Whatever It Takes

January 17, 2017:

John Constantine returns to the Brooklyn flat after his meeting with Giovanni Zatara, to update his daughter on his condition and finally talk about the events that occurred in Switzerland, leaving both him and Zee to juggle the press of important business and perilous personal eggshells.

Brooklyn Bunker - Brooklyn - New York City

John Constantine's base of operations in NYC.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Giovanni Zatara, The Winter Soldier, Ritchie Simpson, Dr. Jane Foster

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

When John Constantine returns to the flat, Zatanna is already working.

In the tried and true addage of 'work smarter, not harder', the last few days had found her back in Shadowcrest, magicking whole chunks of her father's sizeable library and storing copies in a portable hard drive to take with her, something in the event that disaster would once again happen and she would need to stay in the null-magic cell again. It was yet another piece of arcane work of her own invention, turned to the purpose of making a college student's life easier; circumstances have expanded its utility to include magical tomes and with what just happened a few hours ago, she is putting it to good use. He would find her at the dining table, her legs pulled up on her seat, quietly clicking away through pages as the ghost-glare of her laptop's LCD screen illuminated her face in the flat's half-light. The dimness matched her mood, the yawning abyss inside her. The emptiness that she is trying to ignore.

John's attempts to triage her soul and render it stable again, to prevent more of her essence from leaking out into the aether to get lost in its constantly moving streams forever, seems to be holding, though she was not idle despite the overwhelming urge to shut herself in the bathroom and wallow in her misery, to mourn the loss of most of her vitality and succumb, for just a few moments, to the terror that her lifespan has been reduced to a month, if that. She once again tethered her reserves to his, urged him to use what she had left; he was understandably reluctant, considering everything else she has been through, but she was adamant about her desire to shoulder her share of the burden. She saw no need to watch him exacting methods to snip the crimson thread of his life even shorter, also, for the sake of her, and given her understandably fragile state, the idea of it was probably more than she could bear.

Whatever relevant passages she has found, she stores in a separate file, for review later, ice-blue eyes scanning arcane script. Her Languages major - ancient and modern - has been paying off in spades. Reading ancient texts has become easier for her these days, and her imprisonment in the bunker has only increased her appreciation for study.

When the metal hatch closes, she looks up from where she works. Appallingly diminished, everything about her now exudes a distinct lack of color - her eyes less vibrant, her pallor devoid of its usual healthy underglow. The darkness of her hair is also less - closer to charcoal than the deep midnight that makes it blend seamlessly in the evening hours, or in the shadows of the flat late at night, when all the lights are off, and sight becomes less important than other senses - taste and touch being the most prominent of these.

It says something when she still manages to smile when she sees him, that it remains genuine and stitched with warm affection. She is so tired.

"How did it go?"

—-

John appears with a twist of wind, and is already shrugging free of his coat the moment he steps inside. The cost of his instant relocation is not one that he dwells on. He'd been willing to go to far greater lengths for her only hours before — on the order of 'sacrificing all of existence to punish the transgressors' if they'd managed to kill her — so a few days of his life are nothing by comparison, so paltry a price as to be beneath his notice entirely.

There isn't room for him to be concerned with much else, given the state of her. What was stolen from her has leeched her of some necessary and vital spark like a photograph left out too long in the sun, and the sight of that — of her fading — twists something in him he has yet to identify, all of his insides an upended mess. Her disappearance ransacked him, everything he thought he knew about what he was doing — with her, with them — strewn carelessly in the aftermath, pieces damaged, pile confused.

He lets none of that show in his expression. Strives for the reassurance of pretending normalcy where there is none. "I was hoping you'd be resting," he admits, though he sounds anything but surprised that she isn't.

Halfway to the table he changes trajectory. Instinct is what drives him to the newly-installed sideboard, from which he retrieves a bottle and a tumbler, using the one to fill the other and immediately emptying it. He does not bother to measure in fingers or shots; he pours according to how much he believes he can get down in a single swallow — which is, for a veteran like John, quite a bit. He does that twice before finally recorking the bottle with a vapor-harassed sniff, clearing his throat, and brings glass number three — more than a swallow — back to the table and sets it down. Searing warmth spreads throughout his insides, and all he can do is hope that it'll be enough to cushion his landing through whatever free-fall he's locked in.

The chair adjacent hers scrapes the floor as he drags it out, and sinks into the seat. "It went as well as it could," he says, not sure whether or not that's true. Sometimes it's impossible to tell. "I got some information from Gi about a contact of his in Germany, someone he says owes him favors, who'll be able to help us when we go." Blue eyes remain trained on his hand, fingers lightly placed around the glass, turning it on a periodic pivot where it sits on the table. "Asked him about Switzerland, which I suppose we ought to talk about. I told him…" Hesitation. He waits to see if the vertigo will resolve into an emotion, but it doesn't. "…about what happened, of course. He's told me something about your inheritance. An' that was it, really." He tries to decide whether or not to tell her about the limp, and decides against.

