Magic used to be something special.
There’s a train crash; catastrophic. A railroad engineer stumbles across a lantern, from which he crafts a ring, and it all spirals from there. Or-
Two men enter a tomb and one leaves it, a metal helmet winking in the sun. No-
A golden boy, too good, too perfect, and he dies in his mother’s womb while something ugly and squalling crawls its bloody way out into the world. Wait-
And here is the world, colorless and dull in the early evening light, and John Constantine is ankle-deep in the slush of a New York February. God, he hates this country. God, he hates the people in it. Even London is preferable to this, and London digs its dirty magic into his skin. You can't go home again, Constantine. But a dead man in London is better off than a live one in New York. Fucking country.
Everyone’s special here. Everyone’s always finding things. Or things are finding them. Lassos that make you tell the truth, for fuck’s sake. Capes that turn into wings. Guns that never miss. Bollocks, all of it.
And at the center of it all is the man himself. The big blue boy scout. John bumps into him on the streets of New York, looking tired at the prospect of a new day, but up to the challenge; his shirt is pressed, his shoes, impeccably shined. Every inch the professional journalist, the reputable golden boy. Well, John killed a golden boy once before, before he’d even taken his first breath on this bitch of an earth. He thinks about it every time Clark Kent says hello.
“Hello,” says Clark Kent, smiling like he’s happy to see him. “You look like you’ve seen better days.”
John always looks like that, even though he’s never actually seen better days. He coughs and gives Clark a look of incredulous surprise. “What are the odds,” he says, “that I’d see you today with your feet on the ground.”
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
“I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time.”
“On my way back from a round of poker, that’s all,” says John, who had nearly lost his soul in that game of poker, and who still hasn’t quelled the trembling in his hands. “I was gonna go home. Muck about till morning,” He sighs, his smoke-stained breath curling in the evening air. “What about you then, mate? Gonna buy another club soda like you do every December and stare out at the city for a bit till you feel better about being the most beloved man in the world?”
“That was the idea,” Clark says, with a small smile. “I’d rather not do it alone, though.”
“Right, yeah,” John mutters, flicking the stub of his cigarette into the gutter. “A drink with the Big Blue, right. Wouldn’t fuckin’ miss it for the world.”
Clark’s smile widens, and he leads him to the nearest drinking house. They aren’t on every corner here the way they are in London, but there are enough. He pushes open the door with that easy, practiced delicacy with which he handles the world around him. An egg wouldn’t break in his hands, John thinks, already lighting another cigarette.
The door opens with a brassy jingle from the bell above the threshold.
“After you, John.”
John is deep in his cups before he starts spilling his secrets.
It’s not that Clark is untrustworthy, but he has eyes that look straight into John’s fucking soul, and John doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like the thought that Clark can hear the beating of his heart, could probably recognize it from ten thousand miles away. He’s a god, in every sense of the word. John has met gods; they usually leave something to be desired.
Not Clark though. Prac-tic-ly-per-fect-in-ev-e-ry-way. A regular Mary Poppins. John looks like he was baited out of the Thames with a ham sandwich on a fishing line, but not Clark. Not with his sun-kissed skin and his hair as black as the dark side of the moon.
“I had lung cancer once, y’know,” John says, and Clark just nods. Quiet and sympathetic and there for him, fuck off. “I smart-talked my way out of that one too, ‘cause I’m John fuckin’ Constantine. How is that fair? How’s it fair that it’s me, pitiful fuckin’ me, who gets to walk away from something that honest men don’t get to walk away from? Y’know what I did, after I killed the cancer? I went and had another fuckin’ cigarette.”
John takes another shot, throwing his head back with the easy practice of one who’s been doing it for years. He grimaces at his empty glass, then slams it on the table upside-down. “I cheat the system, Big Blue,” he says bitterly. “I lie and I cheat and I stick to the underbelly of the universe like a leech.”
“You give yourself too little credit, John,” says Clark, who always gives credit where credit is due. “You’ve helped people. A lot of people.”
“And then, and then,” John continues, steamrolling over Clark’s words like he hasn’t heard them, “there’s people like you.”
He leans forward in his chair and tips it onto two legs. His elbows are planted firmly on the table, and he fixes his gaze on Clark. “All-powerful,” he says, like the word is poison in his mouth. “God-like. Beautiful, even. A whole fuckin’ legion of golden boys. Seems you can’t even throw a rock without hitting someone who’s found some doohickey or whatchamajig of unimaginable power. They use it to beat the odds. To get a leg-up on humanity. To cheat.”
“So your solution, from what I understand,” Clark says slowly, and John could just fucking punch him for how sincerely interested he sounds, “is to hunt down all these items of power and . . . keep them for yourself?”
“A greedy old miser in a tower, yeah, that’s me. I already told you, I cheat the system. But I don’t play dice with the universe; I just try to even the odds.”
“You’re keeping them all in one place, though. A place that could easily be found and used to “cheat.””
