The Difference Between Wanting and Having

January 15, 2017:

In the aftermath of John Constantine's encounter with the Cult of the Cold Flame, he once again squares off with Zatanna Zatara for her reckless intervention….only for things to take an overwhelming, breathless turn towards the inevitable.

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

John Constantine's magically warded flat in Brooklyn.

Characters

NPCs: Chas Chandler

Mentions: Jessica Jones, Spider-Man

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

In the end it's Captain America who volunteers to take Jessica Jones to be monitored and treated for her shock. Given the nature of her physiology, it's best that she go with someone who isn't altogether a mere mortal, himself; he's most likely to have access to medical professionals who understand that kind of thing.

John watches her slide into a SHIELD van and watches it pull away. At some point in the proceedings Red Robin and Spiderman have made themselves scarce, as well, the latter no doubt with some evidence of injury — though not nearly as much as John might have expected, given how certain he is that he heard some of the man's bones break from clear across a noisy room. The Winter Soldier, of course, was gone long before the rest of them even emerged.

So once Jessica goes, that just leaves John and Zatanna.

John stands there on the sidewalk, squinting at passing traffic, and runs his tongue over his upper front teeth behind closed lips. This is typically the point at which he'd turn to look at her, throw his arms out to the side and say, 'what the fuck?' Only it doesn't come. It doesn't follow. Whatever he's thinking about doing in that brief span of silent time where he's looking at nothing in particular, he doesn't do it. Or maybe he does, if what he was thinking about doing is getting his bearings from the cross streets, turning in the direction of the flat, and starting to walk that way, unbuttoning his coat. Wordless. Entirely.

—-

Worried eyes follow Jessica's wake as Captain America lifts her bodily and moves towards a SHIELD van where she would be deposited and taken to get medical attention, all of her protests dying on her lips before she could even get them out. A few weeks living with the investigator, Zatanna is very much aware that the woman did not like hospitals, and being somewhat jittery and paranoid, she was not going to take kindly to waking up surrounded by strangers, in whatever medical facility SHIELD operates in New York. But Captain America insisted, and despite knowing better, she doesn't have the heart to say no.

With the vehicle driving off, she exhales, canting a look towards John. She knows he isn't happy.

The fact that John doesn't even bother to hide it is indicative enough of whatever burning embers of white-hot fury are there in his stomach and for a moment, she hesitates as he turns around and starts heading for the flat. Her steps don't pick up, not immediately, wondering if she ought to follow, or if he should just let him go alone while she makes herself scarce for a few hours. That isn't her way though, and after tilting her head back to give the heavens a /look/ from where she stands, she pivots on her heel and starts to follow.

But like him, she says nothing.

That is uncharacteristic - she was never shy about saying the first word, even while standing on the razor's edge of another blistering row; between the two of them, there is usually no other kind, as fitting between two people who tend to let their more volatile natures run away from them when the circumstances suit. This evening, however, she elects not to, her hands tucking into her pockets as they make the silent walk back to the Brooklyn flat, where Chas is undoubtedly waiting.

—-

Once the coat is undone he retrieves the one-shot heating pad that Robin gave him from the lining, pitching it into a trash can. There are cigarettes smoked on the way back. He does not wait for her, and he does not slow. He has no need to: the universe responds to whatever exothermic reaction is happening inside of him, and every single pedestrian crossing on the way back blinks white and open for him as he nears it, a minor miracle in the inconvenient snarl of traffic that is New York.

It would be a much faster trip if he elected to pass through a wall, co-opt a door, but he needs the walk. Hopes, at least at the outset, that it will help him burn through some of what he contains, and discovers halfway there that it isn't helping at all. That he doesn't know what he's going to say to her when they walk into the flat. That he isn't even sure he wants to look at her. The depth of his ire shocks him; some small part of him sits in the corner of his mind and observes the unfolding of it with apprehension, marvels at the scope of that anger.

And then they're at the flat and he's walking into it, shrugging off his coat, tossing it aside. Walking to the kitchen for a bottle of water. Ignoring Chas, sitting on the couch with a newspaper, and the look that crosses his best mate's face as the energy in the room takes a dive for the sub-arctic.

Chas does not want to be there, but he can't gracefully leave. So they both get a glance, and he inquires cautiously, "So…is it…"

"Fixed? Yeah." Toneless, from John. That's good. He wasn't sure how it was going to sound when he opened his mouth. He cracks the cap on his bottle, biting back the addendum he wants to add. He can feel it seething in him. Something with poison in it.

"That's…great news! …isn't it?"

Poor Chas. He wants to celebrate. He wants to smile, hug Zatanna, crack open a bottle, pan-sear a steak. He does not understand why triumph and relief are not the dominating emotions in the room.

—-

The metal hatch opens and she climbs down, dropping the rest of the way once she's reached the last few rungs. It closes above her head and melts into the brick. As she hears Chas and John confer out in the living room area, she takes her time to unzip her jacket and hang it neatly on the hooks that the bigger man has mounted on the wall, in preparation for the winter months. It sags heavily on metal, and as she inclines her head at it, some part of her pictures herself still in it, because she has a feeling that's how she's going to end up in the next few minutes.

Especially because in spite of everything, she is still capable of mercy and she knows that she's going to have to give Chas an excuse to leave the flat.

With a breath, she wanders towards the main living area just in time to hear the next few words.

Fixed? Yeah, he says.

There is relief there also, that whatever toils John and her friends and associates have suffered, it wasn't for naught. Jessica's image still seared in her brain, it takes everything in her not to sag limply on the nearest cushion at hearing the words. It is the tension, the fact that the air turns cold inside of the bunker, that keeps her alert.

Zatanna reaches out to rest a hand on Chas' shoulder from where he sits. "Chas, I think we're out of Jameson," she remarks. "You think you could run to the corner store and grab some?"

