Long Hard Road Out of Hell

March 06, 2017:

A travelogue in Hell. John and Zatanna find themselves negotiating the wastes of Limbo, until a chance encounter separates them. Infernal intrigues unfold in front of John, leading to the near-claiming of his doomed soul, and Zatanna races to put together the cryptic pieces of a vast puzzle in her search for a way out of the down-below. There are narrow escapes through cunning, last-moment gambits, foreshadowing hints of terrible things that have yet to come to pass, explosive rescues, astonishing confessions, and a desperate flight for what they can only hope will be their escape from eternal damnation…

Limbo and several lower levels of Hell

It's really hot, and basically awful.

Characters

NPCs: First of the Fallen, Nergal, Mammon Prince of Excess, Unnamed Damned Soul, various followers of Mammon

Mentions: The Winter Soldier, Dr. Jane Foster, Jessica Jones, Tim Drake/Red Robin, Chas Chandler, Giovanni Zatara, Papa Midnite, Cedella, Benji Raymond, Astra

Mood Music: Long Hard Road Out of Hell


Fade In…

Limbo Day 1, Evening
February 14th

The descent from the high plateau atop which the ruins of the Hell-bent Abyss sat like a crown had been every bit as arduous as it had appeared from the top, loose pieces of shale and chalky, unsupportive soil conspiring to create treacherous footing for the pair of castaways. John did his best to leaven the mood, striving and largely succeeding to exude a casual confidence he in no way felt. All the time that he spent running his mouth, cracking jokes and flirting, the wheels behind those pale blue eyes were ceaselessly turning, taking silent inventory of everything with which he — they — were armed for whatever miseries might be in store. He did not spend overlong considering what those miseries would consist of: Hell is vast and malleable, ever-changing at the whims of the higher planes, the natures, obsessions, and failings of its inhabitants, and whatever infernal polities were presently in fashion. It would have been, in short, mostly a waste of time.

They had plenty of that, granted. Time does not pass in the celestial spheres in the same way that it passes in the mortal realm — a phenomenon with which John is already intimately aware. One day might pass on earth, and within the span of that day Hell might have seen several days or several handfuls of days, time stretching like taffy according to some incomprehensible logic.

The cracked, sere plain below rose up to meet them with tortuous lassitude, always appearing closer than it actually had been, until finally the fine, spidering cracks in the colorless dust of the parched ground became visible, then clear. When finally they reached the bottom, John had insisted they rest for a short time before carrying on, and said openly that he had no sense of how long it would take them to reach the alien but still somehow strangely familiar lone city in the distance, black jags against a lurid crimson sky — only that they had no other alternatives insofar as he could see.

"Not that I'm keen to get there," he'd added, sitting with his forearms draped over his knees, squinting at the remote island of civilization — or whatever it really was. "There'll be nothing good there." He'd sat in silence for some time before speaking again. "Could always have been worse, though. If Midnite had gotten his way, I'd have been the only one to handle the dust, and my soul being what it is…" He trailed off, glanced at her sidelong, holding something in reserve. "Well. I doubt I'd be in Limbo now. It's only luck it was you and not me that kicked things off and we're on the fringe this way, instead of my being somewhere a lot less bloody pleasant."

After that, seemingly interminable walking. A veteran of difficult situations with impossible odds, John has perfected the ability to walk with efficiency, adopting a measured pace that chews through the kilometers without causing too much physical strain. It's nevertheless a long, hot, dry, and generally exhausting day — as well as boring; they encounter no living things or any geographical features of note, though the boredom is doubtless to be preferred over the excitement of the alternative — and he travels with her well into the evening, when it becomes too dark for them to carry on safely.

He stops, hands on hips, ever squinting at the city in the distance. His shirt is damp in inverted triangles front and back, and the dust that swept grittily over them has joined the dust from their awakening in the ruined pit of the Abyss and stained the sweat on him, turned into tiny slicks of mud on the sheen of his forearms, his throat. There is a smear of it on his cheek- and browbones from where he'd wiped his face in the crook of his arm. For all that, though, his eyes are still sharp as he turns to her. "Ought to make camp. That's your wheelhouse, I expect. It isn't safe to sleep out in the open; we'll need a tent. Modest, though. There are things down 'ere that can sense magic, and we don't want to tip them off."

—-

She was insistent on wearing her heels all the way to the bottom; more out of spite than anything else, a part of her still chafing over the fact that every attempt to look nicer than usual for the one person who matters fails miserably. It didn't last long, however, before she has broken off the stiletto tips instead of transfiguring them into hardier footgear - she has discerned without him telling her in so many words that magic should only be expended here unless absolutely necessary. Not that he doesn't confirm that, himself. He does quickly enough, and the long slog towards the spires at the distance is done in companionable silence - nothing strained, or even remotely angry or irritated, a sure sign that she places the blame for this entire excursion squarely where it belongs.

"I know," Zatanna tells him at last, that there is nothing good there, though ice-blue eyes tilt towards him at the implication he drops about the state of his soul. "Is that something we need to worry about while we're here?" It isn't in her nature to pry, she knows better than to do so with John, but she does ask questions when she feels that she needs to be informed for the sake of assisting him in keeping them both alive and she would be doing them a disservice if she didn't ask.

They were going to need water, she thinks, surveying the landscape. It will taste like ash, much like the air, but some is better than nothing and they will have to swallow it if they want to get to the city in the first place in good enough physical condition to be able to bust some heads if necessary. She doesn't do anything about that yet, however, electing to wait until he calls to stop, picking up the pace with him and moving forward. She has not looked back once, her eyes fixed on the horizon and the beckoning towers, silently wondering what sort of terrors and wonders would be waiting for them there.

More the former than the latter, she suspects.

They are filthy by the time John calls to stop, and the raven-haired magician finally lets go of his fingers - sweat is a small price to pay for the security his presence brings - to walk a few feet ahead of him, squinting at the surrounding shadows carved into the landscape. The gentle crease that outlines her bare back drips with perspiration, fair skin slick from the heat and caked with dust and sand that has turned into mud. She has pulled her lengthy hair up in a careless topknot, any pretense of looking respectable foregone completely in favor of not expiring from the heat.

"Whoever said the road to Hell was paved with good intentions was being ridiculously optimistic," she tells him, looking over a bare shoulder, lips quirked upwards in a faint grin. "Not even a single outhouse."

She finds what she is looking for at last - a small dune, a good enough camouflage and big enough, deep enough, for the both of them to burrow in. Her obsidian obelisk out, she whispers a few words, lets sand trickle in the depression she makes in the middle; one that grows while the rest of it holds and solidifies just enough to protect them against the elements and bottleneck whatever decides to sniff around the entrance. A cave, in other words, built from sand, inspiration derived from a favorite Disney film about a thief and his monkey, but without the tiger's head, though it was tempting to embellish it in that fashion. The aim, much to her chagrin, was to be discreet.

"There." She wipes her hands off on her thighs, what remains of the black fabric of her pantsuit. "That should do for tonight, I'll see if I can pull some water out of my phone also." After a glance at him, she reaches out, thumbing the streak of dirt off his cheek.

She gets on her hands and knees then, and crawls into the depression she has made. She has managed to make it large enough to sit crosslegged in and she is already fishing out her device, frowning quietly at the battery life - they would have to use it sparingly, if they were going to use it for supplies, thumbing through the photographs of food she has stored within. She had spent time in New York with Tim Drake and Peter Parker recently after the events in Ozone Park - an outing among friends, taking in the city's food scene and nightlife in an effort to recalibrate them emotionally after what had happened with HYDRA's utopia dream machine.

"So…you're in luck," she says, lifting up her phone for his inspection. "I think I managed to get Pete's cheeseburger in the background, and Tim's sparkling water, but otherwise it's salad and tofu for you until we get out of here."

Mischief dances in her eyes, in spite of everything. "Time to see how the vegetarian side lives, John Constantine. I don't think even you can live off cheeseburgers forever."

Or can he?!

—-

What could he say to that question, about the peril his soul might be in, cast down into even the most remote quarters of Hell…?

His response had been toneless, casual, quiet, but the implications were nevertheless grave. "I 'ope not."

For the most part silent during the long trek across the arid flatland — conserving breath, really, a small thing to ration, but small things accumulate — he sets that aside once they've agreed to stop for the night. Her quirked lips and wry remark earn a glimmer of humor in bright blue eyes. "Not many good intentions to be had, no." Even in a predicament as dire as this one, he visibly softens when she reaches to wipe the dirt off of his face.

He watches her slip through the entrance of the shelter she crafts for them, but stands for some moments longer outside of its narrow mouth, attention sliding back toward the towering copse of structures, black shadows against a dimming red sky, the city's outline pinpricked with fitful glimpses of light. The sensation of privacy in his brief solitude is only illusory, he knows: he has yet to dedicate himself to the task of learning how to limit what he broadcasts across the invisible thread that binds them together, for better or worse. The gnawing apprehension he feels is subdued enough that it may escape her notice, for all he knows, but the closer they get, the more deeply he'll feel it. It won't serve either of them to enter into a feedback loop of anxiety and tension, and as this is the first prolonged crisis they've faced since the tether's quiet birth, there are interpersonal unknowns to consider.

It isn't the first time he's been in Limbo. Not his first time in the infernal realm. He entered briefly into it to try to retrieve Astra from the demon he'd so recklessly summoned at Newcastle — returning only with the young girl's arm, clipped from her as the portal to reality closed behind him — and he'd been sent by Midnite, too, for entirely different reasons. The former incident hammered a deep and lasting crack into his sanity; the latter had only contributed to his growing feud with the First of the Fallen.

Stupid. He ought to have known, ought to have seen the dust. Ought to have sensed. It had been so obvious that the gang he and Jessica had encountered had been up to something, but no obvious explanation had offered itself, and he'd been so preoccupied with his gift-giving that he'd lapsed in caution. It might cost the both of them their lives. Worse — their souls.

He exhales his thoughts, feels the humidity of his breath unfurl across his own face and then dissipate in the relentless heat.

No point, John. Self-punishment later, if in fact there is any self left to punish when Hell's through with you.

His muttered oath travels down the length of the shelter's entrance as he crawls into the larger space within, ribs complaining. When he emerges, he plants a hand, gets his legs out from behind him, and promptly stretches out on his back, lids masting, then closing altogether. While she toys with her phone that's how he stays, breathing, watching spirals and rippling puddles of sunglare dance in the darkness behind his closed eyelids — until she informs him about his involuntary diet.

"'tanna," he says, "To be honest, I'm just happy that I'm not going to have to eat the sodding edible pants to stay alive."

…of course, it's only day one.

Still, thoughts of food cause his stomach to growl on cue, and his brows knit. "We ought to ration everything. And I ought to tell you a few things about Limbo." The deep breath he takes expands his chest in his prone position. "I've been 'ere before. Time passes differently. No telling how many days are going to pass outside of it, but it's faster time in'ere — more days inside than out. Eventually, someone is going to notice we've gone missing…but it'll be more days for us than it will be for them, so that's not something we want to count on. Even then, they're going to need to find Midnite to find us, because none of the people likely to be looking are good enough to come and jailbreak us. Your da might be, but…" He hesitates. "He's got a thing about demons. In any event, he can't afford to find you, so he's not likely to take the risk and try."

Silence for several beats. "Midnite's got a few 'sisters' down 'ere. Women he offed, sent to Hell to be his handmaidens, of a sort. Bloody charming bloke, right? First we check the city, see if we can't find our own way back, and if that doesn't pan out, we start looking for the sisters. There'll be a steep price to pay. Always is. Not that there's any love lost in that fucked up family, but they're not going to pass up the opportunity to get something if they can, and our need's obviously dire. Speaking to them, though, we run the risk of Midnite finding out what we're doing. He speaks to them. One of them, anyway…through her skull. Cedella. Can't say whether he can contact the others, but it's worth remembering. If he can cut a better deal with the sisters than we can…" Prone, his shoulders jostle in a miniature shrug, white fabric stuck in damp grey cling to the muscles that string them together.

—-

While John's evasive answer regarding his soul earns him a long, measuring look, the young woman doesn't chase it. Her expression, however, speaks volumes; she doesn't want to let it go, but she will.

She is already pulling out things to eat - he gets the cheeseburger and she gets the salad, whatever drinks that were on the table, absently smiling at Tim and Peter's faces caught on camera before she shuts off the phone and pocketing it. Nimble fingers dispense with the food, and the cold glass of sparkling water in her hand feels like the most glorious thing she has ever felt, cradling it between both palms and letting condensation soothe her skin. Tilting over, she takes a sip, and offers it to him. They're sharing it - she has already thought about rationing, but that isn't surprising. For a creature enamored of city life, the young woman knows some basics, given her life spent adventuring with her father. She was born for it.

"I know," Zatanna tells him. "Two minutes in the real world is an eternity in Hell, or so goes the saying, though you already know I've never been in here before."
There's a slight incline of her head at what he says about her father and demons, something she already knows, but has no accounting of the specific details. Giovanni Zatara was secretive, like most of his ilk, no matter how much open affection he displays around her.

What he says about the others, too, goes without saying - Tim would notice immediately, given he attends class with her and once he realizes he can't find her, Jess would probably be his first stop. The two work well together, cut out of a similar mold as they are. "Red would probably start poking around after a couple of days," she tells him, if not just to assure him that people will come looking. "And the first person he'll talk to will probably be Jess. It'll trickle out from there, I suspect, knowing the company we keep." Lifting her salad, she starts picking at it with her fingers.

Brows wing upward at what he says about Midnite and his 'sisters', and for all of the man's unique reputation in Manhattan's extensive occult circles, this is part of his history that she doesn't know about. "I think we'd have to do our damndest to get the hell out of here on our own," she tells him; the idea of making a bargain /anywhere/ in Limbo is enough to warrant a raising of her hackles. "Finding his sisters would have to be a last resort, though it sounds like if we have to treat with them, Cedella would probably be our best option - I'd say the other sisters, if we wanted to keep our activities here under wraps from Midnite, but if we have to do that in the first place, we ought to assume word will get back to him anyway and this way we'll have a direct line to the outside."

Might as well spring the trap, if their own efforts to get out prove fruitless.

