All or Nothing

January 17, 2017:

Using the bottle Giovanni Zatara gave him, John Constantine establishes contact with the man in an attempt to demand some answers.

New York City

A park in New York City.

Characters

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

Mentions: Zatanna Zatara

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

For a few days, the bottle has sat among Constantine's possessions, untouched until when it is absolutely necessary. While Giovanni Zatara has not explicitly given that instruction, it is most certainly implied, demonstrative of the confidence he has in his former student that he would know this. It operates much like a beacon, a mystical flare, something to fire off into the sky and let it fizzle and spark in the atmosphere, sensed, rather than seen, for miles and miles around and specific to the person who created it. So when this happens, the response is immediate.

Wherever John has decided to use this, hopefully away from the flat, the air ripples and twists, providing the legendary magician with a means of egress from wherever he has been doing his own investigations and back into the world that birthed him. Save for that ever-present exhaustion around his eyes, and the slight lean on his walking stick, from a limp that he bears with the same chilly grace with which he carries himself, he looks relatively intact. Resolute, if not somewhat grim. To further blend into the modern world, as now John has some idea as to why appearing incognito may be important to the man these days, he is out of his typical magician's dress - his coat today is spun out of gray tweed, his scarf pitch-black and tucked securely underneath his lapels. But he is never out and about without his gloves and top hat.

The moment he steps out of the rift, something in the air gives him pause. He slants a cutting glance to the side, over the horizon, before he says anything else. All of this, somehow, feels wrong - instincts, perhaps, honed from decades expending so much of himself fighting the dark, or those attuned to his role as a father.

But he doesn't know what it is.

Constantine knows that intense relationships can form lasting bonds through the aether, tying the spirit of one magician to another. While that level of connection with him is rare, almost nonexistent, in fact, Zatanna is not so emotionally hampered. She should have at least one other tether….and as he so recently used his connection to find her, the lack of Giovanni's from his daughter is a glaring thing, a testament as to how deep his curse runs, that he has had to forcibly /sever/ this very important tie to the one thing he loves unconditionally.

Lips pressing in a tight line, those ice-blue eyes fall on John. "What has happe— "

Speaking of curses, the lack of his hex on John stands out as well.

"…ned." He manages to finish the sentence. That /discussion/ can be tabled for later.

—-

He's chosen a green space, a small park populated at night only by college students coming and going from the sorority and fraternity houses that populate the street that runs along one side. It's well and gently lit even at night, and the dominating sounds are that of young people laughing. It's also a wedge shape flanked by two buildings, the shortest side the only open one, and it's for that degree of cover that John decided to leave their more open waterfront meeting place.

The missing hex is not the only thing to have changed in John. He hasn't seen Giovanni since they performed outdoor surgery on the book, before he had Zatanna cut the complex, home-grown symbol into his wrist. Some small piece of unfolding shadowplay now lives in him — effectively caged, but nevertheless a lingering presence for those with senses fine enough to detect it.

He'd thought he would be nervous about this. Confronting Giovanni in the wake of everything to happen with the man's daughter, this renewal of the forbidden, but when the moment arrives — when he /sees/ Giovanni, sees the limp, sees his face — all of those thoughts evaporate, boiled out of him by the anger that begins to cycle up inside of his chest.

"What in the bloody hell do you /think/ happened?" He manages his tone well enough, but there are thunderclouds in his expression, and they convey themselves with all of the facility of a face no longer warped out of true. "You /knew/ what we were going to find in Switzerland." He rises from his seat on the bench, turning to face his old mentor. He's a full inch taller than Giovanni, and he finds himself needing that inch. "Why didn't you tell me? It had better be a /very/ good reason, mate. People could've died while I was holding them off because I wasn't sure whether or not what I was seeing was really you. And if I hadn't been there, nobody would've known. Fuck's sake — I could barely tell as it was, even knowing you like I do, and anybody else would've got it wrong. So what was it, Gi? What the hell was it?"

