real. It's a question she asked him full minutes ago, but he circles around to it, and concludes that belated reply with words pitched low, wry, quiet, just a little bit heated. "You drive me crazy."

He may as well get that off of his chest, given he's not entirely sure what's about to happen to him.

For several seconds, nothing does. When it does happen, it happens very quickly. When there's enough of the particulate sprinkled into the wet mess of his arm that it has accumulated across the entirety of the symbol, the lines seem to solidify and then /crack/, and what emanates from those lines is not light but the opposite of light, briefly turning everything on which that radiance rests into a negative of itself. Beneath it his bones are visible, the corded shapes of muscle, the veins that run across his hand and the back of his forearm, twisting away toward the elbow.

He doesn't see any of it. His spine snaps straight, rigid as a lance. The whites and irises of his eyes begin to disappear as amorphous blobs of darkness ooze up into their place, gradually spreading, turning the surface of each into a glassy sphere as dark as the obsidian blade she used to cut him open.

Tendrils of tenebrous darkness leak from the cracks in his flesh and the terrible inversion of light and color, spilling across the table like the coils of an octopus' tentacles, seething and unrolling and twisting, and deliberately seeking /her/. Should they come close enough to make contact, they will gleam and pulse with a sickly radiance and tug at something as deeply seated within her as her soul. It is not a draining sensation, as it was with the man who calls him Gottfried Muller, hungry for the immense storehouse of power she represents. It is a nullification. An erasure.

—-

"The two of you are unbelievable," Zatanna grumbles, the dark blue shower of sand and grit sprinkling from the jar, draining away as it coats and clings to the viscous rivers of crimson life blooming from the pathways she has carved over his forearm. "It's as if the last few weeks haven't happened, I swear to God the only time the two of you get along these days is when one decides locking me in a box is a good idea! Would it be so bad if the two of you had a little fai— "

He answers her old question unexpectedly, and the different track has her pausing, slowly looking up to meet the full intensity she finds there, of his own pale blue eyes and how pain and determination tighten the premature onset of crow's feet around them. I do, he says. Because he can't help it, and it takes her a while to gauge what he means, considering how delayed the reply is to her earlier inquiries. Her lips press together and he can almost practically see it, the way she yields, just a little.

"John— "

'You drive me crazy.'

Spoken like a secret, wreathed with white-hot promise; it feels like scorching lead shot in close range at her chest, leaving bits herself splattered brutally at its wake. Her lips part and for a moment she says nothing, staring at him in dazed, almost gentle confusion. Her heart lies silent within the basket of her bones.

But when it starts beating again, it feels like a blazing, lightheaded rush. He would feel all of it, even if her expression isn't overt. Not yet anyway. Though he would most certainly expect the words that follow: "I drive /everybody/ crazy. What the hell makes you so special?"

What, indeed?

She smiles at him, as if in response to the silent question, a soft, radiant thing that makes her eyes glow like embers.

She feels his arm tense up before she hears the sound - another crack. Her eyes go wide when his back lurches up, black bleeding into his eyes.

"John— !"

She doesn't let go. She /can't/. Long fingers chain themselves to his even as she detects the change, the orange glow of the bulbs overhead flickering as /it/ rises from the bloodied paths she has charted on his arm, blanketing the table and curling to whip and converge towards…her. She is too slow to prevent the stygian mess from touching her, reaching her, and she feels it /pull/ in a way she has never experienced before and she feels herself, her brilliance, slowly disappear.

"John!" she gasps; her mind scrambles, struggling between worry and self preservation, and the sick, drowning sensation of her own terror. Cold sweat breaks out over her forehead. "It's…you have to control it, you /have/ to!"

She shakes, adrenaline, fight-or-flight, it drips into her blood and with trembling limbs, she slowly, slowly, slowly inches her left arm towards where a few of the tendrils have ensnared her, gritting her teeth and shoving it forward.

Sparks fly. The mystical fortress she has built over the source of her taken blood slams into the growing dark, sigils burning, /dying/ as it feeds. The bare patch of flesh that has presently functioned as a tracker for Hanussen's agents attempts to get at her spreads, grows all the more vacant, climbing at her forearm, her defenses sputtering as contact is prolonged and panic wells up in her chest. She has to let go. She has to let go of him but she /can't/ and…

It's so dark.

It's so dark and if she doesn't do something, if this doesn't end her, Hanussen's lackeys will.

She reaches inside of herself and /pulls/. Bolts unlatch, the well's cover kicked to the side and before she knows it, she /dives/ into the endless spring inside her and drinks deep. Wild, reckless, desperate. Her fingernails dig into his knuckles.

She is /not/ letting go.

The blue recedes from her eyes as power erupts from her like a tidal wave and all she has to do is say the words. Old words. Words first spoken at the moment of creation:

"Thgil eb ereht tel!"

The command /tears/ through the fabric. It twists to her will, bends in supplication to her frantic cry and light, so much light, spills from her black clad form, flooding their small space and washing their environs with white…

—-

The tendrils nullify the magic in her skin just as readily as they tatter the edges of her soul. They do not consume it. They do not dissipate it. They cause it to /cease/ to /exist/.

John is in there, somewhere, and fighting, but that fight takes precious seconds, during which she's forced to make that terrible sacrifice, compromising some of her protection in order to keep from being erased from history.

The symbol on his arm changes ever so gradually, churning darkness comingling with ever-increasingly large proportions of indigo light, the cracks in his flesh slowly beginning to narrow, pushing inward against the polarizing force desperately using him as a conduit. The black wells of his eyes stir, swirling, marbled with thin, dim seams of that same deep violet-blue: two very different but dangerously complementary forces war within the prison of his body, and these swirls and vortexes are the visible evidence of that conflict, one striving to master the other. As the symbol does the work it was designed to do, some of the tide of pitch occluding his eyes rolls back, growing less opaque, suggesting outlines of irises beneath, but the peril is not that he will never overpower it. The danger is that he won't be able to do so before it destroys her completely. The seams in him are nearly closed, but the rays of nothingness stab out through those last hairline fractures like blades, wedging the seal open, preventing the lock from snapping shut. He's returned to himself enough to reach his free hand across, gripping over the top of those split seams, but physical force is helpless to assist. The emblem is visible through the flesh of his covering hand, all of the tissue made transparent as glass by the sick un-light emitting from within the wounds.

