His Greatest Work

April 14, 2017:

John Constantine makes the long road back to Shadowcrest on foot in order to take the time he needs before telling Zatanna Zatara of the disastrous meeting he had with her father.

Shadowcrest - Gotham City

The ancestral home of the Zatara family.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Giovanni Zatara, Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

The hands of the antique desk clock are pushing towards three in the morning, and there is still no sign of John Constantine.

Within the two hours in which he had gone off to see her father, Zatanna Zatara has done her level best to pick up where they left off in their research, scouring the Shadowcrest's library for anything else that could peel away the secrets of the obsidian dagger that has fallen into their possession. Given the breadth of her father's private collection, it did not disappoint, as she is able to locate tomes that could be of use to them in their attempts to resolve Azalea's problem. That evening in which they attempted to work the tether to their advantage had at least opened up the avenues they needed to decide a few things about it - namely that whatever they decide to do, they were going to do it together instead of haring off in different directions like they normally do.

That, at least, is a good start.

As the evening grows later, she finds herself back into her massive bedroom in the mansion, dressed for bed, the black silk robe she favors left open over the matching camisole, drooped off one shoulder as she studiously pores over an old tome cradled against her crossed legs, hunched over the mattress in her usual habit of not sitting properly in a place in which she's comfortable, or feels safe. Ice-blue eyes roll over the text, some ancient encyclopedia of various instruments used for human sacrifices, both mundane and legendary. Her study of these passages is woefully cut short, however, when she feels the sudden drip of emotion from John, calling her from the distance between the Zatara estate and the park in which he was slated to meet her father. These bolts of sensation lance through her like bullets, the pages in her hand forgotten.

Anger, she expected. John has always nursed a complicated relationship with her father, if not just because he has never approved of her relationship with the British magus for reasons she absolutely can't fathom; he was hardly the first man she ever dated that came from a questionable background, and his vehemence against the union is one that she has always found surprising, though she has never had much luck in prising from her father why this was. But when anger gives way to bitter sorrow, her heart lurches against her sternum in response, feeling her pulse quicken as her ice-blue stare wanders towards her window. The urge to wish herself away to where he is, ever so quick to join him in whatever muck and nest of thorns he has managed to sink into now, is so overpowering that she bites her tongue to prevent her magic from making this a reality. She can't risk going to where he is in the event her father is there, reminded of the curse that prevents them from even breathing the same air as one another. She has no choice but to stay put.

And so she waits, though she is not happy about it. The book forgotten, she keeps her stare on that window, her teeth pressing into her bottom lip.

What happened?

John and her father have had disagreements before, but something about the way the argent thread thrums over the astral plane tells her that this is different somehow.

—-

It's a long time before he comes back, because he comes on foot. He has to. He needs the time.

There is a false sense of privacy on his walk, induced by the lateness of the hour and the fog that fills the streets and alleys like thick slices of cotton quilting, obscuring even the buildings on the far side of the street from his field of view, muffling sounds, including his own footsteps. The solitude brings respite, though it's bittersweet at best: the fog reminds him of London, also, and all of his early memories of his time with Giovanni Zatara. Consumed by his own thoughts, he tries twice to put his hands into his pockets and has to suck a breath as the injured one, now badly swollen and sending long spines of pain upward to his elbow, scrapes painfully on the fabric. The blood has stopped oozing for the time being, but it's an ugly mess that he already feels foolish about making of himself, though he'd be lying if he said he didn't appreciate the focus that the pain gives him, pulling him away from more abstract kinds of hurts.

Shadowcrest, too, arrives as a contradiction of feelings. The desire to retreat into its depths and the company of the young mistress of the house is certainly powerful, but he isn't looking forward to having to explain what happened, or even think about it any longer than he already has. The spiteful satisfaction of knowing he's able to return here when Giovanni cannot isn't quite enough to offset the melancholy of knowing that he'll be confronted by the ghosts of his past with that very man at every turn.

Kasim answers the door, and John passes him — it? — without a word, making his way toward the kitchen. He doesn't need to be shown the way. As an adolescent he'd been capable of consuming the same amount of calories as three grown men on any given day, and when he'd not been studying…he'd usually been in the kitchen. Why the kitchen tonight…? Because he wants to wash his hand, take some time to gather his thoughts before the conversation he knows is coming.

