Magic, Murder

December 24, 2016:

Following up on a prior arrangement, the Winter Soldier brings John an item for tracking their mutual target. Following a brief divining ritual in John's new flat, they set out to square matters with Muller himself. The Winter Soldier does what he does best, Muller dies, John Constantine finds himself faced with a change of plans. …and then Muller comes back to life.

Multiple locations

Characters

NPCs: Gottfried Muller (NPC'd by Zatanna Zatara)

Mentions: Zatanna Zatara, Giovanni Zatara

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

A little over a week ago, John Constantine sealed a blood pact with a shadowy assassin, and then let said assassin have his phone number for the purposes of further contact.

Then there was no contact. His phone remained silent for long enough that it would not be a stretch to wonder if that ghost of a man ever even existed.

It seems he does exist, however, and he keeps ungodly early hours, because it's six in the morning when a text from an unknown number suddenly rolls in to John's phone. It is brief. It is also oddly grammatically perfect and precisely punctuated, despite being a text message.

'11 AM. Gotham Central Station. Northwest corner of the intersection, by the north entrance. Look normal. I will wait five minutes exactly.'

At the appointed time, the area around said train station is full of life and activity, bloated with absent-minded travelers trying to get somewhere or another in the midst of the Christmas rush. John Constantine's contact is where he promised he would be, waiting, dressed so prosaically it might at first be hard to pick him out.

Especially since he has what looks like a bog-standard holiday type gift bag beside him.

—-

Six in the morning usually only exists for John Constantine at the end of a long night, or in very dire circumstances. He likes it that way. Mornings are too quiet for him, and though he also keeps odd hours, those odd hours trend toward the time when the sun is already down.

So when his phone buzzes on the cardboard box currently serving as the nightstand beside his bed in his brand new bolt-hole — echoing, amplified by the hollowness of the box, which only contains a small collection of bits and pieces of dead saints — John rolls over blindly, slaps at it once on reflex. It is not an alarm clock.

And he is not in good condition, as his left shoulder is quick to remind him. It lights up like the Christmas tree Chas is insisting they acquire.

"Oh bugger /me./"

His answer is not quite so precise:

'fk'
'ok'

In spite of the lack of enthusiasm demonstrated by his return texts, he shows up /early/, and spends the intervening time meandering around the surrounding area. He looks the way he always does. One might fairly wonder if he /has/ other clothing.

Still, nobody looks at him. But then, he's a wizard, isn't he, Hairy?

He just strolls on up, because why not?

—-

A face might have been made at the return text. The face of, say, an older gentleman affronted at having put so much effort in, only to receive so little in return from punk youth.

It is fleeting.

Several hours later, regardless of his feelings on the matter, he is where he promised to be, patiently waiting. He noticed John about six minutes prior to John actually turning to walk towards him, but did nothing and allowed the occultist to come up to him.

At which point he turns towards John, picks up the bag, and does probably the most alarming thing John Constantine, killer of monstrosities, banisher of demons, He-Who-Bargains-With-God, has seen in some time.

He smiles, warmly, claps John amiably on the shoulder (hefty, but thankfully the right hand), and greets him with a very personable, "There you are!"

His body language herds John out of the main crush and closer in to a side street, where the foot traffic is considerably less. "I'm glad I caught you before I skip town," he confides, as if to a very old friend. The bag is offered over. "I picked this up for your kid, and I'd hate for her not to get it in time for Christmas."

—-

John is nothing if not adaptable. He answers the smile with one of his own, crooked, but it doesn't betray any of the red lightning that arcs through the inside of his chest as he's clapped on the back. /Christ almighty./

"You didn't have to do that," he says, and there is not a single /lick/ of England in his voice. Not a one. "Good of you, though. I know she'll love it. Just love it." He takes the back, but he doesn't look at it. "I'll have to see if there's room in my carry-on for it. You know— they're starting to charge an arm and a leg for overhead bin space. It's ridiculous. The last flight I was on, there was a lady who had /two/ carry-on bags, and I got to the gate late, so of course there wasn't any room left, and they wouldn't do anything about it. I had to check mine. You know, at the gate? With the green tag?"

This comes naturally for John; bullshit is more or less his medium, but he doesn't have to like it. This is what /normal people/ sound like to him: fucking prats. Even pretending to be one of them makes him feel as though he's about to break out in hives.

They're quickly clear of the throngs of humanity, but John is less concerned about his /own/ comfort level than that of the man who so casually pulled a firearm on him the last time they met, so he leaves it to 'Orlov' to decide when they're far enough away to stop playing charades.

—-

The Winter Soldier was expecting… something… but he wasn't really expecting such a seamless adaptation to the odd protocols of live drops in crowded locations. The sole concession he makes to being grudgingly impressed is the vague lift of one brow.

