To Steal A Soul

January 17, 2017:

The Winter Soldier convinces Zatanna Zatara to meet him in a park in New York, ensnaring her in a trap, but before John Constantine can unleash the End of Days, he and his new handler manage to make off with most of her soul, magic, and the lifespan that comes with them.

Somewhere in New York

I DON'T KNOW BUT IT'S A TRAP.

Characters

NPCs: Avram Vasilevich Golubev (NPC'd by Dr. Jane Foster)

Mentions: Captain America, Dr. Jane Foster, Jessica Jones

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

The Winter Soldier had vanished immediately after the conclusion of the nastiness with the blood ritual. But that was typical of him; he wasn't really much for after-battle chatting. And he was also on the run.

It's a day or two after that before Zatanna hears anything from him, and when it comes it's from Jane's phone. It's a simple text message, written in his usual oddly-precise way. "It's Bucky. Just wanted to check that you were all right. I still feel as if I owe you. I may have some ability to help you with your father. Meet me in Forest Park, in Queens? You know how to find me."

When she arrives, it will be to find him waiting for her on a park bench, with two cups of coffee. They look like salted caramel mochas from Starbucks. God knows how Bucky even navigated the menu enough to select such a drink.

"Hey," he greets, not getting up. He seems to expect her to sit down beside him, at which point he'll hand her one of the coffees. "How are you holding up?"

—-

She has, at least, a couple of days to recalibrate from her last few hours with John Constantine.

Said recalibration has left her exhausted, however, and contemplative, the area between her ribs taken up by a sweet, hollow ache that has persisted since returning to the Brooklyn flat with him. His words, about her, about her father, tumble in the back of her mind, insistent spectres clinging there and unable to let go. Since then, Zatanna has been unable to concentrate on much else, though she has tried - her academics, her other studies, the other mysteries that envelope her, an endless miasma of questions that she can't shake off. But it is always in the realms of the emotional in which she dwells, because she can't help herself, simply one of the pitfalls of being the kind of person who lives her daily life in a perpetual state of heartbreaking vulnerability.

Bucky's text is surprising enough that it manages to pull her out of it temporarily, to blink at the digital letters. It takes her a few moments to parse out its meaning before she's on her way again - to the park, and the bench in which she deliberately pushed things with him after that first, truly devastating fallout with John Constantine. She wonders if this will also end up being a pattern, the bench standing in for a lighthouse rising above perilous shores.

She doesn't have her bookbag today, taking a seat next to Bucky. The coffee is a surprise, and so is the greeting. A small smile lifts from the corners as she takes the cup.

"A little disoriented," she says, honestly, because she is always straightforward about what she feels. "It feels like it's been forever since I can walk around so freely that I'm not sure if I remember where anything else is anymore. What about you? How's Jane?"

—-

Bucky looks a lot better these days than he used to. He's tense, granted, cagey and watchful in that way one would expect of a hunted man. He checks angles constantly, his frost-blue eyes going over and over the few other people in the park at this late hour. But there's something about him that seems a lot more settled— a lot more calm. There's little of that pained confusion that characterized him when she first met him.

His hand, when he gives her her coffee, is stable.

He takes a sip of his own coffee against the January chill, though he's clearly not expecting all the flavors involved, judging by the blink and stare down at the cup. "I kinda picked from the menu at random," he says dubiously, "so I hope you don't hate it. But after all the coffee you brought me I didn't drink, well."

He lapses into thoughtful staring at the ground, however, as she speaks of being disoriented after her long isolation— so used to being imprisoned that sudden freedom leaves her unsure where anything even is. "…I get that feeling," he says. "More so, now I remember more of my life. I saw decades, not day-to-day. I'd go to sleep in '73 and wake up in '85. That kind of thing."

He takes another sip. "It's been coming back ever since touching that book. You know? Just another way you jumpstarted everything, I guess."

How's Jane?

"She's fine," he says. "Can't say where. We are laying low. But she's happy."

—-

The very obvious changes on him are so stark from the first time she met him that Zatanna can't help but silently marvel at them from where she sits, her coffee cradled on both her hands and letting warmth seep from the cardboard and into the digits left exposed by her fingerless gloves. Her ice-blue eyes remain riveted on his profile, taking in every shift, every detail; as if he is the only thing in the world worth paying attention to. It is just another mark of her usual intensity, of how she perpetually hungers for meaningful human connections. Admittedly she could be slightly more selective, considering she chooses to do the same with someone who admits to taking lives, but she had meant what she had told him before - that she is drawn to the lost, to the troubled loners.

The lack of those agitated edges are bizarre, and she doesn't know what to make of it. She knows that he is unstable, but she can't help but hope that it has little to do with his shattered state, and more to do with Jane's influence.

"I'm sure it's fine," Zatanna tells him about the coffee, taking a careful sip - small, obligatory, absent. Most of her focus lies on him and his present demeanor, and what he has promised in the text. "And don't worry about all the coffee you didn't drink. You didn't have a lot of causes to trust me just yet and while I don't know the full extent of it, you didn't really hide the fact that your life's pretty dangerous. That was all me, you know? I'm the one who keeps pestering you."

There's a glance down at her cup. "I meddle," she mutters. "A few people in my life seem to think it's a good thing." That she gives, and keeps on giving, a damn, according to Jessica. But then she remembers John and the taste of his anger. "I wonder if I can't stand to curb it these days, though…"

The revelation about the book has her lifting her head again, surprise etched plainly on those expressive lines. "What, really?" she wonders, looking hopeful. "Oh, thank God! I thought that maybe…I mean, that's good, right? And Jane must be really relieved, too. I'm glad that she's happy. She's…for someone I talked to all but once, I really like her a lot."

She hesitates, then leans in, nudging her shoulder with his own.

"What about you?" she asks. "Are you? Happy, I mean. Remembering…it wouldn't surprise me if you had really bad days."

—-

It almost feels as if she sits with a human being now, and now just a machine killer. Everything about the way he sits, moves, speaks— the inflections in his glacial-blue eyes— is just so much more organic. Truly alive in that way that can only be achieved by a full lifetime of experiences and memories backing every last expression and tic.

The ragged edges of a man with no past have been ground off him. He does not seem less dangerous for that, though. It is the difference between a volatile explosive and the deadly edge of a honed blade.

Not that he seems threatening to her right now. He drinks his coffee and listens to her quietly— especially when she says perhaps she shouldn't really pester and meddle as much as she does. That she shouldn't give so much of herself. "I don't think you should curb it," he says. "It was what I was thinking of, when I told you you reminded me of Steve. I don't give that out lightly."

He turns the cup carefully in his hands. "My life is dangerous," he says. "So I should probably say, while I have the opportunity— whatever happens in the future, I genuinely owe you for… pestering where probably nobody else would." The Soldier sighs. "That's part of why I asked you to come out here today."

She leans in, nudging his shoulder with hers. He doesn't draw back like he would have before. Is he happy, she wonders? Remembering everything?

"No." He does not have to think long for that answer. "There isn't any joy in what I have done. But it was worse not remembering. Life without context is… painful."

—-

Steve? Captain America?

He was non-specific the last time they spoke with one another, but now that he has clarified it, Zatanna can't help but stare at him with a slight part in her lips. Out of all the things she had expected to hear from him, this is about the last thing there is and she can't help but feel it worm inside of her, gnawing into the molten red core of the relentless engine that pounds inside of her chest, the thing that keeps her going even when she feels that she has nothing left to give. It stuns her to the point that her stare actually moves away from him and to the coffee cup in her hands, self-consciousness rising - rare enough, coming from someone so constantly shameless. The caffeinated token remains mostly forgotten, not when the conversation has taken the brunt of her interest.

"I…I didn't know…" she murmurs, sounding slightly dazed. "I….wow, Bucky."

She falls silent at that, watching the throng of distant figures crossing snow, specks of color at a distance, indicative that Time continues to move, and the day continues to pass, even while she remains in a bubble of frozen seconds, replaying what he has just told her, and what he has confided, over and over again. Her tongue runs faintly against her lower lip, teeth depressing on it thoughtfully.

"I'm not so good at that, being owed," she tells him at last, lightly. "I'd rather you pay it forward. You did that for Jess, the other night. Thank you, Bucky…she means a lot to me."

She hesitates, but then she shifts, angling her knees until they point slightly towards him, so she could face him a little more fully.

"I can't…" Pause. "I can't even begin to imagine what it's like. And I know you have Jane, but…I hope you know that if you need anything, if you need help, I'll come running."

—-

"You could drink that before it gets cold," he quips lightly, of the coffee in her hands. "It cost me… what, five bucks? Shit. Back in the day it was five cents a cup."

It's a throwaway remark, obviously meant to lighten the mood a little bit after the very deep compliment he's just paid her.. To be compared not just to Captain America… but to Bucky's best friend who means so much to him? It's something that automatically takes the conversation and shoves it somewhere intense. Perhaps more intense than he necessarily meant.

Mood hopefully lightened a bit, he coughs as she persists in thanking him for how he paid it forward, rescuing Jessica. She means a lot to me, Zatanna says. Frost-blue eyes slide their gaze over, regarding her. "I see. Glad I did, then."

