Cancelling a Debt

December 13, 2016:

Cognizant of the fact that this is probably an incredibly bad idea, Zatanna scries for 'Stan' and finds him in the Gotham train station, and manages to obtain some answers.

Gotham Train Station - Midtown - Gotham City

Gotham City's train station, with nonstop service to New York.


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Tim Drake, Giovanni Zatara, Azalea Kingston, Jessica Jones


Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

The Winter Soldier had a target. He had a time he knew he could catch the target on the move. And he had a goal of what to get out of the target. Now all he needed was the last great component of any good job.

But he's going to have to go back to New York to get it. Thankfully, he's got a window of time.

It's probably best he spend that short window out of Gotham. There's not going to be a real need for him to go any deeper into the city than its fringes after this, and he's already caused enough of a stir that all the many vigilantes of Gotham are kicking up from the bottom, like silt flurrying up in disturbed water. So far he hasn't had any /major/ issues with any of them, but each time they've been enough to cut short or disrupt something he was trying to do.

Really just a matter of time before they get really on point, or they band together, or something else that would present more of an issue.

So the Soldier is now on his way to the station, intent on taking the next train back to New York. They haven't got high speed rail going yet, so it'll be a trip of a few hours, but that shouldn't present any difficulty. The armor is gone, the weapons are gone, the half-mask is gone. For the Soldier, his own natural face is the disguise. Dressed down in civvies and with a bag slung over his shoulder, he blends almost invisibly into the crowds trying to file into the station, looking the part of just another traveler making his way through New York near the holiday season.


Blood has always been a powerful conduit.

While she has never had to sacrifice pieces of herself to work her unique brand of sorcery, that didn't mean that she wasn't above using what she has collected from others to be able to find them. It was a rough contingency, another method passed onto her by a former lover, who tended to collect biological traces of people he's met in his career as a rough and tumble street mage. Zatanna recalls thinking it distasteful, sneaky and dishonest but now that she has been on her own for months, she realizes now just how practical it truly is, though some part of her whispers that it could only end in nothing but more trouble for her - Constantine never could help himself, and she isn't above demonstrating poor impulse control either, which is how she ended up in bed with a man ten years older than her in the first place.

This is such a bad idea, she thinks, placing a strip of bloodied tissue paper on a bowl, sitting in the middle of her living room in Shadowcrest. The light flickering from the active fireplace was warm, soothing in Gotham's bitter cold, the scent of pine filling her nose as she takes a deep cleansing breath. Reaching out with a thin stick, she lights the tip on fire, placing it in the corner of the strip and let the embers eat away at the flimsy surface.

"Si nats erehw em wohs," she murmurs.

It would only show her tangential images, approximate visions - if she didn't have his blood, this wouldn't work at all because the only name she knows is the one she has given him; Ginny Townsend has expressed to her the power of true names before, and had she known the one that belonged to the metal-armed man, she wouldn't need such rough instruments. But since she didn't, the moniker she associates with him coupled by the traces of his own spiritual signature should at least get her close.

Images flood her mind once smoke rises from her bowl, her wrists wresting on her knees, sitting crosslegged in the middle of her carpet. Colors and shapes kaleidoscope behind her closed eyes, coalescing into more distinct landmarks - signs, streets, familiar facades and structures.

She recognizes the train station.

Shaking herself out of her trance, she stands up, retrieving her coat and scarf. Another string of whispered gibberish takes her out of Shadowcrest, and right in the heart of Gotham's crowd rail.


When she finally locates him, he is still on the platform, looking like an average commuter, albeit one with unnaturally eyecatching hair.

He would smell coffee before he even registers her visually, a small nudge of her elbow against his own to ensnare his attention and get him to look at her. Startling blue eyes peer up at him, though from a height that isn't all that much shorter than him - she was tall for a woman, tall for her age, and she was wearing designer Prada boots.

"Hi!" she greets, swallowing the familiar stirrings of fear when that lupine stare finds her. She offers him a Starbucks cup.

It's red, done up with snowflakes, as was tradition for the franchise during the holiday season.