Once inside, he begins the slow and careful process of peeling his coat off, cautiously manipulating the cuff of the sleeve over the ruin he's made of one hand, eyes tight.

—-

The memory of those small bits of feeling renders her unable to sleep, every synapse lit up like a Christmas tree and left prickling with worry. The book has long been forgotten and she spends the remaining long minutes staring at her vaulted ceilings, waiting for him to return. The minutes seem endless, ears pricking at the tick-tick-tick emanating from her nearby desk, like echoes in an empty cave despite the fact that her room is in a perpetual state of organized clutter, laden with mementos and pieces of sentiment that make up the tapestry of her young, vibrant life. She waits, because she must, but that doesn't stop her imagination from clawing through various explanations. They end the same way, however - John and Giovanni having yet another row, with her ultimately somewhere in the middle.

The tether informs her that he is closer now, somewhere in the house. And the moment she feels it, she sits up from bed, the sudden shift in position leaving her hair spilling in a tangled mass down her back, which she gathers up absently and using a nearby pen to secure it. She should wait, she knows, familiar enough with the Englishman's disposition that she knows better than to engage him when he was feeling stormy. But she has waited long enough and she is worried, and that usual emotional recklessness wins out; that hasn't changed much in the last few months, and while she certainly knows him better now, she has yet to learn how to control this part of her that tends to either make things better or worse. Equal odds, really.

Bare feet cross the threshold of her room, padding down the length of stairs that sets her into the first floor of Shadowcrest. The hallways are dim, wreathed with countless shadows, but even without illumination, she knows almost every corner of the house, and she is relatively confident that should her eyes be gone from her by the morrow, she would still be able to navigate it. Drawing her robe closed, just in case one of her many houseguests come across her, she follows the line to where his presence registers. She eventually finds herself in the kitchen, the sound of running water reaching her ears.

"John?"

There's no hesitation when she moves over to him, her slimmer shadow cutting across slats of light on the floor, poured in from windows opened to the sprawling yard, the half-moon's smile nigh-near incongruous to the mood within. A hand reaches out once she is close enough, to rest behind one shoulder.

"Are you alright? What happened?"

Normally she would wait until he opened the door, but there's no forebearance on her part today…as always, when her father is involved.

—-

Such is his focus on his hand and the distraction of all of the thoughts surrounding it that he doesn't sense her approaching until he hears her hand on the door, and by then it's too late. She'll open it to see him glance up at her from the sink, the pain that had been there immediately suppressed, but replaced with something infinitely more complicated.

She looks so much like her father, really.

His lips part as he looks at her for a long, long moment, everything silent save for the tinny sound of the water running into the sink, then they close again as the hinge of his jaw tightens. He glances away, off on a low angle, and then down at the bloody water running into the sink from a hand he'd been gingerly attempting to unfuck.

"He gave me what we wanted to know. Somewhere to start."

It's not really the answer she wants, and he knows that, but he's at a loss as to how to even begin.

Months ago he'd tripped over himself in their confrontation after their return from Switzerland and in the aftermath looked at her with eyes that seemed lost, at sea in something he was not entirely sure how to navigate. There's something of that in him now, though it's less shell-shocked and more laden with regret. The sense of injury persists, linking the two moments together alongside the silence that spins out long enough for it to become clear he isn't sure what to say.

What he eventually settles on is a practical question: "Got any peroxide in the house, love?"

He's probably going to need tweezers before he needs peroxide. There are dark flakes of bark embedded in that swollen, broken skin.

—-

Zatanna favors her mother by way of appearance, though her coloring is very much her father's - the midnight-black hair, pale skin and especially the eyes. Those alone would render any doubts that she is the spawn of Giovanni Zatara non-existent, and the expressions within them tend to be much like his as well, especially when angry, pools of lightning when riled enough to burn incandescent. The expression on her face makes her pause momentarily, the door clicking shut and at the very least, affording them some privacy.

He gives her an answer, but while it is truthful, it barely covers what she wants to know and he would find the unspoken questions in her eyes immediately: how is he? What did you fight about? What happened to your hand? The latter, especially, when her gaze falls on his battered knuckles, the frown tugging on the corners of her mouth visible. She had told him once that he ought to take care of his hands, two of the most physically beguiling parts of him, but he tends to be rough with them and the moments since they're reunion last year have seen her tending to them more than once.