She has filtered nothing out, through their link - either she doesn't know how, or chooses not to, and his end would experience a steady drip of the usual; apprehension and exhilaration in equal measure, a simmering anger, though not at him. Fear, of course, but this is tempered in favor of the stream of information that he provides, and the willingness and determination to get things done. For someone who has never been here before, she is taking it rather well.

But then again, it is only Day One.

"Do you know anything about Cedella?" she wonders.

—-

"Only that it was Midnite who put her where she wound up," John says, suffering through the pain of curling to sit up rather than tilting onto his side and planting a hand. The last thing he needs to do right now is seem weak — if not for her morale, then for his own. "At least we'll have that in common."

Food helps. He dusts his hands off as best he can on the sides of his trousers and reaches for what she hands him, taking a small sip of the water — he swishes it around the inside of his mouth, chasing the taste of bone dust from his palate — and then hands it back to her, reaching for the plate, the food. He is careful with his consumption, taking time between bites, giving his stomach time to process how much food he's giving it so that he can stop the moment he feels sated. Anything more would be waste.

Mention of Jones makes him wince. "Yeah," he agrees, voice rough, eyes unfocused somewhere on the sand between them. She won't take it well. None of them will, but many of his qualities are mirrored in the detective, and if he knows her at all — and he likes to believe he's learned enough to be correct in this particular hypothesis — she'll be finding some way to pin the fault on herself, some fundamental lack in her choices, when really the responsibility had been his, and in any case the evidence of the plot had been slim. Using the gang as misdirection had been canny, but then that's Midnite all over, isn't it? But he's seen what happens when Jessica takes something poorly. She tears up infrastructure and slings it around, or she savages the integrity of her own life. All he can do is hope that she's chosen the former path forward, and not the latter.

Red is more of a mystery for John. He cocked a brow over 'a couple of days' — he's long since clocked that Zatanna and the vigilante know one another beyond masks and capes — but the nature of that knowing is not something he's pried into, frequency of their interactions being one of the many things he's left alone. Red has his secrets. John has his own. He can respect that, and he trusts Zatanna implicitly; if there were something he /really/ needed to know, he believes that she would tell him. Still: he can guess that if Red realized something were wrong, he'd be quick to act. He'd risked his life for the raven-haired magician more than once. And while he might be a cape — and many of those, in John's estimation, are prone to over-sacrificing for the greater good, quick to hurl themselves at noble martyrdom when a sly side-route might have prevented any such need at all — he's been pragmatic for the most part. John chooses to read that self-sacrificing defense of Zatanna as the loyalty of a friend rather than the duty of a caped crusader.

As he hands the plate of food back to her to be tucked away for later, another face flits through his thoughts, and turns his stomach. He sinks back down onto his back, laces his hands behind his head, and directs his gaze upward at the concavity of the stone ceiling.

"I wonder if any of them will think to tell Chas," he wonders, quietly. It occurs to him in that moment that Chas will never know what happened to them if they fail to find a way out of the inferno. How long would he wait there in the flat, loyal to the memory of the man who asked him to uproot his life and replant it in New York? Weeks? Months spent in lonely vigil, looking up with naked hope every time he heard the hatch open, only to have the face belong to Jessica or Red, there to bring him bad news? Nothing yet. No word, no sign. Would he eventually try to make some headway, find leads that he could follow, or would he accept that the inevitable had finally come to pass, pack his things and return to his wife and daughter, left to wonder forever what had happened — why he'd been left behind?

A shockingly unexpected knot forms in his throat. He lifts his hands, rubs at his face to obliterate whatever expression wants to form there.

How long would the others go on looking? A while, he imagines. Months, probably. Months could turn into a year, and as with all losses — and John is intimately familiar with loss — the pain would fail to fade, but life goes on because it has to. As it /should/. The grief and concern and questions would remain, but like a colorful bit of plastic left out in the sun, the saturation and richness of them would slowly blanch with time, losing intensity, present but dulled, until one day they'd realize they hadn't thought about the two of them at all.

I have so much work left to do, he thinks, pushing back at the leaden quilt that tries to settle on his chest. Stop being such a fatalistic twat. You can piss and moan when the end comes, if it does.

Still, Chas' face won't seem to leave him alone, and soured on consciousness, no longer in the mood for briefings, he closes his eyes. "We should get some sleep," he says. "Start early."

After a pause, he opens his eyes again, rolls his head onto an angle to seek her with a downcast gaze, and reaches for her with one hand.

"Happy Valentine's day," he murmurs, with a glint of tired but cutting gallows humor in his eyes, and the faintest upward twitch at one corner of his mouth.

—-

She knows Jess and she knows Tim; neither of them would stop until they received the answers they need, and his wince would be reflected by the press of her lips in a determined line, her expressive face easy to read there. She is more worried about the risks the two of them would take to get those answers as both were equally capable of self-castigation, of blaming themselves when the fault isn't really anyone's but Papa Midnite's. There are rules, she told them, but for the sake of them, she has absolutely no doubt that Jess and Tim would break them all if it meant getting them back. No matter the cost, no matter what it takes. She knows this because she would do the same for either of them and the rest who she calls her own - it is the perennial curse of lonely souls, to do anything and everything to keep what's theirs because such connections are rare, and the loss of such connections are downright devastating.

John's cocked eyebrow has Zatanna glancing down at her salad bowl; this isn't the first time she has wrestled with the idea of telling him about their friendship and Tim's confession. But after her clear, straightforward rejection, was that really something she ought to burden him with when things have been said and done? Would he think that she was trying to make him jealous, or worse, that she wasn't capable of managing her other personal relationships? The latter thought chafes, especially, grating uncomfortably at the sense of independence she has been forced into, but learned to embrace since her father's absence.

She returns the remains of his dinner into the phone, though she encourages him to take another drink of water before taking another herself and packing that away, herself, shutting down the device to conserve battery life and stow it away. Ice-blue eyes wander out to the entrance, catching a glimpse of those spires, mentally girding herself for the next set of challenges to tackle tomorrow. His quiet words do have her lifting her head to look at him directly, her resolute expression softening.

"I'm sure Jess would think of it," she says in an attempt to be reassuring. "The last time she and I talked, she was concerned that Chas would think she was trying to replace him, when she mentioned that she was coming with you to shake down some people in the city. I tried to tell her that Chas has always done what you needed him to and that he's your best friend."

His suggestion to get some sleep has her inclining her head. "I can take first watch," she tells him; youthful, with energy to burn and cognizant of his injuries, she doesn't hesitate to offer, but the two of them require it and with the way she has configured their shelter, the potential of discovery is at the very least reduced. She is still hesitating, however, until he extends a hand and says what he does.

Zatanna shifts; she fits herself against the hard contour of his side, draping an arm over his torso. Her head angles back to peck his cheek.

"In this heat?" she wonders, lashes drooping. "You really are a sucker for punishment."

Her grip on him tightens faintly, the only outward sign of her worries in the last few hours.

And then, quietly: "Happy Valentine's Day."

—-

Limbo Day 4, Morning
February 15th

Endless marching through parched wastes without any redeeming features, no landmarks with which to judge their distance from the city. Day two held out breathless hope toward the evening, the city seeming to hover on a nearer horizon, something reachable within the matter of another day or so. Morning of the third day had shattered that hope utterly. If anything the distant spires seemed further away than they had when the two of them first began to walk, and so the seeds of doubt are planted: is it even possible to reach? Are there more arcane, less obvious ways to approach it — some trick to sliding into its arteries, a way to slide through beneath the notice of the metropolis?

In lieu of conversation he'd spent most of that day contemplating that question and trying to ignore the creeping dread, the thought that they've landed themselves in some sort of recursive pocket of time, a sisyphean geography.

Day 4 tantalizes with fresh optimism. The city is nearer than ever, vague details painting the long strokes of ink that form its many layers of structures, concrete, steel, and glass overlapping, creating canyons of threat and promise.

This is the day that they encounter their first denizen of rural hell.

The moment is tense. The figure is little more than a tick mark blurred by heat shimmer, but gradually as they grow closer to its position, small details begin to become evident. Bipedal, largely human proportions, but distended in some way, malformed. Hunchbacked beyond any reasonable degree. "On your toes," is all John says. In spite of the heat, the sweat, the dirt, he takes her hand again.

Slowly, with every bit of distance between them that shrinks away, more details are hatched into the vague outline. Feminine in shape. Shriveled, though at first it isn't clear whether that diminishment owes itself to age or the environs. Eventually it becomes clear that the latter is at fault: the woman has pale, straw-colored hair, tangled and unkempt, but in spite of her hollow cheeks and dessicated appearance, it's clear that she must have been beautiful before the ravages of Limbo had their way. She seems sucked dry, her arms and legs — both visible because she's wearing a sequined white dress and stiletto heels, though the heel of one has long since been broken off — stick-like, burnished bronze from liberal sun, though no sun hangs overhead in the blood-red sky. Her hair may be disheveled, but there's a comb finished with pearls tangled in the dusty snarls of her tresses, suggesting it was once wrapped up into a polished up-do, and there is a liberal, even garish amount of makeup still in place on her hollow face.

She is not hunchbacked at all, as it happens: on her back are countless objects difficult at first to identify, a hodge-podge of randomness that only gradually assembles into a picture of something, a suggestion of a life. Cellphone, selfies, multiple cameras. Business cards, tape reels, long strings of condom packets strung about the bizarre mass like garlands, ornamented with tiny containers of cosmetics. Wine coolers. Bags of cocaine. Razor blades and bottles of prescription drugs. Utility bills in a dazzling array of ever-more-threatening colors; a soiled blanket, a trash bag full of clothing. Here and there amidst the detritus of urban living are suggestive items that do not seem to belong: a prom picture of a smiling, awkward blonde girl and her proud-looking date, face scribbled out; baby shoes, a dog collar, a pie. Everything is lashed to her with chains so old that they've rusted. She hobbles along on her uneven shoes with the aid of a selfie-stick.

The closer they get, the more John slows, though it's not long before it's clear that the figure is oblivious to their presence. Eventually John stops, releases her hand, and reaches it out across her body to place a splayed palm over her middle — an instruction to stay where she is. He's been careful not to restrict her autonomy in recent weeks, but he doesn't glance in her direction as he performs that gesture, and nothing in his expression suggests that he is open to negotiating the point.

He steps forward. One, two, three paces. "Oi. Must have been quite a party," he observes, scrutinizing the mountain of shit on her back. "Looks to me like you might know your way around the city. Funny thing, that. The young lady and I were just on our way to see what's what. Don't suppose you'd be willing to chat about it? Help out a couple of tourists?"

Dull blue eyes, milky with sun glare, lift and brighten at the prospect of fulfilling the role of guide to the less-initiated. Something haughty slips into place on her face, a comedy of a thing in light of her general physical state. "I know people," she says, with an overdone uptown accent, meant to mask something else. After a moment, some of her eagerness deflates. "But I'm not going back to that city. It's beneath me. It doesn't deserve me."

—-

Frustration has been building through the long days of slogging through their dry, deserted environs; it runs through their link like an intravenous drip, and the day in which the city seemed so far away had been especially bad. But Zatanna has managed to hold her temper at bay, starting the morning with a set face and determined to make progress no matter how bad the setbacks are - and these days they appear to be numerous.

Finally, they find someone else. The moving shape parts the heat lines emanating from the ground underneath them and the raven-haired woman has picked up her pace. Were it not for John taking her hand, she would have broken in a dead run, ready to shake down the poor soul for answers. There's a quick glance at him, forced to take measured steps - she can't blame him for being cautious and by all rights, she ought to be following his lead, but she is starved for something to give and she can't help but jump at the first opportunity.

She holds herself back by the thinnest thread. Her fingers wind tighter into his to anchor herself in place - not out of fear, but to prevent herself from bulling recklessly into a situation she doesn't understand and the last thing she should do is make things more difficult for them. Though when she finally manages to take a good look at this lone denizen struggling through the desert, ice-blue eyes widen, flicking over the load chained to her body, the blonde's sunken appearance. With the hints of her life displayed so blatantly, she can pick out the pieces of her story by sight alone - maybe a failed model, or actress, judging by the beauty implied by her ravaged state and her utility bills. Death by sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Zatanna would go further where it not for his staying hand. There's a glance at him, aggravated but also alarmed. Did he intend to go deal with her by himself?

He does. She takes one step forward, though she manages to stop herself from attempting two. John doesn't seem to be meandering any closer to her either.

But she can't help herself. She tilts her body sideways to peer from around the British magus, to take another careful look at the soul he is accosting. The declaration about the city and what it deserves has her furrowing her brows. Her gaze skates over the haughty expression, the fragments of a life cut short trussed to the hollowed-out shell. It roams over the scratched out face of a former boyfriend.

"Who do you know, exactly?" she wonders. "Are you famous? I mean, you say you know people but that doesn't really tell us anything. And do they know you?"

The gaze directed at Zatanna when she speaks is not friendly, though it's hostile only in the most craven sort of way — like an outranked dog baring its teeth at another, stronger animal, threatened and afraid. In the world in which that bedraggled soul existed, as Zatanna has rightly guessed, other women were not friends — they were competition. They were more mouths that needed feeding, more egos that needed stroking. More shells that needed filling. Welters of dreams that longed to be realized, competing for only the smallest, most meager crumb of a chance.

"You don't have to be famous to know people," says the emaciated pilgrim icily, adopting the catty disdain she displayed moments ago. She might have stayed that way if it were not for Zatanna's innate ability to find the fissure in something and somehow take a chisel to it to pry it open more widely, even if only accidentally.

The bugging out of the woman's eyes within her shallow sockets is grotesque. "Do they know me? DO THEY KNOW ME? DO YOU THINK I DIDN'T TRY?" Her eyes are wild and brim with fire, her voice shrill and piercing, every word shrieked. "I gave everything I had to that city. Those people. They wanted me this way, and then that way, and then some other way, and every time, I smiled and forgot who I used to be for them so that I could be SOMEBODY. ANYBODY. OF COURSE THEY KNOW ME. They knew me well enough to USE ME. They knew how to get what they wanted, promising everything but all of it was a LIE, LIE AFTER LIE AFTER—" She hesitates and staggers a little, reeling. A skeletal hand lifts to cover her face, wrath becoming grief in less than the time it takes for John's heart to beat. "They know what they did. And was it so bad? Was it so bad to just want to be loved? Admired? You get a little bit of attention and all of your friends think you're shallow. Why do you have so many selfies? Why do you put filters on your photos? Maybe because I'm trying to MAKE SOMETHING of myself you BASIC BITCHES. And then when those FUCKERS in promotion dump you on your ass after getting what they want all of your friends come SWARMING BACK IN like mosquitoes to SUCK YOU DRY. They love the taste of your failure. They love to pity you. FUCK that city and FUCK THEM and FUCK YOU TOO." She turns around, intent on hobbling away, and her angry slashing of the air with the selfie-stick leaves her stumbling along a winding, serpentine line.