—-

"There'll be plenty of time to rest once I've faceplanted into a pillow after burning my eyeballs out with this," Zatanna says, watching him pour himself some of the Jameson that Chas brought back (before hurriedly departing again). She turns her head to look at the screen. "Trying to figure out what we're up against as far as the thing that stole my almost-everything is concerned. If History's to be believed, the Tarnhelm's a magical parasite. It grants the wielder tremendous power, but it consumes the host unless it's fed. Though now that it's got most of me inside it, I think it might not have to feed for a while…" Her well is endless, all that power cycling through its mystical systems. Given her unique nature, however, it has just ensured itself an everlasting battery - but at least this means that the helm will not be consuming her soul and render it irretrievable. She unfortunately can't say the same for all the others that came before her.

"So it'll either have to be ripped from the host, or we'd have to kill the host."

There's a hint of conflict there - Giovanni has lost the reservations involved in taking a life after his long career fighting darkness. His daughter, however, has yet to grow calluses to that sometimes necessity. She remembers seeing the bodies they left behind, consumed by whatever it was that John unleashed in the darkness surrounding the bunker in which she was found. While not squeamish, she has tried not to look at sightless eyes and faces frozen in terror.

She turns her head back to look at him when he takes a seat next to her, watching the way restless fingers tilt the tumbler this way and that, twists it along the wood. The nearest hand to him lifts, light fingers draping over his wrist, her thumb delicately tracing the inner hollow. Her warmth is lacking also, the edge of a chill fringing those slowly fading embers. But she means for the gesture to be reassuring,

"Tell me," she states simply. About Switzerland, about everything. But most importantly of all… "Daddy doing okay?"

It isn't as if she isn't worried about herself. She can't help but dwell on it, in the privacy of her own mind. But that has never been her first instinct - somehow, the needs of those around her always seem to take precedence: Her father, John, her friends.

—-

John's blink is slow and distant, his head tilted, eyes drawn back from his glass to her hand as it settles over his wrist — which he twists enough to snare her fingers, drawing that hand up, elbow braced, to hold those chilled pieces of her close to parted lips. Not kisses so much as the hovering of warm breath, and one single, mindless, barely-there clasp of teeth, though his thoughts are anywhere and everywhere /except/ initiating the kind of intimacy they'd spent the last three days tangled up in.

He'd rather spare her, but he cannot /lie/ to her. Not, at least, about her father. "He looks tired, 'tanna. Whatever he's doing is putting a lot of weight on him, and knowing you're in trouble doesn't make it easier for him. He's a tough bastard, though. He's still himself enough to give me the bloody stink-eye about his hex being missing, so I wouldn't worry yet."

His chair creaks as his tilts his weight back, sliding down a little bit more deeply in his seat. The amount of whiskey he put into himself is sufficient to start its work quickly, wrapping in softer cotton the pieces of him that have been cable-tight and trembling — like the hammer of a revolver, poised and primed for violence — since he first realized she was in trouble.

"Switzerland was a mess. Too many different personalities, nobody on the same page about how we should do things. A good test run before Germany, though." As silver linings go it's beyond slender, but for tonight, John will take what he can get. "Your da made it explicit to me that he wanted me to try to stop you from going. For obvious reasons," he says, delicate in his delivery — he has no desire to launch them backward into his reprimands for her recklessness — "But also because of what he believed you'd see. What you would've seen. The individual leading the ritual /was/ your da. Only…it wasn't. But it felt like him, 'tanna. If I didn't know him as well as I do, I might've been fooled. Whoever or whatever it was, it was casting magic just like your da does. It was close enough that I couldn't tell if it was a very good imitation, or actually Giovanni, having been…corrupted, somehow." He speaks all of these words to the outside of her fingers, turning her hand with a gentle absence of intention to paint each with his breath. "It got away, whatever it was. I don't like the implications."

—-

Worry is there anyway, but the fact that she can still feel it is a relief - it fills up all the spaces inside her that have been so recently, so savagely evacuated and it helps her focus - and nothing does that like the thought of another person, especially one so close to her. The corners of those faded eyes tighten at news that her father is exhausted, that whatever was happening to him, what he is facing, is taking its toll. Her lips press in a soft, but tight line, the hard edges of her teeth depressing on her lower lip, pushing in just enough to bring more vibrant color to the surface. Her blood is still red, thankfully, though against her pale mouth, it looks almost garish.

