The Moment When Want Graduated To Need

April 03, 2017:

Fresh out of her encounter with Ulysses Armstrong, Zatanna Zatara delivers proof of life to a worried John Constantine, who in his worry insists that they start looking into the astral link that has developed between them, in hopes of using it as an early warning system. The effects are unexpected, bordering on disastrous. And yet…

John Constantine's Brooklyn Flat - Brooklyn - New York

John's magical hidey-hole in NYC.

Characters

NPCs: Chas Chandler

Mentions: Giovanni Zatara,Azalea Kingston, Gary Lester, Red Robin, Jessica Jones, Bucky Barnes, Jane Foster

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

According to some caprice of the weather, spring appears to have finally unleashed itself on a coast still reeling from months of dismal rain, bitter sleet, and gunmetal skies. Steadfast encrustations of filthy, iced-over snow, long since turned the hue of New York City's sidewalks, somehow manage to remain…but at just shy of sixty degrees beneath almost entirely dark skies, the populace of one of the world's most diverse metropolises is out in full force. Premature short sleeves signal the widespread readiness for a change. Spirits are high. People plan for weekend excursions, extending themselves after a winter of torpor like plants invigorated by sun bolted through a window.

It's an entirely different story underground in the flat, where John's spent the last two hours drilling holes into the work in front of him on his kitchen table with eyes like cold nails, hardly seeing any of it. The worst of the tempest has passed, a fact which owes itself to her follow-up texts to let him know she was alright, but there's still a lingering resonance of the turbulent emotional storm that passed through not long ago, when he knew she was terrified…but couldn't find her.

Since being assured of her well-being he's made every effort to commit himself to work that needs doing, poring over splayed books piled in fragrant heaps of leather and aging vellum on most available surfaces in search of anything that looks even remotely like the obsidian dagger in the center of those piles…

But his mind isn't with his work, and that does nothing to improve his mood. Blue eyes cut occasional glances up at the still-silent ladder leading down from the hatchway to the surface as though he might will her into existence, while Chas cuts occasional glances at John from his place in the sitting area, as though he might will John's patience into existence using much the same method. Thus far, neither has had much success.

—-

While she had expected the evening to provide its own share of challenges, even Zatanna had not expected how it would turn out.

The details regarding the Blue Belladonna drug were disturbing enough, and even moreso when she learned what it was being used for. If anything, she relished the opportunity to see Tim in his element and to learn a few things of her own - just because she wasn't as seasoned of an investigator as the rest of her closest acquaintances doesn't mean that she doesn't want to learn. But their search for answers had come across one giant, insane and brilliant complication. While she finds it easy to mire herself in combatting various supernatural evils, today had only reminded her of humanity's great capacity to do the very thing.

She had kept her parting light; she had meant what she said about using their late-evening meal to come down from the blood-rush and battle high left behind at nearly crashing into a building, then being caught in a warehouse rigged to explode. After bidding goodbye to Tim, she steps out into the night, bundled up in a jacket that hides her black turtleneck, blending in near-seamlessly in the shadows due to the darkness of her clothing. The mask that Tim designed for her has been safely stowed away in her smartphone, using her very useful bookbag spell.

A whispered word and a rush of wind takes her to Brooklyn.

By now, the flat recognizes her. It knows when she arrives and the yawning ingress takes her through the cover and down the ladder. The pinging of her boots as they ring on metal rungs are just as signature to her as that familiar tickle in John's senses. Not that he needs it these days, the tether enables him to know when she is close, and he would already know that she is in Brooklyn well before he hears her footwear descending on his pad.

She is unharmed, when she flashes a smile at Chas and makes a beeline for where she senses John. There are no sign of injuries - not a bruise or a speck of blood and save for those lashing, white-hot surges of molten horror, the only indications that she had been up to something is the whiff of magic and ozone around her, drowning out the scent of her soap and shampoo.

Uncaring of Chas' presence, her arms curl around his neck, her lips on his cheek.

—-

It takes everything in John to remain focused on the table in front of him when she folds through space, the gravity of her presence closer than it was. It's not until she's audibly descending that he lets himself pull his attention away from the overabundance of material in front of him, though even then it's Chas whose expression puts on display the full depths of their relief to see her whole and unharmed — with a generous side-helping of relief that the continuous rumble of ill mood pouring off of John in intangible waves is finally likely to ebb. Chas is approximately as magical as a doorknob, but the amplification effect of the ley lines embracing the flat tends to trip even his latent sixth senses. It sets his teeth on edge.

John tosses the book in his hand aside with a disregard inappropriate to the volume's age and worth, and rounds the kitchen table just in time to meet her. Clear blue eyes slash over her in ruthless search for anything amiss: blood, torn clothing, singes, scrapes. They find nothing, and by that time she's reaching to link her arms around him, bringing with her the fragrance of spent magic, as much a part of the scents he associates with her as any of her toiletries or the innate scent of her skin. He grasps her hips, tilts his head into the press of her lips, and allows himself one moment of closed-eyes breathing. Beneath her arms, his shoulders lose half an inch of height as a fraction of the tension he's carried with him for the last several hours lets go.

"Christ, 'tanna." Calm, but audibly tired. He leans back, angles his gaze down in search of hers. "What in the bloody hell happened to you?"

—-

Pulled in, she rests her chin on his shoulder, her eyes closing in time with his. She lets him breathe, senses his shoulders sag, and the laxing of that weight has her tightening her grip around him. Their link drips with her relief, the tension she doesn't know she is carrying bleeding out the moment she reaches his warmth, the sensation of safety falling over her like a warm blanket - always, and only, with John. "Oh, baby, I'm sorry," she murmurs. "I would have gone into more detail but I couldn't at the time, things got a little hairy."

Zatanna pulls her face away to angle it up to look at him; she has the good grace to look somewhat sheepish. "Well, with Red helping us out constantly, I promised him a while back that there might be something I could help with him for a change. You know, see how the other side of the night lives? Plus I thought I could learn a thing or two, running with him. So I went with him tonight, one of his active cases involved this new designer drug some Eastern European outfit's been peddling in Gotham. They use it to drug girls and then they kidnap them and send them off to baby farms somewhere…they give birth, and they sell the babies to wealthy families who can't conceive. It's grim, John. Of course I had to help."

Her dark brows furrow. "But then…"

The story comes tumbling out, because as always, she tells him. Finding the women in the cell, blood on the floor and the corpses of dead gangsters. She had teleported the victims to the police department when another masked psychopath invaded the proceedings and took them on a high-speed chase through the city. She was driving, because of course she was, and John has experienced enough of her driving in London to know what that's like. She describes the near-accident with the building, when Odessa mob members came barreling out of the side street to clip her, and then the confrontation in the warehouse.

"He blew up the entire thing," she concludes quietly. "All I could do was shield us both. There's nothing left of it, the grudge he has against Red is pretty serious, there was an incident a few years ago when he tried to stop him from setting Gotham on fire and it killed the man's siblings. He blames him, and he sounds pretty serious about ending everyone he cares about before killing him." Her lips quirk faintly. "Never a dull moment, huh?"

—-

It would be difficult to begrudge Red Robin any kind of assistance, given the long litany of ways he's lent his expertise and occasionally his blood to whatever Zatanna's cause of the moment might be. The story that she tells tests the limits of that forebearance, if only because of the degree of risk involved — and John's own selfish urge, chained and padlocked but a long, long way from dead, to bundle the young woman into some sort of existential bubble wrap and preserve her from harm.

It's grim, John, she says, three words that hardly seem up to the task of encapsulating the scope of the atrocity she describes. Though he can't know it, his train of thought follows much the same track as her own: he spends so much of his time focused on the less mundane darknesses of humanity that he has little time left over to concern himself with run-of-the-mill evil…though he's been forced to swallow his fair share of that, and it never fails to cause in him a fleeting crisis of faith. Why even bother to try to save humanity, when it demonstrates at every turn its deep desire to tear itself apart?

Looking down at the raven-haired witch in front of him, ice blue eyes angled up and lips quirked in some semblance of humor in spite of the trials of her evening, he's given one good reason.

"Never," he agrees, in a voice low enough that it reverberates in the breadth of his chest. He looks pensive in the pause that follows, internally weighing thoughts that don't explain themselves in his expression. At length, cautiously: "Are all of your adventures with Red going to be that dangerous?"

—-

That is why the world needs its Spider-Men, Batmen, Red Robins and Jessica Joneses. Zatanna is perfectly accepting of seeing the world as one fraught with divisions of who should be handling what. Mystical threats are those that she has been born to combat and it is the same with John. The other capes, as he calls them, can handle the other ones that don't fall under that category. But it doesn't mean that she won't help, when she is able, and Red Robin has done enough for the both of them to warrant her help. She's not about to leave her best friend out on the lurch.

The low word has her dipping her head, pressing an open-mouthed token against where his neck meets the collar of his shirt, dropping her face into the juncture it makes with his shoulder. Her arms loosen, but only slightly, a languid drape once she finally lets herself unspool from the evening's toils. He'd taste her worry, pulsing somewhere in the argent thread that binds the two of them together. While she has long since accepted the fact that Tim has probably accumulated a list of enemies of his own, this is the first time that she has come across one of them. She is less detached from it now after having experienced it firsthand.

Are all of your adventures with Red going to be that dangerous?

It's a good question.

"I don't think all," she answers him honestly. "But he's a Bat-protege in Gotham, and his potential can fail any time until his deal with Wong finds its limit. It's not as if I'm going to start running out with him every night, though, and he probably wouldn't like that either. That and he's got an entire crew who does the same thing nightly. Today was the first night he allowed me to come on any of his excursions." He'd feel the shape of her frown. "…honestly I hope it's not always that dangerous. Not that I don't believe he can handle it, but…"

Anything can happen.

Her eyes remain shut. "Did you expect anything different?" she wonders. "I don't think we've met anyone in the last few months who isn't involved in some kind of dangerous business or another."

—-

"I didn't expect anything, because I didn't know you were going to be running around with Bat-people," John points out, and his tone straddles the line between ease and arch. Emotional debris from the last several hours may have had time to dissipate before she was free to return, but it says a great deal that her kiss to the side of his throat doesn't immediately ignite some instinct toward escalation on his part, even if only in comfortable, lazy intimacy. There are fragments of his anxiety left, jagged pieces of shrapnel that worry him because they mean he's gotten used to leaving himself open for her. The taste of her terror lingers on his psychic palate, bitter and sharp, and the memory of it alone is enough to spike his stomach and chest with droplet of adrenaline.

"Which — I understand why you're doing it, and it's fair. He's owed. But…you know. If something happens to you when you're with him, I may have to kill him, 'tanna." It sounds like a joke, but it's a half-joke at best. His state of mind makes it a poor pitch, an effort at levity that fails to find its mark, falling flat. He knows it, clearly, because he pushes the conversation onward: "I felt it. All of it. You were terrified, and I felt that like it was mine. So here I am, trying to puzzle out why a dagger Jones lifted from Hell caused Azalea Kingston to break out in Aztec hives, and suddenly the top of my head is about to blow clean off. So it's not just what you were feeling, anymore, it's, it was…" What he was feeling. His fear, as well. He can't quite bring himself to articulate that.

His hands slide up the concavity of her waist, over her ribs, to anchor themselves at her shoulders and lever her backward, the better to hold her gaze. "We need to figure out a better way of dealing with situations like that. I couldn't find you. I was half a tick from levelling Gotham looking for you. This, whatever this is — " One of his hands lifts, gesturing minutely in the space between them in a way that illustrates the link they share, " — isn't something we've thought about, but it's beyond time. If I get another tomato from you when I know you're in trouble…"

—-

What? Really?!

"Don't give me that, John, it's not like you tell me where you go at night," Zatanna points out, her head lifting to look him right in the eye at that. "Certainly not all that often, and the only way I really know about it is after, if that." They are old habits; as attached as they are, she has yet to do what others before her have done - to demand to know what he's going, or who he's seeing, or what he does in the late hours where there is nothing but shadows and unspeakable things lurking in the corners of their world. "I never ask because I've become used to not asking, no matter how much I want to and because you've already burned me once for not trusting you to be able to handle the things you do."

She would say more, but he dovetails right into what he experienced. There is a few precious seconds where she stares at him mutely, because for all of their strides in the last few months, this is still somewhat rare. John Constantine will never be open about his vulnerabilities, not unless he feels like he doesn't have a choice. Whatever tirade is brewing from her first few words tempers at the corners, once he gets his hands on her shoulders and eases her back to look at her so she knows. So that she'll know without him actually putting words to his thoughts.

After a few moments, her expression softens visibly.

"Okay," she says at last, her hands moving to extricate his grip from her shoulders, both sets of fingers squeezing his hands in emphasis. "Okay. Let's figure it out."

Slowly, she lets go of them, taking a step past him and lifting her hand to rub the back of her neck, her brows scrunching in thought.

"I'd have thought a while ago that you'd want to dampen…whatever this is," she says. "To make it less sensitive, or at least filter out things you didn't want to know from me, or vice-versa. I didn't want to bring it up because…" Her voice trails off, but he would know. She wasn't sure whether he wanted to dig deep into what its existence means for the both of them. "If emotions could travel through it, maybe thoughts can. Not anything uncontrolled, mind. The last thing I want is to suggest anything that opens your head up to me. But maybe if we could find a way like…transmissions."

She turns her imagination towards the problem, glancing over at him. "Like astral morse code, or something."

—-

Business first, then pleasure — if one can weigh 'nimbly dancing along the boundary edge of an argument' pleasure, at any rate. His only answer to her well-reasoned objections can be found in the slight knit of his brows. The memory of his recent experience — being stuck here, saturated in her horror, impotent to fix the problem, bereft of any idea of what that problem even was — is too fresh for him to be sidetracked by anything less severe. Bickering can wait.

He returns the squeeze to his fingers, then pivots and rests his hips back against the kitchen table with its bounty of grimoires, hands loosely on the edge to either side. Watching her, gaze sharp: the focus that he brings to bear on any thorny problem that needs solving. He doesn't flinch or dissemble when she tells him she'd not been sure he'd want to discuss it in any detail because of the inevitable vocabulary of feelings that would be necessary, but predictably skepticism rears itself in a guarded look at the prospect of his thoughts traveling along that silver cord, the way voices travel string between two plastic cups. The thought alone is enough to put him on edge — but not just because he's a private creature who values his secrets. The thought of her having a window into his mind, his memories…seeing the kinds of things he's done, discovering the kind of man he is, underneath whatever unquantifiable thing it is that made her inexplicably fall in love with him…

His jaw tightens. She's swift to assure him that that wouldn't be the aim — and really, logically speaking, that comes as no surprise; she's never pushed him that way, and he cannot even begin to imagine that she'd want him occupying her headspace, for that matter, because who would?

What she suggests arrives in the form of speculation, which really only serves to illustrate how little he knows about the phenomenon. It forms an unusual, almost unprecedented gap in his encyclopedic knowledge of the occult…for reasons that are particular to John Constantine.

When you never expect yourself to be that close to anyone, studying the magic of intangible astral bonds only serves to remind you of things you'll never have.

And so, a moment of somewhat unusual turnabout: "What do you know about…this?" His gesture in the pause refers to the entirety of what they're discussing: the link, its limitations, its capabilities, its purpose. He hasn't forgotten her suggestion, or its inflection as a question, but as is typical of John he's reluctant to commit to solutions without fully grasping the problem.

—-

She knows he wouldn't like it, the very implications go against almost everything he is. But he asked for a solution and that is the first idea she can communicate to him, and despite his current edginess, he was right. They have never talked about the link between them, have let it exist unaddressed until now. Truthfully, she doesn't even know where to begin; he has ten years of experience on her in all things occult, the fact that he has not outright dismissed her suggestion is telling, at the very least, that he would like to know more about their tether. Zatanna takes a breath, giving him a glance, before long legs take her further into the kitchen, brows still knitted in thought.