John flicks a glance at Zatanna, though his expression is too inscrutable to communicate much of anything. It holds for the few moments required for him to take some long strides after their unexpected — companion? — but breaks off as he falls into step beside her. "Bloody shame, all of that. 'Course it wasn't personal, obviously. That's just what they do. Machines, like. Industry people, churning out whatever they think's going to make dosh, which is, you know, the will of the people. And the people are stupid. Right? But listen…" Another glance over his shoulder at Zatanna, and this time he tilts his head, inviting her along. "It just so happens that we're not actually dead. Barmy, I know. Thing is, if we can find a way out, we can probably make sure that everybody knows who you are. And this place, it's a mirror, innit? We change the real world, things in here change for you…an eternity of everything you ever wanted, destiny made manifest, etcetera…in exchange for a little bit of help getting out. How about it?"

All of which is a bald-faced lie.

The blonde looks at him with sullen mistrust — more than he expected, but then she'd just finished telling them that she'd spent the last years of her young life being manipulated and used. Some trust issues are no doubt to be expected. After a few moments, she directs her squinting, suspicious gaze at Zatanna instead, and turns to face her with a rattle of chains. "Men are liars. Women are too, but not about the same shit. I don't trust him. I don't trust you either, but if you've ever done a stretch in that fucking pit of a city you know what kinds of things people will say to you. What they'll do to you. How they'll smile as they stick a knife in your back, tell you they love you while they—" She pauses, flicks a dark look at John. It doesn't last long.

Chains clink and jangle as she takes a few limping steps back toward Zatanna. She looks up into those ice blue eyes and searches for something in Zee's face.

"So you tell me, sister. Is he telling the truth?"

—-

By looking at her, John would know immediately that the provocation was deliberate; Zatanna's shoulders lift upwards in a discreet shrug. They needed information and this was an albeit reckless method of making sure a deluge of it came pouring out. More about her life, more about what she has suffered in the city that she had left. It paints a vague picture of what she could expect once they reach their destination, though some part of her also suspects that the woman's torment is tailor-made for her. Hell was a place where such things are expected.

She was not, however, expecting the rant that follows and as the soul lurches away, her own heart leaps against her rib cage, wondering if she had botched their only lead - but John swoops in with his pot of honey and silver tongue and she holds back just enough to observe what follows. There's a lift of her hand, black manicured nails scratching lightly behind her neck, but she picks up the pace afterwards, lagging just slightly behind John and this spectre of broken hopes and dreams. She hears him spin a yarn, ice-blue eyes ticking over his expressions, the gestures he makes. It has been a long time, really, since she has seen John in his element - not even out of his twenties and he was already a master in the art of the con.

So much so that, if she knew less about the world they lived in, she wouldn't have known that he was lying. While she can't boast as much practical experience in the mechanics that drive Heaven and Hell, and the worlds in between, she was very certain that the world does not operate in the way John is suggesting.

The younger magician has her hands slid in her pockets by the time the soul has turned back to her, every rattle of her chains noted as she takes several shuffling steps, her ruined face clearly visible and dull eyes locking into hers. As frustrated as she is, the sight of all of it can't help but gentle her expression, somehow still finding it within her to find some degree of sympathy. She can relate to that, the desire to be loved and how much it hurts to have her trust squandered by false faces.

Her attention tics over to John, briefly. He'd be able to catch a glimpse of a silent apology before she addresses the soul:

"He's not lying about the two of us actually being alive," she tells her quietly. "But the rest isn't true. I don't think that's how it works…and for what it's worth, I'm sorry. That you went through what you have. If there's any way to change everything for you here, I wouldn't know about it, though if there was, I would offer it to you in a heartbeat. But I can't promise you what I can't give."

She chews on her bottom lip. "If you're looking for someone to genuinely care about you, though, I can give you that. I don't know if it matters as much to you as the alleviation of your suffering, but that's all I have to offer - to remember you, light a candle in your memory and put flowers on your grave during your birthday. I just need to know your name, so I can keep my promise."

—-

He must know what's coming when she gives him that look, but his expression never changes. Not once. Not even a little. Blue eyes meet hers, the same hawkish look as ever, but there is nothing in them, or in the rest of him, to indicate any expectation of impending betrayal.

LIAR.

The word is written all over the unfortunate soul's face as she turns to aim a look of distilled malice in John's direction. He lifts his hands and spreads them, dons a thin, close-lipped smile — mea culpa, says the expression, though it never quite manages to reach his eyes.

"I don't give a shit about your remembering me. Who even are you? You're one person. I had that. I had lots of that. It wasn't enough. You know who does that for me? My stupid parents. The loser at work I didn't want to go out with, who thought he had a chance and hung on for goddamn ever anyway. You want to join that club, fine. Whatever. I don't care." Her shoulders unbunch just enough to suggest concession. "But I'll help you because you told me the truth. One decent human being in all of this /shit/ probably deserves to go back to that heaping pile. Maybe you can fix what's wrong with it. Hah! Fat fucking chance. But hey, it can't hurt, right? I'll help you. Bring you around. Make some introductions."

When she flicks her gaze at John, her cataract-riddled eyes are still sharp as the edge of a thousand-fold blade. They simmer with poisonous loathing, active hate. "But not him. You pig. You user. You — you goddamn rapist. Taking what doesn't belong to you just because you want it. Lying to get it. Throwing away everything else after you've got it. Fucker! You stay the hell away from us." She slashes her gaze over Zatanna. "You make sure he stays the fuck away from us or the deal's off."

—-

"Sounds like they're the only people who didn't elect to suck you dry for everything you had to give," Zatanna points out, meeting the damned soul's gaze steadily at that.

But the last condition is one that doesn't sit well with her; John can feel it, the rise in her overall concern, sliding down the astral web-thread that connects them in this life and the beyond. Still, Zatanna manages to school her face to something more resembling neutrality than anything else. After all, she had already thrown him under the bus, it should be easy for her to be able to walk away and leave him in the middle of a sweltering desert surrounded by danger. She doesn't know, couldn't know, the impression she leaves with the damned spirit, but it's an advantage that she's willing to press. Anything so they could make some progress out of the bind they've found themselves.

The epithets thrown at John has her fingers balling tightly in the pockets of her jeans, all she could do, really, to prevent herself from leaping at the failed actress/model to claw her eyes out. Not because what she said doesn't ring true - distressingly, some of it does and she knows just how low John can really sink to achieve certain objectives - but because she knows there are often extenuating circumstances that drive him to decide that such methods are occasionally necessary and those tend to be given less weight in other people's considerations than they should. Something angry and sick flashes across her eyes then, but she shutters them with her lids and takes a deep breath to prevent it from manifesting in more overt ways.

"Alright," she says, when the woman finally turns back to her. "Give me a few minutes to talk to him and make sure that he stays away."

Cheeks puff out in frustration. Turning on her heel, she takes several steps towards John, reaching out to curl her arms around his torso in a loose embrace. "Sorry, baby, looks like this is the end of the road for us. Nothing personal, yeah? Girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do."

The look in her eyes expresses different sentiments entirely: I don't want to leave you.

While he hasn't divulged any details about the state of his soul, whatever hints he has managed to drop is enough to tell her that it is dangerous for him to be here and the choice she makes is one that she finds exceedingly difficult to swallow. Blood rushes in her ears, the sound of thousands of bees fill the back of her head and she does her best to stamp out the desire to whirl around and tell the soul to fuck off, that they'll find their own way forward or not at all.

It's a simple enough thing, to slip the obsidian obelisk filled with her power through his belt, against the small of his back. Her legerdemain is often smooth and practiced, so light and delicate that even veterans wouldn't notice, but the Englishman would in this instance because she doesn't bother to hide it from him. Hopefully he remembers the knack she used to turn it into a compass; for all of her hesitation in using what actually is inside her to perform feats of magic, the fact is nonexistent when she gives it up so readily to give him the means to follow her from a distance, and arm him for whatever decides to jump out and try to claim him.

—-

Certainly, much of what the ruined specter says is true, and John doubtless believes that more of it is true than really is. He is always the first to find the faults in himself.

Still, there's no outward indication that any of those flung barbs have landed blows he feels. He stands where he was left, hands in pockets, watching the two of them with eyes that contain nothing but the pale, flat slash of reflected wasteland baked beneath a relentless, sunless glare.

The absence of access to his state is incomplete, though if he had his way, it would no doubt be absolute. It's the astral thread that gives what inklings that the rest of him refuses to share. Feelings compressed down to a pinpoint, large things crushed into something small and super-dense. Nothing good. He's angry with her, uneasy with the arrangement.

In his head, watching her turn toward him and reach to wrap her arms around him, he's still contemplating the possible consequences of deconstructing that lost soul. He could do it, he knows. He can see the weakness, the means to split it apart.

Inscrutable blues meet their pale counterparts.

If he retreats, one or both of them may be lost, and there will be little to nothing the other can do about it. He has no reason to trust this haggard scrap of miserable, long-lost humanity in front of them, and Zatanna has never been here. She doesn't know all of the rules. Her heart is still too soft: their immediate issue is evidence enough. Hell will eat her alive. He doesn't know that the condemned woman does not have contacts, though, or who they might be, or what might happen if he tore her apart. He doesn't know that she can't get Zatanna out, if she so chooses.

It all adds up to being a great deal of shit that John doesn't know, in one of the most dangerous places he's ever been.

He knows one thing, though, and as she sets her hands on him and tells him sweet but now useless things with her eyes, he tells her the thing that he knows quietly, voice bereft of much in the way of tone: "This is a mistake."

But what can he do? Is she at greater or lesser risk if he objects? He doesn't know. She's made a choice. He's told her that he'll strive to respect that, within whatever capacity he can, but Hell isn't the place to begin paying out enough rope that someone can hang themselves with it, is it? The stakes are too high. There's already one innocent soul condemned to eternal torment because of his mistakes, and it nearly killed him coming to terms with that. If it happened to Zee—

His thoughts snap off there, incapable of traveling further. Beyond that thought lies a void of incomprehension. His imagination is not sufficient to the task of piercing that veil. All the exercise does is call into existence a brief flicker of that oh-so-familiar cocktail of feelings: fear, wrath, grief, longing, a small twist of barbs in his chest. In the end, his faith in his ability to keep her safe is still not powerful enough to override his knowledge that they are safer together than apart. Old skeletons rattle bones in his closet, reminding him of all the ways he tends to get people killed, and he cannot argue the point, can't quite insist that her odds are better with him there than with some denizen of the underground.

His eyes lower on a slant, lid, and he leans forward and tilts his head, pressing a dry, light kiss to her cheek beyond the corner of her mouth. The contact is brief. He lingers there for two seconds after it ends, and then straightens. "Well. Go on, then."

—-

This is a mistake.

"If it is, then it's mine," Zatanna tells him quietly. "But I have to try. So whatever happens now isn't your fault. None of this is."

They've been traveling for days - talks about contacts and whatever else was well and good, but she is less after those than finding a way into a place they can't seem to reach despite days of walking. If there are secret pathways to consider, then she has to find it and leave the breadcrumbs behind, and if she ends up face-to-face with trouble, she has to be able to trust him not to be too far behind. The drip of anger thrumming through the thread isn't lost on her, but it's one she takes in stride; they can have it out later, never one to shrink away from much needed confrontations, but there is a time and place for everything. In her estimation, if the soul had spent a life being used and conned by others, she could not underestimate its ability to sniff out a lie and leave them with more or less what they started with.

Though if this gamble doesn't pay off, they might never have a chance to do much of anything with one another ever again.

She pushes those thoughts away - the last thing she needs at the moment is to doubt herself and her ability to survive, and doubt him and his ability to navigate this dangerous place and get to where she ends up. The bonfires that followed Switzerland are recalled swiftly, happened because he believed she couldn't trust him to prevail. Now, she arguably gives herself no choice but to do that now.

Despite that flash of temper she senses from him, her eyes fall shut when his mouth finds her cheek. When they open again, they sweep over his largely inscrutable expression.

"Don't be too long," she tells him, taking a few steps away backwards, before she pivots to head back towards the shell-of-a-woman waiting for her.

"Take me to the city," Zatanna tells the spirit, and when she starts moving, she follows, dust crunching under each step, punctuated by the way her heart drums against her bones, ticking faster at the widening gap between herself and Constantine. She tastes the fear at the back of her throat; exhilaration too, they go hand in hand always, whenever she's venturing into unknown and perilous territory.

She doesn't look back - then again, she rarely ever does.

—-

There isn't really anything else to say. He holds her eyes until she turns from him.

The sound of Zatanna's footsteps is the loudest sound underneath that low-hanging scarlet sky, a rhythm undercut by the soft, random clinking of chains as her chosen companion labors to move beside her, improvised cane a third, off-kilter beat to her own uneven, hobbling strides.

Had she looked back, she would have seen only what she expected to see: the vast, seemingly limitless expanse of featureless waste behind them, a glass-flat horizon line broken only by the towering mesa of the ridge containing the remnants of the Abyss from which they'd emerged, way off in the distance and off to the left, still massive as compared with John as his outline diminishes, dwarfed by the immensity of the nothingness around him. Hands in pockets, motionless as he watches her disappear in turn, he becomes indistinct, a fleck on a red and grey screen, a tiny ripple in the furnace heat, and then nothing at all.

It's mere moments after she's no longer visible — just moments after she's lost to him in the landscape — that the rough, thick voice bubbles up from behind him, and flashes his blood with ice floes even as he stands there, losing precious water in sweat that he can no longer replenish through the water in her phone.

"Ah — Constantine. Finally. I had begun to think that we would never be alone."