Zatanna takes it all in stride - though it may simply because she is exhausted that she isn't jumping out of her chair and sounding the trumpets to action. Switzerland earns a chuff of exasperated laughter, and considering what just happened to her, the sound itself is a downright miracle. "Well, I would have called that even if I hadn't come in the last minute," she quips, eyes falling on how he handles her fingers with such care, lashes shuttering halfway at the press of teeth, the way he turns her hand over to introduce more heat to her skin….as if he could return bits and pieces of the life she had lost, by using his breath as a conduit.

A cramp twists somewhere between her ribs, at this small reminder as to how breathless, how unbelievable, how wonderful and downright frightening the last three days have been.

/I don't get to have this/.

But when he gets to the crux of it, the real reason why her father had not wanted her to come to that expedition, the old spark returns. Anger spits like white-blue flame, flooding her eyes with a touch of that old light. "It's worrisome," she agrees, her voice quiet, skimming over the sleeping dragons of that flashfire temper. "But they'll pay for it, for daring. I'm not about to let them use anything of Daddy's to do whatever the hell they're trying to do. Guess we'll just have to grab my soul faster than we intended so I can put them to the fire, Daddy's doppleganger included."

She finishes the turn of her hand, fingertips lightly grazing his cheek. Her eyes soften there, wandering away from him to better observe the trace they make over the ridge of his newly-restored cheekbone.

"You mentioned my inheritance?"

—-

Blue eyes sweep sidelong, taking her in with that same slightly removed air as her anger lends her pallor some momentary pretense of vitality. It's something to note, tucked away for desperate times.

Whatever it takes.

"I wasn't planning to dally. Tomorrow I'm going to make the rounds. Ritchie needs to be evacuated from the city, access to his work moved. I'm going to go to Foster's apartment and get something of 'ers. I don't think she'll be far from wherever Barnes goes." He lifts his free hand, places the tips of his thumb and middle finger on his temples, eyes lidding. "I had her working with Ritchie. Fuck's sake. That's the last thing they need on their side. Quantum magic." He lets his eyes close, then sweeps that hand of his back through his hair, rifling short strands, as though he could sweep those thoughts away physically. Then he's reaching for his glass again.

"I can still feel the piece of you that isn't you anymore. Not all the time…just now and again. It's not much but it's better than nothing."

He has the glass at his mouth when she asks that question, and takes his time with a double pull, setting it aside with a wince and slow hiss of indrawn breath. The hand holding hers aloft sinks back down to the table, pale eyes finally lifting, focusing on her directly. "He said he 'placed' it in you when you were child, and you wouldn't remember it, you know how he gets, light on the details and big on the mystery. He said it's 'there for you to use' if it becomes necessary, which makes me wonder why in the bloody hell he wouldn't want you to know about it before now, so I'd take that as an indication you oughta be careful with whatever it is."

—-

"I'll come with you, to help with Ritchie." That isn't surprising also, that Zatanna will be chomping at the bit to help, no matter what her condition is. "And to Jane's apartment, though if you need something of hers, I have some. I took some bandages she used when Peter Quill told me that her apartment was shot up. It's what I used to track her down in Bucky's bolthole - some mid-rise apartment building here in Brooklyn, though I don't know if that'll help, and it might be too risky to go back there anyway. He told the old man with the Tarnhelm about me…my soul, who I was. They've probably done their homework and I wouldn't put it past Bucky to tell them all about my little visit to his safehouse also. I know where it is, though. If you want to check it out despite the risks."

Her hand shifts; like instinct, those long, pale fingers adjust the interlocking cages they make together against the table. There is a tigher clasp to her grip.

The fact that he could still feel bits and pieces of her has her straightening up further - she, herself, can't tell, but that isn't surprising because she is the source. But it is feasible that John's tether to her had been split, a thin strip from the silver thread that has followed the rest of the whole. A hopeful surge rises somewhere deep within the hole inside her.

"I should probably come with you then, too," she says. "If we manage to get it back, I'd have to be there, yeah?"

All of that is up to him, however. There are other things to occupy her, torn between two prevailing instincts - to spend as many minutes as she can with him, or hold onto some degree of independence so she and he could work without distractions.

The word about her inheritance, and where it is all this time, gives her pause. Her brows furrow visibly and slowly, her gaze shifts to look down at herself. Big on the mystery is right, and while hiding /things/ in other people isn't all that far removed from their usual brand of sorcery, the fact that her father had done this and not told her about it has the look of her bracing the line between exasperation and confusion. Typical Giovanni Zatara.

"Right," she mutters. "I'll have to look into it, then." Lifting her stare, she turns her hands over, fingers shifting to cover the bony points of his knuckles.

"One thing at a time, right?" she reminds him quietly.

—-

She tracked Jane down…in the assassin's hideout. After they went to ground. John stares, trying to fit that piece of information in with his understanding of the sequence of events.

