A Failure to Communicate

April 29, 2017:

John Constantine and Zatanna Zatara regroup after encountering the false Zatara during their retrieval of Reiner Steinschneider, but when John asks Zatanna about the means and methods to destroy her father, she takes it as well as expected, causing yet another vicious row between the two lovers.

Berlin - Germany

Downtown Berlin.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Giovanni Zatara, Red Robin

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

To say that it has been a long night would be a terrible understatement.

With Reiner Steinschneider safely in their custody, with a room put away for him somewhere in the penthouse, it probably isn't surprising that the blond clairvoyant was in shock, and reticent to talk. A consensus had been reached among them to let the man rest given what he had just been through, with Bucky keeping watch, given he was the only one among them who didn't need to sleep. Decision made, the rest were seen to by Zatanna with her healing magic; out of all of them, Red had been the most hurt, and given John's somewhat discombobulated state, after checking him over - physically and ephemerally - she had put him to bed and turtled in an hour or so later, exhausted herself. Having been in the car with Jane driving the way she did through Berlin, she was understandably wiped.

Though by three in the morning, she would be gone again - the penthouse is dark and quiet, and save for the Winter Soldier in his vigil of Steinschneider's room, nobody else is awake.

It would be easy to trace her given the link that binds them together, another advantage given by the thing that Giovanni Zatara had asked him to sever a couple of weeks ago. She is not anywhere in the building.

Though even without the link, John Constantine might be able to accurately guess where she had gone. On the rooftops of the closest church to the hill in which the UNION JACK once stood, the raven-haired magician looks out into the night, peppered as it is by the search lights of local police and the yellow tape cording off the public from the site of a very strange occurrence that they're already pegging as a terrorist attack - some manner of silent bombing that had torched a building and kiled several of its patrons, though crime scene investigators have yet to put forward a credible theory as to how the bodies had been flung out of the pub when there are absolutely no signs of an incendiary device being used. The bombing theory also does not parse with the damage on the concrete or the skid marks of rapidly speeding vehicles arcing away from the ruined construct's perimeter. It won't be long until they start looking for less mundane solutions to explain what had happened.

The sheer amount of magic expended just a few hours ago thickens the air even from here. All of her sixth senses are keyed into the messy tangle of her soul's inherent intensity and John's own gifts, lingering with the strains of the tear that reality is still busy stitching together. But the false Zatara's own signature is so strong, she almost chokes at the sheer potency of it, tasted at the back of her throat even as she observes the uniforms from afar, like bony, sorcerous fingers clawing into empty air, causing her heart to sink and goosebumps to pebble her pale skin as to just how identical it is. It generates the same emotions, brings forth the same memories - it feels the same, smells the same.

It draws a jumble of conflicting emotions - longing so strong it threatens to tear the astral world apart, only matched by white-hot fury she cannot safely vent. She has only heard about her father's doppleganger from John, having not had the opportunity to glimpse him in Switzerland where he was last spotted. She had thought John's warning of his existence, and her father's foresight to warn John to keep her away from there, would have prepared her for that inevitable confrontation. This is, clearly, not the first time she had completely overestimated her ability to handle something with any manner of graceful aplomb.

Fingers tremble over the rooftop's guardrails. She shakes them, digging into her pockets to produce one of John's clove cigarettes, digits snapping to generate her own flame. She takes a deep drag…

…and starts coughing and choking almost immediately, stubbing it out and discarding it.

"Pftttghthgtghtbbggllrghh. Nope. Nope, can't do it," she mutters.

—-

It's probable that John wasn't a very comfortable bedpartner for the time they spent resting after their earlier exertions. He can likely count on one hand the times he's worked any kind of magic as significant as the one outside of the Union Jack, and at least three of those have been since arriving in New York in winter of last year. His body can handle the strain, but he's not calibrated for it. He prefers to operate minimally whenever possible, and certainly to draw on sources outside of himself when he doesn't — hence the selection of his flat, even at its hefty price. So he'd slept — harder than he usually sleeps, no restlessness in him — but he'd burned like an oven and poured sweat, his body like an engine running on a fuel mix too hot for it.

When he does finally pull himself out of bed it's to find himself alone, her half of the bed cooler, the sheets dry. Nothing dire travels along the wire of astral link between them, so he leaves that for the moment and allows himself a very long, very hot shower, scrubbing bits of concrete dust and traces of sour magic out of every last pore.

Once dressed he eyes the ruined bed, decides to leave it for the nonce, throws a few things in the kitchen into a messenger bag, settles it crosswise over his chest and then leaves the flat in search of his truant lover.

She'll feel him before she hears him, a sudden presence of gravity passing through the cavernous space below her, ascending through somewhat more mundane means to the roof. Boots are quiet behind her, drawing to a halt just behind and to one side. The whisper of fabric isn't John seating himself but the messenger bag as he draws the strap up and over his head to remove it. "It's dangerous to be here." There's no judgement in his tone of voice — he says it casually, as a reminder. The bag settles to the roof beside her with a soft clink of whatever's inside, and then he joins her at the rail, pivoting neatly as he nears it to turn his back to the ongoing efforts below, angled very slightly toward her instead. There's a rush of scents that come with him: the soap from Red's penthouse, John's own toiletries, aftershave, lingering traces of dryer sheet clinging to his jacket, tossed in with one earlier to get rid of the smells left on it by their encounter here.

Cloves too, obviously. He glances sidelong at the barely-burned leaving of one of them, brow notched upward, a spark of amusement struck in pale eyes. It reminds him, though, and he reaches into one of his pockets to retrieve the fold-open pack of them. "Steinschneider — the other one, mind — will have noticed what happened. He might be sniffing about." He tucks one of the cloves between his lips, drops the pack back into his pocket. Sinking into a casual, propped lean against the railing, half-sitting on it — which is meant to keep him from plummeting to his death, though obviously John likes to live dangerously — he tightens his eyes into a squint that fixes the outer corners with faint crow's feet, sweeping his focus across other rooftops nearby and gestures loosely at them with the hand containing the lighter she gave him. "I don't think the man's going to be fooled by a change of clothes at this distance." The lighter clinks open, and behind his cupped hand orange light bursts warmly to life, painted over features otherwise silvered blue by the twilight.

—-

It's dangerous to be here.

There was some part of her that hoped that he'd finally sleep until morning, but that was probably too much to hope for - he hasn't slept well since arriving in Berlin, and even before that in the nights she spent in Brooklyn after his falling out with her father. But when she senses his presence somewhere at the base of the building, she finds herself unsurprised. Still, she waits, her face cradled into the fingers of her right hand as she watches the gurneys get rolled out from the epicenter of the night's destruction, bodies to be piled into large vans to be sent to the morgue. There are plenty of dead; it isn't surprising that there'd be more of them than usual. The telltale flash of cameras and news vans parked several feet away, to give a wide berth to the proceedings but remaining within eyeline of them, can also be glimpsed from their perch.

He arrives, finally - she hears the clinking of whatever is in his messenger bag, the unmistakeable vestiges of the evening's grooming regimen and detergent clinging to his street clothes. She has yet to get used to seeing him in them, but she likes the look and eventually, she angles her face towards him and flashes him a baely-there smile. "That's me, ever reckless," Zatanna tells him, glib in the way she usually isn't.

There's another glance towards the crime scene. "If he was, we'd be talking right about now," she tells him, though he'd get the distinct impression that she might mean some other way of talking, never one to back down from a fight if it comes down to that. "If he is, he's staying away, though it's hard to detect much of anything after what just happened. This entire area is saturated with me and you. And him." She doesn't need to specify who she means. After a pause, hesitant to even say it, she continues: "I thought I was prepared because I've always thought knowing would make a tremenduous difference, but I think…I wasn't prepared for that. It feels like him, John. The magic. In every way."

A hand lifts, scrubbing fingers over her eyes. Giving her head a slight shake, she turns to look at him fully, turning her body away from the rails. Ice-blue eyes sweep over his profile, her expression softening considerably.

"How are you feeling?" she wonders. "You were a little out of sorts earlier, and you slept like a rock."

—-

He has nothing to say about whether or not Steinschneider might be watching them, whatever thoughts he has about that kept to himself. He snaps the lighter closed and tucks it safely away again — always in the coat or jacket, always on the left side, interior pocket — and takes an unhurried drag from the clove in the hand on the far side from her, smoke exhaled that same way — downwind, away.

She says the word him, laden with emphasis. He nods, short, small movements of the head, and twists at the waist to look over his shoulder at the sprawl of light and noise below, busy little mortal ants going about the business of trying to make sense of a world that no longer does, and within the context of the truth never can, limited by wrong understandings of what is and isn't possible.

The intensity of their earlier conflict still hangs thick in the atmosphere. Giovanni's signature, right but wrong, and John's own but in a color he's never known it to have before, inextricably mixed with pieces of her. The sensing of it fans a small flame in him to something brighter, a thrill of remembered power that he pushes back against with hard prejudice. This is how magicians fall. This is how Newcastle happened: intoxicated with his own power, feeling limitless authority over reality. Seductive, always, that lure of control.

Untwisting, he glances down at the ember of the clove in his hand and then finally ticks his eyes over to meet hers, nodding again. "Almost every way. In Switzerland it wasn't enough for me to be sure one way or the other. Was it him, and he was…possessed, or tainted somehow, or was it an act? Bloody good one. I had to test him to be sure. He didn't seem to know me, then. He did this time." Behind blue eyes, thoughts rove backward, tasting the essence of the unknitting being done by that strange doppel. "I'm…starting to think it's both. I think it's not your da, but it's not an act, either."

She pulls him out of his own thoughts with a question. As her hand falls away from her face he lifts his to intercept it, catching at slender fingers and lifting them carefully to place his mouth against the ravine between two of her knuckles, middle and ring. Something wry ignites in him, though it's subdued much like the rest of him — by the hour, possibly. "I'm alright. Bit like doing a sprint, innit?" He tilts his head, angling his eyes down at the bag on the ground between them, and nudges it with the toe of one boot. "Brought kip. Still hungry, after all that." That had been his only stop prior to collapsing to sleep: the kitchen, to eat virtually everything that was in it.

He lowers her hand but keeps hold of it, deft fingers toying with the lace of her own in absent patterns. The quality of his gaze turns solemnly assessing, but it's gentle. "How about you, luv?"

—-

I think it's not /your/ da, but it's not an act, either.

The theory has her furrowing her brows, Zatanna's lips quirking into a mild frown when his eyes meet her own and he says what he does. She turns it over in her head, brows stitching together in an attempt to parse out what he means. She had not been present when the false Zatara had tapped into his own reserves, perhaps the only reason why John has managed to develop this latest insight into the thing they will inevitably face, somewhere down the line. Something sickly sour tugs at her stomach as a multitude of possibilities tumble through her head, a drop of apprehension that feels like hot, weighty lead bleeding into their link. But she was not there, had left well before she could see John and the other Zatara fight. Had she been there, it's possible that she would have come to the same conclusion as he.

"…what do you mean?" she asks slowly, finally, when she shifts.

There's no resistance when he reaches for her, as always drawn so easily when he deigns to touch her. Fingers lift, and at the affectionate token bestowed between ridges of bone pushing up from under fair skin, she can't help but feel her smile warm and grow more visible in spite of herself. Confirmation that he was fine, at least physically, loosens knots in her that she has tried to ignore since everyone returned to the penthouse. Jessica will have to be briefed later, once everyone is rested. In spite of it, however, ice-blue eyes move up and slightly past him, towards the aura in which spent traces of his magic mingled with her own shimmers in the air - a faint golden aurora wreathed with pure white, barely visible in the darkness, but easily detected by the likes of her. And that isn't surprising, either - the magic belongs to her and she is intimately famiiar with his.