Hints of a more familiar expression tug at her heart, reminded of that night after that disastrous, but ultimately victorious excursion into the Cult of the Cold Flame's stronghold in Switzerland. He had brought up her father then, too; his acerbic words about being born into magical royalty and how she must look down her nose on him like her father does remains fresh in her memory for reasons she can't understand - probably because they never addressed it with any sufficiency.

Got any peroxide in the house, love?

Her brows furrow at that. "John, I could just…" Will the pain away. She is not unpracticed in the healing arts, if anything her abilities in that regard have only become more fine-tuned in the last few months.

But her voice trails off at the expression he wears, and she gives him a small nod, turning so she could move for the door. Undoubtedly Kasim is already searching for the first aid kit, and she moves to intercept the construct before he enters. It isn't long until the box is in her hand, the latch clicking behind her once more, easing towards the counter so she could flip the lid and look at its contents. Peroxide, yes, as well as a few sterile pads of gauze, a roll of soft, clean bandages…needles for stitching, tweezers for plucking.

"Come here, baby," she tells him gently, a hand lifting, palm up in offerance so she could take a look at the injury and get to the serious business of getting rid of those splinters.

—-

I could just…

He meets her gaze with uncertainty in his own, uncertain why it is that he'd be reluctant to just wish the wounds away. He needs that hand; they'll be in Germany soon enough, and he can't afford to have injured his dominant one when their quarry is as dangerous as the man who calls himself Muller.

She concedes before she's even finished offering, and a flicker of gratitude, shot through with an almost painful warmth of affection, unfolds in his chest as he watches her go about the task of retrieving the supplies necessary for fixing what he's broken.

He submits to that care more readily than he otherwise would, not for the sake of his hand but because there are other pieces of him that her tenderness works to soothe, and they're by far the more battered. He places his wounded hand in hers, droplets of diluted blood spilling onto her fair, markless skin, and watches her with eyes brimming with silent thought.

By now she's known him long enough, has come to know him well enough in these rare moments of emotional extremis, that she'd have no trouble interpreting that look, or that silence. He's consulting with his own thoughts, winding his way through the tangle of things in himself he's not good at dealing with so that he can offer her something, furnish something coherent out of what is otherwise a daunting mess for him. Searching, in short, for some way to articulate what really did happen.

And that's exactly what he plans to do, but it isn't what ends up happening.

"Zee…" Hesitant. Quiet. Brows slightly knit. He almost asked her this question on the night they tried, and failed, to manipulate the tether to serve their interests, but he'd been too stunned, too emotional to countenance it. There's a curious numbness in him now that makes it possible where it hadn't been before.

"Why are you with me?"

—-

He places his hand in hers, closing the distance. Before she does anything else, Zatanna turns her face to press her lips against his cheek, the softness of it lingering on his skin as her eyes drift shut and spends just a few seconds basking in the sudden wellspring of relief that floods her chest. The thought had been irrational, but after those unmistakeable tremors through their link, she was almost convinced that he wasn't coming back to Shadowcrest…and for the life of her, she does not know where that came from.

Tweezers in hand, she moves to turn his knuckles over, to work the metallic points over pieces of bark that have been embedded on his skin. The darkness of them and the surrounding, telltale puffiness of the welts they encourage make finding them easily enough, and she bends her head to the task of finding every single one, to dispense into the small sink nearby. As impatient as she was to see him, she doesn't pry any further - she had seen the look in his eyes, and knows that she can't, and so she relegates herself to waiting for something that might never come.

She's right, on some degree. John doesn't immediately launch into a recounting of whatever it is that makes him look and feel this way, but she is still surprised at the direction he takes. His stare is level and weighty enough that she can feel it on the side of her face, as if something tangible than not. Ice-blue irises lift to look at him and for a moment, she says nothing.

She has tried to tell him many times before, but like water circling a drain, the center of it all remains untouched and he'd be able to discern in her expression that she is perplexed as to why he chooses to ask now, and whether his wondering has anything to do with whatever it is that happened with her father. And she wants to ask. She doesn't, though, and as always whenever he asks her a question, she endeavours to answer honestly - those recalled moments in which she has given him all of those varied bits to try and explain why she loves him flood in a rush, all quantified by the fact that she loves him, and she has said so many times.