John turns his head slowly, angles one blue eye backward, takes in the red sweep of a leather wing just as he feels the slick, muscled coil of a tongue wrap around one of his ankles—

Zatanna's traveling companion eventually tires of the silence, and fills it with chatter. "You have pretty shit taste in men, honey," she leads off. "Even if you were using him." She takes two steps and then smiles, her perfect porcelain teeth strangely incongruent with the rest of the ruin she's become. "HAH! I bet he never saw that coming! BOOM, sucka! Just threw him out like the trash. He tried to look like it didn't get to him but you could tell, anyway. We can tell, us girls. Guys like that, they get used to doing the leaving. They don't get left. It's fucking glorious, right? You turn the tables and all of that macho tough-guy shit just crumples. They can't believe it when it happens. Like, 'what? How can you not want this DICK?'" She has to pause to choke her way through the rasping fit of cackled laughter that follows, all vicious feminine glee. "Like it's a privilege to have to deal with their JUNK. Right? They can't understand why you don't worship it they way they do. Pathetic little skin tag. MAN. That's the best thing I've seen in—"

Her gloating hesitates, trails off into silence. She likely has no idea how long it has been since she's seen something that gave her any kind of pleasure at all, and thinking about it upsets her.

"Fuck it anyway," she says, suddenly sullen again.

The silence that follows isn't long. Old, deeply-engrained instincts toward socializing and networking take over, and absurdly, she tries to straighten her back and adopts a casual, sing-song tone, as though they were just two girlfriends chatting over brunch. "Soooo, what do you do?"

It is not entirely clear, in spite of earlier references from John and Zatanna, that the condemned woman understands what has happened to her, or where she is.

—-

Shit taste in men, as Zatanna will find out later - years down the line - is a curse that she will have to bear for the rest of her life, a testament to the fact that the dead, no matter how deplorable, have some intrinsic link to the world's possible futures as well as its discarded pasts. The world reduces itself to the crunch of hard particles under her feet as she follows the desiccated woman-shell hobbling next to her, heart within her bowels as the strength of John's presence fades away to something vague instead of distinctive, running through the silver thread that keeps them linked. Irritation ticks faintly against her cheek at the other's choice of small talk, and she keeps her teeth firmly clasped behind her lips as they make their journey together.

She does not know what happens to John, once she has left the picture. It is a small mercy that will not last for overly long under the weight of the consequences of her choices.

There's a slight tilt of her head to her companion when the pause takes over her glee, brows arching faintly, high enough that the tousled fringe of her bangs camouflage the sight of them when she turns her face towards the soul. She can't deny the fact that the longer she spends time with her, the more she learns about her nature - of how torment works here, in general. The lack of any concept of time, or memory, the uncertainty of whether it happens instantaneously or because too much of it has passed. The seeming lack of awareness of the permanence of her situation, that it will go on for so long as Hell exists.

In the end, though, it matters less than her present objective - getting to the city, finding her way to it so they could start kicking doors down. John would be able to follow, the item she had left with him does not contain an insignificant amount of her magic, and if he takes too long, she'll be able to find it barring any nasty surprises. It is Hell, though, so there could be many, but they know so very little about their present variables that all they can do, in the end, is make their best guesses.

"I'm a college student," she says, electing to leave her budding stage career out of her conversations with the other woman. "Majoring in theater and languages - figured that if the exciting track doesn't take me anywhere, I can at least make a living with the boring and practical one. What do I call you, anyway? Do you have a name?"

Ice-blue eyes wander over to the landscape. "How far is it?"

—-

"/Hmh,/" says the wizened figure, somehow stitching together approval and scorn. "Good thing you took the smart way out — smarter than I did. Theater. Yeah. I liked acting too. I was good at it. Doesn't matter, though, they'll always find something wrong with you. You're not skinny enough, not tall enough, not blonde enough, not ready enough to hit the casting couch." She side-eyes Zatanna, still dressed in that slinky, backless pantsuit. The fact that it is presently covered in grime doesn't seem to process for the damned woman. "Well, maybe /you/ are." And then she smiles brilliantly, as though the insult and smile might cancel one another out.

Maybe it did, once upon a time. When she was living, and lived with sharks.

It's the second time that she fails to give Zatanna a name, or in any way indicate that she heard the question in the first place. It's not clear as to why. It may be that the question holds no meaning for her; it may be that she has no memory of her name, but shies away from that thought in the same way she rejected her memories of the passage of time. It could be, too — and this may be the most alarming possibility — that she understands the rules of magic; that to give her name is to surrender control over her own safety in some way.

Instead, she answers the other question she's asked, in a tone of voice suddenly and scratchily distant. "Oh…it's a long, long way. I hitched most of it. No choice, really. Spent the last of my money on an ab — on getting out of a little pickle I was in back home. High school sweetheart knocked me up and then, oops! Forgot who I was." The longer she goes on talking, the less urban she sounds, bits of Midwestern twang surfacing here and there in her speech. She looks vaguely distraught by her own confessions, but is incapable of keeping them to herself, finding herself in the company of a sympathetic ear for the first time in — who can say how long? The damned, John had told Zatanna once, are blind. They can see nothing but themselves. They are consumed by their own miseries, their tiny private hells. Not so different from most miserable living souls, really, save by a matter of degree. "Got himself religion all of a sudden, or said he did anyway — who cares which? Daddy was a pastor, mama baked for church but it didn't stop her taking a broom to my ass when she found my pantyhose with the crotch cut out. Dumb bitch shoulda realized it was too late by then anyway, cos they were in the trash."

Somewhere along the line, her story — crass, vulgar, common as copper pennies — stretches like taffy, too, what seems like only a handful of words turning into a plastic river of drawn-out time, and the cinema of it begins to play: squares of light passing over the damned soul's hopeful figure in the passenger side of a semi-truck cab, nervous hands with cracked, chipped, cheap nail polish (strawberry scented, pink gel with gold sparkles that made her feel glamorous, .25 cents at the drugstore in town) clenched white in her lap, the flirty skirt she wore out of town — the one that had seemed so all-grown-up — tugged down as far as she could get it over the knees the driver kept glancing at. The swaying pine-tree air freshener did very little to cover the sour tang of beer.

Other moments, too. Motel rooms with thin walls and noisy, horny neighbors. Fights she had to run away from. The wallets she learned to steal from the people who gave her lifts. Eventually, shit apartments full of gorgeously thin people who hadn't eaten in five days, laying around amidst cockroaches, champagne glasses and empty eight-ball bags, waiting for that magical, predestined callback to the audition that would change everything forever…

It might have been magic, or some other mechanic of the infernal realm, a vision of a kind. It could have been a very vivid trance, like an intense daydream. Whatever it is, when it becomes merely the voice of the wreck of a soul beside Zatanna again, they're moving in the shadows of the leviathan city, the tops of its towers invisible, jutting upward into a darkening sky they lose themselves in. "It's all bullshit anyway. None of it matters. We're all just gonna die, and ten thousand - ten million years from now nobody will know you ever existed, so what's the POINT? There's no point. There's just succeeding or punishing everybody who held you back. You're better off without that son of a bitch. See?" She lifts her hands, broken manicure jagged at the end of skeletal fingers as she splays them upward overhead, framing the ominous city in a gesture of something like worship. "Ditch the bitch and here you are, right where you wanted to go."

The sky is dark. The city is black. Blue-black walls in the twilight lead into a lightless interior, glints of far-off light suggesting vastness. There is a low, stomach-churning sound, like horns played slow or the nightmare moans of something as vast as time, faint but threatening.

—-

It's that dangerous possibility that tumbles over her mind when Zatanna doesn't receive an answer in the second time she has asked the question; while she hopes for the best, in a place such as this, she can't help but tack onto the worst case scenarios as they are probably the avenues that will keep her safe while she's separated from John. She tries, however, to keep it off her largely expressive face, though her own mystical senses are already stretching ahead of her, to feel out whatever fissures this dessicated thing might have - the means to unravel her, as subtly as she can; if she knew enough about magic to withhold her name, there's no saying what else she knows.

While not forthcoming about her name, the spirit seems more than that when it comes to the details of her own life - her tragedies, recounted in a strange, heat and dust-laden delirium that takes her through images instead of words. She doesn't hear them, but she sees them and she keeps moving because that is all she can do, traversing the river of broken hopes, her own memories curling around John's words about the damned like smoke. And before she knows it, she is within the shadows of the yawning, nightmarish metropolis that she and John have been struggling to reach in the last few days. As her stare wanders upwards to take in the spires, she stops in her tracks. She takes in the sounds, hints of what could be waiting for her within, and cold sweat drips down her spine.

Not just because of what she sees, and hears. Not just because of the sight of those towers, or the fact that it was larger than she can possibly imagine. But also because of the words.

Ditch the bitch and /here you are/, right where you wanted to go.

What if their earlier struggles had not been part of the landscape after all? They had traveled assuming that they would get to the city eventually if they just kept moving, but what if that hadn't been the case? What if something had prevented them from reaching it because they were together, and it was only because they separated that she can manage to get to it now? And if that was true, then why? What possible reason could there be that she would be able to reach it without John, but not even manage to see its walls with him? Unless…

Unless…

Icewater surges through her veins. Her heart threatens to break through her bones.

This is a mistake.

Not just this but perhaps almost everything she has done so far has been, starting from her decision not to ask him about what he meant when he said something about the state of his soul.

She can taste it - fear, welling from the back of her throat. Fear, rendering her ability to breathe nonexistent. Fear, prompting, tempting her to do something incredibly, utterly reckless.

"….what did you mean by that?" she asks, her voice so low it is downright dangerous. Somewhere inside of herself, she curls her finger over the trigger and tightens it.

She turns around slowly to regard the damned spirit, with eyes that promise nothing short of annihilation. She takes a step forward towards the soul.

—-

Zatanna Zatara is made of magic.

She's made of more than that, too — she is, whatever her heritage and in spite of whatever the maternal side of her family might wish for her to believe — human, for better or worse, but nestled within that mess of contradictions, hopes, dreams, fears, loves, loathings, foibles and triumphs, she is magic. Enough magic that a Prince of Hell would pay a visit to the earthly realm just for a chance at possessing her soul. Even in Hell, even amidst threats beyond the kenning of mortals, that is not nothing.

There is no magic hanging on the dehydrated husk beside her, or coiled, sleeping, within her. Zatanna extends the parts of herself sensitive to that presence, to the warp and weft of magic, and senses nothing at all — not even the latent amounts of energy common to the living. The broken young socialite's soul feels hollow, its contents in the vault of some petty lord of the infernal, doubtless — sold for a trifle, insufficient to buy her the lasting fame she wanted.

She was naive in life, reckless, self-destructive, but not stupid. That's why her miseries were so great: she knew what was happening to her, but she knew she was not the equal of stopping it. She could not stomach the thought of returning home, tail tucked between her legs, but she knew — somewhere in the depths of her narcotic stupor, around the time she was evicted, around the first time she found herself eating out of dumpsters — that the city was going to eat her alive. She wouldn't even be a footnote. She became vengeful, did what she did in the end, because she'd known what was happening and resigned herself to it, and decided that if she was going to go down, she was going to take as many of those smug motherfuckers with her as she could.

Not stupid. Their mistake to assume she was. They got what was coming to them.

So when Zatanna says that the way she does, the blonde turns her ecstatic look toward the magician, eyes briefly wide and then suddenly narrow, suspicious. "What do you mean, what did I mean? Are you losing it already? You haven't even been INSIDE yet and you're going crazy? You asked me to bring you here AND I DID." Some of the wild, unstable fire reignites in her face, raw and hot. "Is this some kind of fucked up game? THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED. I did it, even though I heard you tell that asshole to follow us. And is that STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU?"

She must no doubt see the threat of violence painted with such eloquence across Zatanna's pale, dirty face, but she displays no physical signs of fear, and of course, that makes perfect sense: she's already dead.

—-

That raw, unbridled anger washes over her and it does nothing but harden her delicate features even more. It rouses the sleeping dragons of her temper, threatening to blow out of the volatile mess within her chest and stomach. Her fingers dig painfully into the flesh of her palms in a marked effort not to latch onto her first instinct, which is clamoring to rip the soul to shreds out of frustration. "The deal was to keep him away from us," Zatanna reminds the soul, voice overtly struggling in the effort to maintain some degree of level calm. "He is. You didn't say anything about him staying that way with me after you and I are done."

God damn it, Zee, this isn't exactly productive. The faster you get through those walls, the faster you can get away from this husk and get John.

The thought of him waiting - alone - manages to anchor her before her rage could get away from her completely. Turning away, she presses her hands against her face, thumbs rubbing over shuttered eyes, the heels of her palms scrubbing against her cheeks. She attempts to swallow it all - the rising panic, the absolute, incredible danger of utterly losing her nerve when this is the moment that her wits need to be around her. She recalls the events in the High Line, the night in his flat, her own questions as to whether she was capable of doing what was necessary, after all, when the choices start to become very difficult.

"Sorry." The word when it leaves her mouth is rough and strained. "It's been a long few days."

Those earlier suspicions linger, fester, but she says what she does for the sake of keeping herself moving forward. All she needs to do is get through, and when she does…

…she can mark the location and get John here.

—-

The fury in the condemned's face remains just long enough to make one wonder whether the scales have truly been tipped toward catastrophic failure…and then just as suddenly it dissipates. The ruined woman shrugs her bony shoulders, snorts and flaps one emaciated hand, starting to move toward the place the first cracked pavements emerge from the blur of the sand. Suspicion lingers, but rage abates. "Whatever! I know somebody on the rag when I see it. Put a plug in it sister, we've got appearances to make. Do yourself a favor and try to clean yourself up a little bit, wouldja? These people are Somebodies. Maybe try not to embarrass us both," she says, and then spits a gob of something black into the gutter. The city thrusts into the sky over them, looming, the weight of every edifice a physical imposition from above. Inhuman howls sound in the distance like klaxons, wailing sirens tolling some unseen tragedy. The outline of a building shifts, receding into the darkness, suddenly organic. The diminished form of Zatanna's guide tilts and wobbles her way deeper into the impenetrable gloom, the sound of her selfie stick scratching faintly on the dusty, bloodstained cement.

And so, they enter the New York of Limbo.

MEANWHILE:

"What do you want."

"Such a tone, Constantine. Don't you know who I am?"

