Shellfish Behavior

July 29, 2017:

The trial everyone is calling The Trial of Two Centuries continues, but the world waits for no legal proceeding, and there are still a lot of things simmering that need attention from Team Magic. John and Zatanna catch up about a few of them — like Auspex International's still-not-exactly-dead founder Emily Montrose, Azalea Kingston's minor god problem, the capricious whims of some reincarnated individual called The Khepri and what she 'told' John about the obsidian hellblade, early discussions about the Hellfire Club and Emma Frost's role in the days to come, an order of Not Really Knights that Zee and Jessica tangled with in the Pacific Northwest and their loony rituals, and a field trip to visit Aleister Crowley. Highlights: some guy who called himself The Boner. (Hint: It's not John.)

John's Brooklyn Flat

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jessica Jones, Red Robin, James Barnes, Jane Foster, Azalea Kingston, Emma Frost (NPCS: Chas Chandler, Papa Midnite, the Khepri, Felix Faust, Aleister Crowley)

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

She has spent the last week or so in the Pacific Northwest, working on leads on Azlaea's case with one Jessica Jones.

Teleportation manages to remain a handy trick and one of the most well-used in her growing arsenal of tricks; the moment they've managed to wrap up things there and after the promise to exchange additional information once they've parted ways, Zatanna returns to New York and an empty Brooklyn flat - it is the late afternoon and it isn't like John to be idle, considering how he spends much of his waking hours working. It gives her time to hit the books or face expulsion at Gotham University for all of the times that she has spent gone - her latest, albeit frantic attempts at rectifying the fact has been paying off dividends, at least.

Summer days are long - a red-gold slip of sun remains in the horizon once the raven-haired witch has managed to finish catching up on her reading, nevermind that it was already approaching eight in the evening. Rising from her corner of the large table in the middle of John's living space, she pads barefoot into the kitchen to make some dinner. Leftovers are inevitable, given her tendency to make enough food to last a week, though with her appetite and John's, these attempts really only last for three days, if that.

By the time John returns, she has her sleeves rolled up, homemade pasta boiling away in a pot full of hot water, sauce bubbling in another large pan, the scent of panchetta and fresh basil lingering in the air within. There is a fresh loaf of garlic bread baking in the oven, and a half-filled wine glass on the counter, filled with a chilled, bubbly white.

And she is singing along to N'Sync's Bye Bye Bye, because as always, she finds the simplest ways to ruin something.

—-

Since Tahiti, life for John and Zee has taken on some semblance of semi-normalcy for the first time in months — maybe since well before they found themselves thrown together again by the vagaries of chance. With the exception of the mounting tension surrounding the Barnes trial, all other outstanding matters are at a rolling simmer rather than actively carpet-bombing the lives of John, Zatanna, and everyone they know. It's not 'normal' as most people would define the word, but — again, aside from the looming trial date and its attendant anxieties — it's as normal as things are ever likely to get.

Like the way John arrives back at the flat, shoving open a wedge of brick that reveals through the gap a section of New York that might as well have been any of the boroughs, so anonymous are the buildings. He brings with him a thundercloud. He is ranting into his phone.

He is covered in various hues of…marker? Maybe paint. Mostly paint. Maybe some marker. There's glitter, as well.

" — an absolute bloody menace. No, I didn't, on account of having my mouth full of — yes, very funny. An' how should I know, mate? …Vinegar. Right." Blue eyes fix on the kitchen as he stalks toward the back of the flat. "Yeah look, I've got to go. I'll try again later. Maybe bring someone better at dealing with — " His expression closes, irritated, while he waits for the person on the other end of the line to stop laughing. They do not. His brows dip, and he thumbs the phone off and tosses it onto the sofa in passing, then begins to strip off his coat — his coat, which is covered in colors and textures it should not be; it looks like he's just been mauled by an aggressive kindergarten.

"It's all fun and games for Chas, innit?" he asks Zee, as though they were mid-conversation already. "Off having a lovely holiday, he is."

John, pissy and preoccupied with his own problems: business as usual.

He stops by the table, drapes the coat and its silting spangles of glitter on one of the chairs there, and roughs through his hair with one hand — an unfortunate choice, as it spreads the craftstore plague. Once he's had the time to take several breaths — during which he side-eyes her — he finally drops his shoulders to square and straightens, achieving enough escape velocity from his own annoyance to ask, "I hope your trip turned out better than mine. You're not manky with play-doh and covered in glued-on macaroni, so that's promising."

—-

The last thing Zatanna has expected from John's homecoming is him looking like a preschooler's art project, so when she turns around to look at him the moment she hears him ranting, she laughs. The sound is sudden, exploding out of her while she's gripping a handled strainer, in readiness to fish out the pasta from the boiling water to dump it in the sauce. To her infinite credit, at least, she lifts her other hand to clap it over her mouth to prevent herself from succumbing to her mirth.

She was not prepared for this.

She attempts to swallow it, though it leaves her eyes bright and her skin flushed at the effort. "Should I ask what happened?" she asks instead, turning to her dinner prepartions, tossing the spaghetti in the carbonara sauce and taking the handle, giving the concoction a practiced flip with both hands before setting it back on the flame. "Did the gnomes attack FAO Schwarz again?" Because of course something like that would happen in New York, one of the most important bastions of magic in the world.

"But I'm glad to hear Chas is spending some much-needed family time. Not just because I'm afraid of what he'll say about my carbonara, it's been ages since I made it." She nibbles on the end of a wooden spoon. "I think it's okay."

I hope your trip turned out better than mine.

She hesitates, tasting her spoon again before seasoning their dinner with salt and pepper. "Well, it depends on your definition for better," she tells him, letting go of the utensil so she can acquire some dinner bowls from the cupboard. "It was certainly productive, and equal parts astonishing and confusing. I'll regale you with all of that in a minute, but at the very least one of our smaller observations are correct. Namely that Itzpapalotl was lying to Jess about Az." On top of being crazy, the possibility of which was never off the table to begin with. "I'll explain that in a minute also." Tilting her head over her shoulder, she gives him a wink. "Welcome home, by the way."