But she knows just by looking at him that it isn't quite what he's asking, and the fact that he uses that rarely-used name indicates that he isn't just serious, he is wounded, in ways that his injured hand can barely hint.

Conflict surges within her, the beating of her heart ticking just a little bit faster. Her fingers remain curled against his, but they still and for a moment, it might look as if she won't answer him. But that would hardly be fair, wouldn't it? What had happened with their tether is all too fresh in her memory, drowning in his gallery of regrets as it showed her plenty of the bits and pieces of John's life that he had been withholding from her. It had been different for him, he said, when he was swimming in the star-filled sea of her. It hadn't been fair.

Her lips part. Her eyes fall over his hand.

"Because you burn," she tells him quietly. "The way you throw yourself so completely into everything you do. When you fight. When you go down and pick yourself back up. Even when….even when you wallow, you dive in so deep that you might never come back up again, and when you find something that's worth keeping, you hold on so tight that you leave bits of yourself into it. I…I couldn't stay away even if I tried. Even if I wanted to try."

—-

In the silence that contains her internal struggle he waits, watching, attentive in a way that requires an answer because he believes it might somehow clarify something beyond his ability to grasp. What keeps her with him, when most of the rest of the world is so eager to see his back as he leaves, or show its back to him in turn? How can the daughter want something so seeingly disparate, in the face of the father's rejection? Where is the difference? Where does it lie: is it something in him, or something inside of her? And if it's in him, why does it inspire in Giovanni sentiments so vastly removed from the unconditional love he receives from Zatanna — the warmth that folds him in no matter how undeserving he's been?

She gives him her answer and he takes it in, but try though he might to examine it from all angles, it elucidates nothing about whatever it was that drove Giovanni to —

But it's something he didn't know, nevertheless, and it's different, too, from what she'd said when he asked her how she couldn't leave him, and he'd mistaken that answer for this one. The quality of searching in his eyes, moments ago turned inward as he tried to fit the puzzle piece of her answer into a larger tableau of confusion about Giovanni's wrath, changes. Turning, it reorients on her, searching the contours of her face for reasons divorced from her father entirely.

There they are, standing in her kitchen as he bleeds on her from injuries sustained during a meeting with the father she loves deeply and cannot even see, and she's picking pieces of bark out of him silently, leaving space for him to sort through his knot of conflicting thoughts and feelings, somehow not pressing him for details of whatever violence must have taken place. And this has — personal conflicts aside, during which they've handily maimed one another in their ire — been the way of things for months now. Something new. It gilds what she says with an undeniable patina of truth: he IS intense, and that intensity has been the destruction of most of his relationships. He is not an easy man to live with. Yet here she is, claiming that it's what keeps her with him — even his low points. Even those.

A wild, weightless flutter passes through him, swirling behind his ribs, and something like calm settles over the tempest of regret he's been weathering ever since Giovanni turned his back and left without a word. He still regrets the way that meeting came to a close, but…

He would have that meeting countless times if it meant holding onto this.

Still, he can't hold her gaze when he begins to speak, dropping pale eyes down to the red welter of his hand. "Your father and I fought. He told me to sever the link. I told him he could bung that idea up his own arse, and he…"

This hesitation is longer. He struggles with himself, torn between polarities: he wants to spit bitterly on the way he was treated, but he's humiliated in his own way, and still strangely reluctant to tarnish the man's image in the eyes of his daughter — knowing so little about what that relationship was really like, behind closed doors.

"Well. It didn't quite come to blows, anyway."

—-

It is the truth, and she returns to the quiet business of removing all of the splinters embedded in his skin, setting the tweezers away so she could take up a cotton swab full of peroxide. Sweeping it over his injuries with care, her lips purse, pushing air between the funnel she makes with them in an effort to soothe whatever sting there may be. John was a grown man, she has seen him nurse wounds worse than this, but she takes on these gestures more for her benefit than his; she hadn't been there to prevent him from suffering these and she attempts to soothe the hurt out of his knuckles. The care she levies on him is almost so instinctive that she barely thinks about it until she's already doing it.