Anyone with a less handicapped survival instinct would keep him as a buffer between herself and the wall of fury that would undoubtedly follow. But the tension, the waves of repressed /rage/, is so thick that anyone would feel it for miles. She doesn't know how long that will hold, and so she gives Chas a handy pass out of the flat, and hopes that no matter what happens after then that he'll remember her fondly. With that delivered, she waits patiently until the bigger man has left the flat.

And then, she rounds on John.

"Let's have it out, then," she says, leaning against the back of the loveseat, her arms folding loosely over her stomach.

—-

Chas is simultaneously deeply grateful and deeply guilty. He knows perfectly well she's giving him reason to go, and he also knows that this is something that isn't meant for him to see, but it's plain that this isn't how he expected the victorious homecoming to go, and after their last explosive confrontation, he's apprehensive about leaving them to it.

Not that there's much choice, in the end. "You bet." He drops the paper on the table, stands, and sneaks a glance at John — who isn't looking, facing the cabinets as he drinks water — before leaning to hug her in a quick, tight bear hug. "I'm glad you're okay," he whispers as quietly as he can, and then he makes himself very, very scarce.

/Let's have it out then/, she says.

John regards the bottle of water for another long moment, takes another long pull.

"Why even bother? It's not as though you're going to listen," he answers, voice husked from the cold of the liquid. The next pull he takes drains it, and the plastic crumples in his fist. He chucks it at the trash can…

…and misses. The wave of synchronicity that he coasted back to the flat has fled him.

He leaves it where it is. "I expected better from you. No idea why, in retrospect." There is a tightness just at the very edges of his tone of voice. He still has a hold on things, but even allowing the disappointment to filter through means putting a fissure in the seawall, and that may prove to be a miscalculation on his part, weakening the whole.

—-

'Why even bother?' he asks.

"Because you shouldn't hold back when you're angry," Zatanna replies; it's the disappointment that wounds her, filtering out from the corkscrew-tightness of his tone - she can feel her hackles rise, those defensive barricades angling upwards. Somewhere in the back of her head, she is hammering down the stakes, fortifying her foundations with stone and readying the boiling oil to throw from the very tops of her parapets. "I'm a big girl, John, I can handle it."

Like him, she tries to quell the urge, feeling those eggshells pop underneath the soles of her feet, that delicate equilibrium slipping sideways once again and tipping towards the point of disaster. She feels her stomach lurch at the swing, her mental bones already closing around the canister of gasoline that is always there; it is awareness that manifests as the other set of fingers, gripping that other wrist in desperate effort to force it to let go. Her lips pressing in a tight line, she turns her head to look away and stare at the wall.

Silence falls, weighty, heavy, the space between them filling with all the words they are very much trying not to say to one another. It's dangerous, she knows, because she has been there before. All it takes is one spark before the forest goes up in flames, razing the earth until either it's rejuvenated or doomed to be so ruined, nothing upon it could ever grow again.

"I tried," she says at last, her voice barely a breath. "I tried not to follow, I did everything I could. I /thought/ I did everything I could to keep my mind off the fact that you're all out there trying to save me, but by the third hour I couldn't think of anything else. And the more I thought about it, the more agitated I got, wondering about all the what-ifs. Or if I stayed, and something went wrong…the pictures in my head, wondering what I would see if I left the flat just five, ten minutes, or an hour after it would have done some good. How it would look if I was too late."

Her fingers tighten over her inner elbows.

"It's not as if I had forgotten everything else that's happened." Her head turns to look at him directly. "Or the things Jessica told me. I remember them all. But it got too much, John. It got too much for me. I couldn't stand it."

I just got you back.

"I'm sorry."

—-

To his everlasting credit, John remains silent all the while she speaks, though there is a dangerous tic near his eye when she says she's a big girl, and she can handle it.

In the end it's her apology that helps him to shore up the trembling, groaning walls of the vault he's containing his fury within, but they are a long, long way from equilibrium. He settles back against the counter, hands to either side of him on that surface, and stares at her with eyes like razored chips of ice.

"You should be. Six people put their lives on the line for you today. I heard Spider-Man's ribs pop like bubble-wrap from across an entire room full of people fighting. Jessica Jones," he adds, words measured and steady, flat, because if they become anything else they might become a freight train that has no brakes, "Took enough direct elemental magic hits to kill ten people. All so that we could destroy just— " He lifts one of his hands, brings his index finger and thumb together, indicating the minutest possible space, eyes tightening. "— just a few /drops/ of your blood. Get them out of the hands of people who wanted to use it to rip your soul out of you. And then, after everything…"

He quiets. He pitches his voice down until it's soft, but that tactical decision cannot quite eliminate the chill that wreaths every word. "…/in you come./ Bringing the whole bloody stock with you. And just one accident, one stray bit of glass that nicked you, one scuff of an elbow, and everything we did, all of it, would have meant /nothing/."

He presses his lips together, gestures to one side, something in his expression finally changing: humor, but it's hard. Sick. Not real. "But you're a big girl, yeah. Five honest-to-god bloody superheroes and me, and what we /really/ needed, the only thing that could get us through, was Zatanna bloody Zatara. None of the rest of us could possibly have been competent enough. And of course, you know — something that took down all of us, you'd definitely have been able to take that on all by yourself. Because you're a big girl."

He pushes himself up off of the counter. One slow step after another gradually closes the distance between them. Enough that she can eventually see the line chipped between his brows. "All that moaning about how nobody trusts you with anything, and you couldn't trust us to get it done. It had to be you. Or maybe," he adds — and something shifts in his tone, slides out sideways like a tectonic plate, brittle: "Maybe it was just me you couldn't trust. The only mage there. Maybe I wasn't going to be good enough to get them out on my own. Not like a /Zatara/. Not magical royalty, all of reality just a toy to be played with. Just John bloody Constantine, the gutter mage, who nicks his secrets from better men."