This probably cancels out the initial impression he received from that 'ok' text.

"Yeah I kept it small, didn't want to inconvenience you. Make you have to check stuff. The limits get more and more stringent every year. Crazy shit. Back in the day, flying was a real treat. None of this sardine can treatment." He does not say anything about how far back in time he is referring.

He just steers John deftly down the street until they clear the main throng, constructing a narrative with his body language: two men exchanging some holiday pleasantries whose conversation eventually gets involved enough that they have to pull over into a side street to properly finish it.

Once they're there, the Soldier's demeanor doesn't… /change/, precisely, but he does start talking business. "Incense burner," he says. "Good enough? I located the book, also."

—-

For his part, as they draw to a stop, John threads the bag handles over his wrist, dips his hand into his pocket, and retrieves that pack of cloves. He slaps one out of it into his hand, offers Bucky one, and whether or not the man accepts, he'll light it. The one he chooses is slightly different than the others, though, and the reason why probably becomes clear: as he exhales that first cloud of smoke, there's an effect on the din of street ambiance like the turning-on of noise-cancelling headphones, dampening. Conversations beyond the sphere of it seem muffled at best.

"If it belonged to him? Yeah. Should be. And that's good news."

He cocks a brow, sticks to that atrociously bland accent just for safety's sake. "So here's my thinking: I don't see any reason to wait on this. You have time today, I can sniff him out for you right now." He glances off to one side. "Well. Not /now/. But, you know…now-ish. Truth is, while there are questions I'd like to ask him, there are a lot of things that could go wrong between finding him and trying to ask them, and I think we can both agree that he's better off dead than in hiding again, right? So you may as well come with me. If we can knock him out, I've got a place we can drag him to for getting answers out of him, and then he's all yours, as promised. If we can't…well…you might as well kill him. But I'll need you to leave him with a working mouth, alright? I'll just ask my questions after he's snuffed it, and then we'll send him back to hell. It's messy and expensive, but it'll do."

Another drag, another exhale. "Sound good?"

—-

The Soldier eyeballs the offered clove, typically suspicious, but after a moment seems to decide beggars can't be choosers, so what the hell. He accepts it and the light.

John pulls out a slightly different one, and the difference soon makes itself evident in the localized muffling effect. The Winter Soldier eyeballs his immediate surroundings, seeing nothing but nonetheless able to easily perceive the effect. Shit. Gives him the creeps. "Shoulda done that earlier. Gonna make all my fuckin methods obsolete here," he grumbles around the clove in his mouth, though he doesn't sound like he's /complaining/, either.

He listens intently once John starts outlining his plan, blue eyes sharp through the trickle of smoke hazing up from the end of the lit clove. There's little on his features to say whether or not he likes it; the Soldier has a poker face that could kill on its own, without him needing to get around to his weapons. "Suits me. I want this job done. Today's good as any other day."

There's a pause while his mind processes through what he just heard. "…you gonna ask him questions /after/ I've killed him?"

—-

"It's not foolproof," John says with a single-shouldered shrug, and the shrug is /very/ small. He has a stiffness in that specific movement that Bucky's trained gaze will no doubt be able to pick out as the consequence of pain. "People who'd love to bend me over are probably not looking for me to use your, and your people probably don't expect you to be using mine—eh? Covering all the bases. I'm all for it." He winks, in good spirits. And why not? He's got the thing he was looking for and it sounds as though they have a line on the thing he /really/ wants.

Now that he knows what it is — now that he's put its /other name/ to the one everybody was using — he's got plenty of new reasons to want to lay his hands on it.

He small-shrugs again after the last question. "If I have to," is the answer. But his relief at Bucky's agreement is plain, and he doesn't bother to hide it. This kind of thing needs capable hands, and John, for all his utility, is not a gifted combatant, nor is he in the best possible shape to be tussling with Muller. Loathe as he might be to admit it, even to himself, he needs the man if he wants to have the best possible shot at succeeding.

—-

The Soldier's gaze is drawn immediately by the shortness of that shrug. It's actually visible, that zeroing in— the way his eye turns and locks to catalog a weakness, pupil dilating just slightly to take in information— and it's not that different from watching a wolf alert to the small movements of prey.

He watches that shoulder as John explains the magic is not exactly foolproof, and given that they both probably have tails and people looking to screw them over, a mix-and-match of their opposing approaches is probably best in the long run to throw everyone off. "Yeah," he's got to admit. "Point."

