Sub Rosa

March 21, 2017:

Stir crazy from a Chas Chandler-imposed bedrest, and after a run-in with Bucky Barnes, John Constantine finally manages to reach Shadowcrest to visit Zatanna to catch up on a few key things, namely the deals struck by Red Robin and Dr. Jane Foster, and the secrets of the sub rosa, the hidden chamber in which Giovanni Zatara keeps his heart. John is surprised by what he finds there.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bruce Wayne, Jessica Jones, Dr. Jane Foster, Bucky Barnes, Red Robin, Papa Midnite, Wong

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It's late, but anyone who knows Zatanna Zatara would know of her unshakeable tendency as a night owl, no matter how exhausted or what her present circumstances are. Currently, she is in the business of catching up with the last of the schoolwork she missed while she was away. Thanks to Timothy Drake's intervention, and all of the weight of the Wayne name behind him, he had managed to convince the University with a forged doctor's note that she had come down with a case of mono to explain yet another protracted absence from school. For all of his consideration, however, the burden of actually poring through the backlog of academia on her desk lies solely on herself.

With her coursework on Biblical Aramaic back to current, Advanced Sanskrit's ridiculously thick textbook is on her desk, left open and its fringes carrying a colorful array of reference tabs to look back on later. Laptop booted, her fingers tap over the keys while her ice-blue eyes dart now and then to her syllablus. To say that she was some sort of scholar would be an exaggeration; compared to everyone else in her circle, she has no photographic memory to boast, or any affinity towards academics - but dead languages are closely tied to her Art and she takes to it like a sponge to water. It is not surprising that she has left these for last to tackle, to make the home stretch as easy of a run as possible for herself.

There's a half-forgotten cup of tea close to her keyboard and typical of how she is at home, she dresses in the most decadent sleepwear in the late hours; a black chemise spun out of silk and held up to her shoulders by a pair of spaghetti straps, with a hemline so short, her long legs seem downright endless, and a Chinese-styled satin robe that's only an inch or two longer, left open and unbelted, with an intricately embroidered dragon in silver thread stitched down the front-right side and wound around the back. Perched on a chair, and incongrous to her elegant ensemble, she as usual does not sit properly - she sits cross-legged on the cushion, her shoulders hunched forward, squinting at the computer screen as she continues her work.

Her bedroom in Shadowcrest holds the typical trappings of a young woman who has never been left wanting of any material need - there is an over-large bed that dominates the space at the back, situated on a plush rug splashed with gradients of color on top of floors made out of rich, dark hardwood. Bits of her personality, however, are scattered everywhere: instead of the typical minimalist light fixtures found in modern or restored antique homes, there are hanging lamps instead made out of wrought iron and stained glass, of styles reminiscent of more exotic locations - Morocco, perhaps, or Turkey or Egypt. Antique maps and display cases full of artifacts - non-magical, mementos from past travels and adventures, fill its corners instead of bookshelves or dressers - not when Zatanna's closets are next door and take up a multi-tiered suite on their own. Items like Harry Houdini's handcuffs, a gift from Bruce Wayne, rests in an open case and in the center most shelf is the cintamani stone that John gave her on Valentine's day - no other items are on that shelf, save for framed photographs.

There's plenty of that, in particular - old pictures of Zatanna as a baby, as a toddler, a tween with ridiculous braces, a black and white photograph of Giovanni holding her swaddled by a hospital window. The rare photograph of Sindella Zatara, blonde, green-eyed and beautiful, standing near a much older looking Zatara in her wedding dress. Her father is in most of them, but others as well; a picture of herself, Tim Drake and Peter Parker, shot in an awkward angle, taken somewhere in New York. Jessica, Thor and Peter Quill passed out in the living room after yet another night of abusing her never-ending bar.

John also, of course. Shots of him taken while he slept, one of him with chopsticks in his mouth, one of him and Chas back in London…and an older one, taken by Giovanni himself, early on in John's tutelage of her in the Zataras' London townhome, the two of them bent over a book.

There is a small hallway that leads into the five-piece en-suite bathroom, with its massive marble shower and beautifully restored clawfoot soaker-tub.

—-

If John is forced to spend one more day in bed, he'll need to be packaged up and shipped back to Ravenscar.

The cabin fever, the boredom…they finally overtake him, ten full days after he and Zatanna were pulled from the jaws of Hell by their friends. And it's worse than that, really, because John was confined in isolation for a great deal of time during the two months and change that he and Zatanna were lost in Limbo. He may be a solitary operator by choice professionally speaking, but he's a social animal in his private life, and the dearth of companionship he's suffered has left him raw and chafed by silence, hungry for contact. Jones visited one day, Jane the next, but that's hardly been enough. Zee, out of thoughtful deference to Chas, has kept her distance from the flat to respect Chas' wishes — at least, once she was wholly satisfied that John was fit to be left alone. Under other circumstances perhaps that wouldn't have been necessary, but it was plain the moment Chas heard that they were back that he'd suffered immensely for their disappearance, sick to death with worry for a month. His insistence that John rest stems from that wounded stretch of time, and not even John could find it in himself to refuse what was asked of him, loathe though he was to contemplate a further period of confinement. It would have been cruel to do otherwise. Besides, he needed the rest, at least for the first week.

He still can't quite bring himself to shirk Chas' desire that he remain in bed, so he does the next best thing: he sneaks out. He's caught in the act of doing so by James Barnes, who was not particularly impressed by John's attempts at stealth, and James accompanies him across the city toward transit to Gotham, but eventually they part ways on John's insistence that, no, Barnes isn't invited to Shadowcrest to — as he said, verbatim — 'have it off with my bird an' I.'

He looks like any other urbanite on a late commute. Certainly nothing like John Constantine, assuming anyone in the know were to look: The dark sweatpants with the shockingly fashion-forward cut, the legs narrowing near the top of lean, well-toned calves. A dark blue thermal shirt, a hooded grey sweatshirt, a lightweight, street-styled jacket. A slightly slouchy knitted hat, a pair of laceless black converse shoes with socks low enough they can barely be seen at all, a duffel bag slung across his back, the strap cutting on a diagonal over the breadth of his chest, shoulder to waist. The dangling white cords of ear buds, descending down into the pocket of his jacket where his phone is secreted away. To glance at him, he could be virtually anyone. He could be nobody. Half of the people he encounters en route give him a wide berth, instinctively sensing that what they see isn't truth in advertising; the other half he catches glancing at him when they don't think he's looking, drawn in by that very human instinct to find trouble.

As the clock strikes midnight he disembarks into Gotham, following half-remembered pathways toward a house he hasn't been to in…how long? He can't actually remember. Years, though. Since long before he and Zatanna got tangled up together. He was there with Giovanni, off on some object lesson or other, stopping over in the States…

Deep, dark basslines courtesy of The Weeknd keep him company on the long walk through a Gotham painted in silver and shadows, a delicious accompaniment to the satisfying feeling of being truant from an obligation. For the first time in some time he has agency again: full control. No one knows where he is or what he's doing, and there's something strangely freeing in shedding the uniform that carries with it all of the benefits and perils of the reputation associated with being the man in the trenchcoat. The sensation of anonymity is novel, tantalizing.

All of these things color the mood he's in when he finally arrives and finds himself standing in front of Shadowcrest. Still visible to him — thank Christ for that — and he doesn't turn into a shellfish when he slips through the gate, so Giovanni must not have bothered to lock him out after their falling-out in London over the summer.

He's had enough of Chas' cooking to put some of the weight he'd lost back on, and subsequently regain some of the strength he'd lost. It's enough to make ascending to the narrow, slanted eave below her window possible, anyway, and so at sometime just a little bit after one thirty in the morning, there's a light tapping on the glass of that window.

It'd be worrisome if the rhythm of that tapping weren't immediately familiar. There were nights in London at the height of their affair when John, caught up in the insatiable chemistry of it all, risked life and limb to come in through her window because he didn't care to wait until her next lesson to break the rules. It had been the same sequence then; there's no question of who it is.

—-

Really, he wasn't the only one who missed the other; she just got him back after two months without him, only to have to acquiesce to Chas' demands to have him stay in bed until he got his strength back. To have to leave him so soon, while unhappy about it, was an eventuality that she bore with a considerable amount of grace and an absolute lack of a tantrum. But knowing how emotional she is, how prone to impulse, it was inevitable that this would surface in other ways.

So between her industrious note-taking of her Sanskrit reading and the minutes when John scales the ivy-covered trellis and ends up at the eave outside of his, she, too, puts on music, only that's not the only thing that happens. Through the glass, and as he raises his knuckles to rap on the glass pane, he'd hear her warbling along with the strains, and a hairbrush in hand as a poor stand-in for an actual microphone:

"Alllllll byyyyyy myyyyyyseeeeeeellllllllf. Don't wanna be….allll byyyyy myyyyyyyseeeeeelf, anymoooooooooooooreee~~!"

Oh god.

It's Celine Dion.

Thankfully she hears the sudden series of familiar taps on her window. He can glimpse wide-eyes staring at him from the top of her laptop, her hairbrush slipping from suddenly boneless fingers to land somewhere unseen on the floor. What follows afterwards is a mad dash in an attempt to cover up everything else. The Youtube video is banished from her computer, she slaps it shut. She kicks frantically at her hairbrush to shove it under her desk, and she stands straight off her chair, pushing her hair out of her eyes and while she knows that it's really too late to hide anything, she still tries because it's her.

Finally, the window slides open, and she peers down at him, surprise (and horror) etched on her face.

"John!" The intonation of his name is just a little more high pitched than she would like. She lowers her voice instantly after that, glancing over her shoulder. She had house guests, after all, though if they haven't barged in to make fun of her singing, the soundproofing in the interior must either be very good or they were all asleep. Reaching out, she will attempt to help him drag himself inside of her boudoir.

"…what are you doing here? Oh god, Chas is going to be so mad."

—-

He only catches what's happening because he thinks to tug one ear bud out so that he can hear whether or not she's noticed that someone is tapping at her window in the first place, and when he realizes what it is that he's looking at — and listening to — he experiences an immense crisis of contradictory feelings. The surge of affection in his chest is strong enough to kick like a mule across the tether that links them, and yeah: it's ridiculous, she is ridiculous, and as usual he can't help but find it hilarious and astonishing all at once, that someone like Zatanna even exists in the same world as himself…

But he's also appalled to find out that she listens to Celine Dion.

As she slides the window open, the warm glow from inside slashes an angled guillotine blade of illumination across his features, brows knitted and skewed, expression dubious. Tinny sound leaks from the ear bud dangling at the end of the cord's split junction, filling the very sudden silence, now that her laptop has been closed. "Is this a bad time?" he asks, archly.