On instinct, perhaps, she taps that metaphysical aquifer, a pipeline into the everything, she unleashes such a blinding, torrential outpouring of light that whatever malevolent force is using him — unthinking, primordial, primitive beyond the measure of time or God — it weakens, reels, retracts, just enough for the seal to finally complete its work. Indigo light cycles across the complexity of the lines she drew with such painstaking care in his flesh, bonds with the material she dusted onto his arm. Intuition, the essence of the third eye, overcomes its object: the unnatural tide of darkness he has tasked himself with watching.

The pulsing slows. Does not entirely stop, but fades enough that he's incapable of seeing it, his retinas still scorched by her final gambit.

It would be quiet if he weren't out of his chair in an instant, reaching for the dim outline of her, his pupils the size of pinpricks. "Zee! Shit — tell me you're alright!"

—-

She says nothing for a while, her vacant stare tilting upwards and staring at the ceiling, watching absolute nothingness shrink back away from her, preventing it from eating more of the arcane barricade that she has set up on her left arm. The well is open, the spring pouring forth and she can't help but /see/. How stray bits of magic waft around the flat, emanating from the artifacts that he keeps inside, the places that he has touched and worked with his fingers. She sees the way the Abyss leaks back into the cuts she placed in his arm, and /him/, the rolling, red-and-black waves of Synchronicity writhing around him like something alive, pulsing with uncertain nebulae of varying hues; Fate's notes playing on its favorite and most tortured instrument.

It's different now, with what he's taken into himself - deep, iridescent indigo threads through the other volatile, raw evanescence that make up John Constantine's full potential and her eyes can't help but trace them back to their source, to whatever compass he has decided to plant into his arm, with her help. Another responsibility. Another tool to bring fresh torment.

What can I do to help?, she remembers saying.

Her mind drifts. She chases the lights, ever the brave, reckless adventurer…

…until she rubber bands back into the present when his hands grip her shoulders. A blink later and her irises regain their color again, staring directly at his half-seeing eyes.

The whiff of static and singed hair clings to her nose, the distinct crackle emanating from her left arm and she winces at the sting the brutal onslaught has left behind. White wisps of wild magic lift from her pores, swirling around them in a concentrated mist.

"I'm fine…" The words are breathless. Instinctively, Zatanna reaches out for him, both of her hands cradling the sides of his face.

"Are /you/?" she wonders. "Oh, John…what have I done….what did I /do to you/?"

—-

He wishes he could see her. Check for himself. He can smell it on her, the singed air, the spent magic — masses of it. That's twice she's had to open herself up that way in as many weeks. She's young. Giovanni—

He feels her hands on his face, sees blurry shadows, eyes struggling to focus. The world is a honey-brown slurry that gradually begins to resolve, encouraged by repeated blinks, one hard squint.

Is she fine? Really?

Unable to tell, still half-blind from her decision to turn his flat into a window onto the sun, he has to settle for answering her question instead, which he does with a soft exhale in good humor. "What I asked. And a bloody good job of it, as far as I can tell. I'm still alive, and the world hasn't ended, so ta." So easy for him, to slip into that self, the flippant one that will — some years hence — see him literally giving Hell the finger. Both of them, even. But his pulse is visible in the side of his throat, and ticks along to a faster beat than usual, ushering his blood along through veins that feel as though they're made of glass, gradually filtering everything from the Liber Sacer into that deep, dark symbol now welded into his flesh. As it goes, as he purifies of its influence, he can feel the fabric of her being grow more and more difficult to sense. The curtain of privacy restores itself, her emotions slipping out of his psychic fingers like so much fine sand in the wind. It leaves behind a hollow he never knew that he had — and would never admit to.

"I had so much to tell you about my meeting with your da, but I didn't know this was going to be so…dramatic." Details of her face are slowly coming into focus, and his eyes begin to travel, flicking over her. She seems…fine. Fine-ish. Of course…he can't see her arm. Not through the sleeve.

"I'll explain everything, and there are other things we should talk about, but I think I need to eat something. …You're sure you're alright? You're not pulling my wire? It smells like a bloody magic bomb went off in here."

—-

The ripples expand outward, like stones cast in a lake. There's no stopping them now.

His eyes are still unfocused, but otherwise whatever she did to him, what he asked her to do, worked. Zatanna sags boneless against her chair in relief, her thumbs smoothing absent circles over the hard ridges of his cheekbones, beads of sweat and salt pushed away by her ministrations. Relief propels her to close the distance, to touch his brow lightly with her mouth before she pushes forward, weight braced on her heels, to make her body rise and his to fall back on his seat. Only then does she let go of his face.

His questions about her well-being give her pause, and she turns her attention back to her left arm, rolling her sleeve up and frowning at the damage done; the network is in tatters, patches of it missing, clear, pale flesh visible in erratic patterns, as if someone had gone and ripped parts of a fishing net away. Sparks of blue-white light fly from the tattered edges, but otherwise the fortress manages to stay, though half of its foundations are compromised, now. She doesn't know how long it'll be able to last in the state it's in.

"I had to use it, otherwise there wouldn't be any getting me back," Zatanna explains quietly. "I'm sorry, John…I wasn't fast enough."

A small smirk curls upwards on the corners of her mouth. "One thing at a time though, yeah?"

She turns at that. "Wait there, I'll grab something."