He takes another drag— with a slight wrinkling of his nose— and exhales with slight incredulity as John confirms that yes, if he has to, he will talk to the corpse. The Soldier figures 'don't ask' is probably the best policy there. "All right," is all he says instead, surprisingly agreeable to all this— and noticing, himself that John seems pretty relieved about it too. Probably for the same reason: it's just better to have expertise coverage for all potential angles of a situation. It sounds like this mark has some voodoo bullshit ties himself, and he'd rather have along a specialist in that kind of thing if it's going to be that way. The Winter Soldier didn't get to be one of the best operatives in the world by not being pragmatic about covering knowledge gaps when necessary.

"Give me two hours and I can be ready," he proposes. "I got to gear up."

—-

Something about that calculating little glance tickles at John's survival instincts. He'd be hard-pressed to say why, save that the moment has a feeling he's used to associating with his life taking a sudden turn for the worse.

It's passing, though.

"Two hours, right. Meet me — ah. Well. I'll send you the address," he says, with a tap of his index finger on the chest of his coat, presumably indicating his phone. "It's complicated."

Of course it is.

—-

It's complicated, John says. The Soldier looks wary, because while he hasn't known John long, it really doesn't /take/ that long to work out that 'it's complicated' from John usually means something either really weird, really bad, or both.

Ah, well, he's put his hands in the fire already, so to speak. "Use the same number," he replies, already turning to leave. "Keeping this burner long enough for that."

There is no goodbye. The Winter Soldier just fades away, back into the crowd, an old Soviet ghost gone back to ground.

His crash spot in Gotham isn't really that far. It's an empty loft space over the floor of a building that was once a factory, and has yet to be repurposed for anything else— or just plain torn down. There's no actual stairs up to it, or doors, or any of that kind of thing, but somehow the Soldier gets in and out just fine. Somehow.

Two hours, and he lays out his gear, and waits for the message. Unsure of his precise needs, he prepares a versatile array. Sidearms are a given. Knives. Grenades. Hey, maybe John can magic them up on a likely rooftop, and it won't need to be any more complicatd than how the Soldier usually handles these situations. He adds the M82A1. Heavy, but if necessary he can drop and retrieve later.

He sits back, folding his arms. Something's missing. He reaches over, grabs the Milkor MGL Mk 1S, puts it down too. He has no idea what magical bullshit might be impending, but grenade launchers tend to make him feel better about it.

—-

John's new place both is and is not far. It's in New York for one thing, but being able to cross long distances via portal has its uses, even if it wears him out like buggery. It's not his /specialty/, that one. 'tanna runs circles around him with it, for instance.

The other reason it both is and is not far is that it exists in a state that would give Dr. Jane Foster an unbelievable headache, simultaneously where it is and /not/ where it is, and the placement of the doors changes often enough, as Bucky is about to discover.

The address arrives close to the two hour mark. Rather, /addresses/. One is in Queens, and instructs Bucky to use the back door if he arrives before 5pm; the other is in Brooklyn, and suggests that there's an askew manhole cover he should descend into.

/Complicated/.

The back door to the Chinese restaurant is in a service alley heavily populated by rats, those ubiquitous denizens of the sprawling metropolis. There are empty delivery crates for produce stacked outside along with plastic milk crates. The aromas that bleed out around the edges are tantalizing.

Not once the door is open, though. It will push open to reveal an entirely enclosed brick and concrete space large enough to contain two city buses with room to spare. A cistern once, a sewer, maybe one of those subway platforms that never did get finished. The mosaic on the curved overhead portion toward the entrance end suggests it was constructed around the 1920s. The entirety of the interior is being lit by strands of lights hung from the ceiling. Clearly, the space is a work in progress — especially the cinderblock…thing…in the back.

Entering causes a change in pressure to the eardrums. The door will no longer be there once it's gone through. But John is there, putting the final touches on the low table he intends to use for the initial rite, and he glances up when the door opens.

"Oi, good. You made it. Wasn't sure what would happen when you tried to come in, to be honest. I was pretty sure I had everything set up, but, eh, it's a little complicated when you take over some other magus' digs, innit? Sometimes there are little things you miss when you're cleanin' up, like."

There are very obviously a second person's belongings here — a man's — but that person is nowhere to be seen.

—-

Near the two hour mark, the Winter Soldier glances at his burner to find that he has been sent two addresses.

His headache begins right about then.

If there's one thing he's good at, though, it's following directions, so he makes it through the Platform 9 and 3/4s magical bullshit okay— though not without some wariness the whole way through, especially at the unexpected pressure change that transpires once he's in. In his progress, there's really only one thing that gives him brief pause: the mosaic.

He frowns at it for a few seconds. Then he hefts the bag he's carrying with him, and moves on.

Everything's just weird enough— especially when the door just DISAPPEARS— that he's almost actually relieved to see John at the end, fussing at a table. The Soldier does not reply the chatter— probably as expected— his eyes busy scanning the area. "There's someone else here?"