She offers, then, that if he ever needs help, she will come running. "I know," he says. "You're that kind. You got a good soul. But let me help you instead, for once."

He turns towards her. "You know I had… people backing me. An organization that wanted Muller— wanted Hanussen— dead. They were…" He struggles visibly for how to put it. "They handled me for many years. They controlled me. I am running from them now. But while they had me, they knew… things about Hanussen. They were able to get me things he owned. And I still remember how to get at most of their resources." He nods at Zatanna. "Might be I could find something related to all this."

—-

The quip has her rolling her eyes and a smile lights up her face like a white-hot flare. Zatanna brings the coffee cup to her face, blowing from the small funnel the plastic top makes, casting resulting steam away before she takes a healthy swallow. "Five cents, really? Wow, inflation really sucks right now," she replies, following it, a leaf drifting along a running brook. She takes another sip, letting the coffee settle into her system, fill and heat up her stomach. It's a different kind of bath from the whiskey highs she often shares with John and Chas, but it is equally pleasant.

That was endearing too, the offer - to let him help her for once, and the glare of that smile softens into a more natural expression. "….alright," she replies, lending her acquiescence easily. "What do you got?"

In a way, she always wondered. John mentioned that Bucky's interest was never on the book, but on Hanussen himself, only confirming her earlier suppositions that as an assassin, his focus was probably on a person instead of a thing, much less magical artifacts. Her brows furrow faintly as he provides additional details - not much of them, reminding her of entities like SHIELD where everything is a secret. An organization, he doesn't tell her the name.

My life is dangerous, he said.

"That would be great," she confirms. "But you said you're running from them now. You're not thinking of going back to them just to regain access, right? Just to help me? I would never turn it away, mind, but….Bucky that sounds so risky. I don't know if…you already went with John to get my blood and your life is dangerous enough." Worry, it sinks in deep, because she can't help it, because she can't stop herself.

"…who are these people anyway?" she asks. "The people chasing you."

—-

"Five cents," Bucky confirms. "It was a quarter to see a movie." His gaze goes briefly faraway. "Things were much simpler back then. — Though I admit nowadays there are some conveniences that make up for it. Internet. Smartphones."

He glances sidelong at her as she accepts his offer of help. But he isn't planning to go back just to help her, is he?

"No," he says. The barest hint of a smile threatens his features, a tolerant expression. "I have a particular set of skills for getting into places I am not supposed to be, and retrieving things I am not supposed to have."

But who are they? Zatanna wants to know. He considers her in silence a few minutes, clearly gauging what to say.

"They are a worldwide organization," he says quietly. "Even those in it are not sure when it began, or how. But they have guided human events, from behind the scenes, for a very long time. I was their chief instrument for the twentieth century." His gaze seems more… wistful than appropriate for this topic, his thoughts clearly flung back over a recollection of the many successful missions he can now remember. "They made history the shape that it is today, with me. Let's just say their reach is very long."

His head tilts back. "Nobody escapes it."

There is something wrong. The world is blurring at the edges. Her body does not seem to want to work the way it should, all her fine-motor fluency deteriorating rapidly away—

—-

This is when every instinct tells her that something is wrong.

Zatanna Zatara has known more danger in her young life than a normal person ever has in his lifetime; her childhood was fraught with darkness and shadow, amazement and wonder, and the more mundane torments that could only come from being so close to another human person, a man who is more fragile than his legend has ever suggested. While she chooses to ignore the more reasonable call of her own survival instincts in favor of her signature youthful recklessness, the way he talks about the people who have yoked his strength for an entire century is disturbing, and she can't help but hear the clarion call of internal alarms scream in her brain. Her lips press together, her hand lifting to touch his shoulder, to close her fingers over it and give it a shake…

Except her fingers don't seem to want to do what she intends.

There's a frown. Confusion settles in her features. As the world tilts in a lazy loop, she suddenly lurches on her feet, dropping the coffee in her hand. The lid disengages on impact, the cream-coffee stain splashing over snow and melting it in a haze of steam. She takes a few steps back, though she miraculously keeps her balance, her hand coming up to clutch the side of her head.

Oh god.

Oh god.

No, not again.

/No!/

She turns and tries to run, blood screaming, laden with drugs and betrayal for the /second/ time in so many weaks, but her legs give out from under her and she lands hard on her knees on the snow. She doesn't know how she has the presence of mind to keep her body up with her hands, but she manages to keep from planting her face on the ground as it spins, and spins and spins…

"Em…." she gasps. "Em…em….leah…"

Her lashes droop heavily. She can barely feel her extremities.

—-

Her instincts are good. Good enough that she picks up on it immediately the moment he betrays that he is no longer able to speak of his masters— of his work— with anything but macabre reverence. But confronted with a man with decades of experience lying, pretending, infiltrating…

She tries to run a few seconds too late.

"I am," the Winter Soldier says behind her as she tries to stagger away, "very sorry, Zatanna. I would've chosen more comfortable means, but I've seen that you're very difficult to pin down. Only complete incapacitation will do."

He rises. Her legs give out, but just before she would hit the ground, there he is: catching her so she does not touch the snow. His arms around her are almost a comfort.

The cold titanium and steel of his left hand, as it muffles over her mouth to snuff her attempts to heal herself, is not.

"You always said you just wanted to help," he murmurs. His left arm shifts its many plates, the rippling movement nauseating to watch when her world is already spinning… and, impossibly, there is the sense of /magic/. A spell— or a counterspell, more accurately. Not live, not organic— more like a script, triggered at will. An anti-magic field emanates from the metal of his arm, something very like a localized mystical version of an EMP that takes her talent and smothers it brutally down.

His frost-blue eyes watch her, guiding her down into the grip of the sedative. The few people in the park turn suddenly, all agents, all plants: getting up and moving off ahead to pave the way down for the Soldier and his captive. "This way, you can help the whole world."

—-

Her blurry eyes find his as the sedatives do its work.

They remain on him, fixed on him, but unfocused as his arms come around her, as he lets her sink gently into gravity's tender mercies. Her head tilts up, her lips - numb, chafed from whatever was in that coffee - moving soundlessly just before his hand clamps over her tight, to prevent her from uttering anything further. She tries to fight it - inside of her mind, she has unleashed herself, though what happens in the actual physical world pales in comparison as a hand weakly lifts to grasp his shoulder, to try and push him away, to squirm out of his grip. But her body does not feel like itself, no matter how hard she tries to twist, rubber-banding helplessly in whatever position he presses her into.

In the haze, for a moment, just a moment, Bruce's face interposes over Bucky's own, the way those blue eyes burn through the pharmaceutical mist coating her senses. She can only sag further in his grip, whorls of tousled, midnight hair spilling into the snow like ink as her skull tips further back over his arm, losing even that - the will to hold her head up high.

She doesn't even feel it, register the way the null-magic field drapes over her, /smothers/ her. She practically chokes on it, this utter suppression of what she is.

"…Buck…y…" she whispers. "….no…" His face blurs further, tears slipping down her cheeks.

'I want to,' he said. John's voice, muddled, muffled, but well-remembered, images of the nights before crawling back to add onto the jumbled mess throbbing in her skull. The crush that makes it so easy, so /tempting/, to simply let go.

"…don't…do this…" she begs, even as her consciousness slips away from her. "…don't do this to him…please…"

And then, all is silence.

—-

Her blue eyes find his and do not look away. Not even as the tears start to slip free. Not even when the cold starts to freeze them on her lashes. He looks back down into them, and the look on his face is familiar to her.

It is the way he looked when she first met him, over a month ago. Dead-eyed, expressionless, machine-like. The Winter Soldier is back in full operation.

But then, something different happens. His eyes thaw and gentle slightly. He holds her patiently even as her failing body tries to push him away, holding her up out of the snow. It is equal parts a reflection of this new, more holistic version of the Winter Soldier— a version that can remember, think, and feel— and a reflection of the part of him, heavily suppressed, twisted, caged, that will not stop screaming at what his hands are doing.

His right hand moves, brushing the tears from her eyes as she pleads with him not to do this.

"Sometimes," he says, as his left hand shifts to her throat to ease her more swiftly into unconsciousness— the null field will not hold forever— "we reach places where we have no choice."

Darkness descends.

It is a darkness that persists when Zatanna wakes, some time later, restrained in a chair. The sedative is still partially in her system, leaving her groggy, but no more has been administered. The reason why soon becomes clear, even without the benefit of sight— this whole /place/ is cloaked in a null-magic field, a constant oppressive blanket that keeps a heavy hand pressed on the off-switch of her prodigious talents.

The room is blank and windowless. Only a door, the chair she's in, a few faceless people she will not recognize… and the Winter Soldier. He stands to the left of the door, an empty look to his eyes, alongside an unpleasant-looking, slight man in a poorly-fitting suit.

"There may be some hope for you yet," the man in the suit is saying, voice acerbic. The Winter Soldier accepts this with the indifference of a dog who probably does not even understand the meaning of the words. "You can retrieve, at least, even if there is little to be said for your personality. Why we didn't just stick to the usual protocols…"

He turns to leave, muttering to himself. "Regardless, he will be here soon." There is a certain inflection to the pronoun that cannot be missed.

