Foreshadowing

January 04, 2017:

John has a drop-in visit from the Winter Soldier, and more is said than anyone expected. It's probably not fine.

A bar

People drink in it.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Dr. Jane Foster, Zatanna Zatara

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

The Winter Soldier has been trailing John Constantine for about half the day now.

Or… it's mostly the Winter Soldier. Sometimes, it's someone else too, in passing hints and glimpses. Someone waking up after too long asleep. He watches John from a fair distance, waiting for a safe moment to approach. But Constantine is restless, always in and out of buildings, usually interacting with other people.

It wasn't until John ducked into a Lower East Side bar that he actually stayed put for longer than thirty minutes. Somehow, the Winter Soldier isn't really surprised.

He finally engages then, dressed in civvies, looking plain as ever. John might or might not have noticed him already, but he'll be impossible to miss once he steps up beside the master magician.

—-

John is periodically aware of being tailed, and there's this /thing/ that he does when he thinks he's about to be cornered. It's obnoxious, and he does it a /lot/. It's the simplest thing, a little illusion knack to make someone else look just like him, distract the person following him, allow himself the time and opportunity to get behind them and get the drop on them instead, and it has saved his life more times than he has fingers to count with.

He can't do that with this particular tail, though, on the few occasions that he's noticed. The equilibrium between them is delicate, and though it unnerves him to recognize that he's being tailed at all — particularly in the wake of Zatanna's informative explanation of just who and what Orlov really is, or really might be — it seems paradoxically safer to let that play out the way that his pursuer intends it to, eschewing …/surprises/.

So it really is John, sitting there at the bar with one foot on the low railing and a pitch-black glass of stout in front of him. He tilts his head as he's joined, and mulls over what to say.

"Got the thing," he decides, finally. "Appreciate that."

After a beat, he slides his gaze sidelong, takes in the side of Bucky Barnes' face. Tries to reconcile what he sees as being 'Bucky Barnes,' and just can't do it. It's too quaint, too Americana, that name, for the phantom he saw ventilate Hanussen. "Heard you got zapped. Alright, then?"

—-

As, perhaps, a courtesy to the man he is tailing— or just in the interest of self-preservation, as the Winter Soldier is not exactly sure what the capabilities of magic are, and does not want to be detected and hexed to shit— he is deliberately sloppy. He lets enough of him be seen, in passing glances, that John would soon enough realize who is following him. Would, hopefully, read the correct intention; the Soldier is intent on approaching, but does not want to do it just /anywhere/.

Eventually John concedes, and plants himself in a bar. It's not the Soldier's first choice as far as secure venues, but it's nondescript enough— and, at this hour, empty enough. He joins the other man at the bar without fanfare or preamble; the bartender comes over, and in the interests of looking normal, he slides over a twenty in exchange for a glass of bourbon. Hey, speaking of Americana.

Got the thing, John says.

"Pain in the ass getting it," he replies, looking at his alcohol instead of drinking it. And instead of looking at John Constantine. "But I'm fine now." He tilts his head a little, in the back-and-forth that indicates 'for given values of fine.' "You told me no bare hands. Gloves didn't do the trick though."

He tips his glass, watching the alcohol angle within it. "Zatanna told you everything?"

—-

There are choices to make, here, and John makes them whilst regarding the faint, tawny outline of himself in the top of the dark mirror of his drink, light reflected off of dirty-blonde hair. "Yeah, I've been wond'ring 'bout that, myself," he says slowly. "The gloves thing. I handled it with me bare hands no trouble. I'm not sure why it would've reacted to you. Maybe because that prick had'is hands on it as well. But I wasn't there, so I can't speculate. Good job you're in one piece, though."

The other question he delays with a long pull from his glass, ending with a face that says everything it needs to say about his opinion on American beer. "Most everything." Hedging. Not sure, actually, that he wants the assassin to know he knows more than he used to. "Enough to know this isn't over. We're picking the book apart before I…send it on to someone else who needs it. Sounds as though someone may have ferretted out his real name, as well. Names are important in my business. That, plus the bit of him I have in a bottle at home…could be we're getting close to a way to make him, eh, vulnerable. But we oughta be bloody sure about that before we try."

—-

Good job you're in one piece, John says. Bucky smiles to himself, a little, the first time any such expression has crossed over the face of the Winter Soldier. It's there and gone, like a flicker of light reflecting off ice.