"It's been a while since Ozone Park." It feels like another lifetime ago, with how their lives are often on the crossroads of some manner of peril, but it remains the last time since she had truly unleashed herself that way in an effort to pull back the vastness of her soul into herself. "But I remember the breathlessness." There's a hint of a laugh, quiet as it is, as if there was even a remote possibility that those processing the crime scene a few blocks away from them would be able to hear it. "Kinda tends to be overshadowed by that debilitating, knees-locking terror though whenever I remember how it feels like…when control slips away from me. Like grasping at rushing water."

There's a glance at the messenger bag. "Still? Good thing we restocked. It was a real worry, you know. I thought you were just gonna upend an entire bottle of ketchup in your mouth at one point."

How about you, luv?

Her pale gaze wanders down to their interlocked fingers; she misses the change in his expression at the doing, but she feels it all the same. Her thumb passes lightly over the base of his own. Teeth clip faintly on the cushion of her lower lip.

"I don't know," she confesses quietly. "It was hard. I thought I was ready and then he takes me like that so easily. And then watching the two of you fight with him feeling the way he does. It was…I don't know. It was hard." For one armed with so many words in so many languages, she repeats the description she has already offered before, at a loss to articulate the emotional nest of brambles lodged within her chest at the reminder.

After a moment, she looks back up at him, lips turning up in a rueful smile, prefacing the inevitable attempt to interject some levity. "What you did, though," she tells him lightly. "I didn't know if I ought to be scared or jump your bones the first moment I could."

—-

There's another shift in his expression that she'll miss, a tightening of the eyes as he turns his head away, ostensibly to take a drag from the clove in his hand but in no small part to angle away from her the look he wears as she describes what was difficult for her about the day. He'd anticipated her heartsickness, missing her father the way she does, but his own role in it —

There's no apology in him. He waits to feel guilty and almost, almost does, a twinge in his conscience sufficient to tell him he perhaps ought to be, but well short of enough to make him sorry. The memory of what he saw and what he felt is enough to cause a sleepy little coil of anger in his stomach even now, the faintest echo of the red-mist wrath that unleased things in him he usually has sense enough to deny.

If he had the choice, he'd do it all over again.

His fingers tighten on hers, compensation for his inability to repent, perhaps.

"I had a taste of what he was doing when he decided to tear the place apart," he says eventually, returning to her question at length. Another drag from the cigarette and he drops it on the roof, puts it out with the toe of his boot. He does not seem terribly bothered by the fact that it's a church roof he does this to. "Got the sense he wasn't faking anything, but he's still not Gi, is he? Like…your da's magic, through a mirror. I sent him on his merry way through a portal into another bloody dimension and he looked well pleased with himself, so I expect he's from one as it is, and it won't be long before he's back." The pause that follows is heavy, and he ends it by drawing in a long breath that leaves him in a sigh, the eyes that angle away from them and across the shadowed silhouettes of the Berlin skyline thoughtful but taxed. "Dimensional nonsense complicates things. And there's your da, off running around that way on his own, as well…"

He stops short then, mouth closing, expression neutral in the way that says he's had a sudden thought about what he's saying. He remains that way for two, three heartbeats, then visibly returns his attention to the present, though he fails to elucidate whatever idea he's had — a sure sign that it's only a nascent thing, and needs more thought before he gives it voice.

The look that returns to her is arch-browed, sliding gradually toward wryness of the quieter, more intimate sort. "Why not both?" Eventually the humor makes it all the way down to the set of his mouth. "Second best ride you've ever given me, it was." His free hand lifts, splays in the middle of his chest. "Got to watch that, though. I wasn't thinking about that little piece of you when I got started. Didn't know it would happen like that. No harm done…" Something of a stretch, that statement, what with the emergency lights still strobing behind him, throwing a disco show of alternating color up the sides of the buildings all along the street, "…but probably not something I should start doing for the fun of it."

—-

Emotions are hardly rational; she knows why John reacted the way he did and really, considering what the false Zatara did, such skirmishes would be inevitable. She had intended to take the reins herself, but her overestimation as to how the sight and feel of him would affect her proved her folly. It was how she spent the last hour or so after she had left the penthouse, castigating herself quietly for that specific failure, away from their multi-room suite in hopes that the distance would blunt the effects of it. It seems to have worked, on top of John's own exhaustion, that it hadn't bothered his deep sleep. But witnessing it had been difficult in ways she hadn't been prepared for, so visually presented with the echoes of the foresight the Englishman had provided her the night he returned to Shadowcrest after that row with her father.

It's going to be difficult for you, Zee.

Her fingers return the squeeze he gives her, though it takes a while for her to meet his eyes. Her lips part, but whatever else she has to say is arrested by the explanation as to what he believes is the true nature of the man who emulates her father almost exactly. Given the fact that they've spent a few weeks doing nothing but deal with interdimensional anomalies thanks to HYDRA's magic-powered utopia machine, the fact that the Cult could have summoned another Giovanni from another dimension isn't all too far-fetched. She's heard of similar stories before, New York is teeming with them, but as usual when it comes to metahuman problems, she is often very far removed from those. The fact that the same problem strikes her on such a personal level is a staggering and unexpected revelation, and one that renders her silent for a very long moment.

When she finally speaks, her voice is thoughtful, almost absent: "I guess it would make sense, if the Cult has the power to do it, and there's no reason to believe why they don't considering who's running the show. Daddy's fought them to a standstill for decades, maybe they figure the only way they can beat him down once and for all is to find another him, induct him in the fold and pit them against one another eventually. All the more reason to resolve that problem as quickly as we can after we're done here…Daddy's got enough problems as it is, with whatever it is that he's dealing with while he's hopping dimensions." There's a twinge of amusement there, as to how she can speak about bouncing in between worlds like it's something normal, like Saturday brunch or a walk in the park. "….what I can't figure out is why now."

Why now, indeed.

"Maybe they couldn't do it before? I'm not talking about the magic, necessarily. Maybe they needed to find the /right/ false Zatara." And if that's the case, who gave them that information. Mammon?

As usual, there are more questions than answers. She's still trying to turn the other possibilities over in her head when the wry expression overtakes him. The flash of humor and the brazen comment has her lips parting in a grin brilliant enough to put the distant lights to shame, the kind that illuminates the rest of her expression and makes those eyes glow like a cat's in the dark.

Why not both?

She leans in, her lips grazing his cheek. "You're so greedy," she tells him, all warm, good-humored affection. She doesn't ask which was the first - she knows very well when it happened and the circumstances that brought it on, enough to only cement the fact that their shared intensity is just as guilty keeping them together as effectively as it can drive them apart. "I didn't think that would happen, either," she confesses. "But then again, we should've. It's not as if we don't know why people are constantly after tearing it all away from me. I go back sometimes, you know. Wonder whether I was being so hasty…but after everything else that's happened, I can't find it in me to regret it. I didn't regret giving it to you then and if anything, the last few weeks have only made me believe that it was a good thing I did. It kept you with me, John, and it's helped you when things got dangerous. The thought of you abusing it never really entered my mind…I meant what I said about trusting you with the parts of me I wouldn't give to anyone else."

She pauses. "…it can be seductive, though," she tells him quietly. "Like all magic. But…more than most. I don't know if it's the purity or the potency or…it just is." And she would know, wouldn't she? She has lived with it - and scores more of it - all of her life. She has very good reason to be scared of it.

—-

"This one is a nasty piece of work," he says, meaning this version of her father, if their theory actually proves true. "Not all of them would have been willing to do what he's doing, I expect. And if they could contact him there's no saying they couldn't do it again. With another you. With another me." These thoughts, more than the thought of facing the Zatara they called across the veil between realities, are enough to nick a shadow between his brows.

It clears as she kisses his cheek, and he finally releases her hand to wind his arm around behind her, fingertips walking across the span of her lower back, little whispers of invitation closer along the chilly line of the metal rail. She calls him greedy, and his lips quirk, eyes lidding. "With you," he agrees. With her, nothing is ever enough. Not even when it's too much.

Quiet descends on his tongue and his countenance while she muses over their peculiarly interlocked state. Her gift, his use of it. If he concentrates he can feel it, a glowing stone of something raw, like having a piece of the cosmos tied to his soul.

"Honestly, Zee, it's all the same to me. There's a sodding lot of power in what you have, and power is always the thing, innit? But even the little temptations are dangerous. You fall forty feet or four hundred, the result is still going to be the same. A very sudden bad day, and then…" And then nothing, he meant to say, but that's not true. Not for him. But thoughts of the afterlife are bound up in her gift in their own way, having sheltered him as it did from premature damnation, and after a momentary silence he tilts his head to look at her with lidded but not lazy eyes. "It's safe with me," he says, words wildly different from all of his hesitations on the night she made the gift in the first place. "I'd tear my own soul to pieces and send it winging its way back to you before I let anyone take it from me."

—-

That possibility isn't all too remote, given what they've been discussing and what they've seen. It drives Zatanna to silence, ice-blue eyes fixing over some point over his shoulder. "If nothing else, we'd at least be able to determine who's who," she tells him quietly, as always one drawn to possible solutions to a problem and clinging to that bit of silver lining. Their astral bind is a rare enough occurrence that there's no possible way they could find another Zatanna or John out there to hold onto the end of a similar tether. Because of its existence, there wouldn't be a hope in hell that any dimensional facsimiles of them would be able to fool the other. "Not to say they won't be able to cause massive amounts of trouble on their own, but if we're right and it took them this long to find this Zatara, who knows how long it would take them to find another you, or me."

She shakes her head once - their lives are complicated enough as it is without thinking about the possibility of other lives, other thems. They haven't even begun scratching the surface of the mystery that brought them to Berlin and thinking about tackling this on top of everything else that is waiting for them in New York is guaranteed to give her either a headache or a sleepless night. She takes a deep breath, and attempts to push that out, to be buried deep to be recalled later once it becomes relevant. She always tells the rest one thing at a time - it is time that she take her own advice.

His smile helps. There's an answering one and when that warm, lean limb twines around her waist, taking the few steps necessary to close the distance. Her response to him is immediate, then again it always is. Slender arms drape loosely around his shoulders.

"And cigarettes," she teases. "And alcohol." Eyes dance with mirth, with full cognizance of what he means with those two words, but she can't help herself anyway. "Sex, but that proves your point rather than mine."

He'd see the shift on her own expression when he assures her that mote of her soul is safe with him, leagues different from the time she had actually gifted it to him. She remembers the hesitation and the corresponding fear - that it had been too soon, too intense, or a responsibility that he doesn't want, nevermind that wasn't her intention to begin with. It had been so overt on his face and eyes that even while devoid of the tether that ties them to one another now, she knew and had offered to take it back before she even processed what that kind of rejection would do to her.

Crazily different from what he tells her now. She doesn't know what it is about the words, or the way he says them. Maybe there is a cause to be found in the trials of the day. Heat pricks from under her lashes, mirrored through their ephemeral connection - a white-hot lightning bolt of emotion that finds the middle ground between earth-shattering love and unimaginable fear; the latter exists, one could suspect, because the possibility of having to go to such extremes is way too real for the likes of them.

She can tell him all of it, or show him, or both. She elects to do both, when her mouth suddenly opens over his and pours all of it into him, quiet breaths hot and humid against the chill of Spring and the bite of metal behind them. Fingers track upwards behind his head, to bury and tangle into the mess of chocolate and gold at the back of his skull, curling in to fasten and sink him into that sudden wellspring of need. And when her lips unclasp from him at last, she shakes her head.

