Legwork

January 20, 2017:

John swings by Jessica Jones' place to meet her before their scheduled meeting with Agent Peggy Carter, and finds evidence of an explosive falling out between the Detective and herself. They make the meeting, but Hydra's many decades of working from the shadows prove a formidable defense, even for SHIELD and the legendary Carter. Dispirited, John and Jess return to John's flat to fill Zatanna in, and rough plans are made: to move against Hydra, and soon. They've waited long enough.

New York

The city that never sleeps.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Matthew Murdock, Captain America, Red Robin, Thor, Kitty, Spider-Man, Peter Quill, Rocket Raccoon, Groot

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Little pangs of intuition might have nagged John Constantine this morning. Jessica had helped Ritchie move, and she'd come to see Zee, and she'd been in good physical shape. She'd been ready to go see Peggy. But a nagging feeling that something was wrong might have plagued John. This might have been accompanied by things breaking, coincidentally. An attempt to call Jess' phone, if he made one, would have gone straight to voicemail, as if someone forgot to plug it in. Little notes to perhaps check on her at her apartment.

Following those would have led to one hell of a sight.

The door to Alias Investigations is still ajar, if not fully open. An EVICTION notice informing Jones she has 7 days to vacate is taped right on the front of the door.

Jessica is right on the floor in the front room, not entirely asleep, but not entirely self-aware. She's breathing slowly, in and out, like a wounded animal unable to move. At first glance it might look like someone tore up her apartment, but a glance at the pattern of damage would show something that looks more…self-inflicted. There's broken glass /everywhere/. Her computer has been weirdly shoved safely up on the built in shelving, but her desk is broken in two, probably because the bathroom sink is now neatly bisecting it. There's white paint literally every where. It's still fresh, cans opened and hurled at walls, slung about in a wild fury. There isn't a chair that hasn't been reduced to splinters.

Beneath Jessica's cheek lies the picture of the Tarnhelm, as if she just sort of fell over on top of it. The place reeks of at least three kinds of booze.

As meltdowns go, this one was pretty freaking fantastic.

—-

John isn't a morning person by British standards: up with the dawn, etcetera. By American standards he probably qualifies; he was out of bed by nine, showered and dressed and stepping out into the street by ten, and then it was just a quick stop at a bakery for coffee (no tea, just another thing to hold against this bizarre country) and donuts, and off to Jessica's place.

He did try calling, but only once. John has no compunctions about showing up unannounced at someone's flat, and that's without the additional incentive of the tickle in the back of his thoughts that tells him something isn't right. He tries to ignore that — he's been besieged lately by bad news. Most of that bad news has been personal to the people close to him, rather than centered around himself, but there are so very few people he's 'close' with at all that he feels those tragedies as though they were his own.

He tells himself that he's just paranoid, shadowboxing. That this is his psyche anticipating the worst because he's had, with the exception of the nothing-shy-of-miraculous resurrection of his relationship with Zatanna, only bad news come his way since he landed in New York a little over a month ago.

Serves him right, really, he thinks, standing outside of the ajar door to her office-slash-living-space, staring at the eviction notice affixed to the front of the door. He reaches out and plucks it off of the glass gently, neatly folds it in half and seals the crease with one well-kept nail and tucks it into the bag of donuts, and then ever-so-gently and ever-so-cautiously uses the light splay of one hand on the door to push it open.

The scene that greets him is absolute bedlam. For some moments he stands where he is on the far side of that threshold that yields onto chaos, blue eyes sweeping across the interior, which appears to have undergone a joint redecorating effort by the WWF and Jackson Pollock.

Once he spots her — and the computer safely on the shelf — he's able to guess that this wasn't something done /to/ her, but instead done /by/ her, and he finally steps through the door and closes it quietly behind him. Quiet footfalls take him over to stand next to her — just outside of arms' reach — where he twists his head to look down at the photo. His crouch is very slow, carefully balanced so as not to wind up with his black-clad knee going down into a puddle of white. He sets the bag of donuts down. Beside it, closer to her, the wrinkled, brown, recycled-paper cup caddy. Coffee smells permeate the sharp tang of paint.