“That place is safe,” says John. “I’ve made it safe. Safer than the bloody Fortress of Solitude, I’ll tell you that much, and full of fuckin’ loaded dice. Every magical artifact I can get me hands on, every sacred relic, every world-breaking bit of alien tech that’s ever dropped from the sky. I’m the fuckin’ curator of the House of Mysteries, and, and and and,” he stammers, pointing at Clark before he can even open his mouth, “I’m not letting you knock it down ‘round my ears, like I know you fuckin’ want to.”
John realizes that he’s broken out in a cold sweat. Suddenly he feels very, very tired.
“The world is full of shit like this,” he mutters. “Sometimes even kids find them. Kids, Clark. They find some old relic, some ugly old spell-slinger, an’ shazam! You’ve got power that no one should have. No one.”
“I’m not going to knock down the house of mystery, John,” says Clark. “Frankly, I don’t know why you think I would.”
Clark rubs the back of his neck with one hand, then cracks it from left to right. Almost human, John thinks bitterly. He gets cramp.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure you’re taking care of yourself, John,” Clark says quietly. “I have a vested interest in that house, and what you fill it with.”
“I’m not your responsibility.”
“Everyone is my responsibility.”
John rolls his eyes to the heavens. “Bloody hell, mate,” he says. “You could never do what I do, no matter how god-like you think you are.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” says John. “You’re a piece of work. And if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not talk about your Great and Glorious Burden or whatever the fuck.”
“Then we’ll talk about something else,” says Clark, sipping his club soda.
“Oh yeah? How’s Lois?”
“She’s been well, thank you.”
“Butting heads with Damian, as usual, but he’s been learning to exercise restraint,” says Clark. The question brings a warm glow to his eyes, and he gives his drink a fond, thoughtful smile. “I’m so proud of him. Jon’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Great,” John nods. He hopes he doesn’t come across as an asshole, not now, not when he’s actually making a fucking effort for once.
“Have you ever wanted kids, John?”
His desire to make an effort leaves him as quickly as it arrived.
“Don’t ask me that,” John says sharply. “Don’t you fucking ask me that.”
“I’m sorry,” Clark says, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
This guy. This fucking guy.
John sniffs dismissively, casts his gaze around the bar for something to interest him. There’s a brand-new faux-vintage jukebox in the corner, boasting “the Oldies,” none of which are remotely old. It makes him fucking sick, and he looks away. New York.
“This place is hell,” he says.
It’s casual, a joke, but Clark seems to sit a little straighter in his chair. “You know,” he says, “you never tell me about your work.”
“”Work,” yeah, funny stuff.”
“Can you tell me about Hell?” Clark asks, leaning his elbows on the table. John can see his muscles moving under his shirt.
John looks at him through a trail of his own cigarette smoke, his eyes red-rimmed, and his upper lip just barely curled off his teeth. “Why would you want to know about Hell,” he asks. “It’s not like you’re going there.”
“I may need to, one day. I’ve gone a lot of places that I didn’t think I would go.”
“You? Go to Hell? What, to save someone?”
“I have to be prepared to do anything,” Clark says solemnly. His eyes narrow ever so slightly, and John realizes that he’s irritated. Good. “If not me, than who?”
“Wonder Woman,” John says firmly.
That little glimpse of irritation is gone, and Clark chuckles. He bobs his head a couple times. “Yeah, yeah no, you’re right.”
John doesn’t laugh. “You wouldn’t do well in Hell,” he says. “Look here Big Blue. I’m a bit of a hellblazer. I do this for a living. I can get in, fuck around, get out . . . no fuss no muss, yeah? But you,” and here he leans forward across the table, rapping the wood with his knuckles as though for emphasis. “You told me once that you can hear every heartbeat in America. That true?”
“It is,” says Clark. He doesn’t lean back when John leans forward, doesn’t shy away from the look in his eyes or the nicotine on his breath. Clark is a man who maintains eye contact. His handshakes are firm, and his back is straight when he stands. Children love him. The child John used to be loves him.
“You’d be able to hear it,” says John.
Clark looks steadily back at him.
“Hell is a thousand leagues long and a thousand fathoms deep,” says John, “and you’d be able to hear every heartbeat. Every slap of skin on skin. Every scream. Every prayer. And you’d smell the shit and blood in the air, and you’d see the sweating, heaving, hulking masses of the dirty damned down there, and there’d be nothing you could fucking do about it.”
For the first time, there’s something like doubt in Clark’s eyes. John loves it. At last, a chink in the bloody armor.
“You’ve seen this,” Clark says quietly. “You’ve . . . seen this first hand. You’ve lived through it.”
“That’s fuckin’ right I ‘ave, mate.”
“I’m so sorry.”
All of a sudden, John doesn’t love it anymore.
All of a sudden, John is furious.
“Sod your I’m sorry,” he snaps. “Sod your you’ve lived through it. ‘Course I fuckin’ have, it’s me job. It’s me life. If you were really fuckin’ sorry, maybe you’d’ve showed up last time I was screamin’ to fuckin’ Christ for Superman to show up.