And then he's moving. He unslings his duffel bag and pushes it through the window, then plants a hand on the sill and vaults up to get one foot through the window and onto the floor. He's forced to bend very nearly in half, ducking his head and tilting to the side to get the rest of his torso through, but once that's done he pauses in the mid-way point to reach with one splayed hand for her cheek, the side of her head, leaning in and tilting his head to the side enough in the attempt to catch her mouth with his that the overhead lights play over the highlights and shadows that describe the muscle, tendon, and adam's apple of his throat, the hard cut of his jaw. Warm lips, closed eyes and gentle, humid breath unhurriedly convey with eloquent efficiency what he's doing there: he missed her. The rest of him holds in absolute stillness.

When the kiss draws to its leisurely conclusion, he reanimates, bracing his hands on the sides of the window and setting his weight down on the foot that's inside to draw himself the rest of the way through. "Chas isn't going to find out. I couldn't stand it anymore, 'tanna. I'm losing my bloody mind over there. I actually started wishing I had a television. If I didn't get out for a bit I was going to top myself."

—-

Is it a bad time?

She doesn't blush, but a huffy expression that isn't all too serious falls over her. "Well, as a matter of fact, you just interrupted my midnight karaoke session," Zatanna begins. "And since it's a very precious nighttime ritual, I'm afraid that you'll have to— "

The thump and slide of the duffel bag he brought interrupts her, a curious glance turning that way. There's a slight furrow of her brows, pulled down faintly and she wonders, privately, whether he does intend to just utterly defy Chas' wishes by spending the night here. The question is on her lips, already parted and ready to deliver.

But he's reaching for her and like iron filings to lodestone, she's in his orbit before she even knows it, her face tilted and taking those brief seconds of conscious pleasure of having him simply touch her - it doesn't take much, even after their last two breaks - before he drives all of her attention to where their lips lock, unleashing with it the frustration of days of denial. Her head angles against his, her mouth adopting a hungry slant; a hand unconsciously drops between their bodies to twist her fingers in the ties of his hoodie, though she manages to restrain herself from tugging them. The kiss itself is unhurried, yes, but she takes the leisurely pace as carte blanche to drain him of breath. Thoroughly, enthusiastically. Affection and joy drip through their link like morphine, drops of molten silver tickling his senses: she missed him too, and she is ridiculously happy to see him despite her earlier sass.

It ends because it must, and as John manages to complete his ingress, she moves to shut her window, a smile tugging on her lips. "So I take it you're not spending the night then," she remarks, at the bold declaration that Chas wasn't going to find out about this. "I'm not gonna lie, John, this is pretty nostalgic, though I guess this time if we get caught, we're going to have to explain ourselves to Chas and not Daddy." She nudges the duffel bag with a toe. "Did you bring me presents?"

She shifts to try and tidy up her desk, as always in a state of organized clutter. Pushing her schoolbooks away, the metallic clinks of silver charms bumping against one another on her left wrist reminds her of Jess' visit. Ice-blue eyes glance down at the new accessory, before lifting her head to look at him.

"You're visit's pretty well timed," she tells him. "Jess came to see me with an interesting problem. Do you want anything? A drink?"

—-

John has every intention of spending the night, and no intention whatsoever of being caught. Those two things may seem mutually exclusive, but John's still riding the high from having pulled one over on the First of the Fallen. It's safe to say that he isn't worried about being found out by Chas. And even if he were worried about it…

It's child's play for her to sap the air from his lungs and open the throttle on his heart, twisting his insides around her little finger as though it were nothing at all. He's long since left behind the prudence that would encourage him to keep his guard up and regulate the way he lets her make him feel. When she aims to kindle something in him, these days he's entirely willing to help. He practically strikes the match for her.

Which is to say: even if he were worried about Chas before he kissed her, he'd have forgotten about it entirely afterward. Not that he's in any great rush to escalate things; the small half-smile that punctuates those last moments of contact is frank about the effect she's had on him, but it also radiates patience. The evening is obviously going to be a deliberate exercise in delayed gratification. "I bloody well am," he tells her, when she assumes he isn't going to stay. "You leave worrying about the details to me."

And, once he's inside: "Not exactly," he says of the duffel bag, nudging it with the white-capped toe of his sneaker. "Clothes, toothbrush, maybe a couple of DVDs, possibly a cupcake for you, left over from what F — "

The moment he actually notices what she's wearing forms an abrupt cliff off of which his words topple into silence. The silence is brief, but it starkly obvious, like a skip in a record or stutter in a film reel. Blue eyes slash downward, absorbing…everything. He's never thrown for long, though, John. "— Foster brought me yesterday." He's finally able to tug his gaze away from the substantial distraction of her legs, bending to unzip the duffel and retrieve the tupperware container with the cupcake into it. His eyes lid as he straightens and holds it out to be taken, the ghost of a relaxed smile in place. "Chocolate."

Once she relieves him of it he steps across the duffel bag and further into the room, taking it all in with curious, roving attention that plays over the decor and lingers on small personal effects. Inevitably and unsurprisingly, the prospect of exploring her personal space exerts a powerful pull on him. It isn't long before he finds himself in front of the shelves containing all of those fascinatingly diverse souvenirs from her travels, though his attention is most readily caught by the framed photographs.

Photographs of John post-Ravenscar are somewhat rare. He avoids the media for obvious reasons, always operating in the background of anything that catches public attention, and the people he's associated with since Newcastle have for the most part not been the picture-taking type. It surprises him to find that she has any, and tugs a little bit at his heart to see them there, in amidst images of other people for whom she cares deeply. It would be sweet to know that she had photos of him at all, but there's something quietly, strangely special about having those photos be part of a larger tableau. John, the perennial outsider, momentarily merely a part of…/something/.

He picks up the one where he's sleeping, and quirks a brow. When the hell did she take that?

The quirk-browed look lingers so that he can aim it over his shoulder when he turns his head to look at her, useful for responding to her statement about Jessica, too. The hand with the frame in it sets it gently back down where it was so he can turn to face her, while the other strips the remaining ear bud out of his ear and pulls his phone from his pocket so that he can turn the music off. "Drink'll do. Did she, now? I saw her two days ago. This about Azalea?" He bundles the headphones and phone together to tuck them into his jacket pocket, then strips the jacket off, tossing it over the nearest piece of furniture.

—-

"Oh." A single word that encompasses many others when John confirms that yes, he is staying the night, and Zatanna can't help but flash him that brilliant grin; stars amidst a crimson horizon. "Alright then!"

Punctuated by the very expedient knocking of the door from the construct that personifies the will of the house. Long-legged strides take the raven-haired magician across her cavernous room, and for the time being, leaves John unsupervised in her private space, though she's less protective of that, really, than most; she is just as open about it as she is with the contents of her heart. Her back turned, she opens the door and plucks the bottle of Jameson and a pair of tumblers from the butler, always ready to anticipate the needs of those in the house, shutting it and moving to join him. Glass clinks together upon their settle on her desk, her fingers working the cork off the liquor's signature green bottle.

She's just finished pouring glasses for them when he mentions cupcakes, and she spins around way too eagerly at the word…and inwardly regrets it immediately, though this encounters an equally swift dismissal. Two months in Hell has left her the lightest she has ever been in months, and while the part of her that remembers being significantly overweight had quietly thrown a ticker-tape parade at the latest report from her bathroom scale, this is now summarily silenced by the idea of chocolate. "Jane visited you?" she wonders, reaching out for the tupperware. "I haven't had a chance to really talk to her and— "

Her voice trails off, watching his eyes as they move down on her. There's another furrowed-brow look, before following them with a tilt of her head. Oh.

"….I feel like the house is the only place I can safely wear nice things, these days," she grouses, opening the tupperware and taking a curious sniff at the cupcake. "I miss it, John. I miss dressing up. I might have to announce my dramatic return to the stage earlier than intended because I miss wearing feathers and sequins. Maybe I'll even tart it up with fishnets and heels and my father's top hat if I'm feeling cheeky."

Amusement returns when he picks up the photo of him sleeping and gives her a look. She looks away, grumbling under her breath: "Ilikewatchingyousleepsometimesstoplookingatmelikethat." Punctuated by the insistent half-shove of the glass tumbler with a couple of shots of Jameson.

She still has the tupperware with the cupcake, perhaps not realizing herself as to how insistently she is holding onto glorious chocolate. She slowly sinks on the edge of her bed, letting it rest on her lap. "No it's about another case. Though the subject of the case is…I don't think he knows she intends to help him. Some dude who shapeshifts into a cat who can illusion money out of nowhere and make people believe the illusion is real. She thinks he's ancient but bound under someone's thumb and you know how she feels about people being brought to heel against their will. I told her I'd help her identify what he is, but it would be easier if I actually met him….and I also told her to temper her expectations. If he's imprisoned magically, and he's as old as she thinks, with untold power and apparently overcritical of humanity in general, I told her it might be best to keep him fettered. Won't know either way until we investigate further I guess, but the description does tick off bunch of red flags for the likes of us."

—-

She paints a picture for him of her return to the stage, floating a costume concept past him that he predictably has no objections to whatsoever, rolling one shoulder and sinking slowly back against the wall, walking his feet out a little in front of him to support his lazy recline. "Sounds good to me. Though…" His brows don't quite knit, but there's a delicate shadow between them that alludes to that skepticism. "The thing with your dad's hat might make it a little bit weird for me."

Lidded eyes track her evasive turn of the head when she pushes his glass at him, and warm, almost leonine humor settles in to more or less permanently haunt the periphery of his expression. "I'm not going to wake up to find you looming over the end of my bed one night, am I? Horror movies tell me that never goes anywhere good." Which is just token protest, really: he is at his most vulnerable when he's sleeping, but his trust in her is absolute. The thought of virtually anyone else watching him sleep would make his skin want to crawl right off of him — but as is so often the case, she's the exception to the rule.

He remains cast up against the wall as she slips away from him to sit on the bed's edge, bending one of his knees, posture thoroughly slack. He's made looking disreputable into such an art form that he somehow manages to retain all of that attitude and swagger in the midst of what is a very feminine space, and in spite of the more serious attention he drums up for her explanation of just what it was that Jessica saw her about.

'You know how she feels about people being brought to heel against their will.' His eyes tighten. He's now in full possession of the reasons why she feels that way, and given everything Zatanna says about the situation he's not inclined to disagree with her about the possibility that it may be safer to leave the thing on a leash. The prospect of trying to handle that eventuality in light of Jones' feelings on the matter is off-putting. "I told her when she stopped by that she's got a real knack for finding the odd ones. Case in point, really. How did she wind up mixed up with something like that? You said it's a case. She's not expanding into my field, is she?" The latter question is asked in jest — mostly. The inquiry stems from concern that Jones may actually be trying to take on cases with supernatural elements after having been routinely exposed to those things, and the thought makes him uneasy, however well-intentioned that would be.

