Blood, Ashes and Tears

July 01, 2018:

At the wake of their own efforts to help with the Hell's Kitchen disaster, John Constantine and Zatanna Zatara manage to convene in a brief break to update one another of the state of things, and come to a decision regarding the Blood of Isis and Emily Montrose's body.

Brooklyn, New York City

John's supernatural pad in Brooklyn

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Red Robin, Spider-man, Raven, Cyborg, Winter Soldier, Jane Foster, Jessica Jones, Chas Chandler

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

There has always been plenty for Zatanna Zatara to do, not just with respect to assisting John in some of his supernatural investigations, but also the problems that tend to fall in the Titans' laps - Tim runs a tight ship, and the last few months have seen the young magician finally hit her stride in balancing out the demands of her every day - school, investigations, good old-fashioned superheroing, and even turning twenty, officially being kicked out of her teens and into what are supposedly the best years of her life. So naturally, with everything going so well, disaster strikes fairly quickly and with an absolute vengeance.

Namely, Hell's Kitchen blows up.

Her young capes-and-tights crew has been dispatched to assist with the Hell's Kitchen disaster and that is what she has been doing for most of the day. Magic tends to be viewed as a cure-all for certain unsolvable problems, at least from a layman's perspective, but veterans like her know better. She simply can't turn time backwards to a period before the crisis to prevent it, and neither can she just bring thousands of people dead back to life - there are huge cosmic repercussions for both, and while she can do it, that doesn't mean that she should. This is the primary reason why her father had sent her to learn from John Constantine in the first place - not to learn more magic, but to respect the sometimes unreasonable costs of using it.

It is approaching three in the morning when she finally returns to the Brooklyn flat in which she co-habitates with John and Chas Chandler.

She reeks of ash and soot, hands stained with blood that isn't hers. She makes a beeline for the bathroom to clean up, and then the kitchen to get a cold drink of water. She makes it there, at least, the chilled bottle in hand before her knees fill with jelly and she slowly sinks against the corner where the counter meets the oven, and silently weeps.

—-

For John, managing the crisis in Hell's Kitchen has looked quite different — and he has been part of it, though in typical John Constantine fashion nobody is likely to ever know about it. He's been here the whole time, and also everywhere: one of the many benefits of being situated on a nexus of two leylines, with access to most of the rest of that mystical network of energies spanning out beneath the city's skin.

Terrible things are drawn to tragedy and suffering. Holes are torn in the veil between the mundane and the incomprehensible when horrors take place on a grand enough scale. As the city's metahuman community rallies to rescue people from burning buildings, move debris, assist first responders in getting aid to the wounded and tallying the dead — including the Titans — John has been here, working alongside other members of the city's supernatural community in spirit: showing the souls of the deceased to the proverbial door between this life and the next, and shoring up the battered, bruised, and slashed-apart fabric of reality, to keep untoward things from getting in.

…that second one has been only variably successful. The agents of chaos behind the rise of primordial darkness haven't been resting, and it's easier than ever for things to destabilize. Things are slipping through in spite of the focused attention to preventing that very thing, and John is weary when he hears, through the mist of tantric trance, noises from downstairs. Senses the little spark of light and warmth that resonates at the same frequency as a tiny sequin of power stitched to his soul.

There's still some distance hazing blue eyes as he emerges from his room and leans out over the balcony, hands on the railing. He can't see her — she's in the kitchen, so underneath his feet, practically — but he doesn't need to, at this point. He thins his lips, sets his jaw, and after a moment's debate starts down the stairs slowly. He doesn't say anything. Not yet, anyway.

What could there possibly be to say? 'It's alright?'

Because it fucking isn't, is it? Categorically. John's not exactly an habitual dealer in optimism.

Instead, he rounds the bottom of the stairs, makes his way into the kitchen, and with a pivot sinks down to sit beside her on the floor, back to the cabinets under the counter. Not touching yet, either. There, though.