"Looks like you had quite a party," he observes, in what appears to be good humor. "And I wasn't invited. I might be hurt."

—-

Jessica starts. She hadn't really listened to him coming in. She'd been lost in her own world, half dozing through that hangover, half just…trying to find the strength to do anything else. It's only when he speaks that she comes out of her daze.

He brought coffee, he brought donuts, he's making jokes. Just another set of the kindnesses, small and large, that she's been experiencing over the past sixty days, things that she hadn't realized she was desperately hungry for until she had them. And predictably…she fucked them all up.

She doesn't reach for the coffee or the donuts because she doesn't deserve them. She sits up and tries to put on her game face.

It doesn't work. She can't even answer his quip. Her expression crumples like a six year old's, right on the verge of tears. But John gets really uncomfortable when she cries, she remembers, and she's supposed to be a bad ass, and, and…

Still, she can't keep the waver out of her voice. He's here. She's got no choice. She has to confess. She has to somehow find the ovaries to do it, even though she fears losing the people that really matter to her through it. But then…if they can't get Zee's soul back she's already lost one of those people, hasn't she?

"It's my fault, John. It's /my fault/ they took her soul."

And then she can't stop them. Tears of sorrow just explode down her face. She picks up the photo with a shaking hand, and whispers, "I didn't know what it was. I was so /stupid/. And now…"

She bites back an honest to god sob, unable to continue with the whole of the story or the reasons why she thinks this is on her for the moment.

—-

His default admits to nothing in the way of his own suffering: here, abroad, anywhere other than the enclosed confines of the private world he's constructing in his recently-obtained living space, he's the very thing everyone expects when they hear the name John Constantine: sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, prone to dry expressions of face and voice, seemingly incapable of taking much of anything seriously. He can't have failed to grasp that this — all of this, the ruined furniture, the destruction of property, the eviction notice — is an indication that her life is imploding in on itself, a mirror for whatever it is that's inside of her, but at least for the time being, he is choosing to let that go unremarked. Coffee first.

What she says gets a blink out of him, though, and causes a tiny little hitch in his smooth, charming delivery. A small chip of shadow between his brows, reflecting a knit of them that doesn't fully form. Any other man would probably fire back with immediate reassurances: that's ridiculous, you can't possibly be responsible, you care about her, you defended her, you risked your life for her. A better man than John.

John is too used to things like this turning out to be true. Barnes is only the latest in a long line of case examples that prove the point, but he's the freshest one, and that injury still aches.

"What are you talking about?"

He sounds wary or cautious, if a name can be given to his tone of voice: judgement suspended until he knows more. When she wrestles with herself, on the verge of succumbing to tears, he extends a hand and sets it on her shoulder, a gesture meant to brace and anchor. John's not so emotionally stunted that he doesn't know how to console tears — and he's not uncomfortable with physical affection, as a rule — but she's covered in paint.

And he wants to know what she means.

—-

She takes the anchor, though she avoids his gaze. Indeed, there's something in the cant of her head, an unconscious baring of the throat, as if to invite him to strike her down if he so chooses.

She forces herself to take a breath.

"This thing. Was at the gala."

Short sentences are all she can do. Another breath. She shoves her emotions back into a box, they've had their time to burst out of her, and now she forces them all painfully back in. Her face remains wet, her eyes bloodshot, but her voice takes on a quality of dullness.

"It started glowing with two other objects. The book and something else, I don't remember. It was controlling people's brains, making the civilians in there go crazy and start attacking."

Now longer sentences come out. She's reporting it. She sounds almost dissociated from it, as if knowing she can't tell the story if she has to feel what she feels at the same time.

"I smashed it. Like a pop can. Crumpled it into uselessness. The spell stopped. And I never once imagined it was an artifact of any sort. We hadn't talked about any other real artifact there but the book. I thought it was just some ridiculous antique. Something Muller," by far the easiest of the names to say, and the one she'd known him by at the time, "Had just put a spell on it. So the chaos is over. Zatanna's exhausted and clutching the book. And I'm holding a two million dollar piece of junk. I think, well, I really don't want to get charged two million dollars for this thing, and anyway I have to make sure Zee and that book are okay. So I stuck it in a potted plant."