Once the welts are disinfected, she starts binding it with the roll of gauze, and she is in the process of winding it over the worst of the welts when she pauses at what he says. Her pale gaze ticks over him, astonishment on her features. Those eyes brim with a myriad of expressions, most of which he would remember when she had quietly entertained the possibility that he might ask to sever what's between them. Knowing John as she thought she had, her surprise was palpable when he confessed that he wanted to keep it, when he is so notoriously jealous of the life he lives inside of his head. But he would remember the hurt, and the eloquently stricken look at the idea of being abandoned. The fact that her father would even suggest it opens up a fresh wound and on that pale, delicate face, he'd be able to watch her bleed.

This, she tries to hide. She can't know that John is trying to do the same, preventing however he could whatever damage he could inflict on the man's image. Her face dips so she could finish binding up his hand, securing it on the wrist with a knot and small metal clips.

"I never understood why he was so against my relationship with you," Zatanna says at last. With the work done, her free hand closes over his knuckles and sandwiches them in between. "It isn't as if you were the first person I ever dated, or slept with, that had a dubious background. My thing for bad boys and all." The last said wryly, angling a sidelong look at him. "But Daddy was never one to act so severely without a very good reason, John. I've known that…since I was young." A rare moment of inscrutability enters her features there.

"I've tried to ask, before. But he wouldn't tell me." That probably isn't surprising. "Just that he was only trying to protect us both, but it's not as if I can't take care of myself, and you're a grown man. We can make our own decisions, our own mistakes….can't we?"

The idea of the two of them nearly coming to blows is alarming. The very fact twists her expression, considering she knows his history now - and not just what John had suffered, but the very uncharacteristic loss of control on her father's part, culminating in something that could have been irreparable if history, or so she assumes, hadn't been there. The bits of her father's life that she shares with John.

"Oh, baby…" Her voice is laden with both fury and regret. "I'm sorry that it was…I can't believe…Daddy's not like this, only when…"

The words trail off. Even now she is reluctant to touch those memories.

"He probably regrets it the moment it happened." The last said, with the quiet certainty of a young woman who has experienced this side of her father before.

—-

A good reason, she says.

John studies the work she does with his hand and tries to fit those words into his memory of what took place: Giovanni white-faced, the feel of his gloved hand in John's clothing, the smell of the leather and the creak of it straining in that tightened fist, though the greatest threat by far had been something neither of them could see, but both of them could feel — that swirling vortex of a lifetime of magical study being brought to bear on him.

A good reason.

His brows draw together, some of that quality of lostness returning. Adulthood has informed him that there's no good reason for that kind of thing — one reads it in books, sees it on the telly, hears it from people who would never dream of dishing out that kind of abuse — but some part of him, buried deep, still wonders if it isn't some failing in him that causes it, this spectacular failure of love in the men he looks — looked? — up to. The thoughts are insidious, prying their way delicately into his head with ghostly fingers that stretch out of his past, sliding up through the faint, hairline fissures in his sanity. He lifts his uninjured hand and rakes it back through his hair, closing his eyes.

No.

"He's never going to approve," he says, once he silences those phantoms, letting his hand fall from the tousled strands on his head. There is restraint in the way he articulates those words, but there's nevertheless a sudden pang that passes along the tether, another pulse of that tight, hot sorrow, something that hasn't yet settled down into the more colorless trenches of grief. "After tonight he may never speak to me again. I've never…" He pauses, then changes tracks mid-sentence. "I don't know what will happen when he's able to come back, 'tanna. It's going to be difficult for you."

—-

There has to be a good reason why Giovanni Zatara wanted John to sever the link, not to hit him, but for the life of her, Zatanna can't quite figure out what it is. She knows of her father's reason to sever the argent cord that binds her to him, the curse was so invasive that having that direct line to her could put her in immediate danger. "Do you think he's afraid that the same thing that happened to him might happen to you?" she wonders. "The two of you have been talking about his own problems with whatever he was doing, right? Maybe because…maybe it's because he's involved you and whatever he's after might come after you, curse you the same way as he did him. I'm…outside of my safety, I wouldn't know why else he would ask that of you, John."