She's no Chas, but she /is/ Italian, and it's a simple enough thing for her to boil pasta and toss it with some ready-made spaghetti sauce and parmesan - for him, of course. Her dietary life choices have regrettably left her cheese-free though she hasn't eschewed dairy entirely. She dumps the concoction in two bowls before wandering over, setting the larger one in front of him and dropping another bottle of electrolytes in his waiting hand.

She retakes her seat, pulling up her legs and sitting crosslegged on it, as usual never one to sit properly in a place she's comfortable in, digging in her more modest coils of bronze die-extruded pasta and sauce; Chas did know how to get the good stuff.

She waits patiently, her eyes wander over to his face, his eyes, the brand she has left on his wrist. Questions fill her eyes, but she doesn't press. She is patient enough here, at least, and she's probably waiting for him to reorient himself before they return to the very real business of dissecting /what the hell just happened/ and whatever her father imparted on John this time. But as always, his well-being comes first.

"Is there anything else you need?" she asks instead.

—-

John resists her pushing only briefly, soon to sink back into the chair he so recently occupied. He feels…more or less fine, though his arm is screaming murder where the symbol was scored into his flesh. Little wonder, given what that /stuff/ is supposed to have been.

Must have been, he reflects, as he looks down at its dark outlines beneath the sludge of gritty blood on top, flexing and opening his hand, splaying his fingers. The movement pulls at the solid but flexible material embedded within him, causes a sensation like bolts of lightning that shoot up toward his elbow, electrified barbed wire ghosting about the bones of his wrist. The back of his hand aches where his veins pass over the bones and tendons.

None of which will matter to him when he looks up and sees the havoc that his plans have wrought on her wards. His lips part, grim regret stealing in to render his expression somber. A stone drops into his stomach. "'tanna…"

'One thing at a time,' she says. He watches her retreat toward the kitchen, fleeting feelings of victory dampened by the knowledge of what it cost. Not himself — that was his choice to make, after all — but what it cost /her/. Because he involved her. Hadn't known, of course, what would happen, but wasn't that reason enough /not/ to..?

His chair creaks quietly as he settles back, spending some moments wrestling with that, but eventually he peels himself back up and out of it, hunting for something amongst his things.

While she cooks, he goes about cleaning himself up, wiping the mess of blood and — whatever — from his arm, every paper towel used to do that dropped inside of a plastic bag. He doesn't know what would happen if any of it got into the city's sewage system, but he does not care to find out. It'll have to be disposed of more carefully, later.

The flesh around the brand on him remains angry and red, but there's no evidence of injury. The material from the jar sits below the surface, melted together, almost glassy. Quiet, for now. It pulses soft, barely visible light in time with his heartbeat, but is otherwise unchanging.

He's back in time for her to serve them both, cracking the seal on the bottle. Quirks his lips. "About five hundred things, love, but like you said — one thing at a time."

Which means he needs to /eat/. And he does. It takes him astonishingly little time to put all of that food away for a man of his trim physique, probably aided by the expenditure of energy required to fuel housing something of the kind he brought back with him.

The lack of conversation would be nothing new to her. For a man who's made a fine living running his mouth, he isn't much for small talk: no talk about the weather, no chatting for the sake of filling silence. Which isn't to say he won't converse socially; he will — but for a purpose, even if it's only the kind of bullshitting and debate one finds in a pub amongst friends. Something rowdy. Livelier.

And that is how he finishes his meal, finally pushing the scraped-clean plate away, recapping the bottle with half of its contents, and dropping backward to rest against the back of his chair.

"Ta for that. And now the couch, I think." He slowly curls forward again, rises, snaring his plate's lip with one hand to clear it from the table. "And you."

—-

This time, the silence is welcome.

She should eat, but she picks at her food with the absent contemplativeness of one who is still trying to absorb what had happened to the both of them in the last few minutes. Like a loop, the moment his eyes went black and /things/ came pouring out of his arm replay over and over again inside of her mind, the terror and the desperation until she had the presence of mind to do away with her limiters and unleash power that she always knew she had - power that her father warned her about, power that John encouraged her to use sparingly, weaned to follow his principles here. Her fork absently twists the pasta, occasionally taking a bite, and while she still feels those cold, bony fingers rake down her spine, she confronts the knowledge in her mind with the same moxie that she shows everything else.

Despite her short life, Zatanna has already seen plenty, a consequence wrought by the company she keeps, from the men she chose to learn from. She has faced everything from duendes to dream demons, deranged demon-worshipping serial killers, vampires, cannibals, Gods and like monsters. She has tangled with immortals, what had happened in New Year's Eve another notch in her belt, but she has never faced….erasure. Utter, breathless annihilation. She has always assumed that should she ever meet her end, it would come in a blaze of glory, doing something worthwhile - save the world, like her father has a dozen times. The possibility that she might /not/, that she would /simply cease to exist/ without so much as a bang or whimper, has not occurred to her until now.

And it was old. So old that her solution was to counterattack with something just as old and even then…

Her fingers shake; metal rattles against the lip of her bowl but she tightens her grip on tarnished silver and takes a deep breath.

One thing at a time.

It's only when he rises that her raven-haired head moves again, blinking at him in a half-daze, somehow finding his image around her mental assessments. It takes her a bit; her lips quirk at the corners as she rises herself, plucking both bowls off the table. Chas will appreciate it at least, given how much energy he expends to keep the place functional and clean.

"Go on, I'll grab a couple of glasses," she tells him.

The bowls deposited in the sink, running water to soak, she returns once John is on the couch, with a bottle and a pair of tumblers. Leather creaks as she deposits her weight on it, uncapping the whiskey and pouring a couple of shots for them each.

"Let me see," she says after taking a swallow, lifting a hand, palm up.

