Valentine's Day in Heaven and Hell

February 14, 2017:

After a week pursuing their own agendas, John Constantine sets Zatanna Zatara on a scavenger hunt across New York City, ending in The Abyss - an exclusive, invitation-only mystical nightclub in the heart of the sleepless metropolis. While surprises are plenty for the both of them, the biggest, and deadliest, awaits them at the very end, their evening cut short by the machinations of a figure from John's past who has decided to turn their visit to this aptly-named club into the real deal, and traps them in Hell.

New York City

All over New York City, ending in the Abyss nightclub, and then….Hell.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jessica Jones, Tim Drake, Dr. Jane Foster, Bucky Barnes, Giovanni Zatara, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Peter Quill, Azalea Kingston, Kitty Pryde, Jason Todd, Chas Chandler, Papa Midnite

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Valentine's Day, that extensively-commercialized nightmare for the unhitched and uncoupled, a thorny minefield of social expectations that even couples — or any other romantic configuration possible — can have difficulty navigating. How much celebration of Valentine's Day is enough? How much is /too much/? It's not enough to get chocolates from the drugstore anymore, but Youtube is full of spectacular examples of exhibitions that go well beyond the call of duty: flash mobs singing love song serenades to startled, tearful young women, as though someone were about to propose. Madness. Setting the bar that high is just preordaining a lifetime of trouble. You can't go from that kind of thing to 'Netflix and chill' on any following year.

John, probably to little enough in the way of surprise, has said nothing about plans for Valentine's day in the week leading up to it, and he's not appeared to give an inch on his constant roaming of the city, investigating, pushing for leads with regard to that Thing that they both agree is happening, rising levels of strangeness permeating the world they inhabit. It hasn't gained enough momentum for the vast majority of the magical world to twig that something's amiss, but those who pay attention — the experienced, the genuinely canny — are aware, and one can only assume that John has been spending his time soliciting the involvement of those worthy few.

Two days ago he'd sent her a text message cautioning her to stay alert to the possibility of people following her, explaining that he and Jess had, on an errand, been cornered by people who tried to roll them for information about what he was investigating — non-mages, peculiarly enough. He assured her that he and Jessica were fine thanks to Jessica's particular set of skills, but that he was laying low for a couple of days to be safe, and would be in touch.

The next text message she gets comes fairly late in the evening on Valentine's Day, and makes no reference to the significance of the date. It says: 'swing by? something that might be of interest'

John isn't in the flat when she arrives. Neither is Chas. But on the low coffee table near the sofa, there is a note penned in John's elegant script. What it says is:

'Pop quiz, hotshot:'

Followed by a series of numbers. There isn't any explanation as to what they are, but a canny eye and some presence of mind would discern that they represent a set of coordinates which, when plugged into a mobile phone or any other adequate app, lead to someplace in Central Park.

—-

The disturbing incidents in New York last week have found Zatanna Zatara delving into Gotham City's occult scene, not just to re-familiarize herself with the community there, but also to arm herself for whatever it is that might follow. The night with the angel and the cuneiform tablet has only impressed upon her the need for preparedness, John's words drifting through her head the course of the week that followed: that he hoped she had been studying. And while her performance that evening has at least assured him, or so she hopes anyway, that she has, their discoveries have only prompted her to do even more - and not just that, but arm their present associates with the tools they need, because knowing the two of them, they will have to pull some of them in.

Throughout the week, she has been back and forth between Gotham and New York; to deliver Jane more books, concentrated on her present area of study with Ritchie Simpson. It helped, the physicist told her, as it wasn't her usual work, but it /was/ work and her starved mind found some manner of respite in the arcane while she recovered from her ordeal with HYDRA. She supplied Tim Drake, alias Red Robin, something similar - tomes that would assist him with understanding, on an academic level, the ins and outs of her world; social etiquette, laws, how the international antiquities black market is connected with the occult sphere, and how it influences a variety of different transactions. The Atlas and the Scritti Letterari are still with him, precious books, things that she used to further her education when she was old enough to go on excursions with her father, but she knows he will keep them safe, if the Nest's security measures are of any indication. She also spent considerable time with Gerry Craft, who in spite of his retirement from his days adventuring with her father has maintained his network of contacts in the city. Dinners were spent in quiet clubs that catered exclusively to the arcane crowd: the space underneath the dome of St. Francis' Cathedral, the backroom of the Noir Nightclub, the basement of Tapeo, which has been converted to a bar, run by a pair of twin Gaelic witches with red hair and nearly inhuman green eyes, who specialized in all manner of cocktails that catered to every need. Their Memory Potion was particularly infamous, distilled, liquid magic injected in a maraschino cherry and consumed that way, said to be able to chain memories from the present, to the far past, through what is left behind by a person's ancestors.

Tea as well, and in some strange places. Afternoons surrounded by the heady scents of rosemary, lavender and honey, in the company of women, the way lubricated by an introduction, of sorts, from Ginny Townsend of White Light Pentacles, who had broken a few Ardanes to make this happen, as communications between covens are typically shrouded in secrecy and bound by many ancient rules. That was one club that Gerry Craft could not get her an invitation to.

Through it all, they've all told her the same thing; that they know, have been feeling it for some time. While she has not divulged any details, they have, at least, given her more names and more avenues to explore in Gotham, and the more she knows, the better she can weaponize herself.

It is from one of these not-quite social calls that she finds her way back in Shadowcrest. She had given her assurances that she had been careful in venturing out, expressed her concerns but for the most part let John do what he always does unencumbered. Not to say she wasn't worried, he would feel it across cities that she was, but she wasn't one to do nothing either. To sit around someplace, waiting to be called to action, was never her style. She had learned her lesson on that the day Giovanni Zatara disappeared.

It's that spate of proactivity, though, that has made her completely forget about the fourteenth, until he asks her to stop by and she sees the date on her phone screen. Alarms /scream/ through her eighteen year old brain as she tears into her father's mansion, practically throwing her coat and purse on Kasim as she scrambles towards the kitchen.

Oh god. Oh god. Oh god. She's /the worst/. She didn't even text him. She didn't even buy anything! Would he even care?! She doesn't know, she's never /been/ with anyone when February rolls around, and he was a /grown man/! Do guys outgrow this sort of thing?!

There's a pause as she catches sight of the red, pink and white gift bag on her kitchen. The desperate idea of re-gifting fills her head, dismissed immediately, because she refuses to be this pathetic. She'd rather admit her mistake and perish in embarrassment on the spot. But she undoes the top and dumps its contents on the counter just in case anyway. Just in case. A few chocolate kisses roll around, tart candies with those cute, cheesy messages. And…

…strawberry-flavored edible underwear.

Her expression flattens. She picks up the card, but that wasn't necessary. She already knows who sent it:

'Hey boss! Just in case you didn't get anything again this year! Miss you! — Mikey'

/Right. Because this is totally my style. How the hell does this even /work/ anyway, do you wear it before you go see the guy or after? Because that's /totally/ what I need. Pop into Brooklyn with it under layers of clothes and let it melt in a goop of suspicious looking red disaster once clothes come off. 'It's okay, baby, it's just sugar!' No thanks!!!/

And yet she shoves the flat package deep into the back pocket of her jeans anyway. Just in case.

She ends up in New York after a small meltdown, swinging into the flat with a small box in hand…only for it to be empty. She stares at the phone, wondering whether there was something in the text message she missed. Swing by, he said. But there's nobody here!

Nobody and nothing but a post-it note. Something about a pop quiz, and a series of coordinates that she plugs into her phone. Central Park? Another sighting? Relief floods her ribcage as she checks her pockets. Obsidian obelisk, penlight, mystical brass knuckles and a bag of crystal dust. If she needs any more, she can always improvise. Pivoting on booted feet, the wall warps into a swirling ripple, to give her a handy exit right into Central Park, with every intention of getting back to the night's Work.

—-

The coordinates are: 40° 46' 44° N, 73° 58' 0° W — alternately, 40.778889, -73.966667. The wonders of modern smartphone technology mean that she likely has access to both, assuming she can puzzle out the cardinal directions from the information at hand.

Central Park in the winter is still a lively feature of the city, and the recent heavy snowfall has blanketed the lawns with unsullied white only just beginning to crust over into a surface layer of ice. It sparkles in the light cast by overhead street lamps, pools of blazing purity in the darkness, everything distilled to striking monochrome. Pedestrians represent the only splashes of color. No one seems to notice when she appears out of nowhere in the rough vicinity of a lake and several other features of note — one of which must be her objective.

There is no sense whatsoever that John is present across the silvery strand that links them, and no visible evidence of his presence, either.

—-

She wonders what happened that he has suddenly gone radio silent. As a whisper of wind indicates that the portal has closed behind her, Zatanna turns her ice-blue eyes around this vicinity of Central Park. Given how much time she has spent in New York since her arrival from Europe, it isn't surprising that she would find the landmarks surrounding this point of this sprawling field of snow famiiar. Fingers tuck the white box she brought away, resting carefully within the confines of her pockets as she draws out the post-it note.

Pop quiz, hot shot.

"I hope this doesn't end on a bus ride with a bomb that detonates when you go under fifty miles per hour," she mutters, tucking it back inside her pocket. "Or shooting the hostage to take him out of the equat— "

There's a pause.

No that…is that's what's happening?! Oh god, should she call Bucky?!

…no. No she can't do that. Jane needs him right now.

"Ahhhh…" Her breath leaves her in wispy puffs, taking another look at her surroundings. If there had been a graveyard around, she would be gravitating to it immediately.

Instead, she knows that somewhere behind her is the Met, and to her east is the Alexander Hamilton Statue. Turtle Pond is right in front of her, flanked by Belvedere Castle and further beyond is Shakespeare Garden and Delacorte Theater. Right next to the theater is the Great Lawn.

"Am I going to need to pay Alexander Hamilton a visit?" she wonders, looking up at the King Jagiello statue, as if asking the bronze face. "Because he got shot."

She leans over to look at the inscription.

"And I'm pretty sure you died of the flu."

—-

This isn't the first time John's played this kind of game with Zatanna in the course of their acquaintanceship. Having by necessity as an ambitious youth tested much of what he learned of magical theory against the real world in practical application, he favors a more active brand of tutelage, and often expected her to run a gauntlet of challenges to demonstrate that she understood the concepts ripped from musty tomes in a broader sense than the academic. He went out of his way to create scenarios in which it was possible for her to apply those things in inventive, outre ways, forever encouraging out-of-the-box thinking, always leery of any kind of comfort in ritual…and he was never more pleased with her than when she combined those lessons in new and creative ways, mixing seemingly disparate methods to achieve a particular end.

This adventure promises to be considerably more pedestrian than those elaborate labyrinths of theory and practice. There are no traces of latent magic in the area waiting to be triggered by her presence. King Wladyslaw II Jagiello looks imperiously down at her from his grandly caparisoned mount, swords raised overhead in the most impractical of all possible positions. Snow dusts both horse and man, small drifts of it clinging to the upper contours of the icy metal.

The plaque yields no further clues, nor does the plinth, but continued inspection of the statue will reveal the presence of a tiny, square, screenless ipod — probably Chas's — tucked into the horse's open mouth, a pair of earbuds wrapped around the tiny square body of the thing.

It contains only one track.

Not very much to go on, but knowing John as she does, there must be a connection between the statue and the piece of music — something to suggest another physical location.

—-

She is reminded of his scavenger hunts and by all rights, he at the very least made his lessons fun. One of the many reasons why her heart had been ensnared so quickly. Not just the fact that he was older and wiser. Not just the fact that he was easy on the eyes and she found his accent charming. In those early days as a young student, he managed to get his fingers in the most potent, deadliest trigger of all: her sense of her adventure. That wild, reckless, crazy drive to hare off into the known and jump in feet first, always looking forward, never looking back, and uncaring of the wounds and broken bones she might find along the way. Granted there have been some misadventures since then that she wishes she could reverse, that disgusting Caligula Club discovery being the first of these, but for the most part she has not regretted a single debacle she has been involved in. These have shaped her to who and what she has become.

He said there was something of interest, in his original text. She wonders whether he's managed to find something under the shroud of New York's active evening, and that she would have to prove herself before he could share that secret. After all, he said it, didn't he? He hoped that she had been studying.

Zatanna's fingers dig out the iPod in the horse's mouth, recognizing it as Chas', wondering if there's a conspiracy afoot. Placing the buds in her ears, she clicks on the button, and nearly forgets about the cold.

She loves music. She was reared on classical, the opera, and others - the Beatles, the Doors. Falling in with John had only expanded that appreciation - the Sex Pistols, the Ramones.

It is one thing that she once shared with her father, one of his first lessons - that music was everything. Giovanni Zatara has long since lost his appreciation for it, simply yet another one of the things he loves that have been burned at the stake in favor of the Work. The moment he ascended into the heights of his legend, it bled away from him like an open wound, his choice as a young man once again taking away one of the very few joys he had left in life because of the Cost. Closing her eyes, she follows Williams' chords, the faraway hubbub of the city's foot traffic fading away at the sound of the strings…

Williams' Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, she knew, had been composed for the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, on commission by the British Council. Drawing out her phone, she turns her ice-blue eyes to the statue, and flips into her browser. While she's familiar with the basic biography of the Polish King standing guard in this part of the park, she is more interested in the history of the /statue/ and not the man, wondering if there is a connection there.

And sure enough…

The young woman pivots to start heading in the direction of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park; the site of the 1939 World's Fair, for which the statue had been commissioned by the Polish Council.

—-

The Perisphere of the World's Fair has long since been replaced with the Unisphere, a massive globe constructed of curving armatures, raised on a trifecta of prongs. There is only one central pathway approaching the monument, which sits remote and inaccessible within its ringing band of fountains and carefully manicured landscaping. It is, of those places within the park to investigate, the natural point at which to begin, considering almost all of the other structures — with few exceptions, like the time capsules, flags, or several plaques — that existed at the time of the World's Fair have been dismantled and replaced with other things.

Flushing Park is even busier than Central Park was, if only because there are so many more attractions to draw people in, even when the weather is unkind.

She is rewarded almost immediately for her thinking with a tug of familiar magic: something of John's, though nothing substantial enough to indicate the man himself. It will be child's play for her to follow that thin thread of energy to its ultimate origin, another note resting beneath a stone in a sheltered nook beneath a shrub in the landscaping that rings the Unisphere. He's imbued the paper with some small splinter of his magic, enough to ensure that she finds what he left for her.

It's almost possible to hear his smug voice in reading it:

'Close' only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes. The statue was here — the performance was not.

—-

Of course.

She goes for the direct link - the connection between the statue and the classical piece was the 1939 World's Fair, so it is easy to follow the trail there. And it's when she finds the paper that she realizes her mistake. It's been a while since she played this game with him after all. While both clues were relevant, she should have been concentrating more on the second, most recent piece of the puzzle, and should have only been using the first to help her parse out the second.