"I didn't ask anybody about it. I didn't think to Google it. I didn't try to take it with me. I just…shoved it into a ficus, where clearly someone else picked it up. I would have thought it was beyond repair. Clearly I was wrong."

—-

As John listens, the thin, soft shadow between his brows deepens, the knit growing more pronounced. His eyes are solemn — not that she meets them — but he takes in every last word with the utmost seriousness, his ambient humor set temporarily aside.

When she finishes talking, his brow clears entirely.

"Ah. I see. Crushing the thing into unusable wreckage and having absolutely no idea what it was are /definitely/ the same thing as giving it to some sort of shadowy organization we still have no name for, and then forcing them to use it to take 'tanna's soul." Deadpanned, all of it.

And then he slightly tightens his grip on her shoulder, dips his head to seek her gaze, and angles one brow up, humor sliding back into place like a missing puzzle piece. Something in his chest unfolds itself, smoothing back out, unrumpled. He doesn't have to burn this bridge today, apparently.

"Come on, Jones, that's rubbish. That's like…" He searches for a a comparison to make. "That's like rear-ending someone's car, and finding out a month later that the person driving it hit your friend at a crosswalk. It's barking. I understand the guilt. You had it in your hands, the what-ifs — don't get me wrong, I'd probably be thinking the same in your shoes. And probably, someone else I know would tell me I'm being an illogical prat, and I'd get ticked off and hopefully restrain myself from throwing hot coffee at them — it is /very/ hot — and then I'd grudgingly acknowledge that they had a point, and put the coffee where it belongs. In my mouth. Because I have a meeting to go to in— " He extends his arm, glances down at the watch banded about the bones of one wrist. "— a little over an hour. I'll call her, we can push it back. You'll want a shower after you eat."

—-

He cajoles her to meet his gaze, and finally she does. He's absolving her, and she desperately wants to be absolved. The better part of her, the one who had urged her to call someone, anyone, rather than fall down this well, can see the sense in his words. The worse part of her can only summon up a scoff, but that's not powerful enough to overwhelm her.

She takes a long, deep breath and reaches for the coffee with a trembling hand. "I'd never throw coffee in your face," she says. It's the closest she can come right now to saying she cares about him as much as she cares about Zatanna, in the same sort of platonic way, that she's rooting for their happiness and is rather honored that he seems to think she's a good person to have on his team.

So she just skips to the part where she puts some of the coffee in her mouth. A sip slowly warms her cold body. A shuddering breath, and she takes another. Her heart still has misgivings about her own culpability, but…his humor in delivering the logic has rather undercut her brain's ability to keep playing that tape, and all to the good.

And anyway, he's reminding her she has a chance to make this right. "I won't be long in the shower," she promises, finally reaching for the bag and the offered breakfast inside. She reaches for the most chocolatey thing she can find. She looks around at the destruction as if seeing it for the first time, and an embarrassed wince distorts her features. The quick, apologetic glance she gives him is not for the Tarnhelm this time.

—-

John tchs, pats her shoulder as she reaches for the coffee. "Never say never, Jones," he advises with broad, matter-of-fact wryness, snaring his own coffee and pushing himself back up to his feet. "In my experience that's the best way to make sure you wind up having to do something someday."

He's taking a sip from the already-diminished contents of his cup when she shoots him that abashed look, and all he can do is lid his eyes and shrug. It's not /his/ problem — and in any case, John is self-aware enough to know that he's the last person who can give anyone the side-eye for being self-destructive when they find themselves careening down the slope of a personal low.

"I'll just have breakfast while you're about it, then, shall I?" He dips a hand into his pocket to retrieve the glassy sheet of his phone, agile thumb flicking through the lock sequence and various other screens. "And, eh, update Agent Carter about our ETA. Go on then."

—-

She goes on, draining the coffee and finishing the donut in a few quick movements. It's not pretty or dainty eating, but it gets the job done. She brushes crumbs and glass off herself and crunches across the floor. She's still wearing her boots, so there's no danger of cutting her feet. She gently shuts the bedroom door behind her, and the bathroom door. Water sounds say she's doing as she's asked to do.

