It's Probably Fine

December 15, 2016:

An assassin and a warlock make a blood pact in the depths of a questionable dungeon. Probably nothing bad will come of this.

Cienzo Basile's Antiques and Knacks, Gotham City

Characters

NPCs: Cienzo Basile

Mentions: Zatanna Zatara

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It's early morning on a Thursday, not long after 'Cienzo Basile's Antiques and Knacks' opens its doors.

…Door. Singular.

It's a peculiar little place, from the way the proprietor appears to have left the word 'Knick' out of 'Knick-Knacks' in the name to the way there is an absolute lack of high-visibility signage. In the bottom left-hand corner of a dusty window too small to rightly display any of the wares that are supposed to tempt pedestrians in with their money in hand, old-fashioned painted lettering details the address. The lighting within is dim enough that from outside one gets the impression of a cramped, over-stuffed space filled with looming mountains of precariously piled junk.

Inside, it turns out to be somewhat less dreary. The lighting is warm and so is the air, and though the dust does sit heavily on the shelves and displays — to the extent that one wonders how anything /could/ have been sold — it doesn't smell musty or damp. There are faint aromas of spice or herb underpinning everything.

Cienzo Basile is a squat gentleman with a tonsure of frizzy grey hair ringing his head in a broken halo. He has the wide nose and large belly of an aging Italian, but his pallor suggests he doesn't see much of the sun, lacking the expected Mediterranean glow. His eyes are milky — cataracts — but he can still see, or at least one must assume, as there would otherwise be no reason to wear the round-rimmed, wire-frame glasses with the coke-bottle lenses.

"Now, John, I—"

"Stuff it, mate. I heard you the first time. You /owe/ me."

Opposite him, leaning up against the counter on one hip, is the trim figure of John Constantine. There's a small brass object in his hands that he's turning over on itself, examining with absent interest. One index fingertip flicks open the lid, revealing a small sphere made of…lapis? Some sort of green and blue stone, like a tiny globe of the earth. "This is straight kitsch, old son."

"Welcome to America, John. It's not easy to get your hands on the good stuff, anymore. Customs, unions—"

"Or you're getting soft."

"I have grandbabies to think of, hm? It's a young man's game."

"Right. So see if you can't get me what I'm looking for, would you? Some of us have still got work to do."

The portly man chuffs, irritated, but he begins to dig around in a stack of moldy ledgers behind the counter.

—-

It's not long before the bell on the door rings again, a cheerful little sound preceding the heavy steps of someone else entering the shop. This is pretty unusual in and of itself— early Thursday morning isn't exactly a high-traffic time for normal people— and making it more unusual is the fact that the man in question doesn't look like your typical person interested in knacks (no knicks) or antiques. Certainly not typical enough that him being down here, in a shop with absolutely zero marketing, would not be notable.

But hey, connoisseurs come in all shapes and sizes, right?

It's not any one thing that can be pointed to, to put a reason to why he seems out of place. He's dressed normally against the relatively mild cold of Jersey winter, in a jacket and jeans and sturdy boots. It might be the faint military carriage with which he holds himself, erect and precise in the way men drilled over a lifetime tend to be even when at rest in their home countries, miles and years away from the front line. It might be the unfiltered cigarette in his mouth, heedless of the effect the coarse smoke might have on delicate antiques.

It might be the way that, after taking a wide look around at the antiques near the front of the shop, he doesn't snort in disinterest and go away.

Instead he approaches the back, where the proprietor and his existing customer have set up. He looks a little annoyed that someone got here before him. Frankly, in general, he just looks like kind of a dick. "Cienzo Basile?" And he proves it by butting in.

—-

Both John and Basile snap their attention up to the sound of the bell on the door, and then they exchange glances in the second and a half they have before whomever it is will round the shelving and be in full view of the counter. By then John's back to looking at the whatever-it-is in his hands, and Basile is back to rummaging — or pretending to rummage — in the old binders under the counter.

He does straighten when he's addressed, huffing in a way that suggests bending over counts as cardiovascular exercise for him, and he blinks up at his new, straight-backed customer with eyes made blurry and too large by his glasses. "Yes? Yes? Can I help you?"

His smile is tentative, already intimidated. This has not been a good morning for Cienzo Basile. First John Constantine, now an unfamiliar face. But that's how it goes with John, isn't it? It's never a good sign when he turns up. It means everything is about to go to hell.

—-

Blue eyes flick left to appraise Mr. John Constantine as he fiddles with the object in his hands. That gaze lingers a second or two, before it seems to decide that there's nothing to be done about the annoyance for the moment, and turns back to Basile. The tentative smile is not answered.