She eases onto one of the chairs by the kitchen table, folding an arm over the back and crossing her legs by the knee.

"I can really only tell you what I've experienced personally," she tells him. "This isn't the first time I've had one. Almost all my life, I had a link with Daddy, also, but it took me a while to realize what it was." As he undoubtedly remembers, she didn't know about her father's true nature until she was about six years old. "He was experienced enough by then to be able to prevent his end from leaking into me, but he was always able to anticipate my needs even without me telling him. And once I realized what it actually was, it was helpful in some ways. I can teleport to him no matter where he is, I would know almost instinctively where he would be, for starters."

The raven-haired magician leans against the chair, tapping her fingers lightly on her knee. "Daddy told me a little," she says. "He had two, one with me and one with my mother…he still has one with my mother. So long as your soul isn't destroyed, the link can last forever, well after the human bodies involved have died. But it's not as if people can't get rid of it. I know for a fact that the tether itself can be severed, but those are secrets that are well beyond me. Daddy…" Her ice-blue eyes lower on the table. "A few days after he disappeared, our link was suddenly just gone. I think he had to, in order to protect us both. But I wouldn't even begin to parse how he managed that…I just woke up feeling…"

The following word is so quiet it's barely audible: "Empty."

—-

He undoubtedly remembers.

He will go on undoubtedly remembering, because had she always known what her father was, what she in turn herself was, and what she had the potential to one day become…she would never have experienced the desire to become a clown. Thirteen years after the fact, John would've been unable to ask the question he'd asked her, producing the answer that practically shattered him, leading to furious verbal flailing on the nature of dolphins, thence onward to an exceptionally personal Valentine's day gift, which would, when all was said and done, save his immortal soul — for the time being, at least.

And this is why, when John tells people that Fate and destiny are infinitely more baffling and impossible to predict than their straightforward counterparts in fiction, he does so with absolute certainty.

It would be a lie to say that he was surprised she shared such a thing with her father, though the knowlege that it was eradicated when he ran afoul of whatever is keeping him away from his daughter does color everything he knows about her time since then. She's told him — recently, in fact — that she was lonely before they fell in with their motley crew of misfits and metahumans, but the nature of that loneliness is outlined in stark detail when he contemplates how he would feel if that bond were stripped away from him tomorrow, without warning or explanation. Its existence worries him, but its disappearance is incomprehensible.

Which, ironically, does nothing to mitigate the impact of being told that the tether persists through death. Standing there in a casual lean against the table, head turned hard so that he can look at her in the chair beside it, there's no outward indication of how that fact struggles to find purchase in him in any meaningful way, how it doesn't quite manage to sink in. The permanence of it is anathema to everything he's grown accustomed to believing about his life. To imagine that there might be anything in his life like an anchor — let alone something he was not the architect of — is sobering.

He wonders silently what that means, whether it changes anything at all, to know that some piece of her might be with him forever. To say nothing of the fact that the reverse is true; that she might be fated to carry some part of him with her for an eternity, a fate he isn't sure he'd wish on anyone, let alone the person into whose gravity-well he's been so effortlessly pulled.

Pensive, he ducks his head into the splay of his hand, elegant fingers rifling through brown-and-gold strands of hair, his gaze pinned to some non-existant point in space close to the floor. "I don't want to get rid of it," he says, eight words that say volumes about how he feels without ever once stooping to giving those things a name. "Maybe your suggestion is good enough. The things we get up to…I need to know when you're alright, and when it's time for me to pop in and feed some prat his own bell-end. I've never been angrier with a vegetable in my life."

…one assumes he means the tomato.

One hopes.

"And it may be worth looking into what else we can do with it. For that matter, we ought to find out what someone else could do with it, if they decided they felt like trying."

—-

There were days in which she holds that hefty amount of skepticism towards what he believes of Fate. In a blazing show of youthful optimism, she had once told him that she thought Destiny was overrated and that the future wasn't as set as anyone thought. It had been a conversation languidly drawn after the fiery conflagration of passionate wants and needs that had overtaken them after Switzerland, whispered between bodies in the darkness of the cell in his flat. She still remembers the way his eyes looked when he stared deep into her own, and told her in no uncertain terms that Fate didn't give a damn as to what she thought.

Months removed as her teacher, he can't help but illustrate the distance of experience between them even without meaning to. The string of events that led him to be able to save his own soul from the First's greedy clutches was so ridiculous and almost nonsensical (because really, who the hell could anyone anticipate a conversation about clowns and dolphins would lead to what she had given him on Valentines Day?) that to explain it all without thinking about Fate and all of its iterations would be downright impossible. She doesn't want to, has a visceral aversion to the very thing, but especially after their sudden exile to Hell, she is starting to believe it. And if such things, no matter how crazy, happen for a reason…

…what if this is the same? Not just that the tether sprang into being because of what they are to one another, but whether, at some point in the future, something about this will be important and potentially crucial? If they elect to remove the link to make their lives easier for the both of them, wouldn't that spell disaster in the end?

She doesn't want to. She acknowledges the possibility that they might have to, but as she lifts that pale face to look at him, he'd be able to glimpse in the nuances of her typical, wordless expressiveness that it is the last thing she wants, and for all the reasons that he had divined himself. She had been abandoned; not just physically and emotionally, but spiritually. To forge another link with someone else only for it to be severed again out of necessity is something she doesn't even want to seriously consider. The sentiment fills her eyes; her fingers ball in quiet fists on her lap.

To her surprise, because somehow, as well as she knows him, he always manages to do so, he speaks up first.

I don't want to get rid of it.

He'd feel it then, the rush of relief, and a shuddering tidal wave of affection - Love so overpowering, it feels like a fist to the solar plexus.

"I don't want to, either," she tells him hoarsely, swallowing hard around the knot in her throat that she wasn't aware was there until she attempted it.

The rest, she agrees with. Her nod is emphatic in that regard, and if anything, it goes both ways. "I need to know when you're in trouble, too," she tells him. The quip about the vegetable has her grin returning, enough to chase out a dimple from her left cheek. "Am I gonna have to delete the tomato emoji from my phone?"

"I already know I can track you with it," she says. "It's how I managed to teleport to Switzerland. And like I said, if we can use it to sense what the other is feeling, maybe we can figure out some kind of astral morse code to transmit through it. I don't think it's all that far-fetched, we just have to figure out what form we'd like that to take that isn't too obtrusive. That's going to take some experimentation, though, I think. This is new for me and you, and we'll have to be careful. I'm less worried about you crashing through my head and memories and more about doing something to damage or destroying the tether….because I don't know if you can get it back once it's severed." Another reason why the loss of her link to her father was so distressing.

The idea of someone else using it for bad ends is a sobering thought, and one that causes a small shiver to run down her spine. If nothing else, the link they share was born from intimacy, in levels that encompass the physical, emotional and mystical. The idea of another presence shoehorning its way in to tamper with that is enough to make her feel somewhat violated; an understandable sentiment, considering the continuous attacks on her soul that she has suffered in the last few months.

"Maybe we ought to prioritize that also," she suggests quietly. "Especially if we're going to be dealing with Azalea's problem together."

—-

He's always been alone within the house of himself — barring the two years he spent in Ravenscar, anyway, when he had a full menagerie of other voices to contend with — and while that loneliness contributed in no small part to the kind of fractures that would develop in the man he would become, in his adult life it has had its positives to consider, things it lends him in the pursuit of what he does, the thing that allows him to feel he has a purpose. A reason to go on existing.

Her sudden appearance there was in every way as unexpected as her sudden appearance in his life, the degree to which she found her way inside much the same…and while he retains some of his reservations about what they've chosen for themselves, cultivating something fragile in a world that has done its damnedest to thoroughly dismantle the architecture of his life, he cannot imagine where he would be, what he would be now, if Zatanna Zatara had never happened to him. Cannot fathom, in fact, what kind of thing he's turning into, aware only that he's in a liminal state of transition from one thing into another.

The link is a part of that, by its very definition. Perhaps the essence of it, in some way he's not yet able to understand. Casting it off would be tantamount to eviscerating what they are.

…There is also, if he's honest with himself, some unflatteringly possessive element to his desire to see it remain in place. Selfish, greedy. Those are not qualities of himself of which he's proud, but he knows himself too well to deny that they have a place and a say at the table when he makes a decision like this one.

Her relief, palpable and poignant, makes it easy to justify hearing them out. He eyes her for some silent moments, then tilts into a long sideways lean to kiss her forehead — a long, firm press. "I'm not planning to go anywhere."

From anyone else, it might have been 'I'm not going anywhere,' a firm declaration, but John isn't in the habit of making promises to his inner circle that he's not absolutely sure he can keep. And in any event, while she relishes the opportunity to flirt with disaster by tempting Fate — 'how bad could it possibly be?' and the like — that is one superstition that John actually actively avoids.

He slowly straightens, and the lazy intensity of his focus is owed to his inward-turning thoughts, teasing at the knot of what they need, the obstacles to obtaining it. "It's going to take some doing. If we can send things reliably, consistently, with deliberate intention, we still need to be certain it can be done when things are going to shite. That everything else coming across it isn't going to drown out the important bits." One index finger taps the side of the table twice. "And defensively speaking…we're going to need to test anything we come up with, as well, and I've no bloody idea how to do that safely."

—-

Lashes shutter at the warm press of his mouth on her forehead, and while she is already sunk in those eddies of overpowering relief, his kiss does its work to unwind the rest of the tension on her, the mental brace with which she was girding herself in the event that John told her that he wants it gone. Heat and moisture prick from underneath her lashes, which she busily attempts to bat away, but she manages a small smile towards him. Zatanna says little else afterwards and much like him, she turns her mind towards the problem.

Astral morse code, or the equivalent. She knows there are metahumans out there that can establish a telepathic link with someone, but she is not equipped with those kinds of talents and their link is mystical and not psychic in nature. She doubts that the principles will be the same.

"I think we're going to have to take this one step at a time," she says. "I understand that there's always a risk that anyone could take advantage of it, but at the moment I don't think anyone knows we have something like that between us. I know I haven't told anyone." Largely because she was almost certain nobody else in their inner circle would be able to understand what it means. "And I'm almost certain that you haven't either." Unless John told Chas, who is really the only person she can imagine him confiding something like that with. "So I think as far as defensive measures go, we have time."

She chews faintly on her bottom lip, rolling her head back to turn her ice-blue eyes to the ceiling, lidding them half-way and catching the hazy, golden glow of vintage bulbs above her head - as if the blurry light would be able to trigger some fit of inspiration, something to jar her creativity into its full bloom and deliver the ideas she needs. It's difficult, certainly; she's always accepted the link, but she's never thought about the ways in which they could use it either. And the one person they could ask about it, who they can trust to keep it a secret, is gone with the wind dealing with his own catastrophes.

"We'll have to see if we can do that first, send small, deliberate messages across," she tells him. "We can try using protective circles to ward off outside interference and use anchors as safety measures…kind of like…something we can grab and 'pull' ourselves back to our respective corners if we feel like we're slipping too deep into the other. And then once we master that, we can stress test it using the Box." Ice-blue eyes fall towards the shelf in which the beautifully carved receptacle of not-quite-real surprises is stored. "And once we know we can do that clearly while we're suffering some kind of stressful situation, we can work on figuring out how to…third party proof it. I think, probably, that if we get there, whatever we learn in our prior experimentations will give enough of a base for us to figure out that last part."

There's a glance over at him. "What do you think?"

—-

'I'm almost certain that you haven't either.' He shakes his head, a small movement. As much as he shares with Chas and as close as that bond may be, the two do not traditionally delve into discussions about their private lives. All to the good, really, given how John's presence in Chas' life has caused no end of marital discord for the big ex-pat American…and the thought of baring his soul and whatever passes for his sensitive side to Chas is enough to make him break out in hives so obstinately masculine that they practically have stubble and sip fifty-year scotch whiskey out of a — a carburetor. Or something.

He's quiet while she thinks, keeping the counsel of his own thoughts, and attentive when she begins to speak. Nods once, when she glances at the box, in a way that suggests his thoughts had run in parallel to hers on that note specifically.

He's not quick to answer her question, but in the end it wins a nod from him and a very faint quirk at the corner of his mouth. Mollified, it seems. "Good enough for beginning, and we can modify if we have to." Some of the ease darkens, expression momentarily overcast. "The sooner the better, though, 'tanna. We're off across the pond soon, and given what we know about how Muller conducts his business…" He lets the statement hang. They're likely to be in a pressure situation at least once. John has no illusions about the upcoming trip, no grand delusions about storming Berlin and watching James Barnes snipe Muller with a magical bullet from a distance, leaving them with the remainder of their time abroad to sip appertifs after consuming their weight in bratwurst and sauerkraut — or whatever god-awful vegetarian options exist for poor Zatanna.

—-

"Right," Zatanna murmurs, when John reminds her that they're crossing the pond, her thoughts running parallel with his on that end. Muller, from what he had told her last year, had been responsible for collecting her blood and sending it off to the Cult of the Cold Flame in hopes of pitting John Constantine and Giovanni Zatara against one another. It hadn't been meant to capitalize on her romantic connection to John, but it did the job of up-ending a lot of things that resulted in how they are now, and John was always the most dangerous when he feels he needs to pull out all the stops to get something done. There's a glance over at him at that, concern furrowing her brows.

It has been a while since they've discussed Muller; not really since she had brought the Liber Consecratus to the Brooklyn flat and relinquished it to John's custody, who ended up delivering it to her father. Now that he has impressed the desire to cross the Atlantic to Germany and tie up some loose ends reminds her of that side of him - the kind of man who could hold a grudge, and not let go until that is settled.

And she knows why. She knows why Muller hasn't left John Constantine's mental ledger, reminded of that very first argument, back in the days when she was all too willing and even eager to think the worst of him. The things she said to him, then, when he had been so adamantly resolved in trying to protect her, in spite of herself.

"We can start tonight, unless Chas has any objections," she tells him, a brief glance to the main living area. "I've done ritual work in here before, I've used the space where my sandbag used to hang while I was here on house arrest." The last is light, faintly teasing, but falling away as quickly as it comes in lieu of the more serious subject at hand. There's a glance at his 'homework' for the evening, reaching out to pluck a tome and peering at its crispy, yellowed pages and the etching of the dagger within. "…unless you want to tackle Az's case first?"

Inquiring eyes lift towards the British magus, and at taking in his contemplative expression, she ventures, carefully. "…what do you intend to do if we ever get a bead on Steinschneider?" she asks quietly. "Are you still going to try and…" Kill him.

—-

There is prior history to consider, and also professional pride. Steinschneider might have existed as a curiosity in the same world as John Constantine, unmolested so long as he kept to himself, but that privilege was revoked the moment he chose to put Zatanna at risk. It doesn't matter to John whether or not the man's interests no longer revolve around her. He continues to exist as a loose end, and for all intents and purposes that means he's a free-floating danger to her forever. John knows what happens when he leaves loose ends untied.

He follows her glance toward the den, gives her a little tiny shake of the head. "Nah, he'll be fine with it. I kitted his room with some…acoustic dampening," he says, the last two words enunciated with more emphasized diction, punctuated with a little wink for her, the barest hint of something wry surfacing in an otherwise focused face. "But since we're here and I don't have much to tell, really…" He glances over his shoulder at the array of books and vellum scrolls, and more specifically at the blood-encrusted obsidian dagger at the center of it all, radiating a modestly evil sort of aura.