—-

"Not at the moment. My best mate's going to be staying a while. But you're jumpy and he likes the number of holes his body came with, so I sent him out. Gone to see.." Pause. "An old friend."

There are candles on the table, a circle of salt around the outside of it, leaving enough room on the floor for one to sit on either side: obviously, Orlov is going to be part of this little ordeal. At the center, of course, sits the incense burner, with the incense off to one side.

"This," John is saying as he turns around and strides toward the back of the space, "Is where I'd like to bring Muller if we're able to pull it off."

The cell is newly-constructed, but there's been a great deal of work done to its freshly-poured exterior. Deep grooves have been chiseled into it in a disorienting array of symbols and circles, some of these smeared with — honestly, it's probably best not to wonder.

"Cinderblocks containing rebar. Poured cement into them. Mixed the cement with holy water." He nudges what looks like a vault door with a single barred window open with one toe. The interior is slick with sheet metal. The floor is grooved just like the exterior, with channels that lead out through the wall in the back for god only knows what purpose.

"It's not perfect, but it's good enough for anything that's /mostly/ human. Any rate, I don't know what Muller's deal with Hell is, and after the last chap blew up in the asylum I'd rather not take chances."

Hands on hips, he gives the thing one last looking-over, and then cuts a glance at the walking /arsenal/ in his living room. "So. Ready?"

—-

Two places set on either side of that table. The Winter Soldier's frown deepens. He can see where that's going. Now how the hell is he going to set up properly for ambush if he's going to have to participate in this kooky nonsense?

He sighs, letting the bag slip from his shoulder. It hits the floor with a distinct rattle. John explains, and the Soldier watches and listens as he starts removing appropriate armaments. "You gonna magic him into that cell? Makes my life easier, I guess," he says, eyeing the thing with mingled skepticism, lack of understanding, and interest.

"…So you're being literal about 'deal with Hell?'" The Soldier was vaguely, broadly aware HYDRA took interest in this kind of occult stuff, but it was not typically what he was used for over the years.

The sniper rifle is left where it is, seeing as there's obviously not going to be long-distance work at this point. Other things come out: handguns, a couple grenades, knives…

Ready? John asks.

"Is it going to fuck up your bullshit if I bring this in the circle?" the Soldier inquires, lifting what looks quite a lot like an assault rifle in one hand. Never let it be said the Winter Soldier was slow to adapt to new, bizarre situations.

—-

"As literal as it gets, mate."

John, without his coat, steps into the circle and slowly eases himself down to sit by way of kneeling first, easing the strain on his shoulder. He looks comfortable enough sitting on the floor, and ought to: he does a lot of his work this way.

"We're still going to have to go and get him on /foot/, sadly, but I've got to " He hesitates, looking for a way to explain. " I need to /set my GPS/, if you like." One hand lifts, and he taps his skull, which is misleading: he doesn't feel his quarry's proximity and direction in his /head/ when does this, but if he points at anything else it's just going to confuse things.

"Right now, I'm going to use your connection to him, along with the things you brought, to create as strong a link to him as possible. The incense was a good find, but I'll level with you mate — it might put me off me 'ead for a bit. It's not your run-of-the-mill dreadlocks and patchouli rubbish, it's — ah, think of it as a performance enhancing drug for people like me. Shouldn't do for you, though, unless you're a psychic, in which case maybe we oughta have that conversation."

He doesn't explicitly say anything in answer to Bucky's last question, but he lifts his hand and twitches his fingers in the universal gesture for 'c'mon,' so presumably he doesn't give a toss about the gun.

—-

As literal as it gets, John says. Okay, the Soldier thinks to himself. All right. There's people with bloody red skulls for heads in the world. Hell pacts are just kind of an extension of that.

Still weird, though.

He eyes John as the man steps into the circle. The news that they'll still have to go pursue Muller, and that this ritual is more just a candle-adorned version of GPS, seems to mildly disappoint him. "Just when I was starting to think fuckin /magic/ would do something like provide shortcuts," he grumbles as he gets up— ensuring he's got everything holstered or sheathed or hooked properly onto his belt — and follows John warily into the circle.

Where he promptly feels like an incredible prat.

It doesn't help when John warns that the whole process might sort of, you know, put him on the magical equivalent of steroids. Shouldn't affect the Soldier though, unless he's a secret psychic. "Christ I hope not," he mutters, as he settles down as best he can.