"Right," Zatanna murmurs, as if speaking to the piece of paper, garnering some curious looks from a couple of tourists taking pictures of the Unisphere.

She grins and gives them a wave, before her body starts dissipating into mist, prompting a small shriek from one of the tourists, who latches immediately onto her husband's arm.

Air ripples again, and the young woman steps out into Carnegie Hall.

The iconic building and its three auditoriums are well-known to her. Her father has performed here a few times before, one of the very rare exceptions in the world-renowned space known for musical performances, and those only. On a Tuesday night, this place, too, is crowded, and tugging her scarf more securely around her neck, she ventures up on the front steps, going through the doors and barely avoiding the inevitable shoulder-jostle as men and women in coats continue filing in for the evening's performances. Stopping, largely because she can't help but be curious, ice-blue eyes scan the current offerings.

Il Pomo D'oro, also familiar. 'The Golden Apple' in Italian, Cesti's operatic re-telling of the judgment of Prince Paris of Troy, one of the main series of events that led up to the Trojan War. The other is a performance of four pieces by Yago Mahugo, on the harpsichord.

"Never change, Carnegie Hall," she murmurs softly in quiet approval. Turning away from the mounted schedule, her eyes sweep around for the next clue.

—-

Having given two innocent locals a story to tell for years to come, Zatanna reappears in the proper location, amidst swarms of tux-and-gown-clad patrons of the arts, flooding in for an evening of culture. The air is heady with cologne and perfume, and brimming with the effervescent sound of countless people in polite conversation, all striving for refinement. The warm, brilliant overhead lights wink on countless ostentatious pieces of jewelry.

Where does one go at Carnegie Hall, if one is reminiscing about the past? There is only one place, once she's inside, that will seem to hold any sort of promise, and that place is the Rose Museum. A quiet, tucked-away space, spacious and well-appointed with its wood panelling and glass-fronted cases, it offers for the viewing pleasure of the Hall's guests a selective timeline of important events using documents and other objects from its archives, augmented with screen panels that play video or music.

It is a fascinating place, and easy to lose one's self in, but the moment she sets foot through the door she'll feel another of those twinges, a hint of magic whispering along the sensitive instrument of her arcane perception.

Following it — not that she needs to; she would doubtless have been able to easily deduce that it's the World's Fair display that she wanted to find — she will discover ongoing evidence that John is a magpie of magic, collecting scraps of everything that he finds interesting, shamelessly cribbing the inventions of others for himself, and often with plans to modify them for his own ends. The stolen knack in question this time is one of hers: he's taken her 'bookbag spell,' the ability to insert one thing into another, and used it to stash something inside of the display.

It's a book, written by Ralph Vaughan's second wife — who was, interestingly, almost forty years his junior. A poetess of no small accomplishment, it is a collection of her works, and there is one page marked, one poem indicated. It reads thus:

'Within himself
the danger lies, yet lies within his power'

Marvelling man, half blind and half aware,
holds knowledge in his hands, with it, power,
neither is understood, though he may stare
into the past, the future is his hour;
he cannot change the way that men have come
by gazing on the history of the earth,
nor by discovering a cave their home
recapture that safe darkness after birth.

He is Prometheus, and the stolen fire
is life or death: light to the wise man's eyes
so he shall see the boundary of the skies
and mount on wings to limits of desire.
Though famine is an aspect of his power
he holds the harvest's promise in the flower.

—-

The Rose Museum is indeed a fascinating space, though she doesn't remember the last time she was here. But she follows the same theme of the 1939 World's Fair, expensive boots making quick work of the marble floors as she finds herself surrounded by echoes of the past, the Hall's rich history beckoning at her from all sides. Unhurriedly, she drifts through the cases, fingers lifting to touch, but not - you're not supposed to touch anything in a museum after all, and while smaller than its grander cousins in New York, it is still one and she adheres to the rules. Ice-blue eyes find the display quickly.

She detects John's magic almost immediately, like traces of familiar aftershave. Following threads of crimson tinged with black and gold, she looks from left and right before the obelisk appears in her hand and she uses the point to draw out the hidden object. There's a wry twist to her mouth there, her eyes finding the ceiling. She doesn't recall /teaching/ him her bookbag spell, one that she has invented herself, but it's just another indicator as to how prodigious his mind truly was when it comes to his own Art. It's a dangerous combination, when paired with his experience. Another reminder of one of his lessons as well; the more time you spend with another magician, the more you use while around him, the more you provide him with the tricks he could use against you. A cynical opinion, but unfortunately a truthful one in their dangerous world.

The book drops in her waiting hand: Silence and Music. Tucking the obelisk away, she thumbs over the marked page, to a poem written by Ursula Vaughan Williams…though she penned this one when she was still named Ursula Wood. The first few lines is a quotation and one she recognizes almost immediately - from Milton's Paradise Lost. While a reader with a fondness, always, for the written word, this is a piece with which she is unfamiliar.

She is in a place that archives the building's past, detailing the most important events in its history. But the poem is clearly indicating that while human beings can stare at the past, they can't change it. The future is mankind's hour, the boundary of the skies…

Zatanna closes the book and tucks it in the pocket of her jacket. He might want this back. Her best guess would be…

She takes the few steps heading out, though once she hits the pavement, she starts running. Cold air hits her lungs, but it does nothing to dilute her exhilaration. The chill flushes her cheeks. If the Rose Museum in Carnegie Hall reflects the past, she knows of another place with 'rose' in the name that does what the poem says - to look up at the boundary of the skies. She could be wrong, but her hypothesis suddenly reminds her of one Dr. Jane Foster, as she turns in the direction of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where the Rose Center for Earth and Space is located, as well as the new Hayden Planetarium…also near Central Park.

—-

It entirely makes sense, the connection she makes, and this is one of those instances in which furnishing an answer for John that he hadn't anticipated — and she'd done that plenty of times, during her tutelage; she and John are wildly different creatures in many ways and it's an inevitability that their unique perspectives would create different associations, perceive different patterns — would have earned her a commendation rather than criticism. It's a link he had not considered as he laid this trail of breadcrumbs out for her to find. A good link. A sensible link.

It's still not the right answer. At least she's getting some fresh air and exercise? And if she gets hungry, one supposes she could always consume the strawberry edible underpants she's toting around.

The Hayden Planetarium is a /spectacular/ building, reminiscent of the glass cube housing an Apple store in midtown…but infinitely more interesting. In the evening it's luminous in hues of blue and violent, warm banks of lights splashing off of the concrete entrance and sheathing the massive Hayden sphere, picking out all of the far smaller celestial bodies hanging from the ceiling in the Scales of the Universe exhibit.

There is no pull of magic here save for the magic of the cosmos, though.

—-

It calls to mind what she had told Jane before in the quiet and clutter of her apartment, when she visited: her confusion as to how she manages to 'work' with John Constantine, which may very well be a mystery for the ages because of their myriad of differences. Somehow, though, they do. For now.

The lack of magic in the space indicates another wrong guess, a slight furrowing of her brow there as she was almost certain she got it right. Zatanna takes a moment to appreciate the Scales of the Universe exhibit before consulting the book and the marked page again.

"Hnh," she murmurs, closing the book and tucking it in her pocket and moving back outside. "I swear to God if it ends up being the New York Public Library, I'm going to /eat/ those edible panties." All that talk of knowledge being power.

That reference to Prometheus, also. It can't be that obvious, can it? That famous one in Rockefeller Center, where it usually stands in front of the annual Christmas tree display. She decides to search in both.

Teleportation is /so useful./

—-

The New York Public Library is /awash/ with magic…but that is its default state. There is no resonance on the grounds to suggest John's presence in particular. Which leaves…

Prometheus.

The golden statue is a world-famous fixture in Rockefeller Center, gleaming and gorgeous, surrounded by tiny jets of water that keep its fountain from freezing over even in this bitter season. The ice is restricted to the wide area in front of it, site of countless romantic comedy interludes and other romantic vignettes: a place for the city to stretch its legs on a pair of ice skates, leaving fantails of frost in the wake of the blades on their feet. Prometheus looms over all of them, gliding through the air with his hand full of stolen fire — looking a bit casual, one might fairly say, for a man who has just stolen the secret of the gods.

There is…something in his hand, nestled between the very lowest tip of the flame he's triumphantly spiriting away, his ill-gotten gains, and the palm beneath. It's a small box, and it radiates that familiar, trailing wisp of John's essence, teasing from on high.

There are barriers around the ice rink, and the statue is not quite close enough to the upper level to simply be reached by leaning.

Whenever, and however, she deigns to acquire it, whether via subtlety or shenanigans, she will open the box to find that it contains a slip of paper that predictably contains more of John's handwriting.

Almost there.

Below that concise encouragement are a set of what look to be Dewey decimal numbers, though they're just slightly different than one might expect to find in, say, the Public Library. Rather than a truncated abbreviation of a genre, there are symbols beside the numbers. This library does not cater to the public.

Her recent reminder that the library beneath Studio 54 exists cannot possibly fail to come to mind, so it's off to Broadway, to the alley entrance that feels practically steeped in John's presence, a sign that he was there both recently and in some capacity whilst working magic…though the latter is coincidence. This is the place that Bucky Barnes had decided to make his approach for the first time since the events in Hydra's underground facility, and the point from which John opened a pathway to the flat in order to perform a piece of magic meant to keep the former assassin from having a tragic relapse.

The stairs are narrow and rickety, the general aura of the downstairs library one of disrepair. She is admitted without question; her father is, after all, a well-known figure in his field, and his daughter not without an accumulating reputation of her own.

Like many spaces intended for the 'public' use of magicians, this one is secured with spells to ensure peaceful coexistence amongst its patrons. There is a strictly enforced accord in place. Antagonism of others is not tolerated, and violence unthinkable; the last person to transgress against a rival in this place was disintegrated into a smoldering pile of ashes instantly. The stain remains on the carpet to this day, a warning to those who came after that lapses in judgement will be punished in the most vicious possible ways.

The library itself represents one of the more incredible feats of magic ever performed in New York, which — in a glittering metropolis like this one — is really saying something. Far from the kind of shelf-bedecked row of aisles one might expect, it contains a series of private rooms akin to those one might encounter in a Swiss banking establishment, the emphasis on privacy heavyhanded, but necessary to entice in clients from across one of the world's most secretive networks. She is escorted to one of these, and within that modest chamber the air of shabbiness fades, worn basement textures replaced with pristine white marble and cold glass. A single chair sits in front of a modest desk, the desk situated against what appears to be a two-way mirror — one which will, as she will certainly recall, drop out of phase with existence upon the satisfaction of her request.

That marble-clad space functions as a dais raised up out of the fabric of the mundane and just far enough across the boundaries of the etheric plane to offer access to the Akashic Records — like a pier jutting out from a beach over deeper waters. Access to the Records varies from person to person. No one individual is believed to have free access of everything within it, not least for reasons of cosmic balance: Destiny objects, mightily, to the notion that any mortal could ever browse and therefore utilize the full contents of existence.

It seems willing to grant her access to the item she's come for. Submitting her information sends lights distantly whirling in complex configurations behind the semi-transparent silver of the glass, as though the heavens themselves were aligning themselves to her wishes. Eventually the display slows and ceases, the glass becomes permeable, and the object she's come for sits just on the other side, waiting for her to pick it up.

It is a hand-written volume by Aleister Crowley. It is a treatise on Da'at.

Crowley eagerly adopted Jewish mysticism — the Kabbalah — into his occult activities, and it would eventually form the backbone of a tradition that defined the Ordo Templi Orientis and, after that, the secretive inner sect known as AA, where his devotees studied Thelema, and ascended through ranks in a complex quest to attain perfection of the spirit. He would later incur the wrath of his contemporary mystical colleagues by insinuating that a discarnate alien being had dictated to him the contents of his central sacred text, the Book of Law — or Liber AL vel Legis — but the controversy of Crowley has not diminished his significance, and his insights and studies remain among the most progressive and powerful engagements with the arcane world in recorded history. That he was merely mortal — in spite of rumors to the contrary — only adds to his lingering legend.

Da'at is an extremely complicated concept, and the book is rangy, covering many facets of the position of the Tree of Life that is not /technically/ a sephirah, but rather the place where all of the sephirot come together.

The purpose of the text, however, is to outline how one might 'cross the Abyss' — a perilous metaphysical undertaking, and a rite of passage for those of his secret order of magi. A tarot card — that of the Hermit, pulled from the Thoth deck designed by Crowley — marks the page that describes several rituals for the purpose of doing so. Behind it, a note from John.

You might as well borrow the book while you have the opportunity.

PS: You probably don't want to take this one literally.

Implied: it's maybe not a good idea to try to cross the /actual/ Abyss.

Happily, every magician worth their salt knows about the club by the same name. Like the Oblivion Bar, it caters to a very specific clientele; unlike the Oblivion Bar, however, it exists /only/ in New York, and access is granted invitation-only.

—-

It's a simple thing to pull the clue from Prometheus' extended hand, though she doesn't do it by magic. She simply vaults over the barriers and /climbs/ the statue, much to the consternation of security guards that might be patrolling Rockefeller center; something about the air of the evening has made her /exceedingly/ prone to mischief. Once the clue is swiped, she only grins at the uniforms attempting to dissuade her from her anticipated vandalism by following her in - to which she simply vaults on the other side and leads them on a merry chase across the ice rink, her laughter floating in the air - audible faerie lights for them to chase. They do so on foot, and she can't fault them for it, it's instinct to stay on one's feet at all times. But she has been an adventurer all of her life and she knows better than to run on slick ice. She does just enough to gain enough momentum, before sliding across the frost-clung surface on her knees, narrowly dodging others whirling around in their ice-blades, making it to the end and hopping over the rails, hands braced over and the rest of her body flipping - a move that would make any gymnast proud, though it's more of a happy accident of Physics than anything deliberate, she was simply moving too fast for it to go any other way.

Her propensity for showmanship catches a few stares and a smattering of catcalls.

"Hey baby, what's your sign, I hope you're a Virgo!"

Zatanna looks over her shoulder, lips split in a grin, a flash of teeth.

"Gemini! Officially too much for you to handle!"

"OoooOOoooOohhh!" comes the clamor from the hecklers boys as she disappears in the throngs of New York's endless foot traffic. The city on Valentine's Day is a /gong show/.

Studio 54 is fresh on her mind; she remembers what John said about the Akkadian cuneiform tablet, that he had borrowed it from here. Ice-blue irises sweep over the interior, feeling her breath catch - she doesn't come here often, but every time she does, the sheer width, breadth and content of the place never fail to take her breath away. Tim, Jessica and Jane would /love/ this place, though perhaps one day the latter would be permitted entry, if she manages to learn enough from Dr. Simpson. Moving further in, she checks in at the front, and she's shown in quickly - the last name carries weight, as it does almost everywhere else in the mystical world. It doesn't take long before an attendant is seeing to her needs as well, moved further in so she could browse through the Records in relative privacy.