—-

She wakes, slowly, and for a moment, she almost manages to convince herself that the day with Bucky on the bench was just a nightmare.

But the darkness persists. This isn't John's flat, and the heavy blanket of anti-magic weighs down on her bones and leaves her weak, even without the aid of the chemical cocktail in her system. If she knew more about herself, her origins, the secrets caged within her body and soul, Zatanna would know why - her very being is magic itself, encased in a not-quite human shell; every breath she takes, every pulse of her soul, her will, her memories, her emotions most of all…they are all comprised of the stuff that keeps the universe together. Every cell in her being vibrates with not just sorcery, but its purest kind, and with such a complete immersion comes this absolute drawback when it is suppressed this way. It makes her sluggish, wotn, disoriented. Nausea rolls over her stomaach, tingles at the base of her brain.

She hears voices and she tries to listen, struggles to. She doesn't dare test the integrity of her bonds, because even now, all of her instincts have not completely left her. She needs them to think she is still asleep, and then maybe, maybe…

'He will be here, soon.'

Who is he?

Zatanna doesn't know but by the way they speak, she will find out eventually. She keeps her eyes closed, keeps her breathing how it is. She tries to recall, push through the fog in her brain, everything her father has taught her in escaping bindings. Being the daughter of one of the world's greatest escape artists has its advantages and if anything, she fully intends not to let her father down in this regard.

But first thing is first.

She needs to know what she is up against.

—-

Nobody in the room seems aware that she is awake. The bindings holding her are nowhere near the heavy-duty ones they use for the Winter Soldier, but still robust: she is restrained with steel cuffs about her wrists, the shackles part of the chair itself.

The technicians certainly are not paying attention to her. They are working at something somewhere behind her, out of her eyeshot. Occasionally hints of their mutterings reach her, scraps of words that suggest they are specialists of a more mystical bent. They speculate on how it might be easier to excise what they need than they previously thought. It's not just part of her, they murmur— it's /all/ of her.

All they need is to cut a piece off. Or perhaps, they can even convert the whole thing, if they are careful—

The Winter Soldier has no part of that discussion. His silence grows even more pronounced at mention of 'he.' That doesn't escape the other man, who sneers so pronouncedly it's practically audible. "For all his talk about giving back your memory, he sure still left a control switch. Hypocrite."

The Soldier's head turns, eyes meeting the other man's. "You have somewhere to be." It's not a question.

The slighter man's mouth twists up with dislike, but he is silent: the silence of someone being confronted by a family dog that has suddenly shown its fangs. He pulls open the door and leaves, and it clangs shut behind him.

There is silence, for a few moments. Then the Soldier glances towards Zatanna in her chair. Her head has slumped at an awkward, painful angle: he walks towards her, his right hand reaching out, and he moves to carefully position it back against the chair back in a more comfortable way.

"Soon everything will be clear," he murmurs.

—-

She tries to figure out how many are in the room with her - somewhere behind her, and then the man he was speaking to and Bucky himself. Zatanna tries, oh she tries, to remain as docile and as nonthreatening as she can, to fool them into believing that she is still out like a light. The drugs are still in her system, anyway, no Tears of the Host within sight to inject into her body and expel all traces. But it's difficult to think as the loud buzzing sound of the cocktail's effects fill her brain - it would have been a mercy, a comfort, if it had also drowned out the sick, sour feeling in her stomach at what just happened, that she was placed in such a position….not just that Bucky put her here, but reminding her all over again of what she had lost with Bruce. What she could have lost with Tim.

She tries not to think about John, because she knows herself - she'll grow agitated, restless….reckless. She'll act on her first instinct and her first instinct is /screaming/ at her to unlatch herself from her bonds and fight back - viciously, brutally, until she succeeds or dies in the attempt. And she has made promises in that regard.

So she remains silent, and still. When Bucky adjusts her head to let it rest in a more comfortable angle, she doesn't resist, letting her head roll limply on its designated rest. She hears the technicians talking about her and she feels a drop of white-hot apprehension in her blood.

All of her, they say. All of her what?

She hears his murmur, but she knows somewhere deep inside of herself that whatever circumstances intend to clarify for her, she does not /want/ to find out.

—-

"Clear as the cloudless night, my boy," answers a voice, low and paper and thickly-accented, emanating from the opened doorway.

It comes from a man, slight and bent with age, a thinness to his limbs and a tired curve to his back to suggest he is in the last few years of life. He is dressed well, and properly so, in a suit, his withered hands grasping down on a cane, arms trembling finely to support his own weight. He moves with a marked limp, his right leg stiff and lame, but to the rest of him — there's a smoothness to his stride. A ghost suggestion in his body he was once, many years ago, strong. And in his pale eyes, the suggestion he was once —

— kind.

Golubev pauses when his eyes land on Zatanna Zatara, shackled down and still drugged, in that metal chair. For a moment, he looks almost surprised, before his face gentles into patience forbearance. Closer, his voice notes of a homeland far away, eastern European, perhaps Russian. "You, my dear, took me back nearly sixty years. You look very much like someone I used to know."

He limps closer, his walk a slow, measured thing. At his back strides a woman, lean and tall and visibly armed, her blond hair tied up, her sharp face locked in a frown. She carries a briefcase protectively close, lingering only to hand it off to the Winter Soldier before swiftly retreating in stiff-backed military formality.

Golubev lingers, stopped several respectful paces away from Zatanna, his eyes turned down to watch her. "I apologize for how we must meet, Ms. Zatara," he says, and sounds even as if he means it. "Please call me Avram. You must be frightened. I assure you have nothing to fear. There will be no pain. And, as it is my hope, my… wish, there will be no harm to come to you."

—-

The Winter Soldier's hand freezes on Zatanna's face at the sound of that voice.

It pulls away immediately, the man retreating off to one side to make respectful room. He accepts the briefcase from the woman accompanying Golubev in docile silence, after one— two— passing looks at her.

His deference to the old man is clear, but not necessarily— as the sour-looking man who was here earlier would imply— slavish. His obedience is immediate, but it is immediate in the sense of deep respect.

The kind acquired through a sort of gratitude.

—-

The urge to play possum is nigh-near overwhelming.

But there is only so much of that she could take. To turtle, to hide, was never her way. It was a double-edged blade in its own right, this propensity of hers, and it would be an utter exaggeration to call her fearless. But she always manages to bolster enough courage to shore herself up and brave whatever hostile territory lies in front of her, no matter how much she quakes in her boots. Called out like this, to her, she has no choice but to answer. Dark lashes lift from her eyes, still filmed with the drugged haze lingering in her system, but she finds that when she finally does this, she can see a little more clearly.

Ice-blue eyes fall on Avram - surprise flits over those expressive mirrors. Out of all the horrors and villains she has been picturing inside of her head, this is the last image that she has expected, taking in the limp, the lined face, the vestigial spectres of once-kindness in the man's eyes even as he tells her that she reminds him of someone.

She lifts her head, bolsters every defiant bone in her body. She remembers to prepare herself, even when the anti-magic blanket threatens to choke the very life out of her. She steels every molecule capable of rebelliousness in her body, hammers the stakes on the ground. She digs the trenches, bars the gates, and readies the cauldrons of boiling oil at the top of her parapets.

Bucky's reaction to the man only fuels the inevitable. She watches him in silence as he subjugates himself to this man's presence by his very air.

"I'm not afraid," she says - she lies. But it is a convincing one, with the way she tilts her chin at a stubborn angle. "I'm confused. Who are you? Why did you bring me here?"

What do you want from me?

The question that burns brightly most of all, but she doesn't have the heart to ask it. Not yet. She is not yet ready.

Because she knows that the answer is probably something she doesn't want to know.'

—-

She's not afraid, she attests. Whether truth or not, it is spoken with such firmness that one cannot help but immediately respect.

It softens Golubev's eyes momentarily, as if the words themselves had taken him back to brief, bittersweet memory. "I am an old man," he answers, as if that is explanation enough, "and dying. So I promise I will not waste much of your time."

His hands knuckle down onto his cane, fingers tightening and loosening on its handle. As if it extends him great effort to merely remain standing, as it must, with his old bones, with his useless right leg. "The Soldat speaks well of you. Of your grace and your kindness and your manner. You helped him in a time of need. In a different world, I would be calling upon you in specific need for your charity."

He never smiles, but its phantom comes close to the corners of his mouth. Humour deepens the lines around his pale eyes. "Unfortunately, in this world, I need you far more for something else. That is the only reason why you are here."

Golubec turns his eyes over to the Winter Soldier. "Could you please open that?" he asks of the briefcase.

—-

The Winter Soldier notices the way Golubev's hand tightens and trembles on his cane. In silence he fetches a chair for the man, bringing it over so he may sit. He retreats again a few steps afterwards.

The entire time, he says nothing. He does not even look Zatanna's way. It is as if he no longer has the attention to spare, now the old man is in the room— demanding it all.