—-

That one bright laugh wings out of her like a startled bird, and John's expression flattens so quickly and so thoroughly that it's practically steam-pressed. It would be good enough to chasten most people who have little inside knowledge of John and only a handle on his reputation, but there's no fooling Zatanna: alongside the genuine exasperation there's a small note of something warmer than that. It lives on the link, and nowhere else, but it's more real than whatever theatrics he's capable of with his face. For her return home, maybe, or her laughter, but whatever brought it on, it wasn't her news.

"I was visiting a Khepri. Only, turns out, this one's five. Would have been nice if Wong'd mentioned that beforehand." A calculated decision on Wong's part, no doubt. Brave, given it was inevitable John would realize after the fact.

She drew on his coat.

But petty revenge on Wong is an issue for another day. By the time she turns her head enough to look over her shoulder he's a solid shadow in the space behind her. The fingertips of one hand settle ghostly at the curve of her hip; the others gently shift her hair away from the line of her throat to make way for his head-tilted lean down to kiss it. It's a gesture only partially compromised by the fact that he smells like whatever it is that people in charge of creating scented markers think strawberries smell like. He lingers just long enough to angle his eyes over her shoulder at the pots bubbling away. "Smells good."

There and gone again. He turns to make his unhurried way toward the bathroom, loosening his tie as he goes. "You didn't miss much," he says, over the sound of running water as he twists the tap on, voice lifted to carry, and hollow with the acoustics of the small, tiled space. "I think you're safe with Chas on pasta. If it doesn't go in the oven or come off of a grill, sometimes I wonder — Christ, it's in my hair."

Five solid minutes of splashing and muttering later, he emerges from the bathroom stripped to the waist with a towel over one shoulder, hair damp and skin from crown to collarbone with enough color and glow in it to suggest he had a hell of a time getting some of that off of himself. On the apron of the light that radiates from the kitchen proper, he takes a light lean against the edge of the half-wall that bounds the open-concept room and tchs, eyes lidding. Dry: "Shocking, that, about the lying." Pause. One brow ticks up. "Have we got any answers yet, or are we still up to our knobs in nonsense?"

—-

"Yes, imagine that, Wong forgetting to mention something that'll make your life a little difficult in the undertaking," Zatanna says; this time, laughter is more illustrated in her tone than actually heared. "We're going to have to get him back for that later."

His lean, warm shadow behind her, she takes on a backwards lean on her own, tilting her face up to plant her lips on his temple when his own find the juncture where her neck meets her shoulder. "It didn't take long," she tells him. "I'm famished and I figured you'd be starving also and— I smell strawberries. Did she use /scented/ magic markers also?" There's more amusement there, tempered by affection, evident on her expression as well as the argent thread that twines their lives together.

With him wandering away, the pasta finds the bowls, eventually, deft fingers picking up a block of parmesan cheese brought straight from the old country to grate it on top of each. "Anyway, we've got plenty, though I'm pretty sure this will come with its own special share of headaches." Lifting her head up, she's about to continue, but catching sight of him in the state he's in gives her pause. Appreciative eyes drink him in, grinning unabashedly. "Oh, love, I did miss you," she tells him, a statement that is equal parts truthful as it is playfully lascivious.

But she doesn't act on that just yet. Donning some potholders, she opens the oven and pulls out the garlic bread, shifting it out of its aluminum packaging and on a cutting board so she could take a bread knife to it. "Turns out that the cult Az's father belongs to is some old order of knights - the Knights of Almeus - that have sworn themselves to repelling darkness wherever they find it. They use the bones of their ancestors to channel their power, though it's one powered by zealous belief and no actual magical education. I know, I know, I tried to impress upon them how serious that is, but Edward Kingston will probably just keep doing what he's doing until his crusade kills him. Az doesn't know about this side of her dad, but that was one of the major reasons why he wants her back, to carry on and whatnot. Supposedly it was started by some being in another dimension who came to Earth during the time of Christ, and was so moved by him that this belief system sprung out of it. So for an esoteric offshoot of Christianity, they don't see magic as devilry like some."

She sticks some forks in the bowls, then picks one up, leaning against the counter - it seems she's content to eat in the kitchen as she is, smiling over at him, though the expression is rendered less cheerful by the onset of visible exasperation with the Knights' methods.

"Anyway, long story short, the Knights faced Itzpapalotl before and her defeat in their hands banished her back to Tamoachan and the lifespan of her realm is dependent on Xiuhnel. He is basically keeping Tamoachan and the source of her power alive. That's why she's trying to make sure we don't meddle with this case with Az."

—-

Six months. That's the thought that rises unbidden when the fair-skinned young woman with the electric-blue eyes in his kitchen turns and gives him that look. It's been six months.

That's remarkable for any number of reasons, most of which leap out at him with the vignette he's confronted with, so utterly domestic. For one thing, she isn't dead yet; not for lack of the world trying, of course. Time has seemed to pass at variable speeds, sometimes so breathlessly fast that it's impossible to comprehend the real shape of anything, and other times so slowly that it's impossible not to wonder if it's all just some bizarre dream. Somewhere along the line, though, they must have accomplished something, because there she is, making him dinner and it's so easy and comfortable and he's fine with her being there, in his space, while he's not, previously unthinkable, and even though all of those things are true she's still capable of spooling up his engines with a look like that.

It ought to scare the hell out of him. It probably would if he thought about it for very long. Nothing this good is ever possible without the dropping of another very large, very serious shoe.

So he doesn't think about it. Willfully blind, John reaches for the bowl of pasta and docks his hip against the counter. "The feeling," he says, articulating the dreaded word with a sharp little smile, "Is mutual."