Before he can suggest that they discuss it, though, she puts a question to him in a tone of voice that draws his gaze back around, one of his brows cocked upward. Pale eyes search her expression, and the brow gradually lowers again, suggesting the phantom of a shadow between itself and its opposite in something not quite like a knit. "I don't know. It depends on how it all goes down when we find him. We will; I've got a chunk of the man's leg and some of his rubbish as well." There's a brief pause. "I'm not planning until we know more. Where he is, what he's doing, what it's going to take to get to him."

Which still does not really answer the spirit of her question. He contemplates leaving it there, knowing it's likely she won't press him too hard, but there's something about the way she asked the question that forces him to reconsider his usual opacity. "All things being equal, and if I had my way, no. I wouldn't. That's someone else's job, not mine. I want to know what he's doing and why. I want him to cough up everything he knows, everything he owns that some other pillock could run across and do mischief with if he's removed from the equation, because he's obviously the type to have contingency plans. I'm just not sure I believe we'll be that lucky."

—-

I kitted his room with some…acoustic dampening.

It's a testament to the seriousness of their conversation that Zatanna manages to give him a furrowed-brow look when he gives her that wink. "Why would he need…?" But the vestiges of wryness from his handsome profile has her realizing what he means immediately. He's rewarded by a sudden laugh, and a hand reaching up to rub her cheek, in what could be a self-conscious gesture, save that a blush does not arrive and she throws him a knowing look instead. "You think of everything, don't you?" she wonders, mirth underscoring the syllables, a hand reaching out to poke him on the side.

There's a glance at the obsidian dagger, reaching out to take it. While she doesn't drop it, the ominous energy wafting from it makes her shudder, unwanted goosebumps rising over her skin immediately, visible under the glow of the flat's vintage bulbs. The purity of her magic renders her sensitive to its more corrupted forms, just one of the many reasons why she barely got any sleep in Hell, or why she is often uneasy around necromancy, or any sort of art that tends to pervert something inherently good. The blood on it is unusual and, given what she senses from it, not quite human.

"Where was this from?" she wonders, setting it back down, wiping her hands absently by rubbing both palms on her jeans.

With the conversation turning towards Steinschneider, ice-blue eyes return to him; everything he says is sound, and it would be just like him to consider all the angles. There's a hint of a smile there, mischief in her expression - he would know immediately why, considering her own approach would be so different. She has always been the straightforward sort, and were she left to her own devices, she was liable to just find Steinschneider and kick his front door down, while introducing him to the receiving end of her magic. She has never been shy to bull right into a magical battlefield.

But his reassurance that murder isn't generally his way has that expression gentling considerably. Her smile grows soft, tenderness wreathing those pale features. It was enough to know that it isn't his first instinct; she does not generally condone killing, as he knows, but now she has additional motivations in trying to keep him from darkening his soul further, or too much to the point of no return. She still, after all, remembers what he said about the First of the Fallen, and whatever it is that he's so gleefully waiting for John to find…

"Okay," she says softly, standing up. A hand reaches up to brush light fingertips over his cheek, before she moves past him to go towards the den. "I'll start setting things up, then."

—-

"I'm very good at doing just enough work to make sure that the people I like tolerate my ongoing existence," John quips, of whether or not he thinks of everything — because he patently does not. Not that he's going to refuse to accept the compliment. Whatever builds the myth and the legend, etcetera.

Months ago he might have discouraged her from picking up the foul thing on the table, but they've seen, done, and handled far worse now. The delicate instruments of her sensitivity to magic make her vulnerable — but also insightful, and given what he's about to tell her, insight would be a welcome reprieve from banging his head against a lack of answers. "I'm informed that this is the dagger Jones used to cut you out of the belly of that thing of Mammon's in Limbo," he says in a voice conversational enough that it glosses over the fact that by the time that happened, he'd been crumpled in an unconscious heap beside the door (and supporting the weight of Jane Foster's laptop, though mercifully for everyone involved, he has not been made aware of that fact). "She nicked it off of some other demon, I believe, but whatever it is, it has some significance to Xiuhnel. I had a meeting with Jones and Azalea to get on the same page about trying to solve her situation, and when I got there she was holding onto it and her eyes had gone problematic. It wasn't Azalea, it was Xiuhnel, talking about…eh. Well, I can get you the transcript, I wrote it all down after the fact. I've been looking into histories connected with that pantheon, but there's no mention of any obsidian blade. Itzpapalotl is also known as the Obsidian Butterfly, though. Anyway, you can help me look over all of this after we get down to business with the other. Maybe…find something I missed."

Though he doesn't tilt his head into her touch the way she so often does to his, that fleeting contact stills him, softens something in his expression and the sky blue of lidding eyes. When she slips away he reanimates, moving in the same direction, pausing on the periphery to whistle at Chas, who glances up from the book in his lap.

"Oi mate, 'tanna and I are going to — "

Chas snaps the book closed, lifts both of his hands. "Okay, okay, I'm going, I don't want to know."

John stands there with his mouth open, then finishes his sentence weakly. " — work on some…work…" The last word arrives just as Chas is shutting the door to his room. John stares at it for a long moment, then shrugs with a rise of both brows and pivots to make his way to where Zee is setting up. "Chas wishes us luck," he announces when he gets there.

—-

As John moves to confer with Chas, Zatanna busies herself with preparing the space, using the set of chalk that he always keeps in his flat; the ones crushed with the blood of virgins (purportedly) and rolled into pristine white cylinders. On her knees on the concrete ground, she has stripped off her gloves and bends to the task, inscribing the sigils necessary for the night's Work. The configuration she works into the floor reflects a variety of principles than an exact formula, something that she has learned from John in her months as his student, knowing enough, at this point, to be able to do this with some sort of skill, a mis-mash of magical disciplines modified to fit the purpose she has in mind. Dust cakes her fingertips, but she is diligent, and precise in her work.

What she ends up etching on the floor are two smaller circles, one for him and one for herself, situated within a bigger one - what she intends to be the actual divider between their bodies and the world they know, an ephemeral chamber to contain whatever magical energy they generate together in attempting to parse what possibilities lie within their link. It isn't unlike what he had seen from Giovanni before, when the two of them worked on severing the pages of the Liber Consecratus that John needed - only that the Great Zatara's presence had been enough to generate it without any additional preparations. The runes she had placed on the perimeter function to strengthen the barrier, while amplification ones alternated with the ephemeral anchors they need are set around the smaller circles within, to give the intangible chains outside of them an additional boost. It is purely a just-in-case measure, based from her own experiences with their link, knowing just how powerful the surges are depending on the emotions involved.

When John returns, she is finishing the final touches, tossing the chalk back in the box and wiping her hands. "Alright, I think…I was half-making this up as I went along, but I think it'll serve…unless something goes terribly wrong." The work is meticulous, and as always creative - she has always had a talent in taking what she knows and rearranging them in different ways; a principle that she has used many times in his presence, the last when she had broken him out of Mammon's prison.

Slowly, she takes up one of the smaller circles and situates herself in the middle, cross-legged, her palms resting on her knees. Had she extended her palms outward to touch his, it would be a mirror of their past Tantra-lite sessions (which often turned into something else in short order), but the point of the exercise is to be able to communicate, somehow, when they're not in physical contact with one another - it would hardly serve as a litmus test, if they used the medium of touch.

She waits for him to get in position, before her eyes close. Somewhere inside of herself, she hesitates, but only briefly, before she consciously reaches out…and touches the argent tether binding her soul to John Constantine.

—-

The greatest compliment that John can pay her work is consenting to sit inside of that circle.

He doesn't do it quickly, which probably comes as no real surprise. What they're proposing to do is strip away layers of distance that separate individuals according to the laws of the natural world, reduce the point of contact to something not even external, like the press of one palm to another, but internal — some spark of contact that passes from within her to within him no matter what might fall between. Reassurances on the matter of theory are well and good, but the practical reality of consenting to this — to exploring a thing that has its foundations in the very seat of who and what she is, and more to the point allowing her to do the same given its mirroring anchor in him, is…

It would have been impossible even as little as two months ago. He would never have chanced it, with everything he perceives as being at stake. The risk of having her discover something in him that he cannot countenance her knowing…

No. They're being cautious. She would not, he knows — is certain, beyond all doubt — delve beyond doors he prefers to keep closed, but he's relying on his own ability to do that, in an arena he has little enough experience with. Astral travel, yes. Astral links? No.

Narrowed eyes ruthlessly scrutinize her work down to the last detail, piecing together the harmonies between the elements she's chosen to use, mentally weighing the balance, the efficacy. And when he's decided that he could do no better, offer no worthwhile improvement, he does finally take a seat, rolling his shoulders back and adopting a relaxed but straight-spined posture.

Her hesitation is internal and brief. His is on full display, and lingers: they are standing on the brink of something neither of them fully understand, preparing to hurl themselves over the edge in an effort they cannot rewind after the fact. It is — as the unknown always is, for him — tantalizing in its mysteries, but he's long since learned to be leery of things that cannot be undone.

And yet. What else is there but to try?

He closes his eyes, takes a long, deep breath, and with his exhale sends his consciousness tentatively outward, searching for the thing itself: not the sensations or emotions that it funnels into him from afar but the mechanism, the conduit, a thing he's never tried to lay his hands on — figuratively speaking.

—-

Intangible fingers reach for a thing that is equally so, but when they do, she is surprised to discover that there is some heft to it, solid to her astral senses but thin - as sharp as piano wire, but as malleable as silk. It seems to stretch forever, towards a chasm spangled with distant stars, wrapping around a world that is a mirror image of their own. Zatanna pauses, turning her ice-blue eyes to the ground and finding nothing - while the precipice in which she is standing feels solid, it doesn't look different from the canopy above her. Save for the tether itself, she has no point of focus, and that, on its own, is somewhat disconcerting; like floating endlessly in a standing position in a sensory deprivation tank, hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling nothing but the silver wire-string against her fingers deigns to transmit to her.

Here, it's even more apparent - John's hesitation, the lingering unwillingness to push forward. These are things she has already anticipated, nobody knows better than her and Chas what a private person the British magus is, though she is presently unaware that there are other elements feeding his reluctance to do this, also - reasons that have everything to do with her perceptions of him.

But now that she was here, actually touching the thing and weighing it, now what?

Was it going to be like telephone? Two cups on either end, with a string in the middle to transmit tinny voices from one end to another?

She tests it; curling her index and thumbs together, she flicks her end of the tether lightly, sending the ripple outward. Astonishment ripples over her face when she can actually track the wake of its vibration into the unknown, though she receives nothing back. In a way, she should have expected that also - just because it can happen in the real world doesn't mean it can happen here, and while it feels tangible in this form, that doesn't mean it'll actually act in the same way as a string.

You knew that, Zatanna, come on.

Taking a breath, she curls her fingers more securely around the tether and slowly, but surely, extends herself further along it, to tap further into the link.

She feels the tug almost immediately.

Like a rushing current, it threatens to suck her in, to pull her from her end and further out, into his. Her heart lurches into her throat as to just how suddenly it all happens. Lips part in a cry that nobody will hear, but the triggering of those emotional responses send those drops through the aether. He would feel it, that sudden rush, the 'oh shit!' moment even while she struggles to stay on her end, to dig her proverbial heels and resist the pull.

And it is harder than she expects.

She does not expect it to be seductive, also, the urge that fills her to close the distance and fill John's mind with her presence. The sensation strongly reflects what she consciously feels every time she's in the same room as him, when neither truly resist the urge to touch the other, so freely indulgent of it, reveling in their mutual, stunned wonder that they've found themselves in the place they are. Outside of her body, her perimeter sparks as the anchors hold, when she levies that effort to stay on her end despite the pull and the singing temptation to let go and drift to where he is.

—-

They should have known. They should have anticipated. For two people so dead-set on maintaining absolute agency over themselves in their lives, stubborn well beyond a fault, it is entirely too easy to confuse volition with choice — particularly for John. They've chosen to foster the intimacy they have, and so retain some sense of authority over the arrangement: it exists because they will it to exist.

And yet, not having chosen the alternative to know whether or not such a choice would survive the practical realities of being perpetually thrown into one another's orbits…it seems foolhardy — will seem foolhardy to John in retrospect — to have believed that they could control this, even with the aid of her canny inscriptions on the floor.

For John, the astral plane has always been something one passes through en route to other destinations, not a destination in itself — with the exception of the Akashic library, perhaps. He dislikes it not for its disorienting lack of character but for the sensation that he is exposed on every side, a single point of interest to draw the eye of any malevolent second presence, paranoia fueled by a lifetime of peril and adversity. That crawling feeling on the back of his neck is eased by his ability to focus on the task at hand, at least, his thoughts bent to a purpose that doesn't allow him to contemplate the vastness of this interstice between planes, and what it may contain.

He's infinitely more reluctant to lay his hands on the thing than she is, afraid — as he often is — that his touch will bring ruin on something precious enough that he fails to grasp why he's been permitted to have it in the first place. Once he does, grasping not with any simulacrum of anatomy but with the muscular machinery of whatever it is he uses when he works the art, it becomes clear that the tether is strong enough to weather even rough handling, and some of his reluctance bleeds away. He spools his consciousness into it in fascination, feeling currents, a tide of…what? Whatever it is that travels from one point to the other, somehow moving in both directions at once.

Into the placid waters of that exploration come sudden knives of feeling: her momentary panic and the struggle that follows. It is instinct, not calculated care, that causes his immediate response — opening up, reaching for her across that line, trying to divine the nature of what it is that caused her to feel that way. It's the response he's developed without even thinking about it across the brief lifespan of the tether's existence, and it's precisely the wrong thing to do.

It grasps him in its incomprehensibly powerful fist and tears him through the void, hurtling along the axis of the link, and while fear is the first thing that strikes, what follows is perhaps the only thing that could ever overpower his natural wariness. If she were surprised by the temptation of slipping away into the essence of him, how much more intense must it be for John Constantine to be plunged into the forgiving, bottomless, unqualified adoration of Zatanna Zatara, in all of her emotional generosity…?

He is lost from the moment it takes him. Some part of him remains aloof to the barbs that lodge in him, and that part of him screams at him to stop, to snap out of it, but it screams at nothing but a ravaged soul patched with a scrap of something pure, both being carried effortlessly toward the embrace of something better.

—-

She is still struggling to keep to her end when John's essence suddenly hurtles out of nowhere. As if fueled by millions of bottle-rockets, he comes surging from his point and into her own. Ice-blue eyes snap open, unseeing, when his consciousness fills her, his anchors snapping at the strain, the quiet pop-pops of small, electric exposions rippling around where his physical body sits. Her lips part, but not a sound comes out, her body growing rigid, spine bowing out and her fingers gripping tight into her kneecaps. And somewhere inside of herself…

…he sinks into an endless pool of jumbled images, its chronology confusing, like a multitude of flipbooks ripped asunder, its pages gathered up without a care as to which volumes they belong to. But it makes sense; this is not his mind, and the only person who can make sense as to the history and time of her memories is frozen at his sudden invasion. Through the tether, forged by her connection to him, her feelings for him, serve as enough of a key to shove him straight into the parts of those memories that are relevant to him.

He is awash with emotion and sentiment, near-overpowering in their intensity, as if drowning in a pool made up of everything she remembers about him, everything she feels for him. He swims through the moment where she first laid eyes on him, the incident when she first realized she was in love with him - seventeen and picking herself out of the dark, horrifying bits he had just saved her from, his angled looks and those sharp, cutting smiles. He sinks in those parts of her that he shares, that summer spent intoxicated by all of the rules they were breaking…and in the abyss that followed when he had left her suddenly.