If or when he does, her eyes dip on the red, angry flesh on his inner left wrist, her fingertips drawing lightly over the irritated field. She's gentle, always gentle, as if her very touch could rent fissures over him, render him more susceptible to breaking. And could she be blamed? She caused several, herself, just a few days ago, hammered nails into pressure points before using a boot to kick them in as savagely as she could. It's her temper, the way she instinctively lashes out, so intensely that it blinds her to the consequences of her actions, but remorse always follows. Her capacity for guilt and forgiveness is just as great.

"It felt like nothing," she tells him quietly. She can find no sign of her handiwork, and she finds some grim satisfaction in that, remembering the bloody images in her head, how fearful she was of slicing his veins.

"Absolute nothing. Non-existence. Like how you forget things sometimes, how they just fade and you're left wondering what you misplaced. It felt empty. For a few seconds, I /was/ empty." Those eyes trace upwards to settle on him. "Was this why you came back? It's isn't just old, John. It's beyond ancient."

—-

He is canted deeply back into the cradle between the arm and the back of the sofa with one foot braced on the edge of the coffee table by the time she rejoins him, in a more or less comfortable post-carbohydrate haze. He offers her his arm readily enough, leaving his glass untouched on the table for the moment — presumably there just isn't enough room in his stomach to add anything else, yet.

As she passes her fingertips across the mark they created, the light dims in those places her fingertips make contact, the darkness locked within the symbol rising to the surface, the way fish will rise to the top of a pool to investigate fingertips trailed across the skin of the water. He watches her more than he watches the mark.

"It is nothing," he says, and then tilts his head immediately, flicks his eyes elsewhere. "Well, not exactly nothing, but to us it may as well be. It's what was, before anything else was. It predates God. Or at least, it predates God's decision to move in and start buying furniture. For us it's nothing because it's not made of the same stuff that we are. We can't make any sense of it. It's everything that we're not."

Her last question provokes a low chuckle, sound that rumbles in the flat of his chest and creases his eyes. "I bloody hope so. Wouldn't like to have done that for nothing." Head canting over to the side, he braces his right elbow on the arm of the sofa and leans his head into it, using loosely splayed fingers to run through the still-damp but drying crop of his hair, threads of gold over brown tousled and whorled as he thinks back. "When I was in Louisiana I was contacted by someone with an interest in some strange events. That's where I got the jar. They wanted me to look into it. An' I, you know…" The hand on his head lifts, tilting briefly palm upward, before returning to its task. "I thought I was doing enough as it was. Your da'd given me the boot and I figured what I was doing with the elemental down south was enough, yeah? Enough helping, let the world take care of itself. Didn't take, though. The bad dreams started not long after that, so here we are. Cutting myself open and sprinkling bits of — I honestly have no idea how he got it or why it's in a jar. I don't think I want to know. You shouldn't be able to put primordial darkness in a jar. I like a giggle at the mysticism nonsense, you know I do, but that's a bit far even for me. There was jam in that jar once."

—-

Skepticism, just a little, suffuses her expression as he explains. "Nothing," she replies, somewhat dryly. "As in the Book of Genesis nothing. Okay."

She wrestles with that internally, her lips pursing into a more contemplative curve. The way the stuff itself shifts under his skin has her bowels tightening, her teeth clipping tightly from behind closed lips. Slowly, she returns his arm to him in favor of reaching to take her tumbler, hunching over her knees as she takes another swallow, lapsing into silence as he speaks, but her brain is still tumbling over the first part.

"I read in one of Daddy's books once that the Darkness was God's older sister," Zatanna begins, turning the memory over like a snowglobe. "That he banished her because he wanted to create, and she was content with how the way things were, so he got her out of the way. Not exactly the same story everyone knows, but I thought it was an interesting take anyway. I just didn't think…" That it was actually /something/. Creation myths all over the world were similar, though she supposes if they all had the same commonalities, they all had to be rooted from the same source.

"That's not exactly something you can get from the usual channels, and even in the unusual ones," she remarks at last, commenting on that part of the story he relays to her. "Who was that guy, anyway? Do you know anything about him?" But she seems to agree, implicitly, on the assessment that however whoever got the stuff in the jar, she also didn't want to know.

Though later she might change her mind. When it comes to /this/ stuff, not knowing might drive her crazy, not to mention eradicate existence. That's important, she was /just/ starting to live her life.

"Okay so this…" She gestures to his arm. "Is supposed to help you…what? Figure out what's going on that's messing around with Absolute Nothing? I knew the Book could function as a compass, I just wasn't….I wasn't expecting this." Her look sharpens. "Or that you'd /eat/ it. Really John, does every solution have to involve putting weird things in your mouth?"

—-

John's brow rises slowly, expressing his interest in her story, though he doesn't seem convinced. "Maybe. We'll probably never know. I /don't/ think you can count on the 'good book' for your answers about what came before, though. History's written by the victors, etcetera."

She releases him and reaches for her glass, and he brings the fingertips at the end of his recently-maimed arm up to pass lightly over his jaw and chin, rubbing and scratching. He shaved this morning, and the stubble is beginning to reappear. "I know he's a pain in my arse," he says dryly, eyes unfocused. The sound of wings. It's never good news they want to bring, is it? "Let's just say he's a messenger for somebody a lot more important than himself, an' if I didn't know they had a stake in finding out what's going on, I wouldn't trust him. But I can feel it, anyway. Things being…off. The dreams, and that general 'ice-water bath for the two veg' feeling, so I think he's being straight wi'me. …mostly."

"This," he adds, extending his arm outward and twisting it so that the symbol faces upward, "Is an early-warning system. It's not enough, us running around and trying to clean up messes after they've happened. This is going to help me find things before they happen." Pause. "Maybe." Pause. "Hopefully."

He sidelong glances at her arch look, and some of the humor finds its way back in. "Christ 'tanna, I wish it didn't. I mean I /really/…wish it didn't. You've /no idea/."

