The Curse of the Dragon's Pearl

May 14, 2017:

Picking up where they left off in Berlin, John Constantine and Zatanna Zatara attempt to take a much-needed holiday in Tahiti. Unfortunately, as it often does, trouble follows them there - further evidence that there is no such thing as coincidence in John Constantine's life.

//Tahiti //

It's Tahiti. It's gorgeous.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jessica Jones, Red Robin, Dr. Jane Foster

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

While Zatanna had already mentioned to John that it was beautiful in Tahiti this time of year, the word does not do it justice when it's time to actually be in French Polynesia in the later days of May.

Clear cerulean skies and even clearer water greet them when they arrive on a stretch of beach filled with powdery white sands and the glimpse of distant specks of deep green from the surrounding islands. They had opted to take a flight instead of using one of the raven-haired witch's teleportation tricks, if not just to better experience the idea that they really were abandoning whatever responsibilities were waiting for them back in New York in favor of running away together to acquire some time for themselves. After Germany and the wounds they suffered there, it was much needed and the picturesque tableau waiting for them is already an effective salve for most of these - at least, it is for Zatanna, brimming with excitement and the uncomplicated joy of a young woman on vacation in some tropical paradise, every cell of her determined to get as much enjoyment out of this as she can.

Water cottages are part and parcel of the Tahitian resort experience, so it isn't surprising that the young woman had insisted on staying not just in one, but one on the farthest point from the shore and their neighbors as possible; not to say that they've done too much exploring on the first night in the island - the hours after their arrival were spent picking up where they had left off in that hotel room in Berlin, Time invested into hungry movements between the sheets and much needed napping afterwards before the entire cycle started over again. That first evening had been balmy and cool, sliding doors facing the ocean left open for brine-laden breezes to spill through white gauzy drapes and onto bare entangled bodies, exhausted beyond reason. Her sleep had been dreamless.

But they had forgotten to eat and that is the sole reason why Zatanna wakes up at sunrise on the second day with an insistently noisy stomach.

He'd find her on the private deck of their water cottage clad in next to nothing - a black bikini and jean shorts, her pale legs dangled into the water and watching a school of very colorful fish drift past her black lacquered toes. Her hair is free, albeit tousled, still, from their nocturnal activities just hours prior, banners of ink spilling in a hopelessly tangled mess on her bared shoulders and back. There is a basket of fruit next to her, having brought the entire thing from the interior of their shared space to nibble on as she watched the sun make its lazy journey upwards - it has not made much progress over the horizon, splashed gold and red and still fighting through the blues and indigos of what came before.

She also wears a pair of earbud headphones, the jack plugged into her smartphone and situated flat on wooden planks. Her fingers are presently working to peel off the spiny outer coverings of a ramboutan - reddish fruit local in the islands and one that she has tasted rarely.

—-

Even with ear-buds in there are subtle warning signs to tell her that John's no longer sleeping. Full minutes before the polished boards respond to his weight as he gets out of bed, a delicate blush of warmth announces itself on the astral link. It might have been too faint to carry long distances, but it's quiet where they are and the interior of the cottage is intimate enough that every last whisper of sentiment seems to veil the tropical air. The first moments of drowsy consciousness following a deep, dark, empty sleep are introduced alongside an instinctual kindling: remembering where he is, and with whom, and why.

He's in no immediate rush to join her. The bathroom door closes for minutes more, teeth brushed and face washed before he's alert enough to think about eating. By that time, though, it's almost all he can think about, stomach tying itself in knots of protest after an evening that neglected many pieces of himself, in favor of indulging many others.

Well…

Almost all he can think about.

Eyes cleared of the blur of sleep, he tilts his head as he flips the bathroom light off behind himself and makes his way toward the doors. A thin seam of sunlight flares in the gauzy linen of the curtains, winks on the screen of her phone, and leaves her outline painted in deeper slate. It's a moment he affixes in his memory, another tableau tucked away in remembrance of better times — always, he tells himself, to turn to when things get difficult, though in Berlin he'd discovered they make for handy implements to torture himself with, too.

He banishes those phantoms to the back of his thoughts as he draws up next to her, leans back to plant a hand and uses it to lever himself down into a seated position. Shirtless, still, and fair enough that he'll need sunblock before the sun has time to get more ambitious than it already has. There may be no hiding the faint red lines printed on various pieces of him where welts were authored in the wee hours, but he seems unlikely to mind.

Leans to press his lips to the curve of her shoulder, and then dips his brows downward into an expression that suggests alarm and concern as he gets a look at the strangely 'hairy' pod of something that she's picking at. "Is that food?"

—-

The earbuds stay on until she knows he's about to join her, and by the time he's moving to sit next to her, fingers are already plucking them out and situating them to the side, far away from the edge of the water. The warm touch of his mouth on her shoulder earns him a languid smile, drowsy in its bent, though it has more to do with her present state of contentment than any actual desire to go back to bed - though seeing him half-dressed is almost enough for her to entertain those thoughts again. They were on a holiday, after all; until they get on a plane back to New York, their time is theirs.

"Good morning," she greets him. "How'd you sleep?"

Well, she hopes; the fact that he barely moved when she had woken up from the position he had been when they fell asleep had kindled hopes in her that his repose had been just as dreamless as hers. She hasn't felt this rested in what seems like forever.

A glance to the piece of fruit in her hand, half peeled away to reveal sweet, almost translucent white flesh underneath. She rolls her eyes skyward, and while it doesn't escape her, laughter flares in the depths of those ice-blue eyes. Picking out the seed, she pushes a piece of it into his mouth and leans in to plant her lips on the high arch of his nearest cheek. "Don't knock it until you try it," she tells him. "Besides, I wasn't about to head over to the Roulottes without you to grab a more substantial breakfast." Unlike Germany, at least, she can actually eat in most of the places on the island, given her largely pescetarian diet. "Not like any of them are out at this hour. Island time and all, moves at a much slower pace than New York or London."

Watching his profile for a moment, she can't help but smile - a burgeoning grin that she tries to quell with a faint clip of her front teeth against her lower lip, looking up at the colorful sky.

"I can't believe we're here."

A pause. "I mean, I can, but I'm not talking about the ability. Just…" She can't help but let out a small laugh. "Whenever we'd go on a trip before, it always had something to do with an investigation of some kind, and we'd just sneak in time alone now and then." Back in the days where they were busily breaking her father's rules. "And it hadn't really been all that long ago, either. Not really…barely a year."

—-

How'd you sleep?

"Can't remember," he says, as good a confirmation of her hopes as could be furnished. He continues to look skeptical, even as he accepts the piece of fruit she offers him, but he doesn't spit it out, so his boring British palate must find it acceptable fare.

"Almost everywhere moves at a slower pace than New York." There are times when that observation is a complaint about the rest of the world. Certain aspects of John's character appreciate the 'open at all hours' nature of the so-called city that never sleeps. He keeps odd hours doing odd things, and it's incredibly convenient to be able to obtain most of what he needs at any bizarre hour of the day or night. But there are times, too, when it's a complaint about New York. Though it's unlikely he'd trade the last six months for anything — pieces of it, perhaps, but maybe not even those — they've passed in what has felt to him like the blink of an eye. An outrageous amount of work, chaos, tribulation, growth, change. Wounds taken and busily healed, no time to stop, breathe, and think about what's happened. And there are parts of it, he acknowledges as he drops his legs over the deck's edge and squints out at the horizon, that he'd probably like to spend more time pondering.

Case in point: she fights a giddy smile, expresses disbelief, and recalls days when this would have been outright impossible. Heady days, but days they'd stolen out from under her father's nose.

He glances sidelong at her, cocks a brow, and gradually smiles, though it's an unconscious affair. "We've earned it a few times over. All these prats trying to end the world." He shifts his gaze momentarily toward the furnace of tropical colors in slow eruption on the horizon, leaning into one of the hands propping him up so that he can gesture with the other in that direction. "It's like they've never bloody seen it."

That is what passes for optimism with John Constantine: a remark on the beauty in the world, and the suggestion that it might be worth the trouble of saving.

Some silent moments of thought afterward, though, his brow ticks upward again, and he looks at her out of the corner of his eyes, irises pale and flecked with reflections from the sunrise. What he wants to say, and in the end restrains himself from saying, is that they're still technically on borrowed time; that he isn't sure what will happen when her father solves his problem and returns to the world they live in to take a more active hand in her life.

He knows what she would say, at least.

"We found time, even then. More time than we're finding now." But isn't that the way of things? You stop aggressively pursuing the things you have access to. Get comfortable with their presence, until something like their meltdown in Berlin threatens to take it all away.

"So I've no plans to load up on touristy shite to do, but we ought to see a few things while we're here…" And leaning again into one of his propping hands, he slides a hand into his pocket and retrieves two slick, glossy, tackily colorful brochures. There had been a rack of them in the lobby when they checked in. When he pocketed these is not clear. He sets them down beside her for her to take at her leisure, fingers sticky with fruit as they are, and looks faintly amused as he settles again.

For good reason. One of the brochures promises a little sailing expedition with free-diving, food and drinks on the water, a somewhat intimate affair; the other brochure…

Swimming with dolphins.

Because obviously.

The person in the picture on the front looks ecstatic to be hugging a dolphin. The dolphin is 'smiling' — read: its mouth is open, and all of its many, many little teeth are visible — and its cold, dead eyes are staring into the camera in anticipation of further victims, no doubt.

—-

"I like that most days," Zatanna confesses, but that wouldn't be surprising to John; she who exudes that perpetually restless energy, who can't even sit still for any moment of time. New York fits her like a glove. "But there's an appeal in this also, however brief it's going to be. Being able to just breathe and do things in our own time. I feel like we haven't really stopped since arriving to the States a few months ago." And they really haven't, just one thing after another, dominoes falling with no end in sight. The fact that she hasn't burned out yet is remarkable, but then again, the fact that she always has something to do is probably a good thing. The world is probably not ready to entertain the young woman if she was ever bored.

His gesture has her turning her eyes back to the distant horizon and the way the sun attempts to sleepily crawl out of its own bed to start its day. The fact that John acknowledges that much openly is rare, but there is no surprise in her expression, having already intimated in the past that no man would ever willingly or unwillingly suffer as much as he had for a world that he didn't think deserved saving. "Maybe they know," she offers after a contemplative pause. "And they just don't wanna share."

Between the two of them, he was always more of a realist; if Zatanna has even contemplated the temporary state of their affairs while here, she doesn't show it, all too willing to indulge in something as rare as a holiday with him without having to worry about - at least for a few days - all the problems that are waiting for them back home. Always one to live in the present, brows lift when he switches gears and waves around a bunch of brochures no doubt plucked from the lobby of their resort. Stooping over from where she sits, she dips her fingers into the water to wash off fruit juice before she turns her attention to them.

"Sailing sounds fun," she says of the first, ice-blue eyes curiously roaming over the photographs plastered on it. Mischief asserting itself for a moment, she lifts her eyes to look at him. "How long has it been since you've gone swimming on open water?"

And the second…

Her expression flattens. She holds up the picture of the person hugging the dolphin.

"If you really want to, we can," she tells him. "But I hope you know what you're signing up for. If they look pitiful, I can't promise you I'll behave." Hopefully he'll picture what she's picturing - another incident like in Sumatra, with cages exploding and animals running wild and free. To her credit, given the way her eyes look, she's mostly joking. She knows very well that the dolphins involved probably can't survive in the wild.

Still…those dead eyes.

"But if that place has caves for its dolphins, I'm out!"

She settles the brochures back on the deck and leans back against it, palms flat on wooden planks. "We can check out Le Marche also," she tells him. "And take a day trip out to Les Trois Cascades." The three beautiful waterfalls on the other side of the island. "There's also the Tomb of King Pomare V in the event you need more inspiration for another scavenger hunt." The last is a tease. "And if you really feel like tempting fate, we can go visit the Arahurahu Marae."

Tahiti's stonehenge, an old site in where rites were performed for the island's ancient deities and saturated with indigenous magic.

"I mean, what's the worst that could happen?"

—-

"Maybe," he says, of apocalypses and sharing. Destroying a thing because one doesn't want to share it is hardly an uncommon human impulse, though for all of John's flaws — and they are legion — that is not one that he shares, or even understands.

He's happy to let thoughts of the work waiting for them go, which is plenty indication of just how trying the last stretch of time has been. Lingering work to do would under any other circumstances drive him half-mad to leave unattended.

Besides — it's not as though Emily Montrose is going anywhere.

When she asks him when the last time he swam in open water was, his eyes tighten with a smile he somehow suppresses, faint lines at the outer corners of each, and one of his hands rasps over the stubble on his jaw. Two days' worth, now, and edging up against the boundary of his tolerance for its existence. "…A while. Since Australia, probably. This is going to shock you, I know, but my interest in sports usually ends at watching football."

It's the flattening of her expression that shatters his with a sharp grin, eyes narrowed to contain the laugh that would otherwise break the morning hush into pieces. It changes the saturation of shadows on the planes and angles of his chest, carves out the hollow of his throat and polishes the subdued tone of his voice to a higher shine. "I don't think they keep them in cages, luv. But no — " He reaches out, plucks it off of the deck when she sets it down, and tosses it back into the room, out of the way. " — that one was a joke."

If only John could see the future.

In spite of her ridiculous invitation to Fate to kick them both where it hurts, she doesn't seem like she's joking about her suggestion, and one of his brows climbs ever higher. He doesn't immediately say 'no,' but he does spend some moments watching the sea floor below his feet ripple as the tide continues to go out. "Haven't had your fill of lost-civilization gods yet? Marae are a mixed bag. They weren't just temples, they were…" He rolls one shoulder, as much of a shrug as he's able to make in his position. "Communal meeting grounds. We'd be as likely to run into the ghost of some bloody pissed-off widow done wrong there as any sort of Polynesian deity."

As the sun crests the horizon just enough to splash them with more brilliant orange light, he rolls his spine out until he's stretched out on the floor, one hand behind his head, the other over his sternum. "Or maybe just sweaty German tourists in badly fitting shorts and bloody awful sandals. You sure you want to run the risk? Of the Germans, I mean. We could handle the rest of it, I'm sure, but the Germans…"

—-

"I know I'm shocked," Zatanna tells him drolly. "I know I only started dating you because you love doing action hero bits like throwing yourself out of planes, diving in deep waters without any equipment or mountain climbing with just your bare hands." She manages to keep her face deadpanned through all of that, though that spark of humor remains evident in her pale gaze. "But I can get behind football. You mean that sport where they kick around an egg-shaped ball and the players are all built like refigerators, right?"

That is when the poker face breaks into a grin.

When he reveals that the dolphin quest is a joke, she laughs. "And here I was going to dare it just to see who between us was brave enough to go into the water with those things first." Though chances are, he probably already knows what's going to happen - she'll probably try to push him in, it would probably go poorly, and both of them would probably scream once any of the dolphins actually came close with their dead eyes and dull teeth. It was probably all for the best that it was just teasing.

But at what he says about the site, she laughs and tilts her head over at him, torso twisting as she leans over, a palm braced on the side of his head. Watching his eyes, amusement tempers into a fainter smile. "Definitely just a suggestion," she tells him. "I'm only so brazen about tempting Fate because you call me on it every time. We most definitely don't have to go and I'm ambivalent if we get to see it or not. Besides, if I can get through this holiday without using an ounce of magic, I'll consider it a moral victory."

She seems to mean it also, no matter how much those following words could also be construed as that same, reckless desire to do the very thing she had just done a few seconds ago.

After a moment, she leans in at that, her lips pressing lightly on his forehead, and then on the bridge of his nose.

"Though we really don't have to do much to make me happy, I already am just by being here with you," she murmurs. "I'd just be as content walking around, eating, drinking and repeatedly testing the limits of my birth control, and we can do that without venturing outside of a mile radius of our cottage."

—-

While poking fun at his absolute lack of interest in athletic prowess — beyond a scant few interpersonal talents he prefers to save for private affairs — fails to produce anything from him other than a lazy quirk of the lips, he manages to look so delicately offended at the willful confusion of American football and what the rest of the world calls that very thing. One might imagine he'd wear the same expression if she'd said something rude about him personally. "You're lucky I like you," he murmurs. The humor seems to exist only on the tether; the rest is perfectly dry British pique.

He'd been keeping his eyes unfocused, angled up at the place the sky meets the lip of the roof as it extends over the deck and even then not seeing much of that, more attuned to what she's saying than the play of light over what few wisps of cloud exist in the sky. So he doesn't mind, particularly, when she eclipses that view, focus pulled back from the remotest distance to meet eyes like ice floes. His smile is slow to form, but gathers momentum quickly: "What. You? Flippantly reckless just because someone points out it may not be a good idea? That doesn't sound like you at all." Even the sarcasm is dry.

It lacks teeth, though, and that may have something to do with the silhouette of her lips, left behind at his crown, his nose. The shadows that stitch between them, cutting out the increasingly effusive, radiant warmth of the sunrise happening half a world away.

He'd have expected the prior evening's escapades to have left him lazy enough in the morning that little asides like that one wouldn't stir his interest like it does. Why he thought that is a mystery; the one and only time he'd apologetically declined had been literally in hell after months of privation, and even then only after round one.

"Mmhm. I'm not sure it's a good idea, trying to add the marae to The List." He moves the hand behind his head out from under it, the better to reach up and sift splayed fingers into the dark tangle of her hair, lifting his head and tilting it, head craned, to catch her lips with his. He speaks between kisses, bitter-sweet with mint toothpaste and the fruit she was having. "Let's get some kip, then, and we'll see which kind of adventurous we're feeling after that."

He makes it through two more such rejoinders of increasing length and active interest before her earlier effort to needle him bears real fruit: "They don't even kick the ball around in American football, 'tanna, that's the whole sodding point, innit?"

—-

You're lucky I like you.

"I know," Zatanna tells him, smile broadening into a full blown grin, wide enough to glimpse her teeth and the dimples on her cheeks. "And you like me. You really like me."

The sarcasm that follows as well as the idea of adding the Marae to the list has her tilting her head back, away from him, so she could laugh. "I don't know if I want to chance that, either," she tells him, amused. "You're an expert at Tantra, you know how unpredictable some things can get if sex and magic were somehow combined. But yes, breakfast sounds good, and maybe— "

Whatever else she has to say never makes it out of her when his lips find hers and she's reminded, once again, that they're on vacation; that they have all the time in the world, and that they can believe that, at least for a few days, the world will go on spinning without them. Even without the rekindled sparks of his own interest, her own answers in spades with those facts alone as fuel, returning every token planted on her lips until all thoughts of breakfast are almost completely gone. They really should eat. They really should. She's starving and so is he.

But she's also starving and at the moment, one need trumps the other. As her mouth opens over his, a slender leg swings on the opposite end of him while he lies flat on their private deck, her knees framing his hips.