—-

He'd find that, the moment he comes down the stairs, he would be spared the sight of her ugly crying. He's seen it before, but despite the savage toll on her reserves today, never one to be buttressed by cynicism like he is, her pale face is at least composed when he actually sees her, though ice-blue eyes glitter with salt and moisture that she has yet to shed. Her black-haired head is pressed back against the cabinets behind her, and she is at least here, with the way her pale stare follows him up until he takes a seat next to her. For a while, she says nothing, her eyes lowering to the bottled water she keeps in a loose grasp, dangling between her knees.

She doesn't describe how awful it was, out there. He already knows, and has been doing his part in the only way he knows how.

Instead, she lifts a long-fingered hand to brush away the remains of her sorrow, however heavy the blanket still is around the pieces of her broken heart. "I thought if I was with the Titans long enough, things like this would be easier," she confesses to him, quiet, voice hoarse from smoke and strain. "Is it weird to be a little relieved that it's not? I could barely…"

Zatanna falls quiet again, and takes a swig of her water. She turns slightly, at least enough so she would be able to glimpse his handsome profile, shadowed as it is by the darkness of the kitchen - there are no windows here, though facsimiles of such remain around the space in an effort to hold up the illusion of normalcy. She offers him the bottle; he looks exhausted and concern fills her eyes.

"How did it go? With the…" She gestures vaguely on one side.

—-

Save a brief glance over her to assess her physical condition, John doesn't burden her with the weight of his physical attention, though she tries to make herself presentable anyway. Is it weird? she asks, and the grim neutral of his expression shifts just slightly as he shakes his head, brow quirked. "No, luv. It's not."

He could say plenty of things about that, as a litmus test for identifying the surviving elements of one's own humanity, but he doesn't. There's a time and a place for that, and this isn't it.

The offered bottle gets his sidelong attention, but after a moment of silent thought he lifts one of his hands — hanging loose from lean forearms, draped over his knees — just long enough to decline. "Better than if nobody had been doing it at all, I imagine," he says, which for all of its careful positivity paints a grim picture of the reality of it: not exactly a firm assertion of victory over the forces of evil. He doesn't ask her about how it was out there. Maybe he knows. Maybe he doesn't want to. Maybe some combination of both.

Instead, he tilts his head that little bit more so that he can skim his gaze across her face, over the lingering evidence of tears she's wiped away and all of the dark smudges left behind by the ruin she toiled in. It's a gentle thing, when he places a callused hand on one of her knees and squeezes. "Jones got a text out. She's alright." Pause. "The rest of the Titans? Alright?"

You know it's serious when John doesn't make some sort of sidelong quip about spandex, and uses their actual name.

—-

She does, because she can't help it - these small bits of self-reliance are what she clings to especially when things get absurdly difficult. But his confirmation that no, it isn't all that strange, does relax some of the tension on her shoulders.

"Hopefully other people like us took the initiative to do some knitting," Zatanna remarks. Giovanni would, if he was here, but he isn't - planted firmly between the world he was born into and terrible realities that can come slipping through the cracks that John had just sealed over. She would like to think so, anyway.

Uncapping the water bottle, she takes a thirsty swig from it. Just one taste is enough for her to remember that it has been a while since she's had anything, and before long, the container is half-drained before she lowers it back down. Her eyes follow it, unable to help it, able to sense even without looking at him that he is assessing her and the state she is in. But it's only when he delivers that gentle gesture on her knee that a tremor ripples over her expression. A fresh tear slips down her cheek, a slim hand - chilled by the water, scrubbed clean from her own toils - falling over his knuckles and squeezing, holding there.

"Red and Spidey answered the call for the school," she tells John quietly, naming the two Titans she is closest to. "It's…one of the only places in the Kitchen that didn't go up with the rest. They're taking it really hard, though. They always think they can do more, especially when it's bad…neither of them's probably slept. Red's probably trapped himself in the crime lab trying to figure out if he can trace one of the bombs he found. The rest are on relief duty and Cyborg…" Cyborg. "…he's probably combing through hours of video footage from all over the city to try and find something. Everyone's okay though."