With the proper book called up, brows lift as she reaches for Aleister Crowley's tome on Da'at, a volume that she has never read, appreciatively combing through the man's careful, handwritten notes. The Thoth tarot card for the Hermit falls in her hand as she skims the passage quickly, but it's the card that captures her attention almost immediately, a thumb sweeping over the beautiful geographic design, calling up its more complicated symbolism in comparison to all the other decks she is familiar with. She slips the Hermit card carefully in her pocket and after skimming the chosen passage once more, gently closes the notebook and takes it with her to the front. As fun as the chase is, she knows homework when she sees it; on some level, she understands what John has taken up for himself to do, another added responsibility on his list.

She falls in line on the checkout lane, lets the librarian place her wax stamp on the card on the back, listens attentively to the return policy and signs her agreement with her magical thumbprint. She will have to remember to return it when it's due, she is not about to discover what the penalties are for /not/. Stepping around the scorch mark on the carpet, she barely gives it a glance, and proceeds towards her next destination.

Though in retrospect, she wouldn't be surprised if John had actually asked her to find a way to cross the Abyss, considering what they're presently dealing with.

But her next stop is a nightclub and not its namesake. The question now is how to get in when she /clearly/ does not have an invitation. Either it's part of the next challenge, or there have been arrangements made already and the last clue is inside. Either way, she's going to find out.

And down the rabbit hole she goes; as usual, she goes through the front, to move down whatever stairs there are to meet whatever Sphinx is waiting for her.

—-

The statue of Prometheus is bitingly cold beneath her fingers, no trace of the fire for which he is famous to be found. A lifetime of showmanship makes the ascent effortless for the likes of her, the prize claimed easily enough, though she causes more than just a little disturbance in the doing of it. Smartphones are taken from pockets. Pictures are snapped. They'll find their way almost immediately onto social media, countless notifications popping up onto iDol…

Her acrobatic maneuvers in escaping the skating rink are so flashy that the security guards — cops, really — have to force themselves to look malcontent about her successful evasion. The statue appears to be unmolested save for a few damp footprints, so — no harm, no foul, right? And the hollering crowd she stirred to a good-humored frenzy is more than happy to intervene on her behalf, creating enough of a road block for the chasing cops that they give up their half-hearted efforts altogether.

The library is uneventful. Her time there is efficient. The Abyss is a far more interesting prospect.

It is a direct reference to Crowley's concept of the Abyss, though it's tongue-in-cheek at best. The name paints an intimidating picture of the possible nature of the venue — the word 'abyss' has been used for centuries as another name for the Infernal realms — but in this context it embraces Crowley's notion that there exists between mortal and divine existence some manner of gap which must be crossed in order to gain transcendence. One enters the Abyss in order to remake themselves, attaining a higher level of existence.

It may have been originally named in earnestness, but with time the name has become something of a sly joke, as the elitist management of the club ensures that only the cream of the arcane crop is ever permitted to cross the threshold. In the same way that some of Crowley's contemporaries mocked his belief that the mortal and the divine were separated in the first place, magicians the world over mock the notion that those admitted into the Abyss club are in any way separated from the rest of their magical brethren. Even those who have access to its refined interior are prone to this more cynical interpretation — though they take full advantage of the privacy and luxury it offers.

Tonight, she is expected.

The Sphinx waiting for her is a tall, handsome black man in a flawless tuxedo, whose entire job is to press the button that will summon the elevator to take her to the club proper. The button is not normal, and neither is the man. When he speaks, there is a sonorous, captivating music to his rich baritone voice. "Welcome to the Abyss, Miss Zatara." Her state of dress does not seem to trouble him at all; anyone permitted to enter the Abyss club has slid well past the need to observe typical social conventions.

The elevator that ascends to claim her is glamoured ostentatiously, giving every appearance of being a cylindrical glass cannister with a mother-of-pearl floor that looks out onto a panorama of galaxies and stars.

It descends into that void so smoothly that there is hardly any sensation of movement at all, though the amount of pressure that settles on the shoulders and pulls at the insides as it draws to a halt suggests that it was moving far more quickly than it seemed.

The round doors shell open, admitting access to the small foyer, where an attendant waits in a coat room for garments to be checked in exchange for claim tickets.

It is understated. Classy. Minimalist furniture in cream with gloriously colorful silk pillows, warm, deep chocolate hardwood floors, and deep lapis wallpaper printed with ornamental gold brocade patterns — a theme that does not in any way carry into the club proper.

It's a far smaller establishment than one might expect, even taking into account the exclusivity, although that results in part from the club's design. Various wings and floors exist, and though the central, main floor room is large — it has vaulted ceilings, chandeliers capable of the most astonishing displays, a wall-length bar stocked with libations difficult to obtain anywhere else, a raised dais for musicians, walls lined with booths and the necessary dance floor — there are many other facilities that aren't immediately visible.

Tonight, in deference to the significance of the date, the music for the evening on the main floor is explicitly romantic, jazz ballads that have the current clientele nestled together in slowly swaying pairs. But in keeping with the tendency of magicians to see things as they are, the overhead chandeliers drip small clots of red light that evaporate somewhere over the heads of the dancers: a bloody display, a reminder of the savagely beaten and beheaded saint for whom the day is named.

Where the hostess appears from is difficult to say, but she carries a silver platter with a creamy ivory envelope atop it. The large, calligraphic letter 'z' emblazoned across the front ends in a flourish she'll find familiar.

When opened, the heavy cardstock — embossed at the top with the gilded motif of the club — reads, in John's familiar hand:

Stop at the bar and get a drink before they show you up. Tell them to put it on my tab.

—-

She has never been here before, and now that she has descended into it and has been let in, she can't help but marvel at the decor. Zatanna is an incorrigible aesthete, she can't help but be, with her education in the arts and her natural affinity for creative expression. Wide eyed, her head tilts this way and that, her quick steps slowing as bootheels echo faintly in the impeccable space. She takes in everything, because she can't not, takes the time to appreciate it, given her dedicated focus on the present and what is happening in front of her. She barely notices the attendant as he asks for her coat; she stares at him blankly, takes a peek further into the interior, and looks down at the rest of her clothing.

Oh god.

They might not care about a dress code, but /she/ does. Thus, instead of giving the items over, she asks to be directed to the nearest bathroom and heads straight there, the door swinging shut.

It doesn't take long for her to emerge again. She knows she is tempting Fate itself doing this, because any elevation of her regular appearance /never lasts long/ when she's meeting John, so there is a marked effort in balancing out this irrational fear with the demands of her surroundings, having transfigured her casual designer street clothes to something more appropriate for the interior, but nothing as flamboyant as her usual style; a black, backless pantsuit and a pair of stylish pumps of a like color. She does nothing complicated with her hair, having gathered it up and pinned it carelessly on the back of her head and letting whatever loose locks that she missed spill over - but it works, to highlight the contrasts of her coloring and to make her look less like she had just rolled into the street after a hard day's work, which she has, given that she spent most of the hours of her day running around Gotham.

The time in the bathroom has also given her the opportunity to slip whatever she needs to in her phone - the box, her brass knuckles, her bag of crystal dust, Aleister Crowley's notebook and the Thoth tarot card, easily slipped in one of her pantsuit's pockets. Her obsidian obelisk vanishes within a pant leg. She even manages to touch up her lipstick before she decides that she's 'classy' enough to roll with this crowd, and only then does she hand over her jacket and scarf, and make her way inside. She is accosted by the hostess almost immediately.

And she recognizes John's distinct, elegant script just as quickly. She picks up the envelope and looks at the note, once again taking the time to appreciate the surprisingly beautiful flourishes of his handwriting as steps take her up to the bar. When she lifts her head, her stare gravitates to the musicians almost immediately - she loves jazz, also.

'Before they show you up,' said the card.

Who's they?

Ice-blue eyes roll to the corners to take a look at the other patrons; the people in the dance floor, the tenders behind the bar. He /has/ been hiding out for a couple of days and she wonders whether he has decided to do that here. It would make sense, in a way. It isn't as if anyone could just get in here, though he hasn't told her anything about that situation and all she can really do is theorize as to what sort of trouble he has managed to find with Jessica. The card disappears between her fingers; with her arms bare, there is no sleeve to hide it in, but such tricks are that which she could do in her sleep without the aid of actual magic.

Once the bartender avails himself to her, she gives him a smile. "I'll have a negroni." /Italians/. That and it's red, there's no reason not to be a /little/ festive. She's already reaching for her phone, where her wallet is, to pay for it herself, but she remembers she's under someone else's membership and she should probably demonstrate that she has every right to be here, at least for today.

"Put it on John Constantine's tab," she appends.

What is she /doing/ here? Some part of her hopes that whatever trouble he has managed to find, it's not with the people who runs this place.

—-

'Membership' may be stretching things.

Which is not to say that John is not permitted into the club under other circumstances; his notoriety is such that nobody stops him when he walks through the door. He knows people, he can be exceptionally difficult to deal with when he's feeling spiteful, and plenty of the club's patrons owe him favors — and will owe him more in the future, having need, not infrequently, of his services.

He's something of an interloper here, nevertheless, and it's not difficult to imagine why. Everything about the place radiates pomp and circumstance. /Classy/ pomp, but even so — the people in this room think very highly of themselves, and have for the most part lost touch with the common magician, to say nothing of the mundane world. They exist in wholly other strata, consumed with arcane intrigues, insulated from the rhythms of day to day life. Their lives are defined by hardships of their own choosing and no others. Many of them are literal nobility, their ancestors having risen to positions of prominence and reknown on the crest of a tidal wage of magical talent that they've obsessively curated over the centuries.

Nothing like John, in other words. His magical pedigree is nothing to sneeze at, but for long stretches of those generations it has been almost accidental — imposed on the family more by Fate than by the family's own design.

Not, of course, that any of the employees of the Abyss would ever provide anything less than the most attentive service to its patrons. The bartender who fulfills her order does so with a gentlemanly smile, even after she tells him whose tab to put her drink on. There is no arching brow, no dry look, no long-suffering of the kind most people don when John's name comes up in casual conversation. "Of course."

One of the hostesses seems to materialize behind her again, slightly off to one side, white-gloved hands folded in front of her.

"If you'll follow me, Miss Zatara, I've been asked to show you upstairs."

There are doors well-concealed within the walls to preserve the uniformity of the main floor's appearance, handles indicated by gently glowing niches. The hostess opens one of these and waits for Zatanna to step through. The music from the room they've just left snuffs out the instant the door falls gently shut, replaced with the soft sound of liquid misting and droplets pattering through leaves and onto petals. The center of the next room is a glass-walled atrium containing a swirling explosion of greenery that twists upward around a central core of peculiar wood. The entire space hums with power that seems to emanate from that massive gnarled edifice, one that jags and spirals upward two full storeys before disappearing, continuing through the ceiling to parts unseen.

…make that 'vivarium,' not atrium. A flurry of movement follows their entrance into the space: something black and canary yellow flaps its way toward the central wooden column, then clings and twists its long neck around to look back at them with reptilian eyes.

It's a cockatrice.

The hostess stops beside one of multiple small elevators ringed about the outer walls, thumbing a button. "This elevator will take you to your private room. Please let us know if you need anything, and enjoy your evening with us."

—-

She takes a sip of her negroni, and while she waits, her stare gravitates towards the musicians again, half-expecting the inevitable Sinatra; Fly Me to the Moon, perhaps, or Witchcraft, something suited for the kind of clientele the Abyss caters to. But she doesn't have a lot of time to take in the ambience in the main floor when the hostess materializes again, causing goosebumps to prickle at the back of her neck, though she manages to keep herself from jumping and spilling her drink. One would think that she ought to be used to this, by now, it isn't as if she doesn't enjoy a close friendship with a /trained ninja/, but this is another matter entirely. She is entrenched in a place steeped with magic, wholly unfamiliar to her, and a combination such as that never fails to bring her in conflicted states of excitement and trepidation. Torn between immersing herself with wonder while expecting the shadows to jump out and introduce her to a pocket of hell that she never new existed. It is an attitude her father has encouraged for most of her life, a tacit acknowledgment that what is beautiful can also be tremendously dangerous.

"Oh…thank you," Zatanna tells the hostess, around the thundering beats of her heart, slipping out of the barstool and moving to follow. She tilts her chin up, squares her shoulders as she moves, reclaiming some of her usual confidence. The clothes and the heels that put her up to a glorious five-foot, ten-inches help.

Confidence that almost gives way completely to girlish awe when she is shown to another room, ice-blue eyes widening faintly once again as she drinks in the vivarium, emerald dripping from the ceiling, glass enclosing /something/ in the middle. Forgetting the hostess for just a moment, she gravitates towards it immediately, and how she manages not to press her face and hands into the pristine surface is nothing short of a miracle. She takes in the cockatrice, its sinuous neck twisting, its draconic, slitted pupils falling on her and her present companion. Enthralled, she doesn't even notice her own reflection, her lips parted, her expression astonished.

She has never seen one before and she takes the time to completely, utterly absorb the experience.

"Hello, gorgeous," she murmurs, her breath fogging the glass - only briefly before traces of her fade immediately.

Almost reluctantly, she steps away, looking over her shoulder as the hostess leads the way forward again, to thumb the elevator button for her. There's a dazed nod, barely hearing the words, taking a few steps in the elevator and letting it seal shut.

As she descends, whenever she hits the hallway leading her to…wherever she's supposed to go, every cell feels alive, thrumming with the thrill from a deluge of new experiences. The edges of her typical, irrepressible wanderlust have been growing sharper in the last few days, now that she has reclaimed the freedom to move around how she likes. Popping back and forth between Gotham and New York has helped, but it won't be long until the craving returns, to hare off to more exotic locations. But thoughts of going anywhere else /now/ are downright nonexistent. The cockatrice keeps flapping in her head, the colorful sheen of its scales and feathers and the look in those near-alien eyes…

—-

The intelligence with which it regards her is astonishing, really. If it's an illusion, it's a very, very good one.

The elevator that rises to 'her private room' is nowhere near as ostentatious as the one that leads into the club. There is a mirror on the ceiling, and the rest is paneled in wood. Music from the main room is piped in through traditional speakers — no magic required.

There is no button on the inside of the elevator because each elevator goes to only one place, a single room or — as in this case — suite of rooms.

The doors open onto the main room of that suite, and before they've parted enough to give her full view of the well-appointed interior, she'll know that he's there, waiting.

Two steps downward lead into a shallow sitting area, the difference in height forming a plush, deep, ring-shaped sofa that circles a central table, in very the center of which burns a low gas fire, more for ambiance than for any kind of actual warmth. The actual surface of the table is dotted with silver-domed trays that reflect the gas fire brilliantly, wedges of orange and blue. There are food aromas instantly perceptible, a tangle of scents that promise a variety of dishes. Amidst those offerings, there is a single square, black velvet box — but it's far too large to contain a /ring/, lest anyone get the wrong idea and begin to suffer some sort of /stroke/. It is nevertheless very obviously a gift.