—-

"Magic's great for shortcuts, if you don't want to live a long, happy life," John says, one brow sliding slowly upward. "Everything's got a price, 'Orlov.'" Emphasis on the 'bullshit' in that word. He picks up one of the bits of incense and lights it with the metal flip-lighter he keeps on his person at all times, setting it down in the burner and playing his fingertips over it for some moments. "For instance: if we kill Muller before I get to talk to him, and I bring him back long enough to have a chat? That'll shave a few days of my mortality off of the end of me life. So I'd really rather avoid it if possible. Ta."

If The Winter Soldier felt stupid sitting down in the circle, he is /really/ not going to like what comes next.

John places his hands to either side of the tabletop, palms up, and looks at the man opposite him expectantly.

Yes. That's right.

They have to /hold hands/.

—-

And there's the rub. The Soldier winces a little at Constantine's clarification that the use of magic isn't just unicorns and sunshine. Talking to a dead man would demand the currency of a few days of /actual life/. Everything's got a price, just like that.

Isn't that a fact," the Soldier mutters to himself, settling down in the circle and watching as John starts lighting a bit of the incense.

He does nothing, himself. He seems to be absolutely certain that, not being magical, he will have no part in the actual enactment of the ritual, which is why John suddenly staring expectantly at him for input is not something that actually registers with him until after about five seconds of it.

The Soldier finally notices. He stares back, a little warily. "…What?"

A few more seconds pass. Blue eyes stray slowly down to the exact way John is holding out his hands. Slow understanding cancers its way through the Winter Soldier's gaze, reflecting the slow rotting sepsis of any sort of comfort or dignity he had left in this entire transaction.

"Jesus… fucking… Christ," he enunciates. "You are lucky I really need this man dead."

With supreme reluctance, he gives up his hands. His left one, with a quiet whir of steel and titanium, may, however, hold slightly harder than is necessary in vague warning. Don't do anything gay, John! He's onto you!

—-

John's brows slide together in a skeptical knit. "Oh, 'lucky' am I? Because this is the big privilege of my week, 'olding hands with a man who looks like a weaponized hair care advert. Just be glad this particular thing we're doing don't need us to strip down and roll about in pig's blood or something."

Hard to tell whether that's serious or not (it is, though). He squares his shoulders, straightens his spine, settles, relaxed but upright. "I'm not exactly sure how it's going to play out with the incense — " …which he can already feel going straight to his head, actually, " — but whatever happens, /do not/ let go. Alright? Don't bloody dare, and don't leave the circle. Muller's got friends in the down-below, as I said, so let's just…play it safe. And think about Muller."

That said, and following a long pause, he drags a deeper breath down into his lungs and lets his eyes lid, unfocusing them and allowing his attention to wander the tendrils of rising smoke from the incense. There isn't any chanting to go with this, just silence, and the vulnerability of John having to open himself up to traces of Muller gleaned from the objects, and whatever echoes of that belong in the man across the table from him. It's a sense of the essence of the man that he's seeking to turn into an internal compass.

—-

Another jab about the hair. The Winter Soldier really does not understand why a certain fascination with the hair seems to be constant among people he encounters, over the decades. He seriously doesn't do anything with it. It's just naturally that way.

Of course John doesn't shut up after that, either. He keeps talking. The Soldier shoots him a dirty look. John's right hand, caught in the metal vise of the Soldier's left, might creak a little as bones get compressed.

The Winter Soldier keeps it at that, though. It seems John is ready to get moving on the ritual. Uncertain what exactly to expect, he waits tensely, his eyes restlessly scanning the room around them even as John's own close.

—-

The vapors do their work. They fill the air, a film of breathable chemicals mixed in with whatever mystic stuff Gottfried Muller had used in life to enter the same wavelength as the veil - to peer past the curtain of the every day and see beyond it, the future and what it held. This time, however, the focus is the present, and the present reveals itself slowly in John's third eye. While he is adamantly non-psychic, he is sensitive and really, this wouldn't be the first time the universe has broken its rules at the whims of his synchronicity.

Images bleed into one another, swirling in the middle in a kaleidoscope of color and sound - nonsensical, at first, that gives way slowly to some semblance of clarity; the warning bells from a speeding tram grow louder and louder, the rush of cars and the pattering of hundreds of feet on concrete. Gotham's bitter cold touches on his brow as snow falls from miles away.

He'd find him, eventually; the sea of humanity parts, his focus falling on a tall, lean man with pale blond hair and green eyes, hands in his pockets as he strolls through Gotham's park in Coventry, his blood-red scarf tucked into his black coat. His breath escapes him in puffs of white mist.

He stops walking slowly, tilting his head sideways to look at one of the nearby buildings, the bronze sign of the Regal Hotel the most prominent of his surrounding landmarks.

—-

Goosebumps erupt across John's forearms. He feels pinpoint droplets of icy liquid on his crown, a claw of frozen air down the back of his neck. In the comfortable warmth of the new place, he shivers, and when he speaks, his breath mists as though he were standing outside.