—-

She soaks the incoming blows with the silence and endurance of one used to pain, and who can usually handle it better than most. Teeth clamp tightly from between closed lips, eyes fixed forward as she watches him close the distance. Guilt, brutal, savage and impossible to hold at bay, wrenches into her stomach like a spear, jerking upwards to crack her open and spill what's there. She knows, she knows, she knows and she went anyway, and doesn't that just make things worse? The arrogance of it, the hypocrisy of it, after everything that has happened in the last three weeks and she finds herself yanked and stuffed into those old patterns, because of her own poor impulse control. Her recklessness, her stubbornness.

In the end, the gradual heating of the burning embers of her own temper is secondary to that wave of self-loathing that washes over her. Not because she didn't think about her other associates, other friends. Not because she didn't think of the risks Jessica and Peter were taking, but because she let her fears over /one person/ override everything else - good judgment, good sense…and thoughts of the other good people who had come along for the ride.

It was selfish, she knows. She knows precisely where it was coming from when she decided to go anyway. Her lips part to say so.

…only to get frozen in the last minute by the last.

Zatanna stares at him incredulously. For a few minutes, she looks stunned, as if he had taken up the nearest chair and cracked her across the face with it.

But it starts. He'd see all the signs - the narrowing of her eyes, the rapid-fire pulse roaring against the side of her neck. Her fingernails dig deep into her skin.

All it takes is one, ill-advised spark. "I deserved that." Her voice is low, quiet, the rumble from the back of her throat. "About Spidey, about Jess. You're right about all of that. The sheer hypocrisy, too. You can roast me over the coals for it and it'd be justice. You can do it all night if you want, and I'll sit here and take it."

Her lips part, to reveal a glimpse of her teeth.

"But not the last." The syllables seethe through the gaps. "Don't you dare use me as a punching bag to bleed out whatever resentment you have towards Daddy."

—-

He expects his temper to rise and meet hers, like magnets of opposite polarity that get too close to one another, snapping together with sudden violence. That's how it often goes, on those occasions things get this way: passion breeds like, and John has plenty of passion, for all that he prefers to play it off as being something else.

That same aloof, remote part of him that gawked at his anger has room to be faintly surprised when it doesn't happen. He probes the hole in him where it ought to be coming from, wonders in an abstract way why it doesn't.

"It looks exactly the same coming from you as it does from him, so how am I supposed to tell the difference, 'tanna? Neither of you trust me enough to get the job done. He'd rather /disappear/ than even so much as let me know he's in trouble, and you'd rather throw yourself headlong at the people who want you dead than believe I might be able to handle it, even with the company I was keeping tonight. An' I'm supposed to feel like that doesn't make me somehow beneath whatever esteem the two of you hold for yourselves. Whatever capability you think you have that I don't. All on top of it being made ever-so-clear by dear old da that I'm just not /good enough/ for you."

It nags at him, this line of conversation, because it's skidding out in directions that he never intended it to go. It makes him uneasy. Complicated things move in him that he has no name for yet, but they're old and familiar, a Gordian knot of nauseous impressions, but the last time he felt them resides on the other side of two long years of electroshock therapy, enough bottled lightning to help him forget, or at least render the memory of those things abstract.

He has the creeping, chilling feeling that those blurry things are going to resolve for him soon enough. That he'll see them for what they are. A quiet instinct in him tells him that he doesn't want to know or acknowledge.

He begins to suspect — in an affront to his ego and everything that keeps him stapled together — that he might agree with them. That maybe he always has.

And then it's there, outlines clear: the bone-chilling fear she makes him feel when she's at risk, one side of the coin of Them, inextricably linked to the other side and all of the words he can't ever bring himself to say. The need to protect her, the private, background certainty that everything they have is doomed to failure even if he can. The days that tick onward, letting him get more and more mired in how she makes him feel, like a long, seductive slide down a chute into a hangman's noose. The terror of that eventual loss. The fury of inadequacy; of his inability to prove himself to two of the — what, five? — people in his life whose opinion of him matters in more than a passing way.

It completely derails him.

His lips part and he half-blinks, then follows through with a full one, turning and raking his hands up and into his hair, his head bowed. It's dizzying. Nauseating.

The way he traps himself between feelings and fear, or the need to control with the desire to avoid feeling responsible for every last tragedy, unable to have one without the other. How they tear him apart, and he castigates himself for his shortcomings. Bravado is not precisely the same as self-worth.

And so all of a sudden all of the fight in him shifts, directed inward, because he lacks utterly the coping mechanisms to sort through the mess he's just made of himself.

—-

Where the hell was this going?

Even after she had stepped out of the bunker to rush to where they are, Zatanna knew that she would be punished for this, that she would once again knock over the goodwill they've managed to build with one another in the last few days; that fragile house of cards that somehow, despite everything, still managed to remain standing despite her few days of imprisonment. She was, or she thought she was, prepared for it, ready to don the armor and soak in the raging torrents of his ire. And now that he was so /descriptive/ in illustrating just how horribly she made a mess of things, she wanted him to continue. To unload. To stretch her over the rack until she screamed and sobbed and burned for her mistakes, because what else was there to do after an apology? She wasn't above self-flagellation, remembering the way she deliberately sought out Bucky Barnes so she could rile him into punishing her for deliberately hurting John, though as of yet he seems oblivious to the fact. It would hurt, the pain would be indescribable, but pain is a price she will gladly pay to settle scores that need settling, to re-balance the ledgers of her soul while giving the other the validation he deserves. To satisfy the other's need to know that she /cares enough/, more than enough, to pay.

But this is…

It's almost enough to take out the wind in her sails. As he fails to show anger, as he slowly retreats into himself, confusion and that nagging, underlying sense that /something else/ had surfaced from the labyrinth of his emotions that she wasn't expecting, or is fully prepared to face; another monster lurking in its dark corners, ready to consume her at the slightest misstep. She falters visibly, those ice-blue eyes fixed on his face, letting the last few words soak in as she battles the urge to…what was this? What was happening? What was…

'Beneath whatever esteem you hold for yourselves.'