The news about Jess does bring some much needed relief in her eyes. "Jane and Bucky?" she asks. They've had business before in Hell's Kitchen, albeit she isn't sure how regular it is.

—-

"They are. Your friend the witch, for one. Midnite, too." His lip curls to one side, less a smile than a subtle expression of distaste, and something grudging. "Guess this is bad enough to be bad for business."

This other piece of Zatanna's life — the capes and tights crew, the Titans; her peers (in age if not previously occupation) in a way that John is not — is one John has kept himself firmly on the perimeter of. Not for any reason they've ever discussed, but she could likely hazard any number of guesses as to the why. Of the names she recites, only 'Red' means anything to him more than passingly, the only one with whom he's had frequent experience, but still: it arrives as a visible relief to him that her teammates are alive, unharmed — if only physically. He nods once, a sharp movement, and fails to be effusive, but something tight in his shoulders seems to ease by a degree.

"Also fine," he confirms, of Jane and Bucky. His mouth twists, and his eyes lid. 'Fine' seems like a wrong word choice for how anyone can be, in the aftermath of something so incomprehensible, but he doesn't backtrack to correct it.

"Chas is still out, doing what he can." Whatever that is, his brows seem to say, knitting slightly. He didn't ask; he's not about to begrudge anyone any kind of attempt to offer aid, even if he does worry for their safety. To wit: he rolls his head to one side against the cabinet, blue eyes settled on her fully. "Are you heading back out? Should get some food down you. Sleep, if you can." As though he's one to talk.

—-

There's that at least. Some of the tension in the aftermath of the Demon Bear debacle has lessened some, but Zatanna has never suffered any shortage of concern, and news of the Winter Soldier and the physicist being safe has more of that tension unwinding from her shoulders also. There's another squeeze delivered onto his fingers, another long drink of water.

The query is sound and despite her exhaustion, Zatanna smiles faintly. "I don't think I'm tired enough to be able to sleep, but I can take a bit of a breather before I go. I'd feel guilty, otherwise. I know it's not logical, but that's what I would feel, knowing everyone else is out there while I'm here snoozing away." Red Robin probably doesn't count among that number, she knows Tim and how sleepless he can be when he's out on the hunt. It is a commonality that he shares with John, though the latter's bedtime ghosts are a touch more…literal…than others could imagine.

"The water's good, though," she says, shaking her water bottle a bit. "And I can always steal one of Chas' emergency sandwiches."

She must be tired, because it clicks, with talking about the veil and knitting. There's a careful glance at his face, shifting her position so she's facing him fully, shoulder against the counter, and legs folded sideways. "Did anything try to come in while you're out there?" she wonders. "Big and demonic?"

—-

John has come a long, long way in the time since they reunited, insofar as his willingness — hell, his ability — to allow her agency goes, having learned to stomach his own discomfort and desperate fears of loss just enough not to make an absolute ass of himself at every opportunity. But he's still John, and while the fears may be pacified by her continued survival and personal capability, they aren't gone. She won't have any trouble at all seeing his unease with the prospect of her swift return to the front lines of this atrocity, but he sets his jaw as though barring himself from saying anything about it and makes himself nod a little, lifting her hand to press his lips to the back of her knuckles. It doesn't matter that her hands are a long way from clean. It's not at all the sketchiest thing he's ever put his mouth on, and they both know that.

"Anything?" His lips quirk, a gallows humor in it. "Lots of things, yeah. Big and demonic, small and demonic, big and not-demonic-but-still-bloody-awful…" He lets the laundry list lapse there, and after a moment quirks his brow, backtracking. "What. Why? You saw something?"

