A Delirious Fit of Inspiration

January 29, 2017:

John Constantine and Zatanna Zatara regroup after Moksha. Mistakes keep being made. Takes place before Emergency Care.

Brooklyn - New York City

Starts in John Constantine's bunker in Brooklyn, and ends somewhere in a memory of Scotland.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bucky Barnes, Jane Foster, Tim Drake, Peter Parker

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

John would later remember very little about their return to the flat. Once the pressing business of the evening had been taken care of — the Tarnhelm left in Thor's possession with explicit instructions to destroy it in order to free the souls contained therein, individuals accounted for, their physical and emotional states assessed, treated wherever possible — he'd thought about nothing but getting away from the concentrated mass of their colleagues of the evening. He wanted to be somewhere quiet to recuperate. There had been no discussion of whether or not Zatanna would go with him; it hadn't been necessary, really.

He will dimly remember the interior of a cab, his insistence that they concede to traveling without expenditure of magic for both their sakes. Remembers feeling the bend of her knee under his hand, sprawled on the seat beside her, his head tilted fully back into his headrest and his eyes closed, sensing the light of passing overhead streetlights and banks of business windows through the thinness of his eyelids, blocks of colored light and wedges of darkness scrolling over him through the cab's side windows. Hypnotic, in its way.

Roused when they pull up to the curb. Following her out into the bite of cold air, down into the flat. Saying something about needing a shower, his clothes still damp with sweat, uncomfortable. A trail of shed garments, peeled off and left where they fall on his way to the bathroom, and then the scalding, steaming bliss of a shower as hot as he could stand to make it, standing for drowsy, uncounted minutes with his head bowed under the full blast of the jets.

He'd come out of the bathroom looking better, color pulled to the skin by the heat. Gone to the fridge, funneled mass amounts of water into his system, taken something for his splitting headache, and said something wry about how they might celebrate as he went into the screened off partition of what will be his room — now complete with actual bed! — to change.

He'd never come back out. He was face down and out cold. Typically a light sleeper, not even gentle touches would have been able to pull him out of that dreamless, empty sleep.

Four hours later, though, somewhere in the neighborhood of four in the morning, his side of the bed is empty, and there's a soft rushing sound emanating from the opposite wall of the flat. The air is gentle and moves with the currents of a natural breeze, brine carried on the draughts that eddy through the underground vault.

A vast hole has been opened in the side of the flat's wall. The concrete floor disappears in drifts of powder-white sand, grains sprayed across the polished grey. The rushing white noise owes itself to the restless waters of The Minch. Rocky, crinkled coastline curls away into the darkness on either side, rising to shallow green moors on one side, and soaring upward into sharp, incalculably ancient cliffsides on the other.

John is ten meters from the place the tide is rolling into the damp sand, seated, arms draped over his knees and hands loosely linked. It's a clear night, warmer than it should be this time of year, so he's wearing what he usually wears when he's lounging.

There is a tumbler of whiskey wedged into the soft sand beside him, but it looks untouched.

—-

The earlier moments that marked their return to the Brooklyn flat had been filled with a bemused sort of exasperation when she wandered through the partition with a bottle of mint oil for the massage that he practically demanded, only to find him unconscious and face down on the bed. She had let him sleep, curling up on the other side of the mattress instead, a textbook open and a highlighter in hand, still so determined to keep up some semblance of a normal life despite the fact that she leads anything but. But as her eyes rolled over passages written in Sanskrit, she found she couldn't focus - she was exhausted, herself, though gripped by her typical youthful stubbornness, the kind that has her and other college-aged youths going at all hours of the evening and get a fitful rest in the morning, to start the cycle all over again once it was time to get to class. So after struggling with the same page for twenty minutes, she, too, decided to try and get some sleep.

It was restless. Too much adrenaline, too many faces lurking in her more conscious thoughts - Peter Parker and his decimated optimism (the price, saving the world at the expense of some of his innocence), Tim Drake and his sudden disappearance, leaving specks of blood behind, Jane Foster's blank expression when she tried to speak to her and how Bucky Barnes could not look at her in the way that she could not quite look at him. It was over, the Tarnhelm relinquished to the god that demanded it, but the lack of something insurmountable to conquer has now left them to pick up the pieces of what they've experienced together, and within their own minds, and she is as always a highly sensitive emotional mirror, braincells lit up by a combination of hurts, uncertainties and biochemicals, remembering how she was nearly pasted up the side of a building, and having to pull the necessary shackles to break through the walls of a carefully constructed reality.

John was at least sleeping soundless; after what he put himself through to reach them, he definitely deserved it. Memories tumble over what he had said, about how everyone around him dies, largely because of him. The fact that hasn't happened to anyone he actually gave a damn about must have been a relief.

She managed to get some sleep, in the end. Sometimes the body has other ideas, and this one is extremely tired…

…only to wake up.

It's the noise - as stated to him before, she has been in beaches before, and the rush of surf is different from the near-silence of the flat in the dead hours, usualy punctuated by the dim humming of old lightbulbs. She lifts her head from her pillow, lashes heavy and eyes fogged with sleep, staring at the opening in the wall and taking a few moments to register just exactly what she's looking at.

She follows, because of course she does - out of concern, yes, but curiosity too. Forays such as these are rare in her life, these days, and the scent of saltwater triggers the propensity in her to wander and get lost in the world's most forgotten corners. Soft white sand dusts her bare feet, flecks over her black pedicure as she meanders over towards his familiar back, an afghan draped over her shoulders, her hair blowing free and sharing its midnight glory with the restless winds. It is getting very long.

"Needed a change of scenery?" she inquires, dropping bonelessly on the sand next to him. It doesn't take her long to finish the tilt, to sprawl on her back the rest of the way, blanket tangled around her, tresses leaving nonsense patterns against pristine sand.

"You were so tired I was half expecting you not to get up until noon tomorrow." Pause. "This morning. God, what time is it?"

—-

He feels it when she stirs and wakes, and when she passes through the divide between Brooklyn and the Isle of Lewis. There is a part of him — the part of him always on guard for dangers to himself — that wonders if he shouldn't be more concerned about the way they seem to be getting woven together in intangible ways, more literal than the emotional entanglements that grow and change with the passing of each day and every fresh crisis. It is, he suspects, an astral link, though he's never had one before and has no sense of what that will mean for him in practice. The way in which it manifested of its own accord, inadvertently, leaves him feeling puzzled. Interested, but uncertain.

That part used to be the loudest piece of him, shouting over every other sentiment, insistent upon its doctrine of fear. Lately, though…

The corner of his mouth ticks up as she nears, feet a whisper on the sand. She brings with her the scents of the flat, the laundry detergent and dryer sheets on the afghan, the ghostly remnants of her shampoo, a momentary breath of familiar things.

She asks her question, and he glances down at the watch on his wrist. "'Round four." The moon is lowering, but its light still plays on the glassy, rolling waves, glows on the foam that rolls up and down the strand in ribbons. Stars spangle the heavens.

Once she settles, he turns his head, looks back over his shoulder. A pale blue iris traces her outline, stark in whites and blacks. It lingers, an inscrutable slice of his face, though she'll swiftly have the advantage of perspective: the urge comes over him with sudden intensity, and with uncharacteristic lack of hesitation, he yields immediately. Leans, turns, tilts, plants a hand and fills the space above her with shadow. He dips his head, mouth seeking hers.

/"It feels new, somehow. Is that what you meant? When you said that everything's changed?"/

How does one differentiate one kiss from another? Fast or slow, soft or hard, deep or chaste, light as a feather, hard enough to bruise. Is it possible for a language with such a limited alphabet to convey the all of the many nuances and subtleties that drive these embraces — to be a window onto the engine of desire or affection? It might be cliche to assume so. A debate for philosophers or poets. John is neither.

He agrees with her, though, and so does his kiss, languid and so very aware of her. It is different. Everything's changed.

Everything is still changing.

He lifts his head eventually, whatever delicate thing existed in his expression consumed quickly by the wry look that follows. "Yeah, well. You should hear your snoring. Like elephants in heat, it is."

…well. Maybe not /everything/.

—-

In comparison, she has always had one. For as long as she could remember, a silvery tether always linked her and her father and one of the only reasons why she has managed to come to him in the past whenever he was in danger, though more often than not, it had been the other way around - Giovanni Zatara was the only person in the world who knows with intimate familiarity as to how precocious his child was growing up, already attracting scores of trouble well before she was old enough to realize that what her father did was real. To say that she has always known that magic existed would be a lie - ever the proponent of Fate's mysterious workings, Giovanni had let life and her own curiosity decide that for herself in the day she came across his antique phonograph changing records by itself. That day in her sixth year was when she learned those first basic lessons at her initial indoctrination into the world that she and John inhabit: that science was undependable, that people were unpredictable, and that music was everything.

Zatanna has lost her tether to her father since his disappearance, proof enough that the Great Zatara has transcended many boundaries considered constants by lesser magicians, when he could simply get rid of something so important as that to save her life. Astral links are not developed through deliberation, not by spell or will or hours of incantation, fitting for the kind of bond between mystics that transcends mortal death. Inured to its nature as she is, she is not at all surprised that she has managed to develop one with John, though there /is/ some astonishment there as to how quickly it manifested. Then again, it may only feel that way, to stay that they /just/ started was inaccurate, when they had met two years prior.