"I'll deal with Ritchie on my own, just to keep a low profile, but everything else — that's…" /Up to you,/ he wants to say, because he's committed, isn't he? He made his choice three nights ago. He can try to manage every last risk of what they're building between them, or he can let go and try to trust her. Trust them. So he'd made his choice, knowing that trying to keep an iron grip on things would only succeed in causing more and more volatile explosions of his ability to cope, each step that brought him closer to her inevitably pushing the broken pieces of him further away, until he'd split himself in half.

It had seemed like a relief, to buy into that way of thinking. All or nothing, the very thing he'd criticized Giovanni for earlier in the evening, because it was just /simpler/ that way. He didn't have to think anymore: there was in and there was out, and nothing in between.

What sinks in for him then is what he's had trouble grasping all of this time, since finally getting her back to the flat and patching her up enough to keep her stable: that just because he has her back, physically, doesn't mean he's saved her life. She's weak, fading. They might not find the rest of her in time — might not be able to retrieve it before something is done to it, and this is /complex/ magic: if they taint the well of the Tarnhelm, he doesn't know how that might affect her in turn. There are so many unknowns.

He realizes only belatedly that he's gripping his glass hard enough to pale his knuckles. With a swallow, he eases back on the tension, brings it up and drains the remainder, though the full effect of the first two has yet to surface. The urge to pitch the glass violently into the depths of the flat, to shatter satisfyingly against the wall, is briefly overpowering, a mad urge that hints at an unstable subsurface below his thus-far glassy calm. It reads in the power of the space like a sudden wobble, like the needle of a turntable rising over a warped wax record.

Aware of his faltering grip on the reassurance he hopes to offer, he gently squeezes her fingers, then retrieves his hand and slides out of his chair, already tugging at the knot in his tie. "One thing at a time," he agrees, leaving his prior sentence abandoned, half-finished. "I'm going to change."

—-

She lets him go physically, but her eyes remain locked on his back as he leaves the dining area and heads into the area that would become his room, to change out of his daily work attire.

Zatanna has managed to keep herself from displaying overt traces that she noticed those telltale signs of his agitation; a perceptive creature by nature, she had already known how he would react from the moment she realized that Bucky Barnes drugged her drink, her last words having begged him not to do this to John before slipping into unconsciousness. Now in the quiet, and with the distance, his words from then are recalled sharply, from when she had tried to signal him towards the Exit of this entire arrangement, the confession he forced himself to give her, before she got the completely wrong idea.

But she did notice them; the grip that threatens to shatter glass, how his voice is pitched low, the way he attempts to lubricate the rusty gears of his emotional responses with alcohol, having drained so much of it in such a short time. The glinting tumbler left behind on the table is the thing that she fixes her eyes on, suddenly feeling the sting on her palms. She does not realize that her fingers have curled into themselves, until just then, as if to hang onto the rapidly dissipating heat that his hand has left on her own, the crescents of her nails clawing into her skin and almost enough to draw blood.

She leans, her shoulders hunch over, squeezing her eyes shut and her molars grinding into one another, each tormented scrape hammering home the words that have tumbled over and over inside of her head, occasionally drowned out by the things they do together, but persistent, as if something hooked and barbed, unable to be ripped out without causing some major damage.

I don't get to have this.

She tilts her head back to focus on one of the dimmer bulbs in the room, taking a breath, before she slowly eases off her chair, padding barefoot to where he had ended up. She takes her time, to give him the space he needs to change.

He'd sense her ghost - it is what she feels like now - come up behind him. Once again on uncharted territory, she does what she always does when she's at a loss as to what to do or say, physicality lending her the precious few seconds to determine what she ought to do; whether right or wrong, every part of her is always driven to action, no matter how many mines she lets loose in yet another reckless traverse into battlefields neverending. Slender limbs coil around him from behind, her right hand pressing flat and gentle, fingers fanning over his sternum. Her cheek rests between the wings of his shoulderblades. Her eyes slip shut into her lean.

"I'm sorry, John."

Her words are barely a breath, barely heard under the electric thrum of distant lights.

"I wasn't strong enough…all the things I said. All the things I promised. Maybe I should have…maybe I should have unleashed, then. Gave it all I got. Maybe it would have made a difference, maybe I chose poorly. I…oh, god, I didn't want you to see me like that."

—-

His uniform for lounging is more or less as dependable as the one he wears on most other, the only thing that changes whether or not he has a hooded sweatshirt over top. He does not, when she finally pierces the thin veil of privacy screens; the alcohol is more than enough to compensate for the lack.

He has been standing there teasing at the single loose thread, trying to encourage something more to come loose in the gridlock of his paralyzed response to the day's events, without much success, save a growing disdain for his inability to respond to anything like a normal, functional human being, to the extent that he's unable to provide her with the kind of support that she needs. Useless.