—-

She smiles again, meant to reassure, and while he doesn't have to say anything, she knows. The silver string that connects her to him bleeds with it, though it's certainly a testament as to how tired she is when her eyes close at the token he dispenses between her knuckles. Affection, yes, but gratitude, also. In spades. She recognizes his efforts more than most, if nothing else thanks to the double-edged cheat the universe has decided to bless and curse them with.

You saw something?

"More like looking out for something," Zatanna tells him, and by her expression, she already knows that he isn't going to be happy. "Red's been carrying Emily Montrose around for months, yeah? So it caught the attention of someone else who deals with souls. She's around our age, so Red told her that if she needed any help, she can come to the Tower anytime. Her name's Raven and she's a demon….or in part, anyway. I was there when she decided she was going to take him up on his offer, but I was against it right away, at least not without her telling us a few things - like why she was so interested in Red and the soul he was carrying. I don't think he knew, until I told him, but once he did, he made extra certain not to talk to her about…you know. That entire investigation."

She purses her lips. "She did tell us a few things that're…difficult. Apparently the circumstances of her birth were a little complicated, but you and I can guess. Half-demon children don't just come about by accident, not usually. They're by design. Anyway, she confirmed it when she said that she was meant to be some gateway for her father to come through and give us all a bad day. The demon's name is Trigon…I haven't heard of him, have you?"

—-

It's the faint trace of grim resignation in her expression — the look people usually wear, when they can anticipate his displeasure — that causes him to button that expression up, forcing a neutrality he in no way feels. It's underpinned with obvious weariness, for probably obvious reasons: they have enough bad news, don't they? But here, he knows, comes more.

His careful neutral lasts all of ten seconds before darkening again. All it takes is being told that a demon is sniffing around after Montrose to compromise it, and it ony gets worse once she gets around to specifics, like names.

"It's not unfamiliar," he hedges, of Trigon, something sour in it. In his face. In his voice. As usual, when there's something afoot he resents he has a hard time staying still, and with one last kiss to her hand he recuses himself of sitting down so that he can busy himself with — something. Something at the bookshelf near the sitting area, fingers played across the worn and cracked spines of books that ought to give any upstanding citizen the creeping horrors.

"A gateway, is she? I don't think she's this sodding demon's only kid. Seem to recall hearing he's a bit of a habit of siring offspring, so I wonder what about her lineage makes her so bloody special. Why's she get to be a door?" After a moment he finds what he's looking for, yanks the book free and drops it on the counter below the shelves with an irreverent THUNK that would give a more proper magus heart palpitations. "Fuckin'ell. Montrose. We need her. Been doing a lot of thinking about that situation lately, and I've got thoughts." For just one moment he fixes her with a pale, blue eye out of its corner, and then he looks back down at the book he's paging through with one hand. "Don't know as you're going to like it but let's talk Trigon first. Just so I'm clear on things: your bloody friend Red Robin is palling about now with a half-demon girl whose entire existence is predicated on letting her arsehole father into this plane of existence? Is there a reason for keeping her about an' breathing that I'm not grasping straight-off?"

—-

The moment John hits the books is the moment Zatanna also stands up, and follows. He isn't telling her something, and even without the tether, she is well-versed enough in his expressions to know when he's being elusive. But as typical of her nature, she doesn't pry.

Instead, she leans against the table that doubles as a dining area and a study area, though considering her predilections as well as John's, it finds more use in the former than the latter, sliding her hands in the pockets of her ash-and-blood-streaked jeans. Her stare falls into the familiar titles dominating the shelf.

"So you have heard of him," she says, though her expression is something to behold, when John reveals that Trigon has other children, and she wonders whether any of them are as upstanding as Raven seems to be. That's a good question though, and shoulders lift in a faint shrug. "I'm not sure, I didn't know about the other offspring until you mentioned it just now. She was very frank about her situation, but she didn't get into the specifics as to how she was chosen, or why. I'm guessing it might be because of her lineage, or the way she was conceived. If you like, I can try and talk to her, see if I can obtain more information."