Mischief surfaces in his expression just moments before he shifts his extended arm, reaching out to curl his fingertip into the hem of her shirt where it sits on her shoulder, and gently pull. Not to displace the garment, but to shift all of her. /Come here./

"I didn't know what to expect. I spent a lot of time designing the mark, with some help from…my contact." Pretty sure! "Seems like it has. I'll take it for a test drive tomorrow. See if I can't drum up some trouble worth 'aving."

—-

"Can't con a con and all of that," Zatanna says, though she still looks apprehensive, those worried eyes falling on his profile as he works his fingers down his face. He was restless, too, unable to sit still for very long, but she supposes that is yet another burden to carry, for the likes of them - so much energy could only be so contained by mortal shells.

The slash of humor at her comment about him eating the foulest things imaginable has her grin returning, never one to shelve it for long, and at his tug, she leans back, playfully resisting, brows arching at him though he'd find shards of her amusement lighting up those striking-unsettling irises. /Work for it, Constantine./

But she relents, never one to resist affection for too long - giving, yes, and she has so much to give, as endless as the eternal spring of raw mana inside her, but also to receive, which she craves more than anything else, and gets so little of, constantly deprived of it since her father disappeared. She leans in, shifting her knees to bend, to curl lengthwise into the rest of the couch, slimmer, slender frame fitting into the niche he carves into the couch, slipping under his maimed arm and letting it drape across her shoulders, the rest of her curving into his harder side. She's warm, her temperature elevated, though John's presence is only partially responsible for it; her body has yet to adjust from what she has opened inside of herself, the cover struggling to seal it all back shut. He would feel it under his fingers, the charge running down her hair and fading slowly.

Zatanna leans, her temple resting against where his arm meets the rest of him, the closest hand to him folding loosely over her torso while her tumbler dangles half-forgotten on her other hand.

"I'll come with you," she tells him at last, her lashes lowering, contentment, no matter how momentary, seeping into the marrow of her bones. "It might help to have another pair of eyes. In case something else goes wrong."

She is aware of the holes punched into her safety net, but her tone is decisive. Not after what just happened.

After a quiet chuff, she tilts her face up, pecking his cheek lightly; a very belated reply to the way he greeted her earlier, when everything else got in the way. As usual.

"What else do you need to tell me?" she asks.

—-

As she relents and yields to his silent request, he shifts, settling outstretched on the overstuffed, matte leather cushions. Settles. The hollows of him know the rises of her, memory spilling over from earlier in the year, when everything had felt completely new and entirely incomprehensible. It's still not something he understands. 'She said she loves me…can't fathom why.' He'd not been joking about that. Not even God knows why anyone ever gets tangled up with the likes of John, and John himself is not least among the baffled masses, but…there they are, for better or worse.

Better, just at this moment. He greets her assertion and her question with silence not because he's thinking through his answers but because he isn't thinking at all, a blessed and brief reprieve, indulgent of the senses. Warmth and softness, affection, loyalty. Things he does without, the vast majority of the time. He allows himself to close his eyes, and the arm into the crook of which she's settled bends, fingertips sifting down into the drifts of dark hair on her crown.

He thinks about Giovanni. About the hex. About how this wasn't part of that: affection in its raw state. And why not? John isn't typically known for his emotional fidelity, is he?

/This is what he gets/, thinks John, with another warm smug twist of pleasure.

"We'll see," he says, finally, of her insistence that she come along. "Let's try to get that situation of yours resolved, shall we?"

He drops his free hand on top of his abdomen, there to rise and fall with his breath. His eyes remain closed.

"I had a sit-down with Steve Rogers today to ask'im to set me up for a meeting with that bird of his. He said he would. Between that and whatever we get from Jones, we'll probably be getting close to being able to nail Hanussen's arse to the wall." One eye cracks, just enough to show pale, bright blue. "Did you set up a time for us to talk to her?"

—-

The heart wants what the heart wants.

Zatanna doesn't dissect it with a mental scalpel, nor does she make those typical mental lists - the pros and cons of loving a certain person, as if they could accurately chart whether someone is worth the emotional investment, as if such things were quantifiable by hard data and information. It was never her way and perhaps it was one of the many reasons why she's managed to beguile so many into following her wake. It's a different brand of magnetism from what John has, himself, who could also inspire that kind of loyalty and devotion whenever it suits him, though his skills in that regard come from another place entirely. They're markedly different people, but in some significant ways, they are similar.

Her eyes slip upwards, scrutinizing his profile quietly, how he keeps his eyes closed, taking in every twitch and detail. This is rare, also, to see him in such a state. He was a man who was constantly on the move, barely resting - even earlier in the year, he was the same and so she savors this moment, greedily taking these snapshots and storing them in the back of her mind. If she was ever concerned about having to seal these photographs again, to keep them in a box and bury it in the attic of her memories, it is far from her present considerations; as always, most of her awareness is focused on the now.

This is largely the reason why, as he makes a noncommittal response about her blood problem, she doesn't press it, lulled further into the warm bath of affection that he unexpectedly provides in turn, her lashes slipping shut. She turns her face further against him until the side of his chest cradles her cheek and for a moment she says nothing.

"I sent her a text today," she tells him a few moments later. "We can meet her tomorrow and we can figure out what the next steps are. When I talked to Spidey today, he couldn't recall anything else but he promised me once he does, he'll be the first to know. That does remind me though…"

She shifts, lifting her hips off the couch just a little, withdrawing a few photographs from her back pocket. "A friend of mine - Peter Parker - works as a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle," she informs him. "Apparently the more senior photojournalist was out sick the day of the gala, so he covered for him. He took pictures of the event, if that helps at all and I borrowed some of the shots, to the extent that's helpful." She lifts them up to that single open eye, but she doesn't press him into his hands to look at right now. Instead, she extends an absent hand to drop them on the low coffeetable.