The malaise, the binge-eating, the desperate texts and all of the tears. How she's managed to pick herself back up after weeks of wallowing, because she couldn't anymore, forced to grow up all the faster after her father's disappearance, left alone in a dangerous world with nobody to rely on but her wits and the resources entrusted to her, and the name she carries. The sensation of other hands, other lips, masculine fingers that were not his own, the way she drowned herself in the attentions of others on the road and the regrets that followed, because none of them had been him - how intense and painful the sensation of missing him was after each and every interlude until they dropped in frequency altogether, concentrating instead in the search for her father.

Her return to Gotham, the comfort Tim's presence provided in that first day of school, the first time she had talked about John after months of trying not to think about him. Bruce, next, that later conversation, that delicate inquiry about John.

What did I expect, seducing someone ten years older than me? I signed up for it…I know better now.

And how she wishes it was true. How she hoped it was true.

The memory of his return to the States slams into him with the force of a truck careening out of control on a highway; the anger, frustration and pure, unadulterated distress of seeing him again, all masked by the bravado she had demonstrated. The nicks and cuts experienced at just looking at him while the two of them were embroiled in the serious business of trying to figure out what Mammon wanted in Gotham, the night she revealed that Giovanni was missing. He falls into points where their memories intersect again, because he was an active participant - the night she set out to hurt him, and the near, overwhelming sick feeling that followed the moment he walked away.

Whispers, too. The sensation of a cold, metallic hand wrapping around her throat, the day she manipulated Bucky Barnes into hurting her to answer for her deliberate attempt to hurt John, her tired rejection of Azalea while she tried to maintain some semblance of stability despite her shattered heart. The moment he touched her again for the first time in months, the surge of desire and the opening of that endless well that is so unrepentant of the fact that she missed him, but couldn't bring herself to tell him. The terror associated with the act of taking her…

Don't….do this to him…please…

…ripping her soul away - something he had felt in the other end of the city - matched by that fiery, burning unwillingness to break her promises to him. Other whispers, the quiet confession of a young man whose voice he doesn't recognize, and her equally quiet confession of her own; that she hadn't moved on from him.

More things, recent things. The events of this year's Valentines Day sweeps him up like a storm, threatening to pull out his heart and grind his bones to dust at the sheer intensity of how she felt through it all. So happy, so excited, the moment she saw him standing by the windows of the vivarium exploding like a supernova through his astral senses…

He sinks in deeper like a rapidly sinking ship and everything around him warps. Hairline fissures spiderweb through the colorful, volatile tapestry, on the verge of cracking and splintering. Somewhere in the sea of it all, Zatanna chokes at the strain, the weight of him threatening to shatter her psyche.

"John…" she whimpers, struggling to shove him out, but he fills her in ways that are beyond intimate, and she wants it, and she is scared shitless that she won't be able to resist. "Don't…you have to stop…"

—-

He'd thought until now that what slid across that silvery, silken line had been intense, almost unbearably so for a man who keeps his emotions on a short leash, because at almost every turn that he's let them loose they have left only swaths of destruction in their wake. It isn't that he doesn't feel things strongly; the opposite is true, in fact…but he's forced to be cautious about what he allows himself to be swept up in. He crushes things as they take root, represses things he can't stand to contemplate too long or too hard.

He is not, in short, anything like Zatanna, whose entire existence is defined by its feverish vitality. If John's brilliance is something he guards jealously, the fires of his nature closely held, kept locked behind interminable layers of armor and rubble and all of his ferocious will to live a force that turns itself endlessly inward, she is explicitly the reverse: a torch, an explosion, endlessly outpouring heat and light in a grand conflagration of existential openness.

Her essential nature passes through all of those shells, safeguards and walls like something out of phase with the world, with effortless ease. Like a thief. No — like a bomb. Because John is not like her, not in this way, and the experience of her, of being her, detonates inside of him with a percussive, explosive outward force, a torrent of intense, unchecked emotion as alien to him as the dark side of the moon or the prospect of a nine-to-five job. He isn't ready — not even remotely. Long starved for any such freedom of feeling, he's like a man in a desert when the sky opens up and monsoon rains flood the sere, cracked earth: he wants it desperately, but there's too much of it and he's at risk of drowning or being mired, buried in mudslides brought on by the barren soil's inability to absorb so much bounty at once.

It's like trying to take a sip from a firehose, and for long, timeless moments he's little more than flotsam on the deluge of her memories, swept along like a leaf over churning rapids.

If only that were the only exchange. Whether he finds her in the strange beyond or she finds him, it seems to matter not at all. John is a stone cast into the bottomless depths of her well, a bullet fired from the gun of Fate, and Fate has excellent aim.

It isn't as though he lacks in the capacity for intensity altogether, as the kaleidoscope of impressions that follow handily demonstrate. The reticence with which he treats the matter of their relationship and all of the complex emotions that drive the engine of whatever it is he feels for her cannot withstand being wholly submerged in her this way. It cracks, breaks up into shards, is rent away in the ceaseless flow and he does not even immediately notice, flooded with memories of other times and places, things he never knew and all of the ways she felt about them. And in turn?

In turn, as barriers shatter, things she never would have forced him to say spill out of him into the fabric of her Self as though unbound. It's not a linear progression, not a chronology of their time together and, in fact, for whatever reason the parts of him that yield themselves to her awareness are not exclusively vignettes that involve her at all, at least in any direct way - more confused, more jagged, like things glimpsed in the sharp blades of glass from a broken mirror.

It begins, as one supposes it must, with the moment he capitulated to her efforts to seduce him. Capsized, really. His efforts to resist had been genuine, and his reluctance real. Until that exact moment he had never, not even after years of her insistence that she loved him, looked at her with eyes that could see her as anything but Giovanni's daughter, his student. Always adept at erecting barriers between himself and any kind of impulse toward attachment, he'd been invested in her progress - in some ways as a reflection of his ego - and felt keenly the satisfaction of playing a part in her successes. He'd questioned his methods and his own abilities when she'd fallen short. He'd learned things from her as often as she learned things from him - things about himself, usually. But never, ever, not once, did he ever look at her as a Woman - capital letter W, of the sort that pings his radar on any other given day.

It took all of ten minutes for her to dismantle that resistance, turning everything on its head forever. All it took was knowing the right words - and who better for that task than the backwards-speaking Zatara witch? - to change the angle of his attention, knock it askew just enough to see her for the first time in some other way, and it was as though some lever in him had been thrown to complete a circuit he hadn't even known he contained. No amount of questioning his own judgement could stop that reaction once it had begun.

Revolving around this pivotal moment are other things, though, some clear in their relevance and some seemingly dissociated entirely from the core of that memory, whatever link they share known only to the man to whom they belong, though all of them have been scattered here like bones or dice by the oracle of Fate. A sucking feeling of weakness haunts the fringe of his memory of how he succumbed to her enticements, spidery threads of it cast out into darkness in which even darker memories lurk: beats of time pulled from the empty, isolated years after his time in Ravenscar, when most of his mates were dead, damaged, or had utterly disowned him. He'd flitted from one end of the globe to the other like a ghost in his own life, plagued with voices he couldn't discern from his own and tortured by thoughts of what he'd done. He was destitute in his lack of genuine human connection, but the wounds of Newcastle were so fresh, the abuses of Ravenscar so endlessly confusing that he could cling to a tenuous thread of hard-won sanity only by punishing himself with the absence of it, depriving himself as penance…because if he had the capacity to be penitent, perhaps there was still something worthwhile enough in him to justify his ongoing existence.

Fragments of memory connected with Ravenscar are virtually impossible to sense, made monstrously abstract and surreal by the distortion of electroshock therapy and what little is there is not anything anyone would ever want to see. But adjacent, linked to the loneliness of his wandering in the first years after his discharge from the hospital, are memories more distant still. John in youth, whose childish eagerness to please his father was swiftly rectified with abuse. Fists to the head - always fists to the head and the smell of lager, the sense of not belonging anywhere at all. Unwanted. His first real act of magic, before he was old enough to need two numbers to pen his age: shunting the innocence of his childhood into a box and burying it in a stony, heathery hill in some half-forgotten wedge of English countryside on a holiday, sheerly because to keep it would kill him. Eschewing friendship, eventually. Not because he needed to pay penance as a child - though perhaps he did, for the death of his mother, as his father so often insisted - but because he sensed that he was unlike his peers, and threw himself with a violence of determination into peeling back the thin skin of reality to expose the web of magic beneath. People were only pain. Beyond the veil of a false reality lay promises of something better. A promise that Newcastle would eventually betray.

Not all of the images that whirl around his memory of that first night with her are so bleak. There were other lovers, to be sure - women and men, actually, all enjoyed with perfect equality. Even love, rare though it may have been, glimpsed in a moment of red hair on fair, flushed skin, the pervasive sensation of youth. Friendship in a tableau from the countryside, a man and woman, the woman with dark hair and green eyes, the man jovial, full of bon vivance.

These opposing influences are akin to poles on either side of the pivotal moment at which he chose to give in to her: whipped into her arms by the cold, anchorless life he'd led before, lured by the promise of a taste of something better, dimly remembered from other moments. And that had been enough - until New York.

Until they'd reunited, and one night he'd tried to push her to listen to him - I promise you, Zee - and been blindsided by the intensity of her reaction, understanding in a moment of epiphany that there was still something there. That she felt something, after four months of his absence, beyond contempt for having left her behind. Worse: that it twisted something up in him even to know that. His heart had cramped around the knowledge, and panic had set in. That very same night they'd delved into Muller's labyrinth, and the heart of that fear set the stage for all of the horrors that would follow, fed on by the man's dark magic. It would bend the very same things that drove him to her like a funhouse mirror, showing him alternate possibilities: how the warmth of friendship and comforts of belonging all invariably led to catastrophe and suffering, and the emptiness of being alone offered him freedom from the necessity of that pain. They had become opposing forces in the endless tug of war of his impulses, simultaneously the most devastating reason to pursue her and the most convincing reason not to. How he'd seen her dismantled by spectral winds as dust - and he was right when he told her, sickly, the night that he left the flat: it was sort of beautiful - and been given opportunity to pay the price by the towering, cold icon of her father, one white-gloved hand on the emaciated shoulder of Gary Leister, out of whose mouth and into John's spilled unfathomable, voracious things.

He'd chosen her anyway.

Stumbling, imperfect steps toward banishing the nightmares of his life. White-hot fury born from the moment he saw her, as a bolt of fear lanced straight through his core, in the midst of the chaos in Switzerland, where he'd watched one after another of their compatriots fall to the violence around him. Disbelief. One moment earlier, one moment, and she'd have seen something, someone, who looked like her father, and what would have happened then, what she might have done - he nursed those thoughts all the way back to the flat on that silent, icy walk, never once reflecting on how anger powerful enough to raze everything between them might be the surest sign that it was far, far too late for him to walk back the way he'd begun to feel. Everything after he'd asked her in that pained whisper to remove her father's hex had been another halting step forward, excruciating and exhilarating by turns, often both at once, until he no longer recognized himself perfectly. Until, pinned against the wall of a filthy hole in the pit of Hell by the prodigal conscience of God, he'd thought nothing of binding a part of her to his very soul. To save himself, yes, but to do that, to be willing to do that at all…

His soul is a ragged thing, like a pennant flown in wartime: soiled, rent, tattered, pieces of it torn away by necessity, accident, or in sacrifice. That piece of her remains bound to it nevertheless, somehow finding equilibrium where there ought to be none. That kind of purity ought to have rejected its new circumstances, and yet —

Every last fiber of who he is is compelled to shelter it. Dirtied and downtrodden though it may be, there is virtually no safer place that errant splinter of her soul could reside. Somewhere in that may be an echo of the reason that they exist this way at all, some metaphysical lesson in balance - who can say?

John senses none of it. All he knows, emerging from the madness of her passions, is that she is terrified, begging him to fight back, to stop. To stop.

The force of his retreat is enough to buckle the ley lines surrounding the flat, sending ripples out across the cityscape for those capable of feeling such a thing. He is not an imposing man by the standards of a world containing Asgardian gods and supersoldiers, but his capacity for raw force in less physical arenas extends well beyond what most people would believe - possibly beyond what he knows of himself.

—-

He bleeds into her and plenty of what he has never said comes pouring out.

It's like vinegar poured into some culinary mixture to prevent it from becoming too sweet, the wildfire storm of her passions blunted by darker notes shaped by aspects of his life that she had passing knowledge of, but never really experienced, or witnessed, or even tasted; suffering from parental abuse and the lack of opportunity, stunted from becoming a whole person well before he even knew how to be, those painful steps that led to her father's tutelage only for Newcastle to savagely beat into him the consequences of his hubris, for daring to be more than what he had been born into. The fragmented puzzle pieces of his time in Ravenscar, confusing and discombobulating, where they had only broken and dismantled him further until he believed that he could not function in the outside world without being institutionalized. While the hurt is enough to overwhelm her, nearly three decades worth of nothing but undeserved penance starting with the mother he never had a chance to know, it's the potent, palpable sense of loss and loneliness that destroys her and threatens to tear her apart, shuttered away by a young man's belief that nobody could make him feel otherwise…why rely on others, then, when he is capable of doing everything himself?

Zatanna has lived an open life in the hopes of minimizing the regrets she could accumulate later. She swears by hope, optimism, the deep-seated belief that underneath everything, most of humanity at large are inherently good. It is not surprising that John finds himself swimming in a sea of stars that burn too hot for him to be able to stand or resist, given the fetters he has placed upon himself, the limits on his expressions that have been placed there out of necessity and suddenly getting a sense of what it would be like, to be the opposite of that.

But his presence in her mind darkens her own and she finds herself falling in the unforgiving graveyard of his memories, flayed alive and twisted by these remembered paroxysms; pulled in waters so deep there is no hope for light to breach them. She flails, and flounders, and drowns as she experiences those emotional lacerations - she doesn't know whether time has managed to alleviate the sting of these wounds, but she has never known of them in this much detail, much less experienced them, and as every disconcerting image passes her eyes, every agonized emotional impression lances through her heart, she can't help but soundlessly scream, exacerbated by her very nature as an emotional mirror, ever sensitive to the joys and miseries of others.

The memories associated with her give her some reprieve - small comforts in a terrible maelstrom, but far, very far from insignificant ones. Her wildly beating heart knots around the remembrances of the last few months together, fighting, clashing, dancing around each other's boundaries while throwing themselves headfirst into whatever it is that they're trying to build between them. Their experiences in Hell have done nothing but intensify those moments and give them focus, as if everything they had suffered managed to distill themselves into this one event that has managed to save John's soul from being offered up to the First of the Fallen…and a piece of her own stitched in the battered, bloodstained curtain of his, lost forever within those confusing folds, but all the more secret and cherished beccause of that. To dive into the layers of John Constantine, as she is experiencing right now, is a frighteningly dangerous, torturous odyssey for someone who cares about him. More, a thousand times more, for someone who loves him.

And she does. Despite everything she has managed to glimpse, she still does. She hangs onto the certainty of that emotion as tight-fistedly as he jealously hoards that little sequin of her spirit. If nothing else, it only intensifies around him as she burns.

The pain, though…

As he tears himself away, ripples of his own torrential magical might sending metaphysical shudders all across his flat, strong enough that Chas might feel it, he manages to reclaim his end. The break forces Zatanna to let go out of relief and the sheer severity of the strain, collapsing backward and sideways from where she sits, half-out of the circle that she has made for herself. Amidst the fire-electric sparking and stuttering of anchoring and amplification runes, her arms come around her middle on instinct, like some hapless animal determined to protect itself from the inevitable evisceration of a more powerful predator. Her face presses hard into the concrete, streaking it with blood from an injury that he will not be able to see from his side of the circle.

She weeps.