—-

"I know." Mischief flares in Zatanna's ice-blue eyes. "I just wanted to see what your face would look like with that thought in your head."

What did he expect? This was the woman who gave him a dolphin on Valentines Day.

Reference to horror movies does earn him an appreciative laugh. "I'd go into detail but I know you, you'd turn it around on me. Something about how I've thought about it too much to be able to paint a scenario that colorfully. Well, joke's on you, John Constantine. I know your tricks!" The last with an exaggerated point in his direction. "Though in all honesty, I don't know if that would surprise anyone. I think Chris Rock was the one who said that if you didn't pick up a can of rat poison and stared at it for five minutes, you haven't been in love."

She finally yields to the temptation, opening up the tupperware to drag a fingertip lightly on the chocolate icing, nipping it off her finger to taste it, though it takes everything in her not to just shove the entire thing in her mouth and indulge in one blissful moment of absolute gluttony. But she's being good; she replaces the cover and sets it aside in favor of her glass of Jameson, cradling it between her fingers. Despite her earlier words, however, the look she casts with that glacial stare is wholly appreciative of the picture he paints against her wall, aware of the ratcheting of her heartbeat upward and the taste of a familiar thrill tingling in the back of her throat.

It's rare that she sees him in civilian clothes, when he prefers to venture out in his uniform. It made their age difference seem less substantial, though that was never really a problem to begin with, and the dangerous air that attracted her to him in the first place seems somehow more pronounced. She turns her head away again, disguising it handily with a thoughtful expression and a hearty swallow of her Jameson.

"I honestly don't know. I think it was tangential, at first, from another case she's working on. It…" There's a pause, her eyes moving back to John and her expression growing more serious. "Whatever she was thinking about when she saw me, she was…uncomfortable. Discomfitted. She didn't really tell me what it was and I didn't pry, but she was forthcoming about this one. She needed the opinion of one of us, so I gave it to her. I figured you'd give the same caveat I gave her anyway. And she was accepting of the fact that if I find something that convinces me that keeping him on a leash is the best course of action, she'll leave it alone. I did promise I'd look into it, though…at least identifying who and what he is would probably go a long way into figuring out the rest, but like I said, it'd be helpful to meet him first. If you like, you can come with me if I ever decide to talk to said enslaved, ancient being of untold power who's cranky about humanity. What's the worst that could happen?

The not-quite jest has her smiling ruefully. "I don't think Jess is that reckless. She's an excellent detective, yeah, but she also knows when to go to experts when she's in over her head with something. I don't think she was looking for this one, it just fell onto her lap. Still, what little she told me about this Grymalkin guy was enough to make me a little concerned."

—-

She's not wrong about the probability that he'd try to find some way to turn it all around on her. She tells him that she knows his tricks, and all he can do is tilt his head in a kind of subtle shrug, eyes glittering. He is what he is.

When she says that she expects he'd have told Jones the same thing she did, he tucks a short, sharp little nod in, lifting the glass in his hand and contemplating it with his eyes before committing to siphon off one of the shots it contains. It's poor timing on his part, and he's forced to set the glass aside, wincing with eyes watering, to press his face — his mouth, really — into the sleeved bend of his elbow as he chokes on that swallow.

"Christ, 'tanna," he says, voice weak and husked with the liquor that liberally bathed his vocal cords seconds ago as he'd inhaled it. Amused, exasperated: "You've got to stop saying that." 'That,' of course, being 'what's the worst that could happen?'

Sniffing, blinking, he reaches to snare the glass again, gradually resettling into his comfortable lean, and as he does so she fields a word that gives him pause. "Graymalkin." The way he says it is is different, but obviously deliberately so, couched in a musing tone. "That's an antiquated word. It's usually female cats in literature. You hear it — well, read it — a lot in association with witches. Familiars, and that." Two, three beats of casual thought, and then he visibly lets go of toying with the possibilities for the time being. "If you want company, I'll tag along. I'm not sure you'll be so keen to keep me company when I'm off on the errand she wants me to run." He turns his head on an angle, looks at her out of the corners of his eyes. "She's keen to see if she can't get Azalea's situation sorted."

—-

Christ, 'tanna. You've got to stop saying that.

There's a smile at that. It is indicative that despite his very sound advice that Zatanna will probably keep saying it until the world yields to her demands like it often does.

John's take on the name has her nodding once, lifting her shoulders in a shrug. "The guy shapeshifts into a cat with one gold eye and one blue," she replies. "So the name is apt, but you know as well as I that his true name is probably something dusty and difficult to pronounce. I thought about whether the person who holds his tether is a witch, but I didn't want to speculate so much that I'd end up clinging to a theory and starts fitting my discoveries around it." Her very frequent exposure to other detectives - not just John, but Jessica and Tim as well, has at least expanded her ability to at least understand how all of that works, though she is hardly an expert like the rest of them. Magic remains her true field.

She takes another swallow from her tumbler, hooking her leg on top of one knee, one arm draping over the raised limb. At the slanted look her way, she lifts a brow at him and shakes her head once. "Well, it's not as if you're enthusiastic about every case that drops on your lap," she points out. "You know I'd go with you no matter what's involved, even if it's something I find a little…" Creepy. Weird. "…odd. Is this a specific errand or is she just insistent that we try and figure out how to work Az's situation? I'm not gonna lie, John. I don't even know where to start. When I first met her, I thought it was just pure integration with a demon who's possessed a body, but this is something else entirely. I've heard of old folk tales and legends about a deity choosing a human vessel to inhabit and perform work through it, but those almost always end with the entity taking over with nothing left of the former soul behind."

A small smile lifts the corners of her mouth. "But hey, I'm not opposed to being a pioneer," she says gamely. "Just because the case is unique doesn't mean a new method can't be discovered to resolve it."

Ever the optimist, the idea of having to snuff Azalea out doesn't even occur to her.

—-

John remains silent while she speaks, his gaze tilted down into the golden liquid he's swirling lazily around in his glass with subtle movements of the wrist, watching the light whirl crazily over the tilting surface. The Problem of Azalea leaves him uneasy, not because he feels he's unequal to the task of resolving it one way or another, but because he's very aware that Azalea's death is one of the possible resolutions, and there are people close to him who are close, in their own way, to her.

It wouldn't stop him, if that's the course he really believed best for everyone involved, but it's not a thought he relishes. He still frequently wakes up with the sound of Gary Leister's never-ending screams ringing in his ears, a casualty of knowing him that his conscience may never allow him to properly bury. But Gary had had no one in his life by that time who'd miss him when he was gone, having long since lost himself inside of a hypodermic syringe. Nobody, arguably, but John…who killed him, in the end. Azalea is different. John can anticipate the horror that his last-resort solution would cause in the people he cares about who care about Azalea, and the thought of anyone else being as repulsed by him as he is repulsed by himself for what he had to do to Gary hangs over him like a leaden weight.

All of that circulates through his skull while he listens to her with one ear — enough to hear what she's saying, at least. His distant eyes sharpen when she stops speaking, and he glances up at her, then finally stirs. He slides up and off of the wall, draining his glass in the same fluid movement, and he leaves it on a side table as he slowly crosses the room to rejoin her, sinking down with care. His torso curves forward, head bowed and hands to either side of him on the edge of the mattress, his gaze directed down at the floor. "Honestly? I don't know where to start, either. They're fused together, probably because each has something the other lacks, yeah? It's not going to be possible to just peel it out of her or banish it. We're going to have to go the other way with it. Try to…integrate them, somehow."

Which is, according to all conventional wisdom, impossible. And yeah, sure — so is what John did to himself in Hell, fastening part of Zatanna's soul to his own — but that's all that was, really: a binding. It's stuck on, sewn to, not blended with. He did not unify her soul with his, and would never even make the attempt, because god only knows what that would do to her. It might be like pouring a cup of poison into a bottomless well, tainting it forever.

He straightens out of his bend, one hand lifting to sweep the slouchy knitted hat off of his head and drop it on the bed behind him, his fingers splayed to rifle back through his hair. "There's nothing to lose in trying. She can't keep going the way she is." Some moments later, having rifled the hat-flattened crop of gold and brown on his head, he lowers his hand to rest lightly on her crossed knee and turns his head to look at her, gaze wandering her features. "I'll understand if you don't want to get directly involved. You don't have to prove anything to me, Zee."

—-

She watches him quietly where he leans; while she would never profess to being an expert in the ins and outs of John Constantine, she has seen the expression on his face often enough to know when he's navigating the darker parts of the labyrinth inside of himself…and she generally does not follow him in, especially mindful of his boundaries now after how tumultuous their relationship was in the last breaths of 2016. Instead, Zatanna drains the last of her Jameson, herself, moving to set it out of the way.

When he starts speaking again and approaches her, her head tilts back up until he settles on the bed next to her, the stretch of his hand finding purchase on the curve of her elevated knee. Her fingers move on instinct - as if something as natural as breathing - to rest on the points of his knuckles, her thumb rolling light, soothing patterns on his skin. Her head dips at the chin to let her eyes wander over his well-remembered features and for a moment, she does nothing but look at him, lashes half-falling over her pale irises. The expression she gives him is a gentle one, soft, driven there by her boundless affection, and for a moment it appears that she has forgotten what they're discussing when the quiet stretches, and she does nothing but look and touch.

But she hasn't forgotten, as evidenced by her words when they finally come: "It might be the only way, I just don't know whether integration will just end up having one presence eat the other. But we won't know unless we try."

She's still letting her fingers drift through those nonsensical patterns between those raised joints when he tells her the last, and she shakes her head once. "It's not about proving anything to you, believe me," she tells him, though there's a faint quirk of her lips at that. She remembers being the eager student, but those months away from him have diminished her desire to please him that way, though she does cling hard to the promise that she's out to prove him wrong about one aspect of his cursed existence. "I promised her I'd help her well before you retuned to the States, and it's not in me to go back on my word. No matter how….uncomfortable it gets, I'm committed to it. Besides, if you're going to show a bloodthirsty Aztec god who's still pissed about his murder, you might need my help."

There is a pause, and she leans in at that, pressing her lips warmly on his forehead. "So…sorry, love. I think you're stuck with me."

—-

Having explicitly addressed the interpersonal awkwardness between Zatanna and Azalea and given her carte blanche to sit that endeavor out, he feels no unease about accepting her insistence that she wants to participate, no matter what discomforts may be involved. He's perfectly willing to take her at her word. If this were a standard exorcism, he might hesitate; demons will use virtually any small fissure in a relationship to worm their way into an exorcist and send the entire effort spinning dangerously out of control. This, though? It may actually to be to the good if there are unresolved issues at play between the two of them. Bridging rifts is almost certainly going to be a central theme of any effort to unify the young woman's hybrid soul. It may help, having the opportunity for the two to mend what's between them.