"You better give me enough motivation not to mistake the two ever again, then," she tells him against his lips, her every shift indicative that their previous hours together hadn't been enough and she is shamelessly gunning for one more time before breakfast. It was dawn on an island, their neighbors are probably still asleep, and really, even if they weren't, she doesn't care if people see.

~*~

It is crowded in Papeete this week.

The Tahitian capital is known to host a variety of professional surfing events and one of them, the Papara Pro Surf Festival, just happens to coincide with their visit. As lazy as island life seems to be most days, with so many tourists from everywhere having congregated in the island this week, the market areas are busier than it usually is if they had decided to come at any time other than this week in May. Not that it would make much of a difference for Zatanna; she thrives in any given place's natural energy - the morning and lunch hours have been a blur of food, drink and the kind of socialization most people on vacation usually engage in, friendly, but nothing too significant, peppered with promises to friend one another through the latest media craze (iDOL keeps being brought up, and the young woman has done her best to discourage the use) that almost always happens on the spot, but nothing else.

There are a few who even recognized her, who follow her Twitter feed, in which she has fielded, to the best of her ability, when she was going to get back to performing again, as well as a few disappointed faces when some of her more enthusiastic fans from both genders realized that she wasn't vacationing alone:

"So how serious is it?"

"Serious?" Zatanna had wondered gamely, throwing her arms around John and pecking his cheek for all to see. "He's the love of my life!"

Somewhere across dimensions, Giovanni Zatara is suddenly assailed by a blistering headache, and has absolutely no idea why.

All in all, there is plenty to do and see, and of conversations to have. Given the festival feel of the capital, there is a veritable cornucopia of entertainment present - musicians and street performers dominate the boardwalk leading to the beaches where spectator stands await surfing enthusiasts; ironic, or strangely appropriate, given their morning's conversation about sports.

That also means that there are people in costume running around, including a man peddling the same dolphin tour they had been joking about earlier, dressed as a giant dolphin and passing out brochures. The sight of him seems to delight the younger crowd, however, various children have already asked him to take pictures with them.

Miracles being as they were, there's not a single lick of sunburn on Zatanna yet despite having spent most of the day outdoors with him; the wide-brimmed hat she wears has probably helped with that, as well as the liberal application of sunblock. She has elected to wear a short sundress to help with the heat, a swimsuit worn underneath in the event that John decides to throw her into the water, but thankfully such happy and mischievous accidents have yet to occur. Eventually, however, the cooling hours of the day find them, heralded by the slow sink of a reddish-gold sun, reaching for the horizon in its very gradual way to bed; a few people light up the torches lining the boardwalk and the air is thick with the scent of a nighttime carnival - smoke from cooking meat, grilling seafood and recreational weed, tropical flowers and distant greens, the brine from the ocean.

Magic, too, but these strains are faint amidst the surrounding revelry, wafting from hidden huts in which a to obaoba or several practice their craft in their respective communities - the secret occult heart of French Polynesia.

Wherever John has parked himself in this colorful sea, the raven-haired witch finds him immediately, coming up from behind and wrapping her arms around his shoulders, lips on the side of his neck and about four shotglasses cradled on one hand. That was a miracle, too, that she hasn't dropped them.

"I have a confession to make," she says, the word deposited in his ear in a murmur half-obliterated by silent laughter. "I think, and this is a guess, mind, that I'm a little drunk. And I can tell I am because that guy." She points unabashedly to the giant dolphin still wandering around amidst revelers. "Is starting to look adorable and I think I might actually want to hug him. I think you need to save me from myself."

—-

A relapse, then, into more tactile ways to the pass the time, then a swim off of the deck, eventually a quick shower. By the time they've actually managed to have breakfast — for which John was practically dying — the sun is high enough in the sky to begin flushing the air with the humidity that will wreathe all of the rest of the daylight hours. It's the kind of weather that would induce drowsy beachside reading if it weren't for the fact that current events are keeping the beach so busy, long stretches of pale sand clotted with near-constant human traffic.

There are silver linings to that crowd. It would have been easy to succumb to island lassitude, worn down by the many and varied trials of Berlin and a solid twelve hours of intermittent celebration of the fact that they're on vacation; instead, they took to the streets and meandered with every intention of getting lost — one of John's favorite ways to spend a holiday, or so he confessed, when they stopped to buy ice cream on a side street. There are things, he'd said, that you can't find and won't see unless you commit to taking a wrong turn now and then.

Whether or not it's possible for John Constantine to take a 'wrong turn,' given his status as a favorite plaything of chance and luck, is an open question with no easy answer.

Tropical fashions are a challenge for John. He is ultimately very much a child of mother London, as his typical attire thoroughly demonstrates, and not given to showing much in the way of skin in mixed company. Even the days he's conceded the necessity of wearing something other than his 'uniform' he's usually opted for a jacket over his shirts. He wound not typically be caught dead wearing sandals. Life in the Society Islands, however, makes that impossible with heat and humidity.

The white linen button-down shirt he's wearing could not be more paper-thin, faint shadows of tattoos on skin evident wherever it makes contact with his body. The sleeves are rolled up. He's actually resigned himself to wearing boat shoes — probably with some internal grousing about resembling the bourgies he used to menace in Camden Town — and paired with a respectably tailored pair of longer shorts, if it weren't for his fairness he'd blend seamlessly with the rest of the present crowd.

So he could be anyone, really, savoring — as always — that little slice of anonymity, particularly when traces of magic surface amidst so much mundane excitement. That's certainly true whenever they've run across one of her more devoted fans, and the question of his status is raised.

Love of my life, she says, and plants a kiss on his cheek. Even now, all of these months later, it's remarkable to him how something so simple can cause him to feel things so widely disparate from one another: deep-seated affection, and bone-shaking terror.

"Who bloody asks that? I'm standing right here," he'd complained as they'd parted company from the rest.

He's sitting on the top railing of the wooden fence that lines the boardwalk's far side, looking over the sprawl of beach-goers toward the ocean some dozens of meters away. There are bronzed bodies everywhere. Volleyball games seem perpetual. Music, vendor food, little frosted drinks with umbrellas and pieces of fruit in them, that tourist staple. All of it for tourists, really; Tahiti beyond the boundaries of tourist-town tends to be exceedingly quiet. Here, though, out on the sand, one night stands are in the process of being finalized, family vacations in the process of falling apart or mending marriages.

John isn't looking at any of that, fascinating though it may be.

She winds her arms around his neck, kisses his throat, and has alcohol for him: three things he deeply appreciates, the last of those more than he usually might. Hands lifting, he relieves her of two of them with delicate care, tilting his head and angling up a brow to track her gesture toward the mascot (?) he hadn't even seen until she'd pointed it out. "And deny that bloke a hug from a pretty girl when he's been out here in thousand-degree weather inside of a furry costume? Perish the thought, luv. You'd probably be the only thing keeping him from topping himself. But before you go and save a life, do me a favor, would you? Have a look out there and tell me what you see."

He tilt-nods in the direction of the ocean again, and with that movement knocks back one of the shots she's brought, because he's pretty sure he's going to need it.

Out on the waves some distance from shore, sits a schooner.

…sort of.

It's only half-visible. Luminous mist glimmers around its edges, and its outlines seem more like clear gaps within that mist, but the shapes are still apparent, and growing more apparent all the time. Even at this distance it's possible to glimpse the barnacles clinging to the sides and railings, and the tattered kelp hanging from the masts.

No one else seems to have noticed.

—-

Bone-shaking terror that doesn't fail to make itself known, but that is understandable for someone as empathetic as Zatanna Zatara. His complaint had only resulted in a laugh and an insistent tug towards the rest of the city, to get lost as it were. In that, she and John were the same - when it comes to exploring exotic locations, she has never gone into them with a map, or anything resembling a plan.

She had taken another picture, while he sits there, another memory to tuck into a slew of others, stored temporarily in her smartphone and will no doubt find a place, eventually, on a frame and situated in the sprawling tableau of her life that she keeps in her private bedroom in Shadowcrest, of him sitting on that low fence, handsome profile turned out towards the ocean and dressed in something outside of his uniform, and still painfully British through it all. By the time she is touching him, the phone is gone and she's relieved of half her burden, a few drops of sweet, but potent yellow liquor disappearing into the sands below. The shotglasses are chilly to the touch, perfect for the heat, with enough potency to give anyone the alcoholic version of getting punched in the sinuses.

She doesn't seem to be so inclined to save a life right this moment, when she sticks her tongue out at him as she half-wobbles, half-climbs on the fence next to him, straddling the wooden beam instead. To her, he makes a better picture than the gorgeous sunset, and she would rather look at him under this light than the endless mill of bodies on the sand. A glass rolls on deft fingers, for her to swallow…and cough, fanning her face as the limoncello burns a path down her throat and hits her stomach.

"If I'm feeling generous, I just might," she tells him. "Though don't be surprised if he kidnaps me during the attempt. I don't know if you noticed, John Constantine." Says with an emphatic point of a finger and a smile, inebriation putting flushing her cheeks. "But I'm quite a catch. And apparently they do that. Drag people off into caves…"

He gestures to the ocean and she angles her head towards it. The schooner appears remote, distant, especially to senses that are much more focused on her more immediate surroundings. This new development forces her to focus on something else, at least, other than the frenetic energy of the boardwalk's carnival atmosphere. Ice-blue eyes squint at the far horizon, taking in the shimmering veil encompassing the vessel, its frame littered with calcified sea life and draped with….

Her expression flattens.

"…is that a ghost ship?" she wonders. "…that's not a ghost ship, is it? Kind of like the Mary Celeste or the Flying Dutchman?"

She stares at it some more.

"What's it doing here? Do we want to know what it's doing here?" Her expression twists. "But we're on vacation, John. Can't we just…maybe we can ask the local color to field this one, it's their island. Or maybe we can…"

"COWABUNGA, DUDES!!!"

Zatanna looks on as a well-built surfer with green trunks and an orange bandanna rushes past them from underneath, making a beeline towards the surf, and reminding her of all the drunken surfers that will probably attempt to paddle out to sea before the night is actually over. She tilts her head back and groans.

"We want to know what it's doing here," she says finally, swinging a leg around after swallowing her last shot. "I'll go see if we— "

She slips.

Before John knows it, there's a small cloud from where Zatanna has hit the sand, in a tangle of limbs and short skirts.

"….can get some coffee….and then a boat…"

—-

He's through the second shot almost before the kick from the first has time to land. Lemon-scented diesel fuel, is what it is, but it does the job, and that is a job that desperately needs doing.

There are so many things to talk about other than ghost ships, even after she's seen the ghost ship. Effusive by default, drinks and sun have left her practically bubbling over, and John is by no means immune to the charm of that, even if there's a schooner-sized thundercloud hovering over them and threatening to rain on that parade. Once his mouth is no longer occupied with limoncello — lemon-scented diesel fuel, really — he turns his head, opens his mouth, already half-smiling, and whatever he begins to say dies on his tongue as he finds himself addressing nothing but empty air.

…and then a boat, she says, from somewhere below him.

He tosses the frosted shot glasses aside into the sand and slides from the upper railing of the fence, leaning down and tilting his head on an angle. His expression seems made up of equal parts the laugh he's valiantly biting back and genuine concern, limned with dry, exasperated humor, or possibly resignation over the recognition that things are about to get a different sort of interesting for the two of them.

"When you said 'I'm a catch,' 'tanna, I thought you meant in the sense that you drive me absolutely crazy. Not, you know." He gestures vaguely at the pile of long, pale limbs and dark hair that she's become. "That I'd actually need to catch you. Sorry. An' look, luv. We can pretend we didn't see it, if you like. We are on vacation." Still bent over her, he angles his head to give him a look at the ship through the tangle of beach-going tourists, none of whom seem to see the hulking, ominously foggy shape crouching on the near horizon. "Getting so bloody drunk that we can't see much of anything is an option. Though if that's going to be how we settle things, I've obviously got some catching up to do."

What he doesn't say is that he suspects it isn't going to go away; that they might, roaming abroad, find themselves confronted with it at every turn, as though it could sense souls sympathetic enough to the world it occupies that they're able to see it and satisfy — who knows what? Whatever lingering business keeps a ship sailing Oceania endlessly. He imagines it, though: getting up to what they got up to this morning, with a half-transparent schooner parked practically on top of the back of the cottage, bow jutting through the open deck doors like a stray dog begging to be let in.

—-

She rolls to flop on the sand, helplessly on her back, very much like a turtle upended and limbs moving around slowly and helplessly. Ice-blue eyes wander upwards when John peers down to look at her, joining her on the sand. As addled as she is, she would have to be blind not to see the strains of amusement stitched over his pale expression, having yet to claim some color despite their hours under the sun, all the more made prevalent by the drops of it bleeding through their link.

He speaks, and every word flattens her expression further until she ends up groaning again and sticks a hand up in a wordless request for aid.

"Oh, just shut it and help me up," she grumbles.

Besides. It could be fun…

~*~

…if they manage to get there.

Most of the stalls that rent out boats are closed, and the only one left open within walking distance from their point of the boardwalk is a shack with CRAZY PETE'S BOAT RENTALS painted in haphazard colors, on a wooden frame and thatched roof that has seen better days. Seafarers tend to be a superstitious lot, and Pete himself is no exception, with gray hair, a pipe and one eye perpetually squinted shut, reminiscent of Horatio McAllister of the Simpsons, though he doesn't have the stereotypical pirate's accent and enunciation; the hoarseness of his voice is the consequence of years of tobacco abuse, which has not killed him yet, with one hand lost not to scurvy, or even a shark attack - a story that he was almost too enthusiastic to tell in every disgusting detail:

"It's the gout," he explained in his rough Australian accent. "Ate too many menu items with the word 'rodeo' in the name. Rodeo steak. Rodeo nachos. Rodeo shrimp. Couldn't help it, mates. If it promises to lasso my tastebuds, I gotta have it."

But the curious bundle of aromatic herbs that hang from the window facing east is proof enough that he is known to some of the local color that Zatanna had described earlier.

He doesn't seem to care if the two lovebirds decide to go out on an evening sail, so long as they sign his waivers. There is a skeptical squint at the young lady as John handles all the paperwork, watching her as she curiously browses through the assortment of knick-knacks on display on his shelves. Pete directs an angled look to the Englishman. "She's not driving, is she?" he wonders.

"I'm NOT that drunk!" the young woman protests, loudly, from the back of the shack, spinning around and pointing a finger, other hand curled over a styrofoam cup of very strong coffee. Pete raises his hands defensively, hand and hook and all, but he still exchanges a glance with John at that.

"Maybe have her sign another copy, just in case," he mutters, pushing another waiver across the desk.

Waiver signed and keys to a boat procured, Pete leads them to the deck and offers them what passes off as a seaworthy barge in his bevy of seaworthy barges - a motorized dinghy, with a siren painted prominently on one side of it. Zatanna leaps a little too eagerly into the boat; now that she is invested in the evening's enterprise, there's absolutely no hope of stopping her, fumbling with the keys to get it in the ignition.

"I think I remember how these things work," she tells him.

And then she guns the engine.

The dinghy roars out of the shallows, practically leaping over an incoming wave. Saltwater sprays on either sides of them as the wind picks up and tears through her hair, the small boat bouncing as if made of rubber. Peeling towards the apparition, Zatanna, thankfully, slows down before they get too close to it, though really, it's less out of caution and more to do with the fact that she desperately needs to…

…well.

"Oh, god, this was not a good idea," she groans, head over a fire engine-red pail handily marked BAIT, though she doesn't get sick just yet. She is prepared to be, but thankfully she has not ruined their vacation further by subjecting John to something potentially gross. "Do you see anything yet?"

—-

French is one of the few contemporary European languages that John has any fluency with — Spanish being the other. They're more or less mandatory to have in small doses if a person wants to get around on The Continent with any ease. He'd been looking forward to getting some use out of it while they're abroad in French Polynesia. Surely, he thinks, as they walk hand in hand to the piers in search of some small and seaworthy craft to take them on this ill-advised adventure, he'll be able to arrange for that with aplomb. Dust off the old occitan, give it all a whirl.

Not so much. What they find is CRAZY PETE'S BOAT RENTALS and CRAZY PETE. CRAZY PETE does not speak French, or if he does, he elects not to speak it, choosing instead to speak what John can only think of as Classic American, right down to the long-winded discussion of steak-house atrocities.

"Mmmhm," John said, in what he hoped was a sympathetic tone of voice, about the man's gout. And "Mmmm," with a slightly delayed frown and knitted brows, meant to resemble regret or — god who knows, how is anyone supposed to respond to this kind of shit? And Zatanna's just left him there at the counter on his own.

"She's not, no," he confirms, hands slid into his pockets, leaning against the rickety front desk. "Thought I might tie her to the front. You know, as a figurehead. Very lucky."

When they've signed as many forms as it's going to take to get the boat released into their care, John joins Zatanna, dropping off of the dock and untying the mooring lines just in time to have her yank on the throttle.

He stumbles backward, catches himself on one of the bench seat positions. "THERE ARE LAWS ABOUT DRIVING THESE ZEE," he shouts over the din of the motor and the sound of water chopping against the hull. "YOU HAVE TO OBEY THE — I AM NEVER LETTING YOU DRIVE ANYTHING I'M IN EVER AGAIN!" He should really have followed through with that whole figurehead thing.

They do make it more or less out into open waters, and once she yields to the need to hug a chum bucket he takes over, guiding them at a much more sedate pace in the direction of the looming specter of a ghost vessel. Details resolve as they close in, not least significant of which is the name on the side of it:

Lady of St. Kilda

The hollow, phantom appearance of the ship gains solidity as they close in on it, but the shore, behind them, is gradually growing indistinct, as though occluded by a fine fog.

John is squinting. "That's familiar, that name. I can't remember why. I'm not well up on ghost ships, though, so I don't think that's why." Brows knit, he glances sidelong and down at her. "Alright then? We may have to swim a bit."

—-

When John turns to look at Zatanna, the light of his life has already set aside the BAIT bucket in favor of playing around with her smartphone, though the first thing she does before anything else is to set that new picture of him as her lockscreen. "Don't worry, love," she tells him. "The almighty Saint Boogle is on it." She sounds confident…at first, until her brows furrow faintly. She gets service here, considering how often she travels and has invested, much like any accomplished jet-setter and adventurer, in an international data plan. But no matter how many bars she has in her screen - and her signal strength is good even here - her browser doesn't work, and the blessings of the patron saint of Hastily Wikipedia'd Arguments remains inaccessible.

"…or not," the young woman says with a sigh, glancing at the kelp-ridden railings a few feet ahead of them. "There's that. And I'm well up on ghost ships." Made obvious by her enumeration of the more famous ones while they were enjoying their vacation on shore. "But I've never heard of the Lady of St. Kilda. Whatever it is, though, it has to be tied to the history of Tahiti, somehow, or it wouldn't be here."