"I'd rather you do what you usually do," she tells him breathlessly. "And find a way around it. Or give it up, if not just to buy us the time to figure out the rest." Her hands slip away, to frame his face between both. "If I lost you, I don't…" Her lips part, then close, then press into a tight line. "I can't."

—-

And cigarettes, she says. And alcohol. He gamely rolls his eyes skyward even as he settles his hands over the flare of her hips. "Alright, alright." Brows twitch toward one another over eyes that linger on the skyline behind her, his soft 'tch' and all of the criticism that follow merely dry humor. "Survived just one day in Jane Foster's car and thinks she's invincible, gone all uppity."

Blue irises shaded by the evening carry warmth in them as they drop back down, the little glinting flecks of lit windows in the distance, reflected in wide pupils, interrupted in the middle by a perfect darkness roughly in her silhouette. It expands as she leans in, his eyes closing as much because of the sudden gout of fire that boils across the link, shot through with the icy chill of fear, as because of that more mundane physical cue.

Even forewarned in that way by feelings shared with him inadvertently, the fervor of it takes him aback. He feels it like a tightening of the muscle behind his sternum, breath squeezed out of him, and though there hadn't been time to give conscious thought to what was likely responsible for turning her into a sudden bottle rocket of emotions he needs no insight or reason to fuel his answer. There's a heart-stopping little wobble on the railing before he leans back in, hands sliding down behind her hips for leverage enough to keep him steady. Time loses its meaning — as it always does — for the span of time they're joined that way, quiet save for whatever breath whispers its way over lips and cheeks and little notes of separation and reunion. He was busy when they arrived, and then he'd let his ego have its way with his mood after their visit with Greta, and in a classic example of John cutting off his nose to spite his face he'd let that mood keep him from —

Well. This.

Seams of iris become visible in glittering rinds as she leans her head back again, the places her fingers have been in his hair still tingling. Shorter, faster, but near-silent breaths still fall like humid plumes against the closeness of her, his eyes unlidding that little bit more, something serious imbuing the shadows between them as she says what she does.

"I will never," he murmurs, quietly but with enough iron to make the point non-negotiable, "Give it up to anyone but you." Warm palms press into the lines of muscle that hedge her spine's dip as they rise toward the middle of her back, a gesture almost unconscious, his focus on the conversation as absolute as it can be. "Zee, I don't plan on going anywhere. And you know me, right? I don't take anything lying down." Pause. With some humor: "Not much, anyway." Such is the weight of what they're discussing that the humor can't survive long, the ember going out almost as soon as it glows to life.

"But.."

It could happen.

It could happen any day. It's a miracle, he knows, that it hasn't happened yet.

"You're not allowed to fall apart if it happens." Not allowed. Because forbidding her anything has obviously worked so well previously! "And even if it does happen, apparently I'll know if you do." His tone is light, chiding. Gallows humor. "So you'd better not. You think I'm difficult to live with now? Imagine what sort of ghost I'd make."

—-

"If you'd been there, you won't be blamed for thinking you're downright invincible, either," Zatanna points out, laughter stitched in syllables and the night air, though there's a bit of a haunted look behind her eyes as she remembers going over the overpass and screaming her head off; proof positive that there are some physical forces in the natural world that can still scare magicians, no matter how endless their potential.

While the air is cool, it is warm enough to prevent their comingled breaths to manifest as puffs of mist, and with his well-loved face between her hands, she quietly observes the way that familiar, but exhilarating intensity bleeds over the lines of it. It is nothing overt, more hinted at by his manner and the evocative hints in the undercurrents of his accent, but he means what he says, repeats the sentiment as if to give them flesh and form - like another spell - and that torrent of hot lightning in her chest bleeds over her bones and hits her stomach, pools somewhere in the cradle of her hips. The sensations are wild enough to knock her flat on her back.

I will never give it up to anyone but you.

She believes him. That disastrous experiment with their tether has only given her more insight into the muddled, bloody, tortured swamp of his history; out of everyone in the world, she knows how duplicitous John Constantine can be when he feels the need to be, knows the kind of muck he buries his hands in when something needs to be done. One could easily expect her not to after that, having some vague familiarity with what he has done to other people he knows in order to further one aim or another. But she is also now aware of her importance in his life, and while he has taken great care and pain to keep that knowledge away from the ones he had before, the fact that she knows enables her to put that much faith in his words in spite of everything else that she knows about him. She has always been willing to trust him; events from the last two weeks have only conspired to intensify that sentiment.

"No," she confirms, her smile returning. "You don't - not in those terms anyway." That was part of it, too, how he tumbles and rights himself back up. "I know for a fact that your will to survive is the stuff of legends. I'd rather put my faith in your ability to prevent the worst case scenario, though, than you acting on it."

The rejoinder, however, does cause that smile to fade, and when he tells her that he's not allowed to fall apart if the loss of him happens has her lancing those blue eyes up at him. The line of her jaw hardens, grows stubborn, because of course it does, he knows very well what happens when he prohibits her to do something. The idea of living with his impossible ghost is a possibility that's all too real, but she shakes her head once.

"It goes both ways, John," she reminds him; her tone is gentle despite that glimpse of girlish petulance. "If I asked you to promise the same, would you be able to?"

She tilts her head sideways, lashes lowering underneath the way the shadows cast by his face. "I can't guarantee how I'll act. Just that the world will probably have to brace itself. I'm not afraid to obliterate what I need to in order to get back what I want." Her smile lifts upwards. "And I remember a time in my life when you were the only thing I ever wanted."

—-

Nothing in her stubbornness holds any horrors for John. He meets that bullish look of hers and little in his expression changes save a brief twinkle of muted humor. He feels a lot of things, looking at her when she looks at him that way, but surprise isn't counted among them.

She counters his mandate with a question. A fair question, though not perhaps as effective as she might like. He knows his answer immediately, but he holds his tongue in order to turn his thoughts toward the unthinkable: the loss of her. It's territory he's denied to himself for the most part, knowing how little reason he historically needs to abandon ship at the first suggestion of impending loss and grief. He dares that now, forming cinema in his mind's eye of what would happen to him. What he would do to himself, even above and beyond what her loss would do to him first.

It's a visible thing when he rises out of those thoughts, his angled-away eyes refocusing and ticked back to her, somehow still warm in spite of the things in his head in those silent moments. Things that smell like antiseptic, that feel like four hundred volts of electricity sewn through his skull. He murmurs his response to her lips. "But I'm not you."

He doesn't know whether or not those words are fair, only that they are true. He's been broken and pieced back together so many times that bits have been left out or glued in wrong. It takes ever so much less to shatter him. With this that may not matter, of course, but it's the line he adheres to nevertheless.

He feels it when she smiles, and all of the sentiment in the words that follow. Knows that she means what she says, too, about unleashing hell if she feels that she must. He saw that for himself, and it had inspired one of the best worst ideas of his entire life. He should take his cue from that link, let them sink into another rooftop escapade — this one on a church, which has a pleasing symmetry to it, really, being the most readily available polar opposite to that night in Hell's New York — but John will be John.

"Even though I'm old?" The words are arch and preface the lift of his head to look down into her eyes. "Destined to become fatally un-hip once you've had your fill of teenaged rebellion? I'll pop into temporary headquarters on that fateful day to find you and Red shacked up, traded in for a more current model?" It's humor, and it's not. He's sore about it but not angry, and if anything it's just more of the same: gallows humor about the things that make him uncomfortable.

—-

But I'm not you.

"That's not fair." As always the first to call him on his shite, but the veracity of the statement is not one that she can deny. It wasn't all that long ago that Zatanna had just told Jessica that the two of them were as different as two people could be, intersecting only at a white-hot fault line that could build up or destroy everything at a moment's notice. But she says it with a slight uptick on the corners of her mouth, affection once again resurfacing to the fore, interlaced with a hint of mischief.

She does mean it and so far it has been the only exception to her determination never to uncap herself no matter what happens; only when the moment is dire, such as saving John from Mammon, or Jessica and Matt Murdock from Xiuhnel before he decided to lay to waste to downtown Manhattan, and even then that had largely been motivated by the fact that Jessica and Matt were about to die and she would not have that on her consience, either. But when he brings up what had happened in Maria's flat, ice-blue eyes grow wide and apology is on her face immediately. She knows he's still irritated by it, it's largely the reason why they haven't been the way they usually are the moment they arrived in Berlin.

"Older," she corrects. "And I meant objectively! Oh, John, you know I could scarcely give a shit about that, otherwise I wouldn't have done what I did on my birthday! Seriously, after everything we've been through, and it's not like you're unaware of the appeal you have, either and why I would stick around, when you spent four months dark with no contact all because you cared about what would happen to your face!"

The rant would continue, but the mention of returning to the penthouse to find her shacked up with Red has her openly wincing, blessed and cursed with a face too expressive, really, to hide it. "First of all, I don't have any desire to see Red dead," she replies. "His life is difficult enough as it is with what he's decided to do with it in a place like Gotham. Second of all, that's not happening." She turns her head, lips on his cheek, inched up to deposit the next few words in his ear.

"It's always been you, and only you, you dumbass."

—-

John's brows slowly climb, gaining altitude with every exasperated exclamation point he hears in her reply. He only starts to interject once, though it's with a lack of any serious agitation. "Hey, it was for more reasons than my //fa— //"

And then she winces.

He takes it as an indication that he's hurt her feelings with some sort of low blow, and feels a pang of regret that trickles over the link. Opening the door to feeling it gives him the opportunity to regret using Red to needle her, as well; the kid doesn't deserve that, even if he's the only male of that age group in John's personal acquaintance, the readiest one to reach for.

The squared line of his shoulders relaxes as some of the tension there unbinds, his exhale carrying with it a toneless sound that rasps in his throat. "Sorry, luv," he says, and means it. "I've got this habit of taking things too far and it's a bloody difficult one to break."

It always makes him feel petulant and slightly ridiculous when she does this, opening the gates and handing him her heart on a platter. He spends so much of his time standing outside of them figuratively speaking, ranting and railing about one thing or another, victim to all of his own self-recriminations and doubts, and then she just…takes that, gives him something better in exchange, and it predictably takes the wind out of his sails, deflates him and leaves him wondering why he was so worked up in the first place.

He's still John, though, and even acknowledging that she has the ability to do that — something that takes his breath away, something that's reshaping his life into something else — earns a small, internal grumble.

"I probably wouldn't kill him," he says after a moment, with magnanimity. "Maybe just scuff him up a little bi— "

Lips at his ear.

His eyes lid. He slides down off of the rail to pivot them around, hands on her hips, her back to the scene of ongoing bafflement below. Head tilted, eyes lit by the candles of worklights, he gets a good, full view of the shimmering trace evidence left behind in the air by what he did earlier, corrupted around the edges by the slurry of darker magic still hanging like a miasma over the civil servants trying to make sense of it all. He can practically sense the way it influences their moods, hanging heavily over them that way. Shortening tempers, darkening expressions. None of them realize. Or maybe, he thinks, mouth parted and teeth a clasp without pressure on the slope of muscle between neck and shoulder, one or two of them actually do; maybe there are some more puissant laborers in the mix. The others might stare at sidewalks gone soft and fuzzy with confusion, but at least they'd be spared the fear of anyone with the faintest idea of what they were looking at.