His eyes lid as she leans in and up to kiss his crown, answering that token of affection with a press of warm fingers arrayed about her knee. "I don't know if we'll have time to get through it all before we've got to cross the pond. We've still got business to settle with Steinschneider," he says quietly, into the scant distance between them. One of his brows lofts ever-so-slightly above the other, an entirely unconscious expression, his eyes hooded enough that his irises are dark with shadows. He's looking down at the scandalously short hem of her chemise, but not really seeing it, eyes unfocused, preoccupied with his thoughts. "And there's a situation with Midnite and Foster to resolve. You had to know he wasn't going to just…let them in there to get us out of the goodness of his own heart. The man was making a play." Into the drowsy intimacy keeping his features gentle comes a faint twist of irritation. "And it worked, so now Foster owes Midnite a favor. More than that. She decided she didn't want Barnes offering Midnite one free use of the Winter Soldier, so she came back over the top with 'I'll do anything.'"

It's serious enough that he can't even be flip about it. He pushes a forceful, incredulous exhale out of his lungs, then brings the hand that isn't on her knee up to roll his thumb over one eye and his middle finger over the other, squinting restlessly into his cupping hand. "It's always something."

—-

"We probably don't," Zatanna agrees with a soft murmur. "But we should probably resolve that sooner rather than later. We got in his way, and if anything, between him and us, Time is definitely on his side if he decides to come back and exact some manner of retribution. Plus we still don't know what the deal is between him and Mammon." She is fully aware that their misadventures in Hell have not diminished the Demon Prince's desire for her soul in the slightest. Now, a grudge was involved, and much like most of his ilk, Mammon will not take that affront to his pride lightly, no matter how eccentric his mannerisms.

The mention of Papa Midnite and Jane has her furrowing her brows. "Wait, was that what happened?" She hadn't had the time or the presence of mind to catch up on what exactly brought their friends to Limbo and she had immediately been placed in emergency care after their return to their New York. "What do you think the play was?" John, in the end, was the best person to ask - she knows he and Midnite have an extensive history, and the British magus' proclivity for deception is near-legend in the circles they run with. If there was anyone who'd be able to see past any subterfuge, it would be him. And as she silently waits for his opinion on the subject, he…

Ice-blue eyes widen when John details what Jane had promised Midnite. "Wait, what? What?" she exclaims, growing visibly ashen. "Oh, no…oh, Jane, why?" She had given Jessica and Tim plenty enough by way of warning as to what could be required when deals are struck in their world; she had thought the physicist had gotten the primer already, given her working relationship with John and Ritchie Simpson. Though before she could remark on it any more, the explanation as to why Jane promised anything tumbles out and she falls quiet at that.

"…I bet Bucky wasn't happy with that," she remarks quietly, glancing down at his hand on her knee. Whatever happened, it must have been a surprise, she was certain there was no way he would have let this go on if he had a chance to prevent it.

She chews on her bottom lip quietly, watching him sidelong and the way his eyes screw shut with frustration. "…what were the terms?" she wonders. "Do you know? I mean…what if we found something that Midnite desperately wants? Do you think that would be enough to release Jane from the deal?"

—-

"He wasn't," John says, confirming that Bucky wasn't thrilled with the sequence of events. "I saw him on my way here, tried to give him a little bit better idea of what she's gotten herself into, but…christ, what a mess." The Englishman doesn't have to say it explicitly for her to know that he feels culpable for the fact that Jane is now on the hook. Guilty.

"The terms were that he gets to call in the 'anything' whenever he feels like it, in exchange for helping them go to Limbo, and that if I 'meddled,' he'd consider that Jane reneging on the deal, which…" Is obviously bad, magicians' agreements being what they are. He does not have to explain that to Zatanna, obviously.

Slowly, he withdraws his hand from her knee and drops backward onto the bed, both of his hands lifted to rub at his face, rough through his hair, his eyes still squinted closed, his expression pinched with irritation. Midnite's foresight to keep him from getting involved doesn't please him, and neither, naturally, does what he's about to say, looping back around to the bit about Midnite's play.

"I think Cedella or one of the other sisters told him we were getting close to getting out on our own. I mean…the timing of it. I will grant you that things often work out that way for me, but not for other people. They…what. They just happen to schedule their little meeting with Midnite just as you and I are picking the lock on the door out of Limbo? I don't bloody think so. I think he knew we might get out and decided to set up an insurance policy. Get a favor from somebody we know, find out a little bit more about the people we're spending time with. He knows that I know that he's got this thing to hold over Jane's head, and he'll hold onto that for a while to make sure I don't get any clever ideas about retribution. If he thinks I'm misbehaving, he'll threaten Jane. And on top of that, he gets to look as though he did us a favor, letting me back out again after getting me where he wanted me. I come back swinging at him openly and suddenly I look like I'm the asshole. It was a fair deal. Nobody made Jane agree to it. She's the one who offered."

In short: John's been outplayed, and he is furiousabout it.

—-

Ice-blue eyes follow his tilt into her bed, how his hands hide his face momentarily, burying his frustration behind rough palms. She chews on her bottom lip faintly as she glances down at her knees. Really, John doesn't have to illustrate to her how serious this is, though his insight into Midnite's play is one in which she pays rapt attention. She's heard stories about the man, Midnite's reputation as a big player in the American occult scene is rife with infamy, but the way he sets up his board is something new to her, and she takes this opportunity to educate herself on this aspect of the man they'll probably have to antagonize in the future…especially when it's guaranteed that the favor he will eventually ask of Jane is probably just a touch more serious than housesitting for him over a weekend.

"It sounds like the only thing that might be able to get Jane out of it is another contract," she tells him. "It happens in the real world all the time - another agreement that supercedes the other one. Our community won't be okay with you or any of us taking steps to renege it." Especially since there were a bunch of witnesses to the agreement. "But they'll honor another one in its place. It's just going to take some looking into, is all. There's gotta be something out there that Midnite wants more than whatever favor he might be able to squeeze out of Jane."

Falling silent, she moves after a few moments. Her body tilts, stretches. She rolls onto her front, alongside him on the mattress and situated slightly below, propping her chin on one hand, elbow braced on the mattress. There's a pensive look, thoughtful and slightly hesitant. And when she finally speaks, it's done slowly, carefully.

"You think maybe we should ask Daddy for help with this one? I know he's dealing with a lot, but if what you said is true about him looking exhausted the last time you saw him, maybe a break out of whatever he's doing would do him some good." Her expression tightens, lips curling as a sudden rush of temper bleeds color on her pale cheeks. "I mean he threw me in there, too. Whatever beef he has with you had absolutely nothing to do with me."

As brief as it is, her hesitation is warranted; not just with the strain her relationship with John has placed on his relationship with her father, but also John's status as his former pupil. He's already furious about being outplayed, she isn't certain whether his pride would be able to handle requesting this from Giovanni Zatara on top of it.

But it wouldn't be her not to float the option.

—-

She's not wrong to hesitate. Suggesting that they bring her father in to clean up John's mess does nothing for his mood. The tether is the only way she'd know that: he doesn't change the agitated way he's pushing his hands through his hair and the look on his face is already tight and annoyed, so to look at him she'd never know the difference, but that link between them twists, the sensation of his frustration an intense, wrenching kind of thing.

It speaks to how determined he is not to fuck up what they have that he manages to bite back on that, remaining silent until he's certain he can keep that out of his tone of voice. "If it comes down to it and I don't think there are any better options for Foster, I'll do whatever it takes. Including involving your da." And that is true, though the thought of not being able to settle this score on his own infuriates him. Obviously, he intends to try.

After another silence he says, "Maybe something to do with Cedella…I don't know yet. I'm thinking about it. I think we have the luxury of some time, if nothing else, but I'm not planning to make any moves until we're very bloody sure that we can pull it off, whatever it is we do."

—-

That twisting sensation and the intensity of his frustration makes her wince openly; there's no hope of hiding it where she's concerned, cut out of a different cloth from John. It is plainly visible on Zatanna's face and he can practically feel those hackles rising to brace herself for a backlash….but it doesn't come and she frowns at him from where she's lying. The fact that it doesn't speaks volumes, however - it is the only reason why the shift in her expression is brief, returning to its softly concerned state after a few moments.

"Well whatever it is we end up doing, we should probably try and downplay your involvement, if not find a way to disassociate you from it completely," she tells him. "The moment Midnite even suspects your hand in it, he's going to take off the gloves."

Cedella again. Her brows scrunch up faintly there, her lips adopting a slight purse. "We do have the time…you think she's enough of a sore spot? I mean, he put her there, it's hard for me to reconcile that he'd give a shit unless what she does for him there is so essential to what he does up here that he'd give up Jane for whatever. And even then…"

Well, there are no easy solutions, are there? She makes a quiet noise. "What a mess."

—-

Concerning the question of whether or not Cedella is a sufficiently significant achilles heel for Midnite, John's answer is immediate and certain: "No question." How to make the most of that, how to exploit it, is another matter entirely.

He doesn't respond to her suggestion that he distance himself at least in show, but neither does he argue the point, which is likely as good as grudging agreement from the man beside her. He's still capable of setting aside his pride to put the work, and Jane, first…but he doesn't have to like it, and he doesn't.

"Mess is right," he agrees, a murmur that comes more as a rumble in his chest than anything. Grousing, really. On top of everything they've discussed, there is the very real memory of Jane Foster frowning at him and telling him that he needs to be open with Zatanna about what happened when he was in the custody of the First — that moment where the First of the Fallen seemed alarmingly smug about something, as though he knew something that John didn't.

That, too, is an abrasive little grain of sand in the oyster that is John Constantine.

The shots of liquor cushion all of it just enough that he can finally let his hands fall, draped loosely on his middle, eyes glassy from his rubbing aimed upward at the ceiling. Strong emotions still wear on him physically in spite of the progress he's made in his recovery, which is probably no real surprise. He's avoided thinking too deeply about what they went through over the last two months, but no one comes through an experience like that without wounds to lick, and he's a jumbled mess of repressed emotional responses even at the best of times.

"Fuck it," he announces. "I didn't come here to piss and moan." He rolls his head to the side just a little, gaze cast so far downward in order to look at her that his lashes practically settle on his cheeks, only a very narrow band of blue visible. His eyes wander over her features, cleansed of all of the grime of the infernal plane. Back where she belongs, and in one piece. Things could have been so much worse. The hand nearest her lifts, tilting over toward her, the back of his hand and his knuckles skating over soft locks of raven hair, his index finger loosely twisting a coil of dark tress around it before letting it spring loose and fall away, sheerly for the tactile pleasure of doing so.

And the people they're talking about? They risked everything to try to get them out. That piece of it is still sinking in for John: people put themselves on the line for him. It would be tempting to assume that they did it all for Zatanna, not for him, but three of them have come looking for him in the last couple of days. He saw what was in their faces when they looked at him. He knows that isn't true: it was for him, too.