"Have you had any of these before?" she wonders. "I didn't know if you were a White Mocha or Pumpkin Spice kind of guy - I tried to remember what you put in your coffee the last time but I thought maybe you'd like to try something new."


Her elbow touches his. It is such a casual brush of contact, a throwaway thing no one used to commuting in any of the tri-cities would even think twice about, but it makes this man tense immediately.

He is taut and alert as a strung whipcord within half a second, ready for anything, anticipating pain most of all— for the Winter Soldier, touch always presages pain. He cuts a sharp glance to the side— and registers the familiar features of Zatanna Zatara. A second later, he registers the smell of coffee. He had detected it earlier, but hadn't thought much of it, assuming it was the possession of one of the many people just passing by.

Those two factors combined bring him to visibly pause. His stare stays on her, though, unblinking and cool and just as remote as she remembers it.

Hi! Zatanna greets. The Winter Soldier does not immediately reply. He cants his head slightly, as nonvocal as she remembers him, and regards the cup with the skepticism of an animal offered mysterious, possibly-poisonous material by a human. A long few beats pass.

"…I put cream in it," he responds dryly. He takes the cup, but does not drink from it: transparently still suspicious. Those blue eyes continue to watch her askance, disaffected and cool.

"You got some nerve," he finally observes, "tracking me down again."


"That's why I decided to get you something more exotic," Zatanna tells him, subjecting the dangerous assassin with yet another of her flashfire grins, brilliant white contrasting sharply with the dark cherry lacquer on her lips. "Variety is the spice of life and all of that…how boring would life be if you didn't indulge in the strange and novel once in a while?"

The young woman takes a sip from her own cup, electing to take the Pumpkin Spice one for herself - it was Winter now, and Starbucks' options have slowly drifted to the vanilla and peppermint varierties again, but the flavor is so popular that it would be a day or two yet before it was phased out of the menu completely, to the chagrin of young women everywhere. Long fingers tipped with dark purple nails, a different color from when they had encountered each other last, poke out of her fingerless gloves, curl around the warm cup, the young woman greedily leeching off it to ward off the cold.

He calls her out on her nerve, and she gives him an expression that is more sheepish than anything. "Yeah, I know," she grouses, her breaths leaving her in puffs of mist, all the more white and pronounced by the heat of the drink lingering on her tongue. "I tried to talk myself out of it about a hundred times, but once my moxie is up, it's really hard to stamp it down again."

Watching the sea of bodies drift and ripple around them, she seems content to spend the next few moments in silence, nursing her coffee and finding some courage and comfort within the contents of the cardboard receptacle. She notices that he hasn't had a taste yet, though she couldn't blame him for being suspicious - she says nothing in that regard, nor does she badger him into drinking. It serves to warm his fingers, and perhaps that is enough to satisfy her.

"Is it true?" she asks, finally. "What they say about you?"

She inclines her head, looking at his rugged profile sidelong. "I don't regret it, you know," she offers. "What I did for you. I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself, I think, if I just left you behind. I'm just wondering why, is all. You don't seem like such a bad guy. You're quiet, and you're a little weird…and when I look at you, I feel kinda sad for some reason."


How boring /would/ life be if you didn't get to indulge the strange and novel once in a while? The Winter Soldier thinks about that, frowning vaguely, a slight line between his brows. Why, it would be… as boring as his own life. The one he lives now. He can't remember the last time he saw or did or tried anything new. He can't remember the last time he—

He closes his eyes, as if a pain stabbed him briefly in the head.

His eyes open again a moment later. He still does not drink, even now that he's seen her drinking eagerly from her own cup. Perhaps he still does not trust her. Perhaps he just doesn't want to be distracted right now by the glorious flavors of sugar and chocolate. She's got some nerve, he observes, and her nervous laugh betrays that she knows very well she sure does. She tried to talk herself out of this a hundred times, but, well, here she is.