The rest of the room is very strangely blank. The walls, ceiling, and floor are all pristine white but absent of any decoration whatsoever, the only interruption to that scarcity of visual interest present in the rear wall: made floor to ceiling of tempered glass, it contains the same winding wooden core and swirl of rising greenery, an obvious continuation of the vivarium. The rooms led to by each elevator likely all have views onto that particular marvel, though no other rooms can be seen at any of the altitudes visible through this span of glass.

That's where John is standing, one arm banded over his chest, the other elbow propped atop his wrist, thumb beneath his chin and index finger stretched up along the angle of his cheek. Pale blue eyes are trained on a many-legged, spiny creature with lustrous scales and eyes like droplets of blood, clinging to a nearby twist of the gnarled wooden core. It moves slowly, and swivels its head periodically.

He turns his head when he hears the doors open, and something in his countenance yields, a tremor of contentment humming along that thread between them. "I was wonderin' when you'd get here. I was starting to think you'd declined the invitation, or got caught up in the library. You're lucky I didn't start eating without you. I'm bloody famished." His arms lower, and he pivots, tilts his head, takes her in, muted wryness offsetting the formality of the affair — and the faint shadows of a lingering bruise circling the outside of his left eye. "'opefully all of that running about's worked up an appetite."

—-

When the doors open and she walks in, heels clicking on the floor, ice-blue eyes widen when she sees him watching the other marvels of the vivarium, relief like a bomb in her chest, exploding violently outward and threatening to send chunks of herself splattering across the pristine walls, bleeding into the link they share, swirling to meet his general sense of contentment. Her gaze makes a quick sweep, the scent of food curling into her nostrils, hopping over the obvious gift set to the side - all due to be appreciated in time, but she doesn't linger on anything when he's in the room and her steps quicken towards him while he's twisting towards her. Her lips part, her hands come up, reaching for either sides of his head.

"John, your /face/!" she cries, as usual gravitating towards the first sign of injury she sees on him. "What happened?! I get a text about lying low, and then nothing, and you leave me a note with a Speed reference?! I honestly thought I was going to have to find a bus with a bomb! Or shoot the hostage! And then wondered if /you/ were the hostage and if I was going to have to take you out of the equation and you better not do that to me, by the way, because that is /not/ a tenable idea ever. And then you mentioned something about a thing of interest and your past lesson-games and I thought it was all going to lead up to an important thing related to the craziness that we were looking into because you mentioned you /hoped/ I was studying and helpfully telling me about Studio Fifty-Four and I felt /terrible/ because while you were working and I was working, I completely and utterly forgot about— "

Silence.

Zatanna's eyes wander over to the glass panes looking out into the vivarium, the food, the lighting, the gift. What follows is a /groan/, her fingers releasing from the cradle they make around his face. Her arms curl loosely around his neck, over his shoulders, banding over his shirt as she leans into a limp, melodramatic drape against him, knees bending slightly.

"…oh, god, I'm a /failure/," she laments, face buried somewhere against his shoulder. "And you're a /cheat/. Lulling me in a false sense of security, baiting me into finding happiness in the bottom of Chinese takeout boxes. And it worked, you know! I'll never take fortune cookies for granted ever again after /everything/. And also because tacking 'in bed' after the end of every cheesy encouraging sentence will never /not/ be funny."

She pauses. Her mind backtracks to everything about the evening, every single clue, the places she's been, what she has seen until her destination…how it started. Tears spring at the corners of her eyes, not out of sadness, and not completely out of affection and surprise. Most of it is culled from the sudden bout of laughter she presses against him.

"You do /all of this/," she gasps in the middle of the gale. "And I leave the house with one box and /edible underwear just in case/. And I don't know if I should even tell you /how/ that ended up in my house. Why are you with me?! I'm /so bad at this/."

She slowly lifts her head, lifting her fingers to wipe at the corners of her eyes, lightning brightened by moisture. Her smile is open, radiating humor and warmth. "Far be it for me to delay you any further from eating, though," she tells him. "You're amazing."

—-

When she gets going that way, there's almost never an opportunity to get a word in edgewise. He'd tried the other night, when she'd gone on a tiny tirade about his decision to buy, and ultimately to eat, about twenty different things that were never meant for eating. That night, her rant had culminated in her sudden departure to the kitchen to lay waste to a box of raisins.

"I /did/ lay low," he says gamely, quietly enough that it doesn't interrupt the winding, exasperated spiel. He tracks her quickstep in toward him with not-unamused blue eyes, and lifts his hands automatically, reflex by now sufficient to place them lightly on the swell of her hips. "And it /was/ work, a bit. I needed that book and I didn't want to be on record as checking it out. Asking you to get it made more sense, but I'm not daft. 'Oi 'tanna, run down the library and get this book for me, sorry I've not seen you for over a week but if you could run errands for me, 'atta girl, jolly good.' Besides, Crowley and I— " He hesitates. "We don't always get along." The phrasing could be construed in any number of ways, the most reasonable obviously being that Crowley's methods, or his writing style, or some other philosophical quality of the man displease John for one reason or another…

…but something in the way he says it suggests that he's talking about Aleister Crowley, the man. The dead man. Purportedly.

When she mentions Chinese food, then subsequently collapses into mild hysterics against his chest (which elicits a very mild wince, ribs still tender from the unfortunate encounter two days ago) — including a remark about /edible underwear/, which, what? — he knits his brows, aims a manufactured look of stern disapproval down at her. "Now, don't get the wrong idea, 'tanna. I like take-out. I wasn't having you on. An' don't get your 'opes up either. I'm not an /Abyss/ bloke. I'm happy to just take a pint down the pub of an evening. It's just…"

He turns his head, slants his gaze over toward the table and all of its various appurtenances of luxury, in particular the box. "When I actually managed to get my hands on /that/, it seemed sort of wrong to pop it over to you in a bloody /Panda Express/, dinnit?"

He draws his attention back to her, dips his chin, tilts his head in enough to cast shadows between them. "I imagine you were just /hoping/ there would be a bus with a bomb on it. Sorry, obviously, to disappoint. Next time I try to make up for pulling a week-long disappearing act I'll keep that in mind. Less cryptic messages, more high explosives. Got it."

—-

The hints of his relationship with Aleister Crowley has her brows winging upwards in both skepticism and curiosity, drinking in the expression present in those pale eyes at his lean, near conspiratorial in bent. "You know, you /could/ just ask," she tells him. "I don't see anything wrong with that, if you had to lay low, it's probably for a very good reason, which you'll have to regale me with, by the way, so I know precisely what sort of people I ought to be watching out for. Either that, or you can tell me about Crowley and why the two of you don't get along, or what you're doing calling up his spirit in the first place in order to establish that kind of a relationship with him. Overall, I think it's just about your turn to tell me some stories of your own, John, now that I've probably purchased about a year's worth with my dark childhood secret."

His comment about him not being an Abyss bloke has Zatanna grinning even wider, bright eyes twinkling; evident enough that yes, she /has/ figured that. "This place is more Daddy's style than yours, to be sure," she says. "I can see myself in it, now and then." But he knows her, knows that she thrives on energy, soaks up in excitement, loses herself freely in sounds, colors and magic that are more organic than manufactured. She would be more at home with local racuous celebrations like Venice's annual Carnevale or Mexico's Dia de los Muertos. Not to say that she doesn't appreciate artifice - she most certainly does, judging by her wide-eyed reaction to everything leading up to this, the artist in her can't help but not, but it doesn't capture her spirit as much as the other examples do.

The Panda Express remark draws another laugh, though the curious set in those eyes is one that he'd identify easily, cast along the line of his shoulder to peer over it to take a look at the box. "What is it?" she wonders, though she suspects she'll find out soon enough, up until his shadow moves over her face and her attention shifts back over to him.

Bombs. It generates a sheepish grin, suggestive that he's /probably not wrong/, considering their past adventures. It /was/, after all, the method in which she was able to finally generate enough distractions to free those monkeys in Sumatra. Fingers shift, to drift over his hair, black manicure stark against those gold-blond strands adorning the back of his head. "I'm just glad you're alright," she tells him - there is good humor, still, but soft sincerity tempers it. With the link, he can't have been all too oblivious of her concern, and she finally gives into her impulses, mouth on his.

"I did miss you, John," she murmurs.

She doesn't stop at just one; soft lipped and unhurried, she drinks him in, gradually filling the void of seven days without until the need to satisfy her physical hunger and curiosity provides enough of a distraction to lift her head, ice-blue crescents glittering through the eclipse he casts over her features, underneath the low hang of long lashes.

"I wasn't a /complete/ failure, I brought something else for you, too. I promise it's not edible, or strawberry flavored. Definitely also did /not/ belong to a dead man, though I also did grab the notebook for you." Amusement returns. "To think I thought /I/ was going to have to read it."

—-

"I'm /sorry/," he says, with prim, British indignation, "I wasn't aware that the story you told me /of your own volition/ was a downpayment. You can't retroactively charge me for it. That story was a /gift/." He's wry and quiet as he tilts his head, nosing his way toward the inevitable. "Mmm, well. Ally's an acquired taste, but I'll introduce you sometime."

The simple truth about John Constantine is that he doth protest too much. He isn't a classical romantic — he's too disinterested in giving specificity to the shapes of what he feels about intimate things — but he's passionate in everything that he does. He does not /talk/ about love, but he loves, certainly. It might also be fairly said that he has an excellent eye for theater. After all, what is a confidence trick if not theater designed to distract from the actuality of what's happening?

He would absolutely be just as happy this evening to be sitting with her in a pub, having curry fries and a pint, as he is to be standing here, in this mind-bogglingly elaborate shrine to the glory of magical achievement…and she might be happy enough in the pub, herself, always drawn more to the human element than any kind of empty gesture. But it's a pretty little thing, the club, an experience he can give her. So why not? The important things remain the same: there is food, there is alcohol, and there is—

He takes his time with her. He's had a long week of discomforts, difficult meetings in cold, wet weather. She is everything that the last seven days have not been, and it's the longest they've been apart since everything went up in flames after Switzerland. A busy week, good for keeping his thoughts elsewhere…

…but he'd been startlingly aware of the empty space in his bed that she'd occupied for all of that time during her stay, colder even than the last few harrowing days before the reclamation of her soul. More aware of it than he cares to admit.

Eventually, though:

"You /are/ going to have to read it. We're both going to have to read it. It's…potentially relevant." He doesn't sound particularly thrilled about that. It's a grudging sort of admission, spoken almost through gritted teeth. "But yeah. I'll tell you all about my misadventures if you tell me why you've got /edible pants/. That's just…overpriced fruit roll-ups, 'tanna. You know that, right?"

He doesn't even /try/ to pretend he has no experience with something like that.

—-

She doesn't have room to laugh outright at his very British indignation, but he'd be able to see it in those glacial irises before talk ceases for a few long moments. A thumb sweeps over his skin after, to eradicate traces of lipstick from the corner of his mouth.

But his confirmation that Crowley's notebook is required reading has her nodding once; amusement is faint, but there's a determined flare in her expression. "Even if you decided it was for you, I would have borrowed it right after anyway, so no worries there. I'm quite curious, but while we're backtracking through the entire evening, you can explain this to me." The Thoth 'Hermit' tarot flips into her hand, graphic design faced forward towards him. Lips lift in the corners. "Is this supposed to be you or…Ally?"

There's a lean, a nip on the side of his throat, not for a completely amorous purpose but so she could leave a flushed stain on his collar. It was Valentine's Day, and again, there's no reason not to be festive. There is mischief on that pale mien, once she lifts her head.

Reluctantly, however, she eases her arms away from him, though fingers find a comfortable tangle with his, tugging him lightly towards the table. Food is being kept warm, thanks to orange and blue flames set with the silver platters, and while adrenaline has kept her from recognizing her hunger before, the ease and languidity of the moment has done much to abate the white-hot surge. /Now/ she is hungry, and she isn't about to let these preparations go to waste. She finds a plate and fills it, a longing cast on the other more protein-laden offerings there are. Sometimes, she really wishes she could go back to steak.

"The fruit roll-up was from Mikey," she tells John with a grin. "Part of my stage crew, builds props and contraptions for me, and she's been at the business for long enough that she's really good at it. She's also…unique, like Chas. Not immortal in any way, but let's just say using magic on her is a very bad idea. Anyway, she has this tradition of sending gift bags to the single people in her life on Valentine's Day, and there's always one gag item in there. Apparently the edible underwear's popular, looks like I got that one this year."

She takes a seat, withdrawing her phone to flip through the digital photographs she finds there until she finds what she's looking for. She withdraws the white box and sets it on the table for him.

"Best I could do," she tells him, apology on her expression. "I've…" There's a laugh; the vivarium gives her an ample excuse to divert her eyes elsewhere, unable to keep heat from pushing up underneath her cheeks. "…I've never been with anyone on Valentine's before, so I've never done /this/ before. So it…"

She pauses, and clears her throat.

"/Anyway/, you said you were hungry, so let's eat. And you can tell me about your black eye."

—-

Eyes soft and lidded in the wake of those quiet, intimate moments open and slip off to the side, to the card she lifts and displays. "Hm. Ally was never big on introspection," he says slowly, and not without some amusement — enough to lift the very corner of his mouth. "More about telling everyone else how to go about it."

He gamely tilts his head for her when she seeks to put that brand on him, once he understands what it is that she's after. Fingers are caught without trouble, twined carefully through hers and reluctant to release her once they descend into the circular sitting area. There is, at least, the consolation of /food/.

…Plenty of it. Small amounts of countless different flavors, and sweets already ringed around the far side of the table, kept perfectly insulated from the heat by more outlandishly lavish expenditure of magic.

Once they've both settled in, he focuses on cutting the slices of prime rib he set out for himself, ticking his gaze up from the work of his knife and fork periodically as she tells him the story of how, exactly, she came to have edible panties in her possession. "I hope you're not going to be disappointed if I suggest we leave it out," he says, brows skewing, expression dubious. "It's /really/ underwhelming. …And sticky."

He has a bite of food in his mouth when she apologizes, but his expression responds eloquently enough. He lifts one hand as though to stay her words, and then sweeps it in a gesture of dismissal. Had he not been chewing, though, he might have missed one of those exceedingly rare blushes, a thing that has him squinting and working to quell a surprised half-smile. "'tanna. It's just a day," he says, finally. "An excuse to have a good time. Not that we need excuses. I'm /really/ not bothered."

He takes time to put more of his food away before he finally consents to an explanation. Hours of smelling the dishes underneath the silver tray covers left him practically ravenous.

