Love and Spite in Limbo

March 09, 2017:

Exhausted from their efforts and relieved at their reunion, John Constantine and Zatanna Zatara spend what they hope is one last night in Hell.

Limbo

A shattered apartment building in New York-In-Hell.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: First of the Fallen, Mammon, Nergal, Giovanni Zatara, Bucky Barnes

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It has been a few days since their reunion on top of the shattered Empire State Building.

The hot pursuit of Mammon's forces has forced them to take a more roundabout way to their destination, a fact that has filled Zatanna with no end of frustration. Too cognizant of John's present condition /not/ to be all the more anxious to get him back to the world of the living, she has done what she could to speed things along without the means of teleporation. The act would only alert the Demon Prince to their location and the last thing she needs is to do that, especially when she's not all too certain what he would do once he homes in. So she has taken, instead, to using reasonable shortcuts - the long days she has spent following her 'bargain' with the three capos of Hell's New York charting the fell metropolis' labyrinth have yielded a considerable amount of fruit; testament as to just how determined she was in finding the way out while she also tried to find him.

A day's journey often led into a door that took them to another quadrant, using these network of local portals to gradually get them to their destination; a point somewhere north of the city, though they are also fighting a deadline. It won't be long until the gate to their reality changes positions again and they have to get there before that happens. Otherwise, they would have to start over and there's no telling how much their endurance will hold. Dehydrated, exhausted, their food and water supply dwindling to the barest minimum, the last of what they have remains in the final, precious moments of the battery life in Zatanna's phone.

The night's 'camp' is an apartment building several blocks away from their destination, up in the higher floors - the gate is visible from a distance, through one of the windows, a strange rippling that surrounds the tear that they know exists somewhere on the ground level. But with it so close, now is most definitely not the time to take any chances. They need the rest, and to be careless now would mean to discard the progress they've made from the last…god, how many days has it been? She was starting to lose track of the time.

The room is reminiscent of New York's typical cramped quarters - a studio apartment left in ruin, though one has to wonder whether its equivalent somewhere in the actual city would be any better. Concrete walls are veined with cracks, to match the spiderwebs left on shattered tiles on the kitchen and the warped, dilapidated wood in the living area. The windows are broken, framed by the tattered remains of paisley drapes. What used to be a slightly functional kitchen is in a shattered state of violent ruin, and while they haven't bothered to look, the bathroom door remains shut - probably wise. Something tells her she doesn't want to see what state it's in.

It's dark within; they dare not use any sort of light when the world outside is inundated with the eerie ululations of Mammon's invisible hellhounds, threatening enough to force goosebumps to pebble on her skin and spines of icy fear to twist down her spine. Half her face illuminated by the faint glow of her dying phone, she is attempting to get some water into her current companion, as well as the last of their food. At the moment, John needs them more than she does.

"A few more hours," she tells him, her voice low. "And then we'll be gone."

—-

John's determination not to cause them to lag behind has meant devoting the vast portion of his energy to simply moving forward day in and day out, making him a poor social companion at best: by the time they stop, the moment he puts his head down he's out cold — rare for John — and in a dreamless sleep too heavy to allow for the nightmares that usually harass him in the dark hours. But for all that he's been reduced to a shade of his usual personality, he has yet to utter a single complaint, confining all of his personal miseries to the inside of his own head. No doubt there are those who would argue the point — particularly those John's ruthlessly crushed in the mechanisms of his will to survive — but John is often at his very best when things are at their very worst. If he had more energy he'd be joking, laughing, trying to spend some of their possibly-last-ever hours together enjoying that they /are/ together, in spite of circumstances, but he's just been too exhausted.

He takes some of the water, some of the food — enough to wet his mouth and keep his stomach from growling — but he holds up a hand when she tries to push more his way. "You should. It's not enough to make me useful again. Comes down to it, you're our best hope of dealing with Mammon's lot. We should make the most of that."

He says nothing about her phrasing, but it sends chills down his spine nevertheless. It's true, he imagines: one way or another, it's all going to end soon.

He leans back against one cracked wall, seated on the floor, and plays blue eyes over her. Whatever he thinks is made difficult to discern by features too tired to express much and all of the dust clinging to his skin, but it isn't long before he shares some part of those thoughts.

"If things go south, I'm cutting it loose. The — your gift. You'll need it."

—-

She takes some of the water, at least, at his urging. Most of it is gone, a lion's share of what she had left used to break him out of Mammon's clutches, having reduced his dramatic ampitheatre as a crucible for a torrent of holy water and fire. But the rest, she tucks away - just in case, if nothing else an indication of the optimism she manages to hold onto at the prospect of their survival. Zatanna is determined, and she is as always at her best when she is faced with insurmountable odds - a fact that John knows well. If nothing else, the fact that she has managed to survive Hell armed with his lessons, but not his hands-on guidance is testament enough to the fact, no matter how much she hated their separation.