"The book wasn't the only artifact the GAC was auctioning off that night, I think Hanussen knew that, which was why he was able to attack the way he did. I wouldn't put it past him, also, to have planted those objects himself…Jessica found out a while back that he's an independent director for some big research and development firm and he's loaded, and his contributions might have very well been the reason why a German national got invited to a Gotham City function in the first place since Bruce…" There's hesitation, saying the name. "…indicated that the invitations were sent to tri-cities A-listers only save for a few exceptions. I wouldn't be surprised if they were pieces from his own collection. A hundred years alive, working maagic, he's bound to have a few. Hell, you haven't even lived half the years he has and you've got a lot."

—-

John soaks up all of this in silence, though he cracks an eye to follow the trajectory of the photos onto the low table, and he arches one brow as she begins to discuss the night of the auction, eye long since having closed again.

He says nothing about Bruce Wayne, but in the heartbeat of hesitation that finds its way into the otherwise self-assured cadence of her speech, the arm wrapped around behind her tightens just enough to communicate…something. Support? Sympathy? An entire host of things he cannot communicate adequately out loud, and would prefer not to try, in any event.

It does change things in him, though. And if she can see the slow waxing and waning of the light in the darkness branded into his arm, she'll know that: it picks up its tempo, increasing alongside the subtle change to the rate of his pulse, a beat echoed in the slow, steady thump in his chest, beneath her ear.

He's still angry. He doesn't know anything other than what she told him, but his profession requires that he have an imagination broader than most, and it has circled those events helplessly, imagining the moment that Bruce Wayne — not a small man — decided to assault her. Stuck her full of drugs. Planned to do…whatever he was going to do.

"They just fall into my lap," he says, trying for humor. It sounds forced. "One of the only perks to running about and cleaning up other people's messes is that they're usually happy to let you take whatever got them into trouble in the first place off of their hands."

He tries to let thoughts of Wayne go, but they refuse. He gives it time and silence, just enough of both, and then lets his eyes open again, heavily lidded. Turns his head toward her, to look down at the glossy top of her head, the dark hair spilled over his shoulder and chest.

"I told your da what happened."

—-

The shift between light and shadow snatches at her senses, propelling Zatanna's eyes to flicker open to look over at his forearm to observe how it moves under his skin. It culls a violent swing in her stomach, remembering what had come out of it and the fact that such a force is making headway within some part of John is something she regards with more than just a touch of worry. She registers the squeeze, enough for her to lift her hand to thread her fingers through the long, rough appendages draped loosely over her shoulder, her thumb hooking loosely into the bottom knuckle on his own, never one to delay her own responses to his touch for overlong. She had been deprived of it for four months, starved for it in the days when she felt his absence so acutely - more often, in those days, than she could freely admit to anyone, latching onto the idea that it would be an affront to her newfound independence.

The forced humor only confirms that he's still angry - it is something she didn't see in his face, having held him so close the night she escaped, but it was something more sensed, tasted in the back of her tongue. Some part of her wants to let it lie, to content herself in the present and soak in it until she drifted to sleep in an effort to recuperate from the toils of the day. That isn't her way either, never the sort to let things lie when it was dangling in front of her face - in fact the longest she's ever resisted was when John came roaring back in her life, having resisted for a week or two until circumstances pushed him….pushed her.

She slowly tilts her head up, back, to meet his eyes as they angle towards her from his superior height.

"I've been content not to think about it for at least a few hours," she muses, self-deprecating humor there; he knows how easy it is for her to dwell, to imprison herself with her torments so she could find a way to free herself from them. "I kept turning it over, trying to figure out the moment where it all went wrong. He was so….he was so kind to me, John. He treated me as if I never left, as if I haven't seen him for almost a decade. When Alfred told me about the son he lost, I fell into it hard, as I usually do. All I could think of, all I could remember, was the day he came to our house while Daddy was hitting the bottle, and since he wasn't around to pull him out of the mud this time, I thought I could…I thought I /should/. So I made myself available, I dropped by when I could. I tried to remind him that everyone's lost someone…someones, and that life is still possible after that."

Memory, melancholy, and the deeply rooted sadness that could only be brought about by the two, fill those expressive eyes.

"I couldn't do it for Daddy," she admits quietly. "I was his daughter….I was a child, but I tried. I tried so hard but I didn't understand adults and finally one day he just…"

Her eyes wander away, to fix at a lower point, towards the neckline of his shirt.

"That was what I saw, in Hanussen's horror house."

She lets it hang, and she takes a breath, finally remembering the whiskey in her hand, but instead of drinking it, she shifts to place it back on the coffee table. It removes her from his side, mostly, for a few, but she returns to him well before her absence could register.

"I'm angry too," she continues. "I am. I'm furious but I remember it, and I remember then, and if it hadn't been for him, I might have had to have lived with it longer than I have. So again, I don't know what to do…it's complicated, and I don't know where to start. And I suspect it's the same for Daddy, also. You, me, Bruce….the three of us all belong to a very exclusive club. Now that you've told him, even I don't know how he'll react."

Her eyes wander back up. Her smile curls upwards, a spark of mischief evident.

"There's something to be said about second chances," she says softly. "For some reason, I've been thinking about that, too, lately."

She leans in further, burying her face into his collar, her shoulders sagging as breath leaves her lungs. Another sigh.

"What did Daddy say?"

—-

How Giovanni took the loss of his wife is not something that John has been on the inside of. The man withdrew, and — with all that she's saying — reserved the worst displays of his hollowed-out grief for his young daughter, the one person in the world who needed him to be strong.

He's not one to judge, of course. His life had imploded on itself after Newcastle, almost immediately leading to a genuine psychotic break, and the two years that followed are difficult for him to piece together: fragments of images, like pieces of broken mirror, but blurry enough that he can pick out only dissociated images from amidst a broader smear of barely lucid time. Any time he's turned his thoughts that way to probe them — and that hasn't been often — he's almost immediately stopped. There's pain there, but also darkness. Things that he doesn't want to remember. Things he did. Things that were done to him.