His ribs expand beneath her arms as they link around him, one of his larger laid reflexively overtop, and he prepares for the embarrassment of having her talk /him/ down, even though /she/ is the one with the soul torn to shreds. That is not what happens, though.

She apologizes.

He stops breathing. She'll feel that, just like she'll feel his arm tighten.

But it's tension, not gratitude. He's careful as he peels her arms out of their encircling of his torso, but firm and unwilling to countenance any resistance, turning to fix her with a look of taut disbelief.

"What in the bloody hell are you /apologizing/ for? You think this was /your/ fault?" Why this gives him a focal point for his aimless anger he could not say, only that he feels it chain together, linking him to the present in a way he hasn't been able to find his grounding all day. "That's fucking ridiculous. You were /abused/. You think I believe you wanted this to happen?" His brows dip together, one of them higher than the other. "I know I can be a right bastard but that'd be the limit, even for me. This isn't something you did. If anything, it's something I did to /myself/. Or…" He hesitates, a floating moment where he feels his inner center of balance coast out over some sort of chasm of uncertainty. "Or something I did to you, somehow. Because this is how it always goes, innit? I'm a death sentence."

He lifts his hands, presses the heels of his palms into his eyes and rubs, sinking back against the standing set of drawers behind him. "There was nothing I could do."

The helplessness implied in that sentence threatens to overtake everything else, and he pushes back against it with force bolstered by the liquor, reaching out to grasp her shoulders, gentle but firm, and lean forward enough to level his gaze with her. "Tell me about how you knew Barnes in the first place."

Because he needs to know. He needs to know if this was his fault.

—-

She had intended to be assuring. As usual, her attempts in that regard more often than not have a fifty-fifty percent success rate, but that did she expect, when she is prone to acting without thinking? To bull forward because she would rather see where it all leads instead of waffle in the sidelines and wallow in uncertainty. Before it becomes too late to act.

The moment he attempts to pry her arms from around him, she lets go of him immediately, suddenly, and taking a step back for good measure. Whatever quiet, if not somewhat agonized calm she has managed to hold onto when she reached for him drains away, staring mutely as he rounds on her. After a blink, her lips part, to address that one erroneous assertion. "I don't /think/ that," she says, ever the emotional mirror, her own agitation rising to reflect his own. "I made /promises/, John, I didn't…" She scrubs her face with one hand, jerking her face to the side so she could mentally claw for the words. "I didn't feel like I lived up to them. To any of them. I didn't want you to…"

The chest of drawers creaks under his weight. The sudden sound has her looking back at him again, expression contorted with alarm as the beasts emerge from that dark labyrinth. These are ones that she knows exist, familiar with the shapes of them; the propensity to blame himself, to impress again the belief that all he does is breed disaster, rearing its multiple heads.

"John, you can't— "

She stops, fingers leaving gentle impressions on her shoulders. For a moment, she says nothing, watching his face.

Some part of her doesn't want to tell him. Some part of her doesn't want to open those gates and glimpse the Hell that might be unleashed.

But she presses her lips together; he'd feel her square her shoulders under his grip, her chin tilting in a defiant angle as she looks him right in the eyes.

"I saved his life."

After a quiet breath, she continues. "A few days after I returned stateside, I found him while I was in New York, well before you came back. He had a punctured liver, the guy next to him was dead. I didn't want to just leave him there, so I broke into a vet, dragged him in and healed him. Ever since then, we've been running into each other indirectly. I had a friend who was attacked by him, and I thought if I could just talk to him then maybe he would stop. So I sought him out one day and that's when I found out who he was…he remembered Steve Rogers, and I looked into the name. I was the one who convinced Captain America to come to the gala so he could…I thought if he saw his friend that he'd be sorted out. I was…I was meddling the way I always do, John."

Her hands twitch restlessly on her sides. She lifts them up slowly to frame his face between them.

"You brought me back," she reminds him. "I'd be /dead/ if you hadn't come to get me. Now, /now/ we can fix this together. This /isn't/ your fault, John."

—-

She knew him before John came to New York.

The change in him happens almost immediately, within two sentences of her story beginning: his eyes close and he exhales. She might read it as disappointment, but it is /relief/. And that's what she will finally be able to see it for, when she finishes telling her story and he turns the hands on her shoulders around her back, pulling her into the circle of his arms. He's a long way from fine, but one of the tighter knots in him lets go.

Barnes didn't know about her because of him. Of all of the things that might have gone wrong, all of the things he may need to shoulder the responsibility for, that isn't one of them.