To say Zatanna never cries would be downright false - to ask her never to cry might as well be like asking her how to breathe, but her tears often fall in glittering drops, otherwise silent at the expulsion of them. It is almost unheard of to see her, hear her, do this. He had seen her sob, once, when she clung to him on top of the Empire State Building in Hell's New York, frightened and relieved and sick with guilt for having separated from him, after weeks of not expending those emotions the way she often does. This…is something else.

The sounds are muffled and she clings to herself, so disoriented that her first instinct only remembers her powerful sense of self-reliance, and so turtles into her own body for shelter. Violent tremors threaten to cleave her spine in two, her knees drawing up, body tightening into a ball. Against the floor, she seems determined to flood it in the same manner as he did her, salt and water mingled with rusty crimson, soaking into the concrete and washing away some of the outlines of chalk she carved into its surface earlier. Mired, still, in the fog of the brutal, savage swamp of his life, all she can do is what she has always done….embrace the heatbreak, and ride out the razor-sharp edges of the agony it delivers, somehow.

Somehow.

—-

It's one thing to know abstractly that John's life has been a difficult one, and entirely a different matter to know how he feels about the assaults on his humanity. It is possible — difficult, but possible — to find people alive in the world who could, if sufficiently incentivized, provide almost all of the details about the various phases of his bizarre existence, from his home life to his misfortunes as a teen, to Newcastle, to Ravenscar…even his self-imposed isolation afterward, trying to kill off the pieces of him left that needed other people at all. People could provide a roadmap of his tragedies. What they can't give, what almost none of them can give, is any window into what any of that has done to John, shy of stating the obvious: it turned him into a real son of a bitch, for which he is almost universally disliked. Scorn that he makes a clear point to disregard, openly and vocally, unrepentantly occupying his niche as a dangerously treacherous bastard too untrustworthy to get close to.

Beneath that, only question marks and mysteries. He does not advertise any feeling about the circumstances of his life beyond disdain for the opinions of others, reluctance to form attachments, and absolute dedication to his professional life…though she's seen more of the pain than most. As things between them gained momentum in New York, she saw, probably more than anyone else, the kind of turmoil and fear caught up in doing things any differently. And now she's gone one step further: not a flat wall of taciturn, brooding silence but the leviathan things that move beneath the surface. That he feels it all, pushes it down and away, lashes out when he's wounded and retreats, disappears, when the world forces him to feel too much…and his 'too much' is so little by comparison with anyone else, because he is perpetually aware of the maw of Ravenscar, wide and yawning below the tightrope of self-control he walks every day. One slip, and he's certain that's where he would land again.

And it changes nothing, in one sense, because he's still made the choices he made, putting his faith in her — in Her more than in Them, really — in spite of every screaming, shrieking instinct not to. He's still there. He still told her, minutes ago, that he had no plans to go anywhere else.

And yet, it inevitably must color everything else, all of the gaps in what came before. Why it is that he turned up in the concrete room where she was having her soul ripped out of her with a weapon in his hand that was as likely to kill him as it was to kill everyone else. Why he's had to fight, not always successfully, against the urge to impose himself on her autonomy — and that in the face of the countless ways the world has tried to take her away.

As grim as the revelations of his past may be, there's something there in its coexistence with what they've become that has an altogether different character. Somewhere in the rubble of who he was, the seed of something better. Fragile, already battered and tested in a thousand ways, but the first thing — truly the first thing — that he's attempted to help grow in long, long years. The leap that must have been required for him to consent to let it take root rather than ripping it out and tossing it aside was remarkable enough; to follow that through-line to the rooftop of the broken skyline of an alternate New York City and a confession of actual love…

Few of the memories she's plunged into linger on the shining moments of what they've built, but the depths of the darkness she discovers in him must lend fresh insight into just how precious, how unexpected and unlikely the brilliance of it all really is.

And he has absolutely no idea that she's seen it at all. He reeled away from her astral presence but not out of his trance entirely - not until he feels her go, and opens his eyes to find her crumpled on the floor, every line of her suggesting pain that she gives shocking voice to, wracked with tears. Panic curls clawed fingers into his chest and forms a fist, puncturing his lungs, making it difficult to breathe. "Zee! Oh shit." What if he's hurt her? What if he damaged the tether, damaged something in her somehow by - by who knows what? By any part of it, because he understands so little about it…

He ignores the spitting, popping charges that dance around the edges of the circle, instantly next to her, face unguarded in shock and worry. He reaches for her but his hands hover uncertainly before they finally chance a light touch, wanting to gather her up off of the floor but not certain he can or should. Impossibly gentle, as though she might shatter or dissolve into the dust of Muller's nightmare maze — and even that must be burdened with new significance. Anyone might handle her gently, fearing for her safety. A normal enough thing to do. But John is not in the least bit normal, and every last ounce of that tenderness, driven by the fear that he's done something wrong, is a tiny miracle in and of itself.

"Zee, what's wrong? What happened?"

—-

What happened?

She doesn't say anything for a long, long time.

She dumps almost thirty years worth of tears into the concrete floor, shaking under his touch from the force of her sobbing. She doesn't move away, but neither does she turn towards him, because she can't. It hurts too much, her mind feels like its on fire, and blood pours from her nose at the aggravation of it; the extraneous organ at the base of her brain, the existence of which she has yet to discover, pulse and throb in time with a drummer's march, doing absolutely nothing to assuage the growing headache mushrooming at the back of her skull. He'd hear the vague audible notes of harried words, but they're too choked up at the back of her throat from the remembered pain that has twisted her up from that deluge brought into her by half a lifetime's worth of suffering. Her fingers claw into her own clothes, bundles dark fabric between their clutches.

"John…" she gasps from around all of it. "Oh, John…oh, baby…"

Zatanna grits her teeth, her eyes squeezed shut and try as she might to stop, she can't. The insides of her cranium feel heated, her heart is beating wildly and the pain is indescribable - it is caused by nothing physical, but being so attuned to him compounds the effects of what it would for someone who was more removed with his life. And she is hardly that, isn't she? She is the very opposite of it.

The sound of his name is enough to bring most of the most painful and the most beautiful parts of it all back and for a while she does nothing but cry. An attempt to exorcise herself from those reflected demons, and given that there are so many, it is not surprising that the next long, agonizing minutes are bent towards the very effort. The sheer magnitude and number of his torments, the dragons that he keeps tightly under lock and key, is so startling that for the time being, this is all she can do. To weep endlessly because never in her life had she come across anyone so lonely, who had almost next to nothing, who wants to be part of the world he constantly tries to save, but lashes out at any perceived risk of rejection. The urge to leave first, before he is left. After all, he's had enough of that, hasn't he?

It is, thankfully, not all reflected sorrow. There is relief, buried underneath the memorized miasma threatening to choke her. Happiness too, in a way, and absolutely floored by what she has encouraged him to grow inside him. The significance he places on them, on her, is both humbling and frightening, weighty beyond all measure, but one that is welcome, and she is determined to shoulder it, no matter what it takes.

Slowly, once the tremors start to ebb, she turns her face, to peer up at his shocked and concerned expression. Ice-blue eyes glisten from sore, puffy red; glassy and unfocused from lacerations that aren't wholly physical. Streamers of blood drip down her nose, cutting across her pallor in a wet, garish line.

"I tried…" she says, her voice hoarse and ragged around the edges. "I felt it pull me and I tried to resist…but you were suddenly there, and you were in me and…oh, John. You bled into me. I didn't want to do that to you. I would never do that to you but I felt it all and I was drowning…"

—-

She seems to go on sobbing forever, and all he can do is stare, horrified. When she doesn't push him away he manages to shift her up off of the floor, at least — which is how he first sees the blood, the stark contrast of it against her skin enough to slam him with a fresh wave of anxiety — so that her head and shoulders are cradled while she vents…what, exactly? Fear? Pain? Grief? He doesn't know. When she tries to tell him he leans down, but it's impossible to make out and he finds himself unable to help her save in the careful way he touches her hair, thumb swept over the tresses that sweep away from her temples, jaw tight. All he can give her is to be there, waiting to find out what he's managed to fuck up.

"I'm sorry," he tells her quietly, some trace of desperation in his tone as the minutes stretch onward endlessly. "Whatever it was, I'm sorry. Tell me how to fix it, Zee."

But it can't be fixed.

The hope that it can kindles in him visibly when the tempest wanes enough that she can look up at him, emerging from somewhere inside of herself. His brows knit, his head tilts, worried eyes searching her face as he reaches with his other hand to gently wipe away some of the blood rilled from her nose.

The confusion that follows is mild but terribly brief. He understands quickly enough. It wasn't as one-way an experience as he'd believed, too wrapped up in everything he sensed from her to realize that his own gates had been flung equally wide.

The realization impales him with an emotion that has no name, sickness and dread braided together with fear and more than anything else, more than all of it, shame. Instant, hard as an anvil. He tries to close his expression before any of that becomes apparent, sheerly on instinct: he doesn't know how to close the conduit between them.

Clearly.

It takes him a long time to find his voice, and the single word he manages is heavy. The magnitude of the thing he'd dreaded coming to pass has yet to find a way to sink in. Disoriented, bewildered, not sure in those first few moments how to interpret the devastation that being in contact with his inner life wrought on her. "What— ?"

What did you see? is the question he cannot quite bring himself to ask. And after an awkward length of pause during which he changes his mind, almost frantically, about wanting to know the answer to that question, not sure anymore whether or not he does — afraid of the answer, really — he speaks again, trampling all over the space he left empty for her to fill with words. "I'm…sorry…"

—-

She is dead weight when he lifts her off the floor, but even now after everything, she doesn't reject his touch, this frantic desire to comfort her and fix whatever he has broken. Zatanna head rolls heavily against the juncture where his arm meets his shoulder, those glassy eyes staring up at him, expression cleared in increments when callused fingers and a gentle palm brushes inky tresses damp with sweat and tears. Crimson comes away easily when he thumbs the trail of blood away and within those hazy eyes, he can see his own reflection; accumulated moisture makes for clear, agonized mirrors.

Even as he dispenses his frantic questions, handsome face contorted with a myriad of expressions - and he could be so expressive when he wants to be, shame being paramount of these overtly braiding sentiments - her own face makes it clear enough what she means. Tears stream down from the corners of her eyes, a flood that seems neverending, considering how much she has already expended on his floor. Her lips part; he can see her teeth, though no disgust is implied on their fitful edges. The conduit is still open, the tether is still there, vibrating still from their failed experiment, but having experienced her, he can feel it - it registers as clear as a diamond.

For a moment, he is bathed in nothing but her sorrow.

On her, there is nothing to fix, not when the thing that's broken is him.

Context fills the spaces left by the jagged pieces of him, liable to cut whoever isn't cautious. Her head burning, her nose stinging, eyes watering and her sobs stuttering through labored breaths. His own fear, the shape of which she can only guess, if nothing else, registers on his features if not the link they share - somewhere in the other plane, it holds, still gleaming silver despite what they had just tried.

She shakes her head when he apologizes. Shaking hands reach up, fingers framing both sides of his face.

"I love you," she croaks around a sore throat. She means it, still. "Oh, John…I knew, but I didn't know…I didn't…"

Her hands fall. Her eyes move down to some point between their bodies, unable to see.

"I didn't believe you," she confesses. "I didn't want to, when you told me about the labyrinth. When you saw me fade away. We were fighting so…I thought you were just trying to manipulate me again. But I saw it. I saw me. I saw…pieces. So many confusing pieces. Your dad, my dad…what Gary was doing to you in the labyrinth…"

The rest comes out in a rush. A hand grasps the front of his shirt, holding on as the shaking starts. Sorrow gives way to something else, white-hot, incandescent, but ultimately impotent anger. The helplessness associated with knowing parts of a loved one's tragic past and being horrified, unsure to articulate it without making things worse. But her temper has always been a tempestuous thing and it rises in time with the eddies of her useless grief.

"…the things they did to you in that place. And oh god, oh god, I'm so angry. I'm so angry. I'm so fucking angry but all I can do is this because it's too late to do anything about all of that! And…I tried not to look. I tried, because I know you wouldn't want me to, but once you were in, it was impossible and I felt it all. I felt it all."

—-

The psychology of John Constantine's life is written here in microcosm: the worst of his fears have come to pass, but it was his fault…because, in a moment of weakness brought on by the seductive pull of feeling something good, he let himself lose control.

He knows that, too. Knows it was only because he let the tide of her carry him off that all of the twisted, horrible things from his past were not just made accessible to her but inflicted on her. What she'd seen and felt had been enough that all she could do after slipping out of that trance is weep on the floor of his home. It had fucked her up so much that she bled.

This pure thing in his life. This good — not perfect, but surely good — and kind soul, who somehow found it within herself to accept the difficult shape of him into her life, and then incredibly into her heart, and then made him want to do things in a better way, become a better man. Forced him into it, and not without bloodshed or suffering. Shelter and crucible, both.

Sitting there on the floor in the midst broken circles, smears of chalk on his trousers and this thing, this inexplicable, priceless thing in his lap looking up at him with eyes swollen from crying and blood on her skin, he's astonished to find that his regret overpowers even his fear. Guilt, not something he's felt about his decision to pursue her in some time, returns in a rush of familiar weight.

She tells him she loves him, and all he can think is: why? Why do you?

His gaze falters, slips away from hers and off to the side as he struggles to make sense of what she's saying because what she has now, what she's seen, is an unprecedented amount of intimacy with a man who strives to bury his trauma deep. He dimly hears her giving him pieces of what she saw, most of his hearing consumed with a white-noise rush. His heart pounds behind the weight of her leaning frame, the movement of his thumb stilling, efforts to comfort her forgotten. His father — she saw his father. But what was it that she saw? Even asking himself that question is reason for his shocked thoughts to pick at layers of scab and scar tissue, revisiting all of those old abuses and wondering which of them she was forced to see. Mention of Gary fills his veins with icewater. But the worst, the worst without question, is when she says that place.

The things they did to you in that place.

There are still seams in the mended integrity of his sanity, and the worst of them, the ones poorly stitched together and forever at risk of being pulled open again, are all connected with Newcastle…or Ravenscar. But while Newcastle is the memory that haunts him most actively in the day, because the memory of what happened is still as clear and filled with grief as the day it happened, Ravenscar is the one that haunts him at night when he sleeps. It's the one that he reacts most viscerally to, because those two years are a jumble of confused, distorted memories, all of them painful. He's worked hard to forget them entirely, hoping the fuzzy, indistinct quality would help them fade into the past, though all his lack of clarity has really achieved is an uncertainty as to which memories are true, and which the product of the madness that put him there in the first place.

He lifts a hand, tightens his eyes and presses his thumb to one of his temples and his middle finger to the other, fighting a rising surge of anxiety so strong it feels like panic. The center of him wobbles dangerously, his balance knocked askew. Split-second glimpses of dark rooms and looming faces, cold steel tables, hoses in tiled rooms turned up to full blast. Numb skin, the smell of the foam they used when they shaved the sides of his head, burning toast. None of the real horrors of Ravenscar, only some of its accessories, but it's still enough to make him feel as though his chest is about to cave in. He comes face to face with the self he'd been then: small and lost, emptied out of all faith in himself, in magic, in the nature of a universe that could let something like Newcastle happen in the first place. Afraid and young and powerless, a plaything in the hands of people with authority. Nothing like the man he's constructed. Nothing like John Constantine.

I don't want to be this to her, he thinks, a thought that arrives like a plea, though he'd be hard-pressed to know to whom that plea was addressed. Begging, practically. I don't want her to see that when she looks at me.

Somehow, he manages to summon up halting words, voice tight: "I don't…want to talk about that."