Exhaustion gives way to unfettered curiosity, head tilting at him and questions in her eyes - about Emily Montrose, for certain. But she lets it go for the time being in favor of the Trigon issue. Her expression is emphatic in the fact that she already expected this reaction, she thought about it immediately the moment Raven revealed her heritage. "Red doesn't kill," she tells him with a sigh. "If she's in trouble, and it sounds like she is, he'll do what he can to save her. As for Raven, herself, I haven't known her long….but she seems like a good person dealt with a bad hand, who's genuinely determined to keep her father from coming over. Dangerous, yes, but well-meaning overall. I know how it sounds, but that's the truth. That and…at the moment I'm not sure what triggers her transformation as a gateway, I think harming her in any way poses a risk of making the situation worse."

—-

Technically, everything Zatanna says about this 'Raven' person ought to reassure John. She's not trying to help her demonic sire cross dimensions. She's a good person! It's not her fault! But John being John, the reverse is true: it just complicates the situation immeasurably, leaving him rubbing his face and closing his eyes, stubble rasping against the rough pads of his fingers and palm, audible even over the sound of his long, drawn-out sigh. "Fuck me," he mutters. "You know all that means is that we're all going to feel very sorry for her right up until daddy dearest inevitably decides he's had enough of her piddling about and refusing to take up arms on his side, and just kicks the bloody door open himself. We'll be straight back to Barnes and Foster and that demon bear nonsense, won't we? Trying to figure out how to put down a bloody demonic invasion without topping people, because we in theory like them, some of the time, when they're not being horrible monsters bent on the destruction of all mankind, and that."

This is ultimately only grousing on his part, a venting of irritated cynicism, as ever always preoccupied with the worst-case scenario of any given thing. There's no insistence that she, or Red, or anyone else do differently — just grumbling about it.

"Glad you're there to keep an eye on her, anyway. I'd tell you to take everything she says or does with a grain of salt, but…" It's no secret that Giovanni Zatara is, unquestionably and impressively, even less enamored with the denizens of the inferno than John is. Those are not lessons John needs to pass on to the Zatara heiress at all.

"Here," he says, and taps the page of the book in front of him, beckoning her closer with his other hand.

—-

Her pale face is faintly resigned; she saw this coming too, not just because John is John, but who her father is. Were it Giovanni Zatara, he wouldn't even discuss it. He'd pull her out of the Titans, and do to Red what he did to Bruce Wayne's library if he tried to stop him from dealing with the Raven problem, himself. "I know, John," Zatanna says with a sigh. "But there could be a way to prevent all of that, we just need to actually look into it and find something particularly inventive and clever. You know. Our usual modus operandi." Good humor, limp as it is by the shadow Hell's Kitchen casts upon them both, sparks briefly in her eyes.

I'd tell you to take everything she says or does with a grain of salt, but…

"I'm keeping an eye on her, I promise. I'm sure Red's doing the same. I wasn't exactly happy with him about this, either," she replies, moving over to stand next to him, though she doesn't read from the page yet. Her lips touch his cheek, the solid, affectionate and grateful press of them leaving just a smudge of gloss on his skin, before picking up the book and reading from it intently.

—-

"Bribery," John says darkly as she presses her mouth to the side of his face. An accusatory word that sounds like a concession, nevertheless, or at least an agreement to table all of his many…many concerns, for the time-being.

As she picks up the book he turns in place, leaning his hips back against the counter and folding his arms, wiry, tattooed lines that cross in front of him, sleeves rolled up since his earlier efforts began. He says nothing, only waits.

She'll recognize what's there immediately: It's the glass tyet, presently housing the soul of Emily Montrose, but as depicted in the book in front of her it still contains the liquid that Zatanna herself now houses, mingled in with, but not inseparable from, her own blood. The rendering is not exact, as though it's founded on hearsay or rumor rather than having been drawn from life, but it's close enough to the genuine article that there isn't any mistaking it.