With John fed and watered, she tucks her phone back into her pocket and shifts until she sits next to him, her back finding the hard, dust-caked wall behind them. She has long since stopped mourning over her appearance, her aspirations to vanity and the fact that she can never seem to hold any sort of elevated look around him having been forgotten almost as soon as they realized that they were stuck here. With her phone gone, the room is plunged to darkness again, the small space choked with shadows save for whatever infernal moonlight was leaking in through the shattered windows in weak malnourished slats; John's pale irises adopt the disconcerting effect of soaking up whatever little there was, near-luminescent in the shroud they are using to shelter themselves away from Mammon's search parties.

His words prompt a shake of her head. "If word is to be believed, I've got plenty to spare," Zatanna reminds him, her tone slightly acerbic; she can't help /but/ know that considering the first few attempts to steal what she has. "If it keeps you alive, I'd like you to hang onto it. It's yours now, John. I gave it to you."

Her head tilts, the back of it resting against the wall. Eyes wandering up to the ceiling she can't really see, they close for just a moment before they open again, too aware of their present circumstances to dare do that for long. Long fingers move, seeking his in the dark, to interlace them together and holding fast, tightening her grip. Sweat and dust rapidly turning muddy glues them together, but at the moment, she doesn't care. Her face turns, the better to look at him.

"What is it?" she asks quietly.

—-

"'Plenty' is relative," John says, watching her dark outlines move against even darker shadows as she repositions herself. The sound of cloth on skin, on concrete, on dust. The sound of her breathing, magnified by the sterile silence of a world not meant to contain life. His own heartbeat has been driving him mad in the silences, however grateful he may be that it still persists. "Hell is a big place and Mammon's got a big appetite."

He cannot see her hand, but he somehow manages to anticipate her touch anyway, fingers already flexing when hers find the back of his hand and then slide around into his palm. For some moments he can feel her heartbeat there too, an uneven duet that stirs quiet, conflicting feelings in him. Gratitude that he isn't alone; guilt for the same reason. She wasn't supposed to be here.

He hears her turn her head and rolls his own enough to search for the pale glint of her eyes in the pitch.

"What happened to you, out there?"

—-

"Yeah?" Zatanna lifts her shoulders in a shrug. "You know me, John. I'm not generally in the habit of compromising with elements like these. He's not getting me either way, I promise you that."

It may be impossible bravado and misplaced confidence, the way the young generally are, so sure of their immortality. But it is rare that she doesn't mean what she says and it is not hard to expect such words to come from her, considering the most prevailing influence in her life. Giovanni Zatara wasn't the sort to deal with demons either, and he was more than dangerous enough to be taken seriously by the likes of them; simply one of the reasons why denizens of Hell would rather see him snuffed out entirely instead of attempting to claim his soul the way some of their number are so quick to covet Zatanna's and John's.

The sudden question has her pausing, not because the thought of not answering even occurs to her, or that she even hesitates. She needs the time to be able to collect her thoughts, and paint for him as accurate a picture of her experiences in Hell as possible. Her thumb takes upon an absent stroke, running lightly over the bone-points poking from underneath his skin, gestures meant to soothe him and to assure and refresh herself of his presence. It is difficult to succumb to fear, though it hasn't been obliterated entirely, when it wars with the relief to have him back and whole, and the determination to make sure that they survive this.

"I nearly screwed everything up," she tells him, with a quiet laugh that is mostly breath and nonexistent mirth. "I thought the same thing you did once I saw the city, the damned soul I was accompanying just kept talking through the way and before I knew it, I was at the gates of the city. She said something to me, about how you were only dragging me down. That the only reason I was able to get here was because I ditched you. It clicked for me, then, the possibility. How I could spend days just walking across the desert and not get here, and only managing to do so after we broke apart. I thought /she/ set a trap, I was ready to destroy her then and there. But she lost it on me when I suggested it and I knew I had to see it through."

Her chest expands, her inhalation deep, an effort levied to push down the rising tide of guilt when she remembers that moment and what happened after. "Anyway, she introduced me to her contacts, then left. They didn't give me their names but they reminded me of the Corleone brothers from the Godfather movies. So I obliterated everyone but Fredo until he gave me what I needed to be able to make a sense of this place." There's a faint, somewhat rueful smile. "Can't take the Italian out of the girl, I guess, no matter where she is."

Was it so surprising? Zatanna found inspiration in the strangest places. It was just like her to kick down a door and do the magical equivalent of Al Pacino's infamous scene in Scarface, invoking the magical equivalent of SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND before menacing the damned until she got what she wanted.

"Once I figured out what this place was meant to emulate, I spent days charting what I could. It took me to some dangerous places, but as strange as it is, that was welcome, too. I was alone, and I was tired. And I couldn't afford any of that, if I wanted to get you back." Her eyes wander back over to his face. "I thought of you every day, more than that when I felt myself flag even just a little. Nothing was going to stop me, John."

—-

Most of the shine on John's eyes disappears into the darkness when his eyes half-close, listening to her barely-there voice and following the course she charts for him with her memories. She won't see his brow arch when she describes her encounter with three demons — sounds familiar, but Hell is /very/ wide — but she will feel the way he tightens the press of his palm against hers when she reaches the last of her thoughts. "I know," he says. "That was why I…" His voice trails off.