—-

Somewhere through the blood pulsing in his temples, and the static deafening his ears, he hears her, quiet, words worked around the knot in her throat.

"I know."

It would be easy to blame herself - that she didn't try hard enough to block him out, that she didn't move fast enough to will reality to bend to her will as it often does to wrench John out of her mind and hurl him back into his end of the tether. But everything moved with lightning quickness, and before she could do anything, it was too late - he was in, filling her with everything he can't bring himself to tell anyone, stuffing her to the brim with broken fragments of a life that was less of one and more a series of torments, one after another with little safe harbor save for the bits and pieces that she knows exists - Chas, for one, steadfast, loyal Chas…the girl with the red hair, the couple on the Irish countryside.

Out of everything she feels, Zatanna is surprised to realize that guilt is not one of them. They were working to figure out a problem and she has tried her level best to resist the pull on his end; they know too little about the tether to know that this would happen, that it would be so seductive that it would attempt to pull them together the moment they touched it, to fuse them until one was part of the other - and really, they don't need more of that. He already has a part of her soul stitched into him.

She doesn't press; she didn't want to see what was inside of his head to begin with, but now that she has seen some, knows the outlines and silhouettes of the terrors that occasionally visit him at night, she can't unsee them, and his past puts its grip around her heart and tightens into a fist, squeezing blood out of it like a wrung sponge. With enough presence of mind returning, his own agonized expression functioning as a sobering slap across the face, much like the time he told her he loved her, her crying ceases almost immediately, dwindling until there is nothing left but the occasional breath and a quiet hiccup. Her head feels crammed full of bowling balls, knocking against one another, and every breath is laced with the copper notes of blood.

She starts to move; slowly, carefully, she attempts to ease the burden of his discovery by relieving him of the obligation to bear her up. The world tilts in a dizzying loop, and a set of fingers lift to touch the back of her head gingerly, where the Medulla Jewel continues to burn, feverish heat throbbing underneath her fingertips. She bites back a wince, teeth clipping into the fullness of her lower lip.

There's a small shake of her head, dropping it into the cradle of both of her hands in an attempt to stave off a violent headache. Ice-blue eyes move over at him, though she can only glimpse the side of his face, turned away, the image of him ensconsced in the memory of those dark rooms and the way he dazedly wandered, lost in the forgotten corners of the world. And as he begs himself that he doesn't want her to see it when she looks at him, what she had just experienced is so fresh, so painful and staggering that she can't help but do the very thing he doesn't want.

And she knows that, too. She is very familiar with his pride. No matter how accidental, she still saw them. These parts of him that he keeps shuttered in his labyrinth of private torments…his gallery of regrets.

Her hand reaches for his, but it falls short of its mark. It pauses midway, before it drifts to the floor.

"…do you want me to go?" she asks quietly.

She doesn't want to. It is the last thing she wants. It goes against those first, visceral instincts screaming at her to stay.

But he can't look at her, and she knows him well enough to know when he's struggling with himself.

—-

That is the question, isn't it? What does he want?

What he wants is an option that has been closed to him since the moment the tether formed: to walk back what she saw, spin it until it seems like something else and he's regained his hard-won image as an even harder man, a force to be reckoned with. Someone who managed to leave all of that behind. Shrug it off.

He wants to lie, in essence, and he cannot lie to her. Not about this. Hiding will achieve nothing at all; what's done is already done. The urge to retreat arrives the way it always does…but what end will that serve? Is he going to retreat from what they have?

…is he?

His head is a battleground. The urge to torch everything, raze it all to the ground coils around his insides, an old reflex from his not-so-distant past that he recognizes is impossible. The tether, for one thing. Persists through death, she'd said. And his pride, for another: if he left now, bailed because he couldn't stand the thought of her knowing what she knows, wouldn't that make him as weak as he's afraid she'll believe he is after seeing all that she's seen…? Wouldn't he just be giving her absolute confirmation that he's not the man she's always thought he was?

"I don't…" It's the beginning of a sentence that clips off. The next word was intended to be know, an artifact of perfect honesty. But he amends it, some seconds afterward, by repeating it in a different way, in a tone that ends the sentence decisively: "I don't."

The pause is long. "It's not your fault. It was mine. I lost — I didn't have control. You shouldn't have had to see any of that."

As the tide of repressed memories slowly settles like silt to the bottom of a chasm, he allows himself to lower his hand again, open his eyes, blink to clear them. He turns his head back toward her, but he still can't quite bring himself to look at her.

"Unless that's what you want. To go. I wouldn't blame you if you did."

—-

Is he?

The way he is unable to look at her, tucked away, trapped inside of himself, forces those recently-assessed memories to rise to the forefront of her brain, reminded of their row after Switzerland. His expression is similar, the aura he emanates the same, and she feels the same sensation of dread well up in her chest, the fist around her heart icing over. Wrought emotionally raw from what she had just experienced, raked through the coals of his personal hells, Zatanna is left sitting, waiting for him to say something so she knows which direction to go in, and all the while she struggles to ignore the thrumming, argent thread between them, still reeling from the intensity of that unexpected dash into forbidden territory.

He answers in the negative, but it doesn't do much to bleed out the tension bracing her spine upward.

Her lips part to speak, but the words die on the vine when he acknowledges what they already both know, and while this is precisely the reason why guilt isn't among the gamut of responses in the broad spectrum of hurts that she is experiencing, she is reluctant to voice them. Too familiar with how protective he is with the contents of his head, that insurmountable pride, the last thing she wants is to weigh this shattering revelation down with the fact that he had invaded her mind and not the other way around.

"I didn't…" She swallows. "…I didn't want to find out…this way."

And that is her all over. She has been nothing but patient, waiting for him to let her in.

His pale eyes miss the mark, redirected in a space somewhere over her shoulder, looking toward her, but not at her. Her eyes roam down to her hand, lidding halfway.

Her earlier, truncated reach of his hand finds a fresh attempt, her fingers brushing gently over his knuckles until the weight of it settles over those surprisingly elegant fingers. After a breath, she lifts her head to look at him.

"I don't want to," she says quietly, firmly; it is not surprising that she still holds onto it, because it is the most recent, grievous mistake she made, and it nearly cost her the man she loves. "It is the last thing I want. I already made that mistake, once, when we needed to stay together. How can I do that, now, of all times?"

That question, despite the way it's phrased, is not rhetorical. Should he take the chance to look at her, he would know it, see it - the need to know why he thinks she might desire the distance.

—-

I didn't want to find out this way.

His answer is gently said. "I know."

When her fingers whisper over the ridges of his knuckles the tidal pull of things roiling in him changes, shot through with confusion. Other things, as well: tentative relief, all-consuming gratitude, and the thing he's beginning to recognize more easily as love…but confusion, too.

Nothing she says serves to alleviate that confusion. That she doesn't want to go; that leaving is actually the last thing she wants. She invokes their recent separation in the bowels of the afterlife and implies sidelong that now, just as then, they need to stay together. How can I do that, now, of all times?

He doesn't lift his gaze, but he turns his head until he's closed most of the distance between them, knitting brows close to her own, lashes cutting dark lines over angular cheekbones. His unheld hand finds its favored place near her cheek, thumb delicately tracing the tear-dampened sweep of her cheekbone, the humidity of her grief still radiating faintly from skin hot with misery. He can't possibly have seen that question in her searching gaze, but whether he thinks she was being rhetorical or not, all he can think to do is answer with a question of his own — one that is, in many ways, every bit as painfully vulnerable as anything she saw. It is not a question he would dream of asking at almost any other time because it diminishes him in precisely the way he loathes to think he's been diminished in her eyes by what she saw, and he is not in the habit of making himself lesser in front of anyone. He prefers to bleed in private.

But in the same way she needed an answer to her question, he needs an answer to his, and he poses it in a flat whisper.

"How can you not?"

—-

The heat of his palm reaches her cheek, the graze of coarser skin finding the tear-streaked mess of her pallor. Just as he finds some semblance of relief in the touch of her hand, she finds it in spades in the touch of his. Her other hand lifts, finding its favored place whenever he does this, to drift through the spaces between points of bone and turning her face into the cradle he offers. The softness of her mouth dips into the very edge of his open palm and the sensation of shuttered lashes brushes over his skin and for a while, she says little else. The endless engine of her heart, this strongest and most vulnerable of human devices, pulses in time with the burning strangeness throbbing at the base of her skull. The ache is one that she pushes away, down and deep.

The way her head spins nearly drowns out his flat whisper. Zatanna's eyes crack open, but only just - twin glacial slivers glittering against their bloodshot tableaus.

How can you not?

Fresh out of a harrowing experience, cognizant of the fact that she has once again bumbled into forbidden territory, as always, she can't help but latch onto her first instinct, to cling to the first response that filters in her struggling mind. While he's never said as much, part of her wonders whether this is something he loves or prefers to change about her, though knowing him the way she does, she favors the former instead of the latter. This quirk in her personality guarantees him an honest response. And while she is quick to tell him what he wants to know anyway, it is especially true in these moments when she finds herself trapped in a volatile situation that is unknown to her.

Her response is simple. Maybe overly so, but it is honest and the first thing that comes to mind, eradicating any spin from her imagination that would render it less genuine.

It comes in a whisper. "Because it's me."

She often elaborates, but this is one of those very rare instances in which she feels she doesn't have to. Because outside of her father, John Constantine is the one person in the world who knows her best; how young she is, how boundless her heart is, how generous and willing she is to see past the darkness and hope for something better, how she has yet to develop the calcified layers of pragmatism and cynicism that define him, Jessica Jones and Bucky Barnes, crystalized by their years of living and their exposure to how evil human beings can be to one another. How she manages to forgive, to sympathize, no matter what has been done to her.

How she believes everyone needs a chance to be happy. How she believes everyone needs the same chance to be loved, including and especially those who think they don't deserve it.

How she loves, so openly, no matter how many times her heart has been broken, because she believes it so fervently.

To walk away now wouldn't just be branding her a liar, to render false everything she has told him, everything she has promised, about this being worth it, about them being worth it - it would also have her turning her back on who she is.

—-

He needs no elaboration to understand what she means, though the answer itself creates complicated feelings all its own. He's benefitted from that boundless capacity to bring people in rather than pushing them away — more than anyone else ever has, probably — but it is troubling in its own way to acknowledge that the reason she stays is more to do with what she is than anything to do with him. Which is not, it can be fairly said, a surprise. Still, it's a bittersweet reassurance to have it spoken out loud, a truth they've both no doubt acknowledged privately but never gave life to until he felt he had to ask. If it were easy to stay with him, surely someone would have before now. It isn't, and they haven't.

It'll have to be enough.

In the silence that follows her answer he struggles with his own circular, busy thoughts, and his tendency to obsess over new wounds. Things have changed again in a way that can't be reversed, and he doesn't know what that means. A milestone, permanent to the landscape of their history even if only accidentally. The shame, self-recrimination, regret, embarrassment — none of those things matter, because he can't change what happened. He'll go on feeling those things about it for some time to come, no doubt, but they aren't useful now, in the moment. Fear, though, over his uncertainty as to how things may change, what this will mean for them both — that's something else. They're resting on the fulcrum of something significant, and the window to influence how they'll always remember it is swiftly closing. It won't last forever. He can set his hand to this beat of time and try to make something of it, try to salvage something from the unintended tearing open of old wounds and his own slipshod trespass, but it has to be now. The thought winds steel threads back into the column of his spine.

"It was selfish of me. It happened so fast. I felt you panic, and all this time I've been reaching out when that happens because I've wanted to know why, but that's how it got hold of me. It was so…bloody powerful, and once I…" Pause. "I should have fought. I know I could have, but the way you felt…" Another pang of shame pulses across the high-voltage line of the tether. "I'm sorry, Zee. If I had known it would hurt you, I would never…but I shouldn't have, anyway."

He has to stop then to gather his thoughts, trying to navigate the disarray of this latest implosion. It takes him some time to lay his hands on the next piece, to fit it against the first in this effort to shore up the hole punched in the dam. And when he does, he quiets again, thumb travelling down to the place beside the corner of her mouth. "I don't talk about those things because — why the fuck would I? There's nothing to be gained from it, is there? They happened and then they stopped happening. I'm not — I am not that. I'm not what you saw." He says this with emphasis, though he's not certain which of them he's trying to convince. "I'm what came out the other side of it, for better or worse. It's not that I don't trust you enough to know, it's…" This is where he falters, picking through the debris of himself. All at once the strain of so many intense emotions, only half of them his own, collapses in on him with sudden weight. There is no way to end that sentence that isn't uncomfortably vulnerable.

Almost on reflex he reaches for gallows humor, couching a truth in something that dares to attempt to be wry, in its tired way. "Well, it's a bit of a kick to the bollocks isn't it? 'Sorry, don't know if you realized, but your beau's pretty well fucked in the 'ead.'" The wryness fades quickly enough, levity yielding to something softer. "I don't like the way people look at me when they know. An' it's bloody dangerous, innit? Giving people ammunition. It's just…better. To leave it. But since you're not doing the sensible thing and packing your bags, I don't have to regret that you know." The pad of his thumb sweeps over bloodstained lips, voice quiet. "Only that it hurt you."

—-

He had asked her how she couldn't not leave him after everything she saw, and her answer is truthful - because that wasn't the kind of person she is. But he has never asked outright what he had truly wanted to know.

They encounter this periodically, she finds; she doesn't know if it is a blessing, a curse, or a failing on either of their parts - or simply whether this is a consequence of what they are, people who can shift the fabric of the universe whenever they find the need to will it so, and this is how the universe manages to find some semblance of balance. Magic has a cost; she has yet to encounter the methods and means as to how it collects from her, but maybe that is how - to tie her forever, beyond death, to a man with whom the ground underneath is always shaky, that they collide and cause tremors like a pair of teutonic plates ever shifting in accordance with the laws of attraction, sometimes beautifully, sometimes disastrously.

Zatanna says nothing when he acknowledges his selfishness, though her lashes lift higher so she could look at him, though they do not open fully given the intimate distance in which he has placed his head close to hers. "…I panicked because the moment I touched it, I felt it try to pull me," she tells him quietly. "It was so sudden, I scrambled for the anchors right away and braced myself. But it was hard, you know, to resist it…it's like…" She fumbles for the words. "Magnets. If I had just let go, it would have carried me to you right away and I wasn't sure…if I wanted to prevent that. I didn't know it would be that seductive…to be folded into you, that way."

His halting words drive her to silence again and she lowers her head, her hand shifting its cradle over his knuckles. "You were always incredible, John," she tells him at the last. "Even when we first met and you started teaching me, I thought so. Brilliant, crafty. And you were always tough, resilient in the way I never expected, though I never really wondered the hows or why you became that way at the time, I just figured it's just you being British and kind of a thug." The last said wryly, with a tilt of her mouth upwards before it fades again. "You explained bits and pieces of that over the summer, when we first…" Her voice trails off. "…enough for me to know on some level that you've been through a lot. I just never imagined how much and…" She takes a breath. "I'm angry, on your behalf. But I'm proud, also. That you could pick yourself up after you get low, again and again and again, and still do what you do. I can take a lot, I don't know how it is to give up…but I've never been through a fraction of what you have and you…"

His thumb discards some of the blood lingering on her mouth; her head tilts in a vague shake, though not so much that it dislodges the placement of his hand against the side of her face. "It's alright," she tells him softly. "You didn't know what it was going to do, it's not as if we've done anything like this before. And…really, it wasn't all bad. It was…" She chews on her bottom lip. "Overwhelming, frightening, but amazing also, when I was thrown into the parts about me. What I've done and keep doing for you, that after everything, I was able to give you something good, something to shoot for and something that makes you happy. The significance of it when contrasted with everything." She gives him a look. "I mean…all that implied pressure to keep at it, John, what the fuck."