She takes about 20 minutes all told. When she emerges she's put on the single pair of black slacks she owns, along with a red shirt and a suit jacket and boots. She /does/ dress up when the case calls for it, and meeting a government agent does call for it. Her damp hair has been twisted into a quick bun at the back of her neck, presentable if not fashionable. She isn't the type to agonize over make-up; that looks the same as always but clearly doesn't take her a lot of time to do.

She grabs a laptop bag as if loathe to leave the one in-tact item in her apartment there to sit in the mess. She throws a few other items in: a map of New York, a pen, a notebook, her wallet.

"Okay," she says. "Let's do this." Her eyes are still a little bloodshot, but she no longer reeks of booze, and that could be explained away as the results of a sleepless night, instead of a thoroughly degenerate one.

—-

In the interim, John has somehow managed to crowbar open a paint-stuck window and start to let the fumes out, although he's masked them over with the scent of cloves, sitting on that window ledge and dividing his interest between the dregs of his coffee and the cigarette in his hand. He drops the latter into the former and then replaces the cup inside of the disposable cup holder, shoves the cup holder into the now empty donut bag — he's put the eviction notice gingerly atop what remains of her desk, inside of the bowl of the sink, having decided against bringing it up. Chances are good she already knows, and if she doesn't know…to look around the interior, she must suspect it's coming, anyway.

"Do you drive?" That's his question as they step out into the hall and he shuts the door behind them. "Because I don't."

—-
She glances at the eviction notice, eyes tightening with momentary stress…but not with surprise. She knows, and has sort of accepted it as the consequence of allowing herself to hit rock bottom. It's something to deal with later. One thing hadn't changed…tiny matters like apartments and bills just didn't seem to matter as much in the face of the very real threats they've been grappling with. The eviction seems a petty concern, something she is confident she can deal with in due time.

But as to the question of driving, Jessica shakes her head. "I don't have a license either," she admits. "Owning a car is such a pain in the ass in this city that it's never seemed worth it." It's one of the many things Trish bugged her about regularly, somewhere among exhortations to go back to her therapist and call every once and awhile. She opens her mouth to offer to pay for a cab before remembering she no longer has a dime to her name. But she does have a subway card with fares left on it. "Can we get there on time by taking the subway, do you think?"

Subdued but stable and steady, slowly, painfully slowly, slipping back into the thing that always keeps her at her best. Work. Getting the job done. And if she's ragged about the edges, her brain is nevertheless coming online.

—-

"I don't use it a lot, but I'm sure it can't be worse than the tube," John opines as he and Jessica leave her building and step out in the watery, mid-morning sunlight of a January day in New York.

He's completely unfamiliar with the New York transit system, but somehow he and Jessica manage to make their way through transfers of trains toward Central Park. He's already phoned Peggy ahead of time to let her know there'd be a slight delay in their arrival time — 'traffic,' he said, because telling her the truth, about how he'd found Jessica Jones collapsed in the midst of all of her destroyed furniture in an apartment that looked like a paint-can bomb had gone off inside of it — seemed like it might be counterproductive to the seriousness of their later meeting.

And so here they are, traffic defeated, strolling into the center of the green space, sunglasses on and John's hands in his pockets.

"She's probably already here," he says, moving at a straight-legged stroll, unhurried. "With fifty other plainclothes, all of them giving us the bloody stink-eye."

—-

At least nobody would guess that an hour ago Jess was a mess. She's even eschewed her ripped jeans for slacks, a blazer, and a bun. One of the first rules of PI work was learning how to blend into different environments, to make oneself more relatable depending upon the circumstances, even if it meant eschewing personal comfort. By the time they're entering the place where the meeting is to take place her bearing is, well…as professional as any agent. The keen eyes of agents would show that she's unarmed; the laptop bag she carries isn't big enough to carry a gun without making a bulge.