The page describes an historical incident in which someone was brought back to life by the blood of Isis, rumored to be the founding of an order of women dedicated to her cult; someone who became, subsequently, her avatar on earth.

"At first I was looking into it because I figured, 'Cor, oughta know what my bird just put down her, oughtn't I?' And then I was looking because, yeh, Aly is still right pissed you walked off with what he sent us to bring him, you know? And the geezer may be locked down in Loch Ness, but he's still more than capable of being a problem when he's of a mind. Figured, 'I wonder what he's after it for.' And then I ran across this, and got to thinking."

—-

Bribery, he grouses.

"Only if it works," Zatanna replies, frowning the moment she finds the diagram of the tyet. There's nothing but silence, for the time being, as she skims the historical incident described, and committing it to memory. She's also clearly listening to John, given the faint twitch of her lips - not just at his Britishisms, of which there are many and also adorable, but also the fact that she has managed to agitate Aleister Crowley with her stubborn about-face. Sure, she'll probably pay for it later, but digressing away from serious subjects from a moment, she can't help but wonder whether this is what it feels to be John Constantine on a high note.

"You think Ally might want to use the Blood of Isis to get a second chance at life?" she wonders, glancing over at the English magus and then towards the room where Emily Montrose's perfectly preserved body lies. "And are you thinking that before that happens, we should spend it on someone who could give us answers about this strange bit of business the Brujeria's got going on in New York?"

—-

"I think possibly, yeah. He's not dead, mind. Or rather, not completely dead, so…" John shrugs strong, lean shoulders, unfolding his arms long enough to wobble his hand in the air: maybe, maybe not. "Or something to that effect. Something that confuses his status enough that he can go free, whatever and however he goes about it, I don't doubt it. Maybe it's just a bargaining chip to that end. Doesn't matter, because it's your point-the-second that matters most: we are definitely better-served using it for something else, and Montrose…" He turns his head to look down at the book in her hands, eyes slightly distant. "I've got a hunch she's got a part to play. That little space where we found her…shouldn't have existed, should it? Why's she get to carve out a little place to avoid being turned into formula for the world's most horrifying baby? She's not even a magician, is she? But she managed. And you don't have your soul steep in that kind of business without having it changed somehow. Not to be so crass as to suggest that her soul might be a piece on a chess board, or something, but, eh." He lifts his hand again, brushes the inside of his index finger over his jaw twice. "Well. Actually, that's exactly what I'm suggesting, crassly or otherwise."

—-

"Might as well be if he's stuck on that patch of Loch Ness for eternity," Zatanna murmurs under her breath. "I couldn't even stay in your flat for a week without getting into trouble."

But the plan is sound, and she gives him a decisive nod, closing the book and resting it on the table - no irreverent tossing here, if not just because some of the pages look old, and she doesn't want to accidentally crack or lose them. "Right, and the Brujeria could have done to her like they did to her partner, but they didn't. So bringing her back as intact as we could make it, we can at least figure out why they decided to approach her differently than the others they've used so far."

There's another glance at the null-magic cell. "I always tell others that it's difficult to reattach a soul to the body because one or the other tends to be compromised at the time of death, or shortly after," she says thoughtfully. "But we don't have those problems here - we have her soul, we know where it is, and thanks to whatever fuckery the Brujeria did to her body, it's perfectly preserved. Looking at her, you'd think she was asleep, not dead." She lifts a hand to rub absently at the growing knot of tension at the base of her skull. "I can dig up some of Daddy's necromantic treatises from the Sub Rosa and bring it here, we can start putting together a game plan after we've done all we can with what happened in the Kitchen. Sound good?"

—-

For the first time since she reappeared, John utters something that sounds amused — a low rumble of a chuckle he keeps in his chest, as she dryly remarks on her own propensity to find trouble to get into, wherever she is. It even manages to be fond, rather than exasperated.