/This/, however, is new, but one she accepts just as readily as she does everything else about him.

Ice-blue eyes watch his half-silhouette dip his head to squint at his watch, and she can't help but laugh, mirth carried away almost immediately by the Scottish breeze as she lifts a bare arm and gives it a wave. "How you know I'm a /filthy millennial/," she quips. "No watch. Always relying on the smartphone for everything, /and how/. Did you know I invented a bookbag spell last week? I figured I could take pictures of my textbooks and when I really need them, I can just pull them out of my phone. It's /handy/, especially when I don't want to deal with lugging heavy— "

Disturbed ground rustles over her hair at the plant of one hand, his lean form clad in soft grays plunging shadow over the chiaroscuro she makes against stark white sands. Her gaze meets his, briefly, while the langorous pulse in her veins quickens at finding that uniquely-his intensity. There's a quip, he'd see it on her face when she parts her lips, though he gives the two of them no chance to hear it when his mouth seals over hers and she forgets everything she was going to say.

She sinks in it wholeheartedly, blanket and sand shifting underneath, arms forming a loose loop around his shoulders and neck, the barest brush of fingertips finding hidden pathways through the gold-brown bristles above his collar. This is new, too. Each kiss feels new, a different set for every quiet moment, downright exotic creatures during and after every crisis. Affection, desire, joy, the exhilaration of knowing she's embroiled in something dangerous and necessary, potent and white-hot, bleed over that silver thread. John never really triggers just /one/ emotion. These days, he was liable to trigger all of them.

Disengaging, lashes lift, and underneath him, lips still tingling, heart still racing, she manages to give him the flattest expression possible. "I don't snore." Because this is the expected feminine response. "And do I even want to know /how/ you know how they sound? I know you've been to Africa and Asia but what were you even /doing/ there that you'd come across them like that in the wild? Did you just sit there with a bag of popcorn or something? What did you do after, smoke a cigarette, wink at the boy elephant and say 'can't say anythin' about technique, mate, but bloody good show'?" Again, the /ridiculous/ impression of him, accent so exaggerated it was downright cockney. "And I don't think I can accept the late night National Geographic marathon, I know you don't watch TV but for the news!"

Mini-rant concluded, she smiles, fingers lowering to trace delicately over the side of his face. "With that said, though, do my eyes deceive me? John Constantine in another really good mood? Keep this up and I might really start to think someone's replaced you. I am pretty amazing, you know. I wouldn't put it past anyone."

—-

'I don't snore.'

The glitter in eyes narrowed with good humor confesses that she hadn't been snoring — not that his willingness to concede the point is capable of stopping her from carrying on. He lifts his head just that much further to take in the full scope of her animated expressions, brows skewed together in a skeptical knit, though the amusement still lingers in the eyes, in the way his mouth seems as though it /might/ permit him a smile, any moment.

It does, finally, when she drops into that /absurd/ accent, a flash of white in the silver light. His chuckle is too quiet to be heard, but it reads in the way it moves through his torso, twisted over the way he is, jostling his position. "You sound like a bloody Dickens novel," he says, tone Brit-dry. "You've got a lot of very /specific/ ideas about this scenario. And it's 'bull elephant,' by the way."

He might have teased her further, but the pace of things changes, eases back into something still wry but less superfluous. Stubble rasps her trailing fingertips. He keeps his head perfectly still, allowing her touch to find its way unimpeded, but his pale blue eyes sweep over her expression, then tick up and away, toward the flat behind them — the aperture of the portal spills warm, soft golden light out onto the sand — and beyond it, the rolling, mist-wreathed green of northern Scotland's primal geography.

He is. It's true. He knows that it is.

In a good mood. Feeling, generally, good.

Much like the delicate workings of Fate and Synchronicity, and several other kinds of magic that require him to /not/ think about what he's doing, he's spent the time since he woke up feeling buoyant, as though so much of the weight that had been on his shoulders were stripped from him while he slept, or burned away in the heat of his shower. But he'd known, anyway, as alien as the feeling had been. Knew when he conjured up the entrance to this place in particular.

"We did good work last night," he says finally, dropping his focus back down, easing back and up so that he's hovering over her less, to brace himself on his hand. One knee comes up, the better to drape a forearm, dangle a hand. "No one died who didn't have it coming. Barnes and Foster — no telling if they'll come back from it, but there's a good chance. We've avoided the world being punted into a rigidly-enforced lifetime in paradise."

And she's still here.

She's still alive. Still with him.

That is the piece he continues to stumble over. So many dangers in so little time, so much peril revolving around her, an entire galaxy of complications, but there she is, warm and breathing.

The thought has begun to take shape somewhere in the shadows of him, still nascent, tentative. Something so secret, he almost keeps it a secret from himself, because to embrace it wholly would be, he thinks, madness, but:

What if she's like Chas? What if she can survive him?

…what if he does get to have this, after all?

The thought is made of helium, defined by an absence of gravity, a kind of giddy, dizzy thing that he strives not to dwell on, but—

/What if?/

His distant, contemplative expression shifts in time with his thoughts. The corner of his mouth twitches, more up than down, and the eyes on her face drop to the sand between them, brows knitting very slightly, then smoothing again. "I'm sure it won't be long before something goes tits up again and you can rest easy knowing I'm the genuine article."

—-

'No one died who didn't have it coming.'

Conflict ripples over her expression there, her smile fading into its more musing shadow, pulling her arms up now that he's righted himself so she could fold it behind her head and let her eyes wander up to the stars above them. She is no Jane Foster, able to pick out constellations and know different heavenly bodies by name and position - she noticed the telescope in her shot-up apartment - but the glittering trails sprayed abvoe them remind her unerringly of her and in the tail-end of those thoughts are those of Bucky Barnes and Avram Golubev. How they addressed one another, in spite of everything.

"I reminded Golubev of his wife," Zatanna tells John, lashes falling over her eyes. "When he had me on the chair. He looked at me and said that I took him back sixty years, and that I reminded him of someone he used to know. I didn't know what he meant until I saw him waiting for Bucky to pull the trigger and suddenly it clicked. Why he was doing this. Why a world like that seemed like a great idea. It's an old story, yeah? I've heard it before…" Almost witnessed it up close, she thinks, remembering the vial in John's hand when he blew down the doors to reclaim her. "…the things people do, what happens to them, when they lose the One. Daddy, for all of his steadfastness, wasn't immune."

She slowly sits up then, shaking sand out of her hair, but a half-hearted attempt at best, drawing her legs up so she could wrap her arms around them, her chin resting in between her knees. "It wouldn't have lasted anyway." Her last a soft, dry drawl, her glance tilting at him sideways. "Not with the likes of Peter Quill in it, if there's anyone who'd exhaust a utopia, it'd be him. He'd just use it up from the inside out, and while it would probably be /hilarious/ to watch him do it, we didn't have the time. You know where I ended up? Perfect New York City. The smell of pee, nonexistent, everyone was cheerful, celebrating, not a single 'Have a nice day, asshole!' heard from anyone. Streets were /pristine/. I was so mad I actually turned around to kick something, /knowing/ it would connect on a piece of trash because it's /New York/, but nothing. Empty air. I think I actually got even angrier when I realized it."

Her pale face turns to regard him more fully. "I wondered, though. What mine would be like, once we realized what HYDRA was planning on bringing about. In that place, my mother was alive, and Daddy was an entertainer who came home every night for supper. The two of them, perfectly accessible, Daddy content being a family man with a day job and I…" Her eyes lower to her toes, her smile rueful. "I was never alone. Was never left. It was different, this time. I think…they must've refined it. What the machine does. It felt as if they were trying to override what I knew. Like they removed all the stitching in my brain of what /was/ and started filling it up with all of that. In that life, for me, you were never there. You never existed."

She shifts at that, palms bracing on the sand, head tilted up. From her luminous profile, he'd glimpse a wider smile, a hint of teeth. "And I thought /bollocks/ to that."

Zatanna turns her head, angling it over a bare shoulder, framed by the droopy strap of her tanktop, irises of the palest blue filling with mischief, a touch of the devil over her upturned mouth.

"So doppleganger or no, I'd probably still know it wasn't you anyway," she says, twisting, both palms flat on the sand as she leans over towards him and /bats/ her lashes, lips parted in a pearly grin she can't quite quell. "We're connected, baby. You /complete me/," she finishes dramatically.

—-

He watches her. Watches her watch the stars, watches her sit up, try to rake pale specks of sand from the darkness of her hair, like stubborn stars in a scrap of the night sky.

He doesn't argue the point she makes, of course, because if anyone understands the allure of that world, it's someone like John, whose life has been defined more by its losses than almost anything else. It would not satisfy him, but he grasps the need altogether too well. He is not without sympathy for Avram…

…but that sympathy exists in the same sphere of thought as the black and white films of early Nazi efforts to twist James Barnes into a monster, strip him of everything he loved. The man who lost that love consented to turn around and magnify his own losses a thousand-fold on a man who had done nothing to deserve it. The tragedy is plain, but he feels no remorse over Avram Golubev's death. None at all.