The inquiry, however, is. "Yeah," he says around his cigarette. "I have it on pretty good — " possibly broken-armed, screaming, " — authority you're the person to ask about antiques of a less prosaic nature. I'm in Gotham for the upcoming auction. Sure you know about it? I'm a representative for some people who wanna start collecting but aren't too savvy on what makes things worth picking up." This is a statement that is absolutely, broadly, objectively true. Mostly true. HYDRA sure does love to collect things.

He doesn't look nearly nerdy enough to be a representative of anything. But then again, even antiques nerds can have gym memberships, right? "Could probably make it worth your while if you gave a rundown on the pieces up for auction and what makes them special."

—-

/Well then./

Must be on another hot streak, John Constantine. Maybe you /should've/ asked her to stick around last night.

John looks like he's ignoring the athletic interloper less than a yard away from him, but of course that would be impossible. And Basile looks like he's ignoring John, or at least, he looks like he's /trying/ to. He gawps at his new client like a fish, fumbles for a response, and eventually does find one, smiling in his charming, myopic way. Once upon a time he /was/ good at this kind of thing. Before he got fat, lazy, and old.

"Of course, of course. It's a bewildering world of fascinating things, isn't it? A bit overwhelming for someone who doesn't know precisely what they're after. Now, I'm not part of the auction board, but of course locals hear things. It's a very /long/ list of items, and as you can likely tell, I specialize in objects you find in the home — furniture, decor, the like…"

He places his pudgy hands on the counter, and squares his attention, grandfatherly and inviting. "So. Let's narrow it down a bit. What sort of collectors are they that you represent? What do they collect, precisely?"

—-

The Winter Soldier— because that is of course who he is— can practically smell how hard people are ignoring one another around him right now. He adds his own 'ignoring them ignoring each other' vibe to the mix.

"It is a long list," he says, leaning on the counter with his left arm. It creaks a little under this attention. "But we can easily exclude the art pieces." Unless Muller is after some sort of magical Dorian Gray painting; but intelligence suggested that was not the case. He was profiled to be interested in different things. Things like— "My clients are interested in occultic pieces. Things with kind of a myth behind them."

He really doesn't blink as much as he should. This next part is a guess on both his and HYDRA's part, but a reasonable guess. "Particularly things with a German origin. I understand there are a number of items that fit those descriptions on the list."

—-

"Occult…pieces?" Basile says the word 'occult' with the requisite amount of skepticism, and an uncertain smile. It's natural camouflage for those who inhabit his perilous world, when dealing with unknown entities. And the Winter Soldier, well— he does exude a kind of alarming presence, doesn't he? Too still, too cold, like the frozen surface of a lake that you feel sure will shatter and swallow you whole if you try to cross it. Basile's getting old, but he isn't /stupid/. "I really don't know a thing about—"

Well, maybe a /little/ stupid. Stupid in a different way than John, to whom it is very plain that flat denial is a poor idea.

"Oh come off it, Cienzo," he puts in, cutting in with a drawl. He has a thumb on the smooth, curving surface of the stone in the tiny contraption in his hand, the pad of that thumb sliding ever-so-slightly over the mottled surface, like a thoughtful fidget.

"Look, mate. I don't know who you are, but it might be we could help each other, you and I. Work a /deal/. Cienzo here's a relic," he says, dismissively. "Can barely find his arse with both hands."

—-

The more Basile denies knowledge, the more the Winter Soldier starts to look less normal and more like his nom de guerre. It's not overt. The mounting danger expresses itself more in absence: absence of movement, absence of warmth, absence of patience. More in tiny shifts that, while small, still throw everything just a little bit nauseatingly off-center, like a painting skewing a few degrees crooked on a wall.

I really don't know a thing! Basile insists.

Just slightly, the Soldier's head tilts in response. Basile might not notice, but John Constantine sure does.

Oh come off it, he interjects. The Winter Soldier's head turns, as if finally receiving something he's been expecting for some time now. He considers Constantine in silence, quips and all. More importantly, he considers Constantine's offer.

"Yeah?" he eventually says. "What do you got?"

—-

"/Personal interest,/" says John, rolling in his lean so that the counter is behind him, rather than against the side of his hip. Basile begins to back toward the curtained-off area behind the counter. He doesn't argue with John, but he does seem /very/ keen to get out of the blast radius.

"And a little bit of inside knowledge," John is saying. "Maybe even a lot number, if you /really/ impress me. But — and I get the feeling you aren't going to like this — you're going to have to give a little first, mate. So why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself? …Nah, scratch that. Tell me about the people who've got you out stomping 'round Gotham, giving old men incontinence issues."