'I'm just not /good enough/ for you.'

Something shatters, like glass, splintering within the cage of her ribs. Agony braids tightly over her face.

"He didn't just leave /you/," the young magician reminds, anger replaced by something else. Something even she can't determine, because she's still stumbling over this new ghost, still attempting to parse out its nature. Ice constricts like a vise over the tortured beats of her heart. "Or have you forgotten? I've stood by his side all my life and when he gets one of those calls, he leaves me behind, too. He's a /father/, John, I find it hard to believe that he would elect to burden you with his own problems when you have /plenty/ of your own, or that he doesn't feel that way about /every/ man that catches my serious interest and I don't…what about what I said before made you…"

He turns and she takes a few steps forward before she knows it, closing more of the distance. "What I did tonight. My disregard, my stubbornness, my recklessness, my poor impulse control, my temper and my wild imagination, my inability to let go of an idea until i /did something about it/, my desire to be there no matter what, that's /all me/. It has /nothing/ to do with what you can do or what you're capable of doing and /everything/ to do with /my failings/. Because I can't leave Spidey and Jess and whoever else well enough alone. Because I can't leave /you/ alone. You most of all."

It rises up, the old fear, the belief that her emotional intensity could do nothing but /this/. Her hands lift as she reaches out for him, driven by impulse and need and the sick, churning sensation that if she doesn't….

"John, look at me." She forces the words around the growing knot in her throat, leaving them choking on empty air. "I don't think that. I would never."

Her eyes tighten around the corners, her following words, her voice pitched lowly in a fierce, anguished whisper.

"I would /never/."

—-

It is a perfect storm of all of the things that are broken in John Constantine.

Here is a man who was blamed from the time of his birth by an abusive father for the death of his own mother; who was never, ever good enough for that man. Who got his feet underneath him when he found the one thing he was truly good at, only to fail in the most spectacular way possible, and lose some of the first friends he'd ever even managed to /make/.

He is not graceful in attachment, needing it desperately and fearing it more than anything else, because like a whipped dog he wants nothing more than to be stroked by a loving hand, but most of what he knows of a hand is the fist — that you can't have one without the other. Ten years ago, his grief and self-loathing consumed him alive, chewed him up and spat him out into Ravenscar. Not once, but four times, each release only demonstrating that he couldn't make it on his own. They'd done things to him there that only reinforced those animal pieces of him, continuing to grind down what humanity was left.

He'd come out of Ravenscar as tough as a coffin nail, and found purpose in the one thing he could do: manipulate events to achieve certain ends, saving legions of unwary from the grasp of undeserved supernatural doom, most of the time instigated by the very people he set out to save. They were stand-ins for his one, great mistake; for a little girl who continues to burn, innocent, in the fires of a Hell that is anything but symbolic.

Last year he'd found something like water level. His life had been briefly uncomplicated. The man who had stepped into whatever paltry imitation of actual fatherhood John had ever known elected to trust him with the education of his daughter. And maybe that wouldn't have lasted — maybe he'd have gotten bored and moved on eventually; probably that's true — but that's not how it ended. It ended because he'd overstepped boundaries and been thrown out by that very same man.

/Whatever,/ he'd told himself, electing not to think about it. /It wouldn't have lasted, anyway, it never does./

And then New York. And then Zatanna. Then the fighting, losing her a second time — this time for reasons of their own — and his realization that he cared a great deal more about those things than he'd let himself believe. Her confession: she /loves/ him. His bewilderment, enough to allow things to creep through the open door in his chest, things he was afraid to think about too deeply, because then he might have to give them a name. And the more he felt them, the deeper they got their roots into him, the more he's had to dread the dropping of the other shoe, because John has not ever in his life known love without punishment.

Her peril, his efforts to fix the problem — to do that /one thing/ he believes he can do. The knowledge that Giovanni is trusting him to do so only because he cannot do it himself. That even fixing everything wouldn't be enough for his former mentor when it comes to whatever fragile thing they've been building.

All of the things he'd said about her errors in judgement were true, and he's well aware of that — and so is she. But everything turned out to be fine, in the end. Wouldn't 'that was really stupid, next time be smarter about things' be enough? But seeing her there had wounded his professional pride — the one thing he clings to in order to make himself feel he has purpose — and it had /terrified/ him. John will spit in the devil's eye and never once break a sweat, because those are fears he can handle, but that? Like the beaten dog sensing the incoming swing of that fist, all he'd been able to do is bare his teeth and bite, and in so doing kick open the shell that keeps all of his festering issues contained. This tightrope walk that he does: wanting this, her. Wanting to admit to himself that he's falling—

But knowing what happens when he does. Knowing he's weak, and that at the bottom of that pit is Ravenscar, still waiting for him to trip over his own heart and fall down that hole again. All beneath the judgemental eye of Giovanni Zatara.

Being close to John really ought to require that someone is issued a hard-hat right from the very beginning.

She has no trouble getting her hands on him, and he'll even turn back toward her if she encourages that, but he can't at first bring himself to look at her. It's too much for him to process. Too many things tied to the core of who he is. He has no distance on them, no perspective at all. And no sense of what he's just done to /this/. To them. No idea if that even matters, because of what he expects in the end.

She does demand that he look at her, though, and eventually he manages it, blue eyes sweeping upward with only a few stops along the way. For the most part, he looks…

…lost.

Nobody who deals with him on a regular basis would ever believe it. They're used to the hard shells he's made for himself, all cocky arrogance and biting wit.

—-

She once told James Buchanan Barnes that she was drawn to those who were lost, if not just because she knows a little bit of what that was like, and the pain associated with it was beyond imagining.