The thought of a New York city without any stains to speak of is one he can't quite fit into his head, too awkward a shape for his imagination. He makes a face that conveys that better than words could, something between a wince and mild distaste edged with humor over the improbability of the thing. Maybe that's why he gets along so well with the city, in spite of his constant grousing about Americans: like him, it's defined largely by its grit, the raw stuff of humanity. Atrocity, apotheosis, and everything in the endless spectrum of things between.

When she turns the conversation toward the specifics of her reality his focus sharpens, curiosity eager to explore the nature of what it is that Hydra's perfect world simulation believed might represent the finest expression of her existence. The things that would make her happiest, however impossible.

And then she tells him that in that world, he'd never even existed. Had been erased entirely. Her most perfect world would not have him in it at all. It shocks him, what that does to him.

Lips part, then close. He turns his head, slants his eyes out over the water, the corners tightening until shadows form at the outer corners, gaze momentarily distant. His face is flawless in its concealment of whatever happens behind it, and delivers the transition to echo her humor as he turns back to her with finesse honed across countless life or death negotiations. His eyes simmer with it, lidding as she leans in, flicked from her bleached-blue irises down to her flashing smile. His head tilts ever-so-slightly, a tacit invitation. "Do I? Blimey. Bad news for you. And which of your missing bits am I, then? The good looks and all of the /fun/, I expect."

—-

She doesn't, and his expression is so perfectly calculated that Zatanna is utterly oblivious to whatever that statement does to him. The brutal, honest truth, because she has never given him any less. But there's no weight on it, evidenced by the smile, bolstered by the youthful, reckless confidence that HYDRA's illusions to perfection were just that. Solidified by the stress of that newfound independence; at this point in her life, like hell was she going to let anyone or anything tell her how to live her life, or how much better it could be when certain elements are added or taken away.

At his answering tilt, what he poses is a good question and for a moment, that brazen confidence falters - a few seconds of befuddlement hinted at by the line of her mouth and the way her own brows lift upwards. She had expected the comment to flit past, not without an answering quip, but now that he's placed the question in her head, she can't help but ponder. The pale edges of her teeth press into her bottom lip, eyes shifting sideways to think.

"That's perfectly fine," she says, all beguiling innocence, so much of it that any court here and in other worlds would convict her on the spot. "Good looks are worthless anyway without the charm to execute them fully and I'm pretty sure I've got /all/ of that. And if I'd have known you'd slander me this way, I would've smothered you in your sleep a long time ago. /All the fun/, my perky Italian ass. Though I suppose I can concede to some of that, considering my current /meatless and cheeseless/ state. All your fault, that. All of it."

/It was sort of cheese/, he said. The memory drives a shiver down her spine.

After a moment's silence, she angles a look over at him again. "Do you really want to know which of my missing bits you are?" she asks. "Because I'm sorely tempted to let you wonder. Since you've apparently got /all the fun/, stands to reason I wouldn't have any." Of course she keeps going, and she knows it, the way she attempts to quell another burgeoning smile with the clip of her teeth makes it obvious. "Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies, I hope you're happy." Her tongue pokes out from between her lips, a barely-there attempt at a raspberry.

Her gaze lowers, finding the drape of his forearm over one knee.

"I suppose we did," she says at last. "Do good work last night. I'm glad we brought them all back."

—-

Of all the many things he might have expected her to do, actually contemplating the answer to that question isn't one of them. Shove him over, suggest a litany of less appealing qualities he might represent, sure. But actually wonder?

He does not wonder, himself, though perhaps not for the reasons she might think.

He takes the teasing with good grace, at least until she mentions her diet, at which point he rolls his eyes, lets the ghostly amusement flesh itself out, smile spreading like a slow dawn. "You're the one who opened the door. It had a sign on it, 'tanna. 'Room in Use.' Y'can't— ah, forget it. I don't need to defend myself to you. I can still have steak, can't I? I'm pretty sure that means I win."

He absorbs her final statement in silence. The revelation of the simulation's analysis of her life notwithstanding, there were other things in there, other things she said worth thinking on, and they reside hard on the other end of the sliding scale of shit he has feelings about. A few ticks of contemplation, and then he's pushing himself to his feet, dusting off the pieces of him that were connected with the sand, and offering her one outstretched hand, held down, to haul her to her feet. His knuckles have taken a serious beating this week, between her nails and the wall he put a dent in last night. Faint shadows suggest the bruises that will come.

"I'm glad you woke up. I was sitting here when you wandered in, wondering about…things." That vague preface in place, he goes on: "Let's have a walk, and you can tell me what your best memory is."

—-

"Wondering about things. Uh oh."

That earlier good mood is infectious, Zatanna's head canting further back to watch his slow unfold upwards, and the hand he extends to her. The bruises and the welts she had left are those she observes, though the beginnings of the former are those that she contemplates in silence, wondering where he had received them. Did he punch out a HYDRA operative while he and Jessica ventured into the crystal's chamber? Still, her fingers don't hesitate when they reach for his, to thread through those surprisingly elegant digits, slender legs pushing up from the sand and she lets him lead.

As always, she follows. Her arm bends at the joint, drawing those battered bone-points up to press her mouth against his new set of injuries, closing her eyes. The smile fades then, replaced by solemn gentleness instead.

She tilts into him as they walk, her other hand slipping into the small pocket of her shorts. She doesn't seem all that cognizant that she's left the blanket behind, unattended. The curtain of her hair will have to do, unfurling through seaside winds and cutting midnight bands over the alabaster curves of her, to shield them from whatever chill. Not that was a problem - the weather was quite mild, compared to New York at this time of year.

The request surprises her. "My best memory?" she wonders. "In what context? My best memory of Daddy, or of you, or just the first thing I think of in the category?"

Her eyes droop, to sort through the photographs that she keeps in that mental attic, poring through the boxes labeled by years. "My first visit to Hong Kong, probably," she murmurs. "Seeing the Market for the first time." The teeming magical underbelly of Kowloon. "The lights, the bodies, the smell. The sound of the wind chimes that seems to just come from everywhere, but you didn't see any hanging from the stalls or the doorframes. Finding that shop at the very back, those real dragon pearls and the ornate puzzle boxes full of /things/. Daddy was always elusive, even when he was doting on me as a child. He didn't even tell me about…all of this…" She gestures between them. "Not really. He let me discover it for myself and when I finally did, one day, he gave me a choice. Not that there ever was one for me, truly…I knew even then I wanted to be where he was and that trip. All I could think of was finally, finally, I'd be able to follow him where he walks. To see what he sees, do what he does, maybe even figure out some without his help."

The smile that follows threatens teeth once more, though they don't manage to peek out from the seam of her mouth. Broad enough, however, for that dimple on her left cheek to show up again.

"I always considered that to be my first real adventure," she tells him. "It captured me so completely, so quickly. And I never looked back. Not once."

She looks at him sidelong at that, curiosity there. "Why did you want to know?"

—-

'Uh oh.' He acknowledges the danger inherent in the wheels of his mind turning in the late hours with a quirk of the lips, though it gentles almost immediately, softened by the press of her mouth to battered skin.

The weather is practically balmy — impossibly so. It would never be this mild at this time of year in this specific place, so there must be artifice here of some kind. But the sand feels real underfoot, the salt air is clean and humid, the distant fragrances of dew on green fields and the mineral tang of wet rock all blessed with absolute authenticity. If anything gives the lie, it's that there seem to be too many stars overhead, the whole of the cosmos shining feverishly in a sky darker than black velvet.

"Any context."

He answers her inward lean by tilting his head toward her, enclosing the space between them in a kind of intimate proximity, even though his gaze wanders over the rucked up surface of the sand, wandering between fragments of shell, twists of sea flora, stakes of driftwood worn down to splinterless softness, bits of crab shell picked clean by birds absent in the evening hours. Looks, but only half-sees, focused on the answer she furnishes for him and the vivid images that she paints with words, fishing it up out of her memories and dusting it off to present it for his perusal, something precious — like one of the pearls she mentions. She mentioned those during their time in the box, as well.

The contents of the box he brought her to help whittle away at her crushing boredom during her time of mystical house-arrest could not be more than an echo of the real thing, but it surprises him — even accounting for Synchronicity — that their first expedition into the elaborate fictions crafted for their entertainment should connect so readily to something so meaningful for her. Makes him wonder, really, if he's mistaken about how the box actually works.

"I have a hard time imagining you turning your back on what you are," he says. There's humor in it, but it takes a back seat to the truth of it, the belief. "Giving it all up to be a— " Another question occurs to him quite suddenly, sending one of his brows upward. Something he's somehow never actually asked, in spite of his position as her tutor for some time.

"What /did/ you think you wanted to be, before you found out?" A pause, a half-smile. "I'm not dodging your question, I'll answer it, I'm just hoping you'll say something like 'schoolteacher' or 'astronaut' or some bollocks like that."

—-

Perhaps he was mistaken about the box.