He owes her an explanation in his own turn, but there are dark corners of the last month — two months? — that he's reluctant to revisit. It's one of the many ways that they differ: John does not hurl himself bare-hearted into the gauntlet of his own suffering, always too aware of the way madness snaps at his heels, and the darker pieces of his nature are waiting in the wings for an excuse to be deployed in self-defense.

Still. She deserves to know what he did with her soul, at the very least.

"Not many people could get through this much time here at all, much less alone. I guess it turned into a pop quiz after all." He produces two grating sounds — a chuckle, or at least a rusted piece of one. "Bet you didn't know I'd be giving you one of those four months after I stopped being your tutor."

He draws a slow breath, the air thick and unpleasant. One would imagine that after so long in Limbo one would acclimate to the various aromas of Hell — not so much. He can barely remember what fresh air is like. "The Babylonian god that wanted to have a chat was Nergal. Had some wild ideas about politics. Wanted to stage a coup against the First, which is interesting, because the First doesn't /rule/ Hell. Still, though, it'd be bloody difficult to control anything without subduing that manky bastard first. I was supposed to be some kind of bargaining chip. Something the First wants. We don't get along, he an' I. So Nergal took me somewhere down below, some sort of…bunker. I imagine he fancied it would keep us from getting sniffed out." Pausing there for some moments, John reorganizes his thoughts and gives his dry throat a short rest.

"Wasn't much left of Nergal by the time the First was done with him." The next silence is short, contemplative. "He knew you were up here running about. I thought…" And then hesitant, longer. "I thought if you knew there was no point looking for me you might just focus on trying to leave. I was done for either way. It seemed better to get it over with. But then I remembered the — "

— dolphin.

He can't say the word. It's so absolutely incongruous to everything around them that it surprises another laugh out of him, a rough-sounding thing, but this one lingers, along with the remembered scent of cold, Scottish brine on the evening air.

"What you gave me." Pale eyes open again, angle her way, though reading them is impossible in the dark. His tone is wreathed in apology, though: he'd done what too many other people have tried to do without her permission. "I'm sorry, love. I used it. If there had been any other way…"

—-

"Should I worry as to the reasons why you and the First /don't/ get along?" It's a rhetorical question at best, because the answer to that is always Yes. The First may not be the ruler of Hell, but being the original upstart cast down by God himself is not a nothing title. Zatanna's expression tightens at that, he'd be able to see it despite the very scant light in the room. But then he forces himself to provide an explanation he wouldn't give otherwise so freely, at least with someone else, and she listens quietly. Everything he tells her now could only help, when they're so invested on each other's survival.

Much like every other place, Hell has its own share of intrigues. Nergal's attempt at rebellion has her winging her dark brows upwards; it isn't surprising but the fact that John is attached to these ambitions is a fact that she is only learning just now, and she can't help but wonder what he had been doing in the last few months that had brought him into this position. Still, the fact that he was leverage seems to have kept him alive until the First decided to teach Nergal a lesson and the recounting draws chills down her back.

His hesitation is warranted; there's pain in what he admits, and no small measure of sudden anger, more manifest in her eyes and the noxious drip of it through the argent thread that binds them together. But not because he used her gift for a purpose other than the original one that she had attached to it, though she can understand why he looks so apologetic. It makes her grip his hand tighter but the emotion is unmistakeable, and she doesn't look away.

"I wouldn't have been able to live with it, if it came to that," she tells him, because unlike him, she /does/ run into emotional gauntlets with very little protection. "I'm not prepared to lose you, and especially not prepared to lose you at my doing. So I'm glad you did, if not just to give me the chance to say I'm sorry, to be with you one last time if nothing else."

She falls silent, but a breathless laugh follows, sudden and unexpected. "To think I thought I was being overbearing when I made it for you," she tells him. "Imagine if I gave you a /watch/ instead. Fuck…" She presses her other hand to her face. "If it had been anything else, we wouldn't be here. Oh god, John, I…"

—-

She's not thrilled that he did the calculus and decided it made more sense to let the First take him sooner rather than later, and he can understand that; if their positions had been reversed… "You'd have made the same choice," he says quietly, with a sidelong glance at her.

He joins her in her breathless laughter — a watch, indeed — but lapses into silence that doesn't break for long, long moments.

"I don't think it was your doing," he says. It's a sentiment he'd given her atop the ruin of the Empire State Building days ago, and she'd rejected it as an easy way out of whatever responsibility had been her burden to carry — but he'd meant it then, and he means it now. "Truth is, I didn't know any more than you did what the right choice was. I know the /rules/ down here, but I can't see the future." After a beat, he finds some pique, somehow, somewhere, and it puts a little bit more of him into his voice than has been there until now. "What bloody-well ticked me off isn't even that you threw me under the bus, 'tanna, it's that you did it for the wrong reasons. You know who doesn't deserve to 'ave anybody be nice to them? /People in hell./ They're down here for a reason."