While she recounts the overview of her trip he occupies himself with his food, brows knitting once and gaze flicking away when she mentions the Knights of Almeus, though the slight head-shake that follows says it's not an order he recognizes.

He nearly chokes on pasta after that. Brows dip dangerously over 'bones of their ancestors' and 'zealous belief' and 'no actual magical education.' She anticipates what he might have said if his mouth weren't full, but if it's possible for a man to chew angrily he manages it. That annoyance is honed to a fine point by 'being in another dimension who came to Earth during the time of Christ.'

The bowl is lowered for a moment, forgotten — an excellent metric of his mood, because he's never been one to leave good cooking to go cold. "And we believe these pillocks, do we? That they were actually responsible for her banishing because they, what? Did something hinky with their dead gran's arsebones? Do we know what that thing was? Do you think I can stand to hear it without spending the rest of night absolutely pissed drunk?" Pause. "Does this Edward Kingston realize his daughter's stuffed full of Aztec juju? How in the bloody hell did she wind up — oh god. I can't do this yet. I need…"

He sets the bowl down with some regret, and then spins away from the counter to stalk for the sideboard, slinging the towel off of his shoulder and over his bedraggled coat so that he can pull a bottle from the modest selection in the flat and pour himself a drink. "One whole afternoon letting some reincarnated tart tack an entire box of dry pasta to me, trying to find out about that blade, and I come home to — was it like that Monty Python sketch about Camelot? With the knights all doing a can-can on the buffet and slapping one another crackers, and that one poor sod down in the dungeon and chained to the wall, clapping his hands? Bet it was." He concludes with the soft thunk of a glass bottle on the table, and throws back the shot.

—-

When he watches his eyebrows draw down at the words she utters, a certain look overtakes that pale mien, indicative of the fact that she already knew how he was going to react before she even returned. Her expression says it all: I know, right??

Zatanna frowns faintly when he lowers the bowl, though that actually doesn't stop her from eating her dinner; her appetite does not take breaks, no matter how terrible or frustrating something is. "As far as I can tell, Mr. Kingston was being truthful," she tells him. "They performed a ritual around a few bones while Jess and I watched in the bushes. My read on them suggested that the magic imbued in the remains was powered by the benevolence he or she had in life, so I thought for a moment that they managed to find the bones of a saint and based their workings around them. Turns out there have been other knights before, and that's what they use. They use them as magical beacons, to transport them in different worlds provided that there's already a beacon on the other side - it makes sense, logically. You need to know where you're going when you're in the ether." Basic teleportation principles, really.

"This trip took us to Jotunheim - where Muller threw Jane when he grabbed her during the centennial gala. The beacon from their site in Oregon shunted them there because there was darkness that needed neutralization there, and there was a rogue Hunter Spirit roaming around in the realm of the frost giants, so they decided to take care of it while we were there. They seemed sincerely concerned with our well-being - Edward knew Jess right away, obviously, since he and his wife hired her originally to take Az back. I was surprised that he knew me by sight, though."

She takes another nibble of her pasta before continuing: "Jess made the executive decision to tell him about that part, and then he asked us to bring Az to him because as far as he was concerned, she was no longer his daughter and he was obligated to end her now. You can imagine how Jess reacted to that, but I managed to convince him to try and figure out another way to at least get rid of Itzpapalotl, because she's really the problem. Edward said that it was basically impossible because they don't have the bones to place as a beacon in Tamoachan - not any powerful enough and tied to the realm enough. So Jess and I spent some time looking around their library trying to find what could act as a beacon, because as much as I'm up for dueling a minor deity, I figured having a cavalry at my disposal wouldn't hurt."

There's a hint of a smile at John at that.

"Anyway, when I interviewed Az, she mentioned that her episodes with Xiuhnel started when she ran into a seemingly homeless and crazy person when she was being chased by amorous college dudes." The word drips with disdain. "Jessica's digging on said homeless person turned out to be Sir Morris, one of the Analeus knights who originally fought Itzpapalotl and Xiuhnel, according to Edward's version of events. Our theory now is that he pulled Xiuhnel's soul into himself, just like the old King of Wakanda did when he decided to menace the country. And then he went off to look for another strong enough and connected enough by the Blood Oath he took and that person happened to be Az. We also have his bones, so if we decide to take a field trip to Tamoachan, we can use them as a beacon. Chances are we're going to have to, because Xiuhnel's stolen heart is probably there gassing up her entire realm and if we take that, we might be able to put Itzpapalotl in our mercy."

She looks up from her pasta, her expression turning somewhat grim. "Whatever we decide though, we're going to have to act as quickly as we'll be able to. Az is fading, the longer she sits in the tank surrounded by all our wards. There's also something else."

She pauses.

"There's a tether," she continues, meeting his eyes. "Between Itzpapalotl and Xiuhnel. That opens up a variety of possibilities also, I think."

—-

Not just one person with a misguided idea of how magic works. Not even an entire cult. Generations of a cult.

The alcohol cannot begin to work fast enough.

John stands at the sideboard, located as it is beneath a splay of wall shelving containing countless books procured in the course of fixing problems like this one, and a sigh bleeds out of him, slow and thin.

"Not my problem," he says finally, deciding. When the world is on a less direct collision course with apocalypse, maybe he will think about zipping 'round the northwestern United States to make sure none of the Knights cause an horrific cross-dimensional accident.

Maybe.

En route back to the kitchen he threads his fingers through damp hair, sweeps it back, out of his face, and resettles at the counter with a bolstering burn in his stomach, atop which he suspects the pasta will have a far easier time settling than 'all of the continued hubris of mankind.'

Partway through her continued explanation his brow quirks, and he leads off with the reason why: "Do I want to know how you wound up with his bones? And please, 'tanna. The man isn't a real knight, yeah. If the Queen doesn't give you a whack with so much as a letter opener, you don't get to be a Sir anything." He pauses, then gestures with his fork. "Mixalot gets a pass, I suppose."