Zatanna is in no hurry to unveil that mystery, having enjoyed it for what it was - a jaunt back towards well-loved haunts, the city that captured so much of her imagination back when she was much younger and ensnared by that first adventure. One of many that she would have in the years to come with her father, though half of them aren't so picturesque as that. Giovanni has never shielded her from the darker aspects of the Work, much in the same way John never has when it was his turn to teach her, though her earliest journeys into the realm of the fantastic are most certainly that. The question has prompted an uncontrollable cascade of other images: the snowy peaks of the Himalayas and the temple that jutted precariously off a cliff, accessible only by invisible stairs that made the drop all the more precarious and her heart finding a permanent place in her throat through all of it, where she had first learned how to heal; the secret oasis several miles north of Karnak and its rainbow waters, the tomb it hid where a disembodied voice first taught her that Time was fluid and malleable, and not beyond her to manipulate; Vienna and its old, opulent glory, seated in the box of its famous opera house, where her father let her see how much magic the right music contained in its chords and scales…

John isn't wrong, about her inability to turn her back on what she is. It felt like an invisible force, driving her towards her inevitable discovery, restless until she found it, and restless again once her desire to learn more manifested itself. It was downright irrepressible during those tender years; the act of throwing herself body and soul in something she deems worth it has always been a part of her, even then, a reflection of what was to come and what will probably never cease.

The last question has her…well. She presses her hand to her face, scrubbing it once. Muffled laughter escapes her fingers. "You won't believe me," she says. "You'll laugh. Or worse, you'll make this a theme for all the pranks you'll pull on me in the next few years and you'll never let me live it down."

She lets it hang, and she /groans/. With an inauspicious warning such as that, how could he /not/ press for more details? Anyone would want to know, now!

She flashes him a narrow-eyed look as they walk, but it's the smile that does it, hooking on one corner and lifting up, giving his mouth a slight slant. Ugh.

/Ugh/.

Lips part in an exhale. She mutters her answer so quickly he'd barely catch it.

And then louder. "I wanted to be a circus tumbling clown. One of the ones that jumped out of those tiny cars and rolled around kicking at each other's backsides with the giant inflatable noses, and /yes/ back when I was wee and impressionable I even tried to audition for it and of /course/ they humored me, because I was cute and adorable and had /absolutely no idea/ what I was doing. No judgment!" She points at him emphatically. "They just looked like they were having fun all the time and it sure beats the hell out of…I don't know! Accounting! Delivering the mail! One of those jobs that has you /wearing a tie every day/— "

A pause. She flashes him a sheepish grin.

"Look, you asked."

—-

Everything that comes out of her mouth seems fine-tuned to the purpose of making him want to know. There is no /way/ he would let the subject alone after she says all of that, and from the way she groans, she knows it. He has no apologies in his expression, brows slowly rising, eyes widening just enough to convey an absolutely exquisite amount of anticipation. Whatever it is, it has to be good. It /has/ to be. He's stumbled over a gold mine.

So he thinks he's prepared for whatever she'll say, of course. Suspects that he will have over-hyped the actual answer; that it can't possibly live up to his expectations.

He is so, so wrong.

'Circus tumbling clown,' she says.

He stops dead. Just flat-out forgets to walk, jaw going lax.

She goes on. She describes the job. There is no moment at which she pauses suddenly to say, 'ha, just kidding John! I wanted to be a marine biologist!' — no indication in any part of her that she's telling anything but the truth.

He grapples with that. With the thought of her wearing one of those baggy, ridiculous onesies with the pom-pom buttons, hair squirreled away beneath a horrible wig, face painted, honking a hand-horn with a squishable bellows. The oversized shoes. The thing with the car and the ladder that spins around and flattens everyone.

It takes him the rest of her explanation to process all of these things, and she'll see the moment when it finally hits him that /she's actually serious/, because it causes a sea change in his expression, the stunned look slowly being eroded by what's about to happen. The laugh that's coming.

'Laugh' does not do justice to the thing. He /roars/. He throws his head back, reels backward with the momentum of it, forced to release her hand. He compensates by leaning forward to keep from tilting over, places his hands on his legs above the knee to keep from crumpling into the sand. Straightens, loosely tries to defend his middle with both of his forearms, banded over his ribs, but he can barely breathe.

He wonders if his death will be fast, or slow, and still, he can't stop laughing. His eyes go bright with unshed tears.

"Ah…bloody…hell…" he manages, voice weak enough that it almost cracks. He wheezes. "/Oh/ fuck me running."

—-

And as he stares at her, jaw agape, she already /anticipates/ what's going to happen. Zatanna just turns her face further into her hand and just buries it there, bracing herself to /hang on/ to her outrage and it happens.

He doesn't just laugh. He nearly kills himself with it. Her newly-freed hand finds a brace against the swell of her left hip as the force of his mirth rips through the beach, the sound crashing over the air like the surf around them. And she tries to maintain some semblance of composure, because she has already tanked /ten years' worth of dignity and poise/ imparting this story to him, with the gleaming, childish hope that he'll clear his throat and /stop/ any moment now. Any second. Any second, now. But he just keeps going and….

She is on him in an instant, /flailing/ at him. It is nothing forceful, but it probably does her no favors that with such a colorful image swirling inside of his head that she is doing what every single one of those clowns would do when flattened by said ladder. And there are shrieking protests, because of /course/ there are. There is part of her, no matter what she has endured, that will always be reprehensibly girly, including her reactions. Reactions currently drawn effortlessly by the first love of her life, who is laughing at her.

"I was /five/!" she cries, loose fists swatting at him even as he protects his middle. "The only child of the Great Zatara! What the hell did you think I was going to say?! That I wanted to be a dentist?! A doctor?! A marine biologist?! Bad teeth are gross! Doctors wear boring white coats all day! And…and…and…/dolphins are filthy molesters/! With their dead eyes and their deep sea rape caves and what crazy person would ever want to study that?! Nothing ever goes right in the deep! Oh my god, John, stop /laughing/, you— !"

Her laughter joins his, though she doesn't stop her playful assault, agitated feet kicking up white sand and eyes set on fire with it and ire that is too exaggerated to be serious. A flush, rendered breathless from her exertions and the argent sounds that escape her, stains her cheeks.

She pushes, and /points/. Despite the gales winding out of her ribcage, she somehow still manages to make it seem imperious. "You'll be lucky if I fuck you /anything/ after that display!" she exclaims. "Pouring out my childhood hopes and dreams of running clowns over in a tiny car and you laugh! You're a cad, John Constantine!"

—-

Sniffing. Standing there choking back further cascades of laughter that want to come, buckling through his chest, hitching his shoulders, but somehow he manages to stave them off, swallow them — if only because he needs oxygen to live. He lifts a hand, edges the center flat of his index finger beneath one eye…

…and then she's hitting him with fists that don't actually mean to do him any harm, yelling about bad teeth — true, they are gross — and boring white coats, which…that's just Zatanna all over, isn't it? …and…

Dolphins?

Deep sea rape caves full of dolphins.

He loses his /SHIT/.

He can't fend off her assault, he's too uncoordinated, entirely disarmed by the sudden turn taken by the conversation. He makes lame, futile attempts to intercept her swinging, slapping hands and shoves, but it's no use. Most of them land, and they all drive him back, ribs cramped, exhausted. He needs to breathe. He can't breathe. He's going to die.

It takes threatening to couch him to bring him back from the brink of hysterical oblivion. "…'tanna…please…" Gasping. Weeping, practically. "…clowns are supposed t— " *SNRK* "— to /want/ to make people laugh, I'm just…I'm just helping you to fulfill your childhood d— " Oh god. He almost starts up again. "— dreams."

He straightens, sucks in a deep breath, bringing up the hem of his shirt to wipe his face. "Oh, /christ/."

Two more breaths and a long, slow exhale follow, and then he drops the hem of his shirt and makes a deliberate, visible effort to bring himself back under control. He manages fairly well. "I wanted to be a rock star," he says (of course he did), and that comes close to starting him up all over again. The contrast is OUTRAGEOUS.

He stifles it, somehow, and reaches for her, quickly enough that he clearly anticipates an effort on her part to twist away and punish him for his betrayal. Aiming, ultimately, to pull her in, press his lips to her temple if she'll let him, his firm insistence brimming with affection.

"Don't worry, luv. Your secret's safe with me. Probably."

—-

'I'm just…I'm just helping you to fulfill your childhood d— "

"Don't say it!" Zatanna cries as a warning. "Don't you /dare/— !"

'— dreams.'

"/YOU ASS/!!"

She lobs a clump of seaweed at him, some manner of detritus washed up from the sea and left to languish half-buried in white sands, particles of which puff up in the air and swirl around them when it makes contact, either on him or where he used to be, considering he's been trying to twist away from her. It doesn't help that he claims that he wanted to be a rockstar when he was younger, before she somehow manages to flash him a look that is downright emphatic with her /complete lack of surprise/ there. Because of course. Just /look at him/!

Her lungs burn, and a jab of pain lances up her side. Her own vision blurs in the corners and her cheeks glow fiercely in the dark from all of her laughter. And testament as to just how well he knows her - he was not exaggerating in his encounter with the Batman in the privy, when he claimed that he knows her better than almost everyone outside of her own father - she is /already/ twisting away when he quickly lunges for her, managing to ensnare her around the taper of her waist and holding her fast.

"/Help/!" she cries, the air alive with their noisy tomfoolery. "/There's a dolphin and he's English/— !"

She's still laughing when his mouth finds her temple, somehow under dark, tangled tresses. And at his magnanimous reassurance, she spins within the circle of his arms and angles her chin at him defiantly.

"/Bullshit/, John." All smiles and dancing, lightning eyes. "But that's fine, I'm not scared. Do your worst."

MY DIGNITY, is her inward lament.