"Black coat, red scarf. Blond hair. Green eyes. Very tall. In a park somewhere. Buildings look like Gotham. There's a building with a sign.." After a lapse of silence: "Regal Hotel? You know where that is? Ring any bells?"

—-

The Winter Soldier sees nothing of what is shown to John, but he can perceive the effect of those images on the man himself. His skepticism suffers a definite blow as the man abruptly, physiologically responds to stimuli that are simply not here, but presumably /elsewhere/.

His breath is misting, but they're indoors. The Soldier feels a prickle at the back of his own neck.

John eventually reports on what it is he sees. The Soldier's eyes narrow. Regal Hotel. "I know where it is," he says. "Is he staying there? Can you perceive that? Do you know which room?" He thinks transparently. He's not in the hotel, though. In a /park/. "Probably not going to be there for long. Could you get me there?"

—-

John waits, but nothing becomes any clearer. "I can't tell if he's staying there. It's what he sees, where he's standing. But I can get us to the park, yeah, and then…and then…"

Blimey. He is unaccustomed to doing divination in this style. He's used to maps, using bits of people, not whatever-the-bloody-hell is in this incense. It takes him some moments to disengage himself from that party line, but he retains enough of it to preserve the link, the sense.

"And then once we're there I can point you in the right direction. Ought to be able to feel him then. I'll just…do it from well behind you, shall I?"

Out from in front of those— what kind of gun even IS that?

He blows a breath across the incense to disturb the whirling patterns, and then finally lets the Winter Soldier, assassiniest assassin ever to do a murder, have his hands back.

In short order he's on his feet, looking for his chalk. Chalk: a hell of a tool, really, for focusing the will of a magus.

This time, he does it rough: scrawls a big rectangle in the wall, scribbles something. Shunts some part of himself into it, makes a door. It's not something he could do in a hurry outside of this place, but John paid what he paid for this place for a reason. It's a battery.

Noise from the park trickles through the sudden ragged hole in the brick, and snow spills through, wetting the floor. Nobody on the other side seems to notice, though.

—-

When they walk through the door, Gotham's winter bites them hard.

The wind whips at their cheeks, slashing at blood vessels and pulling color to the surface. The pavement is slick and black. Up above and around, lights wink at them from windows carved into high-rises - their circumstances grant them a small mercy in that Coventry is one of the nicest parts of Gotham. At the very least they can be assured that no psychotic costumed villain or vigilante would come barreling into everything and mucking things up.

John would catch the tail of Muller's essence immediately, but Bucky's instincts serve him well also; like he has predicted, Gottfried is no longer at the park, but he hasn't gotten far. His heigh separates him slightly from the crowd and they would both find a pale blond head cut through the flood of bodies spilling everywhere. Even a city like Gotham celebrates the holidays, and many use this park to take shortcuts between shopping complexes and public transportation.

Merry Christmas, you poor sods.

—-

The Winter Soldier grunts nonverbally as John clarifies that he can only see what the target sees. Nothing else. At the least, though, he says he is able to get them to the park.

"That's a start," he says. "Get me there and I'll do the rest."

He certainly seems focused now, the aspect of a hound that has caught the scent of blood heavy on his features. He even seems to have forgotten the hand-holding. His gaze is distant, his mind obviously calculating how to approach, how to subdue, how to make his kill.

"I assume this guy does the same kind of shit you do," he says, while he's thinking along those lines. John lets him go, finally; he reclaims his hands absently, and they go straight for his weapons. He checks and rechecks them, his fingers fluent on their sleek forms. "So what would cripple that the most? Blinding? Silencing? Shot through the hands?"

He's already moving through the portal even as he inquires.

—-

"Safe assumption," confirms John readily, standing back as the killer in his new home makes the slow, seamless transition into — what, exactly? John isn't sure, but the difference is there, like watching cold water slick over into ice at high speed.

The other question isn't quite so easy to answer. "Unconsciousness," is what he finally says. He has no idea what Muller's specialty is.

He pulls on his jacket, watching Bucky step through, and waits some moments before he follows, to give the man with the weaponry a decent lead on his own position.

—-

He is rapidly disappearing.

Muller has left the park, already turning the corner when Bucky and John leave the portal that the latter had built from New York. The flap of a black coat is all they would manage to glimpse from this distance as the man walks away from the Regal Hotel. He is easy to spot up close, but the crowds are dense - last minute holiday shoppers are trying to shoulder past one another to get to the malls on the east end of the park.

Their man is heading west, away from the crush and into a thinner one, towards the restaurants and the high-rise residences that dominate this part of Coventry.