But the reasons why the two men she loves most in the world almost came to blows elude her. She knows John, knows that there was something he would have said to her father that drove his anger, lashing out after he had asked his former pupil to cut this ephemeral tie with her. And her father should have known that was how John was going to react; the man knew of John's history well before she even became part of John's life. There's a part of this picture that makes no sense, a puzzle piece missing that would bridge it all together, but she can't quite begin to guess. John was already a difficult read most days, and he isn't even in his thirties yet. Her father has spent decades being a cypher….shades of what John would become, if he let himself.

The bolt of sadness cleaves through her ribs when he articulates his next thought, lips thinning at that.

"Well," she tells him, her voice dry and flat. "I have a feeling that once we get him back…" We. "…he and I are going to have a variety of very difficult conversations, starting from what he pulled last summer." Glancing over at him, a small smile finally tugs the curve of her mouth upwards. "I always knew it was going to be difficult, John," she reminds him quietly. "I just wasn't aware as to what forms those difficulties would take."

Because much like how he burns, she burns in turn, has never known how to pull back, has never learned how to place limits in what she feels. She remembers Paris, how could she not? It touches on every significant relationship she has built since then, but by and large she is unable to help herself once strain and emotion gets their grip on her, and all she can do is go; dive in and not look back and swim to the other side no matter how strong the currents push back against her, or how the undertow threatens to drown her.

Her eyes fall on his, determination etched on pale skin. "Daddy loves me." A statement that is both confident and certain. "And I know he's miserable when it comes to demonstrating the fact, but he loves you, also. He doesn't…he doesn't have many others, outside of you and me and Bruce and Alfred."

—-

Her puzzlement is not helped by his reticence when it comes to sharing the details of what transpired, a thing she'll no doubt encounter in Giovanni in turn, when and if the subject ever arises on some unforseeable future date: the two of them are locked vaults, miserly with their confessions, and that is even after accounting for all of the ways in which John spills more things to her than anyone else in his life, including Chas. The frequency of conversations like these astounds him, makes him self-conscious, feels abrasive, but each and every one has been necessary and she has yet to abandon him in the aftermath. It doesn't make the conversation any easier, but it does make him more willing to have it in the first place.

He favors her with a glance upward and slight twitch of the lips when she alludes to the row that will follow her confrontation with her father concerning the hex — a thing he had a small taste of in the form of a very Hogwartsian shrieking letter, opened by an unwary Giovanni on the waterfront some lifetimes ago. It remains, this incongruous suggestion of a rueful, lid-eyed, melancholic smile, when he answers her last words with his own: "Neither do I." And yet somehow, when she says what she says, he finds he can believe her. It is a strange form of love, to be sure, but being assured of its existence by the one person who would ever know goes further toward salving his injuries than he expected.

They're already close. It takes little on his part to square himself to her, his uninjured hand sliding past the concavity of her waist to wind around behind her, infinite tenderness in his touch. "I owe your father for…a lot of things. Too many. I don't know where I'd be now if he'd not agreed to take me on. Dead, probably. Even with his guidance, I still…" Newcastle. Ravenscar. He lets the silence stand for all of it. "But I have never owed him for anything the way that I owe him for hiring me to teach you last summer, Zee." Blue eyes trace the contours of her face, from the tip of her chin to the sweep of her cheekbones, never quite lifting high enough to meet her own. His tone is quietly certain, though, the sentiment that follows lacking the flowery emotional charge of a romantic gesture, dressed instead in the subdued simplicity of fact. "You are…his greatest work."

—-

The glimpse of that barely-there smile loosens the bands that constrict tightly around her chest. Glimpsing John's belief does wonders to return that fountain of relief that she had experienced when she realized he had come back. Not that she has any cause not to be confident in her own words; nobody on the planet knows Giovanni Zatara as well as his daughter, having been the sole recipient of his affection in the last eighteen, almost nineteen years. It does prompt a grin, one that she has the temerity to look somewhat smug about, if nothing else but to inject some levity in their conversation.

"I have a solid way with difficult men," Zatanna tells him. "What, did you think that was a natural talent? I've had almost twenty years of practice."

He reaches for her, and the movement of that arm propels her to step closer. She was never one to wait for him, always so eager to close the distance and touch him once the day's demons are exorcised, arms coming up to wind loosely around his neck and drape on his shoulders. What he ends up saying gives her pause - she is not unaware of John's years as Giovanni's student, but the way he speaks of it is so rare, a glimpse of these from John's own perspective that she can't help but listen attentively. It's a brief foray into the pieces of his life that she had only recently discovered, but when he brings up the summer and how he feels ahout it all now, ice-blue eyes wander away from him to a point past his shoulder. Self-consciously done, her smile lingers, regardless, color pushing up into her cheeks.