Zatanna doesn't know, has no cause to know of the details that take up the endless loops his mind, or the dizzying forays he makes in memories which she only knows vague shapes of; the broken words mumbled in his sleep, the wounds that scabbed over and left him a hardened shell. She is unaware of how his steps leave her here, and track back to Ravenscar, those four visits, details burned away by rough handling and electricity, or how he tumbles over what he has done after arriving in New York. She knows some, because he's told her - of seeing her soul drain away, how it was enough, how his pride and her deliberation nearly destroyed what they had and could have so completely that there would have been no going back were it not for the tiniest of mercies. They often say that the truth shall set you free, and by all rights, she thinks this is what has happened to the both of them, not realizing that they could have simply traded one trap for another.

Because of this, of situations like this.

His eyes meet hers haltingly, in increments, and what she sees obliterates her. His earlier words had nearly flayed her alive, but now that she is witnessing this, the torture of that earlier encounter absolutely /pales/ in comparison. It feels like a knife, inserted through her skin from tip to blade - slowly, intimately, brushing over every sense she keeps open in the name of emotional discourse, carving its way up from belly to neck in excruciating inches, leaving blood to pool forgotten on her skin. It drains her ability to breathe, to feel nothing else but the torrent it causes and for a long moment, she does nothing but /look/ at him, her expression folded over a myriad of others, rouletting through /all/ of them in an attempt to suss out what this is - what she could say, what she could do.

But how can she when she can't…

She doesn't know what to do, and as usual, whenever that happens, she gives herself over to her first instinct, her first immediate need. Her arms shift, shaking, uncertain fingers banding around until they grip into the back of his shirt, to anchor him there, seized by the irrational impulse that if she did, if she simply held onto him, he would stop floating away. The word, /that/ word - away and all of its synonyms: vanished, leaving, /gone/, triggers every other alarm inside of herself, driving her to move, to do something even while she stumbles further into shaky territory. Because she doesn't know what else she could do. Her cheek presses hard into his chest, heat and moisture stinging her eyes, liquefied nettles that threaten to spill over.

The words come, eventually, because even now she can't deny them, ever so quick to run across these minefields in hopes of getting to the other side alive, no matter how many wounds, broken bones or shrapnel she manages to accumulate along the way.

"I try not to ask for anything," she says, the beginnings of yet another heartbreak rendering her breathless. "I try not to pry, to be content with what scant details you deign to give me because the last thing I ever want to do is push myself on you, to be /too much/ for you. And I do what I can, even when you do this, even when you turn off all the lights and leave me to try and find you blind without help…stumbling and crashing into things, cutting myself, bruising myself, /wrecking/ everything because I don't know what it's like to /stop/ until I have a grip on you again. If not just to prove to you that everything I said, everything I told you…I meant them. I /meant them/."

I'll bleed, she said.

I'll burn.

Her lashes blink rapidly, leavings of heavy dew clinging on the ends, blurring the details of his shirt, the side of his tie.

"God, John." They leave her in a pained whisper, each word thick with it - frustration yes, but sorrow above all. "Just let me love you."

—-

The great irony of them is that it's her fierce — and /not/ fearless, but brave, and certainly honest — willingness to give love so readily, in all of its fullness, without restraint, that rips him into two halves. That makes him love her — oh jesus, because he does, oh shit — and causes him to suffer in anticipation of having that love destroyed. Because John Constantine is not whole or mended. And he is too prideful, too averse to that degree of vulnerability, to admit that he's afraid. Not because she wouldn't understand — she would, he has no doubt; it's in her nature — but because he cannot bear the admission, and so he leaves her without a lifeline. She can tell he's been injured but not how or where, and he can't bring himself to tell her.

It paralyzes him there in the space between urgent impulses, to pull her in and to withdraw. Everything he wants, everything he thinks he cannot survive the having of.

He can feel the hot misery of her face against his chest through his clothing, and it's initially on reflex that his hands come up, ghosts behind her that seem uncertain which bits of her they should haunt. His heartbeat ticks along, strong and fast underneath her cheek.

Hands do eventually settle, and then arms. Then the tilt of his head, lips and chin pressed to the top of hers, held there, eyes open but unfocused, still uncomprehending over the dark drifts of her hair. Some part of him continues to search for the way out of the recursive maze he's built for himself, this trap he's been the architect of.

Something to /say/.

Like /I'm afraid./ Two words that might explain /everything/. All of it. Everything to do with Zatara, everything to do with her safety, to do with his twisting indecision between falling down with her and leaning away, trying to put the brakes on everything.

"I…want to." It's not the same. It is as close as he can get.

—-

He says nothing and the lack of a lifeline nearly leaves her to drown.

She /still/ knows nothing, not really - the earlier analogy is apt, as to how difficult he makes it when he switches all the lights off and leaves her in the pitch blackness, hands out and groping for any signs of him. It lasts for so long that it compounds her torments, her imagination calling up all the ways he could be suffering, caged somewhere inside of herself as she attempts to batter down the doors to set him free. A noble sentiment, certainly. An impossible one, but Zatanna was never one to balk at improbable odds, no matter whether they were internal or external.

Her fingers ball somewhere behind him and it hurts, how she senses him falter, to move his arms uncertainly over her. She grits her teeth when his head, his lips, his chin buries against the top of her head, because while he rarely ever tells her anything, the fact that she is sensitive is intrinsic to her nature, also - she doesn't know the source of his anguish, the causes and situations that resulted in these broken pieces of him, but she feels their results, mirrors them into herself and reflects them back. Perhaps it really is the only way - not to unravel his mysteries, not to pry open the boxes that contain his secrets but just so she could understand him just enough to be able to extend her hands…

"John…" she begins hoarsely. It sounds like a plea, it sounds like she's begging him, and she /hates/ it. "Don't do this to m— "

'I…want to.'

He means it, it doesn't sound hollow, but it doesn't ring whole.