Which is not the /whole/ reason, of course. If he's honest with himself, he disliked having his methods compromised — but that's a very, very small part of the whole, connected with his pride and the fact that he's accustomed to working alone — and in greater part also because he did not want them to separate, a reason he can admit at least to himself was founded in selfishness rather than any ultimately strategic purpose. "The last thing I want to do is turn you into a jaded bastard like me, but sometimes kindness and honesty are just arming the people who'd love to see you suffer."

—-

You'd have made the same choice.

He tells her that with quiet certainty and Zatanna shifts, tilts her head back to watch the ceiling again. The last long slogs of Time and the things she had to do have managed to take enough of the space in her head that she hadn't the adequate time to consider what she would do, or how she would feel if she had been placed in John's situation. To hear that the First of the Fallen had him ensnared had shook her, and she can't help but wonder, now, whether she would have been able to handle that situation with any sort of grace. The silence that fills the space between them stretches after, though borne out of contemplation rather than the earlier flash of temper.

"It's hard for me to be certain about that, now," she admits. "At that point, I don't know if I'd elect to hope that you've managed to figure something out, or what state I'd be in mentally and emotionally. I meant what I told you before, John. I'm determined to prove you wrong."

She lifts their intertwined hands, and while the change in his voice prompts her to look at him again, she can't help but feel a swell of affection there at the presence of his old temper. Her other hand covers his knuckles and she frowns down on them, brows furrowing faintly.

"I thought that if she was being truthful about being used all of her life that if I had lied, she'd be able to tell," she confesses quietly. "And we'd have lost the only chance of progress we've come across in days. I didn't want to take that chance. It's not as if I could see the future either, but at that point I was desperate for something. Lesson learned, though."

—-

What can he possibly say to that? She's determined to spite his assumption that she's going to die, and John isn't inclined to discourage her. It leaves his expression thoughtful in the gloaming, eyes unfocused on the blur of shadows in which they're ensconced. Spite is — as he well knows — a powerful motivator, and he's seen the lengths that people will go to in order to prove him wrong about something, as well. He inspires that sort of indignant crusade. He knows her heart well enough, knows how willing she is to give of herself as though the well couldn't ever run dry…but he'd not considered this other thing, this other need she has to throw sand in the face of Fate so that she can show him he's not cursed the way he thinks he is. He turns the thought over in his head like a pebble, and in the end utters a single low sound, pushed out of his chest along with his breath — fond and a little amused — as his eyes lid and gentle.

Maybe she wouldn't have. "Fair 'nuff."

Her logic with regard to the strange figure they met on the plains of Limbo receives no criticism, though it's long moments before a sense that he's mollified bleeds across the thing that stitches them together. Like the parent of a child who wanders off in a crowd, his anger is as much based in his worry as any of the other complicated reasons bound up in the balance of what they are. "Someday, you'll see something I don't, and doing that will save us both. So I'm not — I get it, Zee. You've got to trust your instincts, and you did. But next time leave me a better out, an' maybe — just — save the bits of you that are good for people who deserve that, and let the rest twist in the wind."

A pause.

He half-smiles, the expression sharp even in his tired face. "Except in my case, obviously." His hand tightens on hers, just a little.

—-

The advice doesn't surprise her; John Constantine, for all of his not-so-obvious nature as a people person, was a cynic. But he was also very much a different person than she is and she can't help but wonder what the world would be like if people who were kind were only kind to those who were deserving. Her mind casts back to the last few months, specifically on Bucky and the way she found him, knowing what he is considering the presence of dismembered limbs around him but helping him out anyway. Her life would be much different now, if she had ignored him and just walked away.

"Are you worried that doing that for those that don't would chew me up, eventually?" Zatanna wonders, looking over at him. "If I did that, then I would've just ignored Bucky when I first found him. Admittedly, then we wouldn't have had to deal with everything else that came after that, but looking back, I don't know whether I regret any of it. It was frightening, sure, but…I learned a lot of things about myself that I didn't know before, and if that hadn't happened, you wouldn't have…I don't know if you would have told me what you have, about choosing me. And you telling me that /saved/ me, pulled me out of something that could have made me forget you…./was/ trying to make me forget you. And I have a feeling that'll only help later, like you said. Because God only know the things we're going through now…they're not going to stop."

Hence, she doesn't know if she could promise him that.

"I'll be careful next time about that, though," she relents. "Leaving you a better out."

But at the half-smile, she returns it with one of her own, tucking their intertwined fingers away somewhere in the middle of their seated bodies. Her head lowers, leans and rests it on his shoulder, unmindful of the dust that cakes the top of his trenchcoat; miracles as they are, despite his imprisonment, he still managed to hold onto it. The tightened grip of his hand in hers has her lifting it, lashes shuttering to press her lips lightly on his battered knuckles and letting it linger. For a while, she says nothing.