—-

John is right. The Winter Soldier really doesn't like that. He turns, a slow rotation that brings him to face the other man. Mercifully for Basile, he's been pretty much forgotten for the time being, other than the sliver of attention the Soldier pays him to ensure he isn't going for a shotgun in the back.

"I could tell you," he replies dryly, "but then I'd have to kill you. Seem like a fair trade?"

He takes the cigarette from his mouth, looks at it ruefully, and puts it out against the counter. Hard enough getting those without not even finishing them. "I'm sure there's a middle ground in between 'that' and 'both of us getting something useful.'"

His hands lower as if to go back in his jacket pockets. The left one actually does. The right performs a slight, swift detour and winds up holding a derringer: not lifted, not pointed— not yet— but held right at the hip, ready to be fired if necessary.

—-

John sucks his teeth with something like disappointment over the oblique threat, and he rolls his head slightly to the side, tracking the mercenary's body movements, blue eyes landing on the materializing weapon. They rise again to meet eyes as blue as his, beneath one cocked brow. /Really?/ says the expression, underlined by a long sigh.

Is there a middle ground between knowing what he needs to know, and sharing the information he has to share?

"Not really." He doesn't move, but then he's had something in hand all this time that'll stand in for a weapon in a pinch.

"Let's take a walk," says John, flashing a wicked smile.

There is a soft popping, tinkling sound like the crushing of an empty crystalline eggshell as he jams his thumb down into the fragile exterior of the blue-green stone in the device, shattering the stone like a capsule…which is what it really is. But the sound goes on far longer than it should, distending, elongating, doubling back on itself. It echoes forward and backward through time and space, causing little ripples that resonate with themselves, amplifying. The world blurs. Gravity takes a vacation. There is a sensation of falling, of night, but not a terrifying drop — more like the slow, warm sink into the depths of some amniotic ocean.

Physics reassert themselves very suddenly, and John, for his part, topples over and lands in a sprawl with a wince, even though he'd known roughly what to expect. He doesn't have super-human reflexes, clearly.

What he did /not/ expect is the precise character of the fabrication into which he's pulled them: someone else's fantasy, this, distilled into a tiny ampoule, a little escapist world of their own.

To begin with, he'd never have chosen this /color scheme/. Black and red, jarring shards of neon stuck like knives into the abstract conception. It looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

No. It /is/ something from Alice in Wonderland. Only—

"'Strewth," he mutters, making a face as he gets his bearings, pushed up onto his elbows. "And I thought /my/ sex life was weird."

It's as though someone with extremely unhealthy feelings about fairy-tale characters decided to port them into a kink dungeon. It's a mutable realm, constantly in flux, but the offerings on display are…unique.

The Mad Hatter in the leather straps of— whatever that is— that's something John won't be able to unsee anytime soon.

—-

Really? says John's long-suffering expression.

Really, answers the Winter Soldier's cool blue gaze. At the least, he hasn't actively raised his weapon yet— he seems to be waiting for the possibility of some trade of information that's less… 'all or nothing'— but he's definitely on guard.

He's just not prepared to be on guard for what John does next.

It is almost like being sent back to cryogenic sleep— except warm. Except weird. The familiar stimuli trigger a sort of despairing passivity in him, a belief that he is back in the lab and being put to sleep again, and the aggression leaves him as the both of them are dropped. He doesn't fall over, not quite— his native balance is too keen for that— but unlike John, he doesn't immediately get up nor take stock of his surroundings. His body is expecting decades more of sleep in the heart of a frozen chamber.

Then he notices that's not what's happening at all.

The momentary short-out ends. The Soldier jerks to his feet, another— much bigger— gun pulled immediately and aimed on John, for lack of something else coherent enough to point it at. He stares around, completely nonplussed.

There is a very pointed moment of silence.

"Usually people don't come along for the ride when they attack me," the Winter Soldier finally says, his conditioned programming so at a loss in this environment that he has to dig back into his original personality to find a response to this.

—-

John's companion is a blur of movement, fast enough that it's hard to track his rise with the eye. /Bloody hell,/ thinks the Brit, looking upward on an angle and into the round pit of oblivion at the end of that gun. /More capes. Without the cape, though. That's not very sporting, is it?/

He lifts both of his hands slightly in a placating way, although they can't get very far, what with how he's braced on his elbows. He isn't certain that he needs to— the gun shouldn't be able to do anything to him here, which is why he did it to begin with, but it's clear that he's kicked a bigger hornet's nest than he realized, and doesn't see the sense in antagonizing it any further. Yet.