He only seems to react when Golubev says he has spoken well of Zatanna. "It is because of her that I started to remember at all," he says simply. "I resisted her, but she wouldn't give up. Not when she saw a way clear to help me."

And this is how he has repaid her. For a moment, his expression twitches with the dissonance.

Then it is gone, and he is obeying Golubev's request for the briefcase. Coming promptly to the old man's side, he opens the briefcase.

—-

She wants to know, and not. She has to, and hasn't.

As the Winter Soldier moves, as the older man breaks eye contact with her whenever he takes a seat, deft fingers fumble over the strap closed over her right wrist - to do this subtly, as minutely as she can, recalling all those times she has spent in the Brooklyn bunker, making Chas tie her up, chain her up, shackle her up in different ways to keep her skills sharp. And she talks, because she needs to divert their attention. For the closer Bucky gets to the briefcase, the more desperate she feels. They need her for one thing only, he says, and she doesn't know what that one thing is but she does not want to find out.

"What's that one thing?" she asks. "If you'd made a reasonable case about it, maybe I would've given it willingly. All of this may not have been necessary." Not likely, if Bucky told this man everything he knew about her, but it would also be terribly amiss, if she stayed her mouth. If she kept silent and sullen. How credible would she be, then, after what she had just said?

Zatanna's eyes follow Bucky, bowed in so many ways under the weight of utter obeisance. That, too, is distressing, and she struggles to quell the rising tide in her chest. No cutting remark, no protestation, no /resistance/ - reverence, absolute, infallible, marks him now as he does what he's told.

But she can't accept that. She remembers what he told him on the bench, that he was a good man. His response that how that man is dead, and the look in his eyes - the jagged wish to believe it.

"Bucky…" Her expression twists - betrayal, yes, but anguish too, for him and on his behalf. "Bucky, you don't have to listen to him. You don't have to do this. You…I /know/ you know this is wrong. Whoever he is, /whatever/ he is, whatever he promised you….I don't…" Her fists ball on the armrests. "I don't /need/ anything from you. All I wanted to do was to /help/ you find your way. And that hasn't changed. It hasn't. But I don't know what's going to happen to me, if you /let/ them do this. You can't….Bucky, don't let them /do this/ to me."

Maybe she would have given it willingly, Zatanna says. The Winter Soldier glances briefly at her, brows lifted, his expression eloquent with the sentiment: I don't think you would have.

There is no indication whether he notices her attempts to loosen the strap or not.

This is likely because his attention rests primarily upon Golubev. Especially when his handler requests the briefcase. He comes promptly when called, ready to proffer the briefcase, but something gives him pause. Zatanna pleads with him not to listen— that he doesn't have to do this. That he /knows/ this is wrong.

Don't let them do this to her.

He stands there a moment, listening. Then he continues on, drawn inexorably on that invisible leash, to offer the opened briefcase.

"You did tell me all you ever wanted was to help," he says tonelessly. He avoids her eyes. "There is no greater way you can help than this."

—-

The loyal dog notices his master's ailing. It leaves and comes back, quickly, dutifully, with a chair in hand.

Golubev's weathered face does not hide any ounce of his appreciation. "Thank you, Soldat," he says warmly, and lowers his thin, creaking body down to sit. Stretching out his right leg makes him sigh with a pain far, far older than the young girl bound into involuntary audience.

He sets his cane aside, letting it hook on the arm of his chair, and twines his bony fingers. He wears an aged wedding band on his left hand.

What's that one thing? she asks.

"The one thing we all must lose in the end. For some, it is willingly given. For others, it is taken. I believe the latter is the more preferable outcome of the two, which is why I do not wish to put you in a position where you give up what is most precious to you." His gentle eyes crease. "And, even then, I'm afraid I lack the time for protracted negotiation."

He calls the Winter Soldier near with that coveted briefcase. And at that point —

— Zatanna speaks. Not to him, but to the assassin, the weapon, the dog finally allowed to play pretend as a man.

Golubev tilts his head. He does not interject. He does not make a command to stop this. He goes quiet, and with a grandfatherly patience, allows her plea. He also allows, with no glance, no motion, no vocal direction, the Winter Soldier his free will to respond.

He sits in kindly confidence.

And the Winter Soldier gives his answer. The light plays against Golubev's pale eyes, but his expression betrays no response. Politely, in his way, he plays off the moment as if it never happened. Perhaps for the best of all. Instead, he reaches into the briefcase —

— and pulls free something Zatanna Zatara has seen before. Something long gone missing. Something she personally directed James Barnes to take, to have, to keep.

The Tarnhelm returns, no longer half-crushed by Jessica Jones' hands, restored to its proper shape. It shines dully in aged, bland wood and iron, its pricelessness offset by its commonality, no gilt or jewel or studded adornment. Unobtrusive metal shaped like the featureless face of a man.

"Your soul is the last I mean to take," promises Golubev. "And I have taken many. So many. It will end with yours. The Soldat is right. Ms. Zatara, you are going to help so many."

—-

The Tarnhelm.

Now that she sees it up close, she knows it immediately, calling upon dusty memories of old stories. Giovanni Zatara was an opera enthusiast, and a lover of classical music. A thing from Wagner's epics and something that she knows exists, but unaware that it had been brought to Gotham until the auction itself. Her mind recalls what it is, what it can /do/, and the moment she espies it, her blood drains out of her face, rendering her devoid of her usual healthy glow. Her rampant self-confidence, and she has /plenty/ to spare, fizzles - a thumb and forefinger brutally squeezing the wick of that everlasting flame and reducing it to paltry smoke.

She feels it now, in full blast, in pure, living dreadful color. The fear. Ice-blue eyes wander from the Tarnhelm and towards the man on the chair, as he calmly declares that her soul is the last that he means to take. The words tell her that there is only one way he managed to acquire that information, and she desperately tries to catch the remains of her heart as it falls into pieces inside of her chest.

'Take it off,' he said, his thumb bridging her mouth to her chin, his head tilted low, his eyes almost shut. 'Take off the hex and stay.'

Tears fill her eyes.

'Here.'

Agitation. Determination. The fervent, bloody, fiery desire to keep her promises, surge hotly through her veins, burning her inside out. They remain in her eyes, that damning moisture, those heated, traitorous pinpricks, but they do not fall and in spite of the lack, of feeling so far removed from everything she is, it causes them to light up and threaten to consume this entire chamber in white-blue flame. Her lips curl to bare her teeth.

No. Not now. Not after /everything/.

When she speaks, her voice is low, insistently pushed from the knot at the back of her throat.

"/If you can/."

—-

The Winter Soldier has no response to his handler's gracious thanks save to look pleased. It is a sickening thing to see— a man, almost free, so suddenly reduced back to the service of those from whom he tried so hard to escape. Those who have already tortured him for so long.

He withdraws the briefcase once its contents have been removed, closing it again and setting it aside. He seems, himself, to have little understanding of what the Tarnhelm is, what it does… though its presence, here in the hands of Hydra, does explain how he was earlier able to cancel her magic.

Golubev speaks, so gently. So cordially. And Zatanna's response is to bare her teeth. The mood in the room /changes/, flaring white-hot with her sudden hot determination.

The Winter Soldier responds instantly, moving to the right until he half-covers his handler. He is tense, on edge— ready in an instant to take a metaphorical bullet for the man. A twisted creature forced to defend his own tormentor.

—-

Mere feet before him, held by hinged steel cuffs, locked into a chair, and told of her impending loss of a soul —

— the young Zatara flashes indignant rage against the lenses of her eyes, bares her teeth, and /dares/ him.

The Winter Soldier responds without command or hesitation, one seamless step blurring him between the girl who once saved his life and the master that now commands it.

Avram Golubev, for his part, does little. There is no trace of offence or indignation in the way he watches Zatanna, no stranger himself to the reckless candor of youth. His age-pale eyes tracing her face as if he's seen it once before, long, long ago. His left hand twitches slightly, a rub of his thumb against the band around his ring finger. For a moment, he looks indecisive, held in place, and pensive.

Then his left hand reaches out to pat the Soldier on the arm. "Vse v poryadke," he soothes, ever patient, ever untroubled.

Letting out a deep breath, something that sounds equal parts resolve and quiet regret, Golubev turns the Tarnhelm in his hands. He meets Zatanna's flared eyes with his own, and they are tired, tired even beyond all his many years. "If I can," he concurs.

A momentary smile quirks his mouth before it disappears under the iron-and-wood helm, turned and lowered down over his head.

He looks back up, all of his face erased, rewritten under the etched metal features of the helm, with ancient-painted eyes that stare on, wide and vacant, pinprick holes only large enough to bring light to the pupils. It turns on her.

There is no grand display. There is no theatrical play of light. There is only, to Zatanna, to crushing ozone of magic, building all around her, thick and choking — like breathing ash smoke. Like a wellspring of pressure pushing out against the backs of her eyes, all the blood on her veins warning, exulting, moving in harmonics to something so familiar, something so equally powerful —

The Tarnhelm is whispering in her head. It hisses like old women. It wants her. It wants her. It will drink her.