—-

That, too, was troubling. Giovanni can sip the air and know that once again, the makeup of the crossroads within John Constantine has changed, a new addition to the jigsaw pieces that the man has accumulated within himself after all of his trials. It makes him clip his teeth behind closed lips, in an effort to hold the words at bay, electing to do so instead of what he usually does - to deliver a remark, cool and usually acerbic, to exorcise the phantoms of concern that he almost always feels when the boy is in his presence.

But he remembers fire. Screaming. Censure. Heartbreak.

The Englishman's anger washes over him, a wall of heat to throw against the towering iceberg of his defenses in hopes of thawing it just enough to leak out the answers he seeks. Answers he needs. After watching him for a few moments, he takes a few careful steps past John and towards the bench so he could take a seat. It brings at least a bit of relief, to take the pressure of his leg, though he manages to make it seem like a trivial inconvenience at best, tucking the inner of his right knee over his left and setting his walking stick to the side.

"Your origins and mine are similar," he begins, and while there is a point to this seemingly unconnected segue, as the man never does or says anything without good reason, the way he chooses to start this conversation may be a little puzzling. "Not the same, of course. You are unique, even for the likes of us, but we have certain points of commonality in the sense that we are both instruments of Fate. Unfortunately for the both of us, however, I am not as free as you to manipulate it, or misdirect it. There are aspects of you that enable you to sink under its notice when it is absolutely necessary and for all of my skills and what I have learned, my very nature does not allow me to even so much as get within a few yards of such a talent. I am forever in its spotlight, John. It cannot be helped."

His eyes wander away at that, fingers resting placidly over his lifted knee. "What you have discovered in Switzerland is not my fight, and if I interfere in the wrong way, the effects can be catastrophic. I was already pushing it, forcing it, when I imparted upon you what I have, the last time we have spoken to one another. I had my misgivings, but I thought I should provide some warning."

He closes his eyes, his breath misting from underneath his mustache.

"By how the air feels around here, I am afraid even that much has cost. The Cult is an old enemy, John. Their ambitions reflect those of a man I once knew well. I am not surprised that they managed to summon what they did, if not to deter me, to have a fighting chance against me, then to tempt my daughter in their grasp. The latter reason is why I have pushed as much as I could, without generating too many ripples."

—-

John does not immediately sit. He remains standing, turning, watching the man move, and the eyes of a boy raised on the street are quick to prise out even the subtle details of that physical weakness, the way feral dogs do, always assessing vulnerability. In his case it's braided together with concern, even in his anger, but he knows better than to pry. And in any case, he has enough to worry about.

"It sodding /is/ your fight when they're using your face and your magic to do what they're doing. Sorry if that comes as a discomfiting shock, but you said it yourself — always in the spotlight, yeah? Do you know what would've happened if she'd seen? An' that was a close thing. Because I convinced her not to come, and then she came anyway. I mean she was /seconds/ from seeing it."

Referring to Zatanna's direct involvement does give some point of anchorage for the degree of his agitation, but certainly doesn't explain all of it. "I fail to see how the consequences for saying, 'hey John-boy, you're going to run into a /really convincing/ knock-off of me out there, just so you know, so don't be afraid to lop its head off,' could possibly be worse than what we've got happening now, which is there's a really convincing knock-off of you running about doing things that are going to be /fantastic/ for your reputation. And on top of that, it—"

Is dangerous for Zatanna.

That's when John drags in a deep breath, sighs, turns around and laces his hands behind his head, elbows wide. He looks out into the relative darkness, girding himself, and then pivots and turns that pivot into a twist to seat himself, leaning forward. He braces his elbows on his knees, laces his hands.

All of the anger is gone. "Look…I'm sorry about this. I've got some bad news. Some…organization, of some sort…kidnapped Zatanna. She's safe now, I went and got her back, but they…took…" Threads of the anger resurface, steel and silk, but they're not for the man beside him. "…a pretty large part of her soul. With an artifact. It's the Tarnhelm — it was at the auction, apparently; I wasn't there, so I only found out when I went digging tonight to try to confirm what I suspected. She's stable, I patched things up so she's not bleeding magic everywhere anymore, but…" His jaw juts on an angle, and then he lowers his head, rifling through his hair with one hand, eyes directed at the ground between his feet. "It's not good. She's pretty weak."