"Well, then, maybe it wasn't an attack, old son," he suggests, tone of voice more casual than the absolute stillness of his body suggests he feels. "Just a little change of scenery." …obviously. "To put us on more even footing. Truth is, mate, we're at a bit of an impasse. What you're looking for, as you may or may not have gathered, is bloody dangerous. Bad business. There are a lot of people looking for it, and most of them shouldn't be allowed to get their hands on it, unless you're a real /fan/ of Revelations. Book of. Yeah? So my hands are tied. I can't just /tell/ you where it is or what it does unless I know why you're looking for it in the first place."

—-

Definitely a cape of some sort— but not even one with the decency to wear any kind of identifying uniform, or eponymous cape. How's a man supposed to operate in a world where people won't even mark themselves out as being able to move faster than the eye can follow? Where they just walk around dressed and acting like anyone else until they're recovering from rude bodily shocks, leaping up, and quickdrawing guns in your face at Mach 2?

You operate by drawing them into cartoony kink dungeons, of course.

The Winter Soldier's gun, unfortunately, doesn't seem all that impressed with John's indignation about this. Neither does the Winter Soldier holding it. The gun does waver slightly every so often, however, like the Soldier can't quite decide whether to keep it trained on John, or on the leatherbound Mad Hatter, or on the Alice having truly atrocious things being done to her in the distant corner.

ULtimately he decides John, being the one at fault, deserves the gun the most… though the lifted hands do seem to placate him, and the Soldier isn't stupid; he knows Constantine is probably also his way out. The gun eventually does lower in a tacit indication of truce, though the Soldier regards John with suspicion as the man speaks. What John says tells the operative a great deal; the Soldier weighs this obviously, considering how much to release and how to say it.

Dangerous, huh? Book of Revelations level?

"I believe it's the ultimate goal of a man I am looking for," he finally says, choosing his words carefully, gun still half-poised at a wary angle. "I only look for people for one reason."

—-

Even once the gun shifts position, John remains on the floor. He does draw one knee up, and he lets his hands relax, but otherwise he seems content to stay prone. It isn't as though the furniture in the room looks inviting, is it? Not under these circumstances, anyway. Too many cuffs and so-on.

He isn't sure what to make of the response he gets, though it quickens his interest. For some moments he remains quiet, trying to discern the best approach to the existing fog of war on this little relational map. "So are you looking for the /thing/, or the /man/? Are you just staking out the thing in hopes you run into the man? Because there are easier ways to find people than that, long as you can give me something to go on. Might be I could find him for you…if I knew who he was. Then you wouldn't have to bother with auction lists, eh?"

—-

John seems content to stay on the floor. It's perhaps a purposeful choice: a heeding of that basic instinct, between animals, that nonthreatening body language will markedly lower the chances of being attacked. It seems to work, because the Winter Soldier eventually lowers his gun. Not fully, but enough that John isn't making conversation with the blackness of a gun's muzzle.

Constantine takes his own long few moments to process the returned information, and come up with a safe rejoinder. The Soldier cants his head, wary but interested. "I have a lead on finding the man. Got there the old-fashioned way," he says, with a disparaging look at his surroundings. "The thing is a secondary interest based off his desperation to get it."

John offers to just find the man FOR him. If… he knew who he was. "Or I tell you and you spirit him off," the Winter Soldier points out wryly, with a tilt of his gun. "Could go that way as well."

—-

"Could do, but I'm not actually interested in the man, except that I'm maybe interested in /why/ he wants the Thing." The fingertips of John's right hand drill a series of nonsense taps against the floor as he squints, pensive — or trying to be pensive, anyway. It's difficult with everything going on, and he's /used/ to ignoring abject nonsense.

"I'm going to…take a wild shot in the dark here, and you can tell me whether or not I'm right. This prat you're after. Wouldn't happen to have a /German/ accent, would he? German, Austrian, sommat like that?" In asking, he seems guarded. Whether the man standing over him is capable of doing him harm here or not, eventually he's going to have to go back to a less eye-melting reality. There, he is quite sure, the man with the gun would happily more than make up for lost time, if he doesn't play his cards right.

—-

Now he's gotten over the initial shock, the Winter Soldier seems impervious to the goings-on around him. Stands to reason an assassin— which he must be, right?— would have remarkable powers of focus in shutting out distractions, though.

No, his attention is ALL reserved for John, which the man must be enjoying right about now. At the least, the Soldier now seems as guarded and wary of Constantine as Constantine is of him, though the pride of keeping an assassin on his back foot is probably outweighed by the general sense that it would be preferable not to have to keep an assassin at bay at all.

So John takes a shot in the dark. This prat wouldn't happen to be German, would he? The Winter Soldier's expression does not betray anything, though he does not reply for a considerable amount of time. Well, it's a risk, but sometimes in the assassin business risks are necessary, and he still has that other lead he can use to confirm. "…Yes."