John swipes the lean, tawny line of one forearm over his crown. It comes away wet, leaves more smears of dust behind to dampen and darken on his skin. He does not turn around. "Mate, there are literally thousands of red-skinned wankers with wings down here. You don't expect me to remember every single one I've ever chatted up, do you? I've had better luck rememberin' names of birds I've taken home on the piss." His tone is cavalier, but his body is clockspring tight with concealed tension. The reason for the long silence that follows becomes clear when he feels the bumpy, slimy, reeking tip of that tongue flick the back of one of his ears, and he's finally forced to move, arm lifted to shove the contact away as he pivots in the sand, turns his back on the direction in which went the woman he loves…in the company of someone who was sent to hell for their wickedness, toward a city built on the filth of the human psyche, a landfill of the soul.

The demon is massive, powerfully built. The hands and feet are clawed, the physique titanic. The teeth are longer than any one of John's fingers and twice as thick, and there are so, so many of them, points carving mindlessly into the thick, pink root of the tongue that slides back into its maw.

His, John notes, with a grimace. Bloody lovely.

"I'm hurt. We have history… Constantine. But no matter. I do not require your memory. You must know why I'm here."

"Bounty, is it?"

"Oh yes. And then again, no. No one knows you're here. You…slid in. Hopped the…what is it…turnstyle? The First has no idea you've come home to roost."

"Home? Nah, mate. Impromptu holiday, more like. Seeing the sights. Been a while since I was here last— "

The sound that comes out of the demon sounds like a car accident in slow motion. It proves to be a laugh. "I know," it says, delighted, a remark which has the effect on John that it no doubt intended: his eyes narrow, and he gets very, very still. He needs to think.

He is not given time to do that. Barbed cords burst from the soil beneath his feet, rising and seething over and through his clothing before thorns emerge along every length. He ceases his thrashing instantly, teeth gritted, as blood trickles from countless small wounds that sting more than they should, as though electrified, soaked in sickness. "But I can explain everything when we're somewhere a little bit more…private. I do detest Limbo. None of the delicious sins of the mortal realm, none of the commitment to purpose of the lower hells. Dull. As. Dishwater."

Vision blurs for John, darkens. Every breath expands his chest, drives those little nails a little bit deeper into him, to grate on bone. The ground beneath him softens, bursts into choking dust as he's dragged down into the useless soil, toward some lower infernal demesne. Even poisoned and bound, even punctured, he understands enough about the peril of that to throw one arm free of his bindings and claw elegant fingers into the cracked sand, blood striping the back of his hand.

To no avail. In moments, he's gone, and the sense of him across that silver thread dwindles and, for the first time since it formed, winks out.

—-

She glances down at her black pantsuit, stained and caked with mud as it is, and glances at her guide and her stained dress and broken heels. The look on her face is priceless. "This'd be easier if I got to borrow your comb or something to put my hair up," Zatanna tells her dryly, lifting a hand to wipe off her face, knowing that it would probably only make the problem worse instead of better. Grubby, sweaty, frustrated and grumpy, she has absolutely no motivation or desire to gussy herself up in front of whatever Somebodies there are waiting for her in the city, but she makes a marked effort to do what the desiccated soul asks. This is Hell, and while she doubts that she has the necessary confidence to go through the next few moments unscathed, sometimes the appearance of it can make up for what she lacks.

As the young woman takes several steps into Hell's version of New York City, it happens. While it is easy to take something that has always been there for granted, that is not the case with her - it hasn't been all too long ago when her father's end of the tether they shared all their life vanished and the yawning emptiness that followed after was so pervasive that she had nightmares about her father's mysterious fate for weeks. The one that she has managed to develop with John is a recent development, but the loss of her father's thread has only increased her appreciation for its presence, knowing that wherever he was in the world, she would be able to reach him quickly if she has to.

And now his end of it is just…

…gone.

She freezes somewhere to the side and behind her guide, her heart in her throat, hammering wildly as the heat, dust and frustration vanish utterly, inconsequential details in comparison to panic rushing through her veins like poison, liable to kill her quickly where she stands. Her pale face drains of its healthy underglow and for the moment, ice-blue eyes stare blankly at a distance. The irrepressible, unforgiving wave that follows - of self-recrimination, of horror and its myriad similes, threaten to destroy her determination when she needs it the most. She nearly does it; turn on her heel and vanish in the wind, to appear where she had left John last knowing that he will no longer be there…

John.

His name hammers repeatedly in her exhausted brain with every brutal, painful wrench within the cage of her bones.

She shouldn't have done it. They shouldn't have separated. She shouldn't have left him alone. She should have pressed him to tell her more. Oh god, oh god, oh god. If the worst happened, if she could have prevented it by being there, she wouldn't survive it. She would never forgive herself. All of her promises, her stupid bravado, her unyielding grip on her recently claimed independence - what good were all of those if she didn't…

Something splinters and cracks within her, like shallow fissures webbing over a mirror. A knot forms at the back of her throat. Heat stings her dry, tortured eyes painfully.

John.

Everything wavers, but for the moment, she holds despite the overwhelming urge to crumple to pieces. A mere four days have passed in Hell but for a breathtaking split-second, she nearly breaks under the weight of her mistake.

Her cracked lips part, her fuzzy tongue moving to wet her lips to no avail.

"We should hurry," she tells the spirit. And with that, she quickens her pace. It gives her something to seize upon, to pry her away from the gaping abyss threatening to swallow her whole before she pitches into it, never to be seen again.

She'll get him back. Has to. Any other alternative was unacceptable, if not just to say that she was sorry.

—-

Limbo Day 10, Afternoon
February 18th

There has been nothing from John, though the sensation left behind by the link is more akin to the numbness of a limb than its absence — as though the thread remains intact, but nothing comes, and nothing goes. To examine the nature of what's happened more thoroughly would require a dip into the astral plane, and whether or not that's even possible in Hell is a question that puts the cart rather before the horse, as even if it were possible it would not be smart. The expenditure of magic required would be a lighthouse even to insensitive mages, let alone the essence-starved denizens of Limbo, and if Hell is a reflection of the maladies of the overworld, then what would the astral plane of the underworld be like…? No matter how anxious, how desperate, there's no sense in taking the risk. The best chance to know what happened lies with remaining alive.

—-

A few days ago, the Somebodies that Zatanna had met reminded her very much of the Godfather movies that her father claimed he did not enjoy, but secretly did; the three ravaged souls even reminded her of the three sons of Don Corleone, with tempers to much, mentally renaming them in her head as Sonny, Michael and Fredo. Whatever happens inside of that dark, foreboding meeting room will remain a secret for as long as the young woman can manage it, but she emerges from it with a length of rolled up parchment - not a blueprint, precisely, while it is impossible to chart out every nook and cranny of Hell and all of its levels, it is possible in this piece of Hell, this twisted version of a city modeled specifically so someone can always find her way with the right map; patterns, certainly, methods to anticipate the city's ever-changing landscape and what specific signposts mean. John had mentioned there are gates here that connect this plane to her world, and while she does not intend to leave this place without John, she is determined to find a way out for the both of them.

His end of the silver thread is still and silent, and while she doesn't think he is gone, it is not easy to live the days before, now and after knowing that her gamble has led to this. Thoughts of him consume the hours in which she doesn't work, memories punctuated by sorrow, affection and guilt.

Frustration, also, with the way she instigated a fight just moments before with a trio of demons visiting a popular gambling hole in this Not New York not by winning, but by inferring that the other player sitting with them was cheating. The resulting altercation enabled her to slip off with her prize - a pack of clove cigarettes, and vanishing seamlessly into the city's ever-present shroud of shadows, aided by her newfound knowledge of the area.

—-

It is uncertain as to whether or not knowledge of John's specific circumstances would reassure her.

Somewhere in the plummet between layers of hell, from the unforgiving and endless expanse of limbo to greater and more specific horrors beneath, John lost consciousness. For precious little time, he felt nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing, and he awoke in darkness to the scent of burnt flesh, rotting meat, and the sound of…

…silence.

He did not dare move. Eyes closed, he took groggy inventory of his body's complaints, of which there were many. Lancets of pain sprayed liberally across every surface of his skin, individually practically painless, but terrible en masse. His mouth was dry, his skin hot, tight on his frame with dehydration, muscles weak. He had not eaten for a full day.

Somehow, in spite of his efforts to conceal his state of waking, the demon knew. It introduced itself: Nergal. The name was familiar, after all: a Babylonian god of war and pestilence elevated, apparently, to the position of demon within this modern, inclusive inferno. It escapes him utterly that they have met once before, in spite of the demon's insinuations. The demon he summoned at Newcastle overpowered them and took Astra because he had not named and bound it…and that connection does not yet exist for him, though he nettles at the way the beast smiles at him like a cat in a creamery every time it hints at past dealings.

John, Nergal had explained, had a soul belonging to the First of the Fallen by celestial rights, for not only the dooming of a young, innocent soul to eternal torment but countless other transgressions, and no little personal interest on the part of the First. None of this arrived as a shock to John: he'd flipped the First off himself, hadn't he? This, all of this — it was coming for him eventually. The only question for John had been /when/.

What does surprise him is the plan Nergal outlines for him, an audacious bid to compete with the First for sovereignty over Hell. Deals made with the Second and Third, objects of power and items of value accrued, blackmail placed, connections forged. A coup in the making, and John's soul — so highly sought after by the First, never one to forget a slight — the cherry on top. If persuasion would not work, then embarrassment, perhaps, and if not that, then force.

Nergal had an itch to rule, and it simply would not do to have John bumbling about Hell where he might be snatched up by the First. Thus: Nergal's place of relative sanctuary, a foul pit in a foul pit, littered with the bones of children. An empty cell in a lightless stone hole like an oven, baking in his own sweat and waiting for whatever would come. Tucked away like the chess piece he had become: an ironic punishment for a man who'd made a career out of manipulating people around him to his own ends.

It was not torment on the order it might have been, but what suffering Nergal had spared John at the hands of Nergal's colleagues or the First of the Fallen John worked busily to make up for, always his own most able torturer.

The first timeless stretch of void he spent in feverish planning, formulating plans and deconstructing them again, trying to come up with a way to free himself. With hunger and thirst came the struggle to resist apathy, and the temptation to let his thoughts wander in dangerous directions, none more dangerous than his thoughts of /her/. Worry first. Revisiting their lessons, the things he'd taught her, the questions she'd asked, hoping to find in his curriculum evidence that he'd prepared her well enough for whatever she's facing - a vain hope. Could anything ever prepare anyone for this..? Maybe if he'd spent more time doing his job, less time tripping over his own weakness and desire?

When worry proves fruitless, he turns to less productive thoughts still, picking through all of the little pieces of her lodged in him like shrapnel. Her pale eyes and all of the things they contain; from the hard light of her fury with him to the quiet seriousness of glances exchanged in only in shadows, only when they're alone. The things they've said. The things he hasn't. Her story about what she'd wanted to be when she grew up, before she knew that she could be - was - something else, and the sting of sand and seaweed as she threw beach debris at him, her face flushed with laughter and remnants of the rarest of all things, a genuine blush. No, that came later, when she told him why she came back, when she said-

Thoughts eventually become delirium, difficult to discern from hallucinations. Once when he wakes he thinks he's back in Brooklyn, hearing Chas call his name from the kitchen. Another time he feels someone shaking him by the shoulder to wake him, understands only tentatively that he's alone after his eyes open, seeing nothing.

His head swims. The blurring between thought and reality turns time into a muddled, limitless mobius strip, and this confusion is why he does not at first realize that the voices he's hearing are real. An argument, the sound of violence, and then the opening of a door, the door to his cell?

The light that penetrates that crack is dim and fitful and still blinds him. He squints into it, suddenly aware of himself as a physical being again, and tries to make out the smeared contours of the figure in the doorway..

"John Constantine," says the First of the Fallen, "It's so good of you to come."

—-

She would always prefer knowing to not. If anything else, it would be what she deserved.

The following days has her charting the changes in the landscape, following the hard won parchment she has in her grip; her diligence yields little fruit day by day, but her persistence pays off when a pattern slowly emerges from her dangerous, but careful excursions in Hell's New York. Her visits take her to increasingly perilous territory - a twisted jail, an abandoned shopping mall, a subway tunnel ferrying ravaged souls over twisted, rusted metal, making small marks in her growing list, sunk in the important task of finding the doorways each location has been hiding. Most days, they lead to random directions - other sites, the world outside, secret layers of Hell, but the city changes every day and she is realizing as hours turn into days that the city functions very much like a combination lock, inundated with several rings of numbers instead of just one. The doors are the digits, and if certain, specific ones align, they can open into new places; places outside of Hell, or deeper into it.

Today's excursion leads her to a hospital and it almost kills her.

The pulsing, red and black veins remind her of the ones that overtook what used to be the Abyss, crawling over elevator and ventilator shafts. The corridors are filled with shadows and creatures with teeth and laden with appendages that shouldn't exist on anything. Patients are consumed with impunity and she only manages to find its nexus point just in time for something large and armed with a blade the size of a sixteenth century guillotine to round the corner, see her (or whatever passes for seeing, its massive head was bound up by what looks like an oversized bear trap) and come at her with a shriek that shakes her to the core.

The importance of her survival is paramount, these days - she is no help to anyone if dead.

And so Zatanna Zatara throws herself into the black, yawning void that she just discovered; the last thing she hears is a blade slamming on cracked tiles, and a door slamming shut. Absolute, utter silence deafens her ears as the black tunnel sucks her out of the hospital and into…

…the decimated remains of Central Park, spitting her out with such violence that her body rebounds off the ground and sends her rolling into the sunken pedestal of a statue. Twisting on her knees, pale eyes flick upwards to the ruined remains of Wladyslaw II Jagiello, his head half-buried in reddish-brown dust, raised, twin bladed half-consumed by rust.

Finding herself here shocks her, floods her immediately with images that belong to what seems like a lifetime ago and hitting her with the force of a speeding truck, impacting somewhere in her solar plexus and draining the air out of her lungs. Her disbelieving stare immediately gravitates to the ruined horse's mouth, knowing that Chas' iPod will not be there.

Her shoulders hunch. A hand clamps hard over her mouth, but it's already too late to save herself from the sobs that threaten to cave her chest in and crumple her spine.