"I'm not sore enough that I plan to give you up over it," he tells the pulse-line of her throat, life-giving blood looping through her mere millimeters from his lips. "I'd have to be barking mad to. Madder than being with you in the first place when dear ol' da both doesn't like it, and is Giovanni Zatara. Which is mad. See also: reasons I disappeared for four months, in addition to the thing with my face. And don't give me that shite. I've seen your vanity— " He means her dressing table, because English; "— and you know as well as I do you'd give it a good long think before you risked finding out what he meant by 'never be able to show your face in public again.'"

He lifts his chin to reply to her quiet words at his ear with a set of his own similarly delivered. "You know I didn't want to leave. I'd have stuck 'round if I thought we could go back to the way we had been, but I've never been that good at resisting temptation and you…" Blue eyes linger on a body being ferried into the back of an ambulance, though its need for those services has long since passed. "…were very tempting."

—-

His apology has Zatanna shaking her head immediately the moment the first words come spilling from his lips, her hands on his cheeks again and gentle thumbs rolling over the high ridges of that handsome profile. Leaning in, lips move to press lightly on his temple. "Oh, no, baby, it's not that, I know you were just being you. It's just that scenario would be super awkward considering everything that's happened." Not just with everything that's happened with the Englishman, but everything that's happened with Red. There's a twinge there, strong enough to register through the link - nothing resembling guilt, and a closer approximation to regret that said awkwardness even exists. This is hardly the first time that she's struggled with the decision whether to tell John about Tim's confession, the desire to be open with him warring with her own tremenduous sense of independence, of the belief that she can manage her own personal affairs and the fervent need to prevent John from thinking it would all be some teenaged girl's attempt to make him jealous…and on top of it, Red's identity outside of the costume, as John isn't an idiot.

But she tries to assure him anyway, because the need to do so is almost instinctive, present and willing to give everything that she is to soothe the hurts of a man who has done nothing but in his twenty-eight years of living. Her hands move away from his face, depriving them of their warmth, but they return to the loose band they made around the breadth of his shoulders, fingers drifting over the shorter hairs at his nape.

The idea of scuffing up Red is the last thing she wants; John and her father are already on the outs, the idea that he would share the same contentious relationship with her best friend causes her to sigh inwardly just before she feeds the raw, unyielding truth in his ear and renders him, at the very least, malleable to her attentions. Because while there have been others before and after him, John Constantine has always been her first and considering how things are between them now, constantly testing their boundaries and continuously being surprised as to just how far they could push those limits, she was on some level absolutely certain that it will always be John Constantine. And the thought of it terrifies and thrills her in equal measure.

The way his mouth opens at the juncture where her throat meets her shoulder doesn't help that at all. Gooseflesh climbs up the trench of her spine at the clasp of his teeth, breath catching at the back of her throat. So willing to follow him wherever he leads, she doesn't even realize he's turned them around until the cold bite of metal wedges against the small of her back. Lashes shutter in a partway drape over her eyes, hand moving to cradle the back of his head while her own tilts back to bare more of that graceful slope to his lips.

"I only said that to illustrate the fact that you are very familiar with your own appeal, and if you notice it, then you know that I do also, so the idea of you being ten years older than me somehow being a deterrent is nonsensical," she murmurs stubbornly. Though his own reassurances that he doesn't care about it much, either, has her sagging faintly against the rail behind her. "You're in your twenties, John. You're hardly geriatric and if you are." Lips and a hint of her teeth snare at his earlobe, taking on an attentive nibble. "I would have noticed by now, with how I'm constantly after you to give it to me."

His recollections about her temptations earn him enough of a smile to be felt against his ear, quiet breaths painting humidity into the inner contours of it. "Was it because I'm pretty or because of what I said?" She knows very well his answer to that, but can't help herself anyway. "Between you and me, that battle was hard won." Teeth clip a little more insistently on the high, cartilaginous arch. "And absolutely worth it."

—-

It would be awkward, she says. John huffs a short breath of something that isn't incredulity but something like it, like a response to understatement — which it almost is. Seeing her with literally anyone other than himself would be awkward for him, and as close as they've gotten he's still more likely to confess that sort of thing in a crisis and under pressure than for the hell of it. He keeps it to himself, but acknowledges the thought as it comes and goes, and tucks it away somewhere to consider privately, because it's the sort of thing that ought to scare the shit out of him.

Can't seem to be bothered with that in the moment, though. She rolls her head, bares her throat, and what was moments ago an idle, almost distracted contact pivots into more active territory. He peels his eyes away from the scene in the street and turns his head to ladder open-mouthed kisses up toward the hinge of her jaw, sucking tender skin in the last just enough to threaten to mark her without actually going so far as to do it. "Appeal," he repeats, once he's released harassed flesh to cool in the slight breeze of their altitude. "That's the second time you've said that. As an accusation, no less. I'm something of an acquired taste, I should think. And now they've got these little blue pills, I understand, so any pensioner with a pocketbook could keep up with you," he teases, one corner of his mouth tilted upward. The note of challenge can't be helped: it's who he is.

Everything about him is enticed to stillness when her teeth bite with any kind of significant pressure, not because it hurts but because moving might dissuade her. And she might know the answer to her question, but he furnishes her with one anyway, though it's inflected as a question: "Yes…?"

When he does finally lean back again it's just enough so that the hands on her hips can spin her in place, to face outward as he does, and then he settles in behind her in a warm, lean line. Cool fingertips carefully begin to shepherd her hair over one of her shoulders so as to bare the back of her neck. "Hard-won, was it. I honestly can't recall." Lies: he can, and does often. "It's all a bit of a blur for me. I gather soldiers experience the same sort of thing on the battlefield. It's a biological response to trauma." He places his lips against the delicate pair of tendons in her neck that rise toward the base of her skull, the breath he draws laced with the scent of her shampoo. John doesn't believe in aromatherapy, though he's used oils for the pleasure of pleasant smells…but the psychological impact of familiar scents, the kind of smell she leaves behind in his bed after she's been in it…that, he cannot quibble with. It hits him like a potent sedative, lidding his eyes. It does nothing to slow the elevated thud of his heartbeat, palpable in the chest pressed against her back. "Sort of a shame we had to be here on grisly business," he reflects, winding his arms around her waist and looking out beyond her ear at the skyline, unmarred by the chaos suggested by the pit of rubble below them. "One of these days we'll have a holiday. Hong Kong, was it?"

—-

Lashes drift even lower, until glacial irises are nothing but glittering slits in dark shadows. Underneath the staggered climb his mouth makes over her skin, her own pulse jackhammers against the life-giving vein hidden under fair softness and a turned down collar, hard enough to be felt. The suckle earns him a sound, tucked tight into the back of her throat and spilling into the confines of his ear, some manner of sordid secret left to linger there as nails curl into his scalp at that added pressure, knees suddenly turning into the consistency of jelly. She's lost count of how many times they've done this, but the effect of his touch on her has not lost its potency, liable to ignite her senses and switch all of her gears from dormant to GO in a mere handful of seconds.

"Oh, you think so, huh?" Zatanna says with a laugh. "I don't think the blue pills actually lubricate tendons and un-brittle old bones."

There's no resistance in her when he turns her by the hips, ice-blue eyes swinging away from his face and towards the hill in which the UNION JACK once stood, and beyond where darkness breaks into filaments of red and gold, heralding the onset of dawn. The breeze helps the tangle of raven tresses in the sweeping gestures of his fingers, eyes growing half-lid at the warm touch of his mouth and insistent limbs curling around her middle. Her face turns, craning over her shoulder to nip at his cheek without teeth, nestling into the cradle he provides by a contrasting lean backwards that rests her weight on the heels of her boots. "Hard-won," she confirms, mirth audible in her voice even though he can't quite glimpse it on her face. "But if you've forgotten, that just means I'll have to treat you to some kind of traumatic flashback that makes everything come surging back." All said while he takes in the scent of her, the subtle vanilla and honey in her shampoo, what's left of the bath that she had taken once everyone had returned to the penthouse, intermingled with those stray ozone wisps of magic that she can't quite control the emanation of - her entire being is steeped with it, though most of it is trapped in the locks that Giovanni had placed within his daughter.

Sort of a shame we had to be here on grisly business.

"You know I'd go anywhere with you," she replies. "And it doesn't even really matter where. Hong Kong, Berlin…." Mischief returns. "Back to Sumatra with all the monkeys. I always figured this would be the tone of my life anyway." Her hand drops over a set of his knuckles, splaying lightly on the divots between bone-points. "Globetrotting, seeing the sights while mired in some kind of trouble or another. I bet you even if we did go on a holiday, something else will happen that we'll grumble about and try our best to avoid, but end up getting mixed up in it anyway because we can't help ourselves. You saw how Valentines Day panned out." There's a hint of a smile. "As much as it scared me, even then, there were good things to take back from it, too. And I think that in itself is miraculous, John, when those kinds of memories could be drawn even from a place where no good can survive."

She turns her head slightly. "Is that what you meant?" she wonders. "When you said it was different with me?"

—-

"I'm not sure that recreation will work. I'm not as inclined to object anymore." It's fortunate for John that she has yet to accustom herself to his touch, because John never can quite seem to get enough of touching her. The impulse to put his hands on her is near-constant when they're somewhere private. Contact with her quiets certain things in him — things he needs in order to do what he does, granted, but when he isn't working they tend to coil around themselves inside of him, a dull, eternal flame of quiet rage. The closer he is to her, the more readily those things sleep.

A trade-off, of course, because of all of the things that touching her wakes up in him in exchange. Vastly preferable things, though in their own way, in a different context, no less dangerous.

He lazes in the experience of both once she settles her weight back, a more than willing brace; the warm solidity of her body is all the more vital for the slight chill of a Berlin spring night. There are times when he's been lost in the mire of himself that she was the only thing — he told her this — that seemed real to him, an anchor point amidst so many moving goalposts in a life where the inexplicable is a regular occurrence.

And for all that the slender curves of her bring him that curious sort of peace, they still fire bolts of electricity into his chest, whipping his heart along to a faster beat, every nerve in contact with some shape of her alight and alert to all of her nuances. He knows down to every last cell of himself that they'll be tangled up together and breathing hard before the sun rises, but he's legendarily patient when he has good reason. He has never regretted applying that patience to the pursuit of making love to Zatanna. It's a background hum of frisson he finds almost luxurious, lending to all of their exchanges as it does a veneer of intimacy, an alluring feeling, like satin on bare skin.

It lends heat to the humor of what he says next. "We can go to Sumatra. We both know there aren't monkeys anymore." And whose fault had that been, his arch tone asks. He feels her fingertips slide into the ravines of his own and lifts them just enough to thread them loosely through one another, keeping them captive when his begin to walk the fabric of her shirt's hem upward. Just enough to expose a curve of skin near her hip, just enough to allow him to trace mindless patterns there as he contemplates her other assertion: that trouble will always find them, even when they don't go looking for it. It's true, and he knows that it's true without any need to ponder, but that constant chaos has been the source of more than a little bit of interpersonal strife in what relationships he's bothered trying to cultivate.

Weeks ago his mellow, anticipatory mood might have been compromised by the question she asks — a question that by necessity finds him turning his inner eye backward along the route of his life to touch on a handful of faces that stand out distinctly from what has otherwise been a blur of inconsequential encounters. Here it only serves to make him pensive, because he knows unequivocally that what he told her is true. It is different with her. But as to the whys…? He's given that less thought.

He turns his head just as minutely to meet what he can of her angled gaze, holding it for a handful of heartbeats and then turning his focus outward again, as though the answers for her might be written in the shape of the darkened skyline or the patterns of lit windows in the distance. His expression is inscrutable as he worries at the edges of the question.