Golubev used a cane all the way into the room. He limped on his right leg and took a tormented half-minute just to sit. Now he rises, simply, painlessly, no lameless in his step, and brushes past the Winter Soldier. He bends easily on a body that moves decades younger, and reaches toward the trapped woman. Even if she may struggle, his grip is as iron as the helm, firm, implacable, strong in a way no longer human.

That masked face leans close. It WHISPERS. It SPEAKS. It COMMANDS.

It wishes to DRINK. If she would be so kind as to PROVIDE. Its call is so much more ENTICING than the trappings of FLESH. This vessel is no longer ADEQUATE. Let it SIP.

—-

Her body grows tense, and despite her bravado, she shrinks away from the older man as he rises from his seat, as he advances upon her. Nowhere to run, nowhere else to go, much like a cornered animal, the look of her becomes even more intense, and downright feral. Those fortified mental blockades - the stakes, the moat, the boiling oil, the bars sealing the doors to her fortress, become all the moreso now that she knows what she is dealing with. Rapidly, in a way that is practiced, she throws up those internal protections, cascading down her list with the efficiency of a young woman raised in a world where terror and wonder go hand in hand. Chains, locks, vaults full of dizzying combinations. Her heels dig into the foundations of her seat and when magic starts stinging her nose, adrenaline screams through her blood.

Zatanna Zatara dares. It is what she does, no matter how trapped, no matter how hopeless her situation looks. And she is almost always at her best when facing impossible odds.

She has no other avenues of escape when Avram reaches out to grab her, when the helm leans in close to her face, radiating the strength of ancient sorcery. She tastes it at the back of her tongue, sips it and knows it for what it is.

And then it makes unreasonable demands of her.

The shriek inside of her head is almost defeaning, feeling the brutal wall slam into her defenses. The raven-haired magician grits her teeth as she digs in deep and prepares herself for the most important fight of her life. Somewhere deep inside of herself is her pure, untainted soul - ten times as large as the average mortal's, spun out of raw mana - an endless reservoir, with equal potential to destroy worlds and create them. It has no lien, no rights for Heaven or Hell to claim, the very reason why, unlike others, she does not have to pay any price for her skills. It is the very foundation of what she is, the lynchpin of all the mysteries that surround her and to give it up means to surrender everything that she will be.

"No," she whispers through clenched teeth. "/NO/!"

Doors upon doors. As the ancient artifact's influence bulls through the first few barricades, shattering them, she calls more up, dredges up more of her will, fingers balling into fists against the armrests as she strains against her bonds.

—-

The Winter Soldier does not relax until his handler pats his arm, and tells him everything is fine. Even then, it is a long few seconds before he stands down.

Tak tochno," he eventually replies, and steps slowly aside.

He looks back on Golubev, however, with faint concern at the hints of indecision, regret, and eventual resolve that pass over the old man's face. He looks as if he knows the reasons behind that brief play of emotion, because there is a moment of empathy that comes and goes in those blue eyes.

Then he just falls silent. As the procedure begins, the Winter Soldier looks on facelessly, indifferent eyes reflecting Zatanna's distress with no affect at all.

The null field strengthens as the helm begins its work, attempting to quite literally /drain/ Zatanna of her endless essence: to take her potential to use to power its own prodigious strength. This is not a transaction that can go unnoticed, to those sensitive to the fluxes of magic. Particularly not those sensitive to the fluxes, in particular of Zatanna Zatara's unique and raw mana.

It beacons from the border of Brooklyn and Queens. From Highland Park, amidst all the cemeteries and silent graves in the area. In their center is another dead thing: Ridgewood Reservoir, once the water source for Brooklyn when it was an independent city, and long since decommissioned once Brooklyn was absorbed into New York and began to draw its water from the Catskills.

Forest has grown back over the reservoirs. But the empty basins still remain, and all the gatehouses containing the infrastructure that once supported them. They are off-limits to visitors, which makes them ideal for other uses.

The writhing essence of Zatanna Zatara screams from the earth beneath one of those gatehouses.

—-

The empty, hollow, iron eyes of the Tarnhelm bore down into her.

Hands reach for Zatanna's face, the withered, skeletal fingers of Avram Golubev… but the touch is not his. It belongs to something quite else.

It takes her neatly, firmly by the face with a surgical precision, his fingertips pinpoint pressure at her temples, at her cheekbones, at the sharp hinge of her jaw. And with patient inexorability, the Tarnhelm holds Zatanna still, mantles over her, and /feeds/.

She is her father's daughter. She knows nothing of what coils in her soul, but she knows — knows it is wanted. And she is prepared.

Ancient magic curves and braids around her, a hundred imaginary, indistinct touches that transcend the trappings of flesh and blood — it feels like fingers tracing /her/, carding through the leyline flow of her mana, navigating its circulatory pulse in a starved hunt to its source. The Tarnhelm tastes it. Tastes power it has not conceived of in centuries. Tastes power enough to wake it, enough to make it remember —

— hunger, wanting, feeding

She closes her initial doors. She locks and chains them. It stops, bemused, its spiritual feelers testing that barricade with an animal curiousity — before it pushes through, snapping locks, breaking chains, cleaving through doors. She sends it into a maze. It seethes but patiently walks it, intelligence amplifying the longer it can taste her, drinking her wits, drinking her cleverness, rhyming it, matching it. She traps it with puzzles and turning combinations, and that masked face before her — tilts — and the force moving through her head parases those too.

She slows it. But it is not stopping. It follows like a predator on her heels. It chases like an animal, but it hunts like a man, an infallible force determined with time and cunning to tire its running prey with the fatal trapping of time.

The whispers triple upon themselves, speaking in a language long dead, and its vowels slither among the space between her thoughts. No more running. No more fighting. Give up and let go. Give up and SLEEP. Rest. It is a failing for her to rein this power. It is a curse, for which she shall soon be ABSOLVED. The Tarnhelm has taken pity. It feels her STRUGGLE. It will SAVE her. Let it DRINK.

The pressure builds in her head. A /pushing/, like a hand has been forced among her brainmatter, digging with such insistent force that she can feel it swelling against her eyes, against her teeth, and down her throat — lancing magic reaching deep for her heart. It is hard to think. It is hard to /be/. A dozen voices scream to eclipse hers, to silence Zatanna under the ancient chanting of dead voices —

— and the pain begins.

There is no describing the pain as the magic of the Tarnhelm reaches down and grabs a fist around her soul. And PULLS.

—-

The invasion is so deep, so intimate that it makes her feel sick. As Zatanna's unblinking eyes stare at the pitiless depths of the one wielding the Tarnhelm, somewhere deep inside of herself, the chase begins. She senses it follow, and quickly, tirelessly, she shores up her defenses while struggling against the haze of null-magic attempting to drain at her efforts to protect herself. She grits her teeth, hard enough to draw blood, but she continues to persist, to fight, because if there is anything she knows how to do, it's that, and she cannot give this part of herself to anyone. She can't. Because if people want it, and she's starting to slowly realize that she should probably look into the reasons why, then they absolutely can't take it from her. This is her /soul/. One of the two things that drive tne engine of who she is.

She is not giving it up without a fight.

It adapts, it learns, and she draws up another maze, charting loops infinite. But the walls shake and it's difficult. It's hard to focus. Her willpower cracks and splinters around the edges but she holds because she /has/ to. She made promises, vows, things she absolutely cannot walk back on. There's nobody here to protect her now, remembering Jessica's words, so she will have to do what she can to do this herself. To shoulder the load. To bear the brunt and burden of her share.

It /hurts/.

She screams - it's nothing rooted from fear, incandescent, white-hot /rage/ bubbling through her blood and holding onto it at being so fundamentally, viscerally violated, the most unforgivable of rapes in the eyes of people like her. As those chilly fingers reach out and grabs onto her soul, and pulls, she digs in her mental heels and /holds/. She has to. She /has to/.

"GET AWAY FROM ME. GET OFF ME."

Reality strains. Twists. Shudders. It carries her command through the endless sea of ephemeral stuff that binds this world and other worlds, rattles the oppressive, suffocating field attempting to drown her.

"EM FFO TEG!!"

The command crashes into it, like a mad bull charging over and over again. Power thrums dimly, makes hair stand on end, but desperation and desire raise their desired thunderstorms with every intention to make this as difficult and challenging as possible. And with everything she has, synapses alight with indescribable pain, she /pulls back/ her soul and savagely /kicks/ at the wrist of that grasping hand over and over.

—-

The Winter Soldier's eyes, watching Zatanna scream, are as perfect blue and empty as oligotrophic lakes. They reflect nothing but her own agony back at her.

He does not react to anything up until she starts to writhe. Until she starts to kick at the hands holding her still.

Then he is behind her of a sudden, his flesh and steel hands on her, moving to hold her down with raw physical strength. To chain down those of her limbs that are not already shackled in steel cuffs.

"Shhh," he whispers, through and under her screaming. His voice, morbidly enough, seems a genuine attempt to soothe. "Shhh."