"I was going to pick up your gift, an' I brought Jones along for security reasons," he says, eyes drawn unerringly to the velvet softness of the box — about the size of a grapefruit. One assumes that it does not /actually/ contain grapefruit. "It's the sort of thing that's likely to draw attention. I wanted to make sure everything went smoothly. And it did, but it was lucky I had her along, anyway, because after we'd finished up making the trade for the thing, we were ambushed. Not a /bloody/ clue who sent them. Mundane types, absolute nobodies. I got the feeling they didn't even know what they were asking about when they asked me what I've been poking my nose into; like they were given questions to ask without context. They must have had at least a short briefing from whoever hired them, though. Enough to know I didn't tell them the truth. They thought they'd get rough after that. Jones, though…" He rolls one of his shoulders, propping an elbow on the table, his glass of water in his hand. "They weren't counting on Jones. Worst thing that happened is I almost lost the bloody gift in the scuffle. Good job they didn't realize what it was, or they'd have made off with it instead of leaving it in the street."

—-

Her mouth opens, ready to tell him about the small internal rant - wondering about whether it's put on before or after, how it might melt and leave an embarrassingly disgusting display. But they are /eating/ and she's not going to embarrass herself further than she already has in the last few weeks and so she smirks in the last. "I brought it for laughs," she tells him. "Because I knew you were going to ask and far be it for me to disappoint you there." Twirling a fork in her hand, she starts on her oysters - grilled, with just a spritz of lemon. She understandably leaves out the minced garlic.

His assurances earn him a return of her usual brilliance, Zatanna lifting bared, slender shoulders in a shrug. "It's funny," she tells him, picking on a shell. "When I was fourteen, I was desperate to have a boyfriend. I'd always fantasize about how things like this would be like, especially /this/ day. And maybe Christmas, in case I wound up with someone Asian. But I guess…a couple of years after that I stopped thinking about it. By then, I was really focused on following after Daddy everywhere and it became less and less of a priority, being with somebody. That's not to say I didn't get lonely, I did. But anything lasting just wasn't possible…we moved around too much. One day, we'd be in San Francisco, the next day we'd be in Egypt…" There's an absent smile, setting aside the small plate and starting on with the shrimp cocktail. "I did tell you teleporation was one of the first things I mastered, right? I knew the ins and outs by the time I met you. Purely out of necessity. I like plane rides, but most of the time, Daddy needed to be someplace right away and it was either I learned quickly or I meet him there the old fashioned way, and I knew if I did, by the time I got there, he would have resolved the problem already."

She's already finished with the small martini glass full of impeccably prepared crustaceans when John finally alleviates her burning curiosity as to what he has been up to, ice-blue eyes finally moving towards the velvet box. If allowed, she'll slowly reach out to take it, though she doesn't open it yet, letting her fingers trace absent patterns on the box's feathery upholstery. Most of her attention is on him, and the details are curious enough - there is no surprise there, though, when he mentions Jessica; nonverbal indication that the young woman knew that she was coming with him to 'shake down' a few rough types when he carried on his investigations in New York. However, the tidbit with respect to 'mundane' types asking them for answers has her quirking a brow - especially the part about not knowing what he had, but knowing enough not to believe him.

"Sounds like whoever sent them after you is familiar with how you work," is her observation. "But if it's someone in the community, wouldn't he or she at least have /some/ clue as to what you've been up to? Especially after what happened, I'm sure there's enough around the city's who's felt it, we weren't exactly subtle when we faced that…thing in the High Line. Unless they have a real investment in trying to make sure that you couldn't figure out who sent them based on their questions."

All speculation, though. Fingers tilt over the box. "May I…?" She's held on long enough, and she does like surprises.

If allowed, she'll open it.

—-

As is typical of most of the times she deigns to tell him a story about her life, John is happy to listen. For all his cantankerousness and frequent cynicism over the state of humanity, for all that he occasionally appears the world's worst misanthrope…he is ultimately a people person. The raucous life of a pub, the close-knit gathering of the few precious friends he's kept over the years — he is rarely more at ease than in those environs. And in any event, he'd almost have to be: he knows /everybody/. Whether they like him or not, he's a force to be reckoned with, socially speaking, and half of the time that's because he's willing to open his ears and close his mouth.

Besides: the odds of her giving him another story like the one about clowns are non-zero. That alone is worth paying close attention to.

Fourteen. He rolls his thoughts back to that time and finds the wholesomely pretty face of a young woman with dark red hair and fair skin, a thing that causes the faintest twinge in his chest. Nostalgia, for the most part. He has no idea where Anne-Marie is; hasn't spoken to her in almost a decade. She threatened to kill him when he saw her last. He's under no illusions about the way time changes people, and doesn't believe they'd have much to say to one another anymore. But youth remembers poignant emotions, nevertheless.

His lips quirk, the expression difficult to label. Dry, though. "I started early," is all he says in the end.

He says nothing when she reaches for the box, but he watches her caress it, his full attention handed over, food momentarily forgotten. The gift is, if he's to be believed, the entire reason he went to all this trouble in the first place, after all. Not appropriate for a Panda Express.

She doesn't open it straight away. Business first. What she points out meets with one of those dissatisfied looks, the muscle hinging his jaw working once, one corner of his mouth pulled tight, eyes narrowing. "It was bloody strange. I haven't been able to decide if it was amateur or clever enough to look that way. I'm sure whoever sent them didn't want me to twig to who was really doing the asking. I can't come up with any other reason to send intermediaries."

'May I?'

He sets his fork down, sits back into the cushions, and turns a hand palm up, sweeps it on a small arc: /be my guest/.

It is hinged precisely like a ring box, and heavy enough that she doesn't need to brace the bottom when she pries it back on that hinge — stiff enough that she'll have to give it some effort. The interior of the box is also black, the better to show off the contents.

It is an imperfect sphere, its smooth contours interrupted toward the top with a gentle swirl. A red hue so dark that it verges on black at its lowest (and presently hidden) point, its color graduates to blood reds, orange reds, and then into tangerine and melon at the top. Far from textured in the manner of an ordinary pearl, its luster is so deep that it seems almost translucent, and may actually be, though it's difficult to tell: the entire sphere is ensconced in coruscating spectral flames. It emanates heat, though not as much heat as traditional fire might, but casts no light.

"You kept mentioning them," John says, lacing his hands behind his head and shrugging himself down into a more comfortable position, watching her with content, hooded eyes. "Dragon's pearls. Though this is…something a little bit more than that." Pale eyes flick from the stone to her expression, to see if she's already recognized it — though it looks far different than traditionally depicted on the back of the windhorse in Buddhist art. "It's a wish-fulfilling jewel. Tibetan. A genuine cintimani stone. Not an easy thing to come by. I'd asked a mate of mine to keep an eye out for a dragon pearl, but this was a surprise to he an' I both."

—-

She recognizes it immediately - or at least the very base of it, when she opens it. Reflected in the ice-blue depths of her eyes are the hearty orange and reds of the swirling kaleidoscope before her, frozen in a sphere. He would see it immediately, the moment the sight of it takes her back; that first adventure in Hong Kong, drowning herself enthusiastically in the discoveries of her gifts, of the identity that she had to discover herself. The way her small, booted feet ran after her father's swirling cape as the crowded thoroughfares of Kowloon's magical underbelly parted to let him pass, head and shoulders taller than the rest. The red double doors carved out of ancient wood, the sound of wind chimes carrying from everywhere and nowhere at once…the smell of sandalwood incense. The day she discovered dragons exist and not only that, but they leave bits of them behind - teeth, claws, scales…pearls.

They sat at the back, on a shelf with painted underlays as black as the velvet in front of her, because of the colors. Hues and gradients that she could only hope to reproduce with more mundane materials. She hadn't been allowed to touch them, then, but now there is one sitting in front of her and she can feel its pulsing heat even without her doing so. But now she does, with tender, careful, delicate fingers, just the first two, at first, her index and her middle, stroking over the rounded corner, before the confidence of ownership sinks in, and her thumb, then the meat of her palm. Her lips are faintly parted, her expression indescribable - not because it is unreadable, but because there are so many things implied by the way she looks at it. Surprise, yes, but amazement for the most part, the soft edges of affection drawn out visibly, touched because he remembered. Her heart tightens, cramps in the middle.

For a while, Zatanna doesn't speak. The fact that it's a genuine cintimani stone is incredible as well, and the part of her that can't help but be fascinated by relics registers that somewhere, but it doesn't sink in as of yet when she's busy soaking in the emotional tides that the gift represents. Of the magic box sitting in his shelf, the night on the Scottish beach, talk of clowns and dolphins and what she would consider her best memory.

"John…" she whispers. "Is this…it's really mine?" As if uncertain whether it's real, that this was a dream somehow. One of those utopia worlds that HYDRA attempted to foist on all of them, only this time he exists. "How did your contact even /find/ one of these? It's…they're rare now, aren't they? How much did this cost? It's so…it's…I can't even say it's beautiful because I don't think it…" There is nothing she can say, no words in any of the many languages she knows, that would do it justice.

But she turns sideways on the stretched, circular seat, throwing her arms around his middle, having no choice but to place them there when he links his hands behind his head. She squeezes him tight, and there's a sound that's like a half-laugh and a half-sob. All of it explodes through their link, a rush of warmth, the unbridled golden surge of joy and an outright downpour of that open, limitless love. It rachets up her heartbeat, leaves her lightheaded and for a few breathless minutes, she /knows/ she can fly.

She holds onto him in silence, her eyes still wide, but hidden somewhere against his shirt.

"….yeah…" she tells him at last, voice muffled. "I guess it's alright." She tilts her head up, mischief there. He's going to be subjected to this the entire night.

Quietly, she appends: "I love it."

Reaching out to pluck the small white box from the table, she offers it to him.

"It's a cupcake," she deadpans.

No it's not.

—-

John causes so much suffering to the people in his life — inadvertently, often, but on occasion because he must, and then again sometimes because he's so deeply, deeply flawed, pieces of him sharp where they broke, prone to cutting incautious fingers when people do not handle him with the utmost care. For him, the complex play of indistinct emotions in her expression is worth infinitely more than whatever it cost him to bring this to her — and it could not have been inexpensive. The ghost of an upward turn plays lazily with the corner of his mouth, but doesn't quite realize an actual smile — not until she speaks again. It twists toward the wry, a look that flashes in sky blue eyes.

'Is this really mine?'

"I'll be honest, once I got a look at it, I considered keeping it for myself." He punctuates that remark with a wink, and then laughs outright. "Rare /now/? Rare always. There's a reason all of the art shows Tibetan dragons holding one of these in each claw. They don't like to give them up, do they? Anyway, you're not to ask how much a /gift/ costs, 'tanna. It's like Gi never taught you any m— "

/Oof./ She thumps the air out of his chest with her sudden lean, and slowly he unlaces his hands, lowers them to ring the bundle of her where she's washed up against the line of his torso. The sensations are heady — not the physical feel of her, though that's never unwelcome, but the emotional downpour that leaves him feeling momentarily dizzy. Strong enough, in fact, that he should probably be concerned about just how powerfully it rolls over him, only for some reason he can't quite, in the moment, bring himself to care, or even to think about it objectively. Any hesitations he may have had about setting this affair up are wholly abolished by that tidal wave of warmth.

It hadn't been difficult. Expensive, yes, but difficult? She'd mentioned them three, four times in the last two months, always in association with something she loves. He'd have to be an oblivious bastard not to think of them when the day rolled around.

As she hands him the box, he cocks an eyebrow and shifts enough that he can get both of his hands on it, without having to disturb her lean against him. "Never really got the hang of cake," he says, which is a strange thing to say, until one considers that John probably never had a birthday party to speak of as a boy. Cake did not feature large in his childhood.

"English cakes aren't as good as American ones, anyway," he adds, carefully prising the box open. "They're afraid of sugar in England. And flavor. Really, anything that might taste good, they're not keen on…"

—-

His laugh banishes any anxiety she may have about her ineloquence. Her brilliant, and slightly giddy grin returns in a flash.

"But it can't have been…they're so rare that…I had to ask! Just a little!" Zatanna protests, when he starts to tease her about Giovanni's lapse in teaching her basic gift-giving etiquette. "And I know all of that, that's why! It's just…I can't believe….oh, John, I can't even imagine how many favors you had to burn for this. For /all/ of this. I don't know if I deserve…"

Her voice trails off, thankfully, when his own arms drape loosely around her. Nestled there, basketed by wiry strength, ice-blue eyes find the dragon pearl again, unable to keep them off it for very long. The heat reaches her even here, resting against the plush back of the circular chaise and her imaginative mind can't help but wonder: "I don't suppose your contact had a story that came with it? How he came across it? Or what the supplier said about it?" It wouldn't be her if she did not express an interest in the history of the thing, but it's obvious enough that there is every intention to keep this precious object safe for the rest of her days. She might even insist on being buried with it, when it was time to say goodbye to her mortal life. There's no doubt, also, that she is going to examine the thing from every angle and do her research. She's never handled a real cintimani stone and as Tibetan dragons are extremely protective of the ones they have, she should probably do so with care.

At his shifting fingers, her eyes finally fall on the box and for a moment, her veritable mountain of self-confidence wavers.

"It's…not a rare thing or anything," she begins, and to her credit, she doesn't sound at all self-conscious. "I couldn't very well re-gift Mikey's gift to you, I'd rather die, but I made it before I went out to meet you and it's…"

…a dolphin. Largely because she can't help herself.

It's small, and fits the middle of the palm of his hand, wrought from a piece of a hard, flawless diamond that she has managed to find in Shadowcrest's repository of gemstones, the rest of it pulverized after her work was finished and taking up the small pouch she brought with her, typical implements as they are for working magic, so it's probably not surprising that Giovanni Zatara's mansion has a cache of varying kinds. The material was chosen not because of anything the stone itself represents romantically, but for a real and practical purpose - it is literally the only stone she had available that is strong enough to hold what is inside, with its powerful links to air, fire and the sun itself. White-blue magic, as pure and pristine as it gets, curls within it and by touching it, he would find the signature familiar, if not just because they've spent so much time and suffered so much pain in the last few weeks trying to reclaim it.

A very small drop of her soul swirls restlessly in the construct, emanating light, and will continue to do so for as long as she lives…perhaps beyond. There is no way of knowing, when they know so very little of the power she wields.

"It's a key," she explains quietly, her eyes falling on it. "But in order for it to work, I had to bind it to a part of myself and place it in something strong enough to hold it. Daddy mentioned that he hid my inheritance in me…secrets that were meant for me. But…whatever we are, whatever we have, we're in this together, now, so…while they're /mine/, so long as we're together, I want to share them. With you."

She looks up at him, tenderness drawn over the line of her mouth.

"People always say gifts should reflect something of the giver," she continues lightly. "And I was never afraid of giving away pieces of myself to you, anyway."