All of which is mostly a cover for the thoughts that chase the tail end of everything: the fascinating revelation concerning the tether. "It shouldn't work that way according to conventional knowledge. They're not souls and they've never had one to speak of." He stabs down into the bowl and twists the fork, winding pasta around its tines, pensive. "Not that the world ever seems to give a fig for conventional knowledge. Well, yeah. You and I've got some insight about how that works. Setting aside the bones for now, though I'm sure that's going to play a part in it — and not that I'm keen to linger on my failures as a magician, but…"

The continuation must wait until after he chews and swallows that bite, at which point he slants her a thoughtful look, blue eyes windows onto turning wheels. "You and I had a near-catastrophe once, and that was with circles to keep what happened from happening. What do you want to bet we could set up a few circles that would make it happen, if we could get the parties involved into the right place at the right time? Maybe…eh…" The fork hovers over his bowl. Behind closed lips he picks at his teeth with his tongue, gaze going distant and narrowed, off to one side. "If she really thought we were going to take the 'eart, what do you think she'd do with it? Do you think she'd take it to protect it?" When he flicks his attention back to her it's uncertain. He's probing the angles. There is almost no one he'd do this in front of: he prefers to come out swinging, plan fully realized, or at least fully committed to, because then he gets to look like the man in the coat.

"What if we could fold Itzpapalotl and Xiuhnel and the bloody heart all into one thing? So there's not all of this tug of war going on. Otherwise we've got to kill her or trap her. Which, if doing something with the heart can manage that, then fair 'nuff, I'll not complain. I just don't know that's true."

—-

"Well, technically Jess ended up with them," Zatanna tells John. "But probably not, no. I have it on good authority our private investigator friend has had plenty of experience absconding with corpses lately, though. And hey, don't look at me like that, I know they're not real knights, but that's the only name I could give you. You don't hear me calling Mr. Kingston Sir Edward, do you?"

Though his crack about Sir Mixalot does earn him a broad grin at the quip.

His remarks about the tether has her head bobbing once. "I was surprised, myself," she tells him. "But I mean…" She gestures loosely to the side. "We've been through quite a few situations where something that shouldn't be possible has happened, so I'm trying to keep a more open mind from now on about possibilities." Hence the revelation about the tether, and considering their own disastrous experiment with it without guidance, she is almost certain it would pique John's interest - and it does.

"I was thinking along those same lines, yeah," she tells him. "Though I don't know how something like that will affect two minor deities. It'll be another experiment in turn and I'm not sure whether we'd have the margin of error necessary to be able to play around with it. And if we do go after the heart, I'm at least ninety percent positive that she would have it secured. It's the only thing keeping Tamoachan alive, I don't think she's just going to stuff it in her sock drawer, for starters. At the same time, we both know that she comes and goes as she pleases and the wards we put up are making her nervous, so I think that she doesn't necessarily have it in her person every time she leaves, so the possibility that she leaves it in Tamoachan is high, it's just going to be in a skeletal version of Fort Knox, if she's smart."

As for the last possibility…

"That would be ideal," she remarks slowly, after a moment's thought. "Itzpapalotl and Xiuhnel love each other, otherwise the tether wouldn't exist. They might be fine being trapped in something together - but they're also gods. I don't know if they'd abide by that and relinquish control over their more egomaniacal urges to a human if we try the diplomatic approach. And if we decide to force or trick them into it, that's going to be a fight either way."

—-

He asked for her thoughts, so he listens to them quietly and eats in the interim, his visual focus angled off somewhere into null space while he contemplates what she says and all of the nascent ideas percolating to the surface.

"Mmm." That's agreement, coming as it does on the heels of her uncertainty about any god's willingness to lose its sovereignty over anything, much less its own identity. "Probably true, but Xiuhnel's going to have to get over it if we're going to save Azalea, because they've got to blend. No choice on that one."

Silence, then. Thinking silence.

And then he stirs, tapping the bowl with his index finger and leaning up off of the counter's edge, restless. "I want to think on it," he says finally, and that effectively marks the end of John's readiness to toss ideas around. That's usual for him, also: given enough to think about, he tends to get dressed and wander around the city, worrying at thorny problems and teasing apart complicated knots on his own time, only returning to her with something to say after he's had time to sort through it a little bit more.

Instead, he's got updates for her, while he paces and eats:

"The Khepri's information was obviously limited in scope, what with how she's still of an age to believe that Santa Claus is bloody real," he drawls, dry as the desert, "But it wasn't a total wash. I brought the obsidian blade by to see what she might be able to tell me. It's not actually obsidian. I had her draw me a picture of what she saw, as her vocabulary left something to be desired. What she drew isn't what we've been seeing. And on another front, the prats in London are still gunning to extort us for whatever they can for borrowing the Keshanti Key. There may be a little field trip involved if I can't figure out a way to get 'round that. T'any rate, Red's been busy at it, Emily Montrose — " He glances up, points in the direction of the cell in which the body is concealed from view, " — hasn't changed a lick since we first found her. Jones got back to me with a bit of interesting dirt on Emma Frost, file under 'just in case.' Mmm…" Long, thoughtful pause. He stops pacing, turns back to face the kitchen. "Feels like I'm missing something."

—-

As she listens, Zatanna reaches for a piece of garlic bread, contemplatively nibbling on it. "Do you think it'd be worth it if we talked to him? Xiuhnel, I mean. Convince him that this is in his and Azalea's best interest? Even if he did say that it was and agreed to help, I don't know how trustworthy he's going to be, either…" She furrows her brows. "Is it always this difficult when dealing with minor deities?"

When John indicates that it would take some further cerebral gymnastics before they settle on a course of action, she nods, though a worried look creases the fine lines of her face. "We're running out of time," she says quietly. "Jess said Az looks worse when she visited her and that was a couple of days ago." But she also knows the folly of rushing; memories from the last winter are still quite fresh in her mind.