In lieu of speaking about his feelings on being in one piece, he takes a drink as he listens to John Constantine hedge. It is not a test he thought would work— John seems too canny for that— but it was one worth trying. Especially given what John himself says. Names are important. True names.

The Winter Soldier fidgets uneasily with his glass. It is more emotion, more unease, than he has ever previously expressed. Far more… uncertainty, where previously he seemed singleminded as a computer program with only one output. "All that, and we're only close, huh?" He stares off into the middle distance, pensive. "I guess some of my own urgency on it has evaporated. I am not… sure… anymore if it's supposed to be what I am doing. Though there's still the matter of your friend. That's reason enough to see through neutralizing him, I guess."

He glances down into his glass. "I happen to owe her a favor again." It's not hard to guess who.

—-

Well, now. This is different.

John's a fragment of an infinite whole. He resonates with patterns. He /dictates/ them, though he isn't often in control of that, it's just a byproduct of his very peculiar role in the cosmos. So he's sensitive to them, and particularly to changes in them, and there's something about the man next to him that isn't the way it has been, before.

'He's an assassin, and he's really dangerous. He's not.all there. He has a hard time remembering things, his past. …But he tends to…go in and out of these /states/. Jess thinks it's some kind of mind control and…John, you've been /careful/ in dealing with him, right?'

Zatanna's words. They circle the inside of his skull, then dissipate, like smoke. He slides the pad of his thumb over the condensation-slick side of his glass, contemplates that with his eyes, and then turns his head fully, looking at the man beside him, whose face he is almost certain just shifted to accommodate a thing almost, almost like a smile. It's not something he's ever seen before. Not something he thought he /would/ see, and that's well before what Zatanna told him. The man is a ghost. Cagey, careful. Disciplined. So what does that mean?

John's too cynical to believe this is a sign that he's somehow worn down the man's ice-cold exterior enough to uncover a glimmer of sudden friendship. That shit is for the movies, not for real life.

"Could be as close as knowing tomorrow. It depends on the book. It's…complicated. The book is two books, one inside the other. And you saw how massive it was, mate. It's just time now."

He's studying — Orlov — all the while, though he's not trying to be obvious about it. And he does debate for a while whether or not he wants to engage this dangerous individual on the matter of Zatanna, but..

What the hell. He rolls the dice. He can't help himself.

"The biggest threat to her right now isn't the Nazi. It's…some underling, or associate, don't know yet. They're casting on her. Blood magic; they got ahold of some of hers, and they want to use it to rip her soul out. But someone she met got some sort of…vision?…and so he knows roughly what the building looks like. Problem is, it's a big bloody city, innit?"

—-

It's not quite friendship. Not with John, at least, though Constantine certainly seems to have earned a marginal amount of what limited trust this man has to portion out. If there's any friend the man beside John is meeting, it is one who has been lost to him for seventy-five years. Himself— in tiny bits and pieces, in brief glimpses, in moments where the narrative of the Winter Soldier flickers like a bad TV signal and he can see the skein of it— know it for the veiling pattern woven over his brain that it is.

He doesn't know who he is yet. Not beyond the stories he's been told that he still isn't even sure are true. But he has an idea that it's not what he has believed himself to be, for so long.

He has a growing, worrisome idea that the men he is supposed to report to— to report back to— are not his friends at all.

So there's still that caginess to him— that careful, precision discipline. The calm, alert bearing of a scout and soldier, used to combat, used to solitary excursions deep in enemy territory without a friend in sight. But it's not a generalized thing anymore, not a simple air he wears about him; it's focused now, fixated on something. Some specific threat he feels, and from which he wants to hide.

He seems like someone who would do anything if he felt threatened.

But when John speaks, he glances over. His blue eyes consider the information. "Visions, casting… magic." The Winter Soldier reappears briefly in those eyes, cool and remote and deadly. He doesn't know anything about those three things, but he does know about others. "Phone records. Cell towers. GPS positioning. He gets in touch with this associate by phone. There's a record of who and where in some telecom company somewhere." He snorts. "These days, nothing is private." He speaks like he has no doubt in his ability to find it.