—-

"No story," John says, aware enough of her curiosity that he manages to sound faintly apologetic, knowing she'll be disappointed. "I'm not sure I'd have wanted to hear it if there /had/ been one. Sometimes, with things like this…it's better not to know." Objects of power often have dark, bloody histories, bringing out the worst in mankind. Greed, violence, abuse, betrayal, obsession. He's learned the hard way that there are some things he'd simply rather not know.

Watching his expression as he opens the box could make for an enlightening exercise. If nothing else, it demonstrates the swiftness with which he moves through thoughts and feelings.

Curiosity gives way to surprise, and then dry, exasperated amusement of the kind that has him rolling his eyes and glancing at her briefly, setting the top of the box down and reaching in with careful fingers…

At which point amusement wanes, realization of just what it is inside that pretty little objet d'art hitting him the moment his fingertips make contact with it.

Everything about him freezes, his expression sliding into a careful — but not deliberate — neutral. Three long moments afterward he glances up and sidelong at her with startled, probing eyes, none of their lidded quality present. He looks struck dumbfounded, and he is.

As she begins to explain /why/ it contains what it does, his gaze wanders back down to the box and the precious thing within it, and all he can think is that he shouldn't have it, she shouldn't give it to him, he can't be trusted with it. Something will happen to it. Something will destroy it or taint it or steal it from him no matter how assiduously he endeavors to keep it safe. The thought of it makes his veins run with icewater. Too much responsibility. Too much trust.

His astonishment is not alleviated by her explanation as to what it's meant to /do/. She earns herself another of those intense looks, pale eyes that pierce, scrutinize every minute nuance of her expression, his lips parted. His brows gradually knit. He cannot think about the /shape/ of it with so many more important things to consider first.

"Zee…" His mouth opens, closes again. It isn't easy to leave him at a loss for words. "This…is…"

Almost all of the volume falls out of his voice. "Are you…sure…?"

He cannot fathom what it must have taken for her to do that, after having had her soul so rudely severed from her body by the Tarnhelm. The decision to deliberately parcel any of it off, no matter how small, when she's only just reclaimed it — it doesn't matter that it's a cup of water drawn from an ocean. It isn't about quantity. It's about the choice to give him something that other people have endeavored to steal, after the theft of it nearly destroyed her.

And that is before taking into account what it's meant to give him access to. Something Giovanni gave her, something between them. He may not know much about Giovanni and Zatanna's life together, but what he does know is enough for him to understand how significant the older magician's bequeathal is. How much those things must mean to his only daughter.

It means…

…a great deal.

Of course, John being John, he lets little enough of that show, but it's in the hesitation of his speech, the cast of his expression. It fills the space between them, and buried somewhere in all of those complex feelings is a note of guilt, because John would not be John if he did not think he was unworthy of something like this.

—-

If it had been difficult, if there was even a shred of hesitation…if it had been a burden in any way to her, emotionally, mentally, to part with such an integral part of herself so that she could grant him access to whatever secrets she holds, there's no sign of it. Lightning irises find his when they lift to find his intense expression, clear of all doubt. But it can't have been easy. He knows her. How can it? He had seen her terror, how desperately she resorted to violence when it had been stripped from her. How she screamed and suffered just to /get/ it back and how, were it not for him, she would have killed everyone around her, destroyed the building, slagged the adjacent blocks, if they hadn't managed to re-temper Giovanni's seal over her endless well. But he also knows how she is, is well familiar with what happens when she makes a decision. How truly, utterly unhesitating she is when she /decides/.

She only makes it look easy and while she leaves her heart open and vulnerable for any and all comers and takers, Zatanna never truly talks about how hard these decisions are. Not really. But it's less about her being forthcoming, and more to do with her trust that the people closest to her would be able to divine the significance of these actions themselves. To trust them to see that she does struggle and somehow manages to overcome these roadblocks to reach them. To trust them to notice how much effort she truly expends to show them the depths of her heart, that ever-present hope that one day, they would do the same, and how far she's willing to go for them.

And most of the time, her trust in them to realize all of that is rewarded. She remembers Bucky's expression when she had returned his ID bracelet to him, and the implications of what she had done just so she could. To go back to the Smithsonian exhibit and immerse herself in the grainy photographs of his life, to remind herself that he was a good man. That he deserved forgiveness, no matter how hard her mind clings to the way she begged him not to take anymore from John.

'Are you…sure…?'

She regards him quietly, takes in the look of him - the way that cocky confidence fades on the edges of his baritone, his hesitation. It calls up those painful and heated images from the night they returned from Switzerland, his words - how she somehow made him feel that he wasn't good enough, that he wasn't meant for this…any of this. Her hand lifts, her warmth wreathing into the side of his face, tracing the repaired ridge with a sweep of her thumb.

"Aside from Daddy, you're the one person in this world that knows me best," she reminds him, contralto hushed to match. "My strengths, my weaknesses, my likes, dislikes…the way I am. How /ridiculous/ I can be. You've educated me, you've guided me, you've saved my life…even in the months we were apart, I doubt I would have survived this long without my father were it not for you, also. You're the first I've ever loved. Loved for a while. Loved for so long. And no matter what happens, I /know/ that some part of me will belong to you, always, no matter whether we manage to get to the end or have to say goodbye. So…really, who else is there? Who else could I give something like this to?"

Her hand lowers, to rest on the cushions. She feels it grow, the nagging tug in her stomach. For a moment, hesitation folds over her expression, though not over the gift. That familiar shadow soaks her in from the back of her mind, heralded by the distant sound of rain on glass, and two bottles of whiskey.

"Is it too much?" she asks.

Am I being too much?

—-

She has his whole attention as she reaches for the side of his face and touches the bone of his cheek that way. He trusts her; his lashes do not even flicker, no matter how close the pad of her thumb sweeps to the lower lid of his eye. He is aware of the contact, but only in a passing way. The rest of his focus is entirely bent on her. On what she says.

It's the first time since he chose this — them — that he's felt…intimidated…by the gravity of what that means. Before then, his worries were almost entirely for himself. For her, yes, knowing the kind of ruin he brings with him wherever he goes, but for himself in the main, knowing what kind of pain it would cause him if she were to get ground up in the machinery of his life.

This time, it's for her.

That she would part with something like this so readily frightens him. To be trusted to that degree frightens him.

But he'd known those things already, hadn't he? He'd just never been given this kind of blatant proof. It's one thing to trust him in a life or death situation when he's her most sensible ally, but this? This is extraneous, entirely voluntary.

He's finally given impetus to speak again when she asks that last question. It brings some bemused levity back into his shellshocked expression, and he puffs a quiet breath, a single note of incredulous laughter. He wants to say, 'yeah, it is,' because Christ almighty, it's a piece of her /soul/, how can she think he can be trusted with that? …but he's got some awareness of why it is that she's asking. Not the incident that gave rise to that fear, but the fear itself. He doesn't want to take chances with even a moment of heartbreak.

He sets the box ever-so-carefully down on the tabletop so that he can reach for her with gentle hands, pulling her in. "Not in the way that you think," is what he says instead, a reassurance that still caters to his thoughts.

Everything is movement then, slow, careful. He shifts and then somehow she's being twisted over, the fabric of the plush cushions velvet-soft against the skin exposed by her backless top. He ceases to be the support for her weight, leans and twists, lips a hovering promise so close to her own that they feather contact as he maneuvers the both of them. His eyes never leave hers once, but they lid again, that drowsy look like the far-off peal of thunder that heralds a coming storm. He presses her thighs apart, insinuates himself between, and lets her take some of his weight, the warm, dense contours of his frame by now wholly familiar to every inch of the softer curves beneath them.

The moment he settles his lips part and his head tilts, and everything that follows is humid breath and excruciatingly slow contact, as though he were blindly experiencing her mouth for the first time.

…until he remembers that she gave him a fucking dolphin.

The silk and embers quality of the moment comes to an abrupt halt as his shoulders hitch. His diaphragm shudders. He draws a sharp breath and tugs his head away, off to one side, so that he doesn't accidentally chip one of their teeth.

"Jesus /christ/, 'tanna," he says, barely more than a whisper. "You gave me a /rapist/. You put your s— you put your /soul/ in a /rape dolphin/. Am I— is that something I should be thinking about? Are you trying to tell me something? Do we need to have a serious talk about…something? Hire a therapist?" He pauses. "Or a marine biologist?"

—-

There's laugher that sounds slightly disbelieving, and even /she/ knows the question is ridiculous, expressed by a self-deprecating smile. 'Not in the way you think,' he says. He means for it to be reassuring.

For the first time since she handed him the box, doubt surfaces on her delicate face; she is clearly attempting to parse out his reply. Zatanna's lips part, but as always, she never asks him what he means, because if he truly wanted to divulge his reasons, he would have already, or would have given her the option to inquire. Instead, she asks him another question: "Do…you want me to take it back?" she wonders. Because she /could/. A gift isn't a gift if the receiver doesn't /want/ to accept it, ever-so sensitive of the idea that the way she is, the intensity of her emotions, tends to drive others away. She wouldn't know /how/ she would feel about the rejection afterwards, but it wouldn't be her if she didn't provide the option. The last thing she wants is…

He pulls her closer, gently, and she follows because she's always willing whenever he intends to be physical. The world tilts in a lazy loop, soft skin finding impossibly decadent upholstery as he fits himself between her legs, a black pump dangling off her toes at her gradual shift in position. Loose tresses from that careless bind slash over pale cushions in stark, midnight ribbons, curls finding the ends and she instinctively knots her arms over his neck and shoulders, ice-blue eyes looking up at him just as her porcelain features are darkened by the shadows of his planes and angles. In this position, he feels so much bigger than herself, white dress shirt pulling tight onto his hard shoulders, the black of his tie blending seamlessly with the rest of her clothes.

"…John…"

It was meant to be inquiring, but it leaves her as a whisper and not a question, the sound of his name before he swallows up the rest of what she's going to say. Underneath his mouth, her own parts in response, lashes shut at his unhurried explorations and her face tilting to deepen the angle in which he does, rendered boneless and liquid against the rest of him. That new, but familiar thrill threatens to curl her toes, the surge of electricity razing molten pathways through her veins, lancing straight through her heart and causing blood to rush into her ears in a deafening roar.

Everything's changed, he told her once.

His pace staggers at his swallowed mirth, and hazy eyes drift slightly open when his mouth suddenly leaves hers. His whispers barely register, until she realizes what he's trying to say. She tilts her head back, turns it slightly away from him as she laughs. It's low, breathless, but free, and it doesn't take long for her to tilt her face again to bury her mouth against the side of his throat, the softness and heat of it ringing over a hint of her teeth.

"We don't have to talk about anything but the /look on your face/ when you use it for the first time," she says somewhere underneath his jaw. "And all the horrible ways I'll phrase it. 'Come on baby, stick your dolphin in me.' 'I know how much you like diving into that cave.' 'Oh, honey, I love the way you swim upstream'… wait, I think that last one was for salmon. Anyway, I know how much you /love/ my metaphors."

—-

He'd been so careful with her. So deliberate, the way he tilted her over and shifted himself in, avoiding tangles of legs or accidentally pinning her hair beneath his elbow. So measured, the amount of weight he was willing to force her to support.

All of that goes out the window when she makes things worse, as usual. That delicious tension, strung out along the whole length of his body, goes every bit as boneless as she is. He is practically prone, but he still somehow manages to /slump/, an absolute dead weight, face down and mashed into the cushions, his bracing arm sliding out from under him to dangle over the side of the sofa.

The first thing he mumbles into the cushions is unclear, but the next thing he says is important enough for him to turn his head enough away from her to speak into the actual air, though the words are mushed by the way his face is pressed into the sofa. "Please don't ruin sex for me." He sounds practically despondent.

Goosebumps still fantail over his arms from the origin point of her mouth on his throat, and his heart still ticks merrily along at a rate that anticipates everything he was thinking about doing up until ten seconds ago. It has not quite caught up with the conversation.

Having his head turned that way, though, gives him full view of the table, and by dint of that also the velvet box with the jewel in it. It reminds him that they've neglected a piece of that gift-giving.

But, first things first:

He stirs, lifts his head again to direct briefly pensive eyes downward. "No, I don't want you to take it back." The words are quietly said, and with certainty. He has doubts…

…but none of them are about her.

"And…I realized, just now, that you didn't actually make a wish with the jewel. You should. Not for yourself, though. It always has to be for someone else, and something meant in kindness. I don't know if they'll come true or not. Buddhist teachings imply that the wish-fulfilling jewel is the mind, and that compassionate thinking and kindness toward others grants fulfilling happiness, but…" The corner of his mouth twitches. "Couldn't hurt. An' it's tradition."

—-

Her words find their mark. John Constantine /sprawls/ on top of her, prompting a quiet squeak against his collar, but there's laughter there; soft and low, but merry in its own way. He can practically imagine the look in her eyes. That same sense of mischief remains, and holds, perhaps for the entire night, spurred on by his text and then throughout the small chase he had prompted her on in the beginning of the night. Fingers find the back of his head, stroking soothingly in good measure. Her mouth lifts from his collar, to bury into his temple.

"I don't know if that's even possible," she counters in a quiet murmur. "I've always been your most eager pupil, John Constantine."

Ice-blue eyes track back towards the table, face twisting away so she could take a look at the fantastic swirl of warm colors on black. She /had/ meant to ask him how it worked, wishes are never one to be wasted after all. But after a moment, her hand moves to pluck the dragon pearl from its case with deft fingers, hefting it up so the both of them could see it. Her admiring stare traces those fine gradients of color again, thumb rolling lovingly on the underside of it. With its natural warmth, it can't help but lull her into a more languid state.

But she's clearly thinking of what to wish for, with the way white teeth clip faintly on the cushion of her lower lip. Her mind tracks back to their list of mutual acquaintances, wondering who would benefit from the wish the most.

Her thoughts move over to Bucky and Jane, still bleeding from the wounds that HYDRA inflicted on the both of them. Jessica's most recent heartbreak, and how she looked when she visited her old house and the graves of her families. Peter Parker and his bloodshot hazel eyes when he spoke of his Uncle Ben, tears on his cheeks and how he lashes himself for his perceived failures in Ozone Park. Peter Quill and Kitty Pryde, their interrupted kiss against one of her guest room's doors. Bruce and his frustration, when he asked her what she wanted from him, couldn't accept that her answer had amounted to 'nothing,' his lingering grief over Jason. Tim, and the way he sacrifices everything he is for the cause he believes in, the bittersweet ache in his eyes every time he looks at her and with her knowing full well where it comes from. Even Azalea and her present struggles with Xiuhnel.

None of them are alone, though. All of the people on her list had someone, several someones. All of them except…

He looks tired, 'tanna. Whatever he's doing is putting a lot of weight on him, and knowing you're in trouble doesn't make it easier for him.