But it's /something/ - he says something at last and she falls silent, letting the words hang. Her eyes slip shut; moisture leaves a scalding trail down the high arch of her cheek, clinging to her jaw. And it is this moment that she wonders - some small part of her can't help but wonder how long she will last…the moment he manages to consume every last bit of her until there's nothing left.

"So let me," she says quietly, despite all of it. "I'm not…I'm not going to even ask how hard that could be, because I know it's not easy. And if that's not enough…if that's not…" Her jaw sets, forcing herself to say the words. "If that's not something you need in your life, just tell me."

She's young, yes, but she knows - there is a gulf of a difference, between wanting and having.

—-

Sometimes, even a person groping blindly in the dark can find their way to the switchplate and cut on the lights, though they may wish they hadn't. It isn't always pretty, what the lights illuminate — the unholy mess.

Asking him, gently opening the door to allow him to tell her the truth, would /never/ have produced a result. He would never voluntarily open himself up to that kind of intimacy, the kind that leaves him raw and open. And that just makes things more confusing for everyone, because he can be very giving of himself — within limits. Within the areas of his life that are safe to do so. His time, his attention. His passion. His humor. His knowledge. Those things, with the right people, he can be absolutely free with.

Not these others. No matter how nicely she asked or how much she cried. No matter how safe she tried to make it seem.

It's because she misunderstands everything — how could she /not?/ — that he's finally forced to yield to the necessity. Because she needs to hazard a guess to make sense of it all, and it's the wrong guess.

His hands finally find their purpose, lifting to cradle her head and lever it back slightly from his chest. Where he finds the mettle to look her in the eye after everything, with his insides still feeling as though he's swallowed bags full of helium, even he doesn't know, but it suddenly seems imperative.

"It is. It /is/. That's the problem. Everything — " The words come quickly now, piling up behind his teeth, almost too many for him to serve in time. "— /Everything/ I have ever let myself care about has been /destroyed/. Usually by /me/. And here we're just — you just show back up in my life like this and we mend what we can, but it goes further than that, doesn't it? Even though it's not even allowed. But I want it. I want you. So I let myself follow you down to — to something else. Every day I wake up knowing we're on borrowed time, but I'm still a bloody idiot and I look at you and just…push that away long enough to dig myself a little bit deeper down into the hole. You'd think I'd know better, right? Even if it weren't for your da, everyone I know just — they /die/, Zee. Eventually. Everyone. And the ones who don't, like Ritchie? They spend a lot of time wishing they had. Bloody hell, I watched it happen to you in Muller's funhouse, didn't I? But there I go anyway, because for some reason when you /look at me/ like that I don't feel completely worthless. Just for a bit. The most selfish…possible reason. And then when you go I realize I'm probably going to get you killed, and even if I don't you might get yourself killed because you don't know how to /not/ get involved, and the thought of that, losing — everything — while I, every day, let myself get more and more—"

He fights for his breath, shallow as it is. The pressure of his fear crushes his chest like a boulderweight. "I can see it coming. The day Giovanni gets tired of us dancing around his /goddamn/ hex, or you get tired of having to dance around it. The day something happens. And on that day I'm going to look back at all of this and see how I set myself up for it, because I know better. I don't get to /have/ this."

The last sentence is where his intensity falters, breaking across the shard of unworthiness buried deep in him, driven there like a railway spike by his father and compounded by everything that would come later.

He thinks it's all going to be torn away because he's not /allowed/ to have it. Not by her father. By anything. By God. The universe. His penance.

—-

For a moment, she resists, when he tries to lever her head up so he could look her right in the eye. The moment the question left her, the moment she braces herself for an answer, for a few, breathless, painful seconds, she loses her nerve. It does not happen often, a testament as to just how much this is all affecting her, the yawning abyss of yet another abandonment stretching out before her as the demons within scream with the desire to rip her to pieces. She doesn't know if she can bear it….not again. She doesn't know if…

Zatanna eventually lets it happen, broad, rough palms framing her face and forcing her to meet his eyes, the details of his face lost by the lingering film moisture leaves behind. This almost never happens, someone having to guide her to look at him directly, but seeing what she finds there - misery, ghosts of his past trials - nearly crushes the breath out of her. All she can do at the moment is let go of him, her hands slipping away from the fists they make on his back, long fingers twining around both wrists as he holds her there, holds her head down in the deluge he subjects her to. All that grief, all that sorrow - regrets, and so much loss. He has never told her this much before, and when he does, she isn't prepared for it, staring at him mutely while everything about him casts a shadow over her shorter, slimmer frame, the brightness of her stare darkened by the way his head tilts over hers.

It's fear - magnified a thousandfold, the intonation of that rarely-used nickname hammering home his state of mind, as he never uses it unless he's being serious and intimate. Her expression holds no censure now, none of her signature affection-laced exasperation, a milder case of what had resulted when he delivered that earlier knife between her ribs, shocked to stillness at the breadth and magnitude that realization instills in her. Her breath shortens in the very real, desperate attempt to swallow all of it, to open that tattered heart up even further in hopes that it has enough room to consume and hold enough of his sins to alleviate what she finds in his eyes.

Her thoughts race, grasping at everything, anything; to tell him that everyone dies eventually, to remind him that she has already told him he can be as selfish as he wants, and if she ever had an issue with it, they could have it out as they usually do. The fact that he spent a good amount of this discussion /whipping her/ for acting as if nobody around her knew what they were doing, what risks they were taking, when he speaks of the others who followed him to hell and how he shoulders their deaths because he caused them. But something stops her, because she knows she /can't/ say those things and risk making him feel like she's making light of everything he has suffered when nothing could be further from the truth.