Her lips twitch a little at John's description, even as she glances around for the legendary agent. "Everyone I met at SHIELD was remarkably kind to me, especially for having a scruffy stranger dropped into their midst." Even her voice has regained strength, as if she'd spent the subway ride reimaging herself into a competent professional, imagining that until she was able to morph her bearing into that very thing.

—-

John Constantine is quite correct on one front. Peggy Carter was right on time for this meeting. There are no park benches at this part of the park and, in fact, there isn't a lot of lighting, either. This is a private meeting in the old spy sense of the word. The agent from the past stands right where she told John and Jessica to meet her. The woman does not exactly bob, but she does almost fidget, knowing what this meeting may delve into. It's not something that she is looking forward to.

However, he is entirely wrong on the second. It seems that she stands there in the dim lighting alone. It would be hard to tell if there are SHIELD agents hiding in the bushes or up in the trees for safeties sake, though. It remains to be seen whether Jessica's impression of SHIELD agents will remain intact after meeting Peggy. The agent hears the pair coming and turns in their direction with a nod of greeting as she looks first to the man she knows: Constantine and then to Jessica Jones. "Mr. Constantine. Ms. Jones." This is a meeting that John called, so she'll allow him to start.

—-

"It'd be shite for PR if they hadn't been," John observes, of Jessica's time with SHIELD. "Their headliner is named 'Captain America.' You can't have somebody named 'Captain America' treating injured women like— ah. There she is."

His leisurely stroll picks up to a businesslike clip, and he closes the distance quickly.

"Good of you to come. Not a thing I'd expected to need, but there you go. These tossers responsible for Barnes…sorry, 'The Winter Soldier'—"

Before the worst happened, Barnes had given John his operating name, as a means with which to communicate to Jane Foster that he could be trusted, should that worst ever come to pass. John has no sense of how rare it is to possess such a thing, clearly, because his self-correction does not seem to carry much additional weight.

"— have gotten their hands on something that would've been bad enough. Now they've just…augmented it…with the vast majority of the soul of someone I know. I— " He pauses, glances at Jones. "/We/," he amends, "Need to get it back. From what I've seen of Barnes in action, I'm not keen on charging in without knowing what we're getting ourselves into. I was hoping you might be able to help wi'that."

—-

"The headliner sat by my bedside. The whole time. That's going above and beyond not treating me like shit," Jessica murmurs, but she picks up her pace to match his and gets focused, not really expecting an answer.

She offers a hand for Agent Carter to shake, minding her manners, but doesn't interrupt John with any verbal pleasantries. The important bit is happening now, and her brown eyes, bloodshot though they may be, are keen.

She nods at the we; the amendment does not go unnoticed.

She doesn't jump in with a follow-up question; primarily because she doesn't have one yet. Peggy has her full attention.

—-

Peggy, however, knows exactly how rare it is for someone to know the name 'The Winter Soldier'. There's an uptick of her eyebrows at hearing it. While usually good at schooling her expressions, that is one that clearly slips through. "I see." She attempts to take in the information as best she can, though it feels as if she is jumping into the conversation halfway through it.

In organizing her thoughts, she takes a moment to shake Jessica's hand, noting the bloodshot eyes without commenting on them. Instead, what she says is, "I believe you're a few steps ahead of me. What have they gotten their hands on? And how is a soul going to augment it? And, I'm not exactly sure what Barnes has to do with this, either. Nor his handlers. Before I can give you any answers, I do need to know what it is, exactly, I am giving answers about." That is not to say she is not willing to help, but she also isn't in the habit of spitting out information without knowing what it may be used for.

—-

"It's a magical artifact. It's called the Tarnhelm. It was at the charity gala. This organization got their hands on it and figured out what it does. It runs on the power of souls. The soul they just took, belonging to a friend of mine, is…" He opens his mouth, closes it, spends a moment looking for the right words as his eyes tighten in the corners, faint suggestions of crows' feet making an appearance. "…unusual. There's a lot of power in it. It's like pouring jet fuel into a gas tank, so the magical abilities usually conferred by the helm are stronger, and it means they don't need to keep feeding it. But all the time that they're using it, they are burning through her soul. So we're on a bit of a deadline, luv."