—-

It's almost too good to be true. John's brows shoot upward, then slowly fall as he processes that information. /Hot streak indeed. Time to hit the bookies,/ he thinks to himself.

The ghost of a grin flicks by, flirts with his face, though he's still cautious enough that it can't gain much foothold there. "Well. How about that." Several seconds tick by. One brow perks. He tilts his head forward. "I'm going to sit up, mate, and then I'm going to stand, and I'd be obliged if you didn't try to blow me 'ead off while I'm doing it, alright?"

Intentions stated aloud, he goes about the process of doing that, slowly and with his hands in plain sight all the while. "Because it sounds like we might be able to help each other after all, and a man ought to make his deals on his feet."

—-

Blue eyes study the brief expression that crosses John's face. Looks like the man heard what he wanted to hear. The Winter Soldier, however, stays on guard.

It's certainly helpful that John states his intentions aloud before doing anything. The Soldier frowns, but after a pause his gun lowers even more. It doesn't get holstered, because they're not THAT friendly yet, but the operative does thumb some kind of lever on his gun, and that probably means something good. Right?

Incidentally, it does. It's the decocking lever. It means the Soldier wants it to take a long squeeze before he accidentally kills John, instead of a short one.

A man ought to make his deals on his feet, John explains as he gets to his. Something about the phrase hits… something in the back of the Winter Soldier's mind. The idea sounds familiar, so familiar. A troubled line forms between his brows as he briefly chases the thought, but it's long gone before he can even begin to grasp at it.

Besides, he has other things he should be focusing on. "I'm listening," he says, cautious.

—-

John has no idea what the click means, only what he /hopes/ it means. John doesn't do guns. Which is strange, considering how often he's having the shit kicked out of him, but nevertheless: not his thing.

"I told you before, there are a lot of people after the Thing going to auction. One of those people happens to be a…" Hesitation. His jaw cocks to one side, eyes lidding. "Friend…of mine. Means well, you know, and this friend of mine, they'd never do anything /wrong/ with the…Thing…but as it happens there's a very good chance they're not supposed to get their hands on it. Long story, you'll have to take my word. I have a strong interest in getting my mitts on it before they do. 'Least I can do to protect a friend, eh? Make sure they're not about to stick a foot in it. I've also got good reason to believe that if this Thing winds up in anybody else's hands, it's going to be trouble on the order of 'somebody opening the gates of Hell.' Not hyperbole, mate. But it's going to be a damn sight more difficult for me to get me 'ands on it than it would be for someone of your…" Again, he sucks his teeth, flicks a glance over the Winter Soldier. "…stature. And you want this man, but I don't give a shite about him, except that I'm concerned about his reasons for trying to hunt this Thing down."

Situation explained, he spreads his hands out to the sides, palm up. "But I'm /good/ at finding things. You get me something that belonged to him — piece of his body would really be ideal, but any old thing would do — or even his real name…well." He twists his head on a slight angle, and that rake's smile of his finally takes up residence on his face. "He'd have to make a deal with a whole host of angels to hide from /me/. So. Maybe we can arrange a trade. The Thing, for the Man."

—-

The Winter Soldier listens in silence as John explains at length. The accent is pretty thick, but for some reason his brain has the muscle memory— so to speak— to process it without issue. Almost as if deep in his past, somewhere, he hung out with a whole lot of Brits before.

He doesn't question where it comes from. He just tilts his head as he parses the information. 'Opening the gates of Hell' certainly sounds like hyperbole, but the Soldier has worked for HYDRA long enough to see enough weird shit that he doesn't look half as skeptical as he might.

"So you want the thing," he eventually summarizes, with the efficiency of a man used to giving sitreps, "so your friend doesn't get the thing, and so that this other man doesn't get the thing, who you are willing to find for me in exchange for me helping you get the thing." Well, the sitreps aren't usually this complicated, but it'll do.

The Winter Soldier thinks about it a moment. Then he shrugs. "Fine."

A long few moments pass.

"…Can we get the fuck out of here?"

—-

"Yes," confirms the cheeky warlock. And the mercenary agrees.

"Ta," he says, looking pleased. Until the Cape asks if they can go, anyway, at which point his humor wanes just a bit, undermined by something less glittery and distracting, like suddenly feeling the solidity of an iron bar buried deep in a down pillow. "Well, yes and no, mate. See, here's the /thing/. You know for a certainty that you could find me and, I am /very/ sure, skin me alive if I don't hold up my end. You're probably also thinking to yourself that it doesn't seem like there's much I could do to /you/ if you decide you want to hold onto the Thing for yourself. /I'm/ thinking that too. But there are ways around that, eh? Magic's good for levelling the playing field, as you've already seen."