"Daddy…" she tells the dragon pearl quietly, gripping it tight, as if she could somehow communicate with her missing father through it. "I wish that whatever you're doing, you're winning."

She brings it to her lips, to press against the surface, to soak into the vestiges of the mystical beast's warmth, and leaving them there for a heartbeat. She lifts her mouth from it soon after, to roll her thumb over the trace of her breath, and sets it carefully back into the case.

—-

This is the moment when it all goes wrong.

Not the wish, or the contents of the wish. What she wishes for is wished in earnest, not for personal gain, or even for the personal gain of someone else, but as a plea for the easement of suffering. Pure kindness, fuelled by love. There's no guarantee that the flaming jewel is capable of granting wishes — they are, after all, exceedingly uncommon, and not even John has any experience with them, personally — but as he says: it can't hurt to try.

Except that it can. Just this once, for reasons John does not suspect, it can, and it will.

He'd been so relieved when the dust had settled that the pearl was still securely in its box, the velvet dusty from its contact with the ground but otherwise unscathed, having been knocked out of his hand and kicked aside in the scuffle. They could not possibly, he thought, have known what it contained — how priceless the thing was that they'd fumbled into the dirt and simply left behind, unnoticed, unremarked. He could not have been more wrong. They'd asked questions that made no sense, known enough about what he was doing to call him on the falsehood he fed them, but they'd been clumsy, ill-prepared. They'd bruised a few of his ribs, one of them had decked him in the face, there had been a fight. He and Jones had been outnumbered, and for those first few moments his focus was on /staying alive/ and keeping Jones that way — to the exclusion of all else.

Papa Midnite expected John to be the one to use the pearl to make a wish. He'd learned enough about John's movements in New York since the Englishman's return to the United States to know that John had entangled himself in something with Zatanna Zatara, and that she'd been involved in some sort of trouble, herself, though the nature of that was not clear. Someone had owed him favors somewhere — someone who told him about the unusual thing that John wanted. Someone who told Midnite that John was about to obtain it.

In the chaos of the scuffle, the box and the jewel within had been coated with dust, but that dust did not come from the street. He'd brushed it harmlessly from the exterior of the box, but particles remained, clung onto it and the stone within like a deadly virus, waiting to be activated by the inevitable wish…a wish, Midnite expected, to keep Zatanna safe. Or if not, then who cares what wish John might make? The inevitable end is that he /would/ make one. Why else obtain the stone?

But it's Zatanna who makes the wish, and therefore Zatanna who feels the fingers of something icy and infernal wind themselves luxuriously around her beating heart, even as John is shifting the box back to the table, murmuring something to her about the contents of that wish. He speaks the words to her ear, does other things with it as well but both speech and sensation are warped out of true, sound arriving in melting cobs of baffling noise, sensation remote, a dream of something being done to someone else. The room is dissolving. Vision frays at the outer corners, the scenery peeling like old paint. Her tongue is dead in her mouth. Her limbs cease to work. The neurotoxin is potent, expertly measured…

John realizes too late, though perhaps it was too late from the moment she uttered the first word that something is wrong. He presses himself up, palms to either side of her, and in her shredding field of vision she'll see the alarm in his expression before his face distends, turns nightmarish, leans in as though to kiss her even as it disappears into the same black void that swallows everything else…

There is no telling how long the nothing goes on.

Consciousness does return. The room is dim, lit by red emergency lights. The air is dank. The white walls and ceiling are streaked with water damage, the cushions beneath her mouldering and disintegrating. Dust coats everything in a thick layer…thick enough on the glass wall to almost conceal the dead, rotting slurry of vegetation in the glass column that forms the core of the spiraling ring of private rooms. It fills her hair. It clings to her eyelashes like snowflakes.

Though she may at first seem alone, John is there on the floor. Drifts of dust have accumulated on him, just as with everything else, but he's breathing and looks virtually untouched by whatever has transpired, save that he's sleeping, or unconscious. There's still lipstick on his collar.

The sound of water dripping steadily permeates the air.

—-

She would never know what John would say about it because suddenly, the world isn't what it was. Ice-blue eyes turn back to him blankly, the sensation of his mouth on her ear, his breath tickling within the inner shell, lost as she fumbles at the sudden loss of balance that comes over her in a sudden wave. Perhaps she had been right after all, that this is somehow a dream, but everything felt real until /this/ moment and she still has the presence of mind to realize that there is something amiss the moment she pressed her lips on the pearl, and the moment her fingertips leave it on the box. The nerves there feel dead. The alarm goes off before the pricking null spiderwebs over her senses and blackens everything else.

Her lips part, but no sound comes out. Her body doesn't feel like it's her own as John's face looms over her. She dimly registers the alarm there, the wide, pale irises when he realizes, too, that something is /terribly/ wrong as the rest of the picture surrounding him dissolves into nothing, the creeping black eating away at the defined edges of every object, saps color from whatever beautiful fever dream she had been experiencing until just then; of an exclusive club and a vivarium teeming with mystical life, the look on his face when he realized what was in the box, and his welcome weight, hands and lips on her….

Lashes suddenly lift and she's awake again. Her throat feels parched, bare, pale skin and black clothing powdered grey with time and neglect. A cough and a breath stir the floating motes and she blinks her eyes rapidly to dislodge the clumps from her lashes, to clear off the red haze - but they remain, because the emergency lights are part of her surroundings. She groans, planting a hand on the rotting cushion underneath, strips of fabric shredding at the sudden displacement of weight, tangling over her fingers. She stares disbelievingly at her hand.

"What the hell…?" Zatanna whispers, lifting a hand to scrub her eyes, streaking ash across her cheek. She remembers the room, the glass window looking out to the vivarium is hard to forget, but the wonders of the Abyss' private rooms have disintegrated, leaving nothing of their former glory at the wake of this latest disaster. Whatever this is.

There's a small part of her that observes, exasperatedly, that since she has spent the last week running away from her perfect world, it's almost appropriate that a perfect date would land her in some nightmare. The universe, as usual, tries to balance the scales, whether she wants it to or not. Shifting her body, she plants her heels on the ruined carpet, shaking her head. Dust falls in clumps, and she can't help but look down at her appearance and /groans/.

"No, no. I had to do myself up," she grouses. "My silly, god damn vanity. I'm almost /sure/ I brought this on myse— "

John.

Ice-blue eyes widen. Her head whips around to search for him and for a few, breathless seconds, she thinks he isn't there.

But he /is/, and he's down, nearly lost under all the dust. Her heart bangs painfully into her sternum as she lurches off the couch, to sweep both hands over him in an effort to get rid of the layers in a small, flaking grey storm. She catches sight of the lipstick on his collar, knows by virtue of it that this is John and not some delirium-induced construct. Shaking fingers reach for a pulse until a deep breath and the rise of his chest renders that unnecessary. He is alive.

"John…" she murmurs, hands coming up to slap his cheeks lightly in an effort to get him awake. "Something's happened, we need to get moving." She hasn't parsed out what exactly transpired yet, but she knows she won't find her answers sitting around here, and she's not about to just leave him here while she pursues her own investigation into what is happening. "Come on, baby, you need to get up."

Her ears prick at the sound of water. Turning her head, she attempts to discover where it's coming from by sight - whether she sees it or not, she remains by the Englishman, attempting to rouse him still, but one hand is already attempting to search for the obelisk she has kept hidden in her pant leg…if it's still there. And if it's not, it'll simply be yet another clue as to what is happening to the both of them.

—-

Everything is still there. The ravages of time may have warped and destroyed material surfaces all around them, but the stone wand, the pearl, the dolphin containing the essence of her soul — even the edible underwear — are all still present and accounted for.

For some fragile moments, John doesn't respond to her efforts to rouse him.

He'd barely realized in time what was happening, and his reckless decision to join her — to press his lips to hers not to /kiss/ her but to take into himself some of the poison that was claiming her, its symptoms grotesquely familiar — came as she was already slipping away, consciousness siphoned off into…

He startles awake, draws a sharp breath that pulls dust into his lungs, which has him rolling onto his side and coughing. Puffs of dust drift from his hair like ashes, and he roughs his hand through it to stir them free, starts to rub his face on his shirt sleeve only to realize that doing so would hardly improve matters.

It's enough for him to get it out of his eyes, which tick around the time-razed interior of the room. He takes in the black streaks of mildew on the walls, the red glare of emergency lighting. The dishes on the table, so long since having been abandoned that not even rotting food remains behind — only vague shadows of stains, already turning to tarnish.

Lips parted, he looks at the woman he brought here as a gesture of affection and feels his stomach tie itself into a knot. This wasn't meant for her. Whatever this turns out to be, it was meant for /him/. He's as sure of that as he is, now, about the purpose of that bizarre assault in Chinatown — the one that had made no sense.

His shoulders fall.

'I'm sorry,' he wants to say, but what good is that?

"Alright…?" Pale eyes flick over her, irises colorless in the blackroom-red lighting. In spite of every indication that eons have passed, he feels virtually the same as he did moments before the paralysis claimed him, no aches, pains or stiffness to trouble him unduly. Evidence as to What This Is continues to accrue. It is not promising.

The sound dripping of water she seeks seems to be coming from the previously green space enclosed within the glass walls. The wall has been shattered to one side, and from that hole comes the rank scent of rotting vegetation.

—-

Relief leaves her in a rush of breath when John wakes up suddenly, coughing dust from his lungs as she sits back on her heels, doing her best to quell her elevated heartbeat and rendering her lightheaded at how quickly her blood was rushing through her veins. Seeing him on the floor and unresponsive for a few moments had put holes in her resolve within that brief, but terrifying window of time. Now that he was awake, however, she is ready to get to work. Ice-blue eyes, sharp, quick, slip past him and to the rest of their surroundings, brows knit and her lips pursed.

Watching the proud line of his shoulders slump, Zatanna regards him silently; there's no censure on the pale mien, and in spite of the situation, she leans in and presses her mouth lightly against his brow, uncaring of the dust. "Alright," she confirms, a smirk curling up on the corners of her mouth. "It's no bomb on a bus, but it's just as good. You really are a man after my own heart, John Constantine."

Standing up, knowing that he won't accept any hand up, she turns so she could assess the table where their sumptuous dinner had been sitting before them just a few minutes ago. Drawing her phone from her pocket, she takes the necessary photographs, and with her obelisk, she inserts her valuables back in - the dragon pearl is carefully collected, the edible underwear slid back in her back pocket, and the diamond dolphin containing a piece of her soul. The last one, she returns to John.

"Doesn't mean I still won't kick the ass of whoever it was that ruined the first actual 'date night' of my life," she tells him, propping a hand on her hip, her chin lifted. Feet astride on her pumps and caked in dust, her eyes are bright with blue lightning and he would know that she means it. She fully intends to find the person responsible, and probably nail him to the wall with her high heels.

"We should probably make the inroads necessary to get the hell out of here, though," she says. "And while we do that, you can give me your best guess as to what we're dealing with. You think this might be connected to whoever it was that tried to get you?" The obelisk is out, and as always, she does not hesitate in going first, moving towards the hole in the wall to peek through it, to try and find a way out of the room they're in.

—-

He follows her with his gaze as she leans in for that kiss and leans away again. Conflicting sentiments argue with one another in his eyes, but less viciously than they might. The truth is — and he acknowledges this with some surprise at himself, and a little bit of apprehension — that if he has to be trapped somewhere like this, he's glad it's with her. He'll change his tune the moment she's in any real danger, but for the time being the company is vastly to be preferred. He takes the dolphin as she hands it to him, looks down at the hands holding it and turns it over in his palm, familiarizing himself with the weight and shape — something he'd not had time to do before everything fell apart.

She's right about helping him up. He gets himself up, stretches just a little, and begins to root in the cushions for his coat. He holds it up and contemplates shaking it out, but it's unlikely to help — he'd just stir up dust throughout the room. He's forced to drag it on with clots of dust streaked across the fabric, and he tucks the dolphin into the inner pocket on the left side, close to where he keeps the lighter she gave him for Christmas. When he turns to look at her she's looking formidably imperious, and her expression wins an upward twitch of the lips out of him, though his eyes remain grave. "We can take turns," he suggests, tone lighthearted.

The elevator that brought them here is absolutely inoperable, and the doors cannot even begin to be opened. Not only are they corroded with rust, promising even worse conditions inside of the elevator shaft, there's something organic and rank growing across them in a spanning web of what seems almost like tissue, tendon-tough but uncomfortably close in texture and color to muscle.

He's squinting at that when she asks her question, and his nod comes eventually, distracted. "Yeah. I'm not sure they were trying to get me. I think it was a feint. …Bloody hell."

His presence is solid behind her, one shoulder cast up against the place one wall meets the glass one, watching her examine their possible exit route. "I'd say 'it's going to be a long way up,' but I'm not sure that's how this is going to work." He attempts to draw a deep breath, intending to turn it into a sigh, but he chokes on dust before he can get halfway through his inhale, and turns his head, submitting to another coughing fit. What he says next, grim in tone, is rough, voice broken apart by the dry particulate. "I think we're witchwalking."

—-

The dolphin is cool to the touch - so small that he can close a fist around it easily and make it vanish from view, and the diamond holds that tiny drop of Zatanna's soul securely; she is young yet, but she's accumulated plenty of knowledge since the last time he formally taught her anything. The choice of material, the delicate, deft way in which she threaded the mystical key with that pure little speck of her are lessons that she has learned elsewhere, marked with a few constructs of her own devise…much like the lighter he keeps with him at all times. Objects such as these puts her creativity to good and practical use.

His suggestion to take turns has her lips parting in a brilliant grin; their situation was disturbing and no doubt dangerous, but she makes a good guise of seeming undaunted by whatever darknesses are waiting for them. She is in no way fearless, the way her pulse races would make a liar out of her, but it is at the very least balanced out by her sheer determination, because she doesn't want to remain trapped here. They have things to do back in their New York.

Examination of the elevator has her recoiling from the strange, sinewy red-and-white striations crawling all over the elevator and the channel in which it used to operate, her expression clearly reflecting the desire /not/ to go that way. So the broken wall and the stench of floral overripeness seem their best bet. Holding onto the edge, she swings her body sideways to look up, one leg dangling in mid-air, forcing herself to remember that she went /down/ instead of up when the Abyss' staff took her to meet John. Ice-blue eyes track upwards at the endless drape of rotting greenery; the smell makes her wrinkle her nose.

His theory has her looking over at him, surprised. "I don't think I've had the pleasure," she drawls, indicative that she doesn't find it as such at all. "Any rules I ought to remember?"

She doesn't trust climbing up through the remains of the vegetation around them but she does recall a few instances in which John had so fondly referred to her as 'making an entrance.' "I hope you're up for doing your finest space marine impression again," she tells him, more like a warning than anything, as a whispered word has her lifting upwards off her feet, and like a small planet, strains of her magic pull him right into her orbit as they move up, and up, and up.