—-

"Yeh. That was the optional objective I mentioned last time I saw you. He was calling. That's all I know. That, where he was staying…it's not very much to go on, mate. Even if I could get into a telecom company…" John lets himself have a little quirk of the lips there, a little lidding of the eyes, a pulse of ego through pragmatism, "/And I could/…I wouldn't know where to begin. Not my wheelhouse, yeah? If you owe her, though, keeping her alive seems like a bloody good way to put that debt to bed. And it's that serious, I'm 'fraid. Clock's been running a while, and she can't stay hidden away forever."

He straightens on his stool, leaves the threads of — of whatever is happening in the man he knows as Orlov — to rest for now, able to make neither heads nor tails of them. Maybe this is what was meant by 'in and out of these states.'

Gives him the creeping willies, if so. Like dealing with the possessed. First one thing, then another. You can't trust that.

"If you decide to give it a shot, I can try to help you along. Get you access, unless you fancy…what. I don't know. Grappling hooks and rooftops, or something? Whatever you do. You just tell me what you need to make it happen, and if I can do it, I will."

That, right there, for one moment, as John puts his eyes forward and lifts his glass, is what John looks like when he's angry. Just a tight, clean line of a jaw and something in his eyes that burns like a blue star. This is very obviously personal.

—-

That he was calling, where he was staying— that's all John knows, he says, and he adds it's not much to go on. "Eh," the assassin ruminates, weighing this information with an experienced eye, "means of contact, exact location, it's plenty to start. If he called from a landline, easy. If he didn't… still not too hard."

John asserts that he could get into a telecom company, sure. But he wouldn't know where to begin. Not his wheelhouse.

"You begin with a gun, and someone who looks like they know where to begin," the Winter Soldier answers calmly.

That aspect of him does gentle a bit again as John reminds that the threat against Zatanna is serious, and the clock has been running a while. The Soldier, the man beneath, the Soldier… the line between them seems tenuous, constantly flickering between one and the other. Maybe touching the book was shock enough to scramble his brain, break up the conditioning, start him on the path to realizing something is deadly wrong with his own head. Break the ice enough for Bucky Barnes to come back out. Either way, it's no surprise John is wary himself. Two personalities currently struggle for control, and it's distantly palpable in the flickers of the assassin's blue eyes.

Bucky seems to have won out, temporarily. Not that he remembers that's who he is. He's nothing but a bundle of raw impulses right now, and James Barnes never had a stronger impulse but to protect. Especially when somebody seems to care as much as John does, about the thing in need of protection. Something about the sight of that very personal anger stirs impulses contrary to everything the Winter Soldier is programmed for. "I'll get in touch if I need the help."

He hesitates. It's his turn to wonder, to hedge, to roll the dice. He decides to take a similar chance as John just did. "There's something else you could do. You're already in… contact with her. So I understand. Snippy little scientist." He drains his glass of bourbon before he goes on, as if needing to fortify himself. "Thought you were hurting her. More I hear, seems you looked out for her instead."

He glances at John, but can't seem to make eye contact long before his gaze returns to his glass. "Look after her? I have a feeling. Just a feeling. Something bad on the wind."

—-

/Oh,/ is what John's expression briefly reads, concerning guns and people who know what they're doing. /Right./

If he's mildly surprised by the assassin's willingness to help him with Zatanna, then he is /gobsmacked/ by what follows, for so many reasons that his thoughts briefly gridlock, different aspects of 'what the fuck' all vying to be first to receive his attention.

Realization happens, of course. It was only the other night that Zatanna said something that made him wonder if his newest asset weren't the person she'd been referring to, but even for John, that coincidence seemed a stretch. Why it seemed a stretch, he thinks to himself now, sitting there and listening to this, he isn't sure. He has twenty-eight years of being the eye of every storm in his vicinity. He should know better by now.

"The lemming," he says, before Bucky's quite finished, perhaps confirming that relationship, whatever it is. It's pitched low enough that it doesn't interrupt what follows, which is really, for John, the coup de grace, a thing with so many sharp points that he isn't sure which of them to focus on.

Something is trembling in the psyche of the man beside him. Some…infirmity, waffling, some…incongruity that John can neither identify nor understand, though he's beginning to form theories, none of which he finds reassuring. That this is the rare face of of someone he's come to know primarily as a weapon makes something in his chest twist when he sees those eyes tick away from him, unable to remain while that request is made. Those are eyes that held his like stones as John was offered the option of a long, drawn-out death for Muller, but this? This query about the safety of Jane Foster?