—-

Seamlessly, like the flip of a switch, the Winter Soldier turns on, shifting mode into what he is made for: the stalk, the hunt, and the kill. He is aware John is much more interested in asking questions before making the kill, but as he appraises the situation on the other side of the portal…

"Too many people," he concludes briefly. Too many people multiplies the difficulty of trying to mess around with nonlethal approaches.

He turns a small circle, gauging their surroundings, his blue eyes examining the buildings in the area. He has already picked out Muller from the description; he is aware of the man's trajectory. He thinks a moment.

"Follow him close. Not too close, but close," he finally says to John. "If you want to talk to him BEFORE he's dead, you should be nearby to get at him once he's down. Can't guarantee how long he will live." It's like John said: better not taking chances.

Then the Soldier turns and moves off, weapon held close under his coat, crossing the park at an easy lope and sliding into the narrow alleys between buildings. There is a brief glimpse of him making an agile catamount leap, clearing up onto a fire escape ten feet above the ground from a standing start, and then he moves farther up the building and vanishes from sight.

A few minutes of silence follow.

Then there is the sudden, unmistakable CRACK of a gunshot. It is aimed right at Muller's back, a shot to sever the spine, shatter vertebrae, and send the man to the ground in paralysis. Another shot rings out two seconds later, this one aimed to surgically rip the femoral artery in the man's leg and start the very short countdown to bleed-out.

—-

The Winter Soldier is a hell of a marksman.

Gottfried Muller goes down like a sack of potatoes - the bullet rips into his spine, forcing him to collapse on a pile of black snow when he attempts to cross from one end of an alley to another. Blood sprays outward, life's red roses scattering in a grisly pattern across the narrow space, wicking into the nearby walls and staining the nearby dumpster with it. There is a cry, lost in the surrounding cacophony of enthusiastic and frustrated voices from the local fauna, the rest of it muffled when the German's face meets snow.

His leg is bleeding out - with the way he is gushing, he won't have a lot of time to live.

His mouth moves, words choked by the snow. His fingers dig hard against chips of ice and feels the frost bite into his skin.

He can feel that, at least, but the rest of him is….

—-

John eyes his companion sidelong out of the corner of one eye, and it's his turn to look wary, for once. Sure, he's killed people — lots of people, in fact — but somehow death seems to have a different meaning in the world he comes from, mutable and fallible. There's something about the impersonal nature of a weapon, the casual ease with which it can be used to terminate a life, that makes him feel as though the devil is having a laugh every time someone pulls a trigger.

Which is bollocks, and he knows it. Death in the circles he travels can be infinitely worse than being shot in the head, can't it? Often is, in fact.

Still, though.

He shoves his hands into the pockets of his coat and does as he's told, ducking his head and trailing along after Muller, always cautious about putting other people between himself and the man in question. He doesn't look for the contract killer or mercenary or — or whatever he is, and he tries not to look tense, but he isn't even sure what it is that he's waiting for.

When it happens, he doesn't have to /pretend/ to be startled. He jumps just like everyone around him does, shoulders hiking up and posture dropping, knees bending in fight-or-flight reflex, even though he's sure — well…sixty percent sure — that none of the shots are meant for him.

Unlike most of the cattle in the area, though, he runs toward the target, reaches for his shoulders, rolls him over. He's not shy, John. He presses a palm down hard on the point of entry in the leg, gripping. It can by no means save the man's life, but it might by him time.

"Don't piss about, Muller," he says, leaning in close. "If you don't tell me what I want to know now, I'm bringing you back for the chat, and you /know/ how bloody fun that'll be. Tell me what you wanted with the Liber Sacer and what you're doing palling it with Mammon."

—-

Rolled over, pale green eyes stare up at John Constantine dispassionately. There is no fear there, where there should be. Not the sort of expression that often crosses the faces of those who the man has played in his long career as a street warlock and con man. Within the Englishman's grip, blood fountains out of his artery like water from a burst pipe, flowing free through his clothes and clinging to his skin, wet and warm.

"John Constantine," Muller murmurs; there is no smile, no anger, but expectation. The way he says his name is enough for the man to know that he had been expecting him. "I was told not to underestimate you, so I made arrangements. Now that you've killed me, you've doomed her. And you've doomed yourself."

His eyes start rolling towards the tops of his eye sockets. Blood continues to froth through John's fingers. He visibly struggles to keep his head aloft, to keep the looming man within his visibly fading sight. In his palm, John would feel it start to burn - his half of the pact slowly relinquishing its hold on the intangible tethers that binds his fate to the Winter Soldier's promises.

"I check in regularly," he croaks. "The calls prevent an associate from using her blood. But now that you've gotten in my way, it'll never be made. She'll waste away…quickly, but painfully. And when she does…"

Finally, an expression. His lips pull up in a smile.