Her control has improved, at least; he would recall that the last time they did this, she pulled them recklessly through the air and practically carpet-bombed a gathering of eager figures bent on a grisly human sacrifice with their own magic. Her drift now is more cautious, and they would have to be. Witchwalking is an unfamiliar phenomenon to her.

—-

'Any rules I ought to remember?'

John meets her startled look, and the dominating expression on his face is grim resignation. "I wish it were that simple," is his answer. Not reassuring. He slides into the space beside her cautiously, leaning to look out, then down into the darkness far below and up into the red-splashed haze of darkness above them. "I need to see more before I say what I think, about where we are. But I'll tell you this for free: I think this was Midnite."

It was the taste. The taste of her, when he'd realized what was happening and recklessly but without hesitation doomed himself to the same fate to which she'd been accidentally condemned. It isn't the first time he's known that flavor, though he'd certainly hoped he'd never know it again.

Her mention of space marines has him briefly puzzled, preoccupied with their situation as he is, and his brows are only /just/ beginning to knit when he remembers and his expression flattens. "Oh chri— "

One arm pinwheels momentarily as he feels the floor drop out from beneath him and his center of balance twists…and then he's being drawn out over a genuine abyss, and they're navigating upward.

It is a dangerous ascent, and her rate of speed necessarily slow. The thick core of twisting root — or was it a branch? — still exists, spiraling and jagging unevenly through the space, massive clots of dead fine and slimy piles of corrupted leaves dangling from its more solid structure. The glass walls are primarily occluded by skins of foul, rotting flora, but now and then there are patches of that same peculiar, tendon-tough tissue, reddish even without the glare of emergency lights.

They pass their first other private room window some distance overhead. The glass is unbroken, fogged heavily from the inside, but the sounds that emanate from within suggest that they are not the only living things present — perhaps not the only /humans/ present — but the noises are atrocious, wet tearing and low moans that have John twisting in the air to keep that stretch of glass within his field of view, even his gliding posture one of readiness. It causes the hair on the nape of his neck to stand up.

Other windows follow at regular intervals, spaced far enough apart to be impossible for those on either side to view. The one after the first is completely shattered, the floor long since having been covered in a slurry of putrid-smelling goo, laced through with an ammonia scent that recalls animal urine. The one after that is sealed and dark, silent as a tomb; after that, the half-broken window they see contains not only long stretches of fibrous tissue but also quivering, lumpy cobs of pink-grey jelly overlaid with black tubes that pulse like veins.

John never says a word. The sounds of life they first encountered have left him leery of drawing attention to them, but he checks on her repeatedly with glances up at her, when he isn't forced to keep his attention on repositioning himself to avoid debris as they ascend.

—-

Papa Midnite.

Ice-blue eyes swing towards him, wide and surprised; Zatanna is clearly familiar with the name, though she would be hardpressed to identify any mystic who frequents New York that doesn't know of the voodoo king of Manhattan. Both magician and a gangster, she has heard of his bloody reign over the occult circles of Manhattan for years, mostly through John, but her father as well. The infamous Houngan of origins so convuluted rumors have it that he was immortal, who damned his own twin sister to Hell and maintains a line of communication with her through her own dried up skull. Haitian Vodou as a subject has always fascinated her in the same way most soul-based Arts do, and in spite of what other violence he has been part of, he still somehow manages to commune with the lwa - though she supposes that is easy enough once someone is willing to pay the proper degree of respect.

But this witchwalking business was new. She is more familiar with Vodou practices of communing with the dead, reanimating and raising them, not…this.

She has always known of him to be a dangerous man and now that she's in here, it shows. Her lips press together faintly. "Alright," she replies. "What the hell does he want with you now?" Now. As in today. This wasn't the first time Constantine has run afoul of Papa Midnite, but she had thought he had been too busy with their present troubles that the Work would at least keep him away from trodding on Midnite's toes.

"Though I suppose if you don't know, either, we'll just have to get out of here and ask him ourselves," she mutters. She always did like the front door approach.

The sights that pass them force goosebumps to rise up from under her skin, especially from the first private room where they hear /some/ manner of horror occurring within the fogged glass. As they slowly, carefully spiral upwards, she, too, falls silent, gauging their surroundings with her eyes and her head tilted as they go up, and up, and up. She maneuvers carefully through the sickly-sweet virid dip of spent vegetation. The dark and silent room catches her attention when they pass, though she does not attempt to peek inside. And then another half-shattered window, filled with the strange, organic veins that remind her of what they've seen in the elevator.

Her eyes move downward towards him; he has been quiet since they left their private suite, and it's probably for the best that they maintain some sort of radio silence. Her obelisk shifts in her hand again, shifting it close to her lips. A red dot sparks from the tip, though unlike what she had used before to find and protect John in the High Line, it remains where it is.

"Tixe na dnif," she whispers, before lifting it up over her head, waving it from side to side, to watch the glow and wane of the light in an attempt to find passage out of this section of the Abyss; the magical equivalent of the old game of Hot and Cold. Normally she would release it like a sprite, to flitter around, but she doesn't want to call attention to them that way either, when there are clearly terrifying living things trapped in there with them.

With that, she'll slowly follow the direction in which the red light's pulses glow the brightest.

—-

John's shrug is likely answer enough. "No idea. Could be he's involved in what's going on, but I don't see why he'd think /this/ was the answer to his John problem. It's too convoluted. Could be it's not him. Maybe it's some mystic prick who bought the goods off him. But he's the one to ask, either way." And he fully intends on doing something /similar to/ asking.

More threats of violence, though.

The multipurpose droplet of magical light indicates that they're moving in the proper direction. Up is out.

The ascent feels interminable. Dust is augmented by drizzles of water and bits of eroding vegetation as it pelts them from above, a splatter of the same down John's collar producing a hiss of displeasure and muttered oath. Twice they twist close enough to the rising root system that he can put out one foot and push off of it with the ball of that foot, and chunks of it slough free like mulch and cascade into the darkness below them. At one point they emerge into an unusually open area: a section of the twisting core of root has collapsed here, and fat grubs the size of dogs can be glimpsed burrowing into the pulpy wood.

It's clear when they're about to reach their entrance into the next area of the Abyss. The sudden blaze of light overhead is grey rather than red, and it floods the chamber in which there had been banks of elevators leading to all of the private rooms ringing the chasm below.

But it's wrong, when they get there.

It's so wrong.

They crest the floor of that room and instead of elevators, instead of walls and a door leading onto the ballroom floor of the club's main room, there is the lip of a cliff, and instead of being deep underground, they're high above it, looking down at a vast, colorless grey plain riddled with cracks, bereft of moisture. Roads seem to meander aimlessly across it, some paved, some gravel, some beaten by countless feet, their destinations unclear in the heat haze that shimmers and renders the horizon impossible to see. Vague shadows just upward into that quivering mist, suggesting a city huddled together some miles away.

The sky is red, lanced with lightning. It feels low to the ground. The air tastes like ashes.

John grimaces the moment it hovers into view.

"Limbo."

—-

The obelisk's red light emanates the brightest wavelength when pointed directly upwards and that is where Zatanna heads and pulls John along with her. She isn't /flying/, not really. It's more of a controlled float upwards, levitation, having not yet mastered flight the way her father has. Knees bent and arms to her sides, she has had enough practice with the art that she barely struggles now, unlike the first time they've done this together when she struggled with his weight and hers - another reason why they came down the way they did in that incident. Still, she attempts to maneuver away from the dripping of rank water, though she is unable to dodge too much of that rotting debris. Wet clumps cling to her bare shoulders like seaweed and when she brushes them off, they leave black-green streaks on her pallor, turning dust into mud.

It's gross. She /feels/ gross, and some part of her wilts helplessly inside her even now as they continue their ascent upwards. Why does this always happen whenever she tries to dress up for him?

They reach the main floor, or what had been the main floor - the image of it remains fresh in her memory, the beautiful ruby motes falling from the chandeliers, the swaying bodies and the soft jazz music; the excellent cocktails, the elegant decor and the impeccable service. But once they hit that cliff, her astonished stare takes in everything around her. While she has read about this place before, studied it - with John for a teacher for two years, it was going to be a given that he would have taught her about it - she has actually never /been/ here before and while surprised at what she finds, she doesn't recognize it either.

She is no stranger to the Dreaming - she often visits it when she is in dire need of inspiration. She is no stranger to the Astral plane either, and she has only familiarized herself further with it after the events of the last few weeks, when she has had to surf through New York's vast network of leylines in her intangible form to seek the answers she needs to solve a certain number of problems. She is familiar with the worlds in between and has even met the acquaintance of a few new ones, like Lernea. But she has stayed away from the big four - Heaven and Hell, Purgatory and Limbo. She has learned about them, yes, but her father has been very specific in warning her away from such realms if not just because souls are tremendously vulnerable there.

And while she is absolutely unaware of it, her soul - those endless stores of power - has no lien.

Hence why when John identifies their destination in such a very specific term, her head whips towards him, those wide eyes growing even wider. "…what…?" she asks faintly, somehow, around her shock. "But…how is that…"

Silence.

"….John, we're not…we're not /dead/, are we?" She doubts it, instinct tells her no, but she /has/ to ask. She's never been here before!

Her incredulous stare tracks over the landscape; the air feels wrong, the skies are red, endless roads twist over the barren landscape like mesh and the sight of the distant city almost has her recoiling. Suddenly jumping back into the hole they just left was suddenly not such a bad idea, but she knows they won't find a way out /there/, either. There's only one place to go, and that's forward - she knows it. She's just not sure if she wants to; the heady mix of adrenaline and fear stirs fitfully in the pit of her stomach, charging every open nerve and leaves her lightheaded.

"Oh, fuck. This is happening. This is really happening," she says, sounding almost helpless as she takes several steps towards the edge of the cliff and looks down. All the way down. Unconsciously, her hand moves sideways, to find his, and fasten tight.

"Guess this is just as good of a time as any," she says after a few minutes of silence. Some of her usual moxie returns - no matter how terrified, it never stays buried, irises ticking up towards him.

And quietly: "Teach me."

—-

"No." John's voice is quiet, not any longer because he worries they'll be discovered but because his fears have been proven out, and he's considering the magnitude of what they're facing. "We're not dead. If we were, our souls would have been claimed. We'd not be here." What he does not say — what is unnecessary for him to say, likely — is that he doubts they'd be in the same place at all. "There's a possibility we're still in the Abyss, physically, but…" In the brief silence, he turns his thoughts to the wedge-shaped gift in his pocket, the piece of crystallized carbon with a tiny fragment of her soul in it. He can /feel/ it. "I don't think that's what's happening." He studies the city dreamily evident in the distance, a jagged pile of spires knifing upward into the lurid sky. The thought of entering it causes him to break out in clammy chills, but they have no choice, he suspects.

Dust-sheened fingers slide and fold through hers as she reaches out to take his hand. He ticks blue eyes away from the remote vista and toward her, gaze playing over the shape of her face in profile, and gently, firmly squeezes her palm. 'I'll get you out of here,' he wants to say. 'I won't let anything happen to you.' 'It's going to be alright.' But how can he make promises to her that he isn't sure he can keep? He's searching for the right words to say when she looks up at him, brave and solemn. Expecting answers. Expecting knowledge.

Pale eyes narrow, crinkle just a little at the outside corners. The corner of his mouth turns upward, and though it cannot oust the gravity of their circumstances entirely from his expression, a knife of something wry and sharp lodges itself in that serious canvas.

"How about," he suggests, as quietly as she did…as he turns his gaze slowly out to the horizon, to the city in the distance, lifting his head to indicate it with his chin, "We teach /them?/" A few beats of silence, followed by one brow cocking upward, the thing in him that's wry allowed a little it more room on the leash he keeps it on. "There are doors between Limbo and the mortal plane. We'll just have to kick a few down until we find them." The breath he inhales tastes stale and dead, but he draws it as though it were part of a bracing morning breeze, straightening, eyes narrowed into the sere wind. "Who knows — could be fun. Never done anything naughty in Limbo before, either," he says, stepping forward to begin what is going to be an incredibly arduous, difficult descent, keeping firm hold of her hand. He's obviously electing to save her casting for genuine emergencies. "That'll put the mile high club to shame, won't it?"

—-

A few weeks ago, in the darkness of his null-magic cell, with him holding her in the aftermath of Bruce Wayne's betrayal, Zatanna had told him, quietly, that she didn't think she has changed. He disagreed with it; as an outside observer, he has managed to catch on the deviations from the personality he knew, forged there by her newfound independence. What he would discover in the next few moments is that this is one of those changes that she is not wholly aware of - two years ago, she constantly sought approval, and with that, reassurance. Back then, much of her life has been shaped by the influence of the towering shadow of Giovanni Zatara, and when he had handed her tutelage over to John Constantine, she had fallen into that familiar dynamic.

He squeezes her hand firmly, but those eyes do not leave his face. He thinks of the words to say, but her expression is expectant, and looking in the depths of those ice-blue mirrors, he would realize that those are not the things she wants. How could it? He has seen the way she manages to shore herself back up every time; all it took was four months of finding her way through her strange, dangerous life by herself. By the time he returned, she has become accustomed to reassuring /herself/ when circumstances are dire, and armed with that relentless, emotional generosity, even extends that towards others.

So when he suggests that they teach /them/, whoever they are - whoever might be lurking in the spire-laden city beckoning at them through the heat-lines of Limbo's buried horizon, he rekindles her fury, and it burns in those lightning depths. And when he tells her /how/, clueing her in on the existence of those passages between this forbidden world and the world they live in, the expression in those eyes grows all the more incandescent. Assurances are personal elements that she can supply herself, salve the wounds inflicted on her psyche by her terror and uncertainty, but to be provided the method in which to act… /that/ is what she needs now, most of all. It does the work that tender, heartfelt promises never could, for she is, as ever, a creature driven to action.

Her hand grips his with an answering tightness. Eyes narrow into glacial slivers, her lips curling up in the devil's own grin. "Looks like it's our lucky day, then" she tells him. "Because I, my love, am an /expert/ at kicking down doors."

This time, she lets him go first. Heels dig painfully into the dirt, as they slowly find their way down the craggy cliff-face. She /could/ make their descent easier, but he seems determined to do this the hard way and so she follows. The last comment though has her tilting her head at him, brows winging upward.

"What, is that a mountain you have to scale?" she says, and despite herself, she /laughs/. They are stuck in /Hell/, and she is /laughing/. "Here I thought that'd be one of the first things off your bucket list. All those weird hours flying out of Heathrow, have I been overestimating your sexploits this entire time? I learn something new about you every day!"

—-

"I said it puts it to shame," John answers over his shoulder, somehow managing to be prim. "I didn't say I wasn't a card-carrying member. /Really/, 'tanna. Sometimes it's like you don't even know me."

And he'll keep that banter up the whole way down, or until he's out of breath — whichever comes first.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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