As John busies himself in the attempt to become an exception to her rules, she smiles against the back of his hand. "Is this back to the you're not everyone thing?" she wonders lightly. "It's in my nature to be kind, but that doesn't mean…you know. That there aren't other things that set you apart." Mischief fills her eyes, angled up at him and glittering in the dark. "I think you heard some of that up in the Empire State Building."

And it only grows from there. She tries her damndest to quell it, but he can taste that shit-eating grin in the air. "You know, where you told me you love me."

—-

He listens quietly while she muses her way through her choices, her philosophy of openness. The seed of a thought forms while she links together events in a way that is entirely familiar, albeit with a vast difference in content. For John, coincidence is rarely coincidence: things happen in certain ways for certain reasons, all of which were necessary to lead him to some ultimate end, and the chain that Zatanna forges across the events of the last several months is no different…save in the sense that it's defined by her openness, rather than by tragedy, as his trajectory so often is.

There is something different about This, whatever This is. Them. The tether would be evidence enough on its own, but it's not the only oddity. He'd meant what he said when he told Giovanni that Fate wasn't done with them — and it hasn't been. And maybe that's part of why; maybe she's some sort of inverse of him, the charmed, upright iteration of his peculiar magnetism for the weird and uncanny. Maybe Fate has polarities, like a magnet. Maybe —

The feeling of her lips on his hand tugs him out of his wandering thoughts and back to the present. He turns his head ever-so-slightly to angle his gaze down at where she rests her head on his shoulder, one brow cocked up over a blue eye darkened with shadows. The corner of his mouth curls over memories — hazy, blurred by exhaustion and the moment's urgency — of that hurried reunion. It's dangerous to dwell on those at any length; even in passing, he can feel his heartbeat tick upward to a less sluggish, grudging cadence, and a sloshing of something warm in the bowl of his stomach.

Both of those things remain true when she reaches her conclusion, but the nature of both changes entirely.

He did. He did say that.

And meant it, of course; he's known he felt that way for…well, months, if he includes the weeks they've spent trapped in Limbo. They've been so focused on finding their way to the exit, so exhausted in the evenings, that he hasn't had much time to think about his confession — which, he suspects, was likely for the best. Now that she's mentioned it, he tentatively turns his thoughts in that direction for the first time, and is surprised and relieved to find that he feels considerably less self-conscious about it than he always believed that he would.

Still, he finds himself at a loss for words. His usual approach would be to crack wise, say something self-deprecating but charming or funny, downplay the whole thing, but he has no desire to cut the legs out from underneath the significance of that moment. He can't quite bring himself to repeat the words, either; she knows, he is very sure, that he wouldn't have said them in the first place if he didn't mean them, so now she knows. Good enough. It wouldn't be very /him/ to drag it out into a long affirmation of everyone's feelings, and in any case she's teasing him about it, so being overly-serious would just make him a prat, really.

He lifts his gaze off of her and stares out into the muddle of blacks, a faint smile threatening, falling just short of being realized. In the end, he's just very /British/ about the whole thing, with a delicately dry tone of voice that conveys humor (but not too much) and affection (but not too much), businesslike and polite: "And what do we think about that, then?"

—-

When it comes to the machinations of Fate, she often leaves those contemplations to John, who would know better than she how it all works. That and it wasn't in her nature to dissect those kinds of concepts; oftentimes, it is enough for her to know that it exists. She lives in the moment just as much as John lives inside of his own head; the two can't be more different there, also, and she is very aware of these differences - sometimes there is so many so that she couldn't help but wonder how they manage to keep going on as Them, maintaining This, this wonderful, dangerous thing that they haven't managed to let go of despite several breaks.

Though it isn't as if she hadn't known what he thinks about that, somewhat. He mentioned it in the aftermath of that first night, after Switzerland where they put the last remaining barricades between them to the fire, that he didn't believe that Fate wasn't done with them and if things had turned out differently, if he had decided to go back to London, they'd somehow find themselves in the same position they fell in after that assault in the Cold Flame's stronghold. She hasn't really reflected on that, either, but then again, does she need to? All that matters to her is that they've found some sort of resolution and it seems that the world has deemed it fit to keep them together, at least for the immediate future.

What /does/ get reflected is a little bit of disappointment, because on some level, she /does/ expect him to do that - to crack wise and downplay what just happened. His silence in that regard is telling, and Zatanna eases the tilt of her head so she can glimpse his profile from where she leans, gold-brown hair and a bold nose cutting over shadows and fitful light. She glimpses the near-smile, the way he casts his stare off into the depths of the apartment's shattered corners. She is not expecting the question he asks.

She is ill-prepared for it; the quiet draws longer as she chews faintly on her bottom lip. There hadn't been much time to dwell on it from her end, considering what happened on top of the Empire State Building occurred so urgently, so quickly, and all she remembers from her initial reaction is the thought that the First or Mammon had done something so incredibly severe to him that it pushed him to finally saying the words. The important bits always seem to be prefaced by some manner of deadly crisis, to John, and with that night on the couch fresh in her memories, she can't help but wonder whether this was something similar.