—-

For a while, there is nothing from the man seated next to him.

Giovanni's eyes are fixed at a far point, at the very edge of the park, where the lights of New York City beckon for the attention of those who would stop and take a look around, as rare as that is in a metropolis notorious for its sleeplessness. Always a creature of iron control, the only indication that the words have had any effect is the way the line of his jaw hardens at the hinges, mostly hidden by his collar. This is expected, as far as anyone knows, the man only has one weakness. None of this is probably easy to hear.

And it isn't easy either, to watch the boy he taught sink under the weight of the aggravation and stress of his current spate of troubles. It speaks of his personal investment in the stakes, of which there are many and rather sky-high for the both of them. Fingers curl loosely in a fist on his knee, unconsciously done, but they do not squeeze. Either he is taking everything with his usual grace, or he is quietly wrestling with the worst of his demons - the ones that have, on occasion, propelled him to annihilate men, shadows, and beings for less personal offenses.

"When we last spoke about this, I mentioned that she would need to be prepared for it. I thought that perhaps you would tell her. Because as I stated, this is not my fight."

His eyes turn to his fingers, the slightest of frowns tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"It is hers."

And it is absolutely dangerous. The silent acknowledgment of that manifests in something more sensed than it is visible. The older man isn't just unhappy, isn't just furious, but his aura also precipitously speaks of something infinitely worse: Despair. Something he definitely cannot afford in his present state.

Thin shoulders draw up, and after a breath it is gone in an instant.

"It will be fine, John." Because he /has/ to believe it. Has to. His hands are tied, he can't go anywhere /near/ his child. It is the only thing that is preventing him from caving into the rapidly growing abyss within his ribcage. "While I do not know the particulars of this latest complication, I know for a fact that she will survive this, and so will you. But since I know that you are more comfortable if you have contingencies in place…"

The man pauses.

"When she was a child, I placed her inheritance inside her. She does not remember this. But if straits become particularly dire with respect to her condition, it is there to use. Were she anyone else, it would be impossible…but in her case it is not, because of what she inherited from her mother."

He tilts his head back to look upwards.

"As you probably know, the Cult's reach is rather extensive, and so is their influence. It strikes me as strange that a lone operator like Hermann Steinschneider would have such an outfit at his beck and call, though I suppose anything to make my life more difficult would be enough motivation for the upper echelons of their ranks to join forces with him. I suspect, however, that it is more involved than that. Either Steinschneider has something they want, or they are using him for a specific end. Either way, I would very much prefer that neither of those things come to pass."

—-

Much like Giovanni, now that John is seated, he remains still. Save for the splay-fingered slide of his hand through his hair, tousling and shifting brown and gold in different configurations, he is otherwise motionless.

He tries to wrap his head around the day for the millionth time, and still cannot quite manage it. The scope of it is too enormous, too sudden a change from the heady blur of the last several days. Farcical, almost, the way something so good could be followed so immediately by something so—

/I almost lost her/.

The words have been on repeat, over and over, circling like sharks in the pool of his thoughts, but it hasn't bitten him yet. He brought all of his bottomless wrath with him to find her, but there had been a crisis to manage, and John's reaction to imminent doom is always the same: he uses his head, he takes risks. He throws himself forward, aware that going back is not an option. He does not dwell, he doesn't feel. He acts. Now that the very worst eventuality has been prevented, the bulk of the crisis past them, there's time to regroup, take stock. Take the measure of the wounds inflicted.

And he still can't do it. It doesn't seem real. Like he's going to wake up, any moment, and realize he's been having a bad dream, coughed up by his damaged psyche over all of his recent fears — and not even a /subtle/ effort by his unconscious, either. Brought on by Chinese take-out and the delicious twin maladies of physical exhaustion and dehydration. No dice: he has yet to wake. And still, everything feels plastic, false. Surreal unreality.

He's listening, though.