You are his greatest work.

"I…" She finds herself unable to say much to that, except: "…I have much to learn, still. It'll be years before I catch up to you, and you know I'm not really all that academically inclined, and I probably didn't learn as much as quickly as you did when you were my age…"

There's an incline of her head to match a rueful smile. "Is that why you're with me?" she says, her voice overtly teasing. Her face turns to the side, to press warm lips into his temple.

—-

"Almost /twenty?/" John's brow shoots upward, and then dips inward again, knitting with its opposite. He remembers the years when he used to optimistically add time to his age. It makes him feel old. He hasn't felt the need to do that in a long, long while. And maybe she was just shooting for an even number, rounding by decades, but still though.

He might have quipped about that, if not for the fact that she gets other, more important things wrong immediately afterward. His expression flattens halfway through that tiny laundry list of her shortcomings, then expands into eyes-to-the-heavens exasperation which builds like a tiny avalanche of sound in his chest, emerging as a fully developed groan that he inserts into the space between her list and her question. "Don't forget to add 'deliberately obtuse'— " he begins, reclaiming a stake in normalcy with that transition to dry quips.

And then her question arrives, and he's faced with a choice: does he embrace her rhetorical tone, or does he take a page out of her playbook and supply her with a thoughtful, honest answer where none had been expected? Whether it's for the opportunity to turn the tables on her by doing to her what she does ceaselessly to him, or because of the relief he feels after being relieved of the burden on his heart by her promise that he's not reviled by her father, or some other reason altogether, he chooses the latter.

"I was with you at first because you said all the right things in the right way at the wrong time, and because I noticed, all of a sudden, that you were well fit," he says, words that play well with his faint, subtle humor of moments ago. It segues cleanly into things less amused, more intimate. "And then I realized, coming back and after our first row, maybe that wasn't all of why, and I wanted to know why every time I saw you, you were the only thing in the room that seemed real to me." Fingertips skate in line up the dip in her spine, centered in her lower back. "It's different with you. What we are." He contemplates the words available to him to expound on that observation, and ultimately decides that making the attempt would only dilute the truth in the ones he's already said.

So he closes his eyes as she kisses his temple, and turns his head to murmur in her ear: "And you still drive me crazy."

—-

The dry, British quip earns him a quiet peal of laughter, ice-blue eyes glinting with mischief as Zatanna regards him from their new proximity. Relief underscores her expression; perhaps it's the link exerting its influence, or maybe his face was expressive enough just then, but she gets the distinct impression that whatever wounds John was suffering tonight have been salved, if not just a little, by what she has done. It's almost painfully simple, to feel some happiness from being able to relieve someone's pain. But she feels it all the same and it shows in her expression; John isn't an easy man to live with, and that is doubly so in trying to assuage his hurts, as he often tends to cut the unwary with his countless jagged edges if someone makes the attempt heedlessly.

And she knows this better than anyone. She has not been spared those cuts.

The question hadn't been meant to be answered, but he does anyway - her influence asserting itself, in a way, and she pauses with her mouth on his temple as he quietly divulges his own reasons for staying with her. In a way, he doesn't truly need to enumerate the reasons why, the fact that he loves her and that he means it, that it is genuine, is enough for her. But it does make her smile, the shape of it imprinted on the side of his head.

It's different with you.

It ellicits a sharp crack of affection, like lightning, razing through the tether that her father has instructed John to sever, setting her nerve-endings on fire and igniting the placid engines of her heart. She's tempted to ask how, though she is cognizant of how that might propel her down the road in hearing about John's past conquests, and she isn't sure whether she actually wants to know the details of those. Still, she can't help but be curious, and as she thinks about it, she decides, privately, that knowing the answer to that question can wait.

Her face finds the juncture between his neck and shoulder, lashes shuttering over her eyes. She is unaware that she is still smiling.

"I hope that's a good thing," she tells him softly.

It's an open question as to whether she means that she hopes it's a good thing that it's different with her, or that she drives him crazy, but the safe bet is that it applies equally to both.

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