—-

Limbo, Day ??
February 28th

As Zatanna is thrown hard and bodily through a rip in the fabric of the infernal plane and into the plinth holding up an oh-so-familiar figure, back to the beginning of the beginning, where the long arc of another lifetime began, leading to whatever strange alchemy could cause a perfect evening to become a perfect nightmare…

John is caught in a different kind of vortex. Here at the center of it all, close to the usurped sovereign of Hell, time stretches differently. Perilous days pass for Zatanna, and for John time stops altogether, bent into a circle around the immense power and age of the being that gestures in darkness, silent commands to unseen figures. Two pairs of taloned hands hoist him from the floor, drag him into the ocher light beyond and then push him roughly down to his knees, into a mire of something wet and uneven. Chunks of red flesh. Scraps of leathery wing. The remains of Nergal.

Shit.

The First circles him at leisure. "And here I thought you didn't care for my company, John," says the silken voice, splayed across dozens of registers of sound, deep enough to shake loose primal ancestral fears in every one of John's 37.2 trillion cells. He thought he'd understood abject terror before that. He'd been wrong. "But here you are…a guest in my home…"

"I thought we might skip the pageantry this time," John hears himself say, voice ragged but shockingly level, considering fear's left him feeling as though someone else is operating his mouth on puppet strings. "And go straight to the bit where you kill m— " The rest of the word is a twisted snarl of pain, sharp claws biting into his right shoulder.

"Peace, Malthus," says the First, and the claws relent. "Constantine has never had any class. I'd thought to give your end some gravitas, John, but have it your way. Are you really so sure you want to rush to your fate? There's a young lady frantically searching the overhells for you as we speak. Do you not feel there might be some chance she could rescue you?" Amusement ripples like an eel through the bass of that voice, massive head tilting, green eyes bright where they rest on John's face, through which pass complicated things.

She's alive.

…And still in Hell.

She won't leave without him. He feels that as suddenly and as surely as he's felt anything else about her, a thing beyond certainty. There might be a way. There might be a chance—

He sees the flare of pleasure in his antagonist's — The Antagonist's — face, and understands the source of that manic glee. What better way to season John's soul for an eternity of torment than to force him to watch as Zatanna is slowly dismembered, spiritually, by the excruciations of hell, in some fruitless bid to retrieve him?

His chapped lips part and his head lowers, hanging from the now-visible tendons and muscles that string the back of his neck. The deep, tolling mirth of the First eddies through him like ripples in a pond, shaking his organs and rattling his bones. Because The First can't lose, can he? Either John submits to having his soul torn out of him to spare Zatanna her endless search, or he holds on to the selfish hope that she'll find him, and runs the risk of dooming her through the mechanism of her own selfless devotion, her loyalty to those she loves.

Well. There's no question what he'll choose then, is there?

"Just get it over with," he says, boring holes into the floor with his eyes. He says the words he knows the First wants to hear, a sacrifice to ensure that he's not made to watch Zatanna linger: "You win."

The ground drops out from underneath him as the First's fist curls into his coat's lapels, and hauls him upward, dangles him like a doll. The other pairs of hands release him, and he wraps his own dirty, blood-streaked hands over the massive wrist of his tormentor, gripping there as he's pushed back against the hard surface of the cave wall, and the bulk of the First closes in, ensconcing him in a shadow colder than ice. He scrabbles at the wall with his heels, seeking a purchase he does not find. The green eyes draw close, fel embers in darkness relieved only by the pale gleam of teeth. Every instinct in John is to fight what's coming, for all that he understands it's pointless, but the desire is shackled by his knowledge that it may be the only way to ensure Zatanna has a chance to find her way out. Dooming one soul to hell was one too many. If he's going to perish, he'll do it without adding to the tally of his failures.

And even this way, staring death and an eternity of suffering in the face, as the First slides a single claw like a razor down the front of John's shirt to expose his chest to the sternum, the vulnerable flesh above the beating of his too-easily excisable heart — John is able to summon a faint, exhausted smile. Because he gets to die knowing that he's loved — for once. That she would have followed him here if she had to. Two months ago that would have been an impossible thought: how could he ever have deserved such a thing? But there she was, and here she is. Always so willing to give of herself, Zatanna. To the point that she'd give someone a home to live in when they had none. The blood out of her very veins. She'd even given him —

His breath catches in his throat. The realization cracks through him like lightning. He feels the weight of the thing he'd forgotten against his chest…

Can he even do this?

It's madness. It's insanity. Only one being in human history was ever said to have done anything like it — the Iscariot — and that was apocryphal at best. But what if..?

There's no time to think about it. It will work or it will not, and if it doesn't he was going to die anyway, wasn't he? And his soul would have been forfeit. Better to destroy it utterly in the attempt than let the First have his way.

So John releases the wrist of the First and slides his hand into his coat pocket —

"What are you doing, John?" asks the First, with a curious tilt of the head. The talon that slit the linen of John's shirt remains poised above the laboring organ of John's heart, point to skin. He is in no hurry to claim his prize. He has all the time in the world, after all. "Surely not one of your tedious trinkets…" And then he gasps.

Blue-white light of absolute purity, like light captured on first dawn of the world, blazes in the dark, filthy, noxious confines of Nergal's blood-spattered bolt-hole in the lower hells. A mote of Zatanna's soul, more brilliant than the diamond containing it.

A diamond shaped like a goddamn dolphin.

"What is thi — "

It might amuse her to know — later, much later — that his immediate decision is to put it into his mouth, and swallow it. He can't afford to let the First take it from him, and he needs to have contact with it to make this work, fuck this has to work, it has to —

Once, in a Hong Kong that doesn't exist, Zatanna saw John fill with Synchronicity energy. It had poured out of every orifice of his face, golden mists, piercing light. It happens again, now, in all of the pale hues of her soul. Within him a massive tide of energy shifts — his own, hers, augmented by the contents of the obelisk she gave him — and twists, braiding together, steel cables of universal energy. With these…

With these, head thrown back, body a rigid arc, jaw clamped too tightly for his scream to leave his throat, he stitches that tiny piece of her soul to his own. A piece of something that Hell has no rights to. A piece of something the First is not allowed to take. The needle and thread of magic pierces holes in both, winds through them slowly, knotting, binding, tightly coiled into an impossible configuration.

John Constantine metaphysically handcuffs his soul to hers, and somewhere in the depths of his agony in the process, he thinks:

Nanny nanny boo-boo, you great bloody wanker.

The tether between them may not be able to penetrate the depths of hell, but Zatanna can feel her own soul. The pain of that binding will transmit, but so will the intimate nature of the soul to which that piece has been linked: John, somewhere, doing something impossible, for god only knows what reason…

—-

Tears from a pure soul in Hell might be a fitting enough tribute - currency with which to pay for some small semblance of mercy. Hiccuping from the force of her sudden sobs, Zatanna scrubs her eyes with both sets of knuckles, forcing herself to push up from shaking knees in order to get up and keep moving. Sorrow, impotent fury, all of these are candy to the denizens down here and the last thing she needs is to lose her shit when she needs her wits about her the most. But before she could rest fully on solid ground again, the sudden jolt of pain forces her body to crumple back down on the ground, a choking gasp leaving her lips. One hand fists furiously into the center of her neckline while the other palm flattens on the dusty ground, her ruined manicure raking through debris and leaving ragged edges at its wake. The sensation coils around her lungs like burning streamers, rivers of kerosene pouring down her spine, into her stomach and setting exhausted synapses on fire.

She manages to throttle back a scream, her head tilted back, inadvertently mirroring John's own posture in the very depths of Hell once he had made his choice to spare her only for a delirious fit of inspiration to overtake him and turn the tables on his most dedicated pursuer. Ice-blue eyes recede into their surrounding whites, sensing another presence chain itself into the endless rivers of her overwhelming soul and anchored there by the missing piece that she decided to squirrel away in hard carbon-crystal to give to the man she loves, only the second person in her life with whom she permits that kind of access to the very depths of her - because as John says rather often, he isn't everyone. It feels like a leaden weight, a boulder threatening to drag her down and drown her in her own mystical streams.

For a moment, she doesn't know what is happening, but realization courses its way through her skull and veins. It comes later than it should, but can she be blamed? She has only read about such a thing, a process so rare it has only been managed by one man in mankind's lengthy, bloody history and by all rights, it should be impossible. But the event crystallizes and suddenly he is there, filling the distressing empty that she has dwelled upon in the last torturous days that feel as eternal as the wellspring of magic inside her; floundering, gasping in the excruciating agony of it all, but she embraces it wholeheartedly - she has never shied away from pain and what batters her body now is /welcome/ and much needed.

John is alive.

He may never forgive her for leaving him in the desert to pursue what she thought was their only way to progress, but the barbs of his anger are torments that she would gladly suffer if it meant the chance to return him to the world in which they both belong.

It's worth it, she told him once. Feeling like this, this way, for you.

She reaches out. Closing her eyes, she extends herself as far as she dares - and at this point, she dares beyond what is wise - in an effort to ping his location. Disappointment wars with the euphoria of her discovery when she once again finds a metaphysical dead end. Wherever he was being kept, it wasn't on this level of Hell, or even several layers below. For now, he remains beyond her reach.

But not for long.

There has to be a way to him - she knows there is, and she is determined to find it. And until her own burst of epiphany comes, she will do what she needs to do and that's find an exit out of this dung heap of eternal misery. Because once she locates him, the next thing she is going to do is shove him through the doorway back to their New York, the rest be damned.

Picking herself up, she hauls her body and its physical and ephemeral bruises out of Central Park, parchment clutched between her fingers. The western quadrant was next, and if she moved fast enough, she'll find its doors before it becomes well and truly dark.

—-

"What have YOU DONE!"

The fury of the First blasts explosively outward from the nexus of his position, ripples that shake the foundations of Hell itself. The First of the Fallen is not, contrary to popular belief, the Devil. He is not Satan, not Lucifer. Those came after. He was the first being cast down.

He was something else entirely, though that revelation…is for later.

But Hell is nevertheless his demesne, and it responds to his white-hot wrath with tectonic chaos. Pieces of brimstone tumble from the low ceiling. Gouts of flame backdraft down long hallways, incinerating hapless damned who will eventually recongeal from the charred lumps they become to continue their long penance.

And John —

Laughs.

He can't help it. As the worst of the tidal wave of pain recedes and the piece of Zatanna's soul he's fused to his own cools and accepts its grafted place within him — he knows, dimly, that he has temporarily won, and the giddy, wicked triumph of that coils itself around his exhausted, weakened frame and shakes the laugh right out of him. "You should see…your bloody…face," he manages to say between gasps. If the First kills him now, John's soul will never be his.

Of course…

He doesn't need John intact. Only alive.

The speed with which the First moves is incomprehensible even to John, and John is the object at the center of that momentum. Everything is a blur as he's hurled across the room, connecting bodily with the wall. Bones snap everywhere. Pain explodes through him, stars burst like novae in his eyes. He doesn't dare move his head, uncertain about the integrity of his spine, but looking at the place the floor meets the wall from his position on his stomach on the floor, feeling blood run out of the corner of his mouth, he thinks through the dizzy whirlpool of pain: 'worth it.'

The First breathes heavily into the cloistered space, reams of air that chuff, like the sounds made by a bull. And then they…cease, suddenly.

"What's this, now," the First says, quietly — to himself. Footsteps approach. The First's feet appear in John's field of view, and then his knees, his hands, his face. He gets down onto the ground in the mulch of Nergal's remains and leans forward, placing his nose and mouth near John's and inhaling — a long, drawn-out, powerful suck of air that pulls the very air from John's lungs, leaving him coughing, wincing at the grind of broken ribs.

He does not comprehend the sudden smile that splays cheshire across the face of the First. "Oh. This. How funny. This is good." He breathes a short laugh, a bellow of air that smells like a charnel house. "Oh, John."

The howl of laughter that follows rattles the room almost as much as his earlier ire. "Should I /tell/ you? No. No, I'll let you discover this for yourself. Clever, Johnboy. Not enough, but clever. You'll be joining us soon enough. And in the meantime…" The First rises, and John can see only his feet. "You will make excellent bait. Nergal's coup has failed — as you have guessed, no doubt — but some of my generals need to be brought to heel, and at least one of them is very interested in the soul of that young lady traipsing about my realm. Come, John," he says, snapping his fingers. Those earlier pairs of taloned hands grasp John and lift him. He shouts with the pain of it, but the sound is weak. "We have arrangements to make."

—-

Limbo Day ??
March 1st

Sometime in the small hours of the morning, the astral thread between John and Zatanna sings to life.

And what's more: John is in Limbo, again. She can feel the direction he's in, bright as a star. Not even so very far away.

—-

It takes a few days, but she finally sees the whole pattern.

Zatanna has drawn her own map - locations and landmarks cross-referenced with the way the hours move in this part of Hell. This endeavor has required the expenditure of small bits of magic, to transfigure detritus into markers and transparent sheets of projector paper, so as to fold one over the other, and shift and move the pieces in between so as she could appreciate the whole picture visually. With the mental clock in her head, she marks the exits in red, one for every hour of the set of twenty-four in which she has been inured. Time passes differently here, she remembers, but at this point, how much time has passed in the outside world doesn't matter. What matters is that she has managed to decipher the separate puzzle pieces that form the whole, and while she does not have the gift of an eidetic memory like Jane Foster or Timothy Drake, the fact that she has been so embroiled with this process of gleaning in the last…God, however long, ensures that everything she has learned about this ruined landscape has been seared inside of her memory forever.

Recalling the pieces back into her phone, she catches a glimpse of its scant battery bar. Her gaze lifts from where she has perched herself, on top of Hell's facsimile of the Empire State building, the better to overlook the landscape and to double-check her work, so to speak, but she is confident in its results. Before she puts the phone away, however, John's sudden emergence from his end of their astral tether gives her pause. Her heart leaps into her throat, the hummingbird pace of its beats forcing blood to churn through her veins.

John.

It is the surprise that gives her pause, however. While Zatanna is reckless, she is not stupid, and the urge to will herself immediately to his location is tempered by the images of how she had left him in the desert, his whisper - that their parting is a mistake - and the sensation of his lips pressing and lingering on her cheek. The last several nights, for a month in this damned place, she has wondered just why, if he believed that, he didn't press his opinion more forcibly. He had the benefit of experience, after all, and she had never known him to back down when he believes he is right.