A few more moments of silence pass. Then she asks the important question. Is it true what they say about you? Well— she wouldn't regret what she did, regardless, but she just wants to know why. He doesn't seem like a bad guy…

He turns slowly to face her, like the slow upward slide of a guillotine blade; like the closing of a cell door; like the grinding turn of a rack. His demeanor is unhurried, patient, and above all deliberate. It is also curious, and that tempers some of the threat inherent in the way he now looks at her dead-on, considering. His free hand, the one not holding her gift, slides into his jeans pocket. "What /do/ they say about me?" he asks. "And what makes you think something different than they do?"

Perhaps some hint of her answer to that question is in the last thing she says. She looks at him, and she just feels kinda… sad. The Winter Solder pauses, his lashes flickering as he blinks his gaze downwards, staring at the floor. Confusion comes and goes in his eyes, and briefly softens the hard lines of his figure. In these moments there is something ruinous about him: a distinct sense that he is a man taken and shaved down until he is so much less than he once was.

That's strange. When I look at myself in the mirror, sometimes I feel kinda sad too.

The voice comes and goes in his head like a ghost. The noise consumes it soon after it is thought. He looks up, and his eyes are remote, his aspect drawn up and chill as if her pity affronted him. "You shouldn't regret it," he says, blunt and dispassionate. "I haven't killed you because of that favor done."


'I believe people are inherently good,' she remembers telling Tim Drake.

'I never want to not care,' she had said to him.

She is a legacy left in this world by a great man, whose powers of observation were vastly superior to hers - a master illusionist needs to be able to read others quickly and efficiently, and he has instilled upon these lessons on his daughter. This ability, learned through devotion and no small measure of hero worship, has saved her more times than she could count, and while she was still learning, she remembers these lessons and clings to them, as if letting go would cast her adrift, never to return to her old self.

When he faces her fully, Zatanna can't help but feel her insides seize up; he moves so smoothly and fluidly that she can't help but remember those nature documentaries she watched as a child, of alpha predators circling their prey. Unconsciously, her fingers tighten faintly over her cup, though she doesn't look away even when he faces her dead on, a challenging gesture if she had ever seen one. She reacts to those in the same way as she has done all of her life; her courage rises with every attempt to intimidate.

It probably isn't /wise/ but she is young, prone to recklessness and driven by what she thinks she should do.

But she sees it, a fleeting glimpse of the man lurking underneath the hard, corrupted shell the world knows and fears. Bolstered, she takes a step forward; she almost reaches out when she sees that look in his eyes, because she can't help herself, can't help but be who and what she is - drawn to lost souls, those who are consistently bad for her.

She freezes when he finally speaks - blunt, and cool, but he would find her confusion there amidst that foolhardy, optimistic innocence. She saw it, did she imagine it? What just happened?

"….that you kill people for a living," she answers at last, her voice a pale shade of the bravado she has readied, but ultimately fails to deliver.

After a pause, she speaks up again. "I don't regret it because I couldn't let anyone die that way," she tells him. "Alone and forgotten behind a trash bin. Not because of what you might do to me if I didn't, not because I thought that you might owe me someday. I'm not like that, Stan…and I don't…" She rubs the back of her neck. She is so out of her depth that it isn't even funny.

"I don't believe this is you," she tells him. "And if that's true, I don't know if I can say if the things you're doing here is your fault. You had people before…I think, my friend was a little confusing when she told me. Steve. Do you remember a Steve?"


Olympic gymnasts do not move with the kind of springcoiled grace this man does, when he chooses to. It is not hard to picture him as a contract killer with how silent and agile he is. Not hard to picture how he would get into all the places he would need to get to make his kills…

Into the face of his tacit challenge, she makes a challenge of her own. She asks him her questions. She demands her answers. She has heard that he kills people for a living. Is this true?

He regards her for a very long time, watching her silently through her hesitations, her attempts to reach out to a man she should truly not reach out toward, her ultimate admission that she just couldn't let anyone die alone. She didn't help him because she thought he would owe her a favor. She helped him because she couldn't look herself in the mirror if she didn't.

"You didn't help me to get a favor," he finally says, "but you are owed one. I despise debt. I will answer one question, and then I owe you nothing." He leans forward slightly. "The answer is that I kill, but not for a 'living.'"