Most of John's exes — there are many — would say he's a heartless bastard, but nothing could be further from the truth. It's his heart that makes him wicked and cruel, a response to suffering. He looks at Bucky Barnes (still weird) and wonders what happened to him, that this small mote of humanity is so inexplicable as it rises from a fissure in the person he usually is. Wonders, and feels it catch on something in him, like barbed wire.

And beyond that, beyond even /that/, is the nature of the request being made, which is complicated for John Constantine in ways he would have difficulty articulating even if he wanted to, which he does not. /People around me die,/ he'd told Jane Foster, and he had meant every word of that. And now he's being tasked with keeping her, somehow, safe. The lemming — when even capable magicians have toppled beside him, unable to pass through the crucible of his life unscathed.

That, compounded with the particular nature of the man doing the requesting, makes it feel as though he's suddenly shrugged on fifty pounds of extra weight, most of it over his chest.

He dips his head, lifts his hand, and pulls his fingers and thumb down opposite sides of his jaw, rasping at stubble. Affected, but obviously guarding that, even if some trace of restless energy hangs on him.

"I told her it was dangerous," he says slowly. "I mean, /really/ told her, mate. All of it. She chose it anyway. And I can't — if I don't get involved, she'll do it all anyway. I wish I could promise you that she'd be safe wi'me. I really do. But I know she won't."

Shadows haunt the corners of those words, and they are filled with seething, crawling guilt. The stink of bad memories. Honesty is, nevertheless, called for. "I'll do everything I can, yeah? Everything I can. But that hasn't always been enough." The hand at his jaw lifts, presses over his temples, and his head finally comes up, gaze shifting over. "It would be better if we could head off this bad feeling business before it gets started."

—-

The lemming, John says. Bucky looks like he doesn't know whether to laugh or look offended. Very fortunately, he does neither. He seems to have forgotten how to do the former, and the latter just doesn't feel right when he knows how… accurate the appellation is. "Yeah… close enough," he says, looking at his empty glass so morosely that the bartender comes back and refills it.

He looks at the amber liquid in silence while John processes this development. The Winter Soldier looks like he's trying to process it too— like he isn't /comfortable/ in his own skin right now. Like something else is trying to crawl out from under it, shattering the merciless calm murderer that is all John has seen thus far. It doesn't look like a painless process, either. The man beside John is tense, on edge, with an air of uncertainty of what is even happening to him, or why so many of these stray thoughts have suddenly emerged from the icy simplicity that has been all he's ever known.

That same icy simplicity that makes him the Winter Soldier— one of the deadliest assassins in the world. And yet still talking as if he's uncertain about his ability to keep this woman safe. Talking about getting JOHN CONSTANTINE to keep her safe.

Bucky says nothing as the man beside him thinks. He just drains his second glass. "She has a habit of understanding a situation perfectly well, and yet running into it anyway," he says. "She already did with me, or I wouldn't even be talking about her. I would have…" Killed her and moved on. He doesn't say it, but it's pretty loud in the silence.

He glances at Constantine in time to catch the look of crushing, utmost guilt. Something about that resonates briefly, in a dark corner of his mind, before the moment of synchronicity disappears. It's enough to make him believe John when he promises to do all he can, though. "Probably enough. Better than her doing it by herself. Without someone who at least knows what's going on."

It would be better if they could just head off the bad feeling at the pass. Bucky looks like he definitely agrees, but has found himself in a situation where he himself truly has no idea where to begin. His head dips wearily, resting into his hand in a moment of uncharacteristic exhaustion, his fingertips digging at a temple as if his head pained him. "I wish I knew anything to even start heading it off with. It's as if… I would know what exactly is coming if I could just /remember/… something important."

He lowers his hand back to the bar and lifts his head. "Whatever it is, I'll deal with it. Look for this house. I can't remember shit, but at least there's things I couldn't forget how to do if I tried."

—-

He doesn't want this.

These are gifts. John can see that plainly. They're something rare. Social unicorns. Whatever is happening here is the fulcrum on which this man's life is turning, and most people would feel privileged to be witness to it, let alone trusted with something of value pertaining to it. And, in his way, John does feel that sense of privilege.

And he does not /want/ it.

He doesn't want to be responsible for Jane, though it's a little fucking late for that now, isn't it, John-boy? And he doesn't want to be the failsafe for this — this whatever this is, this slow excoriation of self, or not-self, or…

Whatever. Just whatever this is.