She finishes her garlic bread and returns to her pasta, though there isn't much left; she was starving, as she said, and cross-dimensional travel would leave anyone famished. Reminded of the obsidian blade, amusement returns at his aside, though that fades away entirely at the next few words. "Wait, so what does that mean, the blade isn't really a blade?" she wonders. "So what it is then, really?" Eyes draw back to the cell where the dead body is, as if frozen in time, Life's more degenerative processes having left it untouched through mystical means. It makes her hackles rise a little, thinking about it - it was just so unnatural.

"Why are we looking into Emma Frost again?" she wonders, setting aside her empty bowl at last and rummaging in the fridge for something to drink. She brings out a can of Diet Pepsi, popping open the tab with a black-lacquered fingernail. "Aside from the fact that she leads a Hellfire Club." A designation for which the Massachusetts-born socialite would probably protest. There have been several over the course of history, Sir Francis Dashwood's branch being the most infamous historically - a fact she wouldn't have known were it not for those months in London, poring over estoerica under John's guidance.

Feels like I'm missing something.

"Take your time," she says with a grin. "I'm not going anywhere." A statement of fact intoned as a jest, unwittingly putting a lance through his earlier ruminations about their relationship's surprising longevity. Six months.

"Speaking of Red…I helped him test out his new wingsuit on his birthday," she tells him. "We ran into some trouble and…"

"AIN'T NO MAGIC TRICKS CAN STOP THE BONER!!"

She leans heavily against the kitchen counter as she explodes in sudden laughter all over again, pressing a hand to her face as the damning sentence brings with it a cascade of flashing images from that chaotic afternoon. Fingers lift in an effort to rid traces of moisture from her eyes.

—-

I'm not going anywhere.

Stark, pale blue eyes perform a subtle double-take at that remark, tugged out of his own thick fog of rumination. Sly, angular features offer her a small, knowing smile that's brief enough as to be easily missed. There are whole chapters of their struggle to become This encased in that moment, and even after all this time there's still a subtle pulse of gratitude and nervousness paired together over the astral link. When he turns to set the bowl down on the counter and move briskly onward it's with the determination of a man who doesn't care to tempt Fate by thinking about that exchange any longer than he has to. As if pretending to ignore everything to do with this ongoing triumph over the odds will allow it to persist, the way he's said moments of synchronicity feel like ignoring the world, and having it forget about him in turn.

Rather than answer her verbally about the blade, he slides a hand into his trouser pocket and retrieves a folded square of vanilla-hued construction paper, handing it across to her before departing from the kitchen again and making his way to the bottom of the metal stairs that lead up into his loft. He takes them two at a time, hollow ringing following him upward, along with his floating voice: "Emma Frost's Hellfire Club is a grab-bag of movers and shakers. Things get bad around here, and a lot of those fat bastards are going to be in charge of keeping things from falling apart. I want to know when things start to do that, and I want to know I've got a line on making sure they do what they're supposed to. I don't have the time to sort out how to do that, but Ms. Frost knows them inside and out, I'd wager. Tried to poke about in my head, she did. Very naughty."

The piece of paper he gave her is drawn on with crayon in the telltale wobble of a child's care. There's a black, elongated blob that must be the blade, surrounded by what look like countless people. To one side, there are other black items, all in different shapes, surrounded by other people, but these in different hues from the first group. One of these appears to be a large-headed hammer with a short haft.

For some thirty seconds John is out of conversation range, rifling through his things for an undershirt and button-down, and when he emerges back onto the office set up on the balcony of the loft he's got both on, though the latter isn't buttoned yet. He starts to rifle through his shelves and the endlessly varied materials on his desk.

That's when she starts to tell the story, and the sound of her laughter spills through the flat like a wave of light. He pauses, cocks his head. " — And?"

—-

A hand lifts to relieve him of the cream-colored construction paper before unfolding it and giving it a glance. A child's drawings, to be sure, but even if it had been etched by a master artist, she would have had difficulty discerning the content of these illustrations. Dark brows stitch into the middle, pursing her lips as she tries to decipher just what she is seeing. "So…what? This thing changes form depending on who's got it?" is her best guess on the matter, addressing that first before the issue regarding the Hellfire Club and Emma Frost.

"She's a telepath?" she wonders; she's heard of her, yes, but not of her special abilities. There's a hint of a smirk at that - she doesn't know what defenses John has placed in his mind, but she knows better than most how protective he is about the life inside of his head. "I hope you made her pay for it."

When he prompts her for the reasons of her laughter, she waves a hand to the side. "Metahumans stole an armored truck, their ringleader could control and launch skeletal protrutions, so Red drops me off the roof of the car while it's still moving and I open up a portal to the private airstrip in JFK to pull it out of traffic. But before I could do anything else, he found me and claims that it was his truck I was hitchhiking in. So that gives me an idea, right, so I say 'yeah well, it's my truck now!' and called them all trespassers - and you can probably guess what started happening the moment I said that."

Zatanna grins at him cheekily. "So antennae are slowly sprouting on this guy's head and he tries to grab me while I'm on the roof, and he screams at me if I cursed him, I guess he had some experience with magicians. And then he just goes booming: AIN'T NO MAGIC TRICKS CAN STOP THE BONER!!" Another laugh escapes her. "It was the last thing I expected so of course I started laughing. I mean, it was technically Titans business, right, so I figured I should be a little professional about it. But he just kept going on and on because I couldn't stop laughing. Just shrieking like…" And she takes a deep breath, and makes the best impression of the man as she can: "THE BONER IS A POWERFUL NAME, FOR A POWERFUL MAN! WHO CONTROLS BONES!"