"I had warning from Barnes that something bad might be coming, and I didn't take steps, even though I'd been in his company more than once. You do the best you can as you can, 'tanna. You can't promise somebody nothing will happen to you. That's the entire point, innit? There are no guarantees. Doesn't matter how much you want them, or want to hand them out."

Which is why it's so terrifying, in the end: intentions are often no better than the thinnest tissue, so easily destroyed by greater forces, the inexorable machinations of fate and chance.

"I don't expect you to promise that kind of thing. I'd be an idiot if I did. And a twat. The whole /point/ of choosing…this, you, it — that's supposed to be /in spite/ of knowing things like this could happen. Will bloody happen."

He just wasn't ready. He wasn't ready for it to be so /soon/.

—-

He doesn't expect it from her, but the reassurance - what's made to be reassurance, rare as it is coming from John Constantine, fails to hit the mark, somehow. As the words leave her mouth, illustrating her folly with her own voice, Zatanna visibly hesitates. Ice-blue mirrors wander away from his expression, fixing into the far wall, falling silent once the expression of relief unravels the tension she finds present over the hard lines of him. She is still looking in that direction, until her body shifts, to lean and be cradled by his bigger own, her cheek planted somewhere where his shoulder carves a path away from his neck.

Slowly, her hands come up somewhere behind him, to cross by the forearms. Her fingers curl into the fabric of his t-shirt, her brows stitching together above her nose. She feels it build, pressure within her chest, expanding like a balloon - empty over empty, a gnawing ache being the only respite she manages to find from that endless chasm. Her mouth works, wordless, to try and curb it, but to ask the young Zatara not to express herself, even by her own mind, is like asking her not to breathe.

"That was all I thought about," she says, her voice so low he'd have to strain to hear her. "What you told me, the night we…that you don't get to have this. When things went royally /fucked/ in the end, all I remembered was that and all I could think of was how I tried to…so I got desperate. I fought. I screamed. Some part of me was afraid for me, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried about me at all, but most of it came from a place where I just….in those moments I wanted to /prove you wrong/, more than anything. I wanted to storm back in here, point at you, point at whatever mess was clinging on me, and go /hah!/. Take that, John Constantine, and your gallery of regrets."

She wonders if that is at all healthy, to add some degree of spite into the ridiculous, nuclear conflagration of whatever it was they had. A thought that drifts further and further into the back of her mind as she closes her eyes and sinks herself into the experience of him, using what he provides to frantically fill the growing hole expanding from her mystical core and outward, threatening to consume her, erase her from the land of the living.

"It tears me up," she continues, the brass of her contralto softening on the edges. "That you believe that. That you've lived with that for so long. Maybe all your life, I don't know. I'm probably not even all that qualified to treat it, let alone fix it, or even convince you to see the other side, or have a little bit of faith. In the end, all I really want is for you to be happy….with me, or without me. It doesn't matter, so long as you can be, even if it's just for a little while."

Her fingers twist into his shirt, bunches fabric between them.

"You wreck me."

—-

From the other end of ten years of experience, John listens to what she has to say and his misgivings expand, though he has no wisdom to offer her. He's had to learn in the most difficult ways possible that no one individual can /fix/ someone else; that no one is qualified: no one, anywhere. That the desire to repair and mend the broken is the blessing and curse of youth, and the broken are their only salvation to themselves.

And that's just /standard-issue/ broken. John takes broken to the heights of an art form.

It's not something you can tell someone, though. It's something only experience can teach. The thought that he might be the one to destroy that optimism in her does not sit easily with him, but really — what does?

If he's reassured by anything, it's that she was driven to prove him wrong. It's so classically /her/ — so much more sensible than suffering on his behalf and losing sight of the her own tragedy in everything, which would be a kind of self-sacrifice that he couldn't accept.

The last words are theoretically flattering, in their way. Are, he supposes. They also succinctly illustrate everything that's wrong with what they're doing, and he knows that.

He comforts himself, justifies his choice, with the knowledge that the sentiment is mutual.

By now the whiskey has its fingers in him, and everything that passes through his head to say feels wrong. Too much, too little; too emotional, too empty; too revealing, too aloof. Too vulnerable. Too much vulnerability lately. Too much.

"We'll fix it," he says finally, unable to address much of anything else. He cleaves to certainty and whatever picture of internal solidity he believes he can still convincingly paint. "We'll get it sorted. And if we don't it won't matter for long, because it'll be the end of the world." He dips his chin, turns his head, and catches at her ear with teeth that don't close, a sensation that folds into an almost absent kiss, closed at the end of a soft inhale.

That, at least, represents a plan. It isn't a great plan — not for anybody left alive at the time, at least — but even a bad plan is enough to help him get his feet beneath him. It's a direction to point himself in, should the worst come to pass, and for the time being, that has to be enough.