Questions for later; the earlier mistake had been so devastating that she is reluctant to make another. But she can't /not/ go, and she had given her obelisk to John before they lost track of one another. And the only thing she had aside from what was inside her were her magical brass knuckles and the pouch containing the pulverized leavings of the gift she had fashioned John; diamond dust.

She draws the items out of her phone, shutting it down immediately and stowing it away in her pocket. She fits the brass knuckles on her right hand, palming the pouch in her left, feeling the near-insignificant weight of those glittering fragments within, with its powerful links to air, fire and the sun itself.

The only thing she had on hand strong enough to contain bits of her pure, potent magic.

A germ of an idea mushrooms at the back of her mind. Tucking it in her back pocket, she slowly unfolds herself from her cross-legged position.

Several moments later, Reality, or what passes for it in Hell, ripples close to where John's signature registers. Zatanna Zatara emerges from the tear, the space filling with the sheer magical presence of her, the passage closing once she's through.

—-

Some demons are so very theatrical.

Mammon, for instance. The word is derived from the Latin 'mammona,' meaning 'wealth,' but as with most words that definition is very narrow and does not encapsulate the whole of the essence of the thing. It also means 'excess.' Excess in all things, including the drama of all of his dealings.

With the blessing of the First he's constructed quite a display for Zatanna Zatara, whose soul he was so recently denied claim to. Gleaming scales crafted of blazing hot infernal brass stand behind him in the midst of all of the nothingness of Limbo's wastes, at the center of an amphitheater crowded with demonic functionaries, all subservient to the Prince of Greed. They run the gamut of available xenotypes: winged and clawed and naked, but also groomed and wearing suits, carrying briefcases, only the smoke that curls from their collars and the scent of sulfur to mark them out as belonging to the Below. They chatter excitedly amongst themselves, anticipating the transaction to come.

The scales themselves are massive for good reason: the balancing arm is crooked, tilted all the way to one side by the weight of what rests within one shallow cradle at the end of the chain on that side: John, kneeling, wrists bound to an armature, mouth firmly closed by a mask-like metal contraption strapped firmly to the lower half of his face, around the back of his head. His head hangs heavily. It's not clear if he's conscious or not, or whether he can hear the sudden cessation of the voices in the theatron through the transparent, glowing dome that encloses the weighing tray — an extra measure of security to keep him in, or perhaps one meant to keep others out — once the air around them ripples, and it becomes clear that she's arrived.

The other tray hangs high in the air, completely empty.

Mammon himself is waiting on the sand in front of the device. As hush descends, all eyes turn toward the Zatara.

—-

"Zatanna, darling! Baby! Good of you to come!" Mammon, jovial as ever, is all smiles and sharp teeth, yellowed surfaces dully reflecting the light inside of the room. A clawed hand strokes the decadent body of a silken, white long-haired cat draped against his massive forearm as it purrs against scarlet flesh. "It's been so long since Benji's office and I missssssssed you. So much that I invited my closest friends to throw this surprise party because, and I don't wanna jinx it or anything, we're about to make history! Or at the very least some beautiful music together. I mean, your birthday's coming up, isn't it? Or was it your dear ol' dad's? I can never remember, you Zataras are so hard to keep track of! Oh my Dad!"

The raven-haired magician casts a wary eye on the cluster of demonic investors, lip curling faintly in distaste before walking across the narrow way towards Mammon. There's a brief glance at John and the state he's in, but she manages to tear her eyes away in favor of this latest obstacle; she's no good to him if she plays this poorly and it's only when she's a foot or two away from the Demon Prince of Excess that she stops. Squaring her shoulders, her chin tilts up in a defiant fashion.

"Save it, you fat bastard," she hisses through clenched teeth, though pale cheeks do not take upon her characteristic flush of temper. "What's it going to take?"

Mammon's clawed thumb hooks underneath the cat's chin, scratching it lightly. Surprisingly brawny shoulders lift in a shrug; the sudden movement of his hand wrenches the feline's head up and his teeth crunch over it, chewing messily. Bits of fur fly from his moving jowls, bloodied fingers waving dismissively to one side. "Well, you know," he says in between chews. "Our conversation didn't go so well the last time, you gotta believe me when I say I had absolutely nothing to do with the ladies coming after you. You know how women get when it comes to their men…eager to please, all too willing to get them out of trouble…not like I need to tell you that, eh? Hah! I mean, look at him!" A wave towards John. "Poor bastard. I don't know what you're doing to him, baby, but he's changed. So hopeful all of a sudden, it's so sweet I might actually finally contract the 'betes, y'know what I mean?"

Sly eyes slide on the corners towards her. "Anyway, yeah, that last talk. Terms are still the same and you told me that I didn't have anything worth bargaining with to demand that from you. I don't think that's the case now, yeah? I clearly have something you want, for a change. But before you say anything." He lifts a hand, all pomp and magnanimity, other hand flinging the cat corpse over his shoulder. "I'm prepared to make a new deal."

A tick of annoyance pulses on the high arch of Zatanna's left cheek. She crosses her arms over her chest. "Go on."

The wide smile inches higher, gets so big it nearly splits Mammon's face. "Nothing too exorbitant," he says lightly, hand flapping over a wrist. "Not gonna demand all of your beautiful, sparkling soul. All I ask is a part of it equivalent to his. Then you can take him and be on your merry way. Not bad, eh? I had to think long and hard on it, but I figured, what the hell? I'll even throw in transport out of here for free."

The young woman presses her lips together, ice-blue eyes lidding. If John was conscious, what follows would be familiar, as if derived directly from their adventure in the Hong Kong that doesn't exist: "That's a shit deal and you know it," she tells him bluntly. "I don't know what John's soul was worth before, but it's chained to mine now, so his stock just went up. Don't think I don't know what that means."

Mammon claps his hands, delight springing over his grotesque features. "So the rumors are true. The Little Zatara's all grown up now! Daddy would be so proud." He wipes the corner of his eye, the ampitheatre filling with the echoing guffaws and snorting chuckles of the rest, the sounds nails on a chalkboard ground up with twisting, rusting metal.

"Don't matter none, sweetheart. Doesn't change the fact that you gotta pony up, or you'll never get him out of here." Suddenly, swiftly, Mammon's expression darkens, all levity snuffed out by its eclipse. Greed and triumph, both potent and unbridled, glitter in the pits of his eyes, underscored by unadulterated malice. "You're not getting away from me this time."

Zatanna's mouth parts, bares her teeth faintly. The incoming flood of angry, scornful words is etched plainly on her pale features but something stops her as her stare wanders back over to John. Trembling fingers curl to ball tightly on her sides.

Her shoulders don't slump, despite the entire chamber sensing that slow, reluctant yield. Were their positions reversed, John wouldn't hesitate - she was as certain of that as anything about him. And wasn't this all of her fault in the first place? She was the one who elected to split off. She was the one who left him to find a way out. If she decided to go away and be stubborn, this would never have happened and she said it herself, didn't she? For once, none of this was his fault. The mistake was hers. Why should he pay?

It was only right.

She takes a breath. Slowly, slowly, her hand raises in increments, palm up, extended towards the Prince of Greed.

"….take it then," she says, quietly. "If you can."

—-

He can't hear her, or them. Or anything. If he could, he'd have looked up long before the point at which he does. It's not until the audience bursts into movement with the rowdy, raucous laughter that sweeps the gallery as Mammon mimes the false tears of sentiment. He can sense that, at least, bodies shifting suddenly, and his neck creaks, chest and abdomen a net of poisonous fire with the pressure required to hoist his head upward enough that he's able to aim one blue eye — squinted, blurry, but bright as a sapphire against all of the drab dust and dried blood that makes up the rest of him — in her direction. Her outline swims, circles itself like water spiraling down a drain, and then locks together into something he recognizes. For the first time in days, finally being consumed by his own lack of food and water and the drain placed on him by his body's frantic efforts to heal itself, he reaches out and finds that link between them restored. It's her. Actually her, not another hallucination or trick meant to play on his hopes before breaking them.

His eyes widen. He ignores the spikes of pain that skewer him as he lifts his head entirely, leaning forward into the sawing discomfort of a broken clavicle to strain at the bonds on his wrists. She'll see the cords of his throat stand out clear as day as he shouts into the muffle over his face, around the lump of brass affixed to the inside of the mask and shoved between his teeth like the world's least comfortable ball gag, to keep him from working spells. She won't hear a thing, the barrier impenetrable to sound, but she can no doubt hazard a few guesses as to the sentiments involved.

No. Just go. Just run. GET OUT.

Please don't make me watch you die.

—-

"Yessss. /Yes/!" Mammon clutches one side of his face with one hand. "Was that my 'oh' face just now? Sorry, darling! How uncouth of me." Whipping a silk handkerchief out of nowhere, he scrubs it against his dominant hand, letting it fly away in tatters. Angling a look towards John and his muffled screaming, pure ecstasy overtakes the demon's features. "Sorry, Johnny," he says, all false, gleeful solemnity as his claws extend towards pale, outstretched fingers. "Mine now."

The moment his fingers close over Zatanna's wrist, as blue-white light flares on contact, the Demon Prince's eyes go wide…a split second before the young woman before him, for the lack of a better term, explodes, light catching faint shimmers of reflective particles expelled in the air.

The blast doesn't throw Mammon back given his sheer size and girth, but wet, sharp fragments of hard crystal pierce his red flesh, waves out and hits the rest of his collective in the strange combination of blast and shower. Too small to make him bleed too much, whatever happened appears to be, distressingly, the most ineffective attack in the world. No matter how hard diamonds are, their dust is hardly a worthy weapon and all it really does, for the time being, is make him itch and cause his eyes to water, effects shared by the rest of his followers.

John, too, would have been caught by the spanning wave, but something prevents it from assailing him also. Not like he could see, with his pained, blurry vision, the way the space ripples around him, when the light-bending camouflage falls away the moment the Zatanna-construct shatters, carrying with and reflecting from it enough of her magic to sustain a very convincing facade of her. Warm, real, and still as grubby as the day they parted, the real Zatanna Zatara reaches out for him.

Staying invisible and observing the proceedings within her cloaking spell had given her enough time to assess her environs even as her construct provided the distraction it was designed to provide. Preparation was often everything to a magician; it is true for John, and doubly so for Zatanna, ten years his junior. But as he had observed during their encounter with the Darkness-coated seraph in the High Line, the sorceror's battlefield is where the young woman is accumulating a significant degree of proficiency. She wastes absolutely no time executing whatever plan she has devised the moment she has seen and taken into account what she would be dealing with in the dramatic ampitheatre; a hand fishes for his lighter, thumb activating flame and as he knows full well, it does the work of a priest.

"LLA MEHT NRUB!!"

Fire coruscates through the chamber away from them in a massive arc, with every intent, it seems, to light up the demons within; beings /born/ of it, that appears to be another useless attack were it not for the fact that she had soaked the diamond dust in water before she built her other self. As the passing flames stroke over crimson bodies, embedded, pure magic and water suddenly turned holy result in….

The screams are deafening, the stench of rapidly melting infernal flesh stings their nostrils even as Zatanna works. "Nhoj esaeler!" she commands his bindings; metal snaps off him quickly, as she has never been so serious nor so imperious in her life, and even here, Reality does not dare to disobey her. And while she isn't sure of his condition, knowing that he was bound to be injured, there's simply no time to see to him here. Slender arms wrap around him, fingers grasping the obsidian obelisk she hid in his person and points it towards the floor.

It is hard to hear the word she speaks over the cacophonous din.

Mammon's ampitheatre fades away, for now a distant, nightmarish memory. The sudden, sucking void takes them to where she had placed her runic anchor - back on top of the Empire State building where she had been busy with the very serious business of trying to find a way out of their predicament. The impact on shattered concrete jarrs her bones, pulls air from her lungs. But with no small measure of herculean will, she loosens her arms from around him and calls up her healing spells.

"If they weren't going to kill us before, they're definitely going to kill us now," she tells him breathlessly, blue-white light working to stitch up broken bones, assuage the pain of torn muscles and bruises. "I found the way out, we're going to need to break for it once you're able."

Despite her best efforts, a knot wedges at the back of her windpipe. Looking up to meet his eyes, her throat constricts in a hard swallow. The words bubble up, strain to be unleashed. Ones she thought of after nights of fitful sleep, during those torturous hours in which she tried and failed to find him or an exit. Words that she wants to and is so desperate to say, but can't because of her mistake and oh god, who would believe her after that?

"I shouldn't have left you," she tells him instead, her syllables thick and sick with guilt. "I shouldn't have and I don't know if I'll ever forgive myself for it, but if it's the last thing I do, I am getting you out of here."

—-

The dome over the tray containing his wrecked body prevents him from seeing much clearly, even above and beyond his own dehydration, hunger, and physical condition. All he knows is that what looked like, and felt like, Zatanna Zatara suddenly explodes in a wash of particles throughout the amphitheater, and his wits churn, struggling to keep up with events as they unfold. He sucks labored breaths in through his nose, eyes wide as they slash back and forth through the chaos beginning to erupt at some remove from him —

— and then he feels her hands on him and turns his head as much as he dares, muscle pulling on separated bone. He can't see her — only feel what she reaches for, and see the apocalyptic results.

It's a beautiful sight.

There's a small sound in his chest that it would be hard to give a name to. Along with it, he lets the tension in himself go, too excruciating to sustain. The bonds take his weight, and then she does when she orders them to let go of him. The heavy straps buckling the gagging mask to his face undo, the weight yanking the contraption off of his face, out of his mouth, to hit the brass tray with a loud clang, followed by an alarming amount of dark brown liquid that he coughs up the moment before they disappear downward into nothing.

When they hit the ground atop that remote spire he feels consciousness start to slide out of him again, too many broken things exploding in him at once, his mind and body determined to shut down to protect him, if nothing else. He claws to keep hold with every survival instinct he has, eyes rolling, and hangs on just long enough for her to begin the work that pulls him back from that brink — a knitting that is hardly painless, in itself.