There's a glance towards the beach, though she can barely see it now - the dots of color seem distant, and growing even moreso by the second. Above their heads, the clouds part to give way for the moon, smiling down upon them in a silver-blue crescent, shafts of pale light splintering the darkness and caressing over the Lady's long-forgotten stern. For a moment, she says nothing as she looks at it; now that the drunken haze is abating, somewhat, to make room for the shots of adrenaline that will nevertheless overtake her once it sinks in that she's in another supernatural adventure, there is open fascination and even appreciation on her pale mien.

"It's strangely beautiful in this angle," she tells him quietly. But that isn't surprising; she would hardly be able to survive their world if she didn't find some aspects of the dark hauntingly marvelous.

But that should suffice as an answer as to whether she is alright. Standing up, and already breaking her vow not to use her magic - a futile enterprise already, if they're going to explore an old seafaring spectre - she waterproofs her phone, and starts shedding her sundress, letting it pool in a pile of pale fabric on the foot of the dinghy. The bikini is simple enough - a black halter top with bottoms held in place by side-ties, already doing the work of binding her raven tresses up in a loose topknot. With her midnight-dark ensemble and under the flare of moonlight, her skin and eyes look downright luminous, and despite the interruption to their holiday, she flashes him a smile.

"Maybe we'll find treasure instead of torment," she tells him, an optimist until the end, planting a soft-lipped kiss on his mouth, now that she's assured that she won't get sick. "You'll be careful, won't you?"

And with that, she's off the boat, diving into the water and vanishing momentarily in its depths.

The swim doesn't take long, a glide through obsidian eddies. Here, the waters are calm and still, and even the strokes they make through the water sound surprisingly loud considering how steady and non-existent the air seems around the vessel. Moving closer, she searches the rear of the boat, in an attempt to look for the chain that keeps it in place - there has to be one, or so she thinks. After all, it would be their only way up, unless she uses magic.

But she is leery to do that just yet. Once she finds those links, she reaches out to grasp ahold of it….and slips back into the water; seaweed strings through metal and rust, unable to cling to it for long. Sputtering slightly, she looks up and turns her ice-blue eyes towards the barnacles riddling the schooner's keel and up the bow. She gestures to them.

"Like a climbing wall," she tells John.

—-

Curiosity becomes mild disappointment when her phone refuses to contact civilization — though that doesn't come as a surprise, really. They've slipped into an envelope of otherness as they've encroached on the long-lost vessel, and proximity to that kind of thing never fails to warp the real.

John cuts the engine once they're close enough that he can hear the sound of it being kicked back at them off of the side of Lady of St. Kilda, and while she's spending those moments observing the way the bow juts out in a crumbling spine overhead, he's dropping their considerably less impressive anchor and ensuring that the rental isn't going to go anywhere while they're…doing whatever it is that they're going to be doing.

He experiences a pang of regret the moment he turns around and finds her with her sundress in a puddle on the deck of the boat, wearing a little black bikini and pulling her hair up on top of her head. They could have been on the beach, watching the last of the day's light swallowed by the night, shot through with stars, terrifically drunk and waiting their turn for massages, or —

She intervenes on these thoughts with a gentle kiss that he returns, though most of the rest of him is still locked in place with rue. She turns away, dives with hardly a splash to announce her arrival to the deeps, and John allows himself the luxury of a long, drawn out, self-pitying sigh.

…Which is pathetic, honestly. It isn't as though he's deprived for time alone with her, is it…? But after the week in Berlin that they'd spent on the outs, her time in Brandenburg after that…throw in a tiny black bikini…

As he sheds his shoes he's muttering to himself, casting the occasional sidelong glance at the ominous shadow of the hulking vessel, with all of its emerald-stained weirlight. It had better be something really good, this. A ghost ship full of waylaid concubines eager to pass on the secret of their order, or something, none of this mouldering Goonies nonsense.

He leaves his shirt on-board and joins her with a short gasp on surfacing, the waters this far from shore containing a bite they lack in the shallows. By the time he gets close to her she's already attempted the anchor chain and failed; she gestures at the barnacles, but his response is a quick shake of the head. "They're like glass, luv, they'll slice you to ribbons. …At least, the real thing is. That's what keel-hauling is, yeah? They'd tie a rope to you that was looped under the ship, then drop you in and drag you underneath. Scrape you across all of this lot — " He gestures at the barnacles with one splashing hand, "And slice you to ribbons. Bled out, usually. In salt water, which is lovely. Tore heads right off, on occasion."

But that does leave them the problem of how to ascend. Or would do, if their chatter hadn't drawn attention from the haunted deck.

To one side of the vessel there's a heavy splash as a skiff is lowered to the surface. Ropes remain attached through loops around the bow and stern, and it dangles placidly from pulleys overhead.

It is the point of no return, likely.

John treads water for some silent moments, staring at that wordless invitation. The glance he angles toward her is easy enough for her to read: are you sure you want to do this?

—-

As she had stated earlier, perhaps they'll find treasure here and not torment, though with ghost ships and all of its ilk, the former was often an exception rather than the rule.

With John saying no to the barnacles plan, Zatanna looks up towards the topmost deck, only for their problems to be thusly answered by a skiff suddenly splashing down near them, indicative of the fact that the ship is listening, or whatever spirits remain haunting its phantasmagorical decks. There's a glance towards the Englishman at that, ice-blue eyes wide, sentiments broadcasted clearly by that expressive face and stare: IT HEARD US OH GOD IT'S ALIVE. Or something of that nature. His own trepidation is plain on his and for a moment, there is hesitation.

Because she is thinking very much the same thing he was moments ago before she dove in; they could turn back and head for the shore, and pretend they don't see this long forgotten shade, and return home. But she knows herself, knows John - even if they turned their back to this now, it won't be long until they returned here. Fate plays numerous games, but at the very least, she knows that it pulls the British magus in its currents for a reason. She knows all of this, but it doesn't make it any easier to swallow.

"Maybe if we listen to it, it'll go away," she whispers to him, hopefully, glancing up at decaying ropes and rusted pulleys with a skeptical eye. With a sigh, she shifts and moves towards the skiff, to pull herself on it, and to help him aboard. There's no going back now.

The centuries' old gears rattle, squeaking with their newfound burden as the small boat is dragged upwards. Water drips from the bottom in truncated sheets, up and up unti they could see the black waves and their anchored dinghy, already looking so far away from where they are. The point of no return, indeed. In open air and out of water, she suddenly feels the chill; gooseflesh pebbles over fair skin, a small tremor rippling down her spine. Wood creaks as the skiff sways from side to side…

…they reach the top deck, finally, and the pulleys draw to a halt.

The top deck has seen better days; rot and the elements have shattered a few of the planks, its holes promising a swift descent on whatever layers exist below. Railings strewn with barnacles are covered in its sea-moss and for the time being, there is nobody present - not a single soul or spirit is there to greet them, nevermind that someone clearly heard them, otherwise they wouldn't have been brought up by the raft. Zatanna gives John a glance, before she reaches out with both sets of pale fingers, to grasp onto the ropes and gingerly step into the deck.

She turns at that, reaching for the edge of the smaller boat, to grip it with both hands and levy her weight against it, in an effort to keep it still for John.

—-

"Maybe," answers the Englishman, without much optimism. He braces his hands on the side of the half-floating skiff and hauls himself up and over the edge, managing to do so without dumping them both back into the drink.

It's challenging for a half-dressed person to feel they have full command of their own courage in hand. Nakedness is vulnerability in so many different senses — even for people who care so much less about the eyes of others than most. Zatanna feels a chill as they climb, the wind and fog skimming bare, wet skin, but what John feels keenly is how exposed he is, mere inches of flesh and muscle between the air and the organs that keep him alive. He takes what little comfort he can from the symbols and sigils penned into his skin, and keeps his eyes turned upward, locked to the suppurations of barnacles and dead coral that hang heavily on the artificial contours of the railing. Up close the ship has the pungent reek of salt and seaweed, boards made soft and slick with algae. The creaking of rope and squealing of the pulleys are loud enough that they seem to drown out the soft sighing of water against the hull below. The silence that follows their cessation is twice as loud to John. He flicks blue eyes made dark by the strange light across the collapsing deck, uselessly trying to probe the darker pockets of shadow for any sign of presence beyond their own.

"Careful," he murmurs as she reaches for the ropes, intent on stepping out. She isn't immediately consumed or assaulted, and while she holds the rope he plants a hand and vaults the railing, himself — and cuts his hand on the very same barnacles he warned her about.

He hisses a short breath, brings one hand to the other to press his thumb against the small cut in his palm, but it's not fast enough. The water on his skin facilitates the swiftness of his bleeding, and a single rivulet of bright scarlet leaks out, accumulates on the heel of his hand, and succumbs to gravity.

It strikes the deck silently, but with the seeming force a tiny, magical bomb. Where the droplet bursts and expands the black-and-green slime of the deck turns a suddenly rich color of burnished brown, polished and waxed as though the vessel had sailed on its maiden voyage only the day before. It's a contagious alteration: That single nexus point of transformation expands outward in radiating lines. Worm-pitted, water-rotted wood fattens and grows whole. Racing lines of reparation zip along the railings, dissolving barnacles and erasing clots of kelp; they climb the masts and slip out like busy sparks along the tatters of rotted sail, bleaching the canvas a stark off-white and expanding them as though the cloth were billowing up through some invisible seam in the world. As the effect travels it gains momentum. The wood beneath his feet turns sun-warmed, the quality of the light reflected off of that surface suddenly cheerful, golden. Through gaps in the railings the sea no longer has the look of flecked obsidian creased with foam but instead a deep, abiding blue and emerald green. Whatever's happening, it's taking the whole of the ship with it — and them, as part of some still unglimpsed scene. The failed-aquarium smell of the boat is underpinned suddenly with other things, very faint, but gathering momentum: gunpowder, varnish, wax, kerosene, unwashed bodies.

Blood.

Not all of the restored boards gleam cleanly. There are puddles of blood splattered about the deck that become more and more evident as the conversion widens. In one of them, a saber rolls listlessly back and forth, abandoned.

John pivots in place the moment he notices what's happening, then seeks her pale gaze, his brows knitting. "Shit," he says. His look over his shoulder at the skiff and the fog beyond is clear: maybe if they take a running jump —

But no. He can't even see their rental anymore. The fog is beginning to swirl like the cannon smoke they can dimly smell. "Shit."

—-

Like with most magic, Blood has inherent properties that make it extremely potent in such workings. It's as if Time decides to slow into a crawl, when that single crimson bead escapes John's skin and makes its slow descent onto the deck, landing on rotting floorboards and injecting it with fresh life.

Ice-blue eyes widen when she takes in the change; what is dull becomes vibrant again as the effect spreads over their small speck of ocean - the musk of age is gone, replaced by the unmistakeable strains of powder and cordite, scents that she unfailingly associates with James Buchanan Barnes whenever she is close enough to hug him. The night gives way to day, leaving crystalline waters and pale sails snapped taut against cooperative winds. She already knows what is coming before she takes in the entire scene, before it even finishes. Whatever tormented history this ship has, it seems very much inclined to have them share in it and she's already taking a few steps back, every inch of her defensive. The fact that this is happening while she is barely dressed does not help her growing discomfiture.

"I don't think we'll be able to get out of this unless we see this through, John," she tells him in the midst of his cursing.

The boat rocks back and forth, carried by the whims of the waves underneath. The rattling saber slowly tilts sideways until it clears the grooves in between planks, skittering towards them until it stops at her feet. She doesn't need it, but she picks it up anyway, just in case, hefting the blade in her hand.

As the conversion completes, the distant sounds of battle sharpen into crystal clarity. Screams, death-throes and orders spill in a riotous cacophony across the deck. The scene before them unfolds into chaos, though it seems they are at the tail end of it - most of the people on their side are dead, and the Lady is in the process of being boarded by a vessel latched close by planks and ropes on their ship's starboard side; slightly bigger with pitch-black sails, the preferred symbol of seafaring ne'erdowells.

Suddenly, John would hear a scream from his companion, to add into the noise. Though whenever he spins around to look at her, he'd find immediately that it isn't because of pirates, or that she's scared of them, or that she's managed to get captured by one. Instead, he'd find her staring at the reflective glass from one of the surprisingly still-intact portholes of the ship.

"What is this???!" she cries; it might be because of panic, because she has absolutely no idea what is going on, but there are certain things that take priority and this is apparently one of them. Not that she actually looks much different - in John's eyes, she looks the same, but the shade staring back at her from the glass is someone else.

Youthful, unwashed, unshaven, he is a spindly thing clad in the typical dregs of a deckhand, with a shock of bright red hair and absolutely covered in freckles. He is missing quite a few teeth and now carrying an officer's saber that he has no business wielding.

"I'm ARCHIE!!"

If Archie ever existed in the 1800's, anyway.

The exclamation is punctuated by the loud boom of a cannon, its projectile causing a small explosion on the back of the boat, splinters raining from on high.

—-

It's strange just how cheerful this scene of maritime devastation looks. With the sun high in a sky that is, save for the smoke of exchanged cannon fire, a deep, cloudless blue, hanging over water brilliant in tropical peacock hues, the ships themselves warm in hues of honey-blond and brown, sealed boards gleaming, even the puddles of blood atop them bright, starkly red to the eye — it's almost festive. A vibrant diorama out of some sort of unlikely history book.

Only it's not cheerful. Not really. People are dying. Screaming. There's violence still unfolding at the rail where lines and hooks have inextricably bound the vessels together.

When she screams it nearly fires his heart out of his chest like a bullet.

He does whirl around, and he'd have already begun to spin up that brilliant, tiny engine of her soul latched to his if he'd not had her lock it away, the substance and density failing to respond to that instinctual bidding — just further proof that locking it away was necessary. For the best, in any case. He closes in on the porthole to try and get a glimpse of what it is on the other side that could have made her scream that way, and sees…nothing. Nothing, anyway, until his eyes pull back from the scene beyond to focus instead on the reflection there, and what he gets, for his trouble, is an eyeful of something too young, entirely the wrong gender, and lacking far, far too many teeth.

The face he makes is genuinely horrified. "Your teeth! We're in the sodding tropics! Try an orange every now and then!"

BOOM

He stumbles as the ball drills itself into the stern, and grasps her arm. "C'mon luv. There's no bloody way we got brought all the way out here to watch a ship sink and get pressganged. There's something involved that shouldn't be here and we've got to find it."

—-

Your teeth! We're in the sodding tropic— !

"THOSE AREN'T MY TEETH!!" Zatanna cries frantically, pointing at the reflection in an accusatory manner. "Those aren't even REMOTELY stageworthy!!"

BOOM!

The ship rocks violently on one side, the sound of groaning wood loud and all-encompassing even in the midst of battle and blood, and the raven-haired witch finds herself stumbling back and into John. With his hand reaching for her, she manages to right herself, ice-blue eyes scanning the sea of violence threatening to swallow them whole. "Well…there's pirates, right?" she calls out, voice giving its best effort to rise above the din as they stumble away from the rails and further into the breach. Forward, always forward, if not just because they can't exactly go back, now, with their rental lost to the stream of time.

"So chances are, whatever we're after will probably be in the loot they're trying to get to by eviscerating this boat!"

BOOM!! the cannons from the other side aren't particularly helpful; the sound is the same whether the guess is correct or not. It does, however, carve a new hole into the Lady of St. Kilda, the massive, steel ball resting in its innards and forcing it to list sideways. She grabs ahold of John when she finds the ground start to slant underneath her, but they keep stumbling forward.

The explosion is followed by a series of gunfire. Bullets plunge holes in the schooner's masts, through sturdy frames of varnished lumber. She tries to keep herself as small of a target as possible, pressing herself and hopefully John into whatever wooden obstacles there are available.

"Where would loot be on a ship?" she cries. "Cargo hold, yeah? Or the captain's cabin? The latter's probably easier…" CRACK!! She ducks her head as a bullet leaves a groove of splinters on the wall behind her. "…to get to!"

Those were usually at the rear of the ship.

She starts moving in that direction, and as fast as she possibly can. There are more people there, and the crush of bodies make getting to that specific corner perilous. She doesn't know which are on their side, or the pirates, and as far as they're concerned, they're both equally guilty for somehow turning her into Pirate Archie of the Tahitian Seas and she's not happy with what particular development!

The ship shudders again at another blow from the black-sailed vessel, and she stumbles forward at the lurch, the point of her saber flashing silver in the high sun as it ends up spearing through the side of a large mountain of a man in a navy blue coat, his own saber hefted up with every intent to cleave into the poor soul that's already dropped onto his feet. More blood spills on the deck.

"Oh god!" Zatanna cries, fingers growing slack on the blade. "Oh god. Oh god! I'm so sorry! I'm— "

The shadow turns around and looms over her, the twist of his torso and her loosening grip enabling him to wrench the blade from her hands. With the sun high and slightly above him, she can't see his features clearly. What she is aware of is the large hand that moves to grip her throat, and hefts her off her feet.

"WHERE IS IT?!" he bellows, as her pale fingers clutch at his wrist, nails digging into straining tendons roping through a forearm spanning the entire circumference of her ribcage.

—-

"I'm just saying, it's really unreasonable for anyone to have scurvy in the tro— "

BOOM

This time the impact causes the world to heave and list, the degree of that collapse limited — for now — by the way the two vessels are tied together. It cannot prevent the inevitable forever, though, and John decides that the time to take the world to task for its lack of logic is 'later.' Right now, negotiating a thronged ship's deck in the midst of pitched boarding action takes priority.

The thought of trying to fight their way down into the cargo hold belowdecks is daunting at best. Smoke is boiling up out of the depths of the Lady of St. Kilda — impossible to know if something's caught fire. They could be trapped down there, and while they may need to work through whatever this is in order to return to the vacation they really deserved, that sounds like a death sentence to John. When she suggests they focus on the captain's cabin he's right there beside her, the two of them reeling over the uneven deck, weaving between bodied locked in combat and trying not to lose their footing on boards slick with blood and sea spray. They're jolted relentlessly by incoming fire — "WHY ARE THEY STILL FIRING AT IT WHILE THEY'RE BOARDING IT, WHAT KIND OF BELL-END PIRATES ARE THESE?" — and on one of those occasions, Zatanna has the misfortune of drawing accidental blood.

John's two more steps ahead of her when he realizes she's not beside him anymore, and turns around to see her horrified expression. He can't hear her apology over the din of the fighting, or through the sound baffle created by the figure's massive silhouette, but he can see the man disarm her and put his hands on her, and that's all he needs to see.

Physically he's no match for someone of that height and weight, but he takes a bounding leap to get one arm hooked beneath the hulking figure's chin, right up against his throat, already reaching for the blade. Not to try to wrest it away — there's little chance he could — but to grasp the saber itself, fingertips curled over the cutting edge in a gesture that could easily cost him every finger on that hand.

To bleed, of course, and to choke out a few gutteral words that act through the conduit of his own blood, warping steel and changing its purpose. An old spell. Very, very old: the saber dulls, turns a mottled brown shade. Segments, grows scales, and collapses into a well-muscled rope of reptilian flesh.