Quiet: "How are you feeling?"

—-

Those lashes open at that, staring at the glimpses of their environs from over his shoulder, though they remain half-drawn, a consequence of the way his breath brushes over her ear and the impressions his teeth ghost over the skin and shape of it. While Zatanna finds some comfort there in the quiet words that he provides her, the remark about the end of the world is one that she finds worrisome and with good reason: when John Constantine says End of Days, he /means/ the actual, biblical apocalypse, or some very close approximations. Her fingers ease their grip on the back of his shirt, star arrays splayed somewhere between his shoulder blades and a few inches just below.

Slowly, she lifts her head, turns it from where his own cants against her temple. This close, all the finer details of him are lost, save for a crescent of lash, the line of his nose and the glittering blue of one eye.

"….you don't really mean that, do you…?" she asks quietly. "Because…when it comes from you, that's serious."

Because that is also classically her, or at the very least classically Giovanni Zatara, souls that push themselves to save the world, or at the very least prevent it from getting destroyed. While the young woman has yet to display any grand aspirations on that end as of yet, one can argue that she does it little by little - a helping hand, a kind word, a selfless demonstration of affection. Love given freely, especially to those who don't believe they deserve it.

When asked about her condition, she finds it in her to let out a chuckle, though it's thin, and not much of an expression: "Like I'm being eaten alive from the inside." Ever so honest. "I've been trying to fill it up. With anything. Thinking about what happened, worrying about Daddy, trying to imagine the kind of horrors I'm gonna unleash on the assholes who did this to me. You and everything about you. What you do to me, the things you tell me, the things you don't tell me."

A pause.

"How I'm probably going to have to get Chas a gift basket or something so he'd forgive us."

—-

Solemn blue on their fairer counterparts, confiding nothing. "Let's hope we don't have to find out." The corner of his mouth turns upward just enough to suggest in its way that he might be kidding, but it doesn't touch any other part of him. There's no humor in his tone of voice.

He's saved the world already. It's a thankless job. It keeps careening back toward its own demise, like a moth in a room with a candle. Eventually it's going to push him just that little bit too far, and he's not sure that this isn't that moment; it's always in his darkest moments that John wonders if his determination to push back against the darkness isn't in its own way a cruelty to the world, which so often seems to him like it was never meant to exist.

Even if it's only a vengeful fantasy, it's one that gives him a through-line to whatever might wait for him beyond the catastrophe of her death.

Not that he cares to linger on the subject. He uses the distance she's reinserted to skim her expression as she relates everything with typical ease, as forthcoming with her interior life as he is private about his own. She makes it look so easy — even when her life is coming apart at the seams. He's watched her do that for years, and he still doesn't understand it. Has made peace, at least, with the fact that it's likely he never will, but it's her accessibility that keeps him close, where so many other clever, careful women have been little more than sparks to pass through his life: bright for the heartbeat of an evening, then gone and forgotten.

"Hnh," he says, and that's a sound that /does/ have some humor in it, dry and softened by drink. "Don't bother. I've seen his bill from the hotel; Chas is /fine/. He's probably celebrating the fact that I'm going to be a less miserable bastard to live with." Maybe. Assuming that things pan out. And he can't afford to assume otherwise, even if — in the deepest, most honest pieces of himself — he really does expect her to die.

"What will help, in the meantime? Do I need to get you an inflatable pool and fill it with puppies and bunnies? Or…eh…" What the hell does he know about snuggly, cuddly woman shit? His brow creases. "Rouge, or something?"

There's /just/ enough hint of a change to the shape of his mouth to suggest that the last guess /is/ self-aware, as a joke. This, obviously, has always been part of the Chas Department of Interacting With Other Humans Normally.

—-

In that regard, Zatanna was guilelesss, the kind of indifference towards her own vulnerability that could be chalked up to youthful recklessness, or an extremely hampered set of survival instincts. But considering how transient her life has been, almost from since the moment she was born, it isn't so surprising that she would be so hungry for significant, human connections, thirsts for it like a man lost in the desert, stumbling towards any direction in which he senses an oasis. Life on the road can be intolerably lonely, and she learned early on that she wasn't going to be able to fix that if she was as closed off as her father, even though it might mean that she would have to bleed first, to see whether there would be anyone who would return her gestures by staunching the wounds.

The humorless smile meets a more unreadable expression on her own, but he would pick out the worry there, at the idea that the world would meet its end in hellfire because John Constantine was angry enough to unleash it. Any other woman would find it flattering, but he's managed to fall in with some youthful anomaly who would rather that she suffer the brunt of whatever destruction there is to spare the rest. Their differences are many, and breathtakingly significant - the cause of a lion's share of their chemistry, and a great amount of the friction that they've demonstrated a few weeks ago when they nearly obliterated whatever was left of them before.