He leans back. He transparently considers himself done with her at this point… but she isn't done with him. She has one last question, her trump card of a question. She just cannot believe that this is him— that this is truly him doing this— because she has been told hints of a life seen in flashing images, a different life… a previous life that seems to have nothing in common with what he is now.

Do you remember a Steve?

The Winter Soldier goes very still. His eyes are still fixed on her face, but their actual gaze is distant… thrown far off across the reaches of time by the sound of that one syllable. Why can he not get the sound of it out of his head? Why does that seem to mean something to him?

A flicker of wind carries the smell of coffee up through the air. Something else drifts upwards too, a stray memory finally brought to the surface of a fractured mind so softly and unobtrusively that he does not even realize, at first, it is there.

The memory tells him that coffee was not always so common as it is now. It reminds him of a time when it was rationed, parceled out sparingly in the years after a long depression, and in the midst of a global war. Most people couldn't get much coffee at all, but his family was lucky, lucky enough to have spare money to pick it up. A luxury to have once per week, maybe, portioned out so it'd last until they could pick up another ration of it.

However little they had, though, there was never any question that he would take some over to share with Steve.

But who was Steve?

Locked in that question, the Winter Soldier suffers the mental equivalent of a system crash. He stares hollowly at the ground, trying desperately to retrieve more of that memory, gaze vacant and distressed.


She didn't do what she did to obtain a favor from one of the most dangerous men on the planet - but she is owed one, he stresses emphatically. Of course a man like him would despise debt, but were he actually an evil person, wouldn't he forego that entirely? He was an assassin, he was probably accustomed to disposing bodies, making sure nobody ever saw them again. So why hasn't he killed her and make her disappear? Why should he care that she took care of him and helped him and sent him on his way?

Zatanna Zatara has not lived long in this world but she knows people, driven all her life to connect with the souls that surround her because she fervently believes that other people's lives enrich her own, that the smallest kindnesses can stem the tide of evil before it takes over the world. She may be the daughter of a legend, but she knows the value of starting small and humbly.

And she knows, deep down, that she is right.

It is nothing borne out of facts or some deep insight into the Winter Soldier's life, and more a certainy based on intuition and instinct. It makes her hold onto her own faith with the same, stubborn tenacity she has shown in all areas of her life - that people are inherently good.

He doesn't kill for a living, he says. Her brow furrows at that; she was limited to one question, but she can't help but press. It's risky and foolhardy but with such a door open, she can't help but move forward to see where it leads. It may remind him of a certain dark-haired woman that has assisted him so many times now, only that she was drawn towards the mysteries of the human soul than that of the universe. Inward, rather than outward.

"Then why?" she asks. "If not to live?"

He leaves his body; she can practically pinpoint when it happens, when his conscious spirit leaves the conversation to haunt the hallways of his fragmented memories. As he stares off at the mention of the name, Zatanna patiently waits, watching him with those pale, ice-blue eyes for a reaction, a word, an answer - something, anything. She doesn't get it, catching the way his head lowers, as if unplugged by whatever mysterious engine that drives him, eyes blank and cast on the ground.

She has learned the folly of touching his metal arm without his permission. Taking a further step forward, she looks around nervously, wondering if they were causing a scene, gripped by the momentary panic that someone would notice this unusual tete-a-tete. But the sea of humanity continues flowing around them like a stream pouring over rocks.

The young woman reaches out to try and touch the cuff of his sleeve.

"I'm right, aren't I?" she asks him as he stares on the ground. "There's something more to this, isn't there? Who is Steve, Stan?"

If she only knew, then maybe…


Why indeed? Why is she not already dead and at the bottom of a river? Why should he care about such pointless, inefficient things as honor or repaid debt? Doesn't that suggest that there is more beneath the cold, killing surface, struggling for expression?

And if there is more, can it forgive or balance out the blood he has shed without a second thought?

The answers to those questions are neither easy nor apparent, but the one thing Zatanna Zatara knows is that to receive kindness, one must give it. It is a gamble, with a man as dangerous as the Winter Soldier, but in this case it seems it is a gamble that pays off. He gives her one answer to one question. He gives her, very generously, her life to continue living.