Clearly a jest, with the way a grin briefly manifests on that tired mouth. Her hand leaves his, moving to reach for the side of his own face, thumb scoring a path over the ridge of one cheekbone.

"I'm not going anywhere," she continues. "John…I just got you back. I'm not letting you go without a fight."

—-

The effort involved in saying what he's already said has been monumental, forced — as is almost always the case — by extraordinary circumstances, when on almost any other given day it would be impossible to extract from him a single syllable of any of it. So when she begins to speak he quiets and directs his gaze down at some space near her collarbone, resting in the silence and still actively grappling with the fact that what's happened isn't part of a very vivid nightmare, but an actual piece of his reality.

Perhaps strangely, he finds her open discussion of what she's learned first-hand he feels about her to be almost as uncomfortable to listen to as her gentle praise for his endurance in the face of adversity. The sentiments are positive, but they still inspire an uneasiness in him…the way an animal with a wound might feel as a well-meaning person tried to tend to those wounds, no matter how gently. Everything in him rebels against the sensation of someone being close in any way to those deeply-buried and secreted-away hurts, and those instincts don't seem to care that he knows on some level she has no intention of using them to hurt him further. He appreciates her attempts at levity, at least; anything to make the experience a less catastrophic one, even if only as a kind of polite fiction. Each small moment of normalcy helps to restore a fraction of his balance.

When she cradles his cheek, he leans a little, stops, leans in the rest of the way and tilts his head to kiss her gently, heedless of the metallic tang of her blood. "I told you that you were worth it." Words that mean so much more, really, in light of what it would cost him to lose her the way he lost the rest.

After a beat, he drums up a rueful smile, finds some semblance of his usual speaking voice somewhere in all of the chaos of his insides. "Now you know why I think Tenebrus can cram his Metamorphoses in Extremis," he murmurs — referring to that conversation they had several lifetimes ago, the night they went into the dreambox on the shelf for the very first time. "Living proof that it's all a lot of bollocks."

—-

The touch of his mouth silences her for the time being, which she returns somewhat gingerly - less out of what she had discovered, and more due to the fact that she knows that the taste of blood is still there. Still, he doesn't seem to care - and really, they've done so much worse, in worse states than this, in worse places than this.

I told you that you were worth it.

Zatanna returns the rueful tilt of his mouth with one of her own. "I hope so," she tells him softly, about being worth it, ice-blue eyes lowering to the hollow of his throat at the rare onset of doubt, weighting down the pit of her stomach. It is a sensation that he has felt many times about himself when it comes to her and everything she does, and while she hardly ever experiences the same, now that she knows, she can't quite help it. If nothing else, the knowledge doesn't make her feel any closer to him, there is no reveling over this new level of intimacy, especially when it happened so suddenly and so accidentally, and unwanted on either of their parts. It has only damaged his pride, and savagely put a dent in her reckless self confidence over her capacity to be what he needs.

Her thumb traces the side of his face gently before her hand slips away, letting it rest on the floor. "I guess we should…probably do a little bit more research first before going in again. In retrospect, maybe we shouldn't have gone in cold." Magicians were an arrogant lot, after all. "Just because it seems benign doesn't mean it would stay that way if we try to touch or do anything with it."

She chews on her bottom lip, the lingering tingle of his kiss spiced with the coppery tang of her own blood, but she tries another smile. "And I should probably wash my face," she tells him. "I probably look horrific after all of that. And then…I don't know. Do you need help with the thing you're looking into regarding Az? The knife, I mean."

—-

"Maybe I can contact your da," he suggests quietly, of his own volition — as if she needed any more proof of just how significant the day's unexpected events really have been. It's telling that he's more than willing to pull her father in to help guide them; enough that he's prepared to have a conversation about something Giovanni will almost definitely not like finding out about in the hopes that the man will actually help them in spite of his disapproval.

Strange days.

His lips quirk, pale blue eyes dripping down to the place where smears of blood still stain fair skin. "I don't know," he muses, affecting a thoughtful look. "Red's a good color for you." There's something in him that feels reluctant to let her slip away, knowing that distance will give one or both of them time to dwell on what happened, when what he really wants is to push it into the past as swiftly as possible. He suppresses that irrational feeling, then steals one more brief kiss before nodding in as business-like a fashion as he's capable of managing. "Go on. We can sit down with the materials I've got here and have a look, and if we turn up nothing we can hit the library. There's got to be something somewhere."

—-

That is significant; John hardly has anything to prove to anyone, and he was often reluctant to involve her father in his business despite his status as his former pupil. There is a glance at him at that, her lips pressing gently together - she, too, is aware of those implications, that he would have to explain to Giovanni Zatara, who never approved of them being together, just what is happening between the two of them.

She is about to speak when he leans in to steal another brief token of affection, which she returns with a faint purse and shifting over so she could band her arms around his neck, the embrace solid but gentle in equal measure, a faint squeeze there before she lets go to turn and head for the lone bathroom in the flat. His quip regarding how red suits her barely registers - that, too, is telling, when she is often so quick to return quip for quip with him. The door behind her closes and with some distance reclaimed, she feels her knees lock together, her back hitting the wood behind her quietly as her eyes fix on nothing.

Zatanna takes several quiet breaths, lifting her hands to scrub at her face - she tries to push down the fountain of lingering emotions left behind by that disastrous flood of him inside her, but it is impossible and the images pull and yank at her brain, insistent creatures that hiss and spit in an attempt to pull her back into the graveyard of him. Forcing herself forward, she turns on the faucet, and splashes water on her face, turning it to its coldest setting - the chill and the burn that follow helps, scrubbing out the remains of her makeup and eradicating those thin, persistent tear tracks in the process.

She looks better when she returns, moving over to wherever those materials have gathered, though she doesn't touch the obsidian dagger after her first attempt to gauge it when she first arrived. Leaning in, her lips graze his cheek.

"So you said you talked to Xiuhnel?" she asks.

—-

He watches her go, waits until he hears the door close to bow his head and close his eyes, passing one hand over his face and his splayed fingers through the tousled crop of his hair, dragging a deep breath into his lungs and holding it. The nausea has yet to leave him, though all things considered, it could have been worse. She could have pushed him away when he tried to touch her, told him never to come near her again, and he doesn't linger long on that thought because he isn't sure what he would have done if she had, or what would have become of him in the aftermath. As painful as it is for him to know that she not only inherited details of the sordid shape of his history but also that he imposed that on her without leaving her any choice…

It's nothing compared with what would have followed if she'd turned her back on him afterward.

He lets his held breath go in a rush, opens bleary eyes, and finds them drawn off to one side, where droplets of her blood shine like liquid rubies on the pale grey sheen of the polished concrete with its white lace of chalk.

That's enough to finally get him moving again. He picks himself up off of the floor, halfheartedly dusts at the chalk on his trousers, then makes his way toward the loft, untying his tie and unbuttoning his shirt, stained now with blood, tears, mascara.

By the time she emerges he's back at the table and redressed, though without a tie, and the shirt remains unbuttoned over the undershirt beneath. The book in his hands is not as old as most of the others — a compendium of occult materials related to South America. He glances up once her shadow falls over him, leaning into her kiss.

"In a sense. More like Xiuhnel was talking when I got there." He reaches with the hand that isn't cradling the spine of the book to retrieve notes jotted on a piece of paper, handing it to her. "This is what she — he — said, verbatim. For the most part I was there to explain to Azalea what our objective is and how we should get there. I asked her to write down a list of the things she's said or done where she wasn't quite sure which of them was more in control at the time, and send it to me. Incidents where they're of like mind, right? Because those are the places they have some harmony, theoretically. If we're lucky, some of those places won't be appalling, and they'll give us someplace to start from." He pages through the book. "Next time I see her, once I've had a look at the list I asked for, we can try hypnosis and I'll see about having a chat with the truant godling. Everyone needs to be on the same page before we start. Could be Xiuhnel needs something else done before it'll be willing to play ball, as you Americans are so fond of saying."

—-

Zatanna doesn't sit down - at least, not yet. She moves deeper into the kitchen to find a bottle and a pair of glasses, to deliver to the table once she finally finds them. Uncorking the familiar green bottle of Jameson, she pours a shot for John and one for herself. Long fingers pluck her own tumbler off the wooden surface, taking a quiet sip. It burns smooth against her tongue, and strips away the vestigial taste of copper and iron from her tongue.

She takes the time to ease herself on a chair next to him, eyeballing the obsidian knife with a skeptical look, before taking a peek at the book that he has been consulting. She recognizes it; it is the volume that impressed upon her the importance of obsidian in magical work, and the direct inspiration for the obelisk that now has a permanent place in the back pocket of her jeans. "I don't think I remember where I left my copy," she confesses, clearing her throat in an effort to eradicate the stubborn hoarseness from earlier clinging around the edges.

The raven-haired magician listens as she slowly takes the notes that he passes onto her, ice-blue eyes falling on its contents and the swirl of his familiar, much-loved penmanship. "So you asked her for possible instances in which they could have been in perfect or neaar-perfect convergence?" she wonders, looking over at him; her earlier exhausted expression banishes at the words, shifting into something he would find familiar, drawn from her life in which she had spent those years as his student. These are usually whenever he tells her something that she hasn't thought of before, or considered - the gulf of that decade-more experience is never so clearly illustrated as it is in these moments.

She reads over the paper, but she speaks at the same time as she does. "If he has anything he needs done, it might have something to do with Itzpapalotl," she muses. "I'm hoping that's not the case, and that it'll be something easier than that. The last thing we need is to go on some quest to find a god's heart that's been lost for hundreds of years, I wouldn't even know where to begin trying to find something like that. It might be that he doesn't want it back, but…" She furrows her brows. "When I was in that dreamscape with him, I got the impression that she did it both out of love and a way to control him, but there's got to be another way." She glances over at John. "…right?"

—-

When she speaks, her voice is ragged around the edges, and after glancing aside and down at her, he reaches with his free hand to sift his fingers into her hair at the back of her head, through dark rivers of tress, teasing and tousling, fingertips drawing absent, swirling designs against it, though his gaze remains on the book that he sets down on the table so that he can flip the pages with the hand that had been holding it. "It probably does. He belongs to a very bloody pantheon, and vengeance may be what he thinks he wants, but I'm hoping we can direct that somewhere more productive. Besides," he adds, picking up the glass of whiskey she poured for him, "Returning his heart isn't going to be what we want unless we've no other successes, because it would, in theory, make his soul whole again. He'd zip off, leaving Azalea with a soul that isn't, and I don't know what would happen to her."

The liquor burns, but he puts away the whole of it at once, setting the empty down and sniffing as the vapors sear upward into his sinuses. "She mentioned that Xiuhnel remembers creating the sky. I explained a bit to her about how that is and isn't true — you remember, we covered that in London — but it's still potentially useful. Any deity that was once a creator in its glory days might theoretically be convinced to aim itself in the direction of creation. Spiting Izpapalotl's disfigurement of him by creating himself anew — in harmony with Azalea — could be pitched, in theory, as the ultimate expression of creation." Following a short pause, he pushes a breath out of his chest in something like a quiet, tired sigh. "Maybe."

—-

His hand finds the falls of her hair and Zatanna's eyes lid, always so responsive to these tokens of affection he gives her freely, perhaps to the surprise of those who claim to know him. A hand reaches for the bottle, uncorking it to refill the glass that he puts away in a single swallow. While the urge to do the same is nigh-near overwhelming, she manages to quell it, taking measured swallows. She knows how she can get, after all, when she's inebriated and emotional. That is not something they need right now.

At his words, there's a glance to the side of him, ice-blue eyes lowering. Guilt wreathes over her expression; not because she can't look at him, but for the words that follow:

"If we decide to go get the heart, I wasn't going to suggest that we hand it over."

The implications are there - to somehow wrest it from the goddess who established ownership over it, claim it as their own and use it somehow to augment whatever it is that they do in order to control Xiuhnel. A more difficult undertaking, surely, but at the very least they will not be beholden to following the wishes of a god from a bloody pantheon, as he was so careful to point out.

John offers a less strenuous solution and at his quiet sigh, her spare hand moves to rest lightly on his knee, giving it a small squeeze. "It could," she tells him quietly. "But that would take someone very charming and very convincing. That would also mean depending on his willingness to negotiate, though. And you know how I feel about deals." And she knows how he feels about negotiations with powerful entities. That has its own dangers, though she has always known that whatever it is that they try to do, they would have to be careful.

—-

The look on her face illustrates the distance between the poles of their personalities concisely: guilt still manages to slip its fingers into her heart when she reveals she had other thoughts about what they might do with Xiuhnel's heart. There isn't any answering guilt in his expression when he cocks a brow and glances sidelong at her, nothing to suggest anything save open curiosity. "Oh? What did you have in mind?" Even brief contemplation furnishes several different options in rough sketches, but his interest is specifically in her perspective.

Such is John's ego — even, remarkably, after the oh-so-recent exposure of his weaknesses — that he naturally assumes she's talking about him when she says the words 'charming and convincing.' Bizarre, that such self-confidence can co-exist with such self-doubt, but he is nothing if not a collection of opposing extremes. "The first meeting won't be about negotiating terms so much as finding out what they are, and letting Xiuhnel know that this arrangement isn't going to be tenable in the long-term." He flips another page in the book, though his eyes have taken on the distant quality that says his thoughts are elsewhere, and not on whatever it is that he's looking at.

"I don't know when to bring you in on this. Xiuhnel still thinks of you as 'candy,' which I'm — this will shock you, I know — not fine with. On the other hand…he has taken a shine to you, and Azalea trusts you more than she trusts me."

He turns where he's standing, settling back against the table's edge adjacent to her chair, studying her with lidded eyes. "I'm not eager for it, but there are points in favor."

—-

What did you have in mind?

That guilt intensifies to the point of a visible wince, though his hand in her hair helps when she looks up at him - somewhat. She knows precisely how she got that idea in her head, and it finds cause and reason in the Englishman standing next to her. Her proposal is classic Constantine, but unlike John himself, she has not developed the necessary callouses to divorce herself from feeling that twisting sensation in her gut. She has been taught to face every difficulty in her life with grace and honor, to prevent any backlash karma might inflict on her if she doesn't. John might not believe in it, but Giovanni Zatara most definitely does.

"I don't know yet," Zatanna tells him quietly. "But it makes sense, doesn't it? If Xiuhnel's heart was severed from him to keep him in control, then if we had it, we could make him coexist in harmony with Azalea. We would have to consult the books, and actually examine it if we decide to go out on the limb and get it. I just think that if that's half the reason the Obsidian Butterly wanted the Sky Serpent's heart, then the thing must be powerful, right?"

This is one of those instances in which John's ego proves itself correct - his bird does mean him when she refers to someone convincing and charming to bargain with Xiuhnel. While she is capable of deception, herself, she is not so practiced in playing the game with the cosmos as John is and this is Azalea they are talking about. Reckless, yes, but this is her friend and she is prudent enough to err in the side of experience with this one.

He delivers his opinion about her involvement, and she looks up to meet his eyes. A hint of a smile plays on the corners of her lips when he states the obvious, but she inclines her head in acknowledgment at said other points in favor.

"I can always assist you in trying to figure out the means and methods. Plus I don't think it necessarily has to be either one of us that talks to him first. Why don't we do it together?" Her brows lift. "Classic misdirection?"

—-

"Bringing you in means taking a chance that the conversation will go very differently than it would if you weren't there. I don't know him well enough to predict the consequences." It's rare for John to think out loud, preferring to draw his hand and keep it close to his chest before laying out those cards…but his tone is pensive, musing, dissatisfied with the things he doesn't know.