Because she's in this again, sinking deeper into the muck with him, having thrown herself into it willingly without a single glance over her shoulder. Twisted up in the brambles and feeling them lance into her skin. Her fingers tighten over his wrists and now that the gates have been unlatched, she can't stop the way salt and water fall from the corners of her eyes, broken open by his genuine, deep-seated belief that he isn't allowed to have this.

"I don't know what's going to happen," she chokes. "I don't. And I try not to think about it too much, because I live for what's in front of me and I'm scared shitless, too. I'm too young, maybe. Too young to feel this intensely for anyone, when I've barely started to live my life. But this is /mine/ to give. Not my father, not Fate, or Heaven or Hell or whoever else, whatever else. It's /mine/, and I'm giving it to you. I /have/ given it to you. It's been yours for two years, and for all I know, no matter what happens, you'll keep it in your pocket forever, to hold onto or…god, to forget about. I'm scared of that, too - the idea that you'll be the first /and/ the last, and if it doesn't…if it all goes away…"

She exhales; it shakes leaving her lungs. "But I'd rather have you in my life than not. Than never. I look at you the way I do because you're /not/ worthless to me. I /chose/ you, John. Freely, willingly…./happily/, if you could believe it after /everything/. And maybe I'll pay for it someday."

Her eyes close.

"It's worth it. Feeling like this, this way, for you. You might not think so, but I do."

—-

Oh, he knows.

He knows that she's giving it to him — that boundless love of hers, for no reason he can begin to fathom. He may not understand /why/, but he knows that she has. It has not improved matters. He doesn't trust /himself/ with it — or without it.

He has very few choices now, as the conversation winds toward this impasse. She is resolute in her decision, but she admits that she's young, and he's altogether too aware of that, too; that as the half of them with more experience, it may be his responsibility to know what's best for her. She's so /sure/ now that it would all be worth it, no matter the cost, but she didn't live through Newcastle, and part of him wonders if that starry-eyed self might not come to the rude conclusion he came to in the aftermath: that it was never going to be worth it at all.

So the first of his choices to make is this: does he believe her? Does he choose to put his faith in her decision, and trust that she knows what she's doing? Does he let her shoulder the burden of the consequences of her choice, knowing what he knows about what it is to be close to him?

Which is just another way, really, of asking whether or not he stays, or goes. Whether he walks away from her now — it would have to be now, standing like this at a crossroads — or commits to enduring whatever wholesale destruction is to come, whatever it may be. If anything at all — which is a thought he barely allows himself to acknowledge the fleeting existence of. The possibility of actual, untampered-with contentment is not one he can afford to believe in.

He answers them in the reverse order. He tries to imagine himself sending her home and cannot. So he isn't leaving, then. And if he isn't leaving, his choices are to either dwell in frantic misery, expecting the worst and punishing himself for not having the strength to break things off…or accepting what she says, taking her at her word, and allowing her to shoulder her portion of the blame for whatever comes. And if he does that…

If he does that, it means there is almost nothing or no one he wouldn't put to the fire for trying to keep them apart. Not just to spare her, not just to protect her, but to /survive/.

He presses his crown to hers, leans in, all hard planes and angles against softer curves. Shifts that hand of his, the line of his thumb, tip to heel, bridging the edge of her upper lip with the point of her chin. All of his energy has been mist, floating, dispersed across the battlefield of him, but it twists itself with sudden purpose, a narrow beam of intensity.

His eyes do more than lid, nearly closing beneath knitting brows, the shallow breath he takes pulling air as much across his thumb as from the space between them, because it's there to keep him from making a catastrophic mistake.

Well. One kind of catastrophic mistake.

He's fully committed to making the other.

"Take it off." The words are quiet, but they brim with pain and heat. His other hand tightens into a gentle fist in her hair. "Take off the hex and stay." He sips air as though to take in too much would raze his lungs, tilting his head the other way, like a predator circling something caged that it wants and knows it cannot reach, trying to puzzle its way through. "Here."

—-

Perhaps it would have been a kindness after all, if he told her that this was something he didn't need. If he had just told her that he didn't need her, even if it was a lie. He could do it, he was so good at it, and undoubtedly, certainly, she would believe him.

But that's not what happens.

What assails her now isn't unlike the sensation of standing on top of a cliff, ready to spread her arms to her sides and take a giant leap, to find a piece of heaven somewhere below, or dash all hopes of happiness into the rocks. To hold her breath and take the plunge, to see where this leads her, whether to find herself in his arms or watch his back as he lets go. Either stands a good chance at killing her, she knows, but that was her all over, too - to submit herself to heartbreak, to the sheer, insurmountable pain of it, than not take the chance to go on this most perilous of human adventures. She thinks she's given it all to him - her heart, her honesty, hell, even a way out, for all he had to do if he really wanted to break away, to free himself from this, is to say that he doesn't need this in his life.

He does, though. John said otherwise emphatically just then, looking her right in the eye and calling her by name.

Anticipation, dread, they rake down her back, fingers wrought from ice and lightning and for a moment, Zatanna doesn't breathe because she senses it, too; uncharted territory, the line on the sand. She has made her choice and she tries to be patient when it's his turn to make his. He hasn't left her yet, hasn't walked away, and maybe that's enough. Maybe that's enough for tonight. They were both exhausted, emotional, and they've yet to even process what happened in Switzerland - a trip that surprised her, when she followed the group, and used her connection to John to teleport herself there.

Zatanna is about to suggest it. Her lips part, only for his thumb to bridge them shut. Her heart stops when his head leans in, the gold-brown strands of his hair pressing and mingling into the darker stuff on her crown. She feels his breath well before the ghosts from his lips spill against her cheeks, when they hover over that flimsy barrier of flesh and bone, to prevent himself from…

From…

It's like a pulse, a shot of lightning taken straight into her chest. That open, vulnerable heart pounds wildly against her bones, nearly shattering them and while she can't see his face and how it looks while this close, when her own have drifted shut before she even knows it, she can see it inside of her head and oh god, what he says. A shiver rolls down her spine like thunder, storms brewing inside of her skull as wild heat and /breathtaking dread/ threatens to liquefy all contents within. Her lips part, to take a breath - heavy, tortured, tasting the salt from his skin as the burden of making the ultimate decision pulls onto her shoulders. And despite it - the fear, the apprehension, she knows she can't, and /won't/, walk back on what she said. She made her choice, said it with all the brash confidence that could only come from someone so young and so reckless. So willing to throw gasoline on kindling and set things on fire. To go against the rules, to shatter her boundaries, no matter who has placed them in her path…even someone she loves the most in the world.