Is that what this is? With a brief glance at what the Queen of Hearts is up to, John's honestly not even sure, himself.

He clears his throat, tries to refocus. "Ehm…right. So." He points at one flap of his coat. "Somethin' in here I need to get. It's a knife. Little one. Don't get dodgy on me, alright? At least do me the courtesy of believing I'm not stupid enough to try to kill you with a pocket knife?"

—-

Constantine takes a moment to outline some remaining issues with their pact. Namely, the fact that John is rather at a disadvantage here: if John himself doesn't hold up his end, he's probably not outrunning a professional assassin, and if the Winter Soldier himself decided to, say, abscond with the Thing, there's probably not much John could do about that either.

Tell the truth, the Soldier is paranoid enough that he doesn't believe for a hot second that John Constantine would have zero recourse if he got doublecrossed. Though on the other hand, he does fully believe that if he had to hunt and kill the man for failure to keep his end, he probably could. He has more than enough professional confidence in that regard.

John proposes to solve all those lingering trust issues, though. But he has to get out a little knife to do it.

This puts the Soldier visibly on guard, though not out of fear of the pocket knife itself. "So what? You gonna do some blood magic shit now?"

—-

"Yes. Some 'blood magic shit,' as you say." He enunciates the words delicately, retrieving the knife.

Calling it a 'pocket knife' seems a little bit misleading. It's a shard of obsidian with one end wrapped in a leathery material that doesn't bear thinking about. "Cliche or not," he says, lifting his left palm and scrutinizing it in a business-like sort of way, "There's a lot of power in blood. One of the most readily available batteries for magical goings-on that there is. For better or worse." Sniffing, he lowers his hand, holds the shard of gleaming volcanic stone over it, razor point down. Red light seems to pulse in its impossibly-thin depths.

"Hand up, left or right, doesn't matter. And ah, I'm going to need a name to go with that." After a beat, he smiles a grim smile, corners of his eyes crinkling. "That's just for me own use though. The spell doesn't need it."

—-

The Winter Soldier frowns at this development. He frowns especially at the knife, which looks frankly unholy. There's enough '1930s good old boy Christian upbringing' left in him, buried deep, to be distantly, vaguely horrified by this entire proceeding.

It's really just a niggling thought though, beneath the weight of all his mental conditioning.

What /really/ bothers him is this: "Hold up. I want to read the contract before I sign it. What's the exact terms?"

Internally, the Soldier sighs. Negotiating the terms of a blood-binding was not in his initial job description.

—-

For John, this is all just run-of-the-mill stuff — the knife, the blood. It barely rates a thought anymore. He does realize, looking up at his uncertain co-conspirator, that the big man isn't /actually/ part of this world — which is interesting, as well, but not particularly relevant anymore — and that maybe this kind of thing needs to be eased into.

"Uh…alright. Well. Simple little binding spell, really. Cut palms, we shake on it, some of the fabric of your being and mine gets stitched together into a little insurance policy — nothing to it, hey? All it does is ensure that we do what we say we're going to do. I'm going to get you what you want in exchange for what I want, and vice-versa. As long as that happens and nobody gets any funny ideas about trying to bend the rules on it, everything's peachy, and you never have to think about it again. But somebody comes up short, and a hex goes into effect."

He regards the man in front of him with slightly arched brows. "So. On with it, then." For John, that was obviously plenty of explanation.

—-

This is most definitely not the Winter Soldier's wheelhouse. Intrigue? Sure. Espionage? Definitely. Assassinating his way across the 20th century? No problem. BLOOD RITUALS? Not really.

The explanation does seem straightforward, at least— as straightforward as any discussion of magical bullshit can be. The Soldier considers it, transparently wary, but in the end not seeing much of a choice or better alternative.

"Fine," he says again. There's a moment of hesitation— for obvious reasons he has to use his right hand, but his gun is in it, and he really doesn't want to reholster it in case things go haywire mid-Satanic ritual. He solves this dilemma by raising his left hand and removing the heavy glove with his teeth, revealing the heavy dull shine of— metal?

No wonder he won't use his left hand.

Swapping his weapon to his left hand with a dull clink of metal against metal, he reaches up, takes the glove and shoves it in a pocket. "Do you /really/ need a name?" he grumbles, grudgingly allowing his right hand into voodoo magic range.