Becomes, in essence, what can only be a very, very confused asp.

If one had time, one might wonder what existence for such a creature might be like. Would it remember its many years of service as a saber in a sheath — possibly a sheath made of asp leather? Would that somehow play into the origin story it had for itself? Or would it instead suddenly exist, appropos of nothing, all of its molecular qualities suddenly altered, tasting unfamiliar blood as it simply appears in the midst of a battle at sea, assuming — how could it not? — that this is what life is? The only world it has ever known: these frantic, life-or-death moments of struggle on board a pair of conjoined ships, one gradually failing beneath a relentless onslaught.

At any rate, John ceases to pay it much attention once it's no longer going to be capable to stab Zatanna with it. He winds his other arm around with the first and uses the only other thing he has that might be a match for the monstrous man he's clinging to:

"DROP THE BOY, TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT WITH IT, AND MAYBE I'LL JUST GIVE IT TO YOU."

—-

The idea of fighting their way down below decks is risky enough in itself and the very reason why Zatanna has elected to go for the captain's cabin instead; even if the thing they need to find is not there, she can cast something to be able to sink them below the planks, much like she did during their deadly run-in with the Darkness in New York's High Line.

But staying above decks has its own risks and the young woman is unable to speak and unable to breathe, all of her strength levied against the mountain of a man that has grasped her by the throat and has lifted her. She dangles, limp, she knows struggling too hard will spend everything she has, and the fact that she can't speak and can't let go of the grip around her throat renders her spellcasting a moot enterprise unless Luck turns into her favor. Smoke rises and the heat lines emanating from below slips the tableau before her in a dream-like haze. Ice-blue eyes start to roll at the back of her head…

Dimly, she feels her body sway when the man grasping her is brutally shoved forward, taking several steps when something impacts him solidly against his back. The fact that he doesn't just pitch forward and crush her underneath is enough of a testament to his strength when he can carry not just one, but two bodies. John was always lean, however packed with muscle as he is, chiseled and broken and sculpted by the constant tribulations of his difficult life, but the person he has just attacked remains standing despite the sword sticking out from his back, and the half-chokehold around his throat.

And the snake that his sword suddenly becomes. That ellicits a reaction, and with a hoarse cry, he flings the reptile away from him and towards the rest of the writhing throng of bodies on the deck. Two pinpricks of blood are visible from John's angle, over one meaty shoulder, indicative that the confused snake had managed to bite him before it was cast away. That very same hand reverses, however, grabbing the Englishman's nape, and with a brutally physical heave, he attempts to roll the man over his shoulder and to the very front of him, to slam him back-first into the tortured planks underneath their feet.

He does, with all of John's efforts, drop the 'boy'. Zatanna crumples on the wood, wheezing and clutching at her throat, slender body curled up in a loose ball.

"John…" She chokes around his name hoarsely.

The hammer cocks back from a pistol - less accurate than its modern descendants, but this close, it'll do the job, the muzzle pointed directly towards the young woman's raven haired head. Fathomless, pitiless black eyes stare down from his much more significant height.

"THE DRAGON'S PEARL," the massive pirate roars in callous demand. "WHERE IS IT?!"

A sinking feeling starts to dip into Zatanna's stomach. Wide eyes flick over at John.

No. What? NO. It can't be…could it?

Through pain and the lightheadedness only a rushing, desperate gulp of much-needed oxygen can bring, she dimly remembers that night in the Abyss, when she had asked about the history of the cintamani stone he had given her for Valentines Day. He had explained to her, then, that it was best not to know - objects such as that were steeped in bloody history.

No, it can't. It isn't possible. It has to be a coincidence.

But then again…coincidences worked strangely around John Constantine, didn't they?

—-

It would be wonderfully satisfying as a narrative if that single snake bite would be enough. If John could, laying there on the deck — and he is, because had he refused to let go of the pirate's neck he'd have run the risk of having his own broken, and he came down onto the boards hard enough to have the breath knocked out of him — just do what he always does, run his mouth, buy himself time until he hits on an idea that shouldn't work and somehow miraculously does, waiting for the asp's poison to tick down to a fatality.

But asps aren't that poisonous. Cleopatra? Probably died of some other sort of poison. It's likely to make him sick, likely to cause him pain, but the problem they have in the wrath of a massive man with a loaded pistol is not going to be solved by a sudden snake-induced collapse.

His head is ringing from his rough introduction to the deck. He can hear the cocking of that pistol, though, and the words that seem to make no sense, significant for reasons he cannot in those dazed moments put a finger to — information that enters his head, searching for something to connect with. A memory, a moment. As his thoughts gradually align themselves into better working order, it finally finds what it was looking for: a vision of the priceless object wreathed in its ghostly flames, being kicked across a New York City street (and though he could not have known it then, coated with dust from the boots of one of the gang members hired by Midnite to put the kibosh on John's existence).

Unbidden, related memories bubble up around this connection. The scarlet wound on Jessica Jones' face after that fight; the way Zatanna had looked that night in the Abyss as she opened it, and its bonfire hues had reflected themselves in the darkness of her pupils. The wish she'd made.

The two months they had paid for it. Two months in Hell.

He lifts his head and the first thing he sees as his wits rejoin him is a firearm at the end of an arm as thick as his thigh, the muzzle angled toward —

Everything in him goes cold. Gains density, solidity, like frozen concrete.

"You pull that trigger and I'm sending both of these bloody boats to the bottom of the ocean, mate, in a routine that's going to make the swords-into-snakes trick look like a fucking dog and pony show. So how about you an' I go and have a look-see in the cabin before your arse-witted crewmates do the job for me, and nobody gets what they want?"

—-

Pirates are like sharks; they convene when they smell blood in the water. In this instance, the only person willing to deal on the ill-fated Lady of St. Kilda is a man who seems very much invested in saving a freckly red-haired boy's life, though God only knows why. The pirate with the shadowed features glowers at him from where he stands, a calm, unmoving center in the maelstrom of battle and chaos around them, his grip on his pistol unwavering as he keeps it level a few inches from Zatanna's temple. It is enough to force her thoughts to race in a breakneck pace through her skull - because she is seventy-percent sure that this isn't really happening. Whatever is going on happened in the past, a handful of centuries ago. Even if he pulls the trigger, she would be fine.

Right?

But the fear is real. It drips white-hot through her link with John, as well as her apprehension. While she's sure, she's also not sure and she would rather not die here. Some part of her wonders what would happen to her body, if she gets killed in the past. Would the people on shore just find her bloated corpse days later with a strange bullet wound? Or would they just find her on the sands, with no trace as to what had come before?

She would rather not find out - and neither, really, does John. Ice bleeds from his end of the tether and she knows that he means every word he says about sending both ships into Davey Jones' locker.

She is unable to say anything just yet, still trying to catch her breath, her mind reeling over the pirate's demand for the Dragon's Pearl. Some part of her wonders whether it's some other artifact, but she knows it's the same. Knows in the way people from their community just know when coincidence isn't just a coincidence.

The giant man's dark lips split into a smile - she finds it strange that she can't see his features clearly - as teeth dig into his own skin, mouth sealing around the two pinpricks from the asp's bite. He sucks on it, coats his tongue with tainted blood before he spits sideways on the planks in a haphazard bid to rid some of the toxin from his system. He gestures for John to stand up, though he doesn't pull the gun away from Zatanna when he does. Instead, a large hand closes over her arm, yanking her back up.

Her palm flattens over where those sprinkles of blood had landed on the floor, and as he drags her up, it leaves a garish streak across her left palm.

"Move," he says, to both, though his stare is level on John.

His hulking stature is enough to have most of his men push away the remaining forces of the Lady as he starts heading for the cabin, with John moving ahead, and his fingers clamped over Zatanna's limb with bruising force, enough for blood to rush out from underneath fair skin and promise bruises by the morrow. The size difference between witch and man is outrageous, and he's able to drag her along, uncaring of her state, much like a marionette with her strings cut. It was really, in the end, a small mercy that she doesn't appear as to woman to any of the criminals onboard; their situation was difficult enough.

It doesn't take long for them to reach the captain's quarters.

The set up is the typical arrangement one would find in a ship such as this in the 1800's. There is a writing desk facing towards the rear windows of the vessel, several built-in shelves to maximize the space, and a bed. While cramped by modern-day standards, it is roomy compared to the other hideaways in the ship and upon entry, the stench of death is already apparent, the air within thick with gunpowder and the copper-tang of blood. The captain of the Lady, easily identified by his coat, is draped on the chair by the desk, face tilted up and lifeless eyes cast to the ceiling, and half his skull missing. The wound appears self-inflicted, by the way a pistol dangles limply from his fingers. Odd enough, as seamen worth their commissions often went down with their ships, and always with a fight, but this one seems to have elected to leave the mortal plane without even peeking through the door - it was sealed shut, and John would have had to kick it in.

There is a note, but nothing to hint at what they are looking for. Elegant handwriting has been scrawled on the topmost sheet of paper among the myriad of documents scattered on the desk:

I'm sorry, Catherine.

—-

In any sane universe with sense, nothing would happen when that trigger was pulled. Nothing would happen when John wrapped his fingers around the pirate's blade; nothing would happen when she was grasped by the throat and hoisted into the air. Nothing would happen if the ships were sent to the very bottom of the ocean.

But some of those things have happened, and the others may happen still. John meant every last word of that threat because he isn't sure what would or would not happen; because, laying there with his bare back to a bloody ship's deck watching a massive man with a firearm aiming it at the oh-so-fragile skull of the woman he loves —

'He's the love of my life!' she'd said, and the terror had come not because of the implied commitment, though perhaps there was some of that, buried under the rest, but instead because he understands what life with him is like; because 'of my life' sounds like 'of the rest of my life' and he knows how very truncated that life could be, and he is still afraid, so very afraid, for that sentiment to be true for all the wrong reasons

— the possibility of really losing her feels altogether too real.

The beach with its tourists, where the highest stakes drama of the evening belonged to athletes standing on floating things in moving water, feels by comparison entirely impossible.

The defiance in his face does not share his reasons for caring about the cabin boy, or whatever the hell she is. Life at sea is lonely. Let them assume what they like.

If it were not for the fact that they have some part to play here before reality can reassert itself, John would never choke down the hostage situation as it plays out, himself in the front and Zatanna still tightly clasped about the arm, roughly hauled that way. Moving ahead of them, he can nevertheless feel them behind him. Feel the man's hand crushing into more delicate flesh. Feel the sneering violence of that. Everything in him itches to turn that suffering around on its author…

And the time may come. But first, the pearl.

Of which there is no sign. Kicking in doors with bare feet is no joy, but several bone-jarring impacts later it does yield, and reveals a scene of pre-emptive death.

In a novel or a movie, that twist would only add to the narrative interest. Who was the captain? Did they off themselves because they saw the pirate fleet arriving, knowing they'd be taken? Had they wronged the pirates — and are they pirates, after all? Who is Catherine? Was the pearl to be a gift? Did they steal it from her? Were they framed by some traitor amongst their own crew, the suicide actually a murder meant to mislead the pirate — or whomever — into believing the pearl gone, while the mutinous sailor made off with that ill-gotten prize in the chaos?

John does not except in the most abstract way speculate about these things. For the most part what he feels when they come upon another question mark amongst many is frustration.

He pushes the chair roughly aside and looks for the Captain's log. Answers must be gotten, and the heavy volume is right there, splayed atop the desk for anyone to find and only faintly misted over with aerated blood.

He flips the cover open, and gets no further than that. Across the first page is written:

The Lady of St. Kilda

Pride of R. Chiesley

He stares.

It had sounded familiar, the name of the schooner, but he'd not been able to remember why. And of course he wouldn't: the relevant lessons were part of his boyhood, and associated with school years he had little patience for.

"Lady Grange?" he says, baffled.

—-

There is no sign of the Pearl and in a bubble of space-time bleeding with magic, it is possible that they won't find it with magical means either. As John shoves the captain's corpse aside to gain access to his desk, the Shadow-Pirate moves, his figure practically dwarfing the breadth of the door. Zatanna remains in his grip, the gun trained to the side of her face and she does nothing as of yet to turn the tide on her captor, though the plan is certainly there. She tastes fear - her own, John's, though her face is schooled perfectly resolute in the face of their current ordeals. Not just to reassure him, but because of who and what she is - Giovanni Zatara's daughter is no wilting violet, no matter how terrible her circumstances.

"Where is it?" A question that he has already asked twice, for a third time now, and how he constantly repeats it adds to the overall strangeness of what is presently going on around her, as if trapped, himself, to utter the question over and over until he receives an answer. The dark-haired witch slants a glance in his direction, and down at her palm, where she has smeared the blood he had spit out into her skin - to use for later, whenever she has the chance.

Her voice is returning, gradually. While she can push her spells silently, the gun is too close to her face for her liking, and the last thing she wants is to chance the idea that John would end up watching her die, and that is a promise to him that she is already determined not to break, no matter the situation. Ice-blue eyes fall on his back as he hunches over the desk, sorting through the captain's log. She does not see the note from where she is, though her curious stare also lands on the captain's dead body, and his seemingly self-inflicted wound. The suicide itself is a beguiling mystery - why?

Unless he knew about the Dragon's Pearl, and took his life before he was forced to divulge its whereabouts.

But if that was true, how does he know of its significance? Who was this man that he would be familiar with the importance of a cintamani stone, and wouldn't hesitate to take his own life so nefarious characters would not be able to get their hands on it?

John utters a name from his reading and his voice breaks through her reverie. Zatanna turns her attention back towards the Englishman. "…John…?" she prompts. Her voice can't help but sound hopeful, no matter how confused he sounds.

The name itself isn't known to her. While she is well read up on ghost ships, as stated before, her knowledge of actual history - especially Scottish history - is rather limited. She is a fine hand with the histories tied in with magic and art, but the ancient politics that have shaped the world to what it is today escape her, save for the bits of learning she remembers in her classes at the University.

—-

Cool eyes stare down at the spread of documents on the desk in front of him, trying to organize everything into a picture that makes any kind of sense at all. That's made exceptionally difficult by the sounds of slaughter and mayhem that punch through the open door, and the heavy, almost physical weight of his awareness of the firearm angled into her skull behind him.

Like another infamous British detective of tortured mind, unconventional habits, and difficult personality, there is only so much room in John's head for the vast library of occult information he keeps to hand and continues to accumulate. It gradually pushes other things, less relevant things, out. Amongst a raft of other things are lessons he once had about the Lady Grange. They had been spectacular things, and not just a little morbid: she had been a difficult woman, in all probability at least half-mad, and eventually — after years of harassment — her husband felt he'd had quite enough, and he and several co-conspirators abducted her. She was moved from place to miserable place, funerals being held for her every time someone caught wind that she might be alive and falsely imprisoned, designed — or so it's said — to throw those who searched for her off of the scent. As a boy he'd found the last detail amusing, sensational.

As a man, and in particular as a man often troubled by the impossible, it no longer seems a quaint colonial detail. It seems entirely possible that the Lady Grange may have died three times — and kept coming back. Maybe she never died; maybe she staged her own death. Maybe —

What does any of that have to do with the pearl, John?

"…John…?"

His head turns a fraction, tugged by the sound of her voice. "The ledger says the boat belongs to Lady Grange. A figure out of colonial history. She had three funerals."

He reaches for the piece of paper with the apology written on it. "There's a note. All it says is, 'I'm sorry, Catherine.'" He turns in place. Knowing what he's going to see when he looks at the pair of them doesn't blunt the impact it has on him; a bullet of frozen, star-dense fury pulses across the astral link. "Who is Catherine?"

The phantom holding onto her seems distinctly incapable of reasoned discourse, locked into single-minded need for a thing that has long since escaped from his orbit. This vivid recollection from another era could only continue to exist if it's being fed by unfinished business…but how can something like the pearl possibly be responsible?

In spite of the steep price he paid for the thing, for a fleeting moment — faced with a threat to something he values more than his own life — he contemplates giving the ghosts the actual article. There might be a way. But no sooner has the thought occurred to him than his mind wheels backward toward the memory of the look on her face when she opened that box and saw it for herself, that fateful night in the Abyss, and something in him pushes back, hard, against the prospect.

Smaller, better-reasoned voices try to interject: If you liked seeing that look on her face, John, maybe you should prioritize keep her face where it is? There will be other gifts to give, but first you'll both need to get out of this alive.

Blue eyes meet their familiar opposites, searching. Her face is a mask of control, whatever the flavor of fear he may be able to taste on the tether. If she has a plan, he cannot discern it.

"They are ghosts," he says at length, appropos of seemingly nothing.

—-

She is trying to ask herself the same thing; what does the pearl have to do with anything? Unless of course this is just a part of its bloody history - certainly it doesn't stop here, though other questions cascade from that line of reasoning. If the pearl was on board, where was it? And if it had been here and the pirates were able to take it, how did it end up from Tahiti to Wong's, where he had given it to Constantine? Or if the pirates failed in taking the pearl, if the pearl was never here, what was causing them to replay this moment in history over and over again? Most importantly…

Maybe it isn't the Pearl - its gain or loss - that is causing this pocket of time to happen.

But they know too little to discern either way. Zatanna grits her teeth when the grip on her arm tightens, when pulled closer to the large, stinking body flanking her, close enough that the muzzle of the pistol digs into her temple, the cold bite of metal making itself known to her scalp, drawn by every movement John makes on the desk. The tidbit about Lady Grange and her three funerals enables her to forget that, momentarily, surprise falling over her pale expression. "Three funerals?" she wonders. "Were they faked or did she actually die three times?" Because in their world, that isn't all that impossible - they are fresh out of dealing with an immortal nazi sorceror, someone who dies only to live again doesn't seem that much of a stretch.

Catherine, too, is a mystery. "Maybe the captain's wife?" she wonders.

That bolt of fury lances through their tether, so potent that it momentarily arrests her breathing. Lips pull up in a faint smile that she attempts to make reassuring, but her eyes are tight around their corners - she isn't fond of her present position, either. Anger and tightly-reined panic at having a gun so close to her face swirl from her end of the tether.

They are ghosts, John points out.

They are, she agrees silently, but the one holding her feels particularly real.

Zatanna's palm curls over the streak of the pirate's blood left there. She has attempted not to use any of her magic once onboard, uanaware as to what that would do while trapped in this bubble. But with John having risked a transfiguration feat to prevent her from getting stabbed…

Ice-blue eyes narrow from across the way - the only warning John would get before her hand suddenly snaps up to close over the muzzle of the flintlock pistol and push it sideways. The spell leaves her lips, drowned out by the roaring discharge of the pistol, smoke and cordite wafting up in the air and filling the room. Blood sprays on the far wall.