—-

The lithe resistance she puts up is no challenge for John once he gets his arms around her. She starts /yelling/ things, terrible, slanderous things that don't even make sense. "Well, it's your fault," he contends, trying to manipulate her position and get her to face him with hands on her hips — a thus far unsuccessful effort. "You've helped me to discover my true porpoise."

Deadpanned, absolutely.

She faces him on her own then, and she'll catch him in a moment of absolutely unguarded enjoyment: his eyes glitter in the dark, his smile sharp and cutting, thoroughly louche.

"We both know you don't mean that. My worst? Really? You're lucky I like you." The threats are only idle, distracted because there are so many things about this that coil themselves around his heart and squeeze, and if he'd not already come to rough terms with the fact that he's falling in love, it would've been difficult for him to overlook it when she's looking at him that way, hair tousled by the sea wind and eyes full of bottled electricity, flushed, indignant. Happy.

"To answer your earlier question," he says, keeping hold of her in case she intends to sling any more ocean detritus at him, "I asked because that's what I was thinking about before you woke up. Whether or not I could remember my happiest memory. Not sure that I can, actually." The words are not cheerful, but his good mood is unblemished; he relates that fact as though it were an academic curiosity, lacking any kind of pain. He's still catching his breath, and a few pass in silence before he speaks again. "Lately everything we've been up against wants to remind us of all of the bloody awful shite we've been through. Everything we've lost and can't get back, all of the things we did wrong. The most painful bits. And I — ah, you know me, Zee. It's not as though I don't give things like that ammunition. An' unless I miss my guess, we're probably just going to see more of that as this…whatever it is…keeps gaining momentum. I thought it might be worth trying to think about better days for a change. Vaccinate against that kind of attack."

—-

The pun ellicits a groan, and so does the rest of it. "You mean /you're/ lucky I like you after what you just said," Zatanna replies, the sound of her breathless. "Really, John."

Her arms are in the way. She wiggles them out of the circle of his, linking her fingers behind his neck and drinking it in, savors the look on his face. Zatanna has never seen him like this, pale eyes bright with unshed tears of mirth, unguarded, his smile that cuts like a knife. She could never truly know what lurks inside, unless he tells her, but what she sees on his expression now is worth its weight in gold - worth the lack of sleep, worth the indignity of confiding in him her darkest childhood secret. Her heart maintains its acrobatic jackhammering in her chest and everything about her at this moment radiates free, unfettered pleasure, for all of the slander and thrown seaweed.

But he at last answers her question and that blazing smile tempers at the corners, curiosity gentling the expresion and her attention clearly focused on his present words. As always, that rarely-used nickname draws it without fail, given his propensity to only use it when he's being serious. Fingertips absently play with the short-cropped locks behind his head and her mouth lends towards a purse, though it takes a while for her to gather her thoughts to respond in turn, her brain having latched onto that earlier merriment, and is understandably reluctant to let go of it.

She leans in, pale face casting its own eclipse on his features. The brush of her lips on his is light, just a touch of warm damp against briny air that steals it away too quickly, leaving nothing but the ghosts of their shapes. Her smile returns.

"It works," she tells him. "Or rather, it worked for me in there. I heard your voice, that you'd still choose me."

The rare embarrassment at the admission heightens her color. Her eyes wander away from his to glance at a point past his shoulder.

"And it pulled out the rest, what I said to you after you told me." That she wasn't ready to say goodbye. "But I'm easy to recalibrate that way, I think. I tend to embrace everything, you know this, but especially the bits that make my heart sing. It's not just pain that's in there, John. I've never been happier than I have been, lately, as strange as that might sound considering everything. This is the longest I've ever stayed in one place in the last…god, I don't even know how many years. Not since the last time I lived in Gotham, probably."

Her eyes lift to meet his again. "But I'm all for it," she tells him. "Immunizing you from that kind of thing. I hope it works, I suppose it can't help but if you're happy. ….are you? Or are you at least getting there?"

—-

Once, John looked that way more often than he didn't. Difficult to believe, but the pictures from his days on the London punk scene are the proof: always dazzling grins, always in the company of friends. Always looking as though he were going to get into trouble. Pieces of him remember what it was like — which probably accounts for the natural ease of him in the moment, in spite of how rare these moments are — though they've been masked and blurred by Ravenscar.

His eyes lower, tracking her inward lean. The temptation to lean into the soft touch her lips is there, but quelled for the time being. He accepts it, though, that ghostly whisper of contact, and the nerves beneath tingle once it ends…which is only part of the reason he presses his lips together, thins them into a line.

It's what she says. Rather, partly what she says, and in larger part the way she looks when she says it, cheeks flushing, her internal squirm, the shift of her eyes. It's so radically unlike her. The combination kindles something in his ribcage — something tender, buoyant atop his good humor. It had cost him in ways he hasn't got the words to describe to open himself that way for her, because the prospect of her death left no room for him to do otherwise. And yet, here is the consequence: not the collapse of everything, but a return. It was part of what brought her back to him.

Not everything. He's not delusional; he knows — or at least suspects — that she would be no more content with that artificial joy than he would, but even so…

His tight wind of arms around her eases, finally, so that he can slide his hands up either side of her spine, splay them over her shoulder blades, tilting his head forward ever so slowly to rest his crown to hers. She confesses to being happy in spite of everything — and there has been a great deal of Everything to spite — and it tilts the scales of him, weighed along with everything else. Her laughter, their successes, the progress they've made in their efforts not to trample all over one another, the self-conscious fidget that came along with telling him what it was that woke her. Hearing his own words repeated back to him, because he would. Still choose this. Cannot imagine, having done so, what it would have been like not to, now that he's in it. All of it, altogether, rolls into something that allows him to nod, just barely enough to be felt. It scares the ever-living shit out of him to admit it, but:

"Yeah. I am."

He tilts his head, lifts a hand to hover over her cheek, thumb close to the corner of her mouth. "Couldn't hurt to make better memories, though," he suggests, wryness over quiet. "Just in case." The wryness fades, wanes, replaced with a delicate intimacy, breath spilled over the curve of her mouth. "But I already have some. With you."

There's a long pause, the phantom suggestion of contact at her lips…which bends and shifts, curling upward, a slow smile that gets just a /little bit too wide/ for the moment—

"Like the one where I found out you wanted to be a /clown/," he whispers. "That one's a /treasure./"

—-

Seeing her with less than her brazen self-confidence is extremely rare; being part of the entertainment industry has given Zatanna no small measure of bravado in all things, and her experience on stage has given her considerable skills in faking courage whenever she needs to. But perhaps inevitably, John Constantine proves himself to be an exception to all of her usual rules - as he does with most of the universe - and for a while she keeps her gaze fixed on the crashing surf behind him in an effort to recollect her composure, and quell the mortifying, unfamiliar sensation of self-consciousness blooming from the back of her head. It helps to know, somewhere deep down, that when she looks back at this moment, she will laugh, not just because she has managed to impart a dark childhood secret on /the worst person alive/ to keep such a thing, but that she has managed to do this without blushing, when her simple admission manages to do what no truly embarrassing moment could ever do to her.

She doesn't know how it affects him either, misses the look in his eyes when it happens.

He loosens the band he makes around her, which prompts her to look at him again. She must have glimpsed something in his expression because the next thing he sees from her is a slight tilt of her head, the question in her eyes that she doesn't voice, because it touches upon what is inside of his head, and she is too inured to the habit of not asking. But she doesn't have the room to wonder for long at his lean, when he closes the distance. When his forehead presses against hers and touches her cheek that way. Lids draw nearly shut, ever so responsive to the slightest touch, her own face adopting its own tilt into the cradle of his fingers, savoring the static-shock webbing over her senses when his thumb touches that corner.

He says he is happy and the quiet confessions that follow take her breath away. Knows that it isn't easy. Knows that it probably scares him. Not that she can't relate herself, but her fright is countered by the supernova of warmth that suddenly spreads from the center of her ribs and outward and her senses suddenly spin in a dizzying loop.

"John…"

Her heart lurches, cramps within her bones, the sweetness of the ache set aflame by the way his breath whispers over her lips….and that too wide smile that tells her what is coming before he even says it.

"Just because you managed to get that story out of me doesn't mean you're getting anything else," she hisses, laughter leaving impressions on her grouse. Her arms around his neck tighten, and she pulls him into her. "Everyone gets /one/."

The last word almost lost, within her mouth's insistent press, the barest introduction of the edges of her teeth on the lower half of his.

"You're lucky you're cute," she murmurs, voice muffled.

—-

There are times when proximity imposes a soft haze of something almost distant over the intensity he aims at almost everything in front of him — a dreamy, simmering sort of thing, all of his senses bent onto his object. Her, lately. It is distinctly lazy, but misleading; there is always, beneath the drowsy heat of those moments, the potential for everything to burst into flames or for some cutting edge to sharpen him again.

It happens after her last words. Until then he's drifting, solid under the hang and pull of her arms but conceding, easy to bid closer, eyes nearly closed into her hissed warnings and the laugh that follows, the lip she catches in her teeth somehow holding back the threat of the broader smile that seems to haunt the corners of his mouth, waiting for the right moment to strike. And then she tells him that he's lucky he's cute, and the mist of soft intimacy is rippled by the dry look he puts on, the careful moderation of his tone to somehow emulate the cocky tenor of his full voice whilst barely using any volume at all. Still soft around the edges, even so — something about the eyes, mere crescents of pale blue. "So I've been told. Good thing we took care of that hex, innit? Christ knows what I'd look like by now. T'any rate, I'm not Everyone, am I? You put it like that, I'm going to see it as a challenge."