She exhales, a breathless pant. It presses against his thumb, washes it in heat.

Oh god, she thinks.

Her mouth continues moving against that flesh-and-bone barricade, even while his own tilts and prods for weaknesses. Words, barely heard. No one in this world has more knowledge about Zatara's magic than his daughter and now that she allows herself to, she senses all of them - the dials, the tumblers, the latches that trap John Constantine in the vault of his own magical devise, to prevent this very thing from happening. And really, in the end, this was all incidental, wasn't it? It was never just about /that/, was never just about…

Every whisper, every syllable. Like a thief, a burglar, she reaches for these mechanisms with the deft touch of a safecracker, to prod for weaknesses, to pick at them until she finds a hole and compromises the foundations. He'd feel them shift, move, twist, unlocking one by one as her face slowly pushes forward, the edges of her teeth felt by the callused pad of his thumb. Closer, and closer - he'd hear her breath clip into the back of her throat as the arcane knobs holding him back twist into themselves at her insistence, bulling in with the singleminded tenacity of one so sure about the sheer span of the /mistake she is making at this moment/ and not giving one bit of a shit.

Oh god. Oh god. The blood-rush in her ears is almost deafening.

/Daddy, I'm so sorry./

Dials spin. Tumblers disengage.

/I can't stand this anymore. I have to. I need…/

It shatters. It breaks apart inside of him like all the mirrors that they recently, but not really, broke in Hong Kong in a massive wave of Synchronicity energy, bolstered and shouldered by her endless reserves, a paltry reflection of a heart that is just as boundless. And she moves, because she can't not. Because she meant every word she said about choosing him. About how he wasn't worthless. About how /this/ was worth it. And they were worth it. And how, oh god how willing she is to pay the price, no matter how high.

Her hand tightens over his wrist. She rips his thumb away from her mouth and slants it over his even before the gossamer strains of her father's magic dissipate completely, smoke to the wind. Need - torrential, /unbridled/ - laces every stroke of a greedy, hungry tongue, and all the while she spreads her hands to her sides and tips forward.

And falls.

—-

John is a dangerous man, but he's never more dangerous than when he's willing to risk everything on just /one/ thing. He can give this to her — this acceptance of the wreckage that they may become — but it pulls off every restraint he's ever had, every limit or boundary.

For this, tonight, he would throw Giovanni Zatara on the fire himself. And if she'd told him no, that she couldn't do it, wouldn't, he might actually be brute-forcing the lock, because the rules of the game have changed completely.

She doesn't do that, though. He can feel the workings begin, slowly reversing, like the ghostly fingertips of her soul walking across the fabric of his own, and it is the most tortuous possible foreplay. The raw adrenaline of anticipation boils into his bloodstream, every last thought funneled down to one singular point of diamond focus.

As the hex is rewound, unraveled, so is the damage to his face. It decreases, sinks, changes, contours gradually aligning with illusion meant to mask the disfigurement — far more slowly than the explosive upheaval that caused it. And it still hurts — it has to — but even the pain is welcome, a hot brand that floods the paltry space between them with deeper breaths made ragged by his stubborn refusal to turn away. It hooks like the blade of a scythe around behind his eye socket, pours hot lead into his sinuses. He has the sense to untangle his hand from her hair to keep from dragging her head off of her shoulders, winding his arm instead around her back to cleave her close.

There are consequences for everything — everything. But if he's resigned to suffering the consequences for what they want, then he won't be denied the fullest expression of it. The pain will come. He's sure of that. Until then, he will wring every last drop of pleasure from what they have, whatever the price.

And then the catch slips, the pressure is gone. Magic shreds and tatters, flutters away in scraps, and he barely feels them go once the bindings are loose because he's too busy feeling /everything/. /Else./

Everything.

It's all a searing, white-hot surge of electricity and it leaves no room at all for conscious thought, but somewhere in the midst of his desperate need there is a feeling like a deluge of water after months of dry desert, a relief so profound that it feels — even as he struggles to catch his breath — as though he can actually breathe for the first time in /months/. Something fundamental, chafing in its chains, finally set free. He leans into her and matches her hunger, bracing her head against the demands he makes, aware that she's trapped between he and the back of the loveseat, that too much lean will bend her spine like a bow. He holds himself back only with the greatest possible expenditure of will.

It isn't what he'd imagined it would be, during his fevered bouts with frustration. He'd imagined the hex would go and then it would be ROUND ONE, FIGHT, expending all of his pent-up desires in a grand conflagration of carnal aggression. And maybe it will be, maybe it /is/, but it's overshadowed by something else entirely — like two palms sliced open and brought together into a tight clasp, blood exchanged in the contact. Something like that. Something.

And when he's had just enough of her mouth to allow him a moment's pause — not /nearly/ enough to sate him, a man starved too long, but enough to ensure that he doesn't go up in flames and turn to ashes — he finds the presence of mind to dip his hands down to the backs of her thighs and haul her up, legs around waist. There is a cell here somewhere, he dimly remembers, half-drowned in the bruising rejoinders of that first bottomless kiss, lacing teeth into the constantly changing lock of mouth over hers — new angles, better ones. The cell, he knows, in that dim and animal way, has a bed in it. It's not terribly far. Yards. Ten, fifteen.

He thinks: they'll never make it.

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