—-

"Unless you want me to make one up to use when I'm talking to you," John says, slanting his eyes along to the metal hand's dull gleam. But although he takes an interest, it doesn't linger over-long. In the same way that Bucky has only limited patience for delving into arcane mysteries, John's interest in certain elements of the supranormal world extend only as far as utility goes. He does not appear to have any interest in prying into the mysteries behind the /why/ of that prosthetic.

And whether the Winter Soldier decides to give him a name or not, John does not wait. He's offered a hand and he's viper quick when he wants to be. "Right then." The blade flashes: first over his hand, then over the mercenary's. For full seconds it may seem as though nothing has happened, until pressure builds up behind the split in flesh and a sudden upwelling of blood spills over what appeared to be markless skin. The blade is terrifyingly sharp. It ought to be; it's volcanic glass from the depths of Hell.

The moment the shock of red liquid appears, John clasps hands, grip tight. There is an instant electricity, tingling warmth that travels from one into the other, going both directions. Something leaving, and something /entering/.

It takes only moments. Shortly afterward John lets go, shakes his hand out, slinging droplets. It's covered in blood, rivulets running between his fingers, but their wounds were sealed at the same time as the pact, and there's no mark left to be seen.

—-

Unless you want me to make one up to use when I'm talking to you!

The Winter Soldier sighs. The last time he let that happen, he didn't like the result. "Orlov will do," he says. It's another fake name anyway. It's issued to him specifically for situations like this. Well, not specifically. No one involved in the creation of the Winter Soldier's many fake IDs anticipated needing to give a name in advance of an unholy blood ritual.

He doesn't flinch when the blade makes its cut— pain is familiar— but he does when John clasps his hand and that electric warmth tingles between them in an unmistakable transaction. Much faster than he anticipated, it's over, and he finds himself shaking blood off an unmarked palm.

No cut. The Soldier shudders a bit. He heals orders of magnitude faster than the average person, to be sure, but that's too fast even for him.

"So," he eventually says. "You said you had a lot number. That this Thing?"

—-

"Six one seven. It's being auctioned at the Gotham Auction Charity. Apparently, people around its existence have been turning up dead, so there's that." The knife disappears into the coat, and instead he retrieves a bit of chalk, one of the core tools of his trade, such as it is. He drops into a crouch and begins to scrawl on the floor, obviously making preparations for them to vacate this little niche pocket of fantasy. "If you can't manage to find it before then, you'll have to steal it during the event, which — I don't mind telling you — is going to be a damned sight more difficult, because that friend of mine is going to be there, and she's able to get up to the same kind of trouble I am. It'll be better if you can sort things before then, but it's your area of expertise, not mine."

He rings the interior of the circle with sigils and symbols, messily scrawled, pausing only once to look up and fix his /colleague/ with a pointed look. "It's a book. My recommendation? Don't touch it with your bare hands, don't leave it unwrapped or out of a container, and /whatever/ you do, mate, and I'm /serious/, do not. Open. That book." He returns to his scribbling. "The less you even think about it, the better."

—-

Lot 617. Being auctioned at the GAC event. There is a moment, when John mentions people around its existence have been turning up dead, where the Winter Soldier looks briefly pensive. It's the 'was that me or not?' look that he gets when he's trying to remember if he's responsible for something.

Eventually he determines it probably wasn't him. Maybe. He starts paying attention to the nonsense John is doing instead, wary.

That it would be better to sort out getting his hands on the book before the event and not after is a given, of course— but the Soldier homes in on something else John says. That his friend is going to be there, his friend is a she, and she's capable of getting up to the same shit he is. "Is your friend an annoying eighteen year-old girl?" he inquires.

He has other questions, too. "As for the man… all you need is a possession? Something he owned at one point? Or his real name?"

—-

The scribbling comes to a sudden stop, along with all other movement from John. He's silent and still because all of the movement is going on behind his eyes.

Very slowly, he pivots in his crouch, one knee coming up, his arm draped over the top, to squint at the man behind him. It's not easy to get a read on John, but there's suddenly something genuinely dangerous in him, like light winking off of the surface of a vast lake of quiescent rage. Not anger, exactly, but a window onto the view, a sense of just how much anger he contains. Still sleeping — for now. "You want to be careful."

Two seconds, and then he starts drawing again. He's almost finished. "None of the other details matter," he says, a low rasp of a sentence. "Just the book, and the man you're looking for. Leave the rest of it alone."

Sniffing, he pushes himself up to stand, dusts his hands on his coat before thinking about what he's doing, leaving behind a smear of chalk and sticky blood that he frowns at. After that, he's conversational again. "That's right. An object will be better. I'll settle for a name if I have to, but it's worth looking for something I can touch."

The business card materializes in his fingers, and he offers it across. With the clean hand, mercifully. "You can reach me this way when you've got something."