"I'll tell her what I can. What you've said. But I don't understand all of your vague, mystical bullshite, Gi, about whose fight is which. I don't see why it has to be all or nothing." He murmurs this. It has no aggression in it, only numb acceptance. "We've been planning to go Germany. The man is in Berlin. With 'tanna in this condition…" He has immense reservations. "We need to sort her out first." A long pause follows, peppered with the sounds of pedestrians tens of yards away, incongruously cheerful. "We're going to." The last words dip down into darker registers, blue eyes unfocused. What scenes of unholy bedlam and fiery destruction play out behind them is unclear from his expression, which never changes, but there's a ripple in the fabric of who he is, another peal of thunder.

—-

'I don't understand why it has to be all or nothing.'

There must be something in the Englishman's expression that moves him, enough for the older gentleman to turn slightly from his seat on the bench so he could regard his former student with more than just a sideglance from the corners of his eyes. "I cannot be involved directly, John," Giovanni tells him. "Now that she and you are mired in this. The risks are too great. One glance, one sighting, one word - heard, even when I am not in the room and not only do you lose her, you lose us both. That is the extent of it, the severity of the curse. And now that you know, I hope you now understand why I dare not take any unnecessary risks. Perhaps I am being overly cautious, but that is preferrable to the alternative."

He picks at those brewing thunderstorms with that pale, weighty gaze. "You chastized me the last we spoke that you knew what you were doing. I have never questioned that, John. I may not trust you with her heart, but I trust you with her life. I may pay for that later." He /will/ pay for that later. "But that is the truth."

The words about Germany draws another breath from the older man. Shifting in his seat, he leans back against the bench, his finger tapping once on his knee. Indecision tugs him in two directions before he finally relents, and the weight of it makes him close his eyes.

His one weakness.

God help him, but he can't help himself from interfering. Just this once. Just…

"I have an associate in Germany," he says. "Maria Krueger. I have known her for years and she knows the lay of the land there better than I do and she has assisted me on several of my more difficult undertakings. I may not be able to be there, but that does not mean I cannot have someone act as my proxy. She owes me a few favors, she will assist you and my daughter if I ask."

—-

What can John do but accept the terms of the arrangement, such as they are? It is an unsatisfactory answer, but an adequate one. He understands the desire not to take the risk, at least; in Giovanni's shoes, he would likely feel the same.

It still seems like such a waste.

He has nothing to offer on the matter of his dedication to either heart or life: whatever Giovanni believes is not likely to change, and what he himself believes ought to be obvious enough. It would only be a waste of Zatara's precious time to belabor the point. The last thing his former mentor says, though, does finally cause him to lift and turn his head, slightly tightened eyes taking in the measure of the expression of the man beside him. It's not an offer he immediately accepts, and it's likely Giovanni could speculate as to the reasons why. Not simply that the favor would place John in Giovanni's debt — though that is /always/ a consideration for John, who keeps tidy books full of people who owe /him/ rather than the other way around — but the fact that bringing in someone else introduces unknown quantities, even if they've been vetted by someone like Zatara. Darkness is seeping into every corner of the world, sinister things emerging. Things you could once count on to be true and inviolate no longer seem to be cosmic law. John is cagey by nature, and trusts virtually no one. His indecision is not difficult to discern.

It is Steinschneider's stomping ground, though.

"I'm not really in a position to turn down help," he says, finally. "This whole thing is already big. A lot of heads involved. More than I'd like, honestly, but there we are. What's one more?"

—-

"I say sort out the wheat from the chaff, once you are ready to take the trip," Giovanni remarks. "Think of who you really need for that excursion. I am certain there are a few of your present associates that you can afford to leave behind. That leg of the journey will have to be precise, I suspect. Surgical. Especially with the Cult involved."

He is right not to trust anyone these days, Giovanni knows. There is too much traffic and the time will come, sooner, rather than later, where he, John, his daughter and people like them will have to take sides in what's to come. The look of him suggests that he very well knows this, but the offer stands anyway. There must be something about Krueger that Giovanni finds trustworthy.