"You're like a drug," he says finally, the press of his fingertips tightening just enough to make shallow depressions in soft skin. "There are days when I'm sure you're going to bloody kill me, but I…" His lashes flicker once, lidding over eyes that distance themselves from what they see, brows sliding together and his head tilting down on an angle. The ghost of a tortured look lingering as he turns his face into her, crown glanced lightly against the side of her head. The whisper barely has breath to carry it. "Need it."

There's so much more to it than that, but the other pieces fit inside of it, and he can't explain the rest without delving into his other relationships. What they were like — some of them good, even great — but how they never created in him a compulsion, never shook him the way that she does.

—-

I'm not so inclined to object anymore.

"Well, that's good," Zatanna murmurs, an ounce of wicked humor that often presages something wrong lacing into her quiet breaths as she continues: "Otherwise I'd feel like a dolphin."

It has been a few months since they decided to be what they are, whatever confusing amalgam of emotions and desires that they've become, hammered into shape by the things that constantly try to pull them apart, but the unhesitating way in which John dispenses his affection never ceases to amaze her, for all that she receives the lion's share of it. There are many in their acquaintance who would probably guess differently, given the way he is in his public life, brusque and caustic, armed with acerbic wit, with little to no tolerance for fools and the fripperies of the nonsensical. But for all of his tendencies to hide behind a fortress of emotional bravado, he doesn't hold back with this - how he gravitates towards her when it's just the two of them, all the excuses and non-excuses to touch her, and that keeps her in place almost as much as the act of touching her quiets whatever dragons reside in him. That is part of it, too, the intensity that she swears makes her stay, the act of hanging onto something, someone, so tightly that he leaves bits and pieces of himself onto it - onto her.

Even now she feels it when he takes his time, the way he unhurriedly builds towards the inevitable, the thing that tends to underscore their conversations. The lacing of their fingers, the inching of the other set of his under layers of fabric to brush calluses over pale skin, pinpoints of sensation causing it to burn and her heart to lurch maddeningly, almost painfully against her ribs in a bid to escape, if not just to find some kind of relief that would never arrive once it's out there. Those bits of him linger long after his grip on her moves on, for her to return to in those windows of separation, however long or short, barely the former, these days, considering what they suffered in Hell, and whatever had gripped him when he had accidentally showed her pieces of himself that no one has ever seen.

His comment regarding the Sumatra monkeys has her turning her head towards him at the question unasked, but clearly implied, and given her position, she can't see him clearly. But she pinches his fingers lightly and she can't help but laugh. "Look, I know we were in a hurry, but it had to be done. Especially the one at the back that reminded me so much of you. How could you possibly expect me to just leave him there like that? I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself afterwards!" All said with the dramatic flair of a consummate performer; she even manages to sound serious about it, nevermind that he knows she's full of shit.

That passes, too. Her head tilts just a little past his shoulder so she could press the side of her head against his cheek, aligned well enough by the additional height given to her by her boots. With little else to punctuate the silence, her face angles for lips to nuzzle absently into the line of his jaw, lashes falling until her eyes are almost completely shuttered. The world vanishes at his proximity, though it does this almost always whenever he's close, so adept as he is in claiming her attention and awareness of much else for himself, a deep breath taken to bask in the other things about him that cling to his clothes and skin - faded traces of the shower he had taken before he left the penthouse, the ghost touches of his clove cigarette and the magic of Berlin itself, threaded over the rest of him like an accidental passenger for wherever the son of Synchronicity decides to go.

She doesn't expect him to answer her question, not really. But he does and the answer he gives her is very…well, him. The shape of her smile imprints from underneath his jaw; a silver bolt of affection kicks through her link, soothed by a thrumming that takes the shape of pure, unadulterated contentment, for all the way her heart taps its staccato beats against her chest and the side of her neck at the way he touches her and the way he breathes and basks in her. Like a drug, he said, and with him her most enthusiastic addict as he leaves more imprints of himself into her, blood flushing from underneath where his fingertips leave those depressions.

"I need you, too," she tells him quietly, finally, a few minutes after the last word has left him. Her lips find the corner of his mouth.

"But you won't kill me."

—-

Such a brazen claim, that last.

He's beginning to believe it, somewhere deeper down, in places he hardly acknowledges to himself exist — places where scraps of useless things like hope still exist in him. But that's a far different thing from trusting it, something he can't yet afford to do. The distance he keeps from any such expectation is imperative to his survival, even after everything they've shared, and to hear her speak the words out loud causes a twist of unease in him, as though the universe might suddenly pay attention to the fact that she'd improbably survived for as long as she has, and decide to do something about that. Restore the balance of the scales of his life.

He lifts one of his hands, wraps that arm around her, crossing her collarbone until his fingertips find the lips so recently pressed to the corner of his, barely making contact at all. "Shhh." It's not clear if this is genuine superstition or jest on his part, muted as he is. Head angled to meet her shadowed gaze, his hushing fingers slip away unhurriedly, feathering down over the delicate line of her jaw, the long line of her throat. The tick of her pulse is exaggerated beneath them, driving home the phantoms that haunt the moment: how in spite of all of her formidable prowess with magic and the battlefield acumen that appears to improve by the day, she is only mortal and in some ways so, so fragile. "It's better not to make me promises you can't guarantee can be kept."

But what if it's true?

He only permits himself that thought because he's curious about what it forecasts: where will they be in a year's time, two, ten, if all of this volatile, miraculous labyrinth of need and conflict doesn't collapse beneath its own weight? John isn't the sort to settle down. Personal traumas aside, he's abysmal with children. Giovanni will eventually overcome his present affliction — he believes that completely — and return to the world he belongs in, and what then? Family picnics?

The thought earns a low sound of dry humor in the chest she's cast herself up against, and a glint in eyes with irises deepened by the shadows between them and the way his pupils have swallowed most of his irises.

It's a bridge too far to ask about where they're headed, what she wants…but he can couch that differently, and with his curiosity piqued, does. "Going to be like your father, then? On the move forever, married to the art and the work? You don't strike me as the type, luv. It made miserable men of us both, and I'm not half as miserable as I'm likely to get." A joke. The humor of it kindles in the shape of his eyes. "Eventually you'll want more than that." The fingertips at her throat tighten just by a matter of degrees of pressure, possibly inadvertently. "Most sane people do."

—-

Brazen, yes. But did he expect anything less from Zatanna, who is oh-so distressingly comfortable with her own recklessness and how she bulls through minefields in a dead run with nary a look back, to dive into wonder and horror headfirst? It's easy to believe that she will grow out of it, but she has always been this way for as long as she can remember. Everyone she knows may be stuck with this forever, no matter how tempered by experience.

Her lips part at rough fingers brushing over her mouth; she responds with the briefest, lightest press of teeth against the pad of his index, releasing when he charts a course down the swanlike line rendered all the more white against the contrast of her dark clothing and under the brilliance of the moon's half-smile, the ambient illumination of the evening, whatever traces the city lights leave on her skin. Her pulse hammers underneath his touch, now that it's so directly placed on it to better experience the way he makes her blood rush, the way arcs of electricity braids down her spine and makes her shiver in ways that have no rooted cause in the surrounding Spring chill.

It's better not to make me promises you can't guarantee.

"I can guarantee this one," said with all of that spitfire determination, undercurrents of white heat twining over her quiet whisper. He can practically sense her ice-blue eyes narrowing, ever one to challenge Destiny to do its worst, untempered yet by the caution often instilled into those who are older and more experienced. "If I die, John, it'll be because of me, not you or anyone else." And on some level, she knows that is true, too. With the way she lives her life, eager to cast off the fetters of circumstance, no matter the reason for their placing, she's very much capable of driving events that would lead to her demise before anyone else in her acquaintance can. And considering how guilt-ridden most of them are, the curse of souls that often care too much about what happens around them, she vastly prefers the scenario, to place responsibility where it truly deserves to be placed. If she could take that burden off everyone else, she'd consider it a life well lived.

The quiet humored sound he shares with her, more hinted at by the rumbling within his chest than anything, bleeds off some of the tension knotting her shoulders at that. Talk of Giovanni eases almost all of it out of her along with the tightening clasp of his fingers around her throat, a gesture that has her leaning back further, lips pressed into his cheek, the way her breath catches thrums over his digits by the way it tightens the cords within that ivory column.

"I don't think you're all that miserable now," she tells him. "And Daddy takes his happiness when he can. But I can think of worse ways to live my life than being on the move, forever. It's not as if I'm the sort that just stays in one place, not when I can be in more interesting places when I close my eyes and will for it to happen. There's so much to see, John. The world is full of experiences I don't think can be compressed into a single lifetime, but God help me if I'm not gonna do my damndest to try. I may have already been married to the art since I was born, but I'd infinitely prefer it if I was married to the adventure of it all, and not necessarily the Work. Even if it's probably going to be the cause of most of it."

She falls silent, taking a moment to ruminate over what just came out of her mouth without her even thinking about it. "…I'm not even twenty yet," she appends quietly. "Maybe you're right and eventually I'll want more. But I've seen what happens to people when they get too greedy, so I figured it'd be best for me if I just kept my desires simple. Ultimately, I just don't want to be lonely." Her eyes wander back to the skyline. "I know it's part and parcel of the nature of us. What we are. Magic costs and the higher we climb, the lonelier we become. But I can't just accept that….not without a fight."

—-

Like so many aspects of what they've become, it terrifies and exhilarates him every time she throws herself into the jaws of certain doom. Both, always.

The silence that greets her insistence that she can guarantee him he won't be the cause of her death is probably answer enough: he doesn't believe that she can, and no amount of discussion is likely to convince him otherwise. The future is so uncertain for John, the impossible so often inevitable, that he — probably more than most — is ever-reluctant to speak in terms of absolutes.

Arguing with her about it serves no purpose, holds no allure, though. And in the silence that follows he experiences one of those moments of internal dislocation, hearing in her the kinds of things he heard from himself at almost exactly her age: how magic was a grand adventure, every unexplored corner thick with the potential for miracles and mayhem. The excitement of it all. What could possibly compare? The heady rush of triumph over impossible odds, the all-consuming intensity of working magic as though it were iron on an anvil, shaping it to one's will. The taste of that. The glory of it. Experiences, all, to which most of mundane existence could hardly compare.

Overshadowed for him now by what came after. And god, how delicious Newcastle had been at the start, even through the miasma of horror brought on by so much blood and the peril of a little girl. He'd felt it down to his bones, the thrumming of his own finesse — enough that he led off with tantra to prepare, seated in a circle with one of his acolytes straddling his hips and the two of them a rocking engine of accumulated focus, spooling mana out of the atmosphere into him like candy floss at a fair.

Obscene really, given all that happened afterward.

It cuts at him, her confession of loneliness. Eyes gone distant with remembering lid so heavily that they seem closed, lowered to the pale stroke of her profile. The fingertips beneath her jaw whisper suggestions, tilting her head up, back, on an angle that presents him with her mouth. "Magic costs." Agreement, and quiet. "And once you're far enough along you can't turn back. There's no walking away. Once you've tasted…" In this taut tableau of tender near-force he's unwilling to lift his head to look at the tender scar he made in the world, but if he turns his thoughts that way he can sense it, pulsing in time with the cadence of some other place, a raw welt still bleeding power. How that felt, passing through him — and it had been his own, unlike the conduit he'd let himself become in the Hydra base underground.