People he damaged, the way he imagines Giovanni must have damaged his daughter, for her to have seen her father in that palace of horrors. And that surprises him: she has more love in her for her father than John's ever seen her expend on anyone or anything else, which is saying something…even if he can tell that it is a complicated kind of love.

Family is, isn't it?

She mentions second chances, then tucks her face into the crook of his neck, sending vines of gooseflesh swirling down the length of his arm on that side. "For some reason," he repeats. From her position, tucked in that way, she'll hear it more directly through the solidity of his chest than via the air. He encourages that shift with one of his own, that half of his body a shoreline onto which he prompts her to settle, and as he gradually takes up more of the couch, he finally follows through with drawing his legs up, one foot propped atop the far arm of the sofa, the other leg bent, tilted over into her.

'What did Daddy say?'

"Not much." He almost leaves it there, angry enough that he doesn't feel like acknowledging that Wayne may have had reasons for his behavior. Still: this is their family's business. "He said he knows why Wayne reacted the way he did, but that he overstepped, and he was going to deal with it personally."

—-

When he moves, she doesn't resist. As he leans backwards, she finds very little impetus to do anything other than follow it the rest of the way, a small leaf on a running stream slipping past rocks to see what lies on the other side. His legs draw up and her own shift to make room for him, adopting a loose tangle of limbs that situates her somewhere between his side and the back of the couch. Hair spills like ink, as black as night, splashed over his shirt and spilling over the edge of the cushions. She has always kept it long, only doing the bare minimum of cuts to maintain its lustre - most days, she could be just as vain, though in her case it's the functional kind. She was a stage performer, after all, and success often requires the upkeep of a certain level of aesthetic appeal.

Zatanna hears the words and in spite of the fury that she just admitted to, she can't help but wince. It manifests as a slight turn of her lips, her hand moving to splay lightly over his sternum, the better to chart the steady rythmn of his heart. She works her thoughts over upon hearing them, bringing her imagination to bear, churning them through those cerebral passages to try and find something profound to say, some insight to her father that she could offer John, who she knows occasionally wonders. But in the end, all she can really say is…

"…well." The word leaves her lips in a languorous drawl. "That's gonna be a fucking mess."

She wasn't sure if there was anyone in the world who wants to be on the receiving end of the way her father deals with something personally. It's a modifier that he never uses, unless it is indeed /personal/.

Her eyes half-lid, slowly drawing to a close. Half-draped on him, she forces herself to let go of the subject of Bruce Wayne and the more creative ways her father could take up to make himself very clear to a man who was once another boy he taught. And while she keeps herself relaxed, his closeness, the way he smells - detergent from his clothes, salt from his earlier sweat, coppery tones of blood and dark magic - reminds her of how surreal the last two weeks have been, when the possibility of finding herself here once more was so far removed. Hell, it was difficult enough then to imagine that they'd ever be on speaking terms again.

"…so you really want me to stay behind?" she asks, though her earlier ire seems to have drained away. Nearly erased from existence just a few moments before, it certainly puts /some/ things into perspective.

—-

"God, I hope so," quips the man half-beneath her, of bats and messes. He does not even bother to disguise his disdain. It is far easier to earn one's way out of John's good graces — such as they are — than to earn one's way back into them. How Bruce Wayne will ever managed to do that is a mystery that only time can answer, but should he somehow fail to find a way, things between Zatara's former students and the young woman who binds them together even more closely than their relationship to their one-time mentor are no doubt going to be thorny and difficult at best.

The hand resting on his middle lifts, crossing over him to lightly cradle her profile, thumb a light touch in front of her ear, the heel of his hand a soft warmth in the hollow behind her jaw, fingers curled loosely around her neck, slid into the dip where spine meets skull. There is a dull, constant throbbing in his body, reminding him of everything this lassitude cannot become, but it's gentle enough, blended enough with his contentment, that the ache becomes almost pleasant.

"Yes." A small silence follows, marking a moment of thought-gathering. "Your da seemed to have good reason. More than usual, more than this petty little hex of his. And honestly, 'tanna, until we get that sorted, I don't think it's wise to take chances. I wouldn't like it if I were in your shoes, but you have capable friends. An' I've probably good Captain Bloody America coming along to help, as well. It'll probably be safer for us and for you if you don't come with us."

—-

After what he's told her about her father's hex, the fact that they could do /this/ is a sufficient enough balm for the frustrations that followed the night of their….something. When she had spent the next few hours in bed awake and wide-eyed, wondering how it was all going to be possible again without the physical intimacy they've shared before. As stated rather indelicately when he first explained it, she has /needs/, and she's rather certain that John has thought the same, considering the tortured look he had given her right after his face exploded for daring.

In the end, it isn't just physical. The tender moment is one that she savors with all of her being, sinking herself so deeply and letting herself be ensnared, once more, by everything about him. She has almost forgotten the softer parts, the ones that lie outside of debauchery and carnal revels, of the way he would simply touch her just because he wants to, much like he's doing now. His fingers slip through her hair and she finds herself trapped again, senses rejuvenated in their repose at the sensation of a working man's calluses draw over the back of her neck. The touch where he finds the dip where her skull meets her backbone, though, gets an unexpected wince - it was where needles have been jabbed into her. Twice.

It's nothing too painful, like a bruise, faintly sore. But it does force her to open her eyes though she doesn't move her head, letting his words and the tender way he cradles her head wash over her.

She mulls over it, he'd sense her resistance wind up. He's seen Giovanni and how he moves when there is Something to Be Done, and he has raised his daughter in very much the same way. Four months apart, away from the most dominant male influences in her life, has only made that tendency worse and every instinct inside her reasserts itself, screaming to be proactive. It was her responsibiity. It was her fault. Her predicament is putting those she cares about at risk. And nobody puts Baby in the corner, god damn it.