—-

The Tarnhelm, with its infinite patience, waits out every one of Zatanna Zatara's struggles. It learns. It learns her. It learns it does not need to fight. It only needs to wait — wait and press. Wait and strike in the seams of her struggles, and sink its leeching grasp deeper, its old magic thick down her throat, suffocating oil. It moves through her leylines. It walks the coils of her power. It skims wandering fingers down places inside her not even she is aware — faint, ephermal touches that are wrong, wrong, WRONG, sick and wrong, do not belong, will never belong —

It reaches out and takes her soul into its sinewy grasp.

It pulls, uncaring of the pain. Uncaring of how it scours out that mortal shell. It cares nothing of the rest. It just wants this power. It has been asleep for so long, and now it wants to drink.

It expects the fallibility of mortal life. It expects the young thing to fold and give up. It expects and exults on her screams. It —

— does not expect /that fight/.

That imagined hand stutters in its grip. The man around the helm jerks, his hands tightening on the girl's face.

The Tarnhelm pulls, but does not receive all it covets. Zatanna will feel, coming from her — an emptying. Not of her soul, not entirely, but robbed of so many of its sizes — a draining of life like a forced rolling of her clock, stealing years, decades, a lifetime —

— coming free, stolen out of her, stripped from her, /her/ lifetime, with only her indomitable fighting will left to hang tenaciously only the scraps. The heart of her soul. A dwindling few weeks of life. Everything feels slow. Everything feels /heavy/. She feels heavy, robbed, taken from, opened, husked out. Its imbuement absorbs into the helm, drinking it, holding it, keeping it.

But the helm is not finished. It wants it all.

The Winter Soldier assists. He comes in at her back, and his arms, flesh and metal, apply unnatural strength to bear Zatanna down. They fix her to the chair with the immovability of a mounting pin through a butterfly — and his left hand, plated steel, curls in gently, firmly, to cover her mouth.

Wards light up runic sigils down Soviet steel to keep her silence.

That magic reaches again for the remains, too starved to stop.

—-

It had been such a good day. For once, even by the standards of an ordinary soul: really good, genuinely good, and not the kind of good he settles for on most days (is he breathing?…does breathing make him want to stop breathing?…no?…then: Good Day).

And then, very suddenly, it wasn't anymore.

It's as though the universe, sensing something almost like equilibrium in Fate's favorite whipping boy, shifted the whole of its immense weight, all of the cruelty of creation pivoting around to make him its fulcrum. To balance the scales of a few hours of happiness by calling for nothing less than the annihilation of his crippled heart, and whatever blood he might be willing to spill along the way.

The answer turns out to be: all of it.

/All of it./

He feels it first as a tremor, indistinct: the sour note of Zatanna's fear. He can feel it across the span of a city, trickling to him along ley lines just beneath the crust of the pavement. Things are better, but fragile; he'd driven her away once already, pushing himself into her life and trying to do too much. Control too many things. And so he tries to push that off, let it go. Trust her. Trust this. Them. Don't give in to the fear, the gnawing certainty that it's all going to come crashing down around him, and send him spiraling back into genuine psychosis.

So when the first of the truly sinister ripples arrive, he isn't ready.

It takes precious time for him to make arrangements and preparations after roughly divining her location — time during which he lashes himself for his mistake. Items are shifted, pocketed. Calls are made. Contingencies arranged. And all that time, her frantic resistance and ire and the workings of something on her /soul/ come to him down the long, silver tether that binds them astrally, droplets of poison slid along the silk strand of a spider's web, that much worse for his knowing that they come /late/, and the suffering he feels has already happened.

What are another few days of his mortal life, in exchange for the swiftness of passing unnaturally through space? He trades them without thought, opening a door in the wall of the flat and passing through it, emerging from the thick bole of a tree in a wooded area, momentarily taken aback. It is not the landscape he expected to see. For a moment he stands in the silent cathedral of greenery, breath misting, uncertain…and then the next pang strikes, sharp and /close/.

Men outside will not have any time to understand what's happening to them. The slim glass vial he cracks beneath his shoe spews dark, polarizing light into the January air. It smells of the cologne it used to contain, dumped to instead house a hasty mixture crafted in the hour before he left. It is deep blue, almost black; it is something that predates the existence of God: Primordial Darkness. It has been roughly stitched together with a spirit that hungers for blood, and he would be its first victim — it tries; it spirals out of its prison and coils his calf, attempts to drain him dry before discovering that the symbol on his arm, that same deep, blue-black hue, has made him an impossible candidate for a meal.

It ribbons into the darkness, ravenous, and finds every last man or woman in turn, a spectral knife that passes harmlessly through skin — it wouldn't do to lose a single drop — and shreds everything within.

John does not linger to watch its work. He descends. There is someone in the hall, intending to ascend. The muzzle of a weapon rises.

"You were just leaving," says John, lifting his hand. He never stops moving.

"I was just leaving," repeats the figure, passing John and placidly ascending the stairs, to step out into woods that contain an unsurvivable nightmare.

Zatanna may feel it coming, the storm in a bottle that stalks the hallway, bearing down on the room that contains her — and something else that she can sense as he closes in. Something old. Something wrong. Tainted. Gone off, like bad milk.

He came prepared for many things that would typically require improvisation on his part: a veritable arsenal, by his standards. He slips his right hand into the left side of his coat and retrieves the engraved silver lighter, with all of its many purposes: a magical multitool, designed for him by the young woman being pillaged of her soul. He holds it in his right hand, places his left on the door, and the lighter flares blue, faerie lights spilling through the gaps in his fingers. It gathers momentum, and then—

It implodes, buckling practically in half before collapsing to the floor like a rattling, wobbling hubcap.

John is there, and he's got something fragile in his hand, produced from nothing. It contains something dark and volatile, something between a liquid and a gas; something that seems to seethe inside of its confines — something that wants /out/. Like, and yet entirely unlike, the vial he destroyed outside in the woods. It's held where it can be seen. "Sudden movements…are a bad idea." There isn't any bravado in that. It's the quiet certainty of a man who is prepared to set the entire world on fire, and himself along with it.

—-

The Tarnhelm takes her soul in wisps, like flaying it alive, ephemeral strips from the whole and Zatanna screams as she tries to hold onto it. The very air around them shakes at her ire, but she dares not dig deep into herself to uncap the well. Because that is what they are after and keeping it closed is the only reason why they are struggling to drain everything that she is out of her in the first place. But it continues to unravel, no matter how hard she tries to snatch the spooling threads back into her grip. She /fights/ and keeps on fighting even as she weakens, even as she's hollowed out, her slender body pinned down when both men attempt to keep her under control. Her head starts thrashing from side to side, in a valiant effort to dislodge the grip of the old man who's got her. Ice-blue eyes bore into him through the eyeholes of the helm, lightning conflagration spitting at him from those near-unsettling eyes.

She is still afraid. They are /taking her life/. Everything that she is. Everything that she could be.

Everything she promised John Constantine.

And just as the thought slips frantically through her overtaxed brain, she suddenly feels him. Him…and not him. It's all wrong and her stomach dips violently.

Particularly intense relationships, especially between sorcerors, brew connections, manifested as silver tethers in the Astral plane. They are rare, and often forged through taxing physical and emotional trials, plenty of which have inundated the both of them in the last week. It's how she was able to find him in Switzerland, and in turn, this is how he's able to find her, and how she senses him even as he unleashes carnage outside of the room in which she's in. It is still magic - strong, potent, the kind that transcends mortal death, the kind that can slip through the underpinnings of other more overt forces.

Her body tenses when the door blows outward. Wide eyes stare at him from where not one but two men are holding her down.

She holds onto the scraps of her soul, whatever she has left, keeps it in the tight snare of her mental grip. She tries to hold his gaze, and pointedly shifts her irises to the man with the Tarnhelm in hopes of signalling him.

John was carrying something with him - dark, terrible. His end of the line is tainted, /corrupted/.

But she doesn't have time to worry about it now. These people took almost all of what she has and she needs to get it back. She /has to/. She doesn't know how long she has with the leavings she's managed to hold onto, doesn't know how this will affect her magic, her power, her ability to be able to fight next to the man who has just /pulled out all the stops/ to prevent the last of her soul from leaving her body.

Oh god. Oh god. Oh god.

What has he done?!

—-

The Winter Soldier curls around Zatanna to hold her still. His flesh arm pins down her legs. His steel one crosses her body. His metal hand muffles her mouth, though the physical restraint is not the only thing holding her magic in.

On the gleaming titanium of the limb, systemetically-graven runes glow in a red to match the Soviet star.

His own head leans down beside hers, offering a soothe for her even as the helm snips away her life in bits and pieces… and it is right at that opportune moment that the door blows open.

John Constantine bursts in. And the Winter Soldier, coiled around Zatanna like a serpent, lifts his head back up and looks through his straggling hair.

His frost-blue eyes are empty at first, faraway and distant as the peaks of the mountains they were in together, not days ago. Days ago, when they were /saving/ Zatanna's soul— preserving it—

"John Constantine," he says, with placid, fond recognition. His head cants, and his eyes turn towards Golubev. "Nam pora idti," he murmurs, in his accented Russian.