At this point it shouldn't surprise him — and it's not surprise, exactly — that she puts the pieces together so quickly, and with so little direction from him. Maybe it's something more like pride, vestiges of impulses left over from a simpler time, when he was something else to her entirely, and she something else to him. Either way, he fails to patronizingly say anything about that, and elects to take it as granted, with a pang of something almost sad: once, she used to need — or at least want, he thinks — his guidance. Now, though? He's certain that one of those things is no longer true, and not entirely sure about the other one, either.

"Perfectly preserved," he agrees, with a nod. "And the only two things it's missing," he adds, lifting a hand and ticking the items off on his fingers, "Are a soul…and blood." Both of his hands splay after that, leaving the strangely perfect jigsaw of available pieces to speak for itself.

What he doesn't say is that it'll likely require Zatanna to give up that current of power she's held within her since the witch's crossing of the void — an intensely personal, not-a-little-harrowing experience he's never pried for details about, but understands well enough held significance for her. It changed her, in ways he wasn't sure he was comfortable with, but gradually adjusted to. When he said 'you may not like it,' that's what he was talking about: giving that up.

For a moment he considers whether or not to broach it, and then decides against. She assembled the rest of it for herself, so she can probably see it, or guess at it, and he's not sure there's any value in bringing it up unless she does, first.

Instead, he reaches for her shoulder, and with barely a touch encourages her toward him: not because of the blood of Isis, but because of Hell's Kitchen. And as much because he needs that contact, himself, as because he wants to offer comfort. "After we've done all we can," he agrees, quiet.

—-

It does. He would know, because of the tether, but there's nothing on Zatanna's features just then but determination and purpose; it's always when things are particularly hard when her mettle truly shines, when she lives her every day as a soft, emphatic and relatively happy creature. Her ordeal to even obtain the Blood of Isis has been harrowing to say the least, for a heart that is determined to remain open no matter how much she bleeds for it, but for the sake of something important, she is willing to give it up.

Turning towards him, encouraged there, she steps into the shadow he casts, and the warmth he provides. Arms band around his back and she buries her face somewhere where his neck meets his shoulder, fingers curling into the fabric at the back of his shirt. The urge to cry again doesn't well up, thankfully; stars know that she'll probably return with her cheeks streaked with tears and her eyes puffy. But there's some respite in the idea that they've managed to find a solution to a prevailing problem that can make everything so much worse.

One thing at a time, as she is always so fond of saying.

"…it's fine," she tells him softly, her voice muffled by his collar. Not the Kitchen, obviously, but giving up the blood of the goddess that has taken up some precious real estate in the endless well of her magical reservoirs for several months now. "I remember when I reached the end of the line - I couldn't see anyone, but I told whoever was listening that I didn't do what I did for whatever power was promised. I already have more than what I know to do with…it was the journey that was the important part, for me."

—-

John is a more self-aware man than he lets on — thinking about himself constantly, rarely in any flattering way, for better or worse and certainly to a fault — but there are times he refuses to let himself take stock because he can't afford to, and he's surprised to find that this is one of them. He doesn't realize until the moment she settles in against his chest, and his eyes close as raw things in him are soothed that he'd not been aware were pained: the city is hurting, deeply, and plunged into the leylines that weave through it, he's carrying more than just a little bit of the psychic reside of those hurts. What began as a gentle embrace tightens, one arm looped around her back, his other hand tangled in the dark of her hair, to cradle her head.

She opens the conversation herself, willingly. And in it, she makes her peace with what he can feel aches across the tether.

It leaves him quiet for a long time, either because he's content just to hold her against the inevitable and no doubt impending moment she returns to the hellscape of Hell's Kitchen, leaving him to his own unpleasant work…or because he's thinking through it, or maybe for some other reason altogether. Eventually he lifts his head, lips at her crown, then her temple, words lost in hair that smells of smoke: "Wouldn't do to be greedy, would it?" It's a quip. A joke, about the vast power of her birthright. But the words are as gentle as John ever gets.