She presses her face into her hands, mirth spilling from her in fits and spurts. "I was trying, John. I mean, I was on a runaway armored car, I had to get my shit together before I got in an accident. But then his coworker starts ragging on him about his name and he started screaming about how dirty minded we all were and that it wasn't fair that The Shocker never had to put up with any of this. And by then I was gone. Just flat on the roof, crying because I was laughing so hard. By the time I stopped, they were all clams, so all's well that ends well. Red was pleased, though he missed all of it. I had to tell him, he got kicked in the face when he tried to follow and lost track of us for a bit."

—-

"She didn't try hard enough to trigger the bonus round," is all John says of Emma Frost and her brief moment of contact with his mind.

In truth, he has no doubt that if she'd wanted to she could've cracked it open like a walnut. It's best for everyone involved that she didn't, though she can't possibly know that. Zee knows, though. It's not a pool that people should swim in, for oh so many reasons.

He's more interested in her story, anyway. Beneath her retelling the whispering sound of papers being shuffled and books being drawn and reshelved finally comes to a temporary halt when she shares the warcry of THE BONER. He lifts his head, previously bent over the search through his things on the desk, and stares off into the empty space of the long line of the flat, disbelief delicately arranged on his face. "He wot? He — "

And there's more. So much more. His chair creaks as he drops into it, astonished incredulity yielding to an almost dizzy, giddy grin, and eventually both hands lifting to cover his face, tilted back, face angled upward, desperately trying not to explode with laughter that would obliterate any chance of his hearing the end of the story. 'The Shocker' gets dragged into things and there's a perilous moment where the structural integrity of his resolve almost gives out, a little exhaled snort escaping, so that he's forced to tighten all of the muscles that strap together his chest and stomach and compress that accumulating density of hysterics all over again.

Because it's not just — well it IS the name, it is, but it's not JUST the name, it's —

As she finishes the story his hands slide away down his face, dragging at it. Faint smudges of liquid gleam beneath either eye. His shoulders jerk periodically, other percolating indications that there's only so long he can keep this in, but he tries, because he is A Sympathetic and Supportive Partner. So really, it's just a weak, strangled, slightly unhinged tone in his voice to suggest all the laughing he's not doing when he says, voice about an octave and a half higher than usual, "This is what you wanted! This is you now! I feel…oh christ. 'tanna. I can't tell you how…" *SNRT* "Relieved…I feel…knowing that you're out there, foiling — " A pause, while he fights another wave of lunatic laughter. " — foiling the wicked schemes of B…Boners everywhere. Especially the ones resistant to magic, that's — those are definitely the worst kind of Boner. And then — " Oh jesus. " — turning that Boner into a clam, that is — really, your eye for poetic justice…"

Months ago he might have been unnerved by the thought of her clinging to the roof of a stolen car, but of all the threats that face them, and face her specifically (and all of the ones they've already faced, and he's seen her triumph over), it's too low on the list to merit worry from him anymore.

So instead she gets this: "I can't help but think you'll be the laughingstock of the tights community without a 'powerful' moniker of your own, luv. We should come up with one. I'll help."

—-

She can practically hear him laughing uproariously from where she stands in the kitchen, nevermind that he isn't actually doing it. It's on his face, the grin on his lips, the way he buries his face in his hands as he tries, because of course he would. Zatanna, however, doesn't have the resolve he does and she unashamedly laughs at her own story. She leans against the counter, the sound of it becoming all the more insistent and hysterical when he starts. The way he usually does when he's about to go on a spiel.

This is you now!

"I know!" she cries. "Believe me, I wouldn't if Red didn't ask me to join and since I owe him, it— " And then he remarks upon her sense of poetic justice by turning the Boner into a clam.

She loses her shit. Clinging to the counter behind her, she tilts her head back and laughs.

"NO!" she ends up protesting, throwing her hands up. "No! I don't need a powerful codename! Besides, I know you! The rest of them said that too and all of their suggestions were terrible, so don't you even start! I already had a recommendation from Spidey to wear those giant yellow gloves as part of my costume and the last thing I want is to start dressing like Doctor Strange." Because at the moment, he has that market cornered.

After a pause, she angles a look at him.

"Besides at the rate this conversation is going, I might end up with 'Magic Clam' and that's the last thing I need right now."

Pulling out a pair of tumblers and a bottle of Jameson, she wanders over to his desk, popping the cork off so she could pour a shot for each of them. Amusement lingers on her features, dropping a kiss on the top of his head.

"The look on NYPD's face when we delivered the perps was worth it, too," she says. "You can probably guess what Red said when the detectives asked us if the criminals said anything since the armored car contained only documents and not even cash or anything."

—-

Out of endless waves of amusement, his expression flattens. "You start dressing like that twat and you're going to defeat my boner," he warns, solemn. He watches her retrieve the bottle and glasses, and ascend the stairs, and for most of that process John is sitting with his hands laced behind his head in a cradle, eyes turned upward in a posture of thoughtful repose. "I would have suggested Mistress of Mollusc, but Magic Clam's probably more accurate, innit?" He thinks it's magic, anyway.

When she shifts around behind his chair, he drops his arms from where they rest to angle back on either side of him, warm and familiar hands on the outsides of her thighs, above her knees in an affectionate clasp that answers the press of her lips to the top of his head: still damp after his earlier argument with the glitter and glue from his visit with the Khepri. It seems to have been only a partial success; there are small sparks of light here and there in dirty blonde strands.

His gaze flits away for the second or two it takes him to fill in the blanks with her leading prompt at the end, and when he tilts his head far enough over to one side to angle an eye up and back at her, there's more amused incredulity there. "Did Red make a pun? You must be having an effect. Does he smile sometimes as well now, or is it still too early for me to think about investing in lift tickets in Hell..?"

On the desk in front of him is the usual dizzying array of documents and objects. Many of these have to do with the Brujeria, but not all; there are a few volumes containing descriptions of various magical artifacts. The recently disturbed pile is topped with a newspaper article printed in the last two days in the Miami Herald about a sudden spate of killings in Little Haiti.

John's not thinking about that anymore, though.