Somehow. Somehow, he's found people who give a shit about what happens to him, against all odds.

His gaze gentles, just a little. "Nobody died," he says, always his criteria for success. "All the rest, we'll sort out."

—-

The four people who cared the most about the two of them had risked everything to get them out, and at John's absolute confirmation that this was indeed a mess has her exhaling quietly again. "I feel like we better keep an eye on them because I don't know if they know how serious deals are in the circles we run in," she tells him. "I gave Jess and Red my usual spiel on them, that's usually the first thing I warn against when outsiders start diving in. But for all of that, I'm pretty sure if something like this happens again, none of them are going to listen. Jane wasn't the only one who pulled a deal to get to where we are. Red did, too." And that held its own set of frustrations, if not just because Tim had been warned. "With Wong, for an I-Ching reading that enabled them to figure out what happened to us. He was fairer to him than Midnite was to Jane, though considering what he does, it could be just as deadly. Twelve hours of his potential."

Fairer, but still heavy and severe, especially with how Red Robin chooses to spend his time.

"…I guess we wouldn't be worrying so much if they didn't give so much of a damn about us," Zatanna says after a pause. "I don't know about you, but life was lonely before I came back here. Despite all the grousing and the frustration, I don't know if I would have changed a thing."

The touch on her hair has her lifting her eyes, and the gentle look that follows has her smile returning, however faintly. She turns her head towards the movements of his hand, though not enough to impede the way he toys with that single tress before letting go of it. Mischief fills her eyes.

"Well, if you didn't come here to piss and moan, what did you come here for?" she wonders. She keeps her face straight, but he can practically taste the grin she's suppressing.

Shifting, she rolls on her back, but only so she could sit up, hair tumbling down her back in a tousled mass at her movements. She pulls up her robe to adjust it, her head inclining over towards where John still lies on her mattress. "How long has it been since your last visit here?" she wonders. "Probably when I was too young to remember, yeah?"

—-

Ah, says John's expression. He'd expected there to be a price from Wong, once he found out Red had negotiated with him for information, but Jessica hadn't known what it was — or, if she had, she hadn't deigned to tell John. While it's not ideal for Red, to be sure, John has more confidence in Wong's ability to be negotiated with, if worse comes to worst.

She openly acknowledges what he's privately contemplating — the reasons that they've landed here in this position, fretting about the safety of the people who put themselves at such great risk. More silence greets that open observation, but as before, it's a silence that seems to convey agreement, even if he isn't willing to give life to the words. He's come some fair amount of distance since his reunion with her in New York, but emotions are still a thorny subject, and his reticence to discuss them remains a powerful inhibitor.

She makes it easy for him, though, transitioning easily into humor that achieves its end, winning a twitch of his lips. "Well. Maybe a little bit of moaning," he concedes, still quietly enough that his voice is largely a sound in his chest in the relative silence of her room.

His uplifted hand falls as she rolls away and sits, blue eyes tracking her shift. The question she asks has him straightening the tilt of his head, aiming his eyes up at the ceiling again, narrowed in a thoughtful squint. "Mmm…probably," he says, with that ever-present twinge of guilt that arrives whenever she reminds him in a quantifiable way of just how much younger she really is. "I was younger than you are now. More than ten years ago, not long after I took up with him in London."

—-

"Aha." Now the grin manifests. "From you or from me?"

She had to ask, the cheeky bint.

Zatanna falls quiet at that, though her expression takes on a contemplative bent on its own. John had been her father's protege when he was sixteen, at the time when she was on the verge of discovering just what her father had been hiding from her for years. Too young to notice that Shadowcrest's interior did not make sense when paired with its exterior, or that the books that dominated his father's vast library were of subjects that people outside of their world would find barking mad at best and dangerously delusional at the worst.

Still, that would have been early on in his own forays into the occult, wouldn't it? Eager and hungry to learn everything he could get his hands on. Even Chas' story, told to her so many months ago, failed to really hint at just what her father saw in John that convinced him to teach him, when he was so stingy of his tutelage to begin with. But that would mean that he wouldn't have been indoctrinated to a few of the mysteries of Shadowcrest. At this point in her life, she is certain that some of them still escape her, but there are quite a few big ones that she knows about.

Including…

Well, he came all this way, and he's infuriated and worried, and he missed her.

"Did Daddy ever show you the sub rosa?" she wonders.

John may not have as extensive of a command with modern languages as she does, but she knows his Latin is very good. No doubt he would remember the custom carpet in the shape of a stylized rose, in the very back of Giovanni Zatara's inner sanctum, the wide space that holds his ornate desk, the couches for added seating, the low coffee table that gets pushed away more often than not in favor of ritual work in the middle of the circle.

"Normally the library's hermetically sealed to everyone unless he or I are in Shadowcrest," she continues. "Which means people can go in and out of it when we are. Most of his books and tomes, several of the artifacts are accessible. But the rare and dangerous stuff, he keeps in the sub rosa. I was wondering if you ever got to see it. And if you didn't, if you would like to."

—-

The question she asks him isn't really a question at all. The twitch of his lips becomes a slight upward turn just to the one side, the necessary downcast position of his gaze to look at her dampening whatever glitter might reside there.

A smart man knows there's only one way to answer that question: "From you. Of course."

By the time John was sixteen years of age, he'd been practicing magic for over half of his life — if one can consider the haphazard, reckless, trial-and-error nonsense of his earliest youth to be 'practicing' in any formal sense. As with most of his ancestors, John's life has been shaped by his birthright from the moment he drew his first breath — and before that, perhaps, if Fate had any hand in the disaster that was his birthing. When he cornered Giovanni at his post-show signing, audaciously bold, he was proficient enough to make a solid and methodical run at Giovanni's challenge — enough that he'd been accepted, eventually, even though by Giovanni's own admission he'd have preferred a student smart enough to 'acknowledge that a thing is impossible' over a student determined to keep trying anyway. He'd accepted John in spite of that backhanded compliment, one must imagine — or perhaps he understood a little bit of what John really was, a bizarre crack in the world through which Fortune bled into the real. He could have felt obligated to steer him away from the worst of his self-destructive tendencies. He might only have been curious. Not even John knows why, and there have always been good reasons for him to be wary of asking.

Whatever his reasons, even throughout John's tutelage he remained for the most part a mystery, an exacting and unforgiving teacher always slightly aloof to the human element of the boy who worked so furiously at whatever he was given. Wise and necessary, probably; a note of order in the rebellious, emotional, reckless life of the tough little street kid from Liverpool who grew up without any real grasp of what boundaries were.

All of which is to say: there were more things about Giovanni that John didn't know than things that he did; more things he wasn't told about or shown than things that he was. She mentions the sub rosa and he quirks a brow, the answer plain before he even says a word. "No. He never mentioned it." …Also probably wise. Telling John it had been there without intending to let him in would have been the kind of elementary mistake and misjudgement of character that Giovanni would never have made.

Predictably, this proposal does a great deal to slough off what lingering tension remained in him. It tickles his curiosity, and his curiosity is one of a very few things in him guaranteed to be able to overpower even his prodigious pride, wounds an all. "Surely," he says, curling to sit up, "You don't need to ask?"

—-

From you. Of course.

He gets an arch look and a broader grin: "We'll see about that."

To say that Zatanna Zatara is an expert on all things John Constantine would be an egregious exaggeration, but to say that she knows him very well would be accurate. Watching those last vestiges of his earlier malaise on Jane Foster's predicament evaporate does wonders in lightening her own mood. He was right anyway; they have time to parse out her situation, and he's doing himself no favors thinking about it and Midnite while he's still in recovery. But to tempt his attentions towards something that has been forbidden to him for years - a treasure trove of rare and dangerous things, bits and pieces of his old mentor - might have been a reckless idea.

Oh well. What's the worst that could happen?

"Who's Shirley?" is what she says instead; an old joke, a corny one, but she is absolutely unrepentant about it, the young woman rising fully from her mattress and belting her robe over her narrow waist to add some modicum of modesty. Unwarranted, most days, in her own home, but she has house guests. Though really, she wonders why she bothers when Peter Quill tends to wander the halls naked in the wee hours of the morning to drink milk out of a carton like a savage. This does remind her, though: "I mentioned Peter tends to wander around naked around this hour, right? Just so you know."

Taking the bottle of Jameson and their glasses with her, pale legs and bare feet take her out of her bedroom and towards the stairs; in the main entryway, John would find that very little has changed in terms of the decor in Shadowcrest. While her own private spaces are decidedly feminine, most of the house is done up like a classic gothic mansion, its decor unapologetically masculine, though dramatic in some cases - Giovanni Zatara was a showman and there are hints of that everywhere, the most staggering of these being how his inner sanctum looks from the outside. Shadowcrest's library is barricaded from the rest of the house by a pair of doors underneath a white archway, flanked by giant statues of a demon and an angel. It opens up the moment Zatanna comes close to its threshold.

Light spills into the relative darkness of the hall, golden and warm. The library may very well be the biggest room in the house, filled with shelves full of artifacts and tomes that extend up to the ceiling, upper levels accessible by floating, winding staircases. There is a sitting area in the front as well as a broad table, the entrance of the area marked by Cagliostro's astrolabe, emanating its own faint light. Hassan the Mummy was busily shambling across the way, muttering in hieroglyphics, a pile of books in his dessicated arms to be returned to their proper places - Zatanna has been deep in her studies lately.

"Mistress!" Abelard the dodo squawks from his stand. "Another late ni— " The beak stops flapping, dead eyes staring past Zatanna. Were the dodo capable of more expression, they would be as wide as dinner plates. "John Constantine."

Wings move to instinctively cover his tail feathers. It has been over a decade, but it's hard to forget the day someone accidentally sets your ass on fire during a magic lesson. "What's he doing here?!"

"Forgive him, John," Chauncey says, the mounted griffon's head turning towards the visitor. "He can hold a grudge."

"Wouldn't you???"

Zatanna casts John a long, inquiring look. "Should I be surprised?" she wonders, waving a hand as she wanders past the library's overseers and curators of her father's collection. "Don't mind us, guys. We're just going to visit the sub rosa for a few minutes."

"Wh— the— " Abelard sputters. "Mistress Zatanna, no. Don't bring that…that reprobate in there, he's a menace!!"

—-

'Who's Shirley?' gets only a roll of John's eyes, but it's in good humor — how could it be otherwise? She's just proferred one of his favorite things out to him on a silver platter for the taking: mysteries. Secrets. For all that he insists he's no one and nothing special, an average person who just happened to acquire the mysteries of the cosmos on a fluke, he's more responsible for that outcome than he admits. He cannot help himself. As a boy, he found horror movies and carnival freak shows terrifying. They gave him nightmares. He hated them, actually, but he could never stop himself from going in.