The raven-haired witch staggers backwards quickly in an effort to put as much distance between herself and the mountainous man as fast as possible, ears ringing as she drops heavily on her knees, bleeding profusely from the side of her head, where the bullet had grazed her, its leavings embedded on one of the planks in the other side of the room. The large pirate with shadow-wreathed features does not swing his pistol, or even reload, because his dark lips are parted and he is screaming, muscles locking and spasming with pain. He smashes into the wall behind him, though he manages to remain on his feet, convulsing fingers gripping the wicked, curved blade stuffed into the sash by his hip, its edge finding the dim light of the room.

He seems to know instinctively that the quickest way to end the pain is to end the origin of the curse, and proceeds to try and do just that.

—-

Such a subtle signal, but for John that minute adjustment to the angles of her lashes, dark fans over moon-pale irises, may as well be a visual scream. They have two years and counting of time spent taking the world on side by side, and while the dynamic for most of that time had been that of a teacher and student, in recent months they've transcended those old roles to work on more equal footing. Hell — there are times lately, if John is honest with himself, that he learns more from Zatanna than she does from him.

About magic, sure, though those are the least challenging lessons, the least meaningful. About himself, mostly. About his limits, and about the things he's capable of given proper incentive.

Everything that happens after the narrowing of her eyes is ample demonstration of the latter.

He sees her pale fingers fold over the barrel of the gun and the way she shoves it off to one side. He sees the messy spray of fire from the nozzle as it discharges, billowing a filthy shower of gunpowder smoke, and Christ, it's so close to her face when it happens. He sees her stagger away, still moving under her own power and therefore alive, and the hulking figure with the broad shoulders stumble backward into the wall, jaw wide enough to creak at the hinges as he strains to let loose a scream loud enough to purge him of whatever tortures of hell she's just crafted to his detriment. The large hand on the hilt of the saber. The forward step that means murder.

John plants his hands on the edge of the desk behind him, leans into them and lifts both feet to kick the chair containing the Captain's corpse into the oncoming path of the lumbering pirate (?), sending both chair and body sprawling across the bloodstained deck. They tangle up the shadow-figure's feet and, already fighting the contractions of his musculature around the cramps of his agony, he goes down like a felled sequoia.

The moment John's feet hit the boards again he's moving, attention wholly on his pale and kneeling lover and the blood, there's blood, why is there blood? All he can see in those precious few moments is red. He reaches for her with careful but urgent hands that slide beneath the hinge of her arms to her torso, braced against her ribs and trying to coax her back onto her feet.

To leave. To leave the cabin and its grisly contents, put some distance between the hex-wracked mountain on the floor and themselves, though there's hardly anywhere further to go. To retreat into the water and sink the ships forever, perhaps. To exorcise the lot, usher the vessels through the veil and into an afterlife they should long since have entered — or maybe just to leave, turn their backs to the mess and return to the beach they left behind because of who they are and how they cannot help themselves. John isn't thinking that much farther ahead, really, but the moment he sees her bleeding all other aims evaporate.

Stupid, stupid. They could have refused to come. They could have turned back. He could have avoid cutting his god-damned palm and bleeding on the deck like a rank amateur.

"C'mon luv, time t'go," he quips, all taut good cheer and gallows humor. "It's not a pirate's life for me, I'm 'fraid, too many nits and not enough t— …tuh…"

His expression empties all at once, the focus of his blue eyes unsnapping from the moment, suddenly distant beneath honey-dark lashes that flicker ever so slightly. The why becomes dreadfully clear in slow sequence. Ribbons of red liquid spill silently out one nostril and the corner of his mouth with horrifying ease as he exhales aspirated blood. The chest of his shirt lifts, then parts, tissue-thin white fabric splitting around the glistening point of a gently arcing blade. Still damp from their swim to ascend into the vessel, the fibers are quick to lick the blood from the steel and diffuse it. So little blood from the sword in his chest, so much from his mouth and nose. The look on his face is still one of shocked confusion, his arrested humor gradually tilting toward something else, something delicate and pained. He somehow finds his focus again and in that moment of eye contact maybe he tries to say something — the muscles of his throat move, illustrated by slicks of red and reflected light, and his jaw tightens — but whatever it is can't come. It may have been an apology, if the expression he wears in the moments before he falls — slid off of the sword by the shove of a massive boot — is anything by which to judge.

The moment he hits the deck, the cabin disintegrates. Color, light and sound become a meaningless blur, as though the whole of the scene were being folded up into itself and blended on high.

The next thing John knows he's laying face down on the top deck mid-ships. Cannon fire from below feels like thunder in his ribs. He rolls over with eyes wide and reaches for his chest, but he fails to find either sword or wound. Overhead the sky is a cheerful, incongruous shade of blue. He can still dimly remember the way it felt to be skewered. He can remember with far greater acuity the feeling of immense regret that had followed; of disbelief that it could possibly end that way —

Relief floods him like a molten current of electricity, but there's bad news buried underneath all of that ecstatic realization that he's still alive.

He slaps the deck with one hand. "I didn't even like that bloody movie! HELLO, I'M NOT AMERICAN, WE DON'T PROPHESIE USING RODENTS WHERE I COME FROM, I BLOODY OBJECT."

—-

Her eyes are flooded with tears, rendering her unable to see. Her ears are still ringing, making her incapable of parsing the sounds around her - she misses the way John lurches into action after she takes herself out of the equation. As the mountainous pirate goes down, familiar hands reach for her and Zatanna struggles to stand up. Trickles of moisture fall from her eyes, taking in John's face and his mouth forming a few words, but even without them, she knows what his precise meaning is. She eventually finds the pirate writhing on the floor and both of them take quick bootsteps out of the captain's cabin.

"John," she gasps. "We should probably— "

Ice-blue eyes widen as a shard of silver suddenly erupts from his chest from behind. Her horrified scream mingles with the rest as she reaches for him when he falls…

…it's like one of those moments in movies where a scene ends and another abruptly begins, what theatre folk like her calls a 'smash cut'. There is no gradual transition, no blurring lines or a hazy wash of color. She is suddenly back on the deck, on her knees next to John's facedown figure on the deck. Confusion fills her eyes as she looks around, before she quickly reaches for the Englishman, to roll him over not to assist him, but to see whether the wound is still there…and it's not.

"John, oh god!" she exclaims, suddenly throwing her arms around him. "You're alive! I thought…what the hell happened? We were running and suddenly there was a sword through you and…"

She is forced to let go of him when he's overtaken by a sudden fit of violence; one that she doesn't understand, at first, when her side of the tether is vibrant and alive with relief and quickly vanishing horror - gradually replaced by a fresh wave of it when she realizes the same thing he does. Her expression is utterly indescribable.

Oh god. Oh god.

"Don't tell me we're stuck in here forever!!" she cries. "I absolutely refuse to be Archie for the rest of my life!!"

The fighting continues, even louder still. She scrambles up on her feet, her expression stubborn and determined. Her eyes are lit with determined fury as she pivots on her heel.

"Come on, John, we're jumping onto the pirates' boat!"

WHAT??

"If we didn't find anything helpful in this boat's captain's quarters, we might be able to find something helpful in theirs!" she cries over the din, pointing across the way to the vessel with black sails, and the mess of bodies milling around it. The clash of steel and the booming calls of the cannons echo all around them. "Maybe some letters as to why they want the pearl so bad, or why they think it's on this boat, or…or…"

She doesn't know.

But this is clearly a mystery that needs solving, because she is not resigned to living with scurvy for the rest of her life!

—-

Somewhere in his indignant rant, fury to cover for the fear that went before it, he winds up with her arms around his neck and answers that with something more than merely instinct. There's a little too much pressure in his embrace for it to be as casual as he makes it seem: there's nothing quite like thinking you've just topped it to inspire new appreciation for every alternative.

"I'm fine, I'm just pissed o— "

He can feel it when the understanding sinks in. The horror that comes over her in a wave floods through the thing that binds them together. Predictably, what this inspires in John is a twist of guilt, because if it weren't for his bizarre luck, would they even be here? "Steady on, 'tanna," he says, in a way that he hopes will go some distance toward reassuring her, because the absolute revulsion he feels emanating off of her, almost a kind of despair, worries him, leaves him almost speechless. He's seen her take on so much worse — but then, she was just forced to watch him stabbed in the back, and probably thought she'd be trapped her alone, she's probably fed up with the way this always happens and they're constantly being menaced by things beyond his ability to control; Christ, the look on her face, maybe she's finally hit the tipping point and even if they survive this then maybe They won't survive it, she's at her limit, she —

"I absolutely refuse to be Archie for the rest of my life!"

The contrast between what she's actually horrified by and the tempest of self-involved fears in John is so drastic that he almost misses what she suggests because he's too busy breaking into a sudden laugh.

Could you be any more of a sodding tit, John Constantine?

She turns on her heel, though, leaving him with little time to dwell. By now he knows that when she turns her back on him and starts to stride off he's got only moments to adjust his balance for whatever she's planning to do, and as he pushes himself onto his feet and follows, ducking as a piece of the overhead mast shatters and chunks of wood topple to the deck behind him, she fills in the blanks.

"Right, good plan," he says, words that straddle the razor-thin line between sincerity and farce. "A little bit light on the 'planning' part, but yeah. Alright. When has that ever stopped us before?"

He stares at the veritable wall of bodies engaged in mortal violence. He didn't die in the Captain's cabin, it's true, but it was a long, long way from being an experience he's eager to repeat. Pretty soon, he knows, that massive figure is going to board the ship, though, and events are going to cycle back on themselves ad infinitum.

"Ah bollocks," he sighs. Head turning minutely, he examines her profile. "So, up and over, or through and through, luv?" One dark blond brow arches. "You any good at bowling?"

—-

The tightness of his return embrace only fuels her own, her eyes squeezed shut and for a few precious moments, she does nothing but revel in the near-suffocating, drowning relief that he hadn't just died in her arms. They've been through worse, certainly, impending separations more twisted and perverse than a sword through the chest. But so far, she has been spared the sight of John actually dying; it was a scenario that she isn't keen on having to witness again, any time soon.

The Archie comment ellicits another tidal wave of sudden laughter from John Constantine, and ice-blue eyes turn towards him, expression awash with confusion. She didn't think the comment was that hilarious, and she meant every word. "What?!" she cries, clearly exasperated. "I'm pretty sure you wouldn't want me to be Archie for the rest of my life, either!" That, she knows, is true at the very least, even while she lurches off her feet and attempts to wrack her brain for some semblance of a plan. Ransacking the other ship for information is better than what they managed to come up with before, at the very least. They at least do not have to deal with a hostage situation on top of everything.

The mass of bodies is a hurdle that they would have to face, eventually, and before she gets too swept up in the thick of it, the sight of live ammo and gleaming steel gives her pause. While she knows that they can die and live again, here, she doesn't know anything about this phenomenon - what if their lives run out? Like in those old video games? Could they actually die here, for good, if that happens?

Ah, bollocks, he says. There's a quiet nod in agreement at that.

Up and over, or through and through? She remembers the last time she had picked them up and dropped them in the middle of a human sacrifice somewhere in Stonehenge, back when he was still a teacher and she was still a student. He had mentioned, at the time, that he would have preferred a boat.

The sudden memory, and their present circumstances, has her cracking a small disbelieving laugh, despite of herself; the kind of mad expression that has her palming the side of her face and dragging it down, the very picture of one both incredulous and resigned over the current circumstances of her life.

He asks her if she's any good at bowling. There's a slow turn of her head at that, and a broad, almost giddy grin; one fueled by a ridiculous imagination and an outlook that speaks of one done with this shit.

Before he knows it, a single word leaves the air. She is completely aware that this might not be what he was thinking of. But soon enough, they'll find themselves in a giant magical hamster ball and the raven-haired witch is taking off in a dead run, arms stretched forward - hopefully with his help, once he realizes what is happening - as she moves to just plow through the bodies that are in front of her.

One would think there'd be little give, once it hits the rails.

But no.

It's elastic and once it reaches the end of the line and crashes into it, it bounds upwards in a mad sproing, sending them careening towards the decks of the enemy ship.

And of course, the battlecry.

"MANIFEST DESTINY!!!!!"

All the more appropriate, in the Golden Age of Piracy.

—-

The little laugh wins a puzzled look from the man beside her, waiting to hear how she thinks they ought best deal with a long line of literally homicidal criminals in the midst of a boarding action. It puzzles him, but doesn't worry him.

What starts to worry him is the vaguely unhinged way she palms her face and pulls downward. It is probably not, he thinks, the prelude to something sensible.

That suspicion finds ample confirmation in the way she sloooowly turns her head, and grins.

His expression had been sober before, but it's possible to watch the slow realization of just how massive a mistake he's just made unfolding in his expression like a slow, glorious dawn. "…'tanna…no," he says, without even the faintest inkling of what it is that she's planning to do, because nobody wearing an expression like that one ever ought to be encouraged to do whatever it is that inspired it. He knows, because he wears it often, and it's almost universally when he's about to act like an absolute shit.

"'tanna. Zatanna. Zee — "

She says the thing.

Before he can even begin to reverse the syllables to puzzle out what it is that she's said, the air around them shimmers, congeals into some kind of mystery substance, and he no longer needs to ask.

John Constantine runs.

He has no choice but to run. The moment she starts to sprint he has to keep pace because if he doesn't he's going to wind up like that hamster on the wheel in that one video that made the rounds on Youtube that Chas couldn't stop showing him, going 'oh my god John this is all of your friends'; the hamster that slipped while its mate was tear-assing around the wheel and this poor, beleaguered hamster winds up plastered to the side of the wheel by centrifugal force, spinning and spinning and spinning and eventually getting slung free, probably to wander around and lose its little hamster lunch of — whatever the fuck hamsters eat —

John Constantine is just not made for running. Almost the instant he starts his lungs feel like they've caught fire, but he still somehow finds it within himself to complain.

"THIS IS NOT"

(huff)

"REALLY"

(huff)

"WHAT I HAD IN MIND, ZEE, WHEN I"

The transparent walls allow for a very clear view of the lines of pirates into which they careen, just before they make impact, and what John expects to happen, the ball simply pasting everyone at the rail into submission, is not what happens at all. The thing launches itself into the air, just in case all of this weren't absurd enough, and John loses his footing. He hits the outer wall of the ball with his back and the spinning momentum pins him to it, awkwardly weighting the sphere so that it bobbles and loops, and his shouting circles her like a surround-sound malfunction as he's whipped around and around:

"WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!"

—-

The giant magical hamster ball sails into the air, momentarily obliterated by the sun, its shadow falling over the mass of bodies on the ship with black sails. While the monstrous pirate that has menaced her earlier has managed to board the Lady, his compatriots aren't so lucky. One even has the foresight to look up at the growing darkness that has suddenly spread over the deck.

"What the bloody hell— "

SOMEWHERE IN LONDON:

A large, fifteen pound bowling ball careens into the pins, sending them flying with a loud CLACK, followed by the victorious, echoing spins of machinery.

"YES!" Chas Chandler cries, holding up his arms in triumph. "STRIKE!"

BACK IN TAHITI:

Why, indeed?

It seems to have worked; amidst smoke and fire and while the sounds of battle haven't died out entirely, a good portion of the pirate ship's deck is eeriely silent, unconscious bodies having been knocked about and flattened by a giant elastic hamster ball that has miraculously fallen from the sky. Surely, those aboard the Lady must think it's some newly devised cannonball, meant to defy some basic laws of Physics, nevermind that they have absolutely no idea where it came from save for the individuals trapped within the colorful bright orange space, like some manner of humungous citrus that came barreling to Earth from some cosmic tree.

Rolling the ball to the very end of the deck, where the captain's quarters would be easily accessible, the ball dematerializes, setting the raven-haired witch down as well as one agitated British magus. "I've never bowled in my life," she tells John conversationally, and will assist in picking him back up if he needs it. "But I know the basics, you basically just throw the ball and knock down as many of the pins as you can, right? I just assumed you meant the pirates to be the pins and us as the ball. I know, I know. I'm a genius."

She coughs, waving her hand at the smoke. "Come on, before anything else happens."

And with that, she'll attempt to find a way below decks, even if she has to phase them through, this time - he did mention whether she preferred to come from up and above, or through on through.

The answer to that is clearly both.

Much like the trick she pulled for them in New York's High Line, they desubstantiate just enough to sink through a wall and down a single deck to land in the captain's quarters, thoroughly empty and fashioned very much like what they had already seen before in the Lady of St. Kilda, only this one doesn't have a corpse, and the potent smell of spilled rotgut lies heavy on the sheets on the bed. The door is wide open, which Zatanna wastes no time closing, to keep them from view of any of the other pirates that are still milling about below decks, loading up the guns and spilling out into broad daylight like ants from a disturbed hill.

It leaves the desk for John; a mass of papers and correspondences wait for him there, as well as a log book - apparently, even pirates have those.

—-

The hamster ball does stop spinning eventually, but the world continues to spin for John, who lays on his back within the stretchy thing, taking deep breaths and fighting back waves of motion-sickness.

There has only been one time in all of the time that they've known one another that he's ever let her help him up off of the ground. His pride won't stand for it — and more than that, it's a survival instinct. You learn on the street not to let them smell your fear or see you bleed. You learn that looking weak is being weak. You build a reputation for being impossible to kill, and people eventually stop trying — for the most part. It took two months in Hell and being half-starved, then spending reserves of energy he did not have to spend on a thing he wouldn't take back even if it had actually killed him, for him to let her help him up off of the ground.

This will become the second time in a technical sense, not because he consents to let her help him but because if she doesn't intervene she's going to be spending precious moments of their time to investigate watching him try to stand up and then topple over again while his inner ear is still in absolute rebellion.

Eventually he steadies, and by then she's facilitating their swift descent into the rival cabin, thick with the sour smell of bad booze. She moves immediately to shut the door, and John then turns his attention to the desk, splayed with documents and a surprisingly fastidious log book.

"I'd have thought their interest in paperwork began and ended with ledgers," he says, reaching for the cover. Flipping it open reveals a peculiar symbol printed on the inner facing page, the sight of which stops John dead. His lips part in astonishment, over the top of which comes a sudden intensification of his focus. "Hang about. I don't think these are pirates, luv. At least not the regular sort."

Picking up the large bound volume, he turns in place to hold it up and display the page for her. There's no conceivable way she'd fail to recognize it: it's the seal of the Rosicrucians.

He flips it back around, cradling it in one arm and paging through it as quickly as he can whilst still taking in the gist of the pages, blue eyes ticked upward to lance toward the doorway periodically as he does. Eventually he begins to flip impatiently through it, until somewhere toward the middle he slows again, backs up a few pages, skims, and taps one of them. "Can't read the dates. Probably a bit of dream logic there. …Yeah. The language isn't appropriate to the era, either. Good news for us, because bollocks to parsing seventeenth-century English. Listen to this:"

//"The Brothers were first made aware of the corruption of the wish-fulfilling jewel by strange reports concerning the fate of the Lady Grange. Our chapter in Skye reported a funeral taking place for a woman who was already rumored to have been buried once before, thus compelling an investigation into her fate. The grave was revealed to be empty, and no sign of her found in the known place of her lodging during her time on the Isle. Upon discovering this peculiarity we sought her husband, James Erskine, living then in London, to ask him what he knew about the fate of his wife. What followed was a sad tale which I shall relate only the most pertinent particulars of here as a matter of record."