Yet she still wants more. His eyes narrow dangerously as she presses her luck, asking more and more questions until she asks the one question she should never ask.

It sure gets a hell of a result, though. He droops as if severed— as if his primary personality cracked and lapsed, and let through something wasted and shriveled from long disuse to struggle to control his body again.

His mental agony is so acute that he does not even react to her touch on his sleeve. She's right, isn't she? she urges. There's something more. Who is Steve?

"Rogers," he recollects, with a vast and painful effort. Not just Steve. Can't just say Steve. Need the complete name. It's so hard to hold onto, though, and it wants to keep slipping back below the surface the harder he holds. "Where is Steve Rogers?" He fell, and he lost track of Steve, and that's no good because Steve won't, can't get by without him…


And that is what she is. Zatanna Zatara is kind - remarkably kind, unfailingly kind. It is the sort of kindness that has her pulling bodies out of dumpsters, and rescue an enemy's family if it was ever in danger. It is the sort of kindness that peels the caustic layers off Jessica Jones, the sort that reaches Azalea Kingston's corrupted soul. She is not a stranger to difficult people and some would say that she was born in a world and under circumstances in which she always has to deal with /just/ them, but her approach is always the same. She certainly has the balls and the sheer temerity to reach for what she wants, and when she decides to do something, there is hardly a force in the world that can dissuade her from it - not even her own fear, her own doubts.

And what she wants now is…

The search for answers is not the thing that drives her; she isn't like Tim, who isn't content unless he knows everything about a situation placed in front of him. She knows, somewhere deep down, that she is doing herself and Jessica a disservice, not asking about the case, or what he wants with the Gotham Antiquities Commission members. Her life would be so much easier, the /search/ for her father so much easier, if she just stayed the course. If she took what he offered and asked about something that would help her.

But she doesn't.

Right now, she wants Stan, more than anything, to be more than what he is, or believes himself to be, if he doesn't kill for a living. It might be the only way to get him to stop hurting poor bureaucrats and people who loved ancient art more than they should, and the vigilantes who defend them in this city abandoned by the gods.

"Is Steve Rogers important to you?" she asks. She pushes the door wider, to try and reach what is beyond. She tries to take him by the hand and pull him in with her.

Steve Rogers….

…why does that name sound so familiar?


The conditioning always did weaken, inevitably, the longer the Winter Soldier was out of freeze, and this job has already lasted much longer than usual. His brainwashing benefits from sameness, stability, from lack of stimuli that assail the careful programming that governs his behavior. Being out and about in the world— bombarded by familiar sights, sounds, and smells— is a constant assault on the integrity of that mental cage.

Now, finally, it cracks. And for a precious few moments, the Winter Soldier loses his grip, and James Barnes comes through for the first time in decades.

The first thing he wants to know is about Steve. Where is Steve? Has he failed Steve? Even changed, even different, even /strong/, Steve still needed him. And he hasn't been there. It is so important, so paramount, that he even asks the first person he sees before him; a girl who would have no reason to know. A girl who should have no reason to know.

He stands stock-still, racked with the effort just to keep hold of his identity for this one scant minute he has hold of it. His shoulders run with periodic tremors. He seems deaf to Zatanna's further promptings, her desperate attempts to find out more about Steve Rogers and who he is to this man. This split personality killer. Who is he? she urges. Is he important to you?


Something slams down. His programming recovers and boots the Winter Soldier back up. His conditioning snaps back into place. He first goes quiet, very quiet, and then his eyes harden over like frost crawling across a windowpane. His shaking quells, his shoulders tensing, his entire body winding taut like a cat backed into a corner, extending its claws, ready to attack whatever stimulus is hurting it.

"It doesn't mean anything to me," he hisses. "Nothing."

The coffee is abandoned, and Zatanna too; the Winter Soldier turns away, apparently confident she will not dare to follow. A glance arrows over his shoulder, one blue eye aimed at her in cold appraisal. "This cancels my debt," he says, of his choice to walk away from her. It is a transparent warning… and it is the only parting gesture he offers before he turns to leave.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License