“You know why you wouldn’t do well in Hell, mate? You’d hear the screaming. All those damned, tormented souls, screaming for someone to save them. And some of them will yell for Wonder Woman, and some will even yell for the fuckin’ Batman, but mostly, they'll yell for you. I’ve heard them. Screaming for Superman like Superman can hear them in Hell. You would hear that, and it would hurt you, Clark. Because you care so bloody much. I don’t care. That’s why I can do what I do.”
John realizes then that he’s almost out of his seat. He’s shaking. Angry. Because fuck that I’m so sorry, fuck him for saying that like John needs to hear it, like he needs someone to say to him, just one fucking time with genuine sincerity, I’m so sorry.
He sits back down, wills his blood to cool, and his hands to steady. He glances around to see if anyone’s looking, and by some miracle, no one is.
Clark is quiet now. He’s staring at the tabletop, his brow furrowed, tapping tunelessly with his fingers as though looking for something to do with his hands. John watches his hand move across the table, tap tap tap, and for a moment, he’s overwhelmed by the thought of how gentle this not-quite-a-man must be, how gingerly he must cradle the world. He could kill a man with a glance, yet there he sits, tap tap tap, and he doesn’t even scratch the wood.
“Perhaps,” he says quietly, “it would be better to leave hell to the hellblazers.”
“Yeah,” says John. He’s won, but he feels nothing. “Yeah, you should.”
He stares at the tabletop. Considers ordering a drink, but decides against it.
“I couldn’t do what you do,” he says quietly. “You could crack the world in two, but you don’t. I dunno know how you do it.”
“There are plenty of men who want to crack the world in two,” says Clark gently. “But if I actually have the power to do it, then I am enough to hold it together. Just for a moment. And then, the next moment. And then, the next,” he pauses, then, “I don’t want you to be afraid of all those magical artifacts you’ve got in the House of Mysteries, John.”
“Like fuck I won’t be.”
“That fear is a cancer you can’t cheat your way out of, John. It’s poisoning you.”
John says nothing.
“It doesn’t matter how many children find magic rings, or alien spaceships, or wizards in sewers. I promise you, I’ll be there, holding the world together, moment, by moment, by moment.”
“Why?” John hisses, and he’s not sure if it’s anger or frustration or just fucking New York, but he has to know. He has to hear it from Superman himself. “Why this fuckin' world, when it hasn’t done shit for you or me or any of us?”
Clark looks at him with a very sad smile, and John laughs.
“What,” he says, “you going to feed me some canned line about how I could never understand?”
“No,” says Clark. “I think you can understand.”
“Then tell me.”
Clark cracks his neck to the side again, and leans his elbows on the table. He looks out the window at the slush-filled New York streets, and John follows his gaze. The streets are crowded, even at this hour. Faceless shadows looming in the dark, traffic lights splashing the puddles with Christmas red and green.
“When I was young,” says Clark, “I would go out into the cornfields and lie on my back, observing the stars. Dizzied by the possibilities, the implications. I wondered in which direction my dead planet lay. I looked at the stars with no concept of the infinite planets, the infinite threats and blessings, the infinite things like and unlike myself. The colorful universe beyond Kansas.
“I wondered how far I could go, if I flew straight up. So I did. My clothes didn’t survive the trip, but I was always ruining my clothes back then. It gave Ma fits.”
This he says with a laugh that John does not join in with, because he has a feeling that Clark’s mother having fits was not the same thing as John’s father having fits, and there’s just another reason to envy the life of this beautiful, alien thing.
“I flew straight up,” Clark continues, “and I looked down at the earth, from where I was . . .”
His hands, big and tanned and broad, come forward to cup the air before him, as if holding something precious. As though he were trying to describe the shape of the earth in the air above this greasy bar table.
“. . . and for the first time,” Clark says, his voice as gentle as his hands, “I saw the earth as a tangible thing. Something I could almost hold,” He lets his hands drop. “My heart broke for it.”
“That’s beautiful,” says John. “That’s a beautiful story.”
He had intended the words to be bitter, but instead, they come out hushed. Almost awed. And try as he might, he can’t bring himself to be cynical. Not about this.
Instead he coughs, rubs the back of his neck. “. . . You’re a very articulate man, Clark,” he says, somewhat lamely.
“Oh bless your heart, John, d’you really think so?”
John snorts, and Clark laughs. It’s a deep, warm sound, that puts John in mind of Christmastime.
“I’m a journalist,” says Clark pleasantly, adjusting his glasses as though for emphasis. “I write for a living. And besides, I have to be articulate,” His voice grows more serious as he says this, and he begins to stand up, tugging his jacket back on and looking back out into the rain. “I have to be twice as articulate as anyone. Otherwise it’s just another reason for me to be Not One of Us.”
He lowers his voice, just a little. “I am one of you, John.”
“Yeah,” says John wearily, standing up. “You are.”
The best of us, anyway.
Clark offers his hand, and John shakes it. Then Clark leans forward, and quietly, very quietly, asks, “Can I fly you home? You’ve had a lot to drink.”
“Thanks mate,” says John, “but I’ll walk.”