"Early in marriage whilst the blush of love still lingered between them, James Erskine obtained the dragon's pearl as a bribe during his time as a Lord of Justiciary. At that time courting the purportedly beautiful Rachel Chiesley, he presented the pearl to her when he proposed marriage, and having been educated as to the nature of its ability to grant wishes made in love, foolishly wished, very much in love, that they should be together always. For some little while their marriage was a happy one, but it was soon clear that the Lady Grange was mad, and the Lord Grange grew increasingly miserable. At wits' end, he at last in desperation made designs on her life. Aware that she had some affection for one of the men of his close acquaintance, and that this man was embroiled in financial difficulties that made him vulnerable to material persuasion, he offered this man, Mac, the very jewel he had proposed to her with as compensation for the service of murder. The plan was to tempt her onto the schooner that Lord Grange had purchased for her, a schooner called the Lady of St. Kilda; there, under the pretext of a romantic liason Mac would bind her in chains and send her down into the depths of the sea. As she carried the pearl on her person at all times, he was to relieve her of the precious object before disposing of her body."

"This he did, and returned to Lord Grange with news. When rumors of a kidnapping began to spread the Lord Grange did nothing to dissuade them, believing them a coy cover for a far darker deed."

"Imagine the Lord Grange's surprise when he woke some time later to find his wife there in his room, draped in seaweed but seemingly unharmed, though he knew well that she had been drowned! In a frenzy of terror he killed her a second time, and with that burial he thought that the end of his woes. In truth, they had only just begun. Ominous deaths surrounding him were merely the prelude to the horrible realization that his wife had returned, yet again, to a state of unlife. When he eventually found her and reprised his role as a perpetrator of uxoricide, he made sure to dismember the body and scatter the pieces far and wide. Assured of her absolute destruction, he believed he might rest easily — but back again she came, resurrected by the very wish he'd made as a young man in love on a stone now corrupted by the twisting of that wish into something altogether horrible by her enduring madness. For nearly a decade this cycle has continued, and with each death she has lost more and more of her humanity, but no amount of murder can keep her in the ground. With each resurrection she grows more twisted and bloodthirsty. Countless innocents have perished as this feud has played out, each one deepening the taint of the stone."

"Lord Grange begged the Brothers pitifully to tell him how the 'curse' might be broken. He was told that his wife may have been drowned, but she had failed to perish; that these other manifestations of her person were a product of the pearl and the wish he had made, and they would continue to return to him for as long as she suffered her endless un-death. The matter might be rectified only by purifying the stone — but in so doing, his own life would be forfeit. At this news he grew very pale indeed, but is said to have agreed that it was the only just course of action, and even that it was a fitting penance for a man with so much blood on his hands. The Brothers obtained the address of his co-conspirator and were sent abroad to locate him and retrieve the jewel so that the purification rite might be conducted, but were delayed by weather in the crossing. When they arrived they found the man's home a shambles. A letter addressed to Mac and discovered on a table claimed to be from Lord Grange. It stated that Mac's only daughter, Catherine, was in the Lord Grange's custody and would remain thus until he had returned the pearl — which was not as he told the Brothers in Mac's keeping, but instead at the bottom of the sea, still in the possession of his dead wife! He promised that Catherine would die before he did, the next time the Lady Grange visited him with murderous intent, and instructed Mac to make all haste in sailing to the site of his wife's death in the loaned Lady of St. Kilda."

"And so we come to our part in this madness, weeks in pursuit of this Mac, to remedy a most unholy situation. For as long as the pearl remains in her mad and undying grasp she shall continue to walk the lands of the Empire as a foul revenant, and neither will her treacherous husband perish. It is an aberration that goes against all of the order of nature, and the Order shall not rest until it is put to rights."

—-

As she turns towards John, wincing at the sounds of death and destruction emanating from outside of the Captain's quarters, Zatanna's ice-blue eyes fall not on the Englishman but on the seal that he holds up to her, gleaming a dull red against the pale cream of parchment. The wax sigil is familiar and surprise ripples over her expression. He is right when he assumes that she can't fail to identify it - the Order of the Rosicrucians is one of the more established bodies dedicated to the occult in the world and even predates quite a few of the other ones. Her stare meets John's from across the way.

"…oops," is the first thing she says, as the letter implies that she had just bowled over a bunch of Rose Cross agents above decks. "Well, how was I supposed to know? Pirates have a bad rap everywhere!"

She listens to the entire recitation of the letter in silence - while several gaps of the mystery have been filled, with the identification as to who Catherine is, how connected Lady Grange is to the other ship, who the captain could be (Mac, having taken his own life) and just why the pirates were interested in the pearl, there are more questions from the raven-haired witch:

"So if the pearl's not on the Lady of St. Kilda, nor is it here, where the hell would it be? It's not like we can just commandeer this ship, sail for wherever the Lady Grange is and yank it away form her, could we?" she wonders.

They are ghosts, John had said, just before he was killed on board the Lady of St. Kilda.

The young woman purses her lips thoughtfully, leaning against the door.

"Well, we don't know where it was then," she tells John. "But we know where it is now." Sitting in its place of honor on her shelves of sentimental objects in Shadowcrest. "And we know these people are dead and we're looking into something that's already happened. But if this keeps happening over and over again, this probably means the Rose Cross agents here never fulfilled their mission, right? Otherwise they wouldn't be lingering here. Maybe the only way to break the loop is to…I don't know. Talk to the captain of this ship and let him know that while we don't have it, we know where it is, and tell him that we'll fulfill his mission for him if he lets us go."

She rubs the back of her neck. "I don't know what would happen after that, but considering how he followed our lead earlier while we were on the other ship, we know, at least, that he can hear us. Maybe he'll keep one of us hostage while the other one goes, but I don't think we'd be able to do anything for him unless they allow us to break the loop. It wouldn't be difficult after that for me to pop over back to Shadowcrest, grab the thing and come back here and purify it."

After a pause, the young woman wrinkles her nose.

"Wait, does that mean that Lady Grange and her husband might still be alive somewhere?" Because ew.

—-

"Oh, on the contrary, luv," John says, flipping through the pages in idle curiosity. "I think we know exactly where it was then." He folds the book closed with a a dull thump, cocks a brow at her, and points down toward his feet, the corner of his mouth quirked into a sly hook. "The entry said she kept the pearl on her all the time, yeah? When we got here, the anchor on the ghost ship, the Lady of St. Kilda, was down. You don't drop anchor when you're being pursued. I don't think Mac was overtaken by the Rosy Cross on the move, I think they found him here, already at anchor, and I think he was at anchor because this is where he chucked her into the drink. He was told to bring the pearl back…and this is where he came. Poor sod was probably trying to work out a way to get down there and retrieve it when they found him."

He lifts the log book in his hand and lightly taps his chin with it, eyes tightening. "The pearl we've got isn't corrupted. We'd have known straight off. So this is going to be one of those bloody recursive time-looping 'don't fuck your own mum in the past' things that gives me migraines. My suggestion? Let's not think about it too much. Just…" He splays one hand out to the side, the other hand the other way, though he's still holding onto the book. "Get down there, find the Lady Grange — and she is going to be mad as a bag of ferrets; you don't spend centuries perpetually drowning to death and shrug it off, do you? — and then…take the pearl, I suppose. Give it to the Rosicrucian duppies, let them purify it, everybody gets what they want. Right? Except for the Lord Grange, but it sounds to me like he 'ad it comin'. They both top it, the Rosy Cross boys get to fulfill their mandate, and we, at some point in the distant future, some-bloody-how and I'm still recommendin' we don't think about it too much, wind up with the pearl in its purified state."

And promptly go to hell for the privilege.

Both of his brows arch, and the hands he's holding up tilt outward slightly, inviting her thoughts. "Then we're back in time for barbecue. Easy-peasy."

Of course, it's unlikely that the Lady Grange, her madness bound up in an unfathomably powerful and potent source of magic, forced to drown to death for centuries, chained down in the dark at the bottom of the ocean and spawning shades of herself to menace her murderous husband, hasn't somehow warped the entire environment surrounding her watery not-quite-grave, but why spoil the skeleton of a good plan by putting distressing specifics onto the thing?

—-

Her imagination follows the magical con man's rationale as he puts the information together, from what they have found in the Lady of St. Kilda, to what they found here, and the state of the ship when they were brought on board. She remembers the anchor because she thought about climbing it, only to dismiss it when she found out that she could not. All in all, the conclusions John makes all fit their current part of the puzzle and once he finishes, he'd be able to find open admiration on her features. It is the same feat that always puts her in awe whenever she's in Jessica's company, or Tim's, or even Jane's - all impressive when it comes to their craft, all with formidable intellectual talents. Many in their community often say that what makes John formidable is his vast knowledge of the arcane, but she knows, after years of watching him work and following after him much like she does her own father, that isn't true.

But what he proposes, sinking into the depths of clear blue ocean that will undoubtedly give way into a dark abyss where horrors that can't see the light of day often disappear, draws forth a hesitant look. Because she also knows that in that, he is correct - the revenant they're searching for in the deep will be absolutely insane and armed with the dragon's pearl, god knows how many of its secrets she has managed to unlock in the last few centuries since it had fallen in her possession.

Still, it's the best idea they have.

"We'll go about it your way," she decides. "Though that does mean we have to take a trip down there in a manner where we're able to breathe and move about." Her lips quirk upwards, broadening into a grin. "Maybe we should use the hamst— "

The roaring discharge of gunfire suddenly explodes somewhere behind her. The pain is immediate, when hot bullets punch through her body from where she was leaning, the pirates outside electing to shoot through the door as the fight continues to keep going. Blood fountains from every wound as pale skin is drenched in crimson, made all the more obvious by what she is wearing. With life leaving her eyes, ice-blue eyes growing dull, everything goes black before her body hits the floor….

….and it starts all over again, when Zatanna wakes up with a gasp, sprawled flat on the topmost deck of the Lady of St. Kilda. Her hands fly up to check at her bullet wounds, before an exasperated stare falls on the same group of milling bodies fighting on the other side, the clash of steel and the sound of cannonfire ringing too close for comfort.

"Well, I don't know about you," she begins. "But I'm ready to dive."

She gets the hint; no more hamster balls, memories fresh from getting shot to death in the midst of suggesting it.

Instead, she reaches out, a warm hand cradling the side of John's face. The devil's own mischief flares in her eyes.

"John," she murmurs softly, intimately. "Have you ever seen the movie Zoolander?"

A FEW MINUTES LATER:

When she was a little girl, she's always wanted to be a mermaid. Older, wiser and with more magic than anyone knows what to do with, she can make these dreams a reality.

Zatanna does not have a tail, but fins have managed to sprout from her ankles and her forearms. Gills line the side of her throat. The transformation will last, so long as she is alive and while she has considered conjuring up another ball and sending them to the depths, she decided against it. So many things could go wrong, especially if the centuries' old revenant they're about to face is insane; the last thing they need is for any magical apperture to pop open and leave them to drown. Best they adapt to their environment as if they belong.

She drifts into the currents, plunging lower and lower. Her ears pop at the change of pressure, and the balmy warmth that lingers above them gives way into colder waters. They can see, at least, no matter how dark - when given full use of her imagination, Zatanna can work wonders.

Though she can't take credit for this particular feat.

((I remember reading about this from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!)), she mentally tells him.

Because of course she did.

((You make a fetching merman, by the way.))

—-

If he notices that flattering expression, he makes no sign. He certainly notices the wariness, though, because his own expression takes a turn for the apologetic. "Yeah, not exactly what I had in mind either, when we were talking about a tropical vacation…"

Apology dissipates like dew in the morning sun when she fixes him with that grin. He's already lifting his hand, already cocking one brow to flatly dismiss anything involving an oversized bubble, when —

One might think that having been through it once himself John would know better than to let the sight of her being ventilated by gunfire get to him the way that it does, but there's no filter between the act and the reaction. He's seen too many people die not to have the full weight of that visual slam into his chest like a sledgehammer. It's like a visual pried out of his very personal nightmares, something he's seen happen a thousand different times in a thousand different ways, a distillation of so many of his fears. His eyes widen, abject shock quickly bullied out of his expression by denial, fury, desperation. "NO!"

He's barely able to get his hands on her before everything swirls disorientingly down the drain. His understood reality flickers, resets.

The first thing he hears when it reassembles is her gasp. He hits the deck with both knees, leaning in and reaching to place a hand where the holes in her once were, the knit of his brows hardly sufficient to communicate the depth of feeling that has his heart racing like an overtaxed engine. He only trusts himself to answer her dry remark with a nod, but he does summon up a breathless note of something almost like laughter — because if that isn't an understatement, he isn't sure what is.

She reaches for him, then. For his face. Murmurs his name quietly enough that he has to lean in, given the tempest of ear-shattering cannon fire and the screams of dying men.

"What, luv."

Have you ever seen the movie Zoolander?

Hovering over her, hand on the middle of her and splayed over the reassuringly whole and intact stretch of her abdomen, this is not the question that he expects to hear. He blinks, then screws his brows together, the look on his face briefly one of helplessness. "…wot?" Another blink, and then helplessness becomes something vaguely defensive, in a confused sort of way. "I can turn left," he says, as though she's insinuating that he can't.

SMASHCUT TO UNDERWATER, where John is a fish. Sort of. Enough of a fish.

He isn't sure how much of the look on his face she's going to be able to parse down there in the depths, but he hopes it's enough to underline the thought he sends her way.

((I can't believe you read those books.))

She tosses him a compliment while he's gingerly touching the side of his throat, taking in the extremely disconcerting sensation of having gills. For one oh-so-momentary moment he visibly debates with himself about something, and ultimately seems to decide against it.

((Maybe not something we want to add to the List.))

—-

I can't believe you read those books.

((She got some things right, John)), Zatanna replies as she swims deeper into the currents; everything else looks like a haze of green and blue, much of its details lost - darkvision is imperfect under their present circumstances, but it at least enables her to be able to gauge their surroundings carefully, as if wreathed with some kind of luminescent fungus. ((Besides, she's English. What about all that national pride?)) Clearly a jest, though she knows how he can be when it comes to such subjects.

((That and this is better than risking the Lady Grange drowning us if I used any other options. I thought about air bubbles but what I've done is trickier to undo. And— ))

Inky darkness parts for a brief moment, and the raven-haired witch stops short at what she sees. She was expecting, perhaps, something straight out of the Odyssey; some kind of strange creature chained to a rock, ghastly and spectral, with an item of magical import in near-skeletal hands and bulging eyes wide and wild with grief and insanity. She had imagined the revenant to simply be there, to greet all comers, to try and beguile them to free her or worse. She does not expect what lies before her, several feet underneath them still.

Centuries have seen this specific part of the ocean as a site for many wrecks, from small dinghys to bigger pieces of schooners and galleons menaced by the opportunists of the sea, swept to these waters by storms and natural currents. Bones of divers unfortunate to have come across the enduring un-life that lurks in these depths remain as well, added as part of the clutch that has grown only bigger with barnacles, coral and other calcified objects. What lies before them now, beckoning the eye, is a twisted construct built out of all these sea debris, an underwater temple made from the remains of the many miseries collected by the sea. Through saltwater and waving throngs of seaweed, it reeks of magic, the strains of it familiar, but corrupted from the form in which they've encountered it before, overlaid by an even more horrific memory.

The letters never said how the pearl became corrupted in the first place.

But now that they are close to it, the taste of the water is infernal, and they would know, because they spent two months in the origins of it.

The coral temple pulses with fell light, impossible to see from the surface, but now that they've ventured in deeper, they would see it clearly; crimson wreathed with black.

And the sound.

Sound carries quickly underwater, the forms they have chosen in order to embark on this part of the voyage rendering them even more susceptible to it. Staccato beats and high pitched screaming, fragmented with the sounds of mad laughter and alternating with hysterical sobbing.

It's almost enough for her to turn around and swim back to where she came.

((Oh, well then.)) Even in his head, her voice sounds dry. ((What's the worst that could happen?))

—-

Is it possible for someone to telepathically transmit the sound of a disdainful snort? If so, John manages that very thing, transmitting the approximation of a roll of the eyes when she gets after him about national pride, even in jest. He's never had the opportunity to take her to a footie match — not exactly something Giovanni would have considered a good use of their time in London — but she's been in Britain long enough to have absorbed the deadly rivalries from a distance, and few are more die-hard than those for John's team. Founded in 1892, Liverpool is more than just a little bit entrenched in the very history of the nation.

((Even a broken clock is right twice a day,)) he volleys back, on the subject of Rowling and her pubescent magical fantasy series. ((Don't remember being fitted for a wand in secondary school with a unicorn's pubic hair in the middle, or whatever the bloody hell that was about. I don't think you could get twenty p for a unicorn's pubes outside of niche collec — ))

The thought dies off into silence, suppressed by the magnitude of what begins to unfold beneath them. Ominous silhouettes loom titanic in the suddenly sanguine gloom, shadows that he registers almost at the same time as the first cloying, repulsive 'taste' of tainted water through the gills she's outfitted them with to make the descent — an experience he's absolutely certain he won't be able to describe adequately to someone else after the fact. It makes his skin crawl, reminding him viscerally of those two months in the down-below — most of which he's never recounted in any specific detail, not even to Zee. Whatever privations he suffered in captivity remain buried, but not so deeply that they cannot be stirred to life again by the rank foulness of infernal corruption.

Layer the sounds of a voice careening drunkenly between polarities of extreme emotion over the top, and it's enough even to give John Constantine pause.

The ocean is vast. The word 'unfathomable' alludes to this, in its way: fathoms are a measure of the depth of water. There are reaches of the ocean that mankind has yet to penetrate even in this most modern of eras; the specie knows more about outer space than it does the bottom of its seas. It's easy to feel that down here, suspended beneath crushing tonnes of water weight and hovering over a plain manufactured of the wreckage of ships and the shards of skeletal remains, all organized into some manner of hellish architecture. They are not in their element. They are small, fragile, vulnerable.

The ice-cold depths are only partially responsible for the chill that buries its claws into his flesh and nicks with sharp points at the bones beneath.

((Bollocks.))

Water currents stir like sheets of silk in wind as he draws up beside her, and with half-numbed fingers claims her hand. ((I wish you wouldn't say that.))

Even tempting Fate the way she does — and there's probably something to be said for that, given the way she consistently tempts Fate's favored son — there's no choice but to press on. He keeps hold of her hand as he tilts forward to resume their descent, approaching the twisting, organic menace of the temple at a cautious pace. His head is constantly turning, gaze probing the horizon of their visibility, where detail fades out into muzzy, indistinct blurs. Watching for movement that seems different from the constant sway of seaweed and kelp in tidal currents.