And what do /we/ think about that, then?

"Well," Zatanna begins in a murmur. "I don't know what /you/ think about that, but I'm happy that you do."

Her reply is so simple, part of her is afraid that wouldn't be enough, in his estimation. After another bout of silence, she continues: "I was always determined to accept you for who and what you are, John, which was why I never pushed for an answer and why I was content to say it to you without any expectations of the kind whenever I felt like it, in case what I do for you wasn't enough. Because I wanted you to know. If you were somehow incapable of saying it, it wouldn't have made me love you less. I don't think…" She pauses. "…I don't think we would have made it as far as we have if I demanded things of you that you weren't willing or prepared to give, and some part of me hoped that since I'm willing and prepared to give almost anything, maybe that would be enough."

She feels it, then, the warm flush overtaking her cheeks now that she's been driven to actually think about it. She turns her face into his shoulder to hide it, chuffing out a quiet laugh.

"It made my heart stop to hear it," she tells him unabashedly despite her growing embarrassment. "I'm trying to be casual about it, and since I was so determined to…what I just said, I thought maybe I managed to train myself out of wanting to hear it. Because who doesn't, you know? Who doesn't want to hear it? But now that I'm remembering it, I realize I wanted to, no matter what my intentions were. Very much."

—-

As is so often the case, John asks her a question in something like wryness without expecting her to invest much thought in the answer, and as on all of those aforementioned occasions he chides himself for being surprised when she does. He should know better.

Instead of further teasing, she reads for him from The Manual Of How to Get Along with John Constantine — whatever loose code of understandings and resignations allow her to coexist with him better than most. It's surreal to hear the difficult facets of who he is delineated that way, by the set of responses engineered to accommodate them…but he has at this point in his life accumulated enough self-awareness to know better than to dispute the existence of those many jagged edges. He's years beyond pretending to be something that he isn't — at least, to himself. "And you willingly cast your lot with me," he reflects dryly, sotto, and tchs. Wonders never cease.

There's something sad in that, isn't there? Training one's self out of the very human desire for that simple exchange. People say 'I love you' all the time. Reams of poets have lamented that the words see such frequent use that they lose all meaning, and that the words are too small to encapsulate the magnitude of the sentiments they were always intended to express.

The latter grievance is not one that John understands. His existence is defined by the way he straddles a line between two worlds, and in one of those worlds the idea that a few specific words could malleably mean an infinite number of things is not so uncommon or difficult to grasp. In magic, symbols and signposts often contain meanings highly specific and personal to the magician using them, placeholders for something non-verbal — an essence, a truth, a dream, a vision. You call it something with a handful of syllables because you need the ability to speak it out loud, but you understand that the nature of the thing being named is beyond words, a small self-contained world of nuance. Love, he imagines, is no different. It seems inadequate to mundane humanity because it conjures images of red paper hearts trimmed with lace and candlelight but what it means, what it represents, is an entire world of minutiae and nuance known only to the person speaking the word — and perhaps, if they are very lucky, one other. One shared world, built out of ephemeral things, conjured into some delicate existence by mutual understanding.

He's been lucky, he knows. Not only in the way she found him of interest in the first place, but in the way she's understood the boundaries of him, and in the silent birth of that link between them — the one that lets him say things without having to say them. Whatever conflict he feels about her strangely self-sacrificial determination to shrug off the need to be told that she's loved, there are countless other ways he shares that sentiment, unique to whatever this is, whatever they have — whatever is theirs and theirs alone. He gives less than many, but he also gives /her/ more than he would give most, and somehow in the intimacy of knowing one another, that must — he hopes — weigh in the balance.

"Ah, well." The corner of his mouth twitches, upholding the absurd aloofness from his earlier inquiry. "Very good." /Thank you for participating in this survey./

He turns his head to the side and lowers his chin, lips at rest near her crown and voice pitched low in volume. 'Stubbled' would be a charitable description: he's closer to a beard by now. "True names are dangerous. I hope you use your new-found power over us for good." He punctuates that hope with an unhurried kiss to her forehead.

When he speaks again his tone has changed. "There are protections on the points of passage out of the Hells to keep the damned from being able to waltz out of hell. Human magi have used doorways into the Hells to conduct business for centuries, and most had the foresight to realize it would be bad for business if they could be followed back out again, so most built in ways to vaporize uppity damned souls with ideas about escaping. They ought to keep our pursuers from coming through after us, as long as we get there in time. I'd worry more about my ability to pass through if not for the bit of your soul stuck to mine. It should be enough."

—-

"What are you going on about now?" Zatanna wonders in a quiet breath. "Don't I /always/ use my powers for good?"

The question is rhetorical. He is not obligated whatsoever to give an answer.

The affectionate benediction on the top of her head has her smiling once, more felt against his shoulder than seen, but when things turn towards what needs to be done, she falls quiet again, to listen and learn. "Well, I suppose stitching part of me into you is getting more mileage than I expected. So much for giving you a key to all of my secrets for as long as we're together, but if it enables you to slip away from conundrums like this and keeps you alive, I'm not complaining in the least. Still, it's downright incredible, though. I thought what you did…I thought it was downright impossible. I only /read/ about it, mind, but…I never knew anyone who actually…"

Pulled it off.