Wryness takes another dizzying turn, sliding off in another direction entirely. The humor stays, but the heat returns and the voice sheds its manufactured arrogance, walking the fine line between the joke it sounds like and the truth it is — all as he noses his profile up just that necessary hair's breadth to part his lips and claim her mouth: "I do like the way you say my name."

—-

Mention of her father's hex can't help but dump those faint stirrings of guilt in her stomach. It is less about regretting what followed after she picked his locks and reversed all of its effects, but rather more about the dread she feels when it's time to confront her father about her choice. And with things only intensifying between them, she could barely imagine the thunder that would bring. There's always a part of her that wonders why Giovanni Zatara has never approved of John, when he had left her to make her own choices before, resulting in the loss of her innocence by the time she was sixteen years of age and other dalliances since then, other than the blatantly obvious reasons of being intimately familiar with John's history. It's very possible that Giovanni believes what everyone else does, including John himself, that he brings nothing but destruction and death to his own, leaving him standing alone to pick up the pieces.

But she knows her father. Knows him better than anyone in the world. And she can't shake the feeling that there was something else driving his disapproval.

She pushes the thought away uneasily, all too happy to soak up his proximity and the langorous, gentle, somewhat wordless intimacy they've taken up to these days; quieter moments detailed with nothing but absent touches and the way she looks at him while they enjoyed the privacy of his flat. That was also different, somehow, from their summer spent in a breathless, passionate haze, the sheer physicality of their affair drowning everything else that needed settling. More. Better.

"What would you have done if I didn't crack the vault?" she murmurs, words shaped against his lips, unwilling to reclaim the distance required to look him in the eyes. "Would you have done it yourself?" It's an idle question, posed distractedly, though the smile returns when he rightly points out that he's not Everyone.

"Definitely not." Unabashed in her assurances there. "Even before all of this. Us. You were one of a kind." And that is objectively true, personal biases notwithstanding.

His nose glances to the side of hers, her own head tilts the opposite way. Her eyes drift fully closed, tasting the incoming heat. Her mouth parts readily for his, but it's an incidental consequence to what she says next.

"I like saying it." That is truthful too, her voice barely a whisper, tone and inflection thickened by equal parts passion and affection: "John. John Constantine."

She returns the token, a pang of hunger suddenly driving her to lift herself up by the toes, to lean into him, fingers buried into his hair, to brace him into her greed.

—-

John does not dwell on the subject of the hex. She's already had an unanticipated glimpse into the thoughts and feelings he has about Giovanni, complex beyond all reason. It's best for everyone involved if he does /not/ think too deeply about it.

Thinking about the lifting of it — and he does, often — is safer ground by far. "Is that a serious question?" Humor again, lifting his whisper back up into the quietest possible register of his actual voice. "Obviously."

There are other things he wants to say — about being one of a kind (for better AND for worse), about his name — but he lets all of them slip from his mental fingers as her weight tilts into his chest, her sudden ardor nudging him backward half a step before he counters, braces. The hand at her cheek departs in a rush of cooler air, winds about the small of her back, the other rising up through curtains of dark hair to cradle her head. It was a soft and unhurried kiss, but it takes nothing at all to coax out of him something more feverish, lids finally shutting over pale irises. Heat washes down the length of all of his limbs in a gossamer wave, driven by the accelerating engine of his heartbeat and easily felt through the thin cotton of his shirt. He exhales, opens his mouth and deepens the tilt of his head: his silver tongue, her remarkable gift for speaking languages backward, and this is still the one thing they do with their mouths that he never tires of.

Around them, the scenery stutters once, twice, his focus so wholly bent on her that he temporarily loses the thread of what sustains the existence of this mimicry of a place he knew — very briefly — as a boy.

His hands shift, rove down the line of her back, skate over the rise of her backside and secure her hips against his with a squeeze that marks the moment he lifts his head, again, curiosity and mischief writ in his expression. "You wouldn't have done it if I hadn't asked, would you? Lifted it." There's enough uncertainty as to the answer to that question that he still inflects it as one, but he seems to be guessing that his hypothesis is correct. "I was committed to it. Letting it stick. For Gi's sake." He keeps hold of her as he takes his first slow step backward. "And then you made that /really/ difficult." Second step.

—-

She drinks it in and lets it wash her away, mouth in a slant to encourage the deepening cant of his head against hers, oblivious to the sputtering around them - like old fashioned television sets that need a pop on the side or a kick to the antenna, the wavering, picturesque image is lost to her. In many ways it has been since that sudden onslaught of laughter and play, barely cognizant of the finer details of her environs when she was so greedily taking pictures of him in her mind's eye - the roaring laugh, pale eyes bright with unshed tears, the smile that cuts the surrounding darkness like a blade. Zatanna remembers popular word that back in the day, John excuded such a potent charisma and self-assurance that he led several of his mates to ruin in Newcastle and she is very much familiar with the allure that his effortless magnetism represents. Despite objectively knowing better, she is not immune.

He electrifies her with just a touch; with a kiss, he sets her on fire, tingling heat twisting up her spine as hands track down the graceful line of it, over the upwards tilt of her from behind, the flare of her hips. For all of her early promiscuity, she has never known anyone who has such a profound effect on her physically, as if every sense has been tuned and keyed to his whims, ready to go at a moment's notice. The curse of being in love, perhaps, of wanting for years and having for just a few short months.

It ends, and it feels almost too short. For a moment she stares at him from underneath heavy set lashes, crescents of vibrant color glittering like lightning shards, brain struggling to grasp what he is asking her even as her steps follow him blindly, a slight sway as interlocked bodies shift backwards, shadows lengthening over the sand.

"It's difficult for me to tell now if I would've without you asking," she murmurs. "Part of me was a little relieved about its existence, because I knew I wouldn't be able to help myself and…it might've not been a good idea, to jump back into it so soon, when things were so fragile between us." The line of her mouth softens, grows pliant. "We were still…we were recovering, John. I think we needed to make sure this was really something we both wanted."

His assertion makes her laugh suddenly, however, though it is still quiet. Her head tilts back to make room for it, given their proximity. "Oh, /sure/. Blame me. What did I ever do? I flirted a little, and unbuckling your belt that night was meant to be reassuring. But I won't protest that too much, I can read between the lines. You find me irresistible. That…" Mischief in her eyes, the devil's own smile on her lips. "…I'm perfectly, absolutely fine with."

—-

If pressed as to how he finds it acceptable to be involved with a young woman ten years his junior, young enough that this kind of thing draws looks askance — and those looks are, he thinks, fair enough — he would say that it's because she's older than the sum of her years. Amongst those who travel in similar circles, he'd point to the life she'd been forced to live by her heritage: how can anyone be raised that way and not be forced to grow up quickly? He'd said as much to the World's Greatest Detective when he was ambushed in a men's room. Magicians, he asserted, grow up fast.

But that's what every sleazy older man would say about his too-recently-legal lover, isn't it? It wouldn't convince anyone. They'd give him a flat look, roll their eyes.

It is /true/, though, and she demonstrates that in spades. He has no doubt that if they'd been able to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, they'd — /he'd/ — have made a mistake somewhere along the line, and things probably would've ended quickly. Badly. He'd have pushed ahead without thinking because he doesn't usually /like/ to have to think too deeply about women, and then where would they be?

Not here. That much seems certain.

But it isn't just that, is it? She's never pushed him to give her more than he's able to, sensing that there are things he can't say, even if they've never talked about why. In the aftermath of the assault on the Cult stronghold in Switzerland, she'd been able to discern which of his criticisms were worth accepting, and which of them had more to do with his own hang-ups than herself, and she hadn't hesitated to push back, or let her anger with the latter override her willingness to do the former.

They seem like small things, but small things make up the whole of a thing. It's easy for him to forget that the age difference is so great because, in practice, it just doesn't appear to exist in the granular day to day sense. It shocks him when he's forced to remember by something she says or, /the very worst/, when she has a /school night/ — words that make him wince, and feel like an actively bad human being. For the most part, though, it just does not register at all.

She does it again when she tells him she knows he finds her irresistible. Sees through the dissembling, the hesitation, the preoccupation with covering his own ass, and they both know that's true. Here they are, aren't they?

John takes another step back, tchs quietly, finds a mask of pensive indecision to put on over his obvious amusement. "I dunno," he says. "I could take it or leave it." He deadpans the words, but there's absolutely nothing about him in those moments to support that outlandish assertion: he can't seem to tear himself away, lingering in spaces so close that the air tastes of her breath, where the softness of her mouth needs only the barest tilt of his head to reclaim.

Two more steps, and then a cold rush of water over bare feet. His expression of false uncertainty shatters around a fox's smile, the corded bands of muscle in his arms tightening like cables to keep her where she is for that next ominous step backward.

"When I was a lad, my sister an' I lived with my Aunt and Uncle in Northampton for a while, because my da was busy being a drunkard in lockup, something to do with stealing panties from neighbors. Good ol' da. One year they 'ad a windfall, and decided we ought to go on holiday. My first one. We came here. Scotland's a miserable sodding place to holiday, unless you fancy /rain/. Or heroin, I s'pose. I thought it was bloody fantastic, though. Anything was better than the estate."