He still can't.

He watches her belt her robe again and start for the door before finally peeling himself up off of the bed to follow, a calculated decision of the 'hate to see you leave, but love to watch you go' variety — or at least, that was his plan. It doesn't survive his re-entry into the main body of Shadowcrest: the moment he sees it, the moment he smells it, it's as though he's been catapulted backward over a decade in time, into the body of a teenager he barely even understands anymore. Before Newcastle. Before Ravenscar.

He stops in the doorway of her room, the interior light flooding out around his silhouette. Eventually he reanimates, following along behind her, but his earlier cavalier swagger is gone: he moves with the careful soundlessness of someone adrift in the past, crowded-around by ghosts and lively memories. "Yeah," he says, tone distracted, of Peter Quill. He doesn't mention the bizarre, alien tackle, or even seem particularly alarmed at the thought of abruptly running into it in the darkened estate, which probably says a great deal about his mood.

There are sounds that echo forward at him through that distance of years: music played on the phonograph, the chatter of Giovanni's handful of peers who made a point to stop by, the sound of his own voice, barely beyond the age where that voice had finally stopped cracking embarassingly whenever he'd had to chant something at full volume.

Affected even by the manor's halls, the library's impact on him is almost overpowering in its concentrated nostalgia. The smell strikes him like an open palm. The quality of light. So many hours here, pillaging the shelves, absorbing information with an almost frantic, feverish need, incapable of processing it fast enough for his own satisfaction and feeling a kind of despair every time he thought about how impossible it seemed that he'd ever understand even a fraction of what was contained here before his own mortality caught up with him. He remembers the shelves, the high ceilings, the dimensions, the —

The peanut gallery.

He tears his gaze away from his memory of the room, and angles it toward the dodo, toward which he takes just a couple of long-legged strides. "Abby!" He leans forward, palms his chin and jaw, rubbing gently, his expression assessing — though it quickly expands into a Puckish grin, wide and wicked. "You know, I don't believe you've aged a day," he says in the quiet tone of a confidence, dry as can be. That's right: taxidermy jokes. John can give anybody and anything shit. "I can't believe you're still holding a grudge about that. You'd think you'd save up all your resentment for whatever chap topped you and stuffed a load of wood wool up your arse."

The grin lingers, sharp as knives at the corners, and John's eyes reflect every last ounce of the brilliance of it as he turns to trail after Zatanna, cocking a brow at her when she asks if she should be surprised. "Are you?"

It's rhetorical. Of course she isn't.

"Nothing to forgive, Chauncey. Still the voice of reason, obviously. Good on you. They ought to pay you more." He has a salute for Hassan as they pass.

Hassan was always his favorite. What kid would NOT find a talking mummy awesome?

And then the dodo's squawking again, and the mellowing smile reignites. "Abby, relax. I'm not sixteen anymore. I realize the passage of time no longer has meaning for you, mate, but the world's still turning out there, yeah? Nowadays I only set cheeky birds on fire when I want to."

—-

Hassan pauses from his shambling to greet John in hieroglyphics; it's friendly enough.

I don't believe you've aged a day.

Abelard's dead expression stares back at John at the taxidermy joke. "I suddenly wish I was extinct all over again."

But as the both of them walk off and towards the back of the library, towards the semi-circular space in which Giovanni keeps his heavy ornate desk, the last remarks from John has the dodo squawking in outrage. "Mistress Zatanna! Did you hear that?! He threatened me! You can't allow him to go in there now with all of his pyromaniacal ways!!"

Zatanna furrows her brows at John, after unspooling a whispered word to push aside the furniture situated on top of the stylized rose carpet. The act is enough to disengage whatever security measures are there keeping Giovanni Zatara's private collection secure. Whatever they are, they recognize the young woman's magical signature and as the space shifts and moves underneath the floorboards, the cavernous sounds of gears winding and locks snapping free can be heard as the rose spirals and spreads out in full bloom, stairs assembling themselves from the dimly-lit tunnel that suddenly appears in the midst of its petals. The expulsion of magic at its revelation would be unfamiliar to John; it's certainly not Giovanni's magic and neither is it Zee's, but to be granted access to modify Shadowcrest in any way is suggestive of someone close to the family, and the design is simply too feminine to be the older Zatara's taste. By process of elimination, there's really only one other contender.

The young woman takes a step into the rapidly-forming stairwell, heading down below - it leads straight down at an angle, where the tunnel widens into a marble hallway and into another space rendered accessible only because Zatanna is there. Serious protections wreathe the very stones surrounding them, incongruous perhaps to what most of the world knows of Giovanni Zatara, a stage presence and a showman with his quirky backwards talk - decades of discipline have been poured to construct this vault of secrets.

When they finally reach the heart of the sub rosa, it is nothing antiseptic; there may be certain expectations that everything would be in glass cases, items within protected by locks within locks. But the arrangement of the collection within is much more free, innocuous looking objets d'art are on white, mounted shelves, ridiculously powerful weapons and artifacts set with mementos of Giovanni's past; photographs taken on his wedding day, a lovingly rendered charcoal portrait of his wife, another picture, much older, taken decades ago and with faces familiar to John - Sargon the Sorceror and Tannarak, and another man he would not recognize. There are more pictures here of Zatanna as well as the Waynes. And another - a woman with dusky skin and dark hair, dressed in a high-necked gown. A deck of worn tarot cards wrapped in midnight-blue velvet has been placed under her picture.

Giovanni's phonograph, familiar to John and what he knows led to Zatanna's discovery of her father's hidden side, rests next to an old, but obviously well-loved sitting chair, coated with dust, a distressing sign of the lack of use for a man who had a passionate love for music, once upon a time. Right next to it is a pedestal wrought out of white stone and what looks to be a stalagmite - close inspection would lead one to the discovery that it emits a strange hum, but otherwise appears to be ordinary rock embedded with bits of green and white crystals. Behind it is a large photograph of a picturesque city surrounded from all sides with snow - Nanda Parbat, its location known only to a very chosen few, rumored to be a place of great power and healing, buried somewhere in the more mystical parts of Asia.

And there are books.

Compared to what lies outside of this vault, the collection is modest in comparison - a selection of seven thick volumes covered in nondescript black leather. These are situated in a case and chained with an additional layer of protection. And underneath…

Thus far, the space has reflected no sign that there was any personal connection between Giovanni Zatara and John Constantine. But within the case, on the shelf underneath this precious collection of seven is a heavy box carved out of blue-black stone, and an envelope placed flap-down on top of it. He would recognize Giovanni's writing, scrawled in bold letters on top:

FOR JOHN

—-

Zatanna knits her brows at him, and John shrugs, hands lifted very slightly away from his sides: what can he do?

There is no more banter with the dodo, however, once the floor begins that complicated, elegant process of unfurling with every bit of the grace and organic ease of the flower the entrance was designed to mimic. Even without the promise of further mysteries within, it would be a spectacular thing to see, its complexity naturally alluring for someone like John, for whom intricate interlocking pieces of virtually any kind are a source of constant fascination. He watches it happening from the periphery of its outer edges with an expression of unguarded wonder: something rare even beyond the debilitating laughter she won from him on a Scottish beach. Something he must once have experienced often, as a boy being inducted into a world of impossible things…but not something the world can inspire in him much anymore, through the calcified layers of cynicism and a worldliness derived from experience.

It's a feeling underlined by what he senses in the air, a magical signature that he can instantly guess the history of. A piece of her mother, left behind long after the woman has gone. He watches Zatanna descend into the self-organizing structure of the stairwell and wonders, just for a moment, what that experience is like for her, being adrift in an echo of her mother. It's a thought he can't help — probably no wonder there, given the mother-shaped hole in his own life.

He trails down after her, absorbing everything. Every shift in the magical fabric around them is one he soaks in, incapable of not trying to make sense of how it all fits together…how the mechanisms work.

And then…

Then there are other things to hold his attention.

It is perhaps a small window into the nature of the man that what draws him in are not the artifacts, many of them recognizable on an instant's glance for someone like John — things that other magicians would kill, or worse, to set their hands on for even a moment. Power, in and of itself, has never been what drove him. He's acquired it — stolen it from the hands of his betters, to listen to his furious peers, who find his irreverence appalling and his methods crass at best — but somehow only incidentally or through necessity.

What pulls him in are the personal items. The photographs, the portrait of Sindella, in front of which he lingers for long moments, prising the likeness to her daughter out of her elegant features. There she is: the woman who shattered Giovanni Zatara. Broke his life through the sudden absence of her own.

She is blonde and Zee is anything but, but the resemblance remains, and something about that creates an eerie, dangerous feeling for John, entangled as he is. The slight roll of his shoulders — as of a man warding off chills — as he moves on is subtle, but in the quiet of the room probably difficult to miss.

He stops in front of the velvet-sheathed deck of cards and extends his hand, though he stops shy of touching. His fingertips hover, and eventually fall away. Tarot was not something he believed in, as a young magician. He's seen enough since to question everything that he used to believe.

The tableau of the neglected chair is not without its poignance, though he has no desire to linger long on those maudlin thoughts.

And what sort of books would Giovanni have tucked away like this? It's a small collection, and the smallness of it is what piques his curiosity most. It's locked up, warded, unlike anything else in the room, and that, too, is tantalizing.

He's busy enough squinting at the covers of the bound volumes that he doesn't see the envelope for long moments, and when he does it causes everything about him to lock into absolute stillness. The muscle that straps his jaw hinge goes lax. Blue eyes sweep over those four letters a second time, and again, but they remain obstinately the same: JOHN

If she's looking, she'll be able to see in perfect detail how the muscles in his throat move as he swallows.

He straightens slowly, turns a look on her that isn't wide-eyed, exactly, but still radiates shock.

—-

The portrait of Sindella is a thing of beauty, brought to life by Giovanni himself; he claims direct ancestry from Leonardo Da Vinci, and it's probably not surprising that the man has managed to inherit some semblance of artistic talent, which has been passed onto Zatanna herself. Largely done in black and white, given three dimensions by the harmony of positive and negative space, the only points of color are her eyes, etched in deep green chalk. Zatanna had inherited her father's ice-blue stare, but the rest of her is distinctly her mother's; gentle, delicate features and a ghost of a smile that mirrors her daughter's penchant for mischief, a hint of what the woman must've been like in life - Giovanni's own Mona Lisa.

The cards radiate something, emanating a feminine but ominous energy - it speaks of inevitability, of things that will be - and as John's fingers hover above the folded mass of midnight-blue velvet, he'd hear them faintly - faded whispers, like memories imprinted on cardboard. It pulls at him almost, something about them begs to be touched, but given that the man himself is no novice, he manages to fight the temptation and wanders away from them to look at the other mementos.