"I guess it's one of those 'don't try this at home' things that you do?" she wonders.

Closing her eyes, her hand squeezes his own once more, more out of instinct than anything resembling a conscious choice. Watching the darkness for a beat, when she speaks again, her voice is quiet and inquiring.

"What does the First want with you, John?" she asks. "I mean, word has it that he really only wants one thing when it comes down to it, but…just tell me you didn't make a /deal/ with him. Did you?"

—-

"I still have the key," John points out, one of his brows drifting upward as he lets his eyes close. "It's just not in a bloody dolphin anymore. Which comes as something of a relief, to be honest. I wasn't looking forward to trying to figure out how to use that."

Even in this condition, tattered and frayed at the edges of his everything, John feels a glimmer of exhilaration. With his eyes closed he can turn his thoughts inward to the stuff of his soul and sense the seam and all of the stitches holding that piece of her in place, like a bright, incongruous sequin stitched to war-torn twill.

"Impossible's a challenge." The corner of his mouth curls upward, faint glimmers of his character surfacing in all of the ruin of him. In spite of his cockiness, there is a background acceptance of the knowledge that he has no idea what the long-term effects could be, and that it may be he's only prolonged the inevitable. If it allows him enough time to see her safely brought back to the land of the living where she belongs, he'll still consider the experiment a rousing success. "It was a great deal of theory. …And spite." Lots…and lots…of spite. "Best to file under 'don't try this at home,' yeah."

He actually lifts his head out of its gentle tilt atop hers when she asks him if he struck a deal with the First, initially to aim a startled look down at her, and then to give him room to laugh, the movement of the breadth of his chest gently trembling the shoulder she's leaning into. "/Christ/ no. Occupational hazard, innit? I make a habit of dicking over demons whenever I can. Insert myself into a few would-be apocalypse scenarios, step on a few toes in the hierarchy of the fallen…" This is the spiel he would give almost anyone, light-hearted and cavalier. After letting it trail off for some moments he continues, in deference to the fact that she is not just Anyone. "I've gotten in his way twice, and it turns out he doesn't like being flipped off, strange as that is. You'd think something like that wouldn't get to him, but he's /really/ not a fan, is he? I think it rankles that he's not gotten even. He doesn't understand why I've not been laid low by my own hubris yet, which — fair 'nuff, love, neither do I. And it bothers him because the First of the Fallen isn't an angel. He's — he /was/ — something else altogether. Something that makes it difficult to overlook things like that." After two beats of silence, he poses her a question: "Let's say you were God, and you'd just created an entire universe. You put mankind into it. The world is your creation, and that means all of its glories and mysteries and wonders, but also all of its darkness and injustice and horror. And you can, you realize, cast things down and be rid of them. In God's place, up on high, looking down at what you'd wrought,…what's the first thing you might decide to toss out?"

—-

His exasperation about the dolphin and his abject relief that he wouldn't have to use it in that form has Zatanna laughing quietly against his shoulder, tilting her head up so he could espy the mischief in her ice-blue eyes at that. But she resettles herself where she is, letting the moment ease her into a state of momentary languidity that she hasn't felt since they arrived in Limbo a month ago. She still hears them, the baying of Mammon's hellhounds as the invisible beasts scour the ruined city for them, but at the moment, as strange as it is, she is content.

Despite his diminished state, bits of his old self resurface, more obviously the closer they get to their exit point. His remark about a challenge has her grinning, though he wouldn't be able to see it given his position; he would sense it, though, the expression is palpable even in the dark. They are very different people, but that is one point of commonality in which their personalities intersect - she can't resist a challenge either, and on a good day, she can be just as reckless. The fact hasn't been more clearly illustrated than the first few months of their reunion, when they stomped all over each other's boundaries without a care.

"Oh, yes. Spite," she murmurs, ribbing him. "I know just how that goes with you."

He'd feel her sag against him in relief when he confirms that whatever the First wants from him, it wasn't because he made some sort of bargain or wager with him. It goes a long way in making her feel marginally better about his connection with this most dangerous of infernal beings - she remains apprehensive, only idiots wouldn't be, but John hasn't resorted to that. "He sounds like a sore loser," she grumbles. "Then again, I'm not surprised that it sounds like it's largely out of pride." It is, after all, the most paramount of the seven deadly sins.

Though the rest that follows does cause her to lift her head to look at him; the implication that the First /isn't/ once an angel has her furrowing her brows. He'd get a glimpse of it, and would be correct in his assumption that was precisely what she suspects. But his words imply that the First /wasn't/, and she chews on her bottom lip in an attempt to follow the line of his thinking, pearly teeth worrying the divot, drawn inward and tapping into the stores of her imagination that somehow still manages to remain active despite her exhaustion.