"You could go with Elocutioner. Yeah? Because of the logomancy. Get yourself a hood and an axe, and axe them all questions. Backward, though. Or — oh, I know. Big Top. Go with one of those little spandex numbers with the window — " He frames the center of his chest helpfully, " — that has absolutely no bloody purpose whatsoever. But you'd have to wear the wig and the white grease paint and the, you know, oversized shoes, and that. Or…"

—-

She grins. "What?" Zatanna wonders. "You don't find blue robes, a red cape and yellow gloves sexy? But all the primary colors are there!" She ponders. "I'd suggest a sparkly clam costume, but I've caught enough grief from you since I joined the Titans."

Her lips leaving his hair, smiling faintly at the touch of his hands; she finds the bits and pieces of glitter still left there. She can't help but laugh, ruffling his blond-brown strands affectionately, uncaring of the fact that some of the glinting remains cling to her digits afterwards. "That Khepri really did a number on you today," she observes, before turning to the liquor she had just poured for the both of them. Fingers move from John to one of the tumblers, a hip hitching onto the desk.

"And yes, he did make a pun. And while he's working? No, he doesn't smile. Too much of a Bat-protege for that, I think, and I don't think I've ever seen Batman smile while he's in costume. So I think you ought to save your money and invest in other things other than that, besides the last thing we need is easier passage to Hell."

Ice-blue eyes do a quick sweep on the contents scattered over the wooden surface. Reaching out to pluck the Miami Herald off the pile, she scans the article briefly, before shooting him an inquiring glance. Whatever questions there are, however, are momentarily shelved by…

Her expression flattens.

"I'm not dressing up as a clown just to cross off an entry in your bucket list, John!" she cries. "Oh my god, why do I ever tell you anything?" The last is said in jest, however. While she hasn't said as much, his laughter has never failed to bolster her spirits, reaping some small degree in joy in the simplest of things between them.

"Anyway…?" She waves the paper to him, inclining her head. "Are we going on another field trip?"

—-

A sour look is more than enough remark from John on Strange's choice of costumery. It's a rant she's heard from him more than once, anyway, and he manages to restrain himself.

He gets to recycle the look when the conversation turns in Batman's direction. "How it's possible for a man to take himself that bloody seriously and dress the way he does, and call himself 'Batman,' is beyond me." His tone edges toward the sort of disdain-saturated, monotone mutter that in John's company tends to indicate a lingering grudge — the kind of tone he saves for people who meddle with magic for no reason, most of his colleagues, and American beer. Certainly more than enough to justify cleansing his palate with what she's poured for him, and he's in the act of reaching for it when she looks at him with questions in her expression. His lips part to give her answer she's looking for, but he's derailed by clowns. It happens…often. His expression clicks over almost audibly to a sharp half-smile. "I'd love to tell you I'd be above that, but I'll try anything once." This is meant to be a compliment: that he'd even consider it. The moment it's out of his mouth, though, he has concerns. "Not that I'm inviting you to find out. I'm not. My life is weird enough as it is, Zee. Actually, forget I said anything. I don't like where this is going."

He sinks back into his chair and lifts his glass to hover in front of his mouth, but shakes his head rather than immediately taking a sip. "Not for that. 'Least, not yet. That's Midnite, whatever that is, and given our Jane's situation, I think it needs keeping an eye on." Then the sip, because he's going to need it for what's next. He exhales, sets the glass down, and all at once looks weary. "But probably we are. London, I expect. I mentioned I've been trying to get my hands on something to help us figure out what's bricked in Miss Montrose downstairs, but I may have to do someone a favor first. And if it's not possible, then I'm going to bloody steal what I need, because I've got no time for geriatric magicians who think every little thing we do with one another needs poncing about with shadowy deals and one-upmanship and — it's bollocks is what it is. Usually I'd just ask Barnes to go an' see if he couldn't get his hands on it, but…" He lifts the glass just enough to gesture with it. Obviously, Barnes isn't an option at the moment.

"So it's like to be you and I again. Things always go so well when we're off trying to solve the world's problems on our own."

It's not easy to tell from his tone if that last sentence is sincere, or sarcasm. Because things do tend to go well — in the end. They're largely successful when they set out to accomplish things. Getting there, though, entails the most convoluted, improbable explosions of crisis and unanticipated obstacle, almost invariably.

Perhaps he means it both ways.

Probably both ways.

—-

I don't like where this is going.

"Me, too!" Zatanna blurts out, pushing a hand into his shoulder, a laugh escaping her despite herself. "So let's try never to mention it again." No such luck there, perhaps, but it wouldn't be her if she didn't try.

Perhaps, wisely, she leaves the talk about Batman alone, ice-blue eyes turning back to the newspaper in her hands as she reads the article in further detail. If nothing else, the Little Haiti reference should have been a clue; the fact that it is an attempt by John to track Midnite's activities shouldn't be a surprise to her. That was a bit of unfinished business that they ought to try and resolve sooner rather than later, though understandably everyone else is occupied with the trial. A small frown tugs on the corners of her mouth.

Finally, she sets the newspaper aside, leaning back against the desk on one hand and her other curled around her tumbler. "What favor?" she asks, somewhat warily - in the circles in which they operate, things are hardly ever that simple, and mention of an old geriatric magician has that stitch between her brows deepening. "We're not going to have to talk to Felix Faust or anything like that, are we?" Distaste curdles her expression; the man was notoriously misogynistic - a sign of the times, she supposes, considering how long lived he actually is.

"Do you really think the Keshanti Key will be able to tell us what's up with….you know…" She gestures to the cell, and the corpse of Emily Montrose beyond it. "For some reason I thought that only worked if the person is alive, and as far as we know, she's very much dead…..isn't she?" Her lips purse. "Then again, her business partner should have been dead but he wasn't when we found him…"

But since it appears that it's just him and her for now, she smiles and lifts her shoulders in a light shrug. "At this point, I've yet to experience anything with you that tops our accidental vacation in Hell," she points out, pushing away from the desk. "Though we do surprise me constantly. I mean…you saw how Tahiti turned out."