Zatanna has been here enough times ever since her father's disappearance, in the days in which she felt his absence the most acutely. Compared to the rest of Shadowcrest, the vault is where most of his vestigial energy is contained - mere spectres of the man who had built it, but concentrated enough with his reminders that she could not resist these visitations especially when things are difficult. Touching a photograph on the wall, to readjust its angle, her words drift absently in the space.

"I spent a lot of time here when I came back," she confesses softly. "I couldn't help it. I always thought that Daddy always seemed so heartless to everyone else because he leaves all of it here." There's a rueful smile, though she doesn't look at him. "I miss him, John."

Of course, those would catch his interest. Melancholy gives way to a hint of mirth as she watches him gravitate to the locked and warded case, and the small collection of seven tomes within, their labels obscured by sheets of worn, black leather, for the obvious purpose of keeping their titles obscured. But his reaction afterward has her pausing, folding her arms loosely over her torso as she leans against the nearby wall.

While she can't see the object that has ensnared his attention, she knows what it is. The way he swallows softens her demeanor further.

"…I was surprised, too," she confesses. "I first noticed it a few days after I came back to Gotham. It's new, I haven't seen it there before, so I don't know when he placed it there. He's never told me what's in that case, not the books or…anything."

She pushes off the wall slowly, moving towards him, ice-blue eyes falling on the shelf.

"Curiosity made me squint at the wards for months, when I first found out about the sub rosa," she continues. "Because I was really curious about the books. They're…bound directly to Daddy. There's no way to open it until he dies."

—-

I miss him, too.

Even as he thinks the words, John probes them to discern whether or not they're true.

They are, he decides, though as with many things in John's life about which he allows himself to have significant feelings…those feelings are complicated. Giovanni effortlessly earned John's respect…but he was, and for John he remains, a difficult man to love. And John does, in his own damaged, reticent way, love him…but it's a kind of truncated familial love, often braided inextricably together with conflict.

He can give her that, he decides. Does, quietly, while his eyes linger on the markless books in the case: "So do I."

He remains still and silent, looking through his own reflection at the cache of books behind the pane of glass, the envelope that says — what, exactly? What could Giovanni possibly have to say to him that he was unwilling to say to him aloud? When she clarifies that none of it is to be opened until after Giovanni is dead, that only compounds his puzzlement. That the locked case is a relatively recent installation surprises him as much as its existence in the first place. Was it put here after his falling out with Giovanni over the summer…? If so, why? How would what happened have any bearing on a post-mortem legacy left behind for his errant student, the thief of his daughter's heart?

That thought prompts the ghost of something amused to haunt his expression, though it remains dominated by the look of a man trying to come to grips with something beyond him. "Maybe all seven of the books are one long letter about how disappointed he was to find out I was buggering his daughter," he suggests, volume low, as though Giovanni might hear him through some intangible link with this, his most private of sanctums. He tosses her a wry look, and after another beat processes something else she said, knitting and quirking his brows. "I can't believe you were going to try to pick the locks on my inheritance. You absolute minx."

—-

His quiet reply draws her gaze towards him again, searching his expression. What she finds there earns him a quieter smile.

His amusement and accusation has her lifting her hands, fingers spread defensively. "The books have always been there!" Zatanna exclaims with a hint of a laugh. "I didn't know they were meant for you until the box and the envelope addressed to you were added later. Ever since Daddy told me about this place, they were here and you know what happens when a parent tries to keep a child away from his very specific things. Don't give me that look, you'd have done the same thing."

The young woman, however, has clearly not attempted to open it, to use her own talents to pry the locks open - there is no one in the world who is more intimately familiar with Zatara's magic as his daughter, but upon close inspection, he'd find that the wards are intact; not a single magical scratch. It could be just as due to deference as it is to caution. These wards are like nothing else she's ever attempted to break, and she's certain that some divine punishment will rain down on anyone who dares try and crack it open.

"Though you might have something there," she retorts dryly. "I didn't think Daddy was much of a writer…you know him, John, what a dinosaur he is. He'd rather show up at someone's doorstep to have a conversation than pick up a phone and call them. But when you think you know him, he does something unexpected." That theory was dashed, of course, at the discovery of the Liber Zatarae etched into her everything. The cumulative whole of his knowledge and discoveries condensed and implanted in herself.

She wanders close to the forgotten chair, her fingers lightly dragging over the white pedestal where the humming stalagmite sits. A hand reaches out to touch it, but strangely enough, something stops her, an inscrutable look passing over the young woman's eyes before she thinks better of it, redirecting it to her father's phonograph instead. After stooping over to blow the dust off the top, she lifts the needle and touches it lightly on the vinyl already mounted there and it isn't long when the mounted brass cone spills its contents in the cool, quiet air inside the vault, piano keys as a preface, the smooth notes of a saxophone after: Miles Davis' Autumn Leaves.

Leaving it to spin, she stops at the wall of photographs, catching sight of a faded photograph of her father performing at a child's birthday party on a familiar, sprawling estate. "I confronted Bruce a weeks ago," she tells him, reminded, her voice almost absent. "I thought about just cutting him off entirely…I intended to, at first. But after what happened with Bucky and with all of this here, I couldn't do it after all."

—-

'You'd have done the same thing.'

"Well." John returns his gaze to the books, so close…and still so unequivocally out of reach. "That's not the point," he says, in that quiet, dry, ever-so-British way, deadpanned and absolutely not serious. He turns his head to watch her over his shoulder, tracks the peculiar hesitation she feels to touch the…whatever it is…on the pedestal, though there's no question about it forthcoming. There would be under any other circumstances, but to have brought him here, given him access to this place even if only for one evening, is already allowing him intimate knowledge of something private. He cannot bring himself to pry further. It would feel…ungrateful.

Instead, he contents himself with watching her move through the space, something of a shrine to a man she misses deeply, and all of the things that man values most (another point of astonished wonderment for John: that there was something for him here). Giovanni's phantom saturates the room, and the familiarity of that energy is soothing. Compounded with the lateness of the hour, the whiskey he had not long ago, their reunion after months of separation and the melodic groove of the jazz that pops and hisses through the bell of the phonograph, the last of John's earlier tension doesn't stand a chance: as he sinks back against the wall and loosely folds his arms, eyes hooding, contentment is already settling in bone-deep, quieting all of the tempests of him. Across the link they share, it feels practically anesthetic.

He's not prepared for the turn that the conversation takes.

It's so out of left field that it doesn't immediately make any sense to him. Who is Bruce? he wonders, assuming it's someone connected with Giovanni's magic — and it is, in a roundabout way. The confusion lasts for only split fractions of a second, and the exact shape of what she's telling him slams into him like a wall. He blinks, and ripples stir up the still waters of his ease.

She means second chances, he realizes, after a moment of weighing what she gives him as her reasons, and he should be sympathetic to that. Second chances are why he's standing here right now.

He is not sympathetic to it, for a whole host of reasons that twist at him, and his awareness of his own hypocrisy does little to pacify his displeasure.

He struggles for a long moment with how to respond to that, and eventually settles on: "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

—-

Are you sure that's a good idea?

Zatanna doesn't answer him for a long moment, her ice-blue eyes wandering over to these pieces of her father's life; Bruce's eighth birthday, a black tie event with him standing with Dr. Thomas and Martha Wayne, a more casual photograph of her father and Bruce's, and Alfred Pennyworth, with golf clubs, taken in the days when Giovanni smiled a little more readily. Within herself, she slowly stumbles into memories of that evening, images from what seems like another lifetime ago - what is it about these days and feeling that way? As if Time had a mind of its own, shooting into the atmosphere and leaving recent events behind at its breakneck wake.

"I thought if I found it within myself to forgive Bucky for what he did to me and you that I ought to try with Bruce, also," she says. "That if I could decide that with someone I'm just starting to get to know, who had good reasons for doing what he did." That is, not being in control of himself. "It might not be fair to deny that to someone with a deeper connection to me. Admittedly, the wound cuts deeper because of that, but…" Her shoulders lift slightly. "He's part of Daddy's legacy, too, and since then I've managed to find out the reasons why he did what he did, I don't know if I wouldn't have done something similar in his place."

She turns to look over at him. "He said it'd been painful, to hurt me that way, to break my trust that way. I told him I'd give him the same effort I've given Bucky, but really, I haven't seen him since. I'm not sure how that's going to turn out exactly, considering the lack of contact and…" She gestures vaguely to the side; he would know what she means, their weeks have been packed with the usual brand of trouble they bring into each other's orbits, a deluge of circumstances that can't help but decisively drown out plenty of other things. "Everything else. I meant to tell you sooner, but we've just been so caught up with all the other shit that I haven't had the chance."

The way it twists at him is evident enough not in his expression, but the silence that stretches between her last words and the beginning of his response. "You don't think I should've?" she wonders.

—-

He listens to her with a patience that most would not credit him with possessing, particularly since it's evident from the moment she begins to explain that he has problems with what she's saying. He manages to hold his tongue, but that liquid body language is already changing, something more formidable about the set of his shoulders, again, the way he holds his arms ever so slightly away from his sides. The softness sloughs off of his gaze, leaving a look far more at home in its place: sharp and intensely focused. He pushes himself up off of the wall and takes several steps into the middle of the space, then turns to face her.

She finishes with a question, and it causes a chip of shadow to lodge itself between his brows. "What I think is Bruce bloody Wayne is a multi-billionaire twice your size, a man who is supposed to have been someone you could trust, someone your father trusted, and he physically assaulted and drugged you, and he didn't have the excuse of having been mindfucked by some sort of Soviet shadow organization for seventy-five years, 'tanna. I'm not downplaying what Barnes did to you, but it wasn't really Barnes, was it? It's not the bloody same." He doesn't bother to try to conceal his bristling unease, but there's still restraint there, as evidenced by the fact that he's able to shift gears without too much difficulty: the conflicted unhappiness admits to something else, something more personal. Regret, perhaps, or some cousin of that. His tone of voice changes, levels out, becomes private as he steps away from the wall and crosses the short distance between them. "And…look. I know…I hurt you, Zee. whatever the reason actually was, whether I wanted it or not, I know you still suffered, and it took a leap of faith to try this again. But I didn't do what I did to…" He pauses, digging for the right words while blue eyes hold their opposites, searching. "…to…make you powerless. To take something of yours away from you. Wayne did that."

The conflict wars on in his expression, thoughts visibly at odds with one another: the need to respect her autonomy pitted against his very real concerns, amongst countless other such pitched battles.

He reaches for her hip with one hand, lifts his hand with every intention of reaching to cradle her cheek, eyes lidding. It's a thing he's done a thousand times before, and the tension of the moment does not keep him from indulging the urge to touch her when it strikes.