After a long silence he slips his hand into his trouser pocket and retrieves the glossy black rectangle of his smartphone, flicking the screen on and swiping through the password. "It would be a good last line of defense," he says, looping back around to her earlier speculations while he flicks through applications, opening up his email. "Solving occult problems through the use of a single object has obvious downsides. Sealing the ancient evil in a crystal prism or some such, only to have some twat find it and set it loose again, that sort of thing." The example he gives is toothless, but for John the cinema that plays out behind pale blue eyes is entirely different: Gary Leister, of course, having released something truly terrible, and been coerced by John into paying the ultimate price for that mistake. "If our only means of keeping Xiuhnel under control is having control of the heart, we, and more to the point Azalea, are likely buggered if something ever changes that. It's better if we can get him to roll with — ah." A brief pause as he reads whatever is on his screen. "She's gotten me the list."

The silence that follows as he scrolls through it is made heavy by the tightness that hardens his face, subtle signs of a displeasure that he makes an effort to restrain. It does eventually temper, though. "It does sound as though he's grieving his inability to create things after all. She had a dream about it, and he was sad. She says that he's never sad. But the places they agree about things, for the most part they have wildly different reasons. His are usually not good." After a beat, his lips quirk just a little. "He likes chocolate," he says, amused. "Makes sense. Also coffee, 'that feeling when you're with your boys and celebrating,' and 'winning.'"

It's another long moment before he darkens the screen, and tilts her an apologetic look. "She asked me in the note not to let anyone else read it. I think that sums up the useful pieces, as few as there are. Anyway, the heart: it's probably worth looking into, if not just to make sure that Itzpapalotl doesn't have it anymore. All we need is some uppity goddess popping in and knacking up whatever we try to do, or undoing it altogether."

—-

"In other words, you don't know whether my presence will ultimately makes things better or worse for you on the table," Zatanna summarizes with a quiet frown, glancing over at the table. "My first interaction with him hadn't been the best and you know what a hothead I could be. It might be safer for you to talk to him first, that way you can get an accounting as to what you're dealing with. Get the lay of the land and everything." But she mirrors his expression, only in a different way. She does not want him to do this alone, no matter his proven record of being able to do so, and come back out on top.

She takes another sip of her liquor, though at his shift, ice-blue eyes lift to regard him as he consults whatever's in his phone. There is that, also, and she finds it within her to temper her expectations on that end. Because in the end, the solution around the heart is colored by shades of her, all too willing to face gods and monsters on equal footing and beat them into submission with pure magical might, and then take what she needs for the greater good. John is infinitely a careful, craftier, subtler creature. Her silence is less of an indicator of an unwillingness to opine on the matter, and more that she takes this opportunity to learn from him. Even now, he is teaching her, still.

Gary had figured in the fragments of that disastrous dive into his gallery of regrets, but at the moment she doesn't connect what happened to him to his presence in Muller's labyrinth. She is familiar with him, knows the vague shape of how he died, but not the details - she has no cause to connect his statements with what Gary had done in his ill-advised attempt to purge a hunger spirit from its human prison, though she does catch the look in those eyes. Again, she doesn't pry. Given what just happened before, she is even less inclined to ask what he's thinking about now.

"So he misses being a creator?" she wonders, furrowing her brow. "I guess, all the glimpses I've had of him only reflected the aspects of him that destroy and conquer, so it's difficult for me to parse with what I've seen of him before. But if he believes he created the sky, then…" Especially when she knows the truth because he was right; they did cover that back in London. The rest of the list is no surprise to her - conquerors reveled in victory every chance they could.

There's a wave of her hand when he flashes her that apologetic look, as if she can dismiss it physically. "Do it still so our asses are covered on that end," she says. "Maybe that's how we should approach it. You talk to Xiuhnel, and I'll start digging into where his heart would be. I saw the grassy knoll when she fucked him and slit him belly to nose. I can easily make the trip…" Teleportation is still the skill that she uses more than any other. "Since I got a good visual of it while I was in that dream, and then I can follow impressions after that." There's a pause. "Unless you want to come with me. We don't exactly have…this…sorted…"

She gestures between him and her, her words quiet and tentative.

—-

"Well, whether he misses it more than he enjoys murdering and raping people is the question of the moment, really," John murmurs with typical British dryness, settling more heavily into his lean backward against the table's edge. The whiskey is beginning to do its job already, weaving warm ropes of cotton through his body and unknotting some of the persistent tension remaining from the evening's misadventure.

The moment that follows dimly recalls their first argument in New York, when she'd dropped into the flat to find out what John had learned about who it was that had put a blood curse on her, and promptly after finding out turned around to leave, stating her bold-as-brass intention to go and ask the man about it herself, blood curse be damned.

John had answered that declaration by causing the access ladder to disappear backward into the brickwork of the wall with a metallic bang, forcing her to stay and have the confrontation that would ultimately lead to —

Well. Where they are now, actually.

He isn't angry with her suggestion this time, but he still doesn't like it, and he doesn't bother to disguise that. His reasons are more complicated now than they were then: he wants to keep her safe, yes, but he also wants to keep her close. There's a part of him that suffered bruises and the pain of old reopened wounds that feels needful of the reassurance that having her close gives him — that this isn't the beginning of the end, as the paranoid ghosts of his history will surely whisper for some time to come — and while he'd never say that, it informs his decision when he reaches for his glass and schools his expression toward something casual. Too casual, maybe. "Let's stick together for both. It's like I said in Limbo — I don't know the right answer any more than you, so it's equal odds from where I'm standing. More eyes on this problem may not be a terrible thing, and I'm willing to chance it. We'll just…be very careful."

Blue eyes linger, then slip away, down into the glass in front of him. "Besides, South America might be a nice change of pace after all of this snow."

—-

"Well, from what I gathered, he very much likes all of those things," Zatanna drawls, her voice all the more parched by the liquor and lending the sentiment more potent effect on her contralto. "But I'm hoping the remembrance of doing something god-like as opposed to what a mere war lord would do would put some perspective on the kind of ego he ought to be nursing."

Wood creaks at his heavier, adopted lean against the table. She turns back to her drink, taking a quiet sip from it until she gives up the pretense of restraint, draining the rest of it and letting amber and fire slip down her throat where it would do the most good, hit the deepest parts of her stomach and inject some much needed warmth. The temptation to pour herself another glass is there, but this time, determination wins out, setting it to the side.

It has always been her way - to tackle problems head on, and recklessly at that; her open nature lends as much to the physical battlefield as it does to the emotional ones that she has aggravated in the last few months. But that first argument resonates with the present situation, if not just because her coping mechanisms have not changed that much, really. The subtle signs of experience marks her, but in the end, she knows where she is the most effective, and that is kicking down doors and giving those on the other side her personal brand of Hell. All nine circles, if she has to, and has done in the past.

This time, though, she can understand his reluctance to let her go alone. They don't know the limits of the tether that binds them, and he cites their situation in Limbo. It is effective; her guilt over that situation leaves her vulnerable and open to manipulation on that end, though at this moment, John says what he does out of more personal reasons that she has no means to understand. But she is agreeable, regardless, at sticking together for both. There's a determined little nod from where she sits, and she slowly rises from the chair.

"We'll have to be," she tells him. Caution is key, now more than ever, because if this evening's misadventure has only proven, it's that the two of them in one place together does not necessarily spell out the lack of recklessness on both their parts. They can enable each other just as easily as caution one another.

With his eyes diverted, her hand moves, light fingertips fanning over the side of his cheek. She doesn't force him to look at her, and the touch is more to fulfill the need and desire to feel his warmth than any effort on that end.

She pauses; it doesn't last, because it never does. She doesn't have to read his mind to know that what had happened before is still there. She knows because she feels it also, and given that this is such a new and uncommon territory, she has no prior experience to call up. No way to fix this. No way to make it better.

"John." Her words are barely a breath. "Tell me what I can do."

—-

His unease ebbs when she agrees without putting up much of a fight. Not that he'd lied, precisely: he really does not know which solution is the better one. He's usually given to being more canny about rolling his dice, but the extremes of the last two months and change have shuffled his priorities just enough to allow the selfishness he readily confesses to having to weigh in on his decision.

As she rises he's bringing his glass to his lips. Her touch foils that. He turns his head, meets her eyes readily enough with a pale gaze that wears expectancy as he lowers the glass. It's clear from the lip-parted pause that follows her near-silent question that this isn't the exchange he'd expected, though he doesn't flinch. He twists at the waist just enough to cast his gaze downward and find a place amidst the books to set his glass down, but his attention refixes to her soon enough. The moment changes, made quiet by her emotional glissade into tenderness.

All manner of pat assurance and pithy response march through his mind and offer themselves: you're already doing all you can or it's going to be fine, don't worry or tell me one of those absurd stories you said everybody only gets one of. None of them feel right, all of them brush-offs. She'd expect that and probably forgive it, as it's how he's usually given to answering well-meaning inquiries into his condition, but tonight isn't the night, and his silence is thoughtful rather than reluctant.

What can she do? It's difficult for him to know what needs doing in the first place, all of his carefully guarded secrets in disarray, the mess left behind not one he's had time to puzzle through. He's all knee-jerk reactions and gut instincts, and unconvinced that either lead to his better qualities.

He places a hand on her hip almost without thinking. He's almost always easy to coax into closeness; tonight perhaps more than usual now that the tidal wave of panic has come and gone.

"Don't look at me any differently than you used to. I'm the same as I was this morning. I don't want you to look at me and see…" He hesitates, briefly taking his hand from its place to gesture. "Whatever you saw." This pause is longer, but he finds the words he needs, says them firmly. "I don't want to look at you and see that man in your face looking back at me. It's done. It's in the past. I want it to stay there."

He gradually softens. "Keep it to yourself, obviously, though I know I don't have to tell you. And…" One slow blink later, he reaches for her other hip, as well, and walks his fingertips on both sides further around, urging her toward him by the smallest of increments, gaze slanted downward into the space between them. "Maybe…try like hell not to wind up like me. It's not fair, your having to see what you did, because it was entirely different for me. The things I…" Even the word 'felt' seems too abrasive on his raw, wounded pride, too vulnerable after such an overflow of other vulnerabilities. "It's a better world with you in it, Zee. The way you are."

—-

Don't look at me any differently than you used to.

Guilt lances through the link like a silver bullet, and given that he is looking at her right in the eye, on a face so expressive, he would know why. In those feverish moments resurfacing from the abyss of his history, her sobbing against his floor and the quiet moments after, that was all she saw. And that is something she can't help, when the trauma is so fresh, and the shock and anger and helplessness of it all bleeding together until all she can do is purge it out of her by crying and bleeding. It is nothing deliberate and for a moment, she says absolutely nothing, staring at him wordlessly as he makes that request and knowing that she had already done what he is asking her not to do.

Her heart painfully twists around it. Her throat constricts in a hard swallow.

She ought to be relieved that he is slowly walking her closer, the span of his fingers climbing over the narrow taper of her waist. Drawn to him as unerringly as ever, she follows the line he makes against him until her arms are lifting to drape in a loose circle around his shoulders. Lashes lower, her gaze tilts somewhere into his open collar.

"I'll try," Zatanna tells him quietly, and that is the honest truth, but her reply to that is less definite because it is difficult. He was in her, filled her mind with those images and the occurrence is so recent that it clings to her mind like an unwanted barnacle, left there until time, distractions, or copious amounts of liquor can dislodge it. "I'm trying. I don't want to think about it because you didn't want me to know." If nothing else, the words only illustrate just how devoted she is in the act of leaving him alone with his secrets, unless he lets her in. Her teeth depress faintly into her lower lip. "And I know I will, eventually. Soon, I'll try for it to be soon, it's just…it just happened so it's hard to forget."

Keeping it to herself goes without saying - even when she and Jane had touched onto his past, she had been reluctant to furnish any details to the physicist, choosing to paint John's experiences with the broadest strokes of the brush as she could. There's a nod, that is easy. And the last…

He confesses that his experience in her own mind was different, and she knows why. Unlike John, she has never wanted for anything; she was born from love - intense, passionate in ways that nobody would ever believe it from Giovanni Zatara, who had fallen for his wife the moment he laid eyes on her - so it isn't all that surprising that she reflects what her parents had given her, and has been raised in it, surrounded by the comforts wealth and prestige could bestow, despite the hiccups along the way. She had a lonely childhood, but it isn't without its lion's share of happiness - she had her father, her foundation as well as her folly, to be so emotionally dependent on one man her entire life. At least, until John. She had her adventures, more than any child had a right to, simply because she was who she was, and was born in the world she and John share. In his experience inside her mind, for all of the weird and horrific things that she has seen and has happened to her, she remains remarkably untainted by all of it, demonstrating her own remarkable resilience - a bright spot that has yet to be tarnished.

It's a better world with you in it, Zee.

Word for word, it is exactly the same thing Tim Drake had told her once, but its effects are different given who it's coming from. The quiet earnestness, the rare answer to a question that often gets a quip, the usage of that name everyone uses, but sounds so private and intimate when said by him. There's a small smile.

"…didn't you tell me once that I'm pretty good, but you didn't know about great…?" she wonders, referencing a conversation that feels like lifetimes ago; on a couch within throwing distance from them while they fumbled their way towards one another again, those small, baby steps on the road to recovery after the disastrous conflagration that razed into ashes what had come before. The night he cupped her cheek after months of going without, and how she knew, on some level, that it wasn't over for him, either.

She leans in, her mouth touching his.

"As much as I love you," she murmurs, the words shaped over his lips. "I love me, too. So no worries, there."

—-

The shift in his expression conveys understanding. "I'm not asking you to forget, though christ knows I've tried to. Just…remember that there's more to it than that." Rueful humor trickles over the planes and angles of his face, gentling some of its contours. "You weren't wrong. About the English, and being a bit of a thug." Other things, as well, but he's too exhausted by all of it, too overwhelmed to go on picking it apart tonight. He needs more distance before he can make sense of it. What he most needed to know, he knows: that she's going to stay, even after seeing some of the worst of what he's been. Seeing him bent and broken, struggling and failing, didn't diminish him in her eyes so much that she can't stay. For now, at least, that's enough.

Her wry reference to that earlier conversation earns from him the first genuinely easy smile he's worn since she woke up sobbing on the floor, and the heaviness in his eyes is ousted by a warm glitter. "I did say that, yeah. Ought to go on saying it, too. Keep you humble." Close enough to tilt his head forward, inviting shadows into the space between them that don't quite disguise the intensity behind what is otherwise a very quiet, gentle expression. "Come a long way since then, though. I suppose a promotion was in order."

The moment she starts to lean in his eyes close, incrementally more with every fraction of an inch of proximity until lashes touch down on slant cheekbones and his world condenses down to the lush curve of her mouth on his.

I love me, too.

Another stark difference between them, and possibly the one closest to the foundation of all of the others. He may wonder unceasingly at her ability to take the slings and arrows of the world and remain open, the resilience required to bounce back from betrayals and find it in herself to trust again, but healing is so much easier when one begins from a place of faith in the self, and love makes it possible to forgive mistakes — even one's own. So much more difficult for John, who isn't always even sure that he likes himself, let alone loves himself.

That doesn't keep him from understanding what that means, or being reassured that she does, though. His lips part, breath and barely-there voice: "Good enough."

Tilting his head to open the kiss, it occurs to him that he no longer knows what they are. What this is. He has no adequate word to describe it, nor his place within it, only the knowledge that every last piece of him — now almost literally — is in it, for better or worse. What's more, she knows that now; she's seen her own significance…a thing he's historically invested a great deal of effort in keeping most of the women to pass through his life from knowing.

In hindsight, he will mark this as the moment when Want graduated to Need.

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