Christ, but it had felt good. Pulled out of his own bramble-bound skull into a place of perfect, murderous peace, perfectly ready to hold reality down and do with it as he pleased — none of that magician's coy flirtation, winning things from the real without it noticing. No polite fictions. He closes his eyes against the ache it causes in him, a unique kind of lust that no mundane individual could ever possibly understand. It winds through him like chains of fire, lighting him up the way his touch ignites the woman in his arms: altogether too ready and willing to indulge that impulse. The thing that passes for his better nature observes that, notes the way his breathing shorts and his fingers tingle with the memory of golden light, and he knows what it means.

What a monster I would be.

Warm, pliant lips close on hers. His exhale trembles over her cheek. "I had to learn for myself, too," he murmurs, not without humor. He would never have listened to himself at her age, either. "But I'll fight with you. You won't be alone."

—-

She knows he doesn't believe her - and now that she knows about those darker parts of him, she knows why he can't and isn't even remotely willing. But much like him, she leaves it alone. Two people as different from one another as they are would be hardpressed to agree on many things, and if anything it's baffling enough that they've managed to construct a relatively stable co-existence with one another for all of those significant dissonances. Not that it deters the younger Zatara, if nothing else, his unwillingness to believe gives her all the impetus in the world to prove to him that he was wrong, and spite is a tremenduous motivator in someone so young and passionate with everything she does.

If she is aware that the words she speaks are more colored by her inexperience than anything else, she doesn't show it, or is wholly unaware of it. It reflects her age and that soft willingness to look at the brighter side of life, and Time will be the only judge as to whether an older woman's cynicism will grind that out of her, or if her nature is rooted upon an optimism as unquenchable as the well of power residing in the seat of her soul. It is too early to tell, but he knows as well as she that she will always try. Try until she's blue in the face, until all possible and impossible avenues are expended.

The expense of Magic - what it takes from people - is one of the first lessons she was ever taught about her birthright, and while she has yet to familiarize herself with the price of her own machinations, she is quietly bracing herself for the other shoe to drop. It hasn't taken from her yet, and she doesn't know whether it should disturb her that she hasn't been forced to pay at every expenditure of power she exacts upon the world. It has to come eventually, right? And if it doesn't…what could that mean? Her thoughts dismiss those questions quickly, too reluctant to face them at the moment. She is not in any hurry to peel back the layers keeping her own mysteries from view - there'll be plenty enough time for that.

Or so she hopes. Thoughts of Turkey are distant.

Pushed all the further when his hand titls her face back and up, gentle insistence tightening his grip and the near-forcefulness of it sets her on fire, much like everything else about him. That remembered pleasure bleeds through the link, and at his agreement that Magic costs and that it's difficult to turn back once one has had a taste, she knows it's true, too. It is the addiction that frightens her, warned early on that it, too, is like a drug and that it would take more and more to achieve the effects of that very first high. Even now, she tastes it from John, their tether vibrating with it like a harpstring plucked. It feeds her own exhilaration, but also that fear…these days, she can't have one without the other.

Her answering kiss is all damp, humid heat, open and greedy with the taking, but cut short from its potential depths to whisper: "I know." Her smile traces over his lips. "It's too late for me anyway. You have me, John Constantine. There's no walking away from you, either."

—-

There's no walking away from you, either.

That has never been true for him save in the most morbid sense, but history doesn't accumulate into a speed-bump for him there, because so little else about what they have has ever been historicallyt rue for him. They're breaking molds and shattering his expectations at every turn. The way forward may not always be clear, but one thing is clear, resoundingly: the usual rules do not apply.

Fingertips warmed by her skin finally slide away from the lever of her jaw, tracing out the contours of her to crest the cliff of her shoulder and follow downward the line of her arm. They are only lazily restless, leaving ghostly trails of contact behind them as they go, but there's a quiet promise in their sudden desire to wander. They build charge the way the ground and the air do as electrical storms roil through the heavens. Eventually, there will be lightning, and then thunder, but until then the kind of ozone tension that causes hair to stand up on the backs of one's arms.

Not the most seemingly logical time to divert the conversation back to the question of her false father, most particularly when the arm around her waist tightens in a band of sinew that erases what little space remains between them and his voice dips that way, eschewing brisk humor for indolent velvet. "That version of your da will be back. I'd bet on it. I can't just keep shunting him into other places. Next time, he'll be better-prepared." In the pause that follows his touch crests at the inside of her shoulder and winds outward, reading the ridge of her collarbone like braille to the dip of her throat, lingering there. "You're…not going to like the question I have to ask you."

—-

She lets that hand wander as it wills, sinking further into the warmth and solid sureness of him when the distance dwindles even further. Clothes suddenly feel like unwanted shackles and she shifts only to get more; more contact, more closeness, more warmth. Zatanna earlier had accused him of being greedy, but that doesn't mean that she isn't the same when it comes to him and everything about him. Thoughts of John Constantine had consumed her on and off within the last several years and now that they've managed to reach a mutual understanding (and how), that has only intensified also.

She fits herself against him when that tug finally obliterates the last remaining millimeters of distance, up until both her boots take up the space between his sneakers and the line of her spine rests flush against the breadth of his chest. His quiet words have her eyes wandering out yet again, moving towards the crime scene and the shimmering remains of the fissure he had rent forcibly in this reality, to ensure that it didn't collapse under the weight of the false Zatara's machinations. And she believes him when he tells her that he's not going to like the question he's about to ask her.

Just as he knows that she'll answer truthfully, when he does, because it's her.

"What is it?" she asks quietly, already bracing herself for it and the possible tremors over that white-hot fault line that might follow. Her fingers tighten into his at the effort, squeezing his knuckles into the expanse of her palm.

—-

There's a long stretch of silence before he finally speaks again, and in that silence she can sense the paltry sips of air he permits himself to take.

"You know him better than anyone," he begins, answering her tightening grasp with pressure that seems more designed to entrap her than to reassure. The way his fingers continue their sojourn by drifting south through the valley between her breasts to rejoin the arm still wound about her middle lends credence to that suspicion. "This version of him is so close to the one we know that I'm not sure anyone other than you or I could tell the difference. It's not going to be enough to send him back where he came from. The Cult brought him once, they could do it again."

She'll feel his head tilt forward more than see it, feel when that momentary bowing becomes a deliberate dip, words delivered to her shoulder as though that could in some way cushion what they express. "He needs to be dealt with, Zee. I won't have you do it. It's not something you need to see, it doesn't matter if he's your da or not. But he has to go. And if anyone…" The pause is just brief enough for him to listen for the sound of creaking ice beneath his feet. "…If anyone would know how to destroy your father, it would be you."

A crease ghosts into place between his brows, and eyes that still contain the embers of their proximity in spite of this grim turn lid heavily, hushing his gaze to pair with a voice that dwindles to little more than breath. "I need you to tell me how."

—-

You know him better than anyone.

The moment the words come out of his mouth, the sinking suspicion starts forming in her gut - a sick twisting realization that threatens to well bile up her throat and leave by way of violent expulsion from between her lips. To attest to the prescience of John and just how well he knows her, she's already trying to extricate herself away from his arms when he holds her fast, to entrap her within the circle and prevent her from planting any distance between them. Her breath catches in her throat, though not out of desire this time. Cold sweat slips down the dip of her spine, to pool somewhere in the small of her back.

She knows he's right. It won't be enough to seal him into whatever rifts they devise. If John's hypothesis is correct and that he comes from another dimension, some reality parallel to theirs, close enough that by all rights, the man is Giovanni Zatara in every way that matters, he will find a way to come back.

"What do you mean you won't have me do it?" she asks, breathlessly. "Is it because you don't think I can handle it? I know I slipped up earlier, I wasn't prepared for it, but now that I know, I can. He's….this entire thing has something to do with my father, John, maybe that's indicative enough that I ought to be the one. Why does it have to be you?"

Oh god, he's right. She doesn't like the question he's asking. Fear, love and no small amount of something that feels like betrayal bleeds into their silver tether, and should she be facing the right way, he'd be able to see it plainly on her features, contorted as it is with disbelief. She knows this about him, how unhesitating he is in doing what he needs to in order to get something done. It is the part of him that draws her to him like a moth to flame.

But it's a double-edged sword and she bleeds from it now, getting as close as she does to this kind of intensity.

"Even if that isn't really Daddy, you're still asking me to…John, you're asking me to betray my own father."

—-

He won't grasp her so hard that she can't move — she might bruise, it might hurt her, and while he isn't above that if he thinks it's necessary it isn't here, or at least not yet — so she's able to gain enough distance to turn just a little within the circle of his arms, which is more than he would like. More than he would like because it allows her to look up at him, and he's forced to do what he doesn't often have to do with her anymore: slam the door shut on whatever's behind his eyes, their lidded state inscrutable, his expression as flat and unyielding as though it were cut from stone.

Because he is right, and because he did have to ask. And because it makes him hate himself, a little, that he isn't sorry, even though he can feel her suffering shuddering through her and into him across distanceless fields of astral space.

"Because you shouldn't have to handle it, Zee." He's still quiet when he poses the question that follows. "Why the fuck would you want to? Do you really want to carry that around with you? Don't hand me any kind of lines about how he's your father so it's your responsibility, either. That's not true in this case. He's not your da. He's…something else. He doesn't belong here."

Incredulous, disbelieving, aghast, she aims eyes like pale winter searchlights up at him and the twilight catches in them, and it suffuses every last inch of fair skin, and her hair is dark and everywhere and she hurts and she's beautiful and instead of remorse what he feels is a pang of desire that only deepens the trickle of self-loathing. And while this is happening and he's holding her so that she can't separate them, while she's fighting revulsion over what she's been asked to do, he contemplates whether or not he should lie to her. Tell her that it isn't a betrayal of her father, because as he's already said, this isn't Giovanni — not the one that matters. Tell her that it's what Giovanni would want if he believed the fate of the world were at stake, and that her father has likely done far worse to amend stakes this high, because that's just one of the many, many costs of magic.

That this is one such price: the look in her eyes, the pain. The wound that bleeds and isn't flesh.

He doesn't, in the end. Whether that's because he's driven to be honest with her or because he believes that honesty is the only response she'll respect from him, the only one that might win her over, is terribly unclear in the moment. Regardless of the reasons…

"I am." Plainly stated, a stretch of calm water in the face of the tempest she is on the inside. "Thing is, luv, I'm going to have to try one way or another, and it's really down to whether you care to gamble on my ability to take him apart on my own best guesses."

—-

She manages to turn and look up at him at that very moment he slams the door into whatever is behind his expression and he faces that look of her full in the face. The way incredulity and disbelief suffuses those pale, silken lines of her, ice-blue eyes wide and how that near-violent twist to face him drags wavy raven tresses to curl about her neck and frame one side of her cheek. Her lips part, rosy from their earlier kiss, but its line is far from pleasured and reflective of pure, potent dismay. There's a plea within those icy mirrors, that young part of her that is so willing to always see the best side of him regardless of whether he is deserving renders her all the more innocent when he lances that blade between her ribs and forces her to bleed.

"I don't want to kill anyone!" she cries, when he asks. "But if I have to…if I really and truly have to, if there's no other way, then I…" Her voice falters at that. It is everything she fears, isn't it? She has been plagued by this before, whether she would actually have the capacity to do what's necessary in the worst of it. "I know he's not my father, but this is the Cult and they've always hated him. And let's not forget why this all came up in the first place, they were after me. Even if they hadn't called up this other Zatara, it still started with me, didn't it? Doesn't that make it my responsibility?"

Panic wells up in her chest; he knows her well, but it goes both ways and she can already anticipate the rest that would follow. It surges through the link that binds them together with brutal, crushing force. Fingers slip from his to grasp him by the front of his shirt instead, not unlike the way she had shaken his collar during the first row, though there's no forceful desire to wring his neck - she clutches onto him with a kind of desperation. Because she doesn't want to hear this. She wants him to take it all back and she chokes at the desire. Lips part, the pearlined edges of her teeth clench.