It piles on; despite her life quite literally coming apart at the seams, within the wiry envelope he makes of himself, as if he could shield her, as if he could anchor her into existence, she still finds it in her to be happy, content with the life she leads now as the gnawing, black gulf stretches out inside her. They took most of it, she knows, but not its heart.

The joke has her turning her face, lips parting to press into the side of his throat, over the track of his heartbeat.

"You're so bad at this." /No shit/. Lashes lift, pale blue glittering from underneath. "But since you're asking, you can always /fill me/. God, John. It's like you've absolutely no idea who you're dealing with."

And then she remembers the empty tumbler on the table.

"But if you're chemically neutered today, I'll understand. You can rub my feet, and I'll try not to judge."

—-

"/Look,/ if I'd waltzed in here the night I drag you back from the brink of oblivion," he says, and suddenly his voice sounds like it usually does, dry and cocky, "And gone 'well, glad that's over with, off with your trousers, then,' you'd have blacked my eye and I'd have /actually/ deserved it. Or Chas would've once he found out. 'John you can't play silly buggers when your girlfriend's more than 'alf dead, you prat, everyone'll think you're a pig.'" His imitation of Chas' voice is not intended to be accurate so much as it's meant to be over-exaggerated, but he's nailed the cadences and smaller nuances even in play. And maybe it's because of the alcohol, maybe it's because he's relieved to have crossed the first fissure of his breaking self-mastery without a meltdown ensuing, or her proposition, or his sudden leave to return to a mode of being himself that isn't such a strain on him, but the word for what she is — has become — slips out of him without note, not even in the aftermath.

He's too busy getting his hands on her hips and pivoting them around, a twist that puts her back to the standing drawers rather than his. Fingertips slid along the waist of her pants toward the buttons in front, his tilting head nudging hers aside, the better to continue his wry, arid monologue against the side of her throat. "But yeah, obviously I'm going to be helpless to comfort you that way, because I've had /a drink/."

…It was more than a drink. But, this is /John/, a man known to put away whole bottles in a go…

"Useless. In fact I'm not even conscious. This is all just an incredibly convincing hallucination on your part. I'm inebriated beyond the capacity for speech or thought, like the pensioner— " Read: Old Person. "— I am. After all, it's not as though I'm a /magician/," he adds, with little pops of release along the undone catches falling prey to fingertips that lose nothing of their craft for whiskey. "Let alone a magician who could make a solid go of things using his mouth to get by, more than any other particular knack."

There is almost no other situation in which John would ever get on his knees — not for her or anyone else — but with a whisper of cloth that's where he lands, with a fluid sink that brings his lips to the soft of her abdomen, to which he imparts the quiet murmur, "No, I'm afraid it's hopeless, love. You'll have to find some way to soldier on without my help. You should've taken me up on the kiddie-pool full of bunnies."

They are the last words he intends to have time to speak for some time to come.

—-

The moment /Look/ escapes him, he'd find it unerringly in those pale irises - something akin to victory, some manner of triumph, at having delivered the first blow and taken first blood in the precise moment when she can openly ambush him, as always. And by her expression, Zatanna Zatara /fully expects/ to pay for it in the next few moments, armed with the stubborn lift of her chin and that wild, reckless smile that has yet to be hampered and dulled by what's eating away inside her, managing to hold onto that much of her spirit. But she tries to curb it, at least, whatever peals of mirth that are bubbling within her chest, another handful of marbles to throw in the hole, to prevent her from dwelling on the growing abyss….until he decides to take it upon himself to pretend to be Chas, if 'silly buggers' was ever in the very American man's vocabulary. /That/ is when it escapes, that light, silver streak of laughter just when she's shifted against the dresser and pressed there.

It almost escapes her notice, the term for what she is, and she almost has no time to be surprised. Much like how she never expects an answer from him when she freely declares her affection, she has never attempted labeling what they are, and what they have, content with the mysteries of their relationship and whatever wonder and horror that would be unleashed between them and into the world, should they be careless. And sometimes they are, because they can't help themselves.

He's still ranting when his mouth finds the side of her neck, and she's still /laughing/ when she makes the room for him, tilting her head back against wood as button after button is banished from their clasps, by fingers honed to be dexterous.

"Oh, /shut it/," is all she says, mirth and touch rendering her breathless. "I didn't think /hallucinations/ were this chatty. For all I know, you— "

There's a thump when he hits his knees. Cool air hits her skin, tortured by a warm mouth.

"H-hey…" Her voice chokes into the back of her throat. "What did I say? I thought I said to fi— "

Heat fountains up from the small of her back. Her head drops against the drawers, wide eyes staring up at the ceiling.

"Oh, /Christ/."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License