It's too important for him. It's too valuable. It means too much to the man next to him, and the things that are valuable and delicate that people place in his hands always end up shattered, one way or another.

Nothing for it, though. He said he would try, and he will. Was going to, anyway, but now he knows more than he did then, and so the personal cost of failure has risen, guaranteeing that any tragedies will bite just that much more deeply into whatever sorry, hole-riddled bullseye he has left for a soul.

He chooses to focus on the latter part. Because that sounds like work. That sounds like something he could deal with.

Little known fact about John: hypnosis is one of his magical metiers. He can place himself and the object of his focus directly inside of their memories, reliving them as though they were there, though they most certainly are not — or at least, make them believe he's there with them, too. He could offer that. He could offer to open up that skull and root around in it.

The thought turns his stomach. That, on top of all of the other unanticipated burdens, causes a kind of knee-jerk reaction. /No. No, no./ He's not going to do that, open himself up to the possibility of fucking it all up and having to live with that, too. No.

So he slowly nods, in the end, and clears his throat. "If you do run up on something you need help with, and you remember something or…" The sentence drifts off. John returns his eyes, previously pinned steadily on his companion, to his beer. "Well. You know how to find me." Obviously.

—-

They are rare, and precious. The first hints of a man trying to reemerge from decades of mental slavery. It is impossible to say why John was trusted to see any of it, hear any of it. Perhaps it is because first, John Constantine trusted him to know of what was most important to him. Perhaps because for a brief moment, it was James Barnes looking out through those eyes, seeing in John Constantine's remembering gaze a mirror of the guilt waiting in the wings of his own mind.

Perhaps it's just because his brain is such a confused, chaotic place right now that he can no longer even make rational decisions or hold a coherent thought. Perhaps, perhaps.

What is important is that John has been given this privilege, unwanted as it may be, in exchange for that matching privilege given Bucky. Two men tentatively trusting one another to engage on what is important to them. Both aware of their own very real capacity for devastating, debilitating failure.

Nothing for it.

He looks down into his glass as John clears his throat and offers his nebulous help. There's little but a nod to that, Bucky seeming to have reached the end of his capacity for expressing himself at length in voiced words. "Yeah. I do. If you need to find me…" He frowns a little, looking like he's not used to doing this, but gives John a number. It's no doubt another burner, but one the assassin seems willing to keep for longer than the others.

"Though honestly," he says, as he pushes away from the bar and stands, obviously ready to take leave, "I'm usually always keeping tabs. I do that." He says it as if reminding himself. Something that looks like it could have been a smile doesn't manage to realize itself on his face. Something bitter just flickers there instead. "I have nothing else of myself. Know nothing. But I know being the Winter Soldier."

He has not let anyone else have that identity— too much could be learned about him, what he is, what he does, from that name. No one else except, conveniently, Jane. A way for the two of them to touch base about him, to verify one another as having some degree of James Barnes' nearly-dead trust.

He turns away. "I'll see what I can find about the house."

—-

So many unexpected things are happening this week, it's — invigorating, but worrisome. The year is off to a start that promises it will be anything but boring, but things are piling up quickly, too high to sort them properly, and it has John feeling as though he's going to wind up wrong-footed if he isn't careful. He lives out ahead of the curve, not trying to catch up with it.

He has to dig in his coat for his phone and add the number quickly, before it passes out of his head. Much like another investigator far more publicly famous in British history, he has only so much room in the attic of his skull for information, and most of that is taken up with things relevant to his profession. He can't be bothered to give a toss about the rest.

Once entered, he drops it in his pocket and just…watches. Watches things change again. The tide came in, and now it's going back out again, leaving bits of things dredged up from some remote bottom washed up on the shoreline of whatever that man is. Underneath it is commitment enough to give John another piece of himself, but he says nothing. Asks no questions. The moment has a saturated feel, as though too many things had been said already, and anything more would destroy whatever happened, causing it to buckle beneath its own weight.

"Cheers," is what he says to the man's back, a word that ought to be bright and wry, and instead carries primarily his cautious bemusement, and things too subtle to give a name to.

Turning back to face the bar, he gestures, gets the bartender's attention. "Going to need at least two more of these, there's a lad," he says, and drains his glass of stout.

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