—-

The Tarnhelm does not stop. It is hunger. It is the greed of old dwarves, hammered and forged into shape, existing only to take, to keep, to amass, to horde — and its metal eyes are now fastened on Zatanna Zatara. It sees deep into her. It covets. It will drink her to her last drop. It engages a persistent, patient war with her will, her resolve, her mind, her desperation to survive, her /promises/ — promises /sworn/ to others that she cannot keep if she is dead, dead too soon, and unable to fulfil —

She holds onto that last shred of her life and clings with all her strength. Because it's HERS.

The Tarnhelm pulls delicately, carefully, but insistently. It will wear her down. It will tire her out. It is /playing/ with her. It wants to watch until the moment comes that her own soul slips feebly free from her fingers. And then it shall —

— let go, surprised, its astral hands loosening from that little shard of life. Its magic recedes like a pulling tide, unravelling from her leylines, that agonizing pressure pulling free and leaving her mercifully empty.

The door implodes, solid steel crumpling in on itself with unnatural force. The sound is deafening.

And then John Constantine.

The Tarnhelm pauses. It lets Zatanna hang onto the husked last scrap of her soul. It does not persist again. It wars sense against its starved desire.

Sudden movements are a bad idea, declares her rescuer. As if to punctuate that point, Golubev's skeletal fingers are very slow, very precise in their demonstration to let her go, releasing that spidery hold along all the pressure points of her face. With a protracted patience, the helmed man pulls up and stands straight. He says nothing. Does even less.

There's a twitch to his head like he hears the advisement of the Winter Soldier, its familiar Russian coming through all the whispers and maelstrom urgings of the helm speaking through his head. But even if the elderly man acknowledges, he does not reply.

Very slowly, and very, very delicately, the movement in itself a proclamation of business finished, both man and Tarnhelm turn, putting his back to Zatanna, a scrape of his shoe bringing him to face Constantine. The artifact stares vacantly, shadow alleying its etched iron eyes.

Its enchanted metal sings with power. Magic harmonized with Zatanna's lost cries, captured screams. Her life circulating in the veins of its ancient magic.

In the end, the Tarnhelm obliges John Constantine. It makes no sudden movements. There is no suddenness to the way it, and with Golubev with it, simply disappears. A blink — a dimensional unbraiding — and he is gone.

—-

It isn't /easy/ to surprise John, but it does frequently happen, if only because the events that make up the tapestry of his existence are so improbable.

What he sees — more to the point, /who/ he sees — manages to do it, though. The sudden hitch in all of his wrath, until then smooth as volcanic glass, as he recognizes the arm, the scraps of face visible through those tendrils of hair, eyes that have lost whatever used to be in them and gained something else altogether. Punctuating that hitch, a flicker of…what, exactly? It's too quick, subsumed in his ire swiftly, but John still feels the full breadth of it rolling beneath the surface of him like a whale that doesn't breach: the confusion of betrayal and the injury that follows it. But betrayal, injury — those things mitigate his surprise. They are familiar, old friends, ghosts that haunt his every relationship, and he adds the ghost of Bucky Barnes to the gallery.

/You open yourself up to trusting people, John, and this is what happens. They die or they put a knife between your ribs./

So that's nothing new. Business as usual, really. And he's a fucking idiot for having let it happen again, especially with a man like Barnes. An assassin, some sort of weapon. He is and always was dangerous, and John always knew that, knew it right from the very start. /And you thought he might be like you, because you're dangerous too, aren't you, John? And you have your problems, too. Your darkness and the blood on your hands. Your discomfort with emotion. Your reluctant affections, adamantly hidden from view unless circumstance necessitates otherwise. You saw just enough of yourself in him to think you could trust him, and that makes your mistake even less excusable, because you know better than anyone that you can't be trusted, either./

That small, timid, damaged part of him, given new life in the last week, still tries to find some reason not to believe the worst, for which he smothers it in mockery and self-loathing. He'd /helped/ Barnes. Put up wards to keep Jane safe, and for what? To protect Jane from John, perhaps, Barnes knowing well in advance what he was planning to do to Zatanna?

Then why did he risk himself to protect her soul? He was never even asked to. He came anyway.

/So that he could cuff her to a chair and tear it out of her himself. You stupid fucking twat./

So really, it's just the timing that catches him off-guard — the way the world waited until he was most open, had dared to take a tentative step toward—

/Who gives a shit. Fuck it, it doesn't matter./

"This is what's going to happen," he says, splitting his attention between the two men in the room. "You're going to let her go, and you're going to pray that whatever the fuck you were doing here, it hasn't hurt her in any way, because if you /think/…that I won't bring on the End of Days just to see the two of you in Hell, you have got a /miserable/ surprise coming, lads."

He says this as the figure with the helm stands and ever-so-slowly pivots, a movement that has John's hand manipulating the glass vial within it, turning it so that his thumb is braced on the wax-sealed cork in the end. The slurry of shadow it contains senses the readiness in him to break that seal and redoubles its efforts, twisting and lashing, so eager to be freed; the tremor in his hand as he does so is so slight as to be barely perceptible, but it is there, driven by adrenaline as he exerts even mild pressure through his thumb. Whatever it contains, not even John relishes the thought of turning it loose.

It's only as the helmeted figure separates himself from Zatanna's position that John senses the split in the energy he associates with her. His lips part. The figure disappears.

Realization sinks in, pushes a huff of incredulous air out of his lungs. He turns his head slightly to the side. The disbelief in his expression is muted beneath his anger: that they dared. His voice is quiet when he makes his promise. "Oh. That was a terrible mistake."

—-

It is unmistakably James Buchanan Barnes. Or at least— unmistakably, the Winter Soldier.

The Winter Soldier. Weapon. Assassin. Slaughtering ghost. How could John Constantine have ever trusted in such a man? A man who now stares emptily at him over the ravaged form of Zatanna, steel arm caging her down, absolutely nothing in those blue eyes?

They look the same way they did when, not so long ago, the Soldier casually offered John the service of a prolonged torture before the final murder. Dead, empty— as if the soul were scooped out as surely as Zatanna's just was.

The magician makes his threats. The Winter Soldier's eyes flicker, the lashes tremoring. Something comes and goes in his eyes. "John," he begins, but he is not able to finish.

Like his master, the Winter Soldier makes no sudden moves. He uncoils from around Zatanna slowly, metal arm slithering free, straightening up to stand over her. The runes graven on the steel of his arm still glow red: Perthro, Algiz, Thurisaz. There is the impression of a shield before him— perhaps not one that would withstand whatever is within that vial, but a shield nonetheless.

His metal hand moves slowly to the shackles holding Zatanna's wrists. Steel cuffs. He peels them open, one after the other, like paper.

"Go," he says, voice blank. "You will have… some time."

The runes on his arm shift and change, lines swirling fluidly, red turning to blue. Raidho, Ehwaz, Kenaz. He fades, wolf heeling faithfully to his master.

—-

Those ice-blue eyes are wide as dinner plates, but glassy from fatigue. The entire room feels as if it's ready to turn in on itself, to crush bones made fragile by this blatant lack of self. The null-magic field surrounding her, she whose very breath is magic, feels like cinderblocks placed over the center of her chest, more and more of them piling on every time she inhales. The fact that she is still conscious, still struggling no matter how weakly against the pairs of hands that have held her down, is miraculous in itself, driven by desperation and pure, indomitable will, the unquenchable instinct to fight and keep fighting until she can do so no longer.

Zatanna is still screaming underneath the hand that muffles her. Screams because she's pinned down. Screams because she's afraid. Screams because if she does so loud enough, she might be able to forget that they've carved her open, violated her and /stole/ from her. Screams because the older man is walking off with /the rest of her life/ and more than a lion's share of what she is and what she /could/ be, what she /will/ be given time and experience. The yawning, distressing emptiness surrounds the feeble sparks of her old vitality that remains inside her - gone is the supernova, the overwhelming magical nebula that announces her presence easily to those with like senses, reduced to a few weeks of life. God only knows how she has managed to hold onto the beating heart of her shattered soul - it pulses pure, despite its damaged state, arguably the most important part of the whole, powerful in its own right no matter how greatly diminished. But it is /unstable/, leaking magic even as she hurls her distress against the hand that holds her down.

She has always been capable of that, though. Of doing the improbable when things are at their most impossible, while surrounded from all sides.

And the moment one wrist is free, the moment that shackle is unleashed.

She /lurches/ forward, like a spring wound up to its highest tension level, though given her present state and the fact that most of her is still bound, this is done clumsily. A fist, practiced, white-knuckled and curled tightly, swings for the Winter Soldier's face. Her other arm jerks from where it's pinned, and when that, too, is undone, she is on him in an instant. Every part of her trembles. Tears threaten to spill over.

"GIVE IT BACK!!"

Every word, stitched with terror and white-hot fury. Because of this. What they had done. What they took from her. What they made /John/ do for the sake of her. This gnawing, all-consuming /empty/, and she scrabbles at anything she could reach to desperately /fill/ it. It's shock, at the loss of what is so fundamentally hers that all she can do to process it and make it easier on her mind is to latch onto her very first instinct.

"GIVE IT BACK TO ME, YOU SONUVABITCH!!! KCAB TI EVIG!!"