This isn't happening. If she tells him, what then? The next time they have a vicious row, if forced, there's no way she would expect either her father or John to hold back. Even if he promises her that he would never use it against her father, she knows Giovanni Zatara. He is very much gifted in earning someone's enmity in his best days, and attempts to kill him because of it at the worst. Not to say that she expects John to ever go that far, but he has gone far, hasn't he? She knows now. Even if he doesn't mean to, circumstances could push him and…

I am.

She shakes her head vehemently. "No," she whispers, the word coming out as a pained hiss. "No, John. You can't…you can't…oh god, don't put this on me!"

Her shoulders hunch. That incredulous stare fixes somewhere in the middle of his chest. And if she doesn't tell him, what then? He would be going into that fight without the fullest possible arsenal. She already knows there will be no dissuading him, even if she tries to do this herself, he'd get in the way. Find some method to con her out of it, and she's not at all confident in being able to see past his games, either, and she would be risking him all the same.

"Oh god. Oh god. Don't make me choose."

—-

It must be easy to forget in her shoes just how unshakeable he can be, with every potent thing between them rattling him in new and different ways, straight down to his core. She's seen him broken apart on the rocks of himself, watched him fight against the hatred of himself that constantly yearns to drag him under, slept beside him when his terrible dreams have painted him slick with sweat and driven him out of bed altogether, not even the solace of her presence enough to soothe whatever injuries his conscience inflicts.

And this is why.

Because of moments like this. But where he's faltered with her, and for her, and in her presence…there's not even the faintest hint that he intends to falter against her.

"It started with Steinschneider and Mammon, and you were currency. An offering on an altar. That doesn't make it your responsibility, no."

And the seawall that he represents, against which the tide of her storm breaks, remains unfissured by self-doubt even as the moment aligns to that distant memory of eye-opening conflict, the precise moment in time he realized that she felt something even after months of no contact. What that something must have been.

He has no such illusions about what she's feeling now. It crosses their bond in a torrent of anguish and denial. His facade of distance holds, but he's never had to do this — be this — while someone had a direct hotline into his soul, forcing him to experience all of it second-hand. It jags through him like a barbed blade, but there's still some part of him that finds it morbidly poetic as a kind of justice: that he should have to bleed the way he makes others do the same.

When something does finally change in the hard expression he's wearing, it's understanding that rounds down the edges of the thing. Not a change of heart, not a change of plans, but the tacit acknowledgement of the boundary she throws up in desperation, begging him not to make her choose.

"I won't." Soft words that sound like a promise, prelude to his lean, intending to press his lips to her crown in benediction or, perhaps more appropriately, absolution.

He meant every last word he said, and when the time comes he'll turn his hand on that doppelganger in violence for countless reasons, with or without whatever knowledge she has to give.

But he won't, at least, make her choose.

—-

I won't.

The kiss means to absolve her of the non-choice, but there is no relief. The effects are compounded right in the opposite; a flash of white-hot anger so intense that it threatens to burn them both with how inextricably they're linked. His lips find purchase against her hair, but the young woman turns her face away afterwards, ice-blue eyes staring at an inconsequential point on the other side of the cathedral's roof.

"But you are," she tells him, emotion cracking her voice at the seams. "You are, John."

Was she supposed to leave him unaided, also? He may not hold that against her, but if anything should happen to him, it would be her fault again, wouldn't it? She had the means at her disposal to arm him against something absurdly dangerous, and if she made the choice the other way, what then? It would be like Hell all over again, when she had decided to separate, ending in him getting taken by Nergal, and later the First, then handed off to Mammon, to suffer unimaginable torments that could have been prevented with her presence. It nearly destroyed her, losing him that way, wracked with the uncertainty that she would ever get him back. Faced with another similar dilemma, would she even be able to choose otherwise? To put him up in yet another extremely risky gamble that would be less risky especially since she's intimately familiar with the threat in question?

Heat pricks from underneath her lashes. She hadn't even considered that possibility, until he had brought it up. And now that it was out there, she can't profess ignorance. There's no absolving this, should the worst happen, no matter how he intends to free her of the burden with what he says. It's too late for that. He has to know that.

It twists at her, lashes rapidly blinking to hold the tide. Nausea threatens to liquefy her stomach, lightheadedness seeping in.

"The only way I will is if you let me pull the knowledge out of you afterwards," she tells him quietly. "Once it's done."

Even putting that on the table as a counteroffer makes her sick and he would feel that too; to divulge her father's secrets, to give her lover the keys with which to destroy this other facsimile of him, and then relieve him of them afterwards. To reach inside his memory and ensure that he either doesn't remember or that she's rendered them inaccessible for as long as she lives. But that is the consequence of stepping into forbidden territory, it only opens up the avenues for others.

"If that's not good enough, you're going to have to let me think about it," she says, her eyes closing.

—-

It would be very, very strange indeed if John, after years of maneuvering people into corners, did not understand that he's given her a choice she is incapable of refusing to make. Her silence binds her as tightly to one possibility as her voice would bind her to the other.

The way she turns her face from him hurts him probably more than anything else in their exchange, even the wild injury he feels bleeding over the tether. None of that shows in his expression, save perhaps in a slight tightening of the hinge of his jaw, biting down on the moment. In her distress she casts her thoughts outward, searching for solutions, and he feels something almost like a twinge of pride when she comes up with something in between, some inventive counter-offer…

…even if the moment she utters the words he knows there's no way he'd ever let that happen. His rejection of it is so strong, so visceral, that it bucks across the open line, carrying with it all of the well-concealed but no less extant wounds he's still privately tending after his own recklessness and selfishness plunged her into the icewater bath of his memories.

The hands that have worked to bind her close to him fall away, leaving swiftly cooling imprints on her. "No." There's a long pause, blue eyes intent on her, pale blue nails. "Not because I care about keeping what I know but because I've had enough of people fucking about with my 'ead, 'tanna." White rooms and sterile tile. Stainless steel gurneys with thick leather restraints. The smell of urine, the sound of unhinged howling down the hall. He sets his jaw against it.

"There's always a cost," he says eventually, touching down again on their earlier words. "Sometimes there are a few and the only choice you get to make is which one you can stand the thought of paying." He lifts his hands to slide them into the pockets of his coat, feeling acutely the chill in all of the places she'd been touching him. His tone is not brusque, exactly, but it's neutral and almost businesslike, tilted toward the tone he'd take with her when they were in lessons together and covering difficult things, acknowledging unpleasant truths. "Nobody knows better than I do what it's like, and how it's bloody impossible to know which thing is going to destroy the least of you, or the parts of you that you're willing to part with. In the end you just have to make your choices and own them. I'm in no position to judge anyone for that."

—-

Whatever twinge of pride he feels runs in absolute counter with her own nausea at the idea of it, of even proposing it, because she knows it's the only way she'd be able to agree to it and keep her obligations to the two men that she loves the most in the world. But it could not be that easy, however limitless her magic is, because it can't be, never for the likes of them. The choice before her is an impossible one and anger wages a savage, ruthless war against her own fears, and the pain it generates is staggering. Her expression twists, teeth grinding tight behind closed lips - she knows he can't not be feeling this, but the irrational desire to lash out, to shove him into a corner and betray him back is so overwhelming that she nearly caves into it. To not give him a choice. To spill it out anyway where he's forced to hear the means and method while weaving in a series of incantations that'll just rip it out of his head when the time comes.

Wouldn't that be a kick in the ass?

But you're not like me.

She isn't. The truth of it fills her with dread, because he's right in that, too, and she's absolutely incapable of truly doing everything else that she had just imagined no matter how personally satisfying it would be to give into that flashfire moment of vindictive spite. The realization of it, this clear delineation between who he is and who she is only causes that temper to boil over, spilling with the blood rush that heightens the color of her cheeks and the brightness in her stare, incandescent with fury, for all of its impotence. She is hardly upset about his answer, because she already knows that he would never let her do it, even without knowing the darker fragments of his history and how Ravenscar has only broken him further. But she finds herself struggling with the sudden rush of white-hot anger that he asked her in the first place, and knowing the position it would place her.

And there is no apology in him, either, which does absolutely nothing for it.

"All of that experience is talking now, huh?" Words push forcibly through her teeth. "Turning your god damn coat. Knowing what kind of position you're placing me in and doing it anyway, and within the same breath telling me you're not going to make me choose. It must be a relief to pass the burden on to someone else for a fucking change!"

Her voice pitches higher than she intends. Whipping away from him, her hands lift to scrub into her face, eyes squeezing shut between her fingers.

It twists at her, to the point that it renders her breathless. "Oh, god. Oh god…"

—-

She would know the moment his eyes narrow that something has pivoted on a hidden fulcrum somewhere, if only she were watching him when it happens. She isn't. The pressure of what she's been asked hits the threshold of her ability to tolerate it. Something has to give and does, as she whirls and stalks away, tension writ in every rough gesture of her hands.

So it's to her agitated back and breathless murmuring, hunched inward and curled around the things in her that hurt, that he unleashes what follows — an ever-so-rare concession to volume.

"DO YOU THINK I WANT THIS?" Cold fire boils up in him, the kind of anger that has a soul of ice rather than the backdraft of fire so common to so many of his other impassioned confrontations. The frost of it flashes in eyes like cold blades, and the sound of his voice splits the night air and bounces off of the buildings across the street, echoes of it funneled down narrow alleys and avenues. Below them in the welter of lights at ground zero, polizei pause in their examinations of the ruin, glancing up and around and shaking their heads: an unseemly outburst in such a Prussian community, far more appropriate for the piazzas of Italy or the shores of Spain than in orderly, restrained Germany.

The silence after it seems very quiet by comparison, unless one turned to look at him, finding him there with his shoulders squared and arms slightly away from his sides, one shoulder turning toward her as he tightens his eyes and points. "You think I like having to ask? Think I'm looking forward to wringing your knockoff da's neck, do you? Or maybe getting bloody dissolved in the attempt? Do you think," he adds, voice dropping by a full register, "That I like watching you struggle with this, knowing it's at least in part because you believe I might use what you tell me to kill your real da? Or maybe you didn't think I'd put that one together for myself. I knew you'd think that before I even asked you."

The flat of his chest rises and falls with deeper, faster breaths, all of his ire twisting and lashing at his better judgement. Because it's true: it is a relief, for once, not to have to be the one facing the tough decision. It is. And as much as he may sympathize with her position, he feels no remorse for putting her there. Because:

"He needs to die, I should be the one to kill him because fuck off with adding patricide to the balance of your earthly deeds, and I don't want to die in the attempt. I'm sorry if you don't like those facts. Maybe I ought to have left you with your head in the sodding sand? Blissful ignorance, yeah?"

He pushes a long exhale through his nose. The chill in him condenses down to something hard, and he doesn't know whether or not this is the right decision, but his fury fairly well forces it out of him, dressed in quiet, iron tones.

"You know what — why not? We both know my poxy soul's not worth two bits at this point anyway, what's one more decision like this one? I'll make it for you, sure. Don't tell me. Don't even try to tell me. If you do I won't listen. How's that? Problem bloody solved. I hope it arrives as a blessed relief for your conscience."

He wants to leave, but his bag is near the railing, binding him to the roof — so rather than descending, he stalks for the bag, gritting his teeth at how this telegraphs his intentions. "And since I know you're prone to making rash decisions, I may as well get started trying to track this cunt down before you make an ill-advised attempt to resolve it all on your own. You lot can get by without me for a week." He hoists the bag and drops it over his shoulder, disliking the way it reminds him of another night they went their separate ways, but too committed to having pulled the lever not to follow through.