She lifts a hand to rub at the side of her cheek. "Anyway, who knows. It might not be so bad, and it could be fun. Besides, when was the last time you've been back in London? Don't you miss it?"

—-

"Not Faust, though he's an option if worst comes to absolute worst. It's one of Ali's contacts this time." Crowley. "I think I mentioned I'd introduce you after we caught up here in the States months back, anyway, didn't I?" He takes another sip from his glass, jostled companionably by her shove, and sets the tumbler aside after that, the better to settle in, slid down in his chair just enough to rest his head back and lace his hands across the slant of his middle.

"I'm not sure what she is, to be honest. If it was a stasis spell you'd have sensed something, and the cell would have broken the connection. She should be dead, but it's like she's giving the man at the crossroads the finger, innit? If there's a light at the end of that tunnel, she isn't going into it. Funny thing is, I don't sense a soul there, but I can't pull one back to the mortal plane, either, so it's not fucked off to an afterlife." Eyes lidding, unfocused on the pile of ominous absurdity that carpets his desk from one end to the other, he bites the inside of his cheek. Exterior-calm, exuding inner restlessness, the way he usually is when he can't quite nail down what's happening. "I don't know that it'll tell us anything, but it's worth a try. Even if she's technically dead, being held at the moment of death, memories are — well they're biological, aren't they? Chemical, part of the brain." Probably. Neuroscience waggles a hand on the point.

When was the last time you've been back in London? Don't you miss it?

The words create nuanced changes in his expression, some of which he sequesters behind a careful mask. Knowing him the way she does, though, wired up with a hotline direct to the inside of his chest, very little can escape her even when he's trying to dissemble. There's a mixed welter of feelings that fonts up from some deeper place at the thought of returning to the city of his heart, love and loathe it as he does by turns.

What the tether can't give her is an explanation for those mixed feelings, and John doesn't, either. "Sometimes," he says, about as bland and useless an answer as it's possible to give. Pale eyes slant down, off to one side, and then tick upward, carrying with them a mote of subdued humor and subtle affection. "I've had reasons to stick around."

Two beats. He can't help himself.

He gestures at his desk with a sweep of the hand, twisting his chair slightly with a push of one planted foot. "By which I mean all this work, obviously." He doesn't wink, because that would be overselling the joke. And, more seriously: "Anyway, we can use the trip as an excuse to retrieve Chas. His text messages are getting increasingly unhinged. Too much domesticity, luv. I've got twenty texts in my phone about drapes. It's mad."

—-

"Is it strange that I'm both looking forward to and dreading that introduction?" she wonders. "I mean, it's Aleister Crowley." The Elvis of Magicians. Had she been talking to Jess or Red, she would be explaining her emphasis. Since it's John, however, any extrapolations are unnecessary.

His explanation regarding the body in the proverbial basement has her frowning once again. "That is rather strange," Zatanna murmurs, turning a confused eye towards the cell where Emily Montrose's body lies. "When we retrieved her, something was preventing me from messing with the body magically, also. You think the Keshanti Key would be able to bypass those protections?" Worth a try, he says, so she defers to the more experienced magus, nodding once, though a lingering curiosity remains.

The inquiry about London was casual at best, but the mixed transmissions she receives from him give her pause, giving his profile a long look. She doesn't pry, however - she never does, when his sentiments about a particular matter show even a hint of something deeper and more complex. Ever since that accidental bath into the sludge of his memories, she has been all the more cautious in treading those territories - a far cry from the time she would tread into those minefields recklessly. She has learned her lesson painfully in that regard.

Mostly.

Or so she hopes.

The quip, though, has her grinning and she gamely ignores the implications of those last statements with a quiet sniff. Instead: "Time to stage an intervention, I think," she tells him. "Though drapes can be serious business, depending on the place." Arms lift in an absent stretch, moving so she could lean over him on the chair, dipping her face low enough to steal a kiss.

"But let me know when I should be packing a bag," she tells him. "I should review my Physics notes for my test tomorrow, but I think my overall well-being would be better served watching a movie instead. How about it? I promise it won't be anything with Reese Witherspoon in it."

—-

Even to suggest that drapes might be 'serious business' is worth a look of bone-deep skepticism from John, brows buckled together and skewed by doubt. "It's sodding curtains, luv. And these weren't even the sort that cover the windows, they go over the top, like bunting. I've never seen anything less serious in m — "

As bachelors go — or went, one supposes — he has, with the exception of any bender-fueled aftermath, been the sort to keep a comparatively neat apartment (which one supposes isn't saying much, actually, given the low bar for the demographic). He takes considerably less care of himself.

There are still no drapes on the single portal-window that looks out over a field that isn't even remotely close to Brooklyn. There are no decorative pillows in the whole flat. While plenty of the objects on the shelves are interesting to look at, none of them are there exclusively for aesthetic reasons. Whether because he was raised in abject poverty, or because he never used to spend any time at home anyway, or for some other reason derived from his character, John has never acquired the urge to nest. Any headway made in that department is likely to owe itself solely to Chas — or to Zee, now.

She cuts him off with that feline gesture, a stretch and tilt of the head that he meets with the kind of unthinking ease that could only come of familiarity, fingers slid into her hair where her neck meets the back of her skull. It's incredibly effective. Any effort to keep him from running his mouth is bound to be successful if it gives him something to do with it that he prefers.

"After your test," he says, quiet. With a twinge of discomfort: he knows she's in trouble with her professors, and that it's in no small part his fault.

He's still going to bring her to London.

Selfish, John.

Derailing her studying with a movie, too: more selfishness, and this with far less justification. But he sweeps his thumb over the side of her throat, and decides to embrace his bad influence: "I'll hold you to that."

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