His expression is inscrutable, his voice dropped to little more than the sort of volume best employed across pillows, wholly intimate. "Of course I don't like it, Zee. How else would I feel about it?" The pause that follows is short, though whether that's owed to hesitation he overcomes or something more calculated is impossible to say. "He hurt the woman I love."

—-

She can understand his unease, being the endlessly empathic creature that she is; were their positions reversed, how would she feel? If another man or woman did that to John Constantine? If someone had tried to cripple him that way? The thoughts stretch back to their time in Hell, what she had risked to pull him from Mammon's clutches, angering him and his entire legion and really, in the end, making things worse for the two of them - but tolerably so, because it meant at least being together. But that situation was different, too. She does not give a shit about the Demon Prince of Excess; in comparison, she cares a great deal for Bruce.

Or at least did before his actions that night had shattered their friendship and had broken it nearly beyond repair.

Zatanna listens, of course, quietly and attentively; the changes brought upon by their interactions in the end of the last year are subtle at best, but they are never so pronounced as when they're having a serious, personal discussion where the risks of getting into another one of their fiery, no-holds-barred arguments are high. And they are always as such when they're talking about something that touches on the core of what they are with one another. There are many external forces that threaten to pull them apart constantly, though it probably wouldn't be a surprise to those who know them on a level beyond the superficial that they generate enough friction between them to make those forces seem like paltry distractions at best. They are, as usual, their own worst enemies.

But her first instinct now is not to lash out; she had been too willing then to think the worst of John no matter how genuine his intentions, and it caused them no end of grief. As he rebutts her comparisons - no, the situations are not the same, not with what Bucky did, and not with what John did when he left the first time - he closes the distance and as if magnetized to her opposite polarity, she takes a few steps towards him. The curve of her hip fits within his palm as if it belongs there, her face already subtly tilting into the familiar warmth of his other hand when those surprisingly elegant fingers frame her cheek. Her own hand lifts, drawing deft fingertips in between his knuckles. Her lashes draw partially over her eyes.

He hurt the woman I love.

She knows it's true, within the threads of manipulation.

When she speaks, finally, her voice pitches lower, something more appropriate for the change in proximity. "I probably wouldn't like it either, if our situations were reversed," she acknowledges. "But….I don't know, John. My life would be so much different if I didn't at least try to forgive the people I care about when they do something terrible. And I can't help but feel as if…" Her teeth press faintly into her bottom lip. "…maybe I needed that, too. To experience all of that. You leaving, what happened with Bucky. What happened with Bruce. I was…"

She falls quiet for a few breaths, but as always it never lasts. Because she always tells him, doesn't she?

"…I was lying to myself about you the entire time since I came back, and even after what you told me about you leaving, I thought I was ready to put you in the past. I thought I was ready to tell you I loved you, once, and it sat there waiting, while you explained Daddy's hex, and it felt wrong but I didn't want to touch it, because I was too scared to wonder why it felt that way. I didn't know how much else I could take after everything. And then when Bruce was happening to me, the first thing I thought of was you. Running to you. Coming back to you. The entire thing knocked me unconscious, drove me into shock…but in a way, it woke me up, too."

Her pale stare watches his for a moment, before it tracks lower.

"…maybe in the end it's less about Bruce and what that entire experience made me realize," she says quietly, that new possibility sinking in the more she reflects on it; the curse of living a life that moves so quickly that there's hardly time to process existing emotional barbs. "How it stopped me from being dishonest with myself and you, also. That's a little messed up, huh? Feeling grateful for someone's abuse because it drove me to tell the man I tried to move on from that I still love him before anything else happened to me."

—-

It is true.

If it weren't, none of the many tortures of Hell — not any of them individually, nor all of them combined, either — would be sufficient to drag those syllables out of him, and until two weeks ago he might have said that was true under any and all circumstances. That he'd never say them.

He did, though. He gave life to that truth, succumbed to a naming, and so exposed a piece of himself to a world historically determined to skewer him wherever his defenses are insufficient to deflecting the barbs of a difficult, painful life. By John's reckoning, having spent more than just a handful of hours during his bed rest in contemplation of that and other weighty matters, the best purpose to which any vulnerability can be put is the weaponization of that thing. If he is going to be weak to the predations of fate because he loves her, then it seems only right and sensible to employ that weakness as a strength.

He feels no twinge of conscience whatsoever. He means what he said, and so the deliberate manipulation is, in his mind, wholly excusable.

Not that it settles the issue, by any stretch of the imagination. He remains conflicted, torn between opposing needs and responsibilities, to himself and to her — and that is doubly true when she points out that, without Bruce's betrayal, she may never have reconsidered John's place in her life.

It's a thought wreathed in frustration, not least because he wondered then, as she clung to him in the half-light of the cell, if her sudden resurgence of feeling weren't owed to all of the other recent betrayals in her life and a cumulative effect that just…pushed her into his arms. What she says recalls those paranoid speculations, rooted in a period before he'd committed to what they are. That's a bloody stupid thing to think, he tells himself, and knows that's true. They've been through too much since then for him to buy into those old anxieties.

But then, if it really was the catalyst for everything that followed…shouldn't he be grateful, in some way, or at least understand where she's coming from in her own gratitude?

His has always been an accomplished imagination, and the cinema of what took place spools through his thoughts for the first time since it all happened: Bruce Wayne setting his hands on her in violence. Drugging her. Chas finding her laying face down on the sidewalk in a New York City winter.

The fingertips on her hip tighten mindlessly, a tension he's unaware of indulging. His head bows just a little, to the side of hers, the bone of his cheek roughly parallel with hers. Blue eyes lance over her shoulder toward the pale floor, not really seeing that or anything else in the room. In his mind's eye he vents this shackled wrath, bringing all of the vast capacity for vengeance inherent in his upbringing — in poverty, in abuse — to bear on the annihilation of whoever he thinks Bruce Wayne is: privileged scion of modern aristocracy, insulated from pain by wealth, unsatisfied with the world at his feet and ready — so ready, so close — to ripping away from John one of the few genuinely beautiful things in his life.

He cannot know how wrong he is about so many of those furious assumptions…but he knows, at least, that all of those flickering spectres of violence and retribution are, and always will be, indulgent fantasy. In the end there are only certain incontrovertible truths, not least among them that he's learned the hard way what happens when he imposes himself too aggressively on her independence. He asks himself if this is a hill that he wants to die on…

…and after everything, having come so close to his soul being forfeit, the two months without her…

She'll hear his concession in the long breath he draws, destined to be reborn as a heavy, taut sigh, pushed out through his nose.

"Just…be careful," he says. The words are not happy, but they imply acceptance, even if it remains grudging.

It's not Bruce Wayne he's giving the benefit of the doubt to. It's her.

—-

There's no way she could know the present contents of his skull, the mental gymnastics he makes about everything he says, and what he remembers in that half-lit night in his flat's null-magic cell, clinging to him the way she was as he tried to be supportive and present. And he would never tell her, unless he feels the need to. She knows it is happening, though, too familiar with his character to at least sense the tells when they surface. But she doesn't pry into them, or press him to share them. As always, she is content with whatever pieces of him that he decides to give her freely.

He leans in close enough that the shadow he casts eclipses her face, and the shift prompts her to lift her eyes again. With him positioned this way, the finer details of his face are lost save for the handsome profile she manages to glimpse from her periphery. Only half-distracted by how he tightens his grip on her in a way that would leave faint bruises by the morrow, she hears the exhale and the resignation that follows. It isn't unlike what she's experienced herself regarding the thing she had carved on his left wrist; grudging acceptance of the separate risks they decide to take.

Just…be careful.

Zatanna eases closer; it forces him to disengage his hand on her face. Her lips plant lightly on his cheek, falling away when her arms come up to twine loosely around his neck. Nose and lips find the hard curve of his shoulder, and from where she stands, across the way, she glimpses her mother's charcoal portrait, green chalk eyes serenely watching over this secret repository of the pieces of Giovanni Zatara's heart. She says nothing for long moments; her eyes close and she takes a deep breath - his clothes smell like New York, his skin and hair bearing the notes of whatever he used for bathing and grooming today.

"I don't like worrying you," she confesses, both an apology and an acknowledgment of the fact that her very nature ensures that he probably always will. It grips her tightly; whatever warmth and affection she feels about him loving her so much that he can't help but worry can't help but be tempered by her constant fear that she will eventually end up being too much for him to be able to bear. "Ever since Switzerland, I've been trying to be a little more careful than usual."

Trying, being the operative word; her usual recklessness manages to surface in degrees commensurate with the level of strain that she is experiencing at a given moment - their experiences in Hell are simply too fresh for her not to dwell on the mistakes she had made there.

With a quiet sigh, she tightens the band her arms make around him; the record spins on the phonograph, the needle falling away limply. Miles Davis had stopped playing the saxophone a few minutes ago, but she hasn't noticed.

—-

The closeness he began, she finishes. The hand he'd held in that loose, barely-there cradle of her face falls away to slip over the span of her back between the wings of her scapulae, the warmth of his palm a gentle press. The world collapses inward again: from Gotham to Shadowcrest, from Shadowcrest to the Sub Rosa and now again, the boundaries of his awareness shrinking down to only what remains within the loose circle of slender arms around his neck. Shy of infernal bindings in hell, there are few restraints on earth that can hold him — and maybe none more capable than this, for better or worse. By now the shapes of her, held against the solid line of him, are as familiar to him as his own…but they have yet to lose any of their intoxicating effect, and months without her have made her novel all over again. She sinks against him in tenderness and the effect is not unlike a shot of sedative straight to the heart: all of that turbulent, simmering displeasure quiets as he's pulled out of the labyrinth of his own thoughts, his senses gathered together and drawn to a single point of focus.

While she meets her mother's rendered stare, the storm in a bottle that she's thrown in her lot with turns his forward-tilted head, tips his face toward her ear and the side of her throat. He feels her draw that long breath as much as he hears it. Her voice, too, when she tells him that she's been trying.

His hazy eyes slip off onto a lower angle, and after a beat of time his head tilts again, lips a drowsy softness on the side of her throat. "I know." Lips part to press, opened, against the skin they hover against, kiss drawn out, lazy, almost more to taste her than to impart any token of his affection. It remembers itself in the end, becoming a second and then a third kiss less prolonged as he draws in a long breath that fills his chest and reanimates a little, the fingers splayed on her back chasing the shape of her as his hand passes down the length of her spine, and by then there's already a grace note of humor in his expression, though it's largely lost within that softened look of intimate intensity. "I can tell," he tells her, a little more of his voice threaded through the words. Enough to convey the mirth she can't see in his face. "I'm spending three-quarters less of my time pulling my hair out."

Which is to say: he has noticed the effort, at least, and it has not been wasted on him.

He lifts his head just enough to whisper the words that follow directly to the shell of her ear. "Just don't expect me to make nice with the man."

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