He doesn't hear what she says while she's working. He's too caught up in everything being done to him. But she's good at her work; it isn't long before he's mended to some semblance of normalcy, if perhaps undernourished. Broken bones re-set themselves. Damaged insides mend. Bruises fade, cuts and scrapes seal over — even his chapped lips and aching, sun-shot eyes forget the insults done to them by exposure and time. He eventually — gingerly, still instinctually afraid of lancing some jag of bone through his own organs — finds it within himself to sit, and reassured in that movement of his own restoration, lifts blue eyes from their study of his body to the woman who put him back together. Apologizing.

It was only seconds ago that he was dangling at the end of his own lifeline, so his blank-faced stare is a consequence of his struggle to actively re-inhabit a body now prepared for dealing with this sudden, drastic change in fortune, rather than any kind of emotional uncertainty. His thoughts have yet to catch up with the fact that they have a mind capable of sorting them again. The brain works; the psychology is still reeling from weeks of — of whatever it is that happened to him.

Not that there is no emotional uncertainty, of course. There is. He remembers his anger with her for what she did, but is not in hindsight certain what it was, specifically, that made him angry. That she contradicted his story, interfered with his work, yes. Made it impossible for him to counter what she'd said to the wretch in the desert, and bound them up in a different plan. But he'd had plenty of time to mull over those events in Nergal's cell in the lower hells, and he hadn't — he'd —

"I had a lot of time to think about that," he says slowly, and his words lack their usual elegance of diction. Whatever he's been doing all this time…he hasn't been speaking. His tongue is remembering how to move. He lowers his head and reaches with one stained hand to rub over the nape of his neck, marveling at the luxuriant sensation of muscles not locked into interminable cramps by his bindings and broken bones. He's thinner and weaker than he should be, but he is whole. "There was a Babylonian god who wanted time out with me. I was angry but… I think…he was playing with us, out there. Keeping us walking all that time. I think…" Another pause. Hesitation is not like him. He's fighting, clearly, to find his way back to himself. "I think he'd have let that go on as long as he needed to. To put strain on us, break us down or apart. Just for fun, really. He'd have taken me eventually. It — maybe it was better this way."

That's what he'd told himself, down there in the dark: maybe it was better, because maybe this way, she could get away.

His gaze snaps upward, taking her in for the first time, moving with more characteristic efficiency across her bedraggled, weary body and the guilty cast of her features, underpinned with fiery determination. His heart cramps.

"Zee." His voice husks over the word. He reaches for her, leans in, desperate to close the distance, press his crown to hers. He needs to touch her. He has to smell her, even underneath all of the grime and filth of Hell itself. He knows that she's real but he's languished with only memories of her to keep him company, and he aches with the need to banish her ghost with her living, breathing reality. His heart pounds, suddenly spurred with barbs of adrenaline that pour into him as it all sinks in: she is there, and he's alive, and there is still a chance. "Oh, shit."

—-

Talk about the Babylonian god registers dimly - were she less grief-stricken, she would ask for more details, but she can't bring herself to while she kneels there and just looks at him, soaking in the sparks of life that have returned by having him close to her again.

Whole, but weak and the sight of him diminished only forces her to gouge at herself all the more severely, ice-blue eyes ticking over his state, his difficulty in speaking and for all of that bold, necessary determination to keep moving, moisture starts to trickle from the corners of her eyes, carving pale white streaks on a face darkened by days of dust. What he says, reflective of his contemplations in the isolation of the pit he had been thrown in, is a theory that she has jiggled around in her skull ever since they parted ways and even thought that the wretch she had found was responsible for it. But it sounds like a way out to her, a way to absolve her of a mistake she shouldn't have made in a place so dangerous, and she can't help but shake her head slowly.

"Maybe we should have endured, instead of letting my frustration get the better of me," she whispers. "When you were gone all I could think about was how I was so angry at you for leaving me the first time and how I was going to do better than that, and how I just ended up doing the same thing but in a place so dangerous that I should have known better just by looking around. And you told me, you tried to tell me, and still I thought I was doing what was best no matter what you said. I was soft. I didn't back you up. I made all the wrong choices and….oh, John, I'm so stupid. For even thinking that. For gambling in the last place I should be taking any risks. How…"

Tears continue to flow and whenever she cries, she has always been relatively quiet; but the rare sob caves her chest open and her shoulders hunch, unable to keep holding his gaze as irises drop to her knees, damp spots darkening the stains of the last month clinging to the formerly midnight fabric of her pantsuit.

"…how could I even consider being apart from you in a situation like this? What the hell is wrong with me?"

He reaches for her anyway, she doesn't see it until his hands are on her; it breaks her restraint, throwing her arms around his neck, winding tight as dirty fingers leave streaks on his collar, her face pressed briefly against his forehead before slipping past to bury into where his neck meets his shoulder. She cares nothing about the filth, her gritted teeth a paltry barrier for the pitiful, grief-stricken sounds she makes.

"You blinked out," she rasps between jagged breaths. "You blinked out and I thought I lost you again and I always thought that was a possibility and that knowing, maybe eventually, would make me prepared for it but I thought it was happening and I wasn't. I felt like dying and I thought I would take it, if you never forgave me. I would have borne anything if I could just bring you back and…"

Fingernails rake into the fabric of his shirt, geometric silhouettes of distant buildings warped behind the screen of her tears. She knows they should go. She knows they should keep going. But it's been a month, perhaps more, shifting tirelessly between determination and misery. She can't take a single step forward without this, just a bit of this. If the universe were in any way merciful, it would give her these precious few seconds.

"I'm so sorry, John." Agony chips at her voice, hoarse and rough with strain. "Oh god, I love you so much. I'm so sorry."

—-

He is so tired.

He is exhausted. Physically, mentally. His emotions have been locked in a box somewhere for the duration of his time away from her, shoved into a vault where they can't get in his way as he leans into the instincts that have kept him alive as long as they have, but the closeness of her is enough to test the strength of the lock on that door, and when she sobs that way it's like a bolt cutter that undoes everything, flooding him with things he's not felt since they first awoke in the Abyss and he realized that something had gone Very Wrong.

She practically eviscerates herself. Slits herself stem to stern, empties out everything, a black and seething nest of poisonous self-recriminations, all of them so very familiar to John Constantine, whose first genuine brush with hell — whose first independent choice as a magician confronted with the profane — led to very much the same thing: self-loathing, failure of confidence in himself, his work, his capabilities. The people he'd pulled along with him had been either lost altogether or damaged beyond repair and it had been his fault. The depths of his despair had sent him to Ravenscar.

Listening to her pour out her pain and grief is bizarrely like being in two places, two times, at once: hearing her whip herself and feeling her shake against his chest after he pulls her in, and hearing himself, too. Not just the things he'd said after Newcastle, or what he'd told the men who'd appointed themselves the judge of his sanity and also his self-worth at Ravenscar, but the things he hears every time he fucks something up. Little bits of shrapnel from the incident a decade ago, left over and lingering, circling the inside of his skull to this day. That day had cracked him wide open and he'd never quite found all of the pieces he needed to put himself entirely back together again.

That is not what he wants for her.

His arms tighten around her, fingers pressing into her skin. Brows knit and eyes close, and he turns his head inward against her own, dull light painted over the hard angles of his face. His breath stirs strands of dark hair loosened from the messy twist she's bound them into, crosses the shell of her ear.

"I know," he says, all breath. That she loves him. That she's sorry.

I love you.

Say the words, John.

Say the fucking words.

You're in HELL, John. If not now, then when? You want to keep her from splitting into a thousand pieces the way you did? You want her to know that you understand — that you /get it/? That you were there once, too, and you're not sure there's ever a right answer, anyway, and on the days you don't hate yourself you think maybe all anybody can do is make the best choice they can for the best reasons they can, and that has to be enough because God is a motherfucker who stacked the deck against everybody with fallible judgement, so it's really just His shitshow in the end anyway? TELL HER. THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER TIME WHEN IT'S MORE IMPORTANT TO SAY THE WORDS.

SAY IT, SAY IT, TELL HER, TELL HER THE TRUTH, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU WAITING FOR, SAY THEM SAY THEM SAY THEM SAY THEM

IS THIS THE HIGH FENCE OF WHO YOU ARE, ARE YOU REALLY GOING TO GO YOUR WHOLE LIFE WITHOUT SAYING THAT TO ANYONE NO MATTER HOW YOU FEEL NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS IS THIS THE BOUNDARY OF JOHN CONSTANTINE THE THING HE CAN'T DO THE ONE THING THE HARD LIMIT THE WALL YOU CAN'T CLIMB OVER THE LINE YOU CAN'T CR —

"I —"

His throat closes. Fingertips tighten on her to the point of leaving bruises. He will not stumble through this like a fucking teenager, stammering, blushing, struggling for breath, he will not, fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you he hates this fuck you

"I love you too, Zee."

Just like that.

The world fails to fucking end, and he has mixed feelings about that.

"We need to go."

—-

Words continue to pile up behind her teeth, too much of them that she can hardly determine where to start - that she understands, that he doesn't have to force himself. That circumstances have made a hypocrite out of her and she would soak whatever anger or disappointment he feels with the present state of affairs. That she meant to apologize to him every day, if it helped, that she would do anything and everything in her power to make sure he was whole again. That she doesn't expect his forgiveness no matter how many times she said the words and that none of that matters, so long as he was ali —

I love you too, Zee.

Whatever she means to say burns to ash on her tongue. The feel of her ribs crushed under the tightened grip of his arms registers dimly, and her frantic desperation to be near him nearly drowns out the words and the realization of what it must've taken to say them. She never knew why he was so reluctant to say it, and had never asked; she had simply accepted the fact that there were parts of him locked away from her that render him incapable of expressing those sentiments, buried under layers of trauma that he would never detail to anyone, no matter how close he was to them. But he whispers them so close, his breath stamping each letter into the shell of her ear, that it is impossible not to hear them and her over-exhausted brain slowly, finally, catches up to all of it.

She is silent. She stops sobbing almost instantly.

If that had been the aim, or at least partially, it worked. But warring with the sudden lightheaded delirium that follows the wake of that dizzyingly sudden and unexpected confession is a rapid cascade of images, reminders of how he looked, thin and weak and the way he was positioned, bound up on his knees. The day his presence suddenly winked out from his end of the astral thread that connects them. The collective days in which he had been missing.

The contraption on his head, and the most uncomfortable ball gag ever devised.

This was Hell. It has no shortage of torments to those it felt deserved them and he…

"Jesus, John," she croaks weakly, suddenly faint as HER IMAGINATION RUNS AWAY FROM HER. "What did they /do to you/?"

But they do need to go and when she pulls her head away, it closes in again for her mouth to seize his lips, moving hotly, brazenly over their restored surfaces, insistence and humid need tilting his head back while elegant digits knot over the fabric of his shirt.

—-

She asks him a question he doesn't want to answer. He doesn't even want to /think/ about the answer. And that's just as well, because seconds later she kisses him, and any reflexive inclination he might have had to let his mind wander backward is consumed in the fire that she ignites in him after so long — longer for her than for him, through a quirk of time, though his lesser days had been long with his suffering — apart.

He tastes of metal and blood.

It's nothing to push his head back with her ardor, his strength depleted by undernourishment. He leans into her, tries to match her, but his center of balance is off. When he tilts backward, feels his spine roll out onto the floor, he takes her with him.

We need to go, he thinks. He can feel the urgency of that in his distant but gradually resolving memories of what transpired only moments before in the desert, some unknown distance away — all of Mammon's present cohorts obliterated by a rolling tide of holy fire, a stroke of brilliance to use the things she did in the way she put them together, and oh christ, that thought sends a pang of arousal shooting like barbed wire through his torso, from hips to chest, flowering in his skull. Blood-streaked hands painted grey with dust lift to splay into her tied-up hair and pull her down into the deepening hunger of his kiss, breath leaving him in a sudden rush.

No, but we actually really do have to go. Really. Like…now. Like now-now. …Like probably-five-minutes-ago-now. Hello? John? …Earth to John, come in, John…

—-

Later:

She told him that if it was the last thing she would ever do, she was getting him out of here and she means it.

Threading her fingers more securely over his digits, she reclaims her obelisk and opens a gate, to take them to the ground level of New York-in-Hell. And as forces subject to the Demon Prince of Excess are dispatched to run them aground, the young woman is already putting her research and hours of painstaking work to good use. Hand in his, she steers John into the shadows of the eldritch city, to take on the quickest path to the exit. Her eyes fall on landmarks, the implications of the hour stitched into rust-red skies, mentally falling over the memories of the marker-wheel she had been studying before Mammon decided to lay out his arrangement, whatever trap he had been planning for the both of them, foiled only because Zatanna is quick to learn from grievous mistakes.

She hears baying at a distance, icewater twisting down her spine at the sound. Hellhounds.

The chase is on and she mentally girds herself for the fight waiting for them as she steers the man she loves through the labyrinth she has spent a month charting out. To get him out safe is her first priority, to protect him if she can't, her second. She does not know if the torrents of power churning inside her is enough to defeat Mammon's forces and for once in a very long time, she does not feel the fear and hesitation she generally does when she thinks about what lies beyond her father's seal. She had annihilated an entire conclave of demons just moments before, melted Mammon's eyeballs off for the sheer temerity to bargain with John Constantine's life.

"If they try to take you from me again, all bets are off," she tells him quietly, eyes forward.

If need be, she will reduce Limbo to ephemeral slag, and everything inside it.

—-

John keeps pace with her and seems to do so without difficulty, but it's difficult for him to lie to her now, bound the way they are: he is fighting his own weakness every step of the way. He keeps quiet as they move, as much to preserve what he has left to give as to maintain their stealthy approach to whatever exit she's found, and it's telling that he doesn't press her for details. It's too late for other options. If this falls through, there will be little enough they can do to compensate, no Plan B he can quickly put together — and even if there were, he's by no means certain of his ability to execute one. If asked, he would not say that he regretted their reunion atop that ruined tower, but neither is he under any illusions about what it cost him.

And then again, he was in rough shape already, and it's no sure thing that he'd have been any more useful to her had they done the prudent thing and immediately rushed onward.

Either way: there's no point in worrying about it. They're locked in, now. It's do or die time.

He glances sidelong at her when she speaks again. She doesn't look at him when she says what she does, but he can feel the daggers of her wrath.

His hand tightens its grasp on her own, long fingers pressing into the interlace.

"All nine circles," he agrees, in an echo of the words she said to him atop another building in another place, when it had been her soul at risk, and not his.

And he means it.

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