John will discover what that is soon enough. Though he privately suspects, in a way that's half-humored and half-grim, that it'd be like looking into the mirror of some of the boy's worst nightmares.

"Is there anything else you would like to discuss?"

His stare is angled, and sharp. He pointedly does not bring up the large, drunken pink elephant dancing the can-can in front of them.

—-

That much, John can agree with. Some of the people he'd have thought about taking have lately culled themselves from the ranks — something he's not ready to think about yet, not here on a park bench beside a man like Giovanni — and some of them would make for a poor fit, though he's not entirely sure how to dissuade SHIELD from getting involved.

Bridges to cross when he reaches them. He nods to signal that they're of a mind on the matter, and then finds it in his weary, shellshocked heart to be minutely surprised and even slightly amused by Giovanni's pointed segue. Enough to part his lips, cause one of his brows to very, very slowly rise. On any other night he'd quip: /Never thought I'd see the day when you dance 'round a subject, Gi./ He can hear himself saying it. His inflection, the dry tone of voice. Any other night. Any night that he hadn't had to tell a father mercilessly separated from his child that that child has just suffered a grievous injury. Been the victim of a mysterious and therefore doubly-frightening attack. He doesn't have it in him. Not tonight.

"Not really, no," is what he settles for. He gives the moment a beat of time, lets his other brow join the first. "You?"

Offering, at least, to box it out with the older gentleman. It's a dangerous offer, given his insides are a tangled, bloody mess he has yet to parse in the aftermath of the day's horrors. That conversation has the potential to tip the balance of everything in his life; it's something he should have his head screwed on tight for. He should know how it's all going to shake out for him before he has to take a stance on anything.

It may be the lack of any kind of emotional or psychological verdict that has made him reckless enough to open that door, anyway, and see if Giovanni plans to take a step inside.

—-

For a long, very long moment, Giovanni just looks at him, in a way John has seen him do so in the past - the days back in London when a new fresh-faced novice would come to the door of the Zataras' townhouse there, to be invited in for tea, because the child has obviously come a long way to see him, and then courteously kicked out when the pitch isn't good enough. And it almost always is not. It weighs. It assesses. It gauges. It pauses somewhere in the middle, the point where the man makes a swift internal judgment, and acts upon it.

He rises, takes up his walking stick. Ice-blue eyes glitter down at his former pupil from under the shadows of his top hat. Largely unreadable, save for the spectres of resignation that passes over them.

He is being genuine, though, when he says the next few words:

"Thank you for bringing her back, John."

And with that, the older magician is turning, carefully, on his feet, to start heading for the end of the park, where his passage outside of this world awaits.

—-

It has to be said that John is prepared to have his ass savagely beaten — maybe even looking forward to it, in his own way. A tax on his choice, because for him, no happiness ever seems like it ought to come without suffering of some kind. So he waits for it, expects it once he sees the judgement crest in a face as still and hard as a marble bust. He remembers the look well. He was on the receiving end of it plenty of times, turning in work that Giovanni found sub-par. He saw a deeply exaggerated version of it, underpinned with real anger, in London on the night he was unceremoniously — and very quietly — thrown out of the Zatara home.

Resignation surprises him. It'll be something to chew on later: whether it means Giovanni is being overcome by his circumstances, whether he's getting softer with time, whether he's realized interfering won't matter in the end, and is opting for pragmatism. Whether it's something to do with John, himself; whether John is the most likely ally for his daughter during her time of need and therefore worth keeping happy for the time being; whether John has attained enough substance — as a man, as a magician, as /whatever/ — that he's no longer someone who can simply be grounded for his offenses, put in time-out.

Not that it matters. And he doesn't ask, anyway. The opportunity to have it out has come and gone, by Giovanni's own choosing.

He has an answer for the last, though, letting blue eyes slide away from the man in the top hat and the grey tweed coat. "Always will, Gi."

He's used more magic in the last two months than he's used in the last two years combined, but extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Once Giovanni is gone, he rouses from the bench and clips his life that much shorter, the better to pass through space like a bullet, and reappear in the flat.

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