—-

It was a somewhat innocent question, if a probing one— an instinct the Soldier has to gather information and connect dots as far as who is involved in what— but it gets a much larger response than he anticipated. As John freezes, then pivots slowly to stare over his shoulder, the Winter Soldier gets the distinct sense that he has touched a nerve. A raw one.

He keeps his expression neutral. It's his turn for his body language to be a little conciliatory. "Sure." But he files the information.

Folding his arms, he shifts his weight as he waits. "Rest of it probably isn't shit I want to get involved in," he mutters. This is already way more magic than he signed up for.

The tense moment passes. John rises, dusting off his hands, and confirms that something physical is better. Then he forks over his card. Taking it, examining it, the Soldier frowns slightly. The flicker of an idea appears in his irises. "I think I have something in mind," he remarks, as he pockets it.

He doesn't bother giving John, in turn, a way to contact him. Half because there is no good way to contact a ghost assassin, and half because having already lost some footing due to sudden immersion into the world of Satanic ritual, he'd prefer to keep control over the next step.

—-

"Good." The humming tension is gone. John even cracks a smile, as though none of that had ever happened. "I think it's well past time to go, eh?" He steps into the circle, and beckons 'Orlov' into it with a twitch of two fingers. His other hand roots in his pocket for a metal lighter, the top of which he flicks open. "Bloody punters and their useless magical souvenirs. Can't believe Basile was hocking something like that," he mutters, with a last glance at the festering eyesore of a pocket dimension around them. "Honestly. Some people have absolutely no taste."

—-

The Winter Soldier does NOT take a last glance around. He emphatically avoids taking a last glance around as he warily enters the circle when indicated.

He has good instincts, to be nervous. Entering a circle with John Constantine is probably the last thing that plenty of people ever remember happening.

Some people have absolutely no taste, John complains. "I'd prefer never to talk about this again," the Winter Soldier makes as his sole comment on the matter.

—-

"Suits me," says John Constantine, flicking the lighter and sparking it to life. He tosses it to his feet, it falls in ever-intensifying slow-motion, until it softly /clinks/ on the floor. The flame flickers, licks at the granules of chalk, and tongues of fire erupt along every line, spreading hungrily. The purification circle allows the fire to consume the latent magic, digesting it. Images warp, sounds distend. Reality gets pearshaped. Like a bubble, the realm they inhabit pops, decompressing violently.

When the confusion recedes, they'll be in the shop, of course, just where they were. Rather, the Winter Soldier will. John is long gone. That's one of the benefits of being habituated to nonsense: resilience.

He's left Orlov there, trusting that he's capable of handling himself. It's something that Cienzo Basile may never forgive him for: the squat old man is leaning over the counter to look down at the figure on his floor, eyes wide and flesh clammy and pale as the belly of a fish.

Something rattles in his nervous, shaking hands. "I made you some…tea…"

Subtext: PLEASE DON'T KILL ME

—-

Despite being much more prepared for the exit than he was for the entry, somehow when everything stops being psychedlic and pear-shaped, the Winter Soldier finds himself flat on his back on the shop floor. And of course, John Constantine is gone, because John Constantine has a sense of humor.

Though the Soldier has a feeling that the unfortunate proprietor of the shop was the real butt of John's joke here, because why else leave a deadly assassin on the floor when you could easily have ported it somewhere else?

Said proprietor tries to buy his life with tea. Unfortunately for Basile, his unwanted guest has a slight sense of humor too. The instinct to troll was too innate to James 'Bucky' Barnes to ever be truly suppressed for long.

The Soldier lazily looks up at Basile, and his hand turns just enough to rotate the muzzle of the gun in it until it points straight at the man's face. "I was never here, et cetera," he explains. "Now get lost."

Whenever the man complies, the Soldier will lever himself up to his feet and take a quiet exeunt.

—-

If Basile's eyes get any wider, they will literally pop out of his head. He stares at the gun, and tries to say something.

"I f— j- juh— buh- muh —"

'Get lost' seems to be the thwack he needed to get the record started again. He has every intention of doing exactly that.

If only his body were capable of retreating as fast as the rest of him is trying to. He takes a step backward, manages to trip over himself, flips ass over elbows. The teacup goes sailing off in an arc. His comparatively small feet flail into view over the counter. Presumably he eventually rolls out of sight behind the curtain in his back room, to gauge from the sound of things being tipped over and crashing to the floor, followed by a stream of terrified, furious Italian, most of which is dedicated to cursing John and his entire line of poxy ancestors. It is a musical tirade that will follow the assassin from the shop, and back into a sane day full of taxi cabs, yoga, and Starbucks, where things make even a modicum of greater sense.

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