But she remembers her bare, pale flesh and the holes lingering over her compromised protections. She remembers that listening her father has saved her life on more than one occasion. She is still reeling from the wounds she and John have inflicted on one another, when they fought over the same issue of her safety.

She is not above making the same mistakes over and over, but only if they're worth it.

"….you better be careful, then," she says at last. He knows she isn't happy, her reluctance curling over her words. But for now she has relented and that is /something/ to take to the bank. "Because between the two of us you're not exactly the same as you were three hours ago, either."

Her head moves, it tilts up, her stare sweeping over his profile. The glamour works, she knows, but if she looks hard enough she can see the disfiguration. She remembers how it got there, and all the conversations before, including the ones that occurred on this couch.

"I missed you, John."

She says it quietly, succinctly, and as always, she is fearless, looking at him directly, her heart on a platter.

And even more softly, barely a breath: "I love you."

She drops her head back into his shirt, the rest of her words a grouse.

"So once you and the Dream Team storm the castle, you better not be gone for too long, because you know me, and I know myself. I'll follow. God, it's how I became a vegetarian in the first place."

—-

She'll be able to feel it in the breath he takes and the depth of his exhale: the relief that comes with knowing he won't have to fight with her about it. He told Giovanni he would try, and he had meant that, but he'd wanted her to relent for reasons of his own, this rare moment of quiet not least among them. That it is even possible — not because of the hex but because of who they are, everything that happened — is something worthy of caution and care, two things that both of them tend to throw to the winds at the slightest notice. Whatever this is, it lives on a razor's edge of uncertainty, forever poised on the brink of becoming something different. For now, though…

Equilibrium. Of a kind. Like the two potent energies twisting around one another in his arm, an ouroboros delicately balanced in order to achieve a specific purpose.

"I'll come back," he says. He feels her begin to lift her head and lets his fingers slide away from the nape of her neck, cants his head to look at her, brows lifting.

She missed him. He quirks a small smile, lets something in his eyes soften.

/I love you./

He holds her gaze, feels pressed in on by his own silence. Those words: it has been so long since he said them last that he can't remember what they sound like in his own voice. To name a thing is to know it, to know something like that is to promise things — things he doesn't think he's the equal to providing. It asks too much of him, that phrase. It peels back too much of the curtain on parts of him that may never be anything but seeping wounds, patched over with the flinty, ruthless indifference that has kept him alive.

He can't.

And she doesn't make him.

She puts her head back down, and he turns his to press a brief but firm kiss to the top of her head, chaste but insistent. Relief untwines the apprehension around the core of him.

"I know you will. And that's what happens when you do, so I'd have thought it'd break you of the habit. Honestly, the last time you walked in unannounced you had to give up steak and /cheese/ and — I think I would just top myself, to be honest."

The hatch opens. Footsteps begin to descend the ladder. Chas, of course.

—-

All of the years since she's met him, she has never demanded that sort of reciprocation from him. If asked, she would say it was that lack of demand that made them work in the first place, those many months ago when she attempted to move on with her life by exorcising the ghost of him from her heart, fancying herself an adult enough to put away childish things. Only he hadn't let her, when it was said and done, and suddenly it doesn't seem so childish anymore.

Mistakes were made.

Some would say there are more in the future.

But oh, they were and will be glorious. She had meant that too, when she told him, a litany of sins and hopes tantamount to the singular truth that she wouldn't have changed a single thing.

He'd feel her smile, pressed against his shirt, the firm kiss parting her hair on the top of her head and he'd hear her chuckle; a low, quiet thing from the back of her throat. That is also a thing, one unique to her in that she always smiles when she's being kissed, if her mouth isn't otherwise occupied.

"They told me it was cheese," she grumbles at his remark. "It wasn't."

As the rattle of the outside world starts invading the flat, Zatanna exhales a breath, lifting her head up to peer at the hatch with half-lid eyes. He'd find deliberation there, a considering expression, the gears turning in her head. She recalls that, too, what she had said to Chas. What Chas had said to her, words that John is /not/ aware of and she wonders whether she should extricate herself from his grip and see if he needs help with anything. Her gaze tracks back to the magus on the couch, the contentment she finds there, the relief, perceptive enough to discern where it comes from and she can't help but roll her eyes in exasperation.

She was a big girl. She knows what she's doing.

Mostly.

…a little.

So she falls back down against his chest and turns her face even further into his shirt. "I'm taking a nap," she tells him, her eyes closing. "Tell Chas I'm sorry if this is awkward for him, but I need this."

—-

"It was /sort of/ cheese," John says, gaze lifting off of the stillness of this tangle on the sofa, to follow the big man's descent into the flat. Chas hits the bottom of the ladder and turns, stops dead in his tracks. This is one of those moments that their long friendship comes in handy; it bypasses the need for one or the other of them to shout across the distances involved. And in any event, Chas takes things in stride better than most people do, which is a function of his actual character, enhanced by his unique…situation.

Whatever is exchanged between he and John, his footsteps pick up, taking him past the couch, toward the back of the space, the kitchen that is slowly beginning to look like an actual kitchen. Things open and close, things are put away, bags rattle and rustle, eventually folded and stored.

"I think it's fine, love," John murmurs, and turns his head until his chin and jaw are resting atop her head. Eyes close. Not long afterward, Chas fills the air near the sofa, looming, and then sinks into the adjacent, overstuffed chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him, boots crossed at the ankle. He sets a glass of iced tea down next to it on the side table and props a half-finished book open on his stomach. Quiet descends on the flat.

He's not an easy sleeper, John. But for this one moment — for this precious, incalculably rare moment, with Zee on the one side of him and the man who knows and forgives him best on the other, both at rest — John is as safe to let go as he's ever going to feel…so he does. The half-dozing dreams that come will be restless, sibylline as they will inevitably be, but for /once/ all of the ghosts harassing his sleep are not his. And that is something.

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