All remains silent and still until they reach the apron of a massive stairwell leading into the dark mouth of the structure's central well.

((I'm sorry, but this is bloody stupid,)) John thinks. ((We're underwater. Who puts in stairs at the bottom of the — ))

The sound that follows is so deep and resonant that it vibrates through the scree of bone shards carpeting the sea floor. They rattle and sift over one another, stirring up sea life buried within. Small, bottom-feeding fish are shaken loose and dart away in a frenzied panic.

Loud enough to make John feel like a bell that someone's struck. His hand tightens on hers, a single kick of the legs shifting him around to place them back to back.

Through the leafy strokes of seaweed, shadows begin to flit, their forms difficult to discern. They remain cannily just out of viewing distance, obfuscated by darkness and terrain.

As menacing as those dancing shadows may be, they are nothing compared to what happens next.

It's easy to believe that no light had followed them down to these depths, but they're simply not deep enough for that to be true. Spectrums of light may have been cut — reds first to go, then oranges, yellows, right down through the rainbow — but blue light remains, and it's apparent that this is true when a massive shape hoves up and over them, eclipsing all surface light as it passes over. It's not evident at first glance what the shape is, but it's bullet-like in shape — a fish? A whale, a shark? Too big, thankfully, to be a dolphin.

John's head cranes back to watch it pass, and then he's looking left and right again, searching. The reassuring solidity of his back disappears for a moment as he dives down, closes his hand around something on the bottom and then yanks it free in a cloud of silt. A metallic point winks in the dark: a harpoon, though half of the wooden shaft appears to have been broken off. The rest cannot be in particularly good shape after being submerged for god only knows how long.

Weapon of desperation in hand, he edges back into her orbit.

((It was a really nice pearl,)) he points out, as though that could justify everything they've gone through since he brought it into both of their lives.

—-

Bollocks.

((I know it)), she tells John, giving him a glance. ((Maybe we ought to find some other way? Something that doesn't require us venturing in an underwater labyrinth of horrors on our vaca— ))

His fingers interlace within hers and her tight, white-knuckled grip is the only indication of her present apprehension overtly; their tether, however, is alive and singing with its high-pitched notes of incredulity, fear and no small amount of exhilaration, if not just because Zatanna always finds something beautiful and exciting in the novel and macabre. She has never been in a situation like this before, or a place like this before. The juxtaposition itself is unique - beautiful, crystal paradise up above; dark, ominous and deadly below. Her heart pounds wildly in her chest.

Amusement is short-lived, with his comment about the stairs (he does have a point), if not just because of everything else that they are seeing.

She keeps his hand in her grip when he leads the way, and she follows, gliding near him as they venture towards the center of the infinite loop in which they've been trapped. She keeps going even at the sight of those distant shadows, wraiths slithering like snakes from afar, and pausing only at the sound that shakes small but colorful fish loose from their coral prisons, like leaves in the fall. As her back presses against John, it ripples outwards and as the too-large shadow drifts past them over their heads, she can't help but grow rigid, wide eyes staring upwards when it passes before focusing her expression on John. What was that?! is plainly writ on those pale lines, wreathed as they are with sapphire light. A fresh jolt of adrenaline surges through her veins; he would feel it across their link.

Suddenly he lets go and vanishes further into the deep. ((John?)) Bubbles froth at every movement when she spins around, determined to keep within line of sight of him, and manages to catch his pale legs and feet before silt from disturbed sand from below obscures him from her. Relief drips through their thread, etches on her face when he returns with…

((Wow)), she thinks, reaching out to touch the tip of the harpoon. A small spark emanates from her fingertip before rust and wear crumble away, leaving it gleaming silver and dangerous, as if new, though it remains broken at the shaft. There's only so much she can do with objects without the necessary parts. ((Something tells me we're probably going to need it.)) Better safe than sorry.

She retakes his free hand before she moves further into the yawning abyss, along the useless stairs and into the entrance. There are no doors, and save for small pinpoints of light emanating from luminescent algae filling the gaps between shipwrecked detritus, there isn't much by way of illumination. There are no corridors; as some people would say, the only way is forward. The narrow hallway widens into a circular chamber where masts salvaged from past wrecks rise from the craggy floor, crusted with coral and sealife. The center of the chamber is another well of darkness, though whenever they get closer to its very fringes, more light filters out, faint red clashing with sickly green.

The Lady Grange is somewhere below; they'd be able to espy movement, most of her figure encapsulated in darkness save for her face and that's only by virtue of the cintamani stone that she is caressing with long, bony fingers. Whole centuries and constant exposure to corrupted magic have not been kind to her; her visible limbs are long and gangly, her face gaunt and devoid of color resembling healthy life - the look of her reminds Zatanna of the emaciated figure she had spotted in Hell's desertscape, chained up and weighed down by the traces of her life. Grange's un-life has widened her eyes, pupils slit and glowing from within, her mouth almost too wide for her face. Whatever remains of her hair, bald patches reflecting light in different places around her skull, writhes in the darkness as if alive.

She cooes to the pearl as if it was her child; long nails have hardened, clung to by barnacles, but whatever lullaby she is humming is abruptly cut short. Those glowing eyes suddenly lance upwards from her pit. Even from down below, they can hear her sniffing, as if their scents somehow carry through the water.

—-

John Constantine has been in a lot of situations, it's safe to say.

He's been in a lot of situations that very few people can say they've been in. He's been in a lot of situations that no other person can say they've been in. And even John, with all of the strangeness attendant to being (reluctantly) who and what he is has never been in a situation like this — and that's true not only because of the very specific nature of their objective, but because travelling with Zatanna Zatara affords certain magical luxuries in spades. Need to venture to the bottom of the ocean? Gills it is! Found a harpoon you're pretty sure isn't going to save you from whatever the hell just cruised overhead and blotted out the sun, but it's basically held together by rust and prayers after centuries of sitting at the bottom of the ocean? Abracadabra! Problem solved.

His hand tightens on the handle as it retextures beneath his fingertips, rotting wood grown dense and whole again, the weight reassuring. Down here, John is not helpless…but he's dancing along the fine line of uselessness. He survives on his brain, his mouth, and the use of minimal magic wherever possible. Only one of the three is available for his use now, and while evolution may have favored him with the advantage of consciousness, it did so with an eye to being on land. Down here, intelligence and sentience just make him a strangely immobile, terribly misshapen, particularly squishy pink dolphin.

((Never much cared for Moby Dick either,)) he sends her, staring at the wickedly gleaming point of the restored harpoon. He doesn't explain why, but even passing knowledge of that story's themes probably reveals that it may hit a little too close to home.

He firms his grip on her hand as her fingers insinuate themselves again, and then they're pushing forward against not just the currents and the darkness and the daunting sound of unearthly keening but also every one of his instincts.

The display of the cathedral rotunda — or whatever the hell this is — would be impressive under any other circumstances. Something otherworldly, ripped right out of the pages of Lovecraft; a titanic structure at the bottom of the sea, inexplicably brimming with New Englanders and in particular people from tiny seaside towns in Massachussetts. In the moment, all it represents to John is a tangle of obstacles beyond which any threat might lurk, waiting to take advantage of them as they focus on the spectacle of the Lady Grange.

And they will, because she is a spectacle. When they draw up to the edge to peek over the top and down into the pit of shadows, sniffing — and he's not even going to get into the logic of that — resonates upward, amplified by the shape of the well itself, John stares downward, everything in his abdomen tightening down as he takes in the barnacle-encrusted claws, the seemingly endless lengths of dark hair that have never stopped growing, bereft of anything remotely like scissors. The crocodile eyes, the oversized mouth. He stares that way for a long, long moment.

And then:

((I swear to god 'tanna if I have to answer any riddles))

A beat. He plants his hand, eases himself back out of view from the rim, and glances at Zee. ((It's all about the pearl. She was chucked in here with chains on, but there's no telling whether they've held.)) In the brief pause that follows, he swipes his thumb over the haft of the harpoon. ((I was kidding about the riddles, but maybe she is blind. I wouldn't bet my own hide on it, but I suppose we could eh…)) He leans, releasing her hand to grasp a stone in the rubble larger than his fist, and with some effort hefts it, sinking to one knee with the weight. ((Test it?))

And then he does, without waiting. Just…chucks the rock over the side, down into the darkness.

As it rockets downward, trailing coral, he quirks a brow. ((What do you Americans say? 'Yoyo'?))

—-

Next to him, much like the Englishman, the young woman with him is busily staring at the abyss below, and the thing lurking in the depths.

John's remark about riddles has Zatanna's brows furrowing in overt consternation as she looks at him: ((Riddles from an insane, undead sea-monster revenant? I'm pretty sure no matter what you say, and how right you are, the end will be the same.)) Every gentle, pale line of her is fraught with tension, ropes of delicate muscle steeled in anticipation of whatever horrors may be facing them now. In situations like these, she is her father's daughter to the core - she is already anticipating a ridiculous fight in this underwater terrain, though how she is going to manage that when she can't use her words fails to be seen - the trick with the harpoon was simple enough, done with a few gestures. But a sorcerous battle is another thing entirely.

She follows his lead in this one, being the more experienced magician of the two, and despite close to thirty years in this Earth dealing with human depravities, social dysfunction and some really weird shit, she finds a strange comfort in the fact that he doesn't seem to know what to do in this situation, either. There are no easy answers here.

So she watches as he hefts a rock, and lets it sail down below. She touches it with a finger, the digits of her spare hand weaving a single spell to send it rocketing down into the depths, to pinball around the well all the way down.

The reaction they get is immediate; the Lady Grange - or what used to be the Lady Grange - jerks those too-large, luminous eyes away from the top of her pit, to follow the wake of the rapidly disappearing stone. There's a hiss, before that sleek, too-long, spindly body coils forward, and under the gloomy sapphirine light, they'd be able to see something glint in the depths, the shimmery ripple of scales striated with black and red veins, talons scrambling for the rock as her head darts this way and that to follow the wake of it by sound. Lips part into a deafening shriek, amplified by the way the cavern and the undersea temple is fashioned around her as she attempts to search for it.

Visitors. Visitors at last.

But she seems convinced that whatever made that sound is in there with her, and she shoots out from the darkness in a whirl of water, grotesque features clearly visible under their prying eyes, blindly finding the rock and clutching it with one hand. With the Dragon Pearl hitched up underneath the crook of one gangly arm, unseeing eyes try to peer at the rock in the middle of her palm. If monsters can look perplexed, she certainly looks it now.

Not for long, however.

A scream of agonized, furious frustration explodes from the well, causing the construct around them to shake. Whatever her bottom has become smashes into rock and stone as she twists and flails violently within the well and prison, too-wide lips parting to bare layered teeth like a shark's, and a tongue that looks dangerously prehensile.

The very moment it looks like she might shoot up, Zatanna has already hunkered down, her back pressing into the risen fringes of the well, her ice-blue eyes wide and her heart pulsing so hard against her sternum, she could swear that it wants to escape. Her little gills take in precious sips of water, mining whatever oxygen she could get out of it. Could fish hyperventilate? She doesn't know, but she's probably doing the closest approximation to it even as she lifts her recently freed hands to clap around her ears at the sound of that piercing shriek.

((If I ever get that lonely, you'll put me out of my misery, right?))

Every part of her screams I don't want to go down there, her face absolutely emphatic with that giant NOPE. ((I think we should skip any outright confrontations and chance it. Just yoink the thing and run. It doesn't look like she can get out. Right?))

—-

The stare that Zatanna receives in return for her confusion is mute, which is all to the good, really. There is a time and a place for hobbits, and this is neither.

So eyes pale as sea glass turn down to look after their augmented distraction, tracking its frenetic trajectory through the chamber below — and the agitation of the response that it generates. In the darkness, harassed by something she fumbles for, the twisted abomination that was once Lady Grange writhes and slashes fruitlessly at the water around her, and in her frustration looses a shriek that erases what pity had begun to round down the harder angles of John's expression. He, like Zatanna, twists around to press his back down against the bottom, every nerve in his body itching with the expectation of that too-sleek, too-long body appearing from behind them as it surges forth from the well.

It does not, but the absence hardly pacifies instincts rooted in the deepest parts of his cellular memory. The ape that he once was knows the sound of a predator when it hears it, and it mislikes scales. It wants very much to climb the nearest tree.

Regrettably not an option. As above, so below: surfacing will be no better, and the memory of Zatanna's temporary death is ample steel for a spine that has it in abundance already.

If I ever get //that lonely, you'll put me out of my misery, right?//

((Yep,)) he confirms. No hesitation. He rolls over in the water, adjusting his hold on the harpoon in his hand. ((She'll feel the water currents moving when we're in there. I'll…)) He can't sigh, but across the silvery thread that links them the sensation of something very like a sigh trickles into her. ((…try to keep her attention.))

She brought him frozen drinks in shot glasses. She was drunk. Drunk, John. It was a good day. You could be eating grilled meat and drinking lemon-scented rubbing alcohol and enjoying the heat radiating up off of the sand as the balmy breeze rolls in with the tide, watching the stars begin to appear, and probably, //probably, be doing all of that in a lazy tangle with a warm, soft woman. You could have.//

Floating in pitch-black water like ice, hovering over the centuries-old prison of a woman who was mad long before she was thrust into circumstances that would have driven the sanest person around the bend, with nothing but a broken harpoon and dim light from bioluminescent algae and a plan that isn't a plan but instead a desperate gambit necessary for winning him the right to return to a place where they were both killed not too long ago, John lingers just long enough to wonder what in the blue fuck he's doing with his life, and then he grasps the lip of the rim with his free hand and pulls himself forward over the daunting abyss, planting his feet and using them to push himself off, and downward.

But it would be a lie to say there wasn't a part of him that's already sitting in a pub somewhere in London, telling Brendan all about it. Drinking for free on the merits of the story, because the truth is always, always stranger than fiction.

They'll have to survive it first.

—-

Yes, he could have.

But there was no way they could leave this alone. Even if they tried to ignore it, the ship will remain there, staring at them until they decide to do what Fate demands and fix this.

When John volunteers to be bait for the revenant, pale features become even moreso, Zatanna's ice-blue eyes widening from where she's crouched and pressed against the lip of the well. ((You're going to…what? What?? John!)) A hand is up, ready to seize his wrist and draw him back, but he's already vaulting off rock and sand, and submerging deeper into the beckoning darkness and the revenant lying in wait. Her heart lurches hard into her sternum, pounding so rapidly that she could almost swear that her bones are cracking under strain.

She had already witnessed him die once today.

That and she doesn't know what would happen if he did die in the hands of the Lady Grange, armed with fell power and the Dragon's Pearl as she was. It could be permanent. If the worst does occur, he might never come back.

Pure, unadulterated fear grips her end of the tether, bleeds into their connection. But her lips thin determinedly and she turns back to where she's hidden, quietly thinking about just how she's going to perform this snatch and grab. A hand reaches for another rock - it is simple enough for her to transfigure it into a knife. John was going to need the harpoon. With that, she slips further into the shadows, to make her preparations.

Whatever those may be.

Thanks to the spell that Zatanna cast on them both, John is able to see the further down he goes; veils of shadow and water part as he dives deeper into the well and as he ventures closer, he would find the rest of the Lady Grange, her bottom half transformed into the tail of some horrific leviathan, endless coils slipping through sand and current as she writhes in her prison. In spite of the changes the centuries have inflicted on her, however, it has not liberated her from her prison; bony protrusions curl into the tail, large links of chain looped through their middles and keeping her anchored into the site of her dumping. As he and Zee know very well, Magic has a price and sometimes it is even more exorbitant when a non-practitioner makes a deal with the powers. The creature had asked to be with her beloved forever - and forever was a very, very long time.

She might have also been driven insane enough that she doesn't think to use the pearl to free her, but it is more than likely that this itself is the Price - an eternity alive, but in captivity.

It might be the way the currents wash around him. It might be that she can actually smell him underwater, but that gaunt face suddenly swivels, those too-big blind eyes staring directly at him. The revenant suddenly moves up, and with a pale, slick limb, extends a hand towards him. Her lengthy, endless hair suddenly comes alive, reanimating like inky, hairy snakes, whipping around her until these tresses move in an effort to coccoon him within them - and if successful, draw him towards her.

((James…?)) The inquiry comes out as a sibilant whisper. ((Have you come to free me at last? Oh, my love, I knew you wouldn't abandon me!))

Somewhere above, Zatanna's expression flattens immediately.

What???

—-

Hovering over an abyss that seethes slowly with endless coils of aberrant flesh, John's heart skips a beat to see that moon-pale face turn, milky, alien eyes aimed up at him. It sends freezing water streaming through his veins, his heart a block of ice that creaks under the strain of the adrenaline that spikes through it.

The instant her hair begins to animate he understands that the harpoon is going to be of limited use at best. It needs maneuverability and distance, and he is shortly about to be bereft of both things. Worst of all, there's nothing he can do about it: he can see the inevitable approaching, and do little to stop it. The first tendrils of dark hair begin to slither around one of his wrists, and he uses the leverage of tension there to right himself, shifting his position to angle his feet toward the nexus point of the Lady Grange and her outstretched hand.

Think fast, John.

Pretending to be her husband seems like a poor choice, and not only because he's uncertain she'll take the bait. She's spent centuries trying to murder the man, over and over again — does he really want to put himself out there as the object of her everlasting and eternal obsession and ire…? It's a roll of the dice either way, and after the confounding events of the last hour he's not feeling sure-footed about the run of his luck.

Nothing for it but to take his chances.

((Sorry to disappoint, Ladyship, but I'm not James. Just a man who heard a story about a — )) Christ. (( — beautiful woman chained to the bottom of the sea. I had to see for myself whether or not it was true.))

Nightmare visions of having his lungs invaded with gossamer strands of waterlogged hair, tendrils forced through his mouth and nose, plague him as he's drawn downward. He doesn't dare chance a look upward to see if Zatanna's made her way down into the cauldron of horrors, uncertain as to the extent of the Lady Grange's senses, but there's a grim prayer that wings its way upward into the bruised black-and-blue deeps. All he can do is trust that she has a plan.

…And put on a show as convincing as he can make it in the meantime.

((I can see that it was. But it breaks my heart to see you like this, locked away in the dark…))

Ugh.

Ugh.

—-

Somewhere above them, Zatanna's expression flattens even more, before she rolls her eyes skyward in faint resignation. Well, she supposes if there was anyone on the planet who could seduce an obsessive female half-thing in the depths of the ocean to buy her some time, it would be John. Despite not having even reached the third decade in his life, his exploits in that regard are nigh-near legendary.

Exhaling a quiet breath, fingers fashion a few symbols in the briny depths. The pulse of magic ripples over her. She has never tried this before, transfiguring herself while she's already transfigured, but her life with John has her constantly pushing the known boundaries of her abilities to new heights. Either this will work amazingly, or fail spectacularly. But if there's any time to try it, it would be now, before the Lady Grange decides to add John's bones into the foundations of her derelict palace.