—-

DO YOU THINK I /WANT/ THIS?

His rising voice has Zatanna turning back around to stare at him, ice-blue eyes wide as the world cracks underneath their feet, and he vents his own bubbling pressure up to the stars. White-hot fury was already bubbling in her veins and now that John has put his fists up to face her, she can't help but follows; the dam breaks, flooding the valley below with tides of fury and grief and all of it manifests with the sudden height of color flushing underneath her pale skin and putting lightning in her eyes, threatening to decimate everything else that's right in front of her. The accusatory finger jabbed in her direction is the last straw; lips curl to bare her teeth, and before she knows it, her boots cut across the surface of the roof to shred the distance.

"ARE YOU SERIOUSLY THROWING THAT AT ME AFTER THAT?!" The initial torrent of words come spilling out and even if she had wanted to stop it, she isn't sure if she could, pointing her finger towards where the glimmering fissures of that earlier tear in reality now hang. "That I wouldn't be hesitant?! That no matter how well I think of you, I wouldn't be careful when it comes to my own father? ESPECIALLY after seeing how you were tonight uncapping everything you've got to try and destroy something that looks and feels like him?! And don't even tell me it was all because of me or what he did to me, I felt it, John! You found an outlet and you took it! And if push came to shove, because he's who he is and you're who you are, do you really see yourself holding back?! Not use anything and everything at your disposal?! Because I sure as fucking shit don't!"

Her teeth grit. "I wouldn't be so furious about this if I didn't know that, and I don't want you to die either! You think I've forgotten the last time I wasn't around to help out?! Even with your fucking absolutions, it didn't make it any easier for me! So don't try to bullshit me with blather about not making me choose, because you were and you are! You KNOW you are! And what the hell else did you expect when you asked me this, when you figured out all of what you said you did before you even fucking asked me?! Did you really expect me to turn around and just tell you yes without losing my shit?! Or agree that this is the best possible solution we could ever have?! You said it yourself earlier, didn't you?! I'm NOT LIKE YOU."

The words punch through the air like a gauntleted fist, her chest rapidly expanding and concaving into her ribs. The hinge of her jaw feels like rusted steel, her elevated heartbeat ticking rapidly against it.

"If this situation went the other way, or hell even if shit turned around when he came back, if Daddy looked me right in the eye and asked me for the same advantage, would you expect me to give him that, also?! Not to struggle and be furious about it?! You can look me in the eye and tell me you don't give a rat's ass if I turned my coat on you, but I know you do, and would, and things between us will never be the same after that!" And if that was true, turned Giovanni's way, the outcome would be the same.

She presses her lips in a thin line, watching him pick up his bag and sling it over his shoulder. The same reminders flood into the forefront of her thoughts, the disastrous night a scant handful of days before the new year. Her fingers ball into fists, her nails biting into her palms.

"Fine." The words hiss through her teeth, pivoting around sharply on her bootheel to stride for the staircase. "Fuck off. That's what you do when shit gets difficult, doesn't it? Whenever you can't look at someone in the goddamn eye, that certainly hasn't changed."

Her hand reaches out, jerking the door open and sending it flying against the concrete wall with a bang.

"But don't expect me to watch you go, this time. I'm sick of looking at your back every time you fucking do this."

—-

The moment's resonance with the past only heightens when the limiter comes off and she unleashes that torrent of wrath, reflecting all of the sound and fury of him, magnified by the differences between them: how rarely given he is to displays like this one, suppressing everything, and how rarely she denies the honesty of her own feelings. It resonates because then, as now, she'd finally cut loose and there had been so many things he could have answered with, so many small points he took issue with and wanted, on some level, to dismantle, but the sheer tide of it all had been too much — and as always, when things become too much for John, everything in him shuts down. It would be wrong to say that he's not angry — only that the tightly compressed stone of it condenses down impossibly.

"What I expected from you," he says, slightly breathless but otherwise tautly conversational, "Is to understand that this is the work, Zee. This is it. If this is the first time you've ever been given two uncomfortable choices, then let me assure you it won't be the last. You think I don't understand what it's like for you because I don't seem to be sorry; that I expect you to just shrug it off, as you say. You're wrong. I'm not sorry because I understand exactly what it's like. I'm the man," he says, through a wrong, sharp half-smile, the kind of thing his reputation is more or less founded upon, "Who spent a week sitting beside his screaming childhood mate while a hunger demon ate him alive from in the inside out. He was in agony to the very end. It took him a bloody long time to die. And I'm the one who put it in him. Which," he adds, lifting and splaying his hands palm-upward, brows knit into an expression sardonic and flippant, "By the way, you're welcome; had I not, we wouldn't be having this conversation. There wouldn't be any people left for us to fight over."

The pause after that is brief. "If the work were easy luv, everybody would do it. Almost nobody does. And if this is the life you want, and you want that life with me, you're going to have to get used to swimming in the deep end in a sodding hurry or it will eat you alive. I never expected you to be fine with it. I expected you to do what needs to be done. You won't, so I did it for you. And you ought to remember that: in the future, you'll probably find yourself right back in this same spot, having to choose between two terrible things, and if you hesitate for even a moment, chances are someone or something is going to take the choice away from you, and then you get to spend the rest of your life wondering if things would've turned out differently if you'd made the choice yourself. There are times when all you've got, as you look back over the pile of shite that is your life, is knowing you did the best you bloody could."

One hand lands at his hip, the other lifts to thumb at the side of his nose as he lifts both of his brows, and then he gestures at the door. "So bugger off then, and figure out if you can stand the heat, or if this is the moment you decide you weren't meant for the kitchen, luv."

—-

Booted feet stop by the threshold of the staircase, a single ice-blue eye looking over her shoulder at him. At the very least, he's spared as to how the words twist her expression, though he wouldn't be spared the vibrations through their tether, where apoplectic fury drowns out the undercurrents of sorrow. Zatanna had heard that Gary had died poorly, knew something terrible had happened to him, but not the details. When she gets them now, there's simply no room for her to react accordingly, swimming as she is in the fires of this latest blow-up.

"Yeah?" The word is quiet. "And when that's all said and done, do you pat yourself on the back thinking at least nobody else has to suffer but you? Because that's not true, either."

She turns sideways, to look him right in the eye. "Let me make one thing clear, because I think the last few months have made it that you forgot. You don't decide for me. I told you to let me think about it, but you just had to run your god damn mouth, didn't you? You could have left it at that, but no, you're driven by this perennial need to be right, no matter how aware you are as to what it would do to the other person, even when she's already told you to give her the time. Nobody knows better than I do what it's like, you said. And don't give me any righteous shit about not having the time, because at the moment, we do. You bought it for us."

Her lips curl up in a thin smile, and for once, it doesn't touch her eyes. "On top of how this started in the first place - how you don't think I could or should handle it. So I guess I'll go and handle this piece of the problem myself, after all. I mean, you kept saying it earlier, didn't you? He's not my father, so it shouldn't be a problem, right? I wouldn't want to disappoint you." She inclines her head at him, chin at a defiant angle. "You asked me once not to be like you, but now I have to wonder whether you don't think I can stand to be."

She turns her back and moves down the stairs.

"And don't tell me to bugger off when you're the one set on leaving."

—-

The moment that John quieted again, that moment when what was in him hardened and everything else about him closed off to the hurricane of her ire, was the moment that they coasted out past the breakwaters of safety — and the moment, probably, at which they were destined to go from bad to worse. To much, much worse.

Locking the vault doors of himself doesn't just keep things from getting in — it keeps them from getting out, too. He becomes the solid brick wall that so many other people have found themselves struggling to understand, inaccessible and hard. There are warning signs: how casually he tells her about what he did to Gary Leister, with a half-smile on his face, something so outrageously unlike the cauldron of self-loathing and grief that actually saturate that memory, numbered amongst some of his worst — and he is a man with many terrible memories to compare it with.

There should be worlds of hurt in the way he looks at her when she throws that back at him. There should be more in him to rise to the surface when she goes on answering him with what she thinks his motivations are for having asked the question and handled the matter the way he has. There are thoughts in him, things he would say that some removed piece of himself furnishes him with, a tiny voice that rails against what she says and wants him to fight — wants him to defend himself, wants him to show her how wrong she is.

There's no room for that anymore. Everything in him is shattered and bleeding but contained within the blast doors of the nastiness that has allowed him to survive so many other hurts, and that voice has no power over a mechanism like that one. He's been that way for full moments already, locked down within himself, but he comes to the realization late as he feels the words he's going to say form on his tongue, and the black, yawning pit that opens up inside of him when he understands that he's actually going to say them.

"You do that and we're finished."

It astounds him, how calm he sounds. And that there's nothing hard about the words, not the way they've been hard, reading her the riot act the way he has been. He says them quietly but with absolute death-knell certainty as he watches her back descend into the stairwell. For one heart-stopping moment there's the possibility that he'll think about that, about what he's said and what she's said, and what that would mean

But John's got almost thirty years of silencing the things in him that make him hurt.

And beyond that, he understands — cannot articulate in his present state, is not willing to open himself up again to explain to her, not after everything she's said — that he has his reasons for drawing that kind of line, even if he's certain she won't understand them.

There should be something else to add. There probably is. He stands there for a long moment waiting to see if it'll come, and when it does not, he turns in place by the railing and looks down at the crater below them, busy little ants crawling over the mess.

Not for the first time, he wonders why he continues to believe that there's anything about them worth saving.

—-

As he shuts down, she grits her teeth. In many ways this hasn't changed from the first time; him imposing set limits that she's supposed to follow, without any explanation no matter how many times she asks for clarification. Pressing in the moment she shows any sign of resistance, even if it's just to give herself a small amount of forebearance for a choice that she shouldn't be making on the spot. The condescension. And all because of another man she loves who maintains a thorny relationship with John because they're so similar when it comes to the lives they keep inside of their heads. This should be the time to turn around and shove him back, and pour out all of it, in case he hadn't heard her the first time. But she knows the tone and the look on his face, and she knows she'll get further convincing a brick wall to let her in than this.

Or she could yield. But that was never Zatanna's way either, with her tendency to dig her heels in the moment things get even more difficult.

But what he says afterwards does have her pausing and for a moment she forgets to breathe. Ice bands over her ribcage, constricting savagely over her lungs. She still doesn't understand why she can't take care of this herself when that is the most straightforward solution there is. There is a part of her that wants to ask again, but any desire to do that burns away immediately when the threat spills into the air in an outrageous one-eighty from just moments ago when they were so content with the state of things, so confident about their ability to stay in one another's lives.

Ice-blue eyes find themselves riveted on the staircase. She tries to find it somewhere inside of herself to capitulate and compromise the way she always does. But the damage had been done the moment he dismissed her solution to spare himself the additional difficulty, and then continue to press in and make the decision for her when she didn't immediately make a choice, calling into question her ability to survive the world they live in. This ought to be the time when she turns her heel, point her own finger at him and remind him of the night he accused her of looking down her nose on him from whatever ivory tower legacies like her were supposed to occupy.

You do that and we're finished.

She would laugh, if she wasn't so furious, if she didn't feel like crying, if she didn't feel like he just slapped her across the face, at the idea of him taking their relationship hostage if she didn't comply to his demands.

"Maybe we already were if you can say that the moment things get really difficult," she says quietly.

With that, she continues down the stairs, vanishing from around the landing and further down.

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