"…if I were God…" she says slowly. "The first thing I'd do is get rid of a rival, or any naysayer to what I'm trying to do."

—-

One can only sustain a certain degree of terror for so long before adrenal fatigue sets in. John knows fear intimately, but he's been filled with it since they set foot on the dusty mesa high above the plains of Limbo, and it is /difficult/ to remain actively afraid for so long. There is something in the bulwark of their togetherness, secreted away in the dark in an apartment high above the ruined city, that offers something against which to rest, to set the fear down long enough to feel something else, however temporarily that may be. It makes for a very strange and very /specific/ kind of contentment, but she isn't alone in it.

These are small snatches of something precious. There is nothing good in Hell — not even in Limbo. /All/ of the goodness of this entire, vast realm of suffering is contained within this one small, shabby room, held between the two of them: they contain the only pearls of something better. She is, for John, the most potent reminder of the fact that there is a world that exists beyond this one — one worth striving to return to, whatever the discomforts along the way.

"That's exactly right," John says, with faint, dry humor, but no surprise to speak of. He knows the cut and turn of her mind. Inexperience is her greatest obstacle; the raw materials themselves have been sufficient to keep his interest, which is perhaps the highest compliment he could pay her: she keeps up, and he finds her interesting. The fact that she lands on the right answer immediately doesn't surprise him at all. "The First of the Fallen was God's original naysayer: His conscience." Pause, two heartbeats long. "Nice trick if you can manage it."

—-

At the news that the First of the Fallen was once God's conscience, there is a very long pause. Given that John knows her very well, he could probably anticipate the query that comes after:

"…so what does that mean?" Zatanna wonders slowly. "God's conducting celestial symphonies on high without a conscience? Doesn't that mean we're screwed?"

Then again, John has been rather vocal about his distaste with the members of the Host; they were assholes, he told her once, for all of their perfect and beautiful appearances. At the suggestion that the creator might be the same, she exhales quietly and lets her head drop back heavily on his shoulder. The darkness swallows her groan. Maybe Heaven was an aspiration she ought to be discarding, at some point in the twilight of her life. Who the hell wants to deal with assholes for all eternity? Certainly not her!

"Well, I'm not going to worry any less, clearly," she tells him, her tone resigned to it. "I'm sure you got in his way for very good reasons. I'm honestly just glad he isn't after you because of a bargain. You know how I feel about those." A reflection of how Giovanni Zatara feels about them as well, having instilled those lessons on his only child at an early age.

After a few moments of silence, she tilts her head again, her lips grazing his cheek.

"Well, he's not getting you if I have anything to say about it," she tells him quietly. "Tomorrow, we're /gone/ from this Pit. And then we can spend the next few days getting you back in fighting form again." The guilt remains and for all that John has absolved her of it, she has a difficult time of it forgiving herself from entertaining their separation in such a dangerous place.

—-

'Doesn't that mean we're screwed?'

In the dark, eyes closed, John lets one of his brows creep slowly but surely upward. "Did you ever have any doubt?"

His lips twitch as he hears her groan and feels her head reconnect with its place against him. "Look at it this way, love: all of those things that didn't make sense before? You know… 'If there's really a God, how could He ever allow something like this to happen?' and that? You can stop wonderin' now." It isn't, it should be said, his best effort at a silver lining. Given his condition, he can probably be forgiven.

Her lips tickle against his cheek, a small benediction paired with her promise to defend him against the world's oldest incarnate evil, the two things together enough to win a softer quirk of the lips from him. "I'm going to spend the next few days in the bloody bath," he murmurs, tone gone wistful at the thought of clean water and soap. "Scandalizing pizza delivery people because they'll have to deliver the pizza directly to the khazi."

There's a brief pause.

"And then," he adds, with a laziness that suggests he's settling in to begin the long slide into sleep, "I'm going to sleep in an actual bed for a week."

Another pause.

His brow perks. "You're invited."

—-

"That's not much of a comfort," Zatanna mutters. "Can I trade enlightenment for blissful ignorance just this one time?"

But a bath does sound nice. His intentions for his next steps once they get out of Hell has her smiling faintly, already entertaining her own thoughts of doing the same herself. Bubbles and red wine, something upbeat playing in the stereo that she intends to drag inside of her master bath, her legs propped up on her magnificent clawfoot tub and sinking in the familiar, warm scents of vanilla and honey. There's a chuckle at his threat of sending the food delivery guys in the bathroom.

"Oh god, an actual bed," she groans gamely, her lashes shuttering over her eyes. "That sounds incredible."

You're invited. So magnanimous.

Her hand squeezes his. "I suppose Shadowcrest can do without me for another couple of weeks," she murmurs. "Hopefully Chas managed to get those noise-cancelling headphones he's been eyeing forever."

There is silence after that, unconsciousness ensnaring her at the effort to get some rest, pleasant thoughts serving as an anchor to whatever she manages to get in the late hours. After all, she knows there's a huge fight waiting for them tomorrow, and they're going to need every bit they can scrounge up for themselves.

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