Meanwhile…

The twisted creature formerly known as the Lady Grange blinks those blind crocodile eyes at the man grasped by her moving tendrils of hair, a faint ripple of skepticism on her features. The fact that it isn't James nearly has her shrieking again, but something about the British magus' tone and the words he chooses mollifies her. Obsessive, yes, absolutely insane, yes, but lonely on top of it all. The implication as to what he is doing here, opportunity dangling in front of her like bait on a fish hook, stays the urge to simply murder him.

((Are you here to free me, then?))

Her head cocks to the side.

((The enchantments that hold me here are powerful and ancient)), she continues. ((If that is your intent, who are you, then, to be able to perform such a feat?))

That reptilian stare lids. That too-wide mouth curls upwards in a smile that had once been beguiling…when she was still human. If shark's could smile, that is what it would look like, hinting at the pointed rows of teeth behind closed lips.

((But if you are here to accompany me and ease my heartbreak, this would be acceptable to me)), she cooes, dipping her face closer to where she has entangled John. ((You smell….))

She had meant to, possibly, say something flattering. But at the draw of sea water into mutated lungs, and whatever strains of John carried by it, she suddenly recoils and chokes.

((What is this?)), she demands. ((Who are you? Your soul is…oh, I feel nauseous…))

—-

((I've managed more improbable things my lifetime,)) John responds, with no need for dishonesty. Freeing the Lady Grange from her watery prison would rank low on the list of his unlikely accomplishments…if he had any intention whatsoever of doing that. Given his druthers he'd prefer to bring the whole twisted, befouled structure of debris and death crashing down on her to bury her here forever amidst the remnants of her victims across the centuries. It may happen, even still.

But not yet.

((Though I admit, now that you've made the suggestion, the thought of remaining here, having you all to myself, in the quiet and the dark…)) Everything in his stomach curdles the moment he reaches out to place mortal, fragile fingertips against the gnarled, calcified talons of her outstretched nails. Anticipation of the texture of slimy, waterlogged, undying skin gives rise to a wave of revulsion that pushes across the astral link like a wave of nausea. ((…away from prying eyes and a world that won't understand you, is so tempting…)) Even his thoughts sound sincere. His manipulation of his own consciousness is a small window into the engine behind his capacity to think his way around the things that would give a better man pause, no doubt.

((Though I admit, I'm — ))

And then she reels away from him, and the undying, infernally tainted corpse of a mutated dead woman chained to the bottom of the sea until she Gollumed is accusing him of being gross.

His mouth drops open in wordless shock. What comes back over the top of it is a sudden pulse of incredulous annoyance that he wars with, the struggle tangible to her on the other end of the line. LOOK AT YOU, he wants to say. HAVE YOU SEEN YOURSELF LATELY, YOU'RE ENOUGH TO TURN SOMEBODY OFF OF SEAFOOD FOREVER, WHO THE HELL ARE YOU TO JUDGE ME LIMPET-LIPS

No. No, John. You can't. You don't want to die here.

((The price of power is often steep,)) he manages eventually, and the words are laced with regret. ((As I imagine you well know. But if my presence bothers you, Lady…)) He kicks with his feet, makes to insert some small distance between them.

—-

((YES!!!), she shrieks, suddenly, the underwater palace of her damnation shaking at the force of that telepathic wave. ((Your presence does distress me! I have come across many mortal men in my life and I have never come across one so…so….and to think I was going to allow you to stay with me forever. To be one with me. A part of me! How am I to do that when….))

The creature's head turns away. ((The idea of consuming you is…)) Her cheeks actually puff out, and, true to her sensibilities back when she was still human, both hands come up, to primly set both sets of fingertips over that stretched-out maw, in an effort to stay herself from acting on her nausea. It may be Luck, still, John's strange connection to Synchronicity at work, but the act of doing so has the Dragon's Pearl, large and glowing, slipping from her grasp from where she had tucked it against one of her limbs, a beacon of fell, violet and black light as it starts to plunge further into the depths….

Only to get snatched by a bit of current suddenly come alive. The act forces Zatanna to let go of the magical camouflage shielding her from view, but pale limbs encircle around the tainted object and holds on tight. She makes a sign with her fingers afterwards, and points towards the creature.

All of that prehensile hair suddenly releases John, drifting around him like thin, raven silk. Tresses that suddenly grow taut and snap around the Lady Grange, herself, twisting around her elongated limbs and trussing her up in her prison.

((John, let's go!)), the younger magician exclaims. Who knows what her plan had been the moment she had sunk into the depths of the Lady Grange's well, but whatever Constantine has managed to do had made all of that unnecessary. His uniqueness has made it such that all she had to do was find the right opportunity and seize it.

With that, and using all of her magically imbued fish-like capabilities, she shoots upwards, and attempts to swim as fast as she can, the Dragon's Pearl securely in her possession. She doesn't know how long they have, but that's all the more reason to get the hell out of there.

Somewhere behind her, the creature screams. Sea debris shakes out of their crevices, loosened by the outraged cry as chunks start to drift down from the ceiling. A particularly large stone comes free, making its slow, inevitable descent down into the mouth of the chasm that has safeguarded the world from the revenant in its belly, and will trap the two of them there if they do not move fast enough.

((ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!!), comes the mental screech, as the black shadow grows above them.

Given the plan, she had to swim deeper into the well; but it puts John above her and between the two of them, she knows he will be able to make it before stone seals the Lady Grange's tomb.

She meets his eyes and rearing back, lobs the Dragon's Pearl towards him, direction and trajectory assured as she unleashes a gout of magically churned water.

In the loop, deaths mean very little…until this point. If one of them dies, everything will reset, and they would have to do this all over again.

They need to get the Pearl to the Rosicrucians as fast as possible.

—-

Never before has John been so simultaneously relieved and offended. He doesn't want to become a part of the Lady Grange, in any sense of the words, but the absurdity, the absolute ridiculousness of being rejected by a — with a mouth like a — and her lower body is —

In the low crescent of his augmented peripheral vision he catches a glimpse of the pearl descending like a tainted fallen star, snatched out of its trajectory by an intercepting mirage that resolved into a pale young woman. Instantly the tables turn, the hair that held him prisoner suddenly imprisoning his would-have-been warden, and it's at that point he allows pettiness to overtake pragmatism.

((BEGGARS CAN'T BE CHOOSERS, YOU BARMY, BARNACLE-ARSED TART,)) he fires down at the writhing creature entrapped in lengths of her own dark hair. He points down at her. ((I WOULDN'T GO DIVING ON THAT CRAB-INFESTED REEF FOR BURIED TREASURE WITH LONG JOHN SILVER IF YOU WERE THE LAST FISH IN THE SODDING SEA, YOU'VE GOT A FACE LIKE A DOLPHIN RAPE CAVE!!))

Two powerful kicks send him swimming upward, backward, giving him time to flip her off before turning around and ascending in earnest.

It's a good thing he does turn, because they find themselves very suddenly in a rush. The moment he makes out the shadow overhead and grasps what that means, he turns to look behind him for Zee, prepared to offer out a hand, drag her upward. Instead he finds the pearl rising out of the shadows and understands why…but he'll be damned if he's going to leave her down there.

He snatches it out of the gloom and shoves it down the front of his pants — it won't fit in his pocket, and he needs both of his hands for what he's about to do. Christ. Didn't want kids anyway I suppose, he thinks to himself, trying not to speculate about the possible side-effects of having something like the tainted pearl nestled against the family jewels, such as it were.

Gaining the gap at the rim of the well, he twists around in the water just enough to plant the point of the harpoon against it, the wooden shaft angled upward, toward the onrushing mass of the descending stone. He has to maneuver himself out of the way — if the worst happens and the harpoon snaps, he has to get the pearl to the surface — but ascending without at least trying to buy her the time and room to emerge from below is unthinkable.

—-

His rant only ellicits, from the revenant, another shriek that rebounds all over her well, the force of her ire made manifest by the way her personal palace of the damned shakes and cracks underneath it. More rocks fall, some of them crashing into the descending boulder, only increasing its speed as it plummets downwards, threatening to seal the chasm and everything still inside it.

On any other day, John's telepathic rant would have Zatanna on her knees, arms banded around her sides and tears streaming down her face from laughing so hard; on a good day, he can be just as ridiculous as she is. But her blood is up and adrenaline is coursing through her veins, white-hot bolts of it searing through those open channels as she swims with all of her might. While she is not above performing the sacrifice play in order to at least ensure that their objectives will be met, that does not mean that she is resigned to getting trapped with the revenant either, if she can help it. And so she swims. She swims as fast as her little transfigured limb-fins can.

Darkness grows as the boulder tilts into the mouth of the chasm, just as Zatanna's pale fingers reach to grasp into the edge of it. The harpoon does its work, finally seeing it, wedged tight into the rocks and angled up to meet the leaden weight of this latest obstacle. The water helps - were it crashing in full speed, it would undoubtedly crush the steel point, and bend the rest of the shaft, but the fall is gradual enough that after latching on with her other hand, she surges forward and shimmies through the rapidly disappearing crack as the harpoon slowly bends under its weight…

The sound it makes when it seals up the well is downright cavernous, the force of it ripping through the waves. The raven-haired woman tumbles into a film of disturbed sand and silt, ice-blue eyes turning to the rock and where it's wedged. When that realization sinks in, that they both made it out with the tainted Dragon's Pearl, she nearly sags in relief. Turning to find John's silhouette amidst the sand-fog, she grins at him broadly, and flashes him a thumbs-up.

((Are you alright?)), she wonders, unable to suppress, now that the danger is behind them, laughter in her expression.

((I think we better get out of here and quickly, for all we know, some dolphins might've heard you and would consider all of that a proposition."

—-

Something in his chest eases its clockspring tension as he watches her slip free of the shadows and back into the central space of the dark cathedral — just in time, too.

By the time she finds his outline in the occluding fog of stirred-up sediment he's got the pearl in his hand again, retrieved from places he never thought he'd have to store any such thing, and he's able to return her thumbs-up with the other. ((I'm just ducky,)) he answers, dry, planting his feet on the rubble floor and springboarding upward, away. He glances over his shoulder once at the plug of stone wedged into the mouth of that underwater cairn, soon to be — he hopes — a watery grave for a madwoman long overdue for eternal sleep. It makes him uneasy to leave without being certain the job is finished, but there's no alternative. They've chased the dream-logic of the recursive loop they're in as far as it's possible to do so, and all they can do now is trust it. Trust that, on surfacing, they won't be instantly shredded with a hail of lead or skewered on the point of another blade; trust that the Rosicrucians will know how to purify the pearl.

It's a lot of trust to scrape together, particularly for a man who keeps that very thing in short supply. It helps that they have no choice.

((And I don't wanna hear about it! Between the cold and that face I might never hoist the main sail again.))

Some moments later, grousing accomplished, he glances sidelong and slightly back, his ruffled feathers settling enough to add, ((Nice work.))

Gradually the water begins to transition, pitch blacks and charred emeralds rising through to deep sapphires and aquamarines. After being submerged for so long in the utter void, the sunlight arrives as a kind of ache in the space behind his eyes, dull but persistent. What greets them as they near the surface is the continuing sound of combat: thudding booms as cannons fire and splashes as pieces of debris — and bodies, soon to draw sharks — hit the water.

John hesitates there long enough for her to reverse what was done to their throats and limbs. Gills are strange enough as an experience underwater; he has no desire to feel what it's like to have them when he isn't in it anymore.

With the ships restored to their former glory, there's no risk of slicing themselves open on encrustations of calcified sea life, and her earlier plan — to climb the anchor chain — becomes feasible and even convenient. Treading water at the base of it, he grasps one of the thick links to brace himself and spends a moment looking down at the thing in his hand: familiar, and strange. Something he's only ever known to radiate ephemeral spiritual warmth and the glory of the creature that produced it, sitting there in the cradle of his hand like an inversion of all of it, icy and sick with the filth of centuries of madness and the slaughter of countless innocents by the phantoms of the Lady Grange.

A veritable symbol of what happens when love takes a turn in the wrong direction. The product of passion perverted into something else.

He presses his lips into a thinner line, sets his jaw.

"I'll go first. If they see I've got it, maybe they'll think twice about…" Shooting, stabbing, or otherwise maiming or killing him?

Or maybe they'll hurry to do all of the above.

He leaves the end of the sentence there, and begins to carefully climb upward, not because he doesn't want to injure himself but because the last thing he needs to do is drop the pearl in the water.

—-

The comment about never hoisting the main sail again earns him a tilt of her head and a look so wry, the threat of her expression frozen there forever is real for a few heartbeats. But at the compliment, she shakes her head. ((It would have been a harder enterprise if it wasn't for you)), she points out. ((You managed to distract her and force her to drop it.))

They slowly make their way back up closer to the surface, and drawing symbols in the water with her fingers, the changes she had cast upon them gradually cease; fins vanish and gills slowly close up until they are, once more, humans treading water, their lives as half-fishpeople left behind along with the nightmarish revenant. Once they get to the more turqoise layers of water, lungs will start to burn, and the urge to take a breath overwhelming.

Zatanna's head breaks out of the water just a few seconds after John, the clarion call of pitched warfare echoing around them, a corpse or two drifting past. She has nearly forgotten that this is still happening; their time under the sea had felt like another life. But she follows where he leads, treading the water and following his broader frame when he circles around the Lady and reaches for those large anchor links. When he decides to go first again, she pauses, but relents.

She waits for him to scale up higher before she follows, water sloughing off her. Out of the waves, she feels heavier, somehow, and sore - no doubt the pressure of the depths sinking into her bones and leaving its indelible mark on her for the next few hours. Normally quick, athletic in her own right, her movements are sluggish and rubbery. When John manages to vanish up the top of the deck, she braces herself and waits, before poking her head up to catch a glimpse of what is happening.

The Rosicrucians' captain cuts a dark, mountainous figure even from where she is huddled, his sabre cleaving another of the Lady's crew member nearly in half. Given the nature of their present environs, it had been difficult to determine whether the man had special talents in his own right that they could sense; magicians can often distinguish their lot from the rest. But the presence of the Pearl has him drawing to a stop from his devastating swathe through bodies much smaller than himself. Dark eyes set on indistinguishable features turn slowly towards John, wherever he has ended up on the deck. Lips part to speak.

"Where is it?"

Somehow, the demand seems a much calmer one than when they first encountered him, what seems like hours ago.

—-

For his part, John has no desire to delay events any more than absolutely necessary. Climbing over the railing of the ship he feels nothing so much as exposed, and the warmth of the sun as compared with the depths sets his body to shivering, gooseflesh feathered over his limbs and crawling down the frozen chain of bone that forms his spine. Before his feet even find the deck he's holding the pearl out in front of himself as though it could act as a ward to stay whatever violence might be turned against his unprotected, half-clad person, and when the massive silhouette that first introduced them to the nature of this pocket of time out of time turns in his direction and poses the inevitable question?

"All yours, mate," he says, and holds it out as far from himself as he can, lamenting that his arms aren't as long as the Lady Grange's. He'd toss it if he didn't have a terror of it hitting the deck and rolling down into the ocean to be lost for a second time.

And he's eager to be rid of it. The longer he's held onto it, the sicker he's felt. John is hardly any kind of pure soul, as he was so rudely reminded only a dozen minutes ago, but half of the symbols wrought in his flesh with mystical inks are having very poor reactions to the thing he's holding in his hand. Some of them itch, some burn. Some feel as though they're prepared to rip themselves free of his skin altogether, inspired to inanimate wrath by the aura of contamination being exuded by the pearl.

And beyond that, beyond the sensation of being fouled somehow by proximity to the thing, is the knowledge that the sooner he makes this handoff, the sooner the whole mess is resolved, the sooner they can get back to the beach, the alcohol, the food, the room, the shower, the dry clothes, the bed. Any one of the above. All of them, possibly in that order.

—-

The dark pirate reaches out to take the Dragon's Pearl from John, and at very moment those fingers grasp the tainted object…

The world warps around them, pulling at their insides; colors bleed together, akin to a freshly-painted on canvas doused with a bucketful of water, swirling in nonsensical patterns and throwing their every sense in a literal loop. The ground drops underneath their feet, but neither do they drop into the water, for all that everything vanishes underneath them. It is similar to the immediate aftermath of a particularly massive alcoholic binge, where the world exists, but doesn't seem quite real, obliterated by the overwhelming urge by the body to purge itself of its voluntary punishment through some very disgusting means.

But when Time adjusts and the fabric of magic has been peeled away, John would find himself face to face, once more, with Crazy Pete, right in the middle of his explanation as to how he contracted gout by his years of being unable to resist ordering menu items with the word 'Rodeo' in the name. It is a story, in fact, that he has heard before - right before they decided to set out to the ghost ship in their motorized skiff.

For a moment, it appears that they've managed to get Groundhog Day'd again, and in an even more aggravating point in their journey. A perplexed look from Zatanna, from her side of the room, puts those fears to rest at least.

"So, mate, you still want the boat or what?"

Through the windows that are opened right into the waterfront and the decorative lights lining the promenade, the ghost of the Lady of St. Kilda is nowhere to be seen. The expanse of ocean where it had been anchored before remains clear, the supernatural mist blanketing it having vanished. The moon is bright and full and an especially clear night beckons them from the outside, with its spray of stars extending outward into the Forever.

The raven-haired magician returns to the Englishman's side, curling both arms around one of his and hugging it as she beams at Crazy Pete. "Actually, we've had a bit to drink, so I think we'll just stay on shore. Be responsible for the first time in this entire vacation." She angles an inquisitive look at him sidelong. "Right, babe?"

—-

This is what John was talking about when he said 'it's going to be one of those don't-shag-your-mum-in-the-past things that always gives me a migraine.' Because it makes no sense. They had to have gotten on the little rental boat and gone out there and done the thing with the stuff because if they didn't, the pearl never got cleansed. Only if the pearl were cleansed in the past, then they wouldn't have needed to go out there on a rental boat. Except, if they didn't need to go out there on a rental boat, then why are they here in the rental shack with CRAZY PETE again?

John closes his eyes, lifts a hand, and rubs at his forehead, his brows set in that delicate shape that conveys with absolute clarity that the headache has arrived as anticipated, and that very much in spite of his determined decision not to think about what just happened.

Or didn't happen.

…whatever.

"I have never," he says weakly, lowering his hand and blinking wearily, "Been as turned on by the thought of behaving responsibly in my entire life."

She is the very picture of delight, and he is the very picture of the opposite of whatever that is, but he places his hand over the arms around his bicep and wheels them around and toward the door. There is alcohol to be had on the tail end of that suffering. It is beyond time to pick up where they left off, sitting on the beach where their greatest foe will eventually, after enough to drink, be gravity.

"Sure you don't want to try to fit in a swim with the dolphins?" he inquires, brow cocked and gaze ticked sidelong, as he palms the door open, and they stroll back out into an evening considerably less bizarre.

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