—-

Much like him, the age difference barely registers, though unlike him, she has demonstrated no discomfiture over it. But that is her all over too: the heart wants what the heart wants, and when it comes to pursuing her desires, she has never hesitated to try and try again. It could be because of that tendency for magicians to grow up quickly in a dark and fantastic world, but it could just as easily be her nature, her heart ever an irrepressible force that tends to override cold, logical sense. And while she had the presence of mind not to seduce him until she was of age, the years between them hadn't stopped her from professing her love by the time she was sixteen going on seventeen - said while meeting his eyes directly, with a smile so innocent it hadn't done her any favors at all.

At an age where those of like years would balk at such brazen confessions, she manages to make that seem effortless also, with the full knowledge that he would never, ever take her seriously.

That hasn't changed much; it could be argued that they were only here because she isn't afraid of driving him to a corner, or fighting back whenever he does the same to her. All indelible stamps of a life raised with full recognition that her world is an extremely dangerous one, especially for novices, where more seasoned individuals will not hesitate to take, feed on, manipulate and use what they offered.

Zatanna, in spite of her vulnerabilities, has cultivated a knack for surviving.

Though it's still an open question as to whether she would be able to survive John Constantine intact - a fact that she has acknowledged, however privately, but largely it is a thought that registers in her daily life as much as their age difference does. She is simply too caught up with him and the present, the now, to pay it any serious heed when he tends to take up almost all of her attention whenever they're in the same room together. In his case, Love most certainly rhymes with addiction, a fact that she embraces with that same, reckless abandon as she demonstrates with everything else that captures her imagination and interest.

His quip has her grinning, pearls within her lips, stars within her eyes. Her adoration bleeds from every part of her, her tilting steps forcing hair and noses to brush against one another. "Take it or leave it? If that's how you want to play it…" She makes a show of it, of attempting to disengage from him, but it is half-hearted at best and she fits herself against him in familiar ways, a small sound escaping her when cold water rushes over her toes.

She knows what's coming, or at the very least could guess. But despite this, she follows him anyway - resolute, determined, wildly fearless in the way that has driven him to anger in more than one occasion. That challenging note is in her eyes and the tilt of her chin.

"When I stepped through, I was wondering why you didn't pick Tahiti, or something, if you wanted to go to a beach," she confesses, barely a murmur. "I've been all over but I didn't recognize it. Scotland's not exactly the first thing I think of when I think 'beach'." There's a slight incline of her head at him. "You mentioned earlier that you were trying to recall a happy memory, I guess it makes sense now that you would pick this. Have you been back since…? The real thing, I mean."

—-

Sand agitated by the rolling tide busily tries to consume their feet as he maneuvers them backward with utter confidence. The chill of the tide in this northern strait is just cold enough to take the breath, and the slow pace at which they're moving is less kind than a sudden rush would be, getting it over all at once.

There is a tactile pleasure in defeating even her half-hearted attempt to evade him, if only because the distance she creates as she leans and turns away cools his chest enough that the return of her is felt that much more acutely in all of its softness and warmth. A not-uncommon theme, in the relationship of extremes they seem to have cultivated between them, this concept of contrast: the lows so very low, the highs so very high, the distance between the two felt so much more deeply because of the vastness between.

"Nah," he says, steadily retreating, but determined to keep that excruciatingly slow pace. "I always thought it'd be better to leave it a memory. Like going back and watching shows you liked as a kid, yeah? Just asking for disappointment."

The first cold, cresting wave to connect with the back of his knees causes his breath to catch, his resolution to waver, if only momentarily. "An' actually, I was realizing that I don't remember much about it, except that Cheryl an'I spent one night sleeping on the beach. It was a bit of alright."

Through effort of will, he turns his head to glance off to one side, down the strand. The drama of the Scottish northland is difficult to deny; there is an eerie majesty to the landscape only enhanced by the standing stones dotted about the landscape, beacons to people like John and Zatanna. "Not really as interesting as Hong Kong, is it?"

—-

She bites back a sound when the water hits the back of his legs, temporary barriers for the wake until currents swirl around him and hit her too. A leg bends instinctively and she drops her head on his shoulder to bury the rest of it, dark hair spilling against his shirt and muffling the exasperated laughter that threatens to escape. She doesn't ask why - the beach was perfectly balmy, but she tightens her arms around him to brace herself for the chill rippling up her bare legs, edges sharpened by the way the restless wind caresses the drops sprinkled over her skin. The shiver can be easily felt, coursing through her, but the change in temperature causes enough reflexive thrill to dump drops of adrenaline in her bloodstream, causing those eyes to flare - certainly more alert now than she was just a few moments ago.

"How young were you?" she asks, and she manages to keep her voice from sounding too tentative. It must've been 'very', given his admission that he doesn't remember much about the stay itself. "You seem to have remembered plenty about the geography at least." Enough for him to reconstruct this, though it wouldn't be beyond him to fill in the gaps in his memories with other details that he remembers more clearly - fragments of past travels.

"I don't think I've ever done that," she muses, her head rolling back in an attempt to remember. "Camping in forests, out in the desert….there's this oasis in Karnak my father took me to when I was twelve and I remember getting there by camel, and how cold the nights were. The water was beautiful, though, and the tomb underneath was all sorts of mysterious. But I don't think I've ever spent a night on the beach."

Her knee straightens slowly, to dip her lofted set of toes back into the water, a quiet hiss escaping her at the frothing cold. But his last question prompts her to look the other way, sweeping her gaze up at the too-many stars and the stretch of coast leading to those craggy sentinels standing at a distance. Curiosity on her face, her attention is drawn unerringly to them.

"It's a different kind of interesting," she tells John at last, turning her face to draw her lips over the rough bristles on his cheek. "Hong Kong reminds me of a colorful, noisy festival. This place feels like more like a mystery…a ghost story." And she always did like ghost stories.

—-

"Ah, who can remember. Young." The timeline of John's youth is a confused medley of impressions, not a chronology so much as a series of distinct events that he loosely recalls. He spent much of his childhood wanting to be anyone but himself, and most of his adolescence striving to make that wish a reality. London had helped. Raucous live shows, alcohol, drugs, casual acquaintances, hasty assignations. He'd been young, handsome and reckless, ambitious and fearless, completely without a leash, and he'd made every minute of that count. Those qualities would eventually lead him to Newcastle, but they had their uses beforehand, helping him to split open the too-tight confines of his life as it was, emerging from that chrysalis as something else entirely.

Hers, by contrast, had been a childhood almost without borders of any kind, from what he's been able to gather. It couldn't have been easy to be Giovanni's daughter — the man is exacting, as John knows altogether too well — but he did /love/ her, at least, and even holding her at arms' length in her early years as she described earlier in the evening, waiting for her to make her own decision about the path her life would take, being close to him would've meant proximity to a world of wonders. Like Karnak, and a little shop in Hong Kong selling dragons' pearls.

"I thought it was pretty," he admits, squinting at the shoreline. "You don't see things like this in Liverpool. But that's novelty for you, innit? Almost everything looks good when it has a shine on it."

Her kiss to his cheek draws his attention back to her, and to the cynicism creeping into his last observation. Habit. Rue from that realization, and from her final words — that this feels like a ghost story, or a mystery — creeps into the small smile he answers her with. "I s'pose it is."

The next step backward is long, and it takes them in up to his waist, the shock of that sensation enough to have him hissing and his hands clutching at her. Minutes ago he'd been ready to pull her back to the afghan and take her on the sand. The cold is unkind, shredding through the warm-honey haze of her embrace.

"I can't remember why I thought this would be a good idea," he admits, but he takes another step backward, brows knitting as water just shy of icy swirls into the low of his back. He is clearly committed to this excoriation via the elements. "I'm pretty sure I had a reason."

—-

As always, with Zatanna, it's the exceptions to the rule that are particularly telling; she is unfailingly open about her life, where she has been, what she has experienced, what she has felt, but save for the pieces that she has already offered up about Giovanni Zatara, she is less forthcoming about what life with the man is like - many of her anecdotes about her father are factual, stories to amaze, but it is rare for her to introduce anyone to the man himself and what she actually felt about his parenting. She keeps the incident in Paris under tight lock and key, and she is generally more than content to introduce others to the miracles he has wrought over his several decades of life, or speak of him with obvious, wholehearted affection. But she is a magician raised by a magician - some say /the/ magician of his generation, and she is unfailingly careful with secrets.

"I think it's pretty despite seeing other pretty places," she tells him, undeterred by his cynicism, an expression of fond exasperation glimpsed faintly there. While she only knows the vague shape of his childhood, she is very much aware that their roots are significantly different; John didn't have the luxury to be picky, living in urban poverty like he did, while Giovanni was already famous and wealthy by the time she came along, masking his true abilities with the flamboyant grandeur of stage shows. She is highly sensitive to it now, given the words he told her the first night as he slid the blade between her ribs; how she was magical royalty and that it unfailingly meant that she looked down her nose at him.

There is some associated apprehension there; on the same vein, she can't help but wonder whether he thought she was simply treating him as an instrument for her teenaged rebellion. The princess dallying with someone who came from the wrong side of the tracks, despite her father's disapproval.