Blue eyes sweep over the groomed exterior of the woman he's come here to speak with, making some sort of private assessment. "Barnes is the one who took her back to his handlers. Not long before that he told me he had a bad feeling about something. He'd been slowly changing over the time I was acquainted with him. That last time, he actually smiled. Shit you not. Whatever they've done to him, he's different now. There were runes on that metal arm of his. He's been upgraded. And he wasn't the one wearing the helm, when I showed up to get my friend back, so…this goes beyond him." He lets a beat of silence part those words and his next. "That enough to run on? We're /going/ to get her soul back, or die trying, I expect. Doctor Foster as well, if we're able. I've seen enough of him to know he's the product of a concerted effort, and that means we're going to be outnumbered. We need whatever you can give us."

—-

"That was the thing that caused all the civilians to go crazy and start attacking, Agent Carter," Jessica supplies, feeling perhaps a few more details might help their case a little more. "Even if it weren't all powered up it seems a terrible thing to leave in the hands of these people, whomever they are. And with it all powered up, who knows how far the reach on that thing is, or what kinds of commands it could give. Maybe make a whole city block of people lose it. Maybe turn a whole building of folks into their personal puppets. And that's not even the only thing on the list of what the thing is capable of."

She doubts very much that Agent Carter had noticed her in her waitress' guise at the gala, but…she certainly speaks like one who was there, who got to see the whole thing up close, in person, and in living color.

After her meltdown and her morning blow-out one might imagine Jess would have trouble talking about the thing, if they knew…but now there is only The Job, and her personal feelings are relegated to slow somersaults and twists in her gut, eating away at her in knifelike fashion but otherwise ignored. It renders her face a bit blank and her body language a bit still, but has no other outward effects.

—-

Peggy listens to Constantine's information with a frown on her face. It's not exactly pronounced, but it's pretty clear she doesn't like what she's hearing. She remembers that device from the auction and remembers the devastation it caused. It reminds her very much of one of Howard's 'bad babies' and that's not something she wants unleashed on another room, let alone a city block.

Much like John studies her, she studies first him and then Jessica. Maybe she doesn't remember the woman dressed as a waitress, but she can certainly extrapolate from her words that she was there. Coming to some form of conclusion, the agent sighs. Instead of looking directly at the people she came into the middle of a mugger infested park to meet with, she turns her face upward toward the sky. Running a hand through her hair, she deliberates a second longer, an expression of pure personal weariness that comes over expression for a singular moment.

When she looks back to the pair in front of her, the mask of professionalism is back in place. It seems they will get their answers, though it may up for debate whether Agent Carter would leave them empty handed.

"Hydra," she tells them. A word that holds a surprising amount of venom in Peggy's voice. "They are the ones that hold the Soldier's strings. They are the ones behind this, taking Doctor Foster, your friend's soul, the Tarnhelm. Whatever they wish for them, I doubt it involves pleasant tidings."

—-

'Hydra,' says Agent Peggy Carter, and John says nothing, does nothing, waiting for more information to follow. It is probably clear from the way his brows shift and his look of solemn expectation turns dry that what he's given falls shy of what he'd hoped for. "Yeah, no shite, luv. On a scale from 'leaving the seat up in the khazi' to 'tying virgins to train tracks,' this is full-blown, moustache-twirling-while-monologuing amounts of evil. Tarnhelm's a parasite. And Barnes was…" His banter wanes just a little, just enough to convey that there are more complex things happening below the surface than his cavalier speech may suggest. "Different. For sixty years, they've been doing something to that man that I, frankly, cannot even get my head 'round, and that's saying something. I've been to /Hell./"

He turns his head hard to the side, squinting off into the depths of the park. The muscle that straps his squared jaw tightens under the skin. "Can you tell us anything else? How do they arm themselves? How many of them there are? What they — what in the bloody hell they're even after? Why do they exist in the first place?"

—-
Peggy studies Jessica; Jessica studies her in turn. The name clearly means nothing to her, other than as a vaguely sinister name. Nevertheless, she's quietly absorbing the information. "And is there any intelligence about their activities in New York that might lead us in the direction of where they might be keeping their most important assets /now/?"