"Her /father/ will come after you."

Breath heaves out of his body at that, his head lolling backwards, pale eyes directed towards the sky. Snow falls over his hair, his forehead, melting at the heat lingering on his skin.

—-

The Winter Soldier has been hitting targets since 1941. A man who is not expecting him, passing right beneath the building atop which he is set up, is child's play.

Enough so that the Soldier even humors John— or, well, more the nebulous threat of that hex hanging around their pact— just enough to avoid the typical clean headshot he would make in this scenario.

He lowers and stows his weapon after the completion of his shots, leaning out over the lip of the building's roof and dispassionately checking the result. John seems to be getting started asking his questions. /Something/ is going on down there, at least.

The Soldier turns and moves to the other side of the building, away from the street, hitching himself over the edge and sliding down the wall under relative cover. A few moments after that, he appears like a wraith behind John, leaning down, ostensibly a concerned bystander pulling this random altruist away from danger and a lost cause.

With a quick glance, he confirms his kill.

"Do you have what you want?" he asks John Constantine.

—-

John knows long before Muller mentions a father who the 'she' in that equation is. Father is looking for the book, ergo daughter. It's not advanced maths.

His eyes narrow down into cold, blue slits.

"I'm not the one who killed you, you unbelievable pillock," he puts in partway through, and as he feels Muller begin to spiral away, with the spectral threat against Zatanna still hanging in the cold air, he pushes his thumb through the bullethole in Muller's pants, through the hole in his leg, digging for nerve endings /hard/, until he feels tissue wedge up beneath his thumbnail. He'll need it later, anyway.

His hissed words have edges like knives.

"Don't get comfortable down there. When I sort the rest of this out /I'm settling up/."

A bystander might mistake his shivering for shock and cold, but it isn't. It's white-hot fury he can barely contain, expression caught on the edge of a snarl.

Marshalled quickly enough by the sobering presence of a man who can make /shots/ like these. John collects his expression as best he can, muscle stringing the hinge of his jaw together as tight as the short nod that answers the Soldier's question.

"No. But I'm done with him. For now." He tilts his head, indicating the body. "You need this?" Proof of assassination, or something? How should he know?

—-

After something like /this/, it would be very hard to continue to view the Winter Soldier in exactly the same way as one did prior to seeing him work. Prior to watching him make shots that can so precisely measure out and snip off the thread of a man's life, leaving the exact amount of time necessary for questions to be asked.

As requested.

That in mind, it is perhaps unnerving when the Soldier does not simply vanish back into the mists of myth afterwards, but instead appears again directly behind John, calmly assessing his kill to ensure it is complete. His question to John is a cursory thing, a politeness granted someone who was quite useful in the ultimate execution of the job.

He isn't quite expecting the answer to be 'no.' His blue eyes turn down, observing the rage boiling beneath the other man's skin. Curiouser and curiouser.

Does he need the body? "No," he says, and turns away. His demeanor is frigid as his namesake, profoundly indifferent to the fact he has just made a corpse from a man. "You should clear out. I will be in touch about the rest."

—-

"No," John says again, letting go of the body, standing. His hand is red. Completely red. It drips into the snow. "No, mate. No need. I'm letting you out." He slants a brief look at the assassin, but it doesn't linger. Can't, really. John is too angry, the man is too — empty. All of the rage would just fall into nothing.

"Don't get me wrong — I don't know who's after it, and he probably wasn't the only one, and it's probably best not in anybody else's hands. So, you want to put a tick in the box and balance out a little bit of your soul, that's great. You know how to get me. But this arsehole's off the stage, and…"

/And my priorities just shifted./

"…just…I'm not sure what'll happen in the next day or two. Could be things don't go so well for me, eh? And if you can't get it to me because I'm indisposed — no point, is there? More bloody suffering on my account for fuck-all reason." He brings his forearm up to wipe under his nose, looks at Muller's body for a long moment, and takes a few steps backward. People are beginning to get close.

Hikes his shoulders, tucks his bloody hand into his pocket. "Go on, then."

The other hand retrieves is phone to send a text. Four words that he considers adding to, and then does not.

'someone's got your blood'

—-

The Winter Soldier regards John with the vaguest of interest as Constantine tells him to, essentially, forget about the rest— the whole thing. The book. All of that.

Could be things don't go so well for me, John admits. The Soldier does not blink, does not change expression, does not care. Not until John says something about suffering on his account, for no reason.

The Soldier's gaze flickers briefly, a short interruption in signal.

Then he turns away. "Cancel that spell, then. The book is not my priority." And with that, the Winter Soldier turns and vanishes invisibly into the crowd. Just as he was designed to be able to do.

He may have been lying.

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