Water crests again and it fills the space under her ribs, and she clutches onto him even more tightly when cold, tingling spikes force goosebumps to dot her pallor, pressed into him for warmth. Useless, really, she can barely feel it now.

Dragged further into the open water, she lets out another sound - terribly feminine, a sound straddling the line between laughter and distress. Dancing eyes find his, largely unperturbed by their predicament save for its purely physical effects. "I don't know," she says, good humor leeching into her tone. "Were you trying to get to a more accurate metaphor of whatever this is? Surrounded by terrifying forces of nature beyond our control, yanking at us from all directions to see whether we'd hang on or let go once they start to drown us?"

Lashes lower. Her expression is decidedly feline, now. "Do you want to find out?"

She digs her heels into the sand and suddenly /pushes/, her body tilting and throwing her entire weight forward, plunging the two of them further into the sea, the sound of her shouted, unbridled laughter cut short the moment they hit the incoming wall of water.

—-

She will have the uncompromised satisfaction of seeing his eyes widen enough in surprise that the whites are visible all around the sky blue rings of his irises as he loses his balance and topples backward — just before the next wave closes in over his head, and smothers him with black ice. He drags her with him, of course — wouldn't do to topple alone — but has to release her in order to break the surface with a gasp to pull air into lungs that cramp tightly, shrinking away from his ribs as though to avoid the cold.

He slings his head, sends fat droplets off in a fantail of silver from the crop of his hair, and blinks brinewater out of his eyes, sparing a hand to help.

"You're a monster," he says, gravely. "And that's a crap metaphor. It's more like…two canapes circulating on a tray at a celestial dinner party for overeaters. Do you want to be eaten, or do you want to wilt and go stale, passed over in favor of meatballs on toothpicks? Because those are better, aren't they?"

What?

"Or…" Wheels turn. He treads water, pulls her in across ripples of biting cold, a hard tremor passing through his core, a contained shiver. "Or two grans in a laundrette where the machines only take debit cards and 'alf them that take cash are full of someone else's unders. Do you negotiate with terrorist technology, or get your hands dirty, mucking about with someone else's wank stains? Or…" He lifts his hand, snaps his fingers — the gesture of /I've got it/. "More like two clowns trapped in a deep sea dolphin rape cave."

—-

Some part of her, the monstrous part, had been ready for the flail once she decided she was going to ambush him. To let him take the brunt of the water while she ran away back to the shore, laughing her head off, /ditching him/ in the sea's briny embrace. Unfortunately he manages to hang on, taking her with him to share in his suffering, and the resulting shriek escapes her in a trail of bubbles when darkness, for a moment, consumes them both.

When Zatanna emerges, she's coughing out saltwater, but she's still laughing, lifting her own hand to scrub out her eyes and groping half-blind for the hand that extends to help. The exposure assists, slowly getting acclimated to the cold, and manages to lever herself up with her feet on the sand underneath. Her hair hangs wet and heavy over her, clinging unforgivingly to her back and shoulders, a strip of midnight slashing diagonally over her face. She manages to push it away with a flick, a stream of clear droplets following its slap downwards against the water.

She lets herself be pulled along as brows furrow - John /can/ be descriptive when he wants, but she can hardly picture herself as an appetizer, though now that he's put the idea in her head, she wonders what kind she would be. "Wonder what kind of canape I'd be then. A crab cake? Cucumber finger sandwich?" Her slender frame cuts through water like black glass as she follows. "You, though, you're definitely something with sausage involved."

His own metaphors get all the more ridiculous; the laundromat scenario, she can barely follow. That last one, however…

She stops, and gives him a sidelong glance. To her infinite credit, she manages to contain the laugh that threatens to break out, though he'd easily see it in her eyes well enough.

Instead, she draws up her shoulders, and cocks an imperious brow at him. With all the careful deliberation of innocence afforded to her generally not-so-innocent soul, she says, very, very seriously:

"How did you even come up with that last one? It's very bizarre. What was it, some delirious fit of inspiration?"

Because she has absolutely nothing to do with it. Nope.

—-

Beneath the surface, a loose tangle of limbs once he has her close enough, reaching for her waist. Tendrils of her hair swirl like tentacles, curl like tongues around his upper arms, maddening tickles he has to strive not to shrug away.

As usual, her curiosity gets the better of her, and she makes the mistake of humoring his nonsense. "Sausage," he repeats. "Is that a compliment? It's not a compliment, is it." Pause. "What's not to like about sausage?"

And what kind would she be? Well she did open the door to it, didn't she? And she'll never learn, in all probability. Flexibility of imagination plays an important role in any magician's ability to adapt to changing circumstances, improvise, improve upon everything that came before — a quality they share, for better or worse, given to doing things a little bit differently than their peers…and one another. It also plays havoc with conversations like these.

"Absinthe jello shots," he tells her, absolute certainty writ in every line of his expression. "Definitely."

The arms that encircle her tremble, the shivers at his core expanding outward into his limbs, but there's a delicious tension between that self-punishment and the impossibly tantalizing feel of her, or the way she looks with moonlight sheening dewed, fair skin. It strikes him half-dumb, not for the first time tonight. He remains quietly bewildered by her interest, astonished that this is his moment to have, and in a state of ongoing disbelief that things have gotten /better/ rather than worse.

He realizes five, ten seconds after the fact that she's said something arch at him, and he has to do a mental rewind, tune in to what his ears heard and he hadn't processed.

There's a smile tucked in there somewhere as he tilts his head in, lets his eyes lid, then close, seeking her mouth. "Something like that, actually. Yeah."

It is as good a description of what this is as any, he supposes.

Better than canapes.

—-

Her expression flattens. "I wouldn't know, John," she says, a very slow drawl. "Considering I've been /cruelly denied/ the ability to consume meat or cheese due to some traumatizing memories. I just assumed because I remember certain kinds being tough and salty." She still maintains the Caligula Club incident is his fault, and she hasn't forgotten his riposte about still being able to eat steak and how that meant that he wins (he does).

Drawn back to him, arms come up without a thought, once more finding a place around his shoulders. His response about absinthe jello shots has her laughing, fitful illumination catching clear saltwater drops clinging to the side of her face as she angles it towards him, brows tilting up. "So what are you trying to say?" Zatanna asks. "I'm sweet, squishy and liable to make you hallucinate?" There's a pause, and she suddenly glances down to check herself, brows furrowing in consternation as irrational panic screams over her nerves. Squishy as in fat? Did she gain weight? Jesus Christ, she /knew/ she should've gone on a run this morning…

Thoughts running counter, of course, to the way he looks at her as she silently laments her inability to maintain the kind of superhero physique plastered all over every single piece of social media these days, or the fact that she has once again /ruined/ her appearance in front of the man whose approval means the most to her, with her hair clinging to her in thick black ropes and her bedraggled sleepwear. But he comforts her unintentionally there when he presses her close, catching vestiges of that look, and she gives him a slight, if not somewhat confused smile.

"What?"

The question forgotten immediately when he claims her mouth again, warm damp banishing the cold from one part of her body and her arms tighten around him then, seeking more of it, the taste of salt water slipping between her lips. Drawn unerringly, she sinks against his chest, all thoughts of wet clothes and disheveled hair peppered by sand vanishing as she laces in kiss, after kiss, after kiss…

"So when I said that I never slept on a beach before…" Her voice trails off, the thought half-formed.

—-

For just that smallest window of time, John forgets the cold. She wards it off, kindles something behind his sternum and down the net of muscle stringing together his abdomen, a flush of warmth that could not be more at odds with the biting chill. His tolerance for it erodes, the prospect of remaining in the water quickly collapsing under the weight of a building desire to fan those embers instead. An absolute lack of body fat does not lend his lean frame to withstanding temperature extremes with any grace.

He might have clarified what he meant — squishy was not on the list, though he's fond a few bits of her that might technically qualify — but he forgets about that, too, and by the time she stops to murmur he's lost all interest in a protracted debate on whatever qualities gave rise to his verdict.

Her guileless smile twined together with uncertainty remains with him, though, and even as he's gathering her up — still weightless in the shallows — and encouraging her to wrap her legs around his waist, he's revisiting the innocence of that small moment. He could not explain why it put fingertips on his heart if he were asked; knows only that it did.

"You're so bloody beautiful, Zee." He murmurs the words into the slants of dark shadow between them. They are quiet, private words, even though they're alone, but he says them without hesitation or showmanship.

He knows on some level that it can't always be like this. Life rises and falls, defined more by its movement between poles of joy and tragedy than the amount of time spent in either, everything relative. If it were always this easy, always this right, the averages would shift. What was once precious would become commonplace, the lustre lost. But the knowing only makes it that much more important to wrest from the evening every last shining moment it can give, small and precious things to squirrel away and turn to in times of scarcity or strife.

The darkness up the beach erupts in a blaze of ocher light, popping, snapping, hissing, the spitting of logs thick with fragrant sap that burns hot and fast, small fireflies of sparks shot upward into the slate darkness of the sky: a bonfire dredged up from some other memory, a magical working of convenience. He fights sand and waves and gravity, the weight of water in her hair, in his slow ascent of the slope, feeling none of it. "Eventually," he promises the line of her jaw.

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