Intelligence, plus John's little flickering traces of Zatanna's soul, might lead them to some places to check out, even if they don't exactly get X marks the spot. Leads are leads, and while John is looking for the broad view, Jessica naturally gravitates to what spooks would call 'actionable intelligence' and what she just calls 'places to start.'

—-

At the flippant speech, Peggy gives John Constantine a withering look. It's one that she perfected in her later years as a veteran head of SHIELD. As of this time, however, it's merely an effective tactic to show how unimpressed she is by his speech. "No, I simply decided to say a name and then let you carry on your way. I paused to see if you knew anything of them so I would not have to repeat information you already knew." It seems as if she has updated the way she gives information to John after their last meeting.

"Hell would be a kindness for what may have been done to him," she says. "Hydra are Nazis. That is, literal Nazis from World War II. They are interested in what most evil organizations are: power and domination. After the war, they started to operate in the shadows. They infiltrate, they take power where they can and they are incredibly interested in the occult. I cannot say how many of them there are, as they tend to hide in plain sight."

Peggy sighs, shaking her head at Jessica. "There are no easy answers to Hydra. They play dead for years, letting others think they managed to root out the last of them, but their motto is, 'cut off one head and two more will take its place' and it has been depressingly accurate."

Crossing her arms, she adds, "After—I ran into Barnes a week or so ago. He was convinced he was being followed and it turns out he was right to believe that. Someone attempted to implant a tracker on him, but they missed. I have been attempting to use that tracker to trace back any information as to who might have followed. The parts came from a Weapons manufacturer in Germany. SHIELD marked it with possible ties to HYDRA, but were unable to confirm that."

—-

John Constantine has elemental immunity against withering looks. Eighty percent of the people he knows look at him that way. It's an open question as to whether or not he even notices, anymore. Which is not to say that he's not paying attention: her sarcastic verbal rebuke earns her a faint upward twitch at one corner of his mouth. It is his only immediate reply.

What follows is more along the lines of what he'd been expecting, and he is a silent and /intense/ listener, blue eyes blinkless. There /is/ a shift in his expression, subtle and momentary, when Peggy describes this organization as being deeply interested in the occult — a little tic in the muscle of one cheek — but he holds his tongue until she finishes speaking.

"I can't help but feel," he says, when he does finally open his mouth, "That during our conversation about immortal Nazi sorcerers, it might have been useful to know that there's an entire organization of Nazis interested in the occult, who have essentially perfected some off-brand kind of immortality in James Barnes." The words are a drawl, dry and casual. Not accusing, but they paint the picture of a man who finds bureaucracy and red tape exhausting, and information compartmentalization tedious — and a little amusing. "I mean, bloody hell, that's more than just a few similarities, innit?"

The moment he's finished his quip — sooner, in fact — he's sliding his hand out of his pocket and gently dragging fingertips down the stubbled edge of his chain, wheels turning. "Nnn. So they're going to have people 'round who can cast a knack or two. On top of — do they have more than one of these? Of whatever Barnes is?" His momentarily distant eyes resharpen, refocus on Peggy.

—-
Jessica wears the look of someone whose wheels are turning. Was there anyone else at the gala who might have been tied to HYDRA? That could lead to something, someone to go punch in the face until they offered some sort of information. But even as she thinks it, she grimaces. She's not seeing the lead in, not seeing the way forward. It shows on her face in a burst of sour frustration, but she doesn't speak; only lets the questions pass from John to the government agent. Right now, she doesn't have better ones, though she does look restlessly about, as if expecting…

Or perhaps hoping…

Some enemies will show up so they can beat /them/ down for information. Normally getting jumped isn't serendipitous, but in this rare case Jessica rather thought it might be. Still, her antsiness is not even conducted in a way meant to distract, she, too, is listening intensely.

—-

"I had no inkling that Barnes had anything to do with Hydra before—" Peggy's voice is heated for a moment. Then, she stops herself, knowing the anger is not truly meant for Constantine. Other things are at work here. "Things are incredibly easy to identify when using the benefit of hindsight. Steinschneider left the Nazis rather violently before there was a Hydra, why would I assume he would be a part of the organization that attempted to murder him? Even if I had thought him a part of it, as I said before, the status of Hydra is one of nebulous functionality. I had hoped in the past seventy years their influence was negligible if not completely defunct. One Nazi sorcerer does not make an entire organization, much like a single lion does not make a pride."