—-

He says nothing, but these days he doesn't have to. Tremors bleed through the thread that binds them and Zatanna can do nothing but tighten her grip on him as the ghosts of recent memories slip past her mind; of leveled buildings and blood-soaked pavement, bits of what used to be human beings tossed among decimated concrete and old brick. Hell's Kitchen, at present, is a smoke-filled canvas of grisly mosaics, with new bones to join the old ones that have been buried there, forgotten, since the turn of the last century. The idea of returning there curdles her stomach - sick, yes, but at the same time, no force on the planet could keep her away.

The nature of loss often turns the mind to what one still has, and she luxuriates in the presence of one such thing, marking his presence with warm lips and affectionate tokens on her skin and hair, nevermind that the unpleasantness of the day is still clinging to every part of her. But she is grateful that it doesn't register - not enough to repulse him, anyway, though she knows better than anyone else that he's suffered through much worse.

His work today, if not as tangible, is just as important, and she turns her head to nuzzle her mouth against the tender space just under one hard cheekbone. "You know me, I'm a giver," she murmurs, fingers passing down his spine, rubbing up and down. "What about you? Do you need any help…?"

—-

They have. Suffered much worse.

Of course: beyond a certain point, John would say, there's no point in grading tragedy. Beyond a certain point, it's all 'the worst thing ever.' And that means something, coming from a man who has done more than one stint in literal Hell — with present company, on that last occasion. Hell's Kitchen may have nothing on literal, actual Hell, but it doesn't need to. They are both, he would say, the worst ever.

The body pressed to hers trembles with the chuckle he keeps inside, silent, but she'll hear his grin in his voice, as sharp and angled as a guillotine blade, and just as gallows about its humor. "Do I need any help?" Pause. "Bloody hell, luv. How much time 'ave you got?"

…which is, of course, a deflection, but that's business as usual for John. She may have a hardline direct to his soul, and it may not be possible for him to hide most of his hurts from her anymore, but god damnit, he will try.

"Just keep an eye out for Chas while you're out there, would you? He's running through those one-ups at an alarming rate, and somebody's got to keep him from throwing himself into every collapsing building on the block."

—-

How much time 'ave you got?

"Powers willing?" Zatanna says, managing a laugh and squeezing him - for as much as those noodle arms can squeeze a man as solid as he is, anyway - as tightly as she can manage. "Forever."

Tilting her head back, she drops a kiss on his mouth. "I'll bring him back," she promises as she steps away. "And we'll bring early morning sustenance." A look thrown over her shoulder once she disengages, to retrieve another bottle of water, and an emergency sandwich, disappearing into her phone - her digital 'bag of holding' has seen some serious mileage over the last two years.

"Do your best to stay out of trouble while I'm out," she tells him, but not without a wink, and the ghost of her old grin.

—-

Powers willing. His arms tighten as hers do, the shadow between his brows a fleeting thing — certainly gone before she eases that hug, and kisses him in a way he returns with the reflexive lack of thought that comes from long intimacy.

He lets her go, because really, there's nothing else for it, and he has to. His hands slide into his trouser pockets, as usual, but blue eyes remain affixed to her as she puts some distance between them in readiness to go, watching her all the while.

"No promises," he says, when she winks, and smiles. Normal, from her. Normal from him, too. Like this is any other day, on any other week, and she's leaving for any other reason. It all rings hollow around the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding overhead and some distance away, but there's a brittle comfort in going through the motions, anyway.

And when she's gone — some moments after she's gone, silent and looking at the place from which she disappeared — he lets himself bleed out a long exhale, then pivots sharply and strides back to the loft, already partitioning that piece of himself off, away from the nasty business of what's to come.

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