Reality stays. The fabric doesn't move save for the barest of twitches, a dragon uncharacteristically reluctant to heed the call of its favorite mistress.

They spill then, tears running hot and endless from her eyes. Rage-fueled strength leaves her then, as if it never existed, realization of the full extent of the damage slamming into her so savagely that it takes her breath away. Her knees turn into water, and she nearly falls then. How she manages to stay on her feet may be actual magic….maybe the only kind left to her now.

—-

'You will have… some time.'

John's eyes tighten. He doesn't know what that means. Who will? Are they expecting reinforcements? That doesn't worry him overmuch; the thing in the woods is a bottomless pit of hunger. John and Zatanna? Or only Zatanna?

The last is the most ominous, and the interpretation he worries is correct. He can feel her soul hemorrhaging from where he's standing, and the urgency to get her elsewhere and — /cauterize/ — that ephemeral wound wars with his fury for dominance.

He watches the unbinding with gunslinger's eyes, vial of nastiness held ever at the ready, but the act of violence that comes originates not with Barnes, but with /Zatanna/, and John lunges forward to get his arms around her middle and haul her back, aided in doing so by all of the fight suddenly going out of her as her knees weaken. He still has that vial in one of his hands, and now it's precariously involved in his trying to keep her upright.

Anger with real heat in it surfaces for the first time since he arrived, spurred by the adrenaline loosed when she decided to throw herself at the killing machine now apparently augmented with /magic/…and also by the feel of her, so diminished. He can sense the hollow, strange to him. Appalling. Obscene. The rended spills of viscous wild magic, drooling over the band of his arms around her ribs, as though a hole had been cut from the middle of her.

"Where is /Foster/? Did you drag her off to one of these little mindfuck experiments, too? Am I going to find her in her flat, where I get to tell her all about what you've done?"

/He told you he believed something terrible was going to happen,/ says that small, hopeful voice from its place in the corner he's consigned it to. So insistent, no matter how maimed.

/Not nearly as terrible as what might happen if Zatanna dies./

But he'd said John's name, hadn't he? In that way, with that stutter in the eyes..

Even opening himself to the possibility that this has been anything but a malevolent betrayal causes the numb resignation to admit shocks of pain that spike his chest, for reasons he cannot comprehend. There is just enough uncertainty to keep him teetering on the edge between the kind of wrath that would allow him to raze the mortal plane and a different kind of anger altogether, complicated and anything but straightforward.

"She could /die/," he hears himself say, and it strains his voice in a way that suggests he's talking about Zatanna again, not Jane. "Do you have any idea what you've done? What you /took/?"

/Don't ask. Don't you fucking do it, you stupid cunting— /

But the small voice will have its moment. It forces its way out of him, and even through the fire of his anger it manages to sound lost, bewildered. "Why, Barnes?"

He will murder it later, in privacy.

—-

Zatanna lunges at him. And the Winter Soldier does nothing.

Her first strike connects square with his face, lashing it to one side. The rising tide of magic from his arm stutters and interrupts, like a script crashing mid-execution. She lunges at him immediately afterwards, clawing, pummeling, pawing at him, and he still does nothing. He simply stands there, up until John lunges forward to get her about the waist and pull her away.

Even after that happens, he still stands there. His head is still turned aside from the force of her initial blow, though that is the only mark of her assault: his stance is otherwise unchanged, his strength and resilience such that assaulting him barehanded is like assaulting a cliff face.

Physically, at least.

Where is Foster?! John demands. The name finally brings the Winter Soldier's head to turn back towards the two of them. His expression spasms, once, twice. "She is safe," he says, his voice toneless. So much like the voice he had when he and John first met. A thought seems to come to him, and he briefly looks sickeningly glad. "She is being retaught. As I was retaught what I am supposed to be, and had forgotten. She will be happy once it is finished. Happier than she was, alone and unacknowledged."

Do you have any idea what you've done! What you took! She could die! The Winter Soldier's head lifts a little, eyes finally showing something other than that dead emptiness. The weight of a hundred years comes and goes in them. There are worse things than dying, he thinks. "I know," he says aloud. His voice drags each syllable, laboring under a yoke. "But it's not my place to question."

Ah, but then the hardest question comes. The Winter Soldier is silent. The runes graven in his arm light his profile in cold, glacial blue.

"Why any of the things that I have done for the last seventy years?" he asks. His eyes reflect those thousand murders between blinks. "For peace."

He steps back, the runes glowing brighter. "You were the first friend to me in sixty years. That's why I answered your questions." He turns away, already fading. "I can't give you a repeat performance in the future."

—-

"No…" There's a pulse, a small spark. Hope, against all odds, still springs eternal, and while diminished, some of her old self remains. As Jessica Jones had so graciously reminded her just a few days before, it isn't her power, her soul, that renders her irreplaceable. Trembling lips part over the next. "Bucky, don't…"

In a flash of blue light, he is gone.

Zatanna has ceased struggling from the moment John grabbed her, disbelieving eyes staring at the space where the Winter Soldier used to occupy. Trembling legs hold her up and she somehow manages to shoulder part of her own weight even as the Englishman uses his own wiry strength to ensure that she stays that way. Betrayal, again, and as the empty space inside her widens, it mercilessly does not keep her from feeling the pain. Her expression is downright indescribable, is there a word in any language that could encompass heartbreak, sorrow and fury all at once?

Something inside her cracks, splinters. She seems unaware of the rivers of moisture streaming from her eyes and clinging to her jaw. Her knuckles sting, rings of red angrily eating at white flesh, heralding the black and purple to come later, but the ache pales in comparison to what just happened. To this latest, traitorous happening, and the visceral loss of most of her soul.

When she finally speaks, her voice is soft, hoarse from her screams, and absolutely terrified.

"They took it…" Said as if it hasn't fully sunk in yet, dazed as if someone had just plunged a hand into her stomach and ripped out all of her organs for her to stare at. "…they said…I was going to help so many….oh god. Oh god. The things they made you do, John. The things they made you suffer just then. The things they're /going/ to do with my….oh god, John. All those people…"

Her life. Her /life/. But her father's influence is just as fundamentally ingrained into her as the thing she lost. How can she think of herself now, when people she cares about are at risk? When others outside of her circle will potentially pay the price?

She remembers the look in his eyes most of all, the way his hands cupped her face to force her to look at him as he told her about the after-images of his life and the destruction that inevitably follows. Agony. Need.

/I don't get to have this./

And just like that, she changes. Her eyes sharpen, though she's still staring at where Bucky had disappeared to. The line of her delicate jaw hardens. She gives her head a hard shake, tears dislodging from skin, cast off forgotten. Her hand reaches up to close her fingers over the sick, roiling vial clutched in his hand, to ensure that it doesn't fall.

"We're getting it back," she says, with syllables wreathed with fire and steel.

"We have to."

We.

—-

What the Winter Soldier says is horrifying. It would horrify anyone, and John isn't beyond feeling that horror. But John, for all that he grasps the fundamental wrongness of taking someone away from who they really are, is uniquely positioned to understand the seduction it represents, as well: to have one's pains and sufferings alleviated, even if the process to get there is deeply painful. After all, what was his time in Ravenscar Sanatorium, if not precisely that? For a man who contains many things he does not like — memories that drove him literally mad — that look on Barnes' face, a guileless kind of gladness, the idiot happiness of the lobotomized, causes him to feel a swirl of conflicting emotions. Revulsion, anger, and also a nauseous kind of envy, chased with a shot of self-loathing. This is what he wanted for himself, what he sought in padded cells and strait-jackets and chemical oblivion for two years after Newcastle.

It's the last thing he's told that solidifies the wedge of doubt in the slamming door that leads to John's mercy. Because Barnes could easily be lying, playing on the emotional leverage of friendship, but John, somehow, knows better. The man isn't stupid. There are better, easier ways to manipulate John — safer ways.

And if that's true…

/God damnit./

"Take it from me mate, a painless life sounds like a great idea, but pain exists for a reason. It's how we know when we're being /fucked/." By the time he finishes the sentence, he can't even really see the assassin anymore. Doesn't know if the words carried or not. Doesn't know if there's anything left inside of the man to care one way or another.

'For peace,' the assassin had said, and John wonders whether or not Barnes could feel the Tarnhelm's emanations the way that John himself could, something twisted out of true, sick and wrong. A thing that can't possibly help anyone. He wonders whether or not he'll be able to sense that severed and stolen piece of Zatanna's soul the way he can sense the rest of it within her; whether that connection will linger or fade now that the essence of that power has been stripped of its source.

Those are questions for another time. The woman in his arms is folding in on herself, suffering writ large in her voice, and he turns all of his attention there. He wants to tell her not to worry about him; that they'll find a way through it. Before he can, she finds something within that braces her spine, and says as much herself.

"We will," he says, quiet agreement. "But right now we're getting you back to the flat. I'm afraid that's going to need stitches."

Always the gallows humor with John, even when he's moments from setting the whole world on fire. Even when he's still reeling from the near loss of her, and the consequences of that haven't had time to unfold, the way it'll be days before the bruises on her knuckles are fully expressed, visible to the eye. It's just as her dad said:

He simply cannot help himself.

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