There's a moment where she gives John a bit of a look at his question. She understands his meaning, his attempts to plan. It's something she would applaud on any other evening or on any other subject. However, her response perhaps surprises even her, "Barnes is a man who has been tortured, if my sources are to be believed. Perhaps to the point of insanity. I have no reason to believe there are more like him, however, I also did not know the people he was attempting to hide and escape from were Hydra. It's hard to say what resources they have at their disposal."

Again, she stops, redirects herself. "I believe the next step lies in Germany. Even if they are no longer there, more clues may be found. You said before that Steinschneider was no longer on this continent and you had a way to find out where he was. Where was he?"

—-

"Steinschneider can take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut until my friend's soul is put back together," is the immediate answer from John, rolled up in a kind of brusque dismissal. "I think you're right about Germany and Steinschneider. But until this other matter is fixed, I'm not leaving New York, nevermind the country. She's—"

This is the first fissure to appear in his careful, expertly-crafted mask of casual flippancy: a single flicker to the thin crescents of his lashes. Enough of a wobble that he recovers by ducking his head, bringing that free hand of his up to rifle through the feathering lengths of light brown and dark blonde on his head. He draws a breath at the same moment he rights his head, and seems matter-of-fact: "She's dying. It's a crisis with a deadline. Literally."

The silence that follows is heavier than most. Longer than most. He fills it with his exhale, painting the air with the white mist of his breath. "Given what you've said I'm not sure there's much we can do to prepare for an assault on wherever the helm is. It's more than we would've gotten otherwise, though. I'm grateful. This is personal. So I'll owe you a favor, luv. I don't want you think I'm being a prat by holding onto where Steinschneider's run off to for the time being, but I don't want people running off to do anything about him without everyone being ready, yeah?"

—-

Jessica is nodding agreement. She'd been careful about her questions, taking her lead from John, not wanting to reveal, inadvertently, anything he didn't want revealed. Now the PI speaks again, and asks, "Are you absolutely certain you can't think of anywhere they might have taken the Helm, Agent Carter? There must be /some/ kind of lead. As slippery as they are they have to have made some sort of waves or ripples. It seems strange to think a secret society could be pulling maneuvers all over the New York Metro area without pinging /something/ on SHIELD's radar. If there's something, anything, that could shorten the amount of time it will take us to try to determine where to go…because we're pretty sure the Helm hasn't left New York yet."

She racks her own brain, trying to think of anything that might have shown up. "Strange assault reports that never really got anywhere with the police? Traffic cameras suddenly going down? Subway trains getting delayed or rerouted? Sudden real estate buyouts from some holding corporation? NSA data mining that brings up red flags about magic and mindfuckery? There's got to be something. If Hydra are the Nazi's then SHIELD has to be clashing with them right? Somewhere in those vast, government resources there has to be a /blip."

"I mean c'mon, the effing Patriot Act has to be good for *something*."

—-

"The tracker that I was searching involved Hydra," Peggy tells John, her voice more in control now. "That led to Germany. What I am saying is that you might be right. Perhaps they are linked. If you think Steinschneider is in Germany and the last clue I had links Hydra to Germany, then perhaps fences were mended. I'm not attempting to split our attention unduly."

The Agent looks between Jessica and John, understanding their frustration and their concern for their friend. "However, if you're sure the helm has not left New York, then I'm not quite sure where that leaves us." The last time she saw Barnes was in Coney Island, but that means nothing. "I'm not quite sure you understand the length and breadth of this organization. Either of you. Do you know how many people know the name The Winter Soldier? Outside of SHIELD? I thought it two people. Now I find it to be four. He has been operating for decades, so under the radar no one knew he existed. SHIELD even believed him to be a ghost until just recently and more than that, did not know he operated under the orders of Hydra."

Her eyes are not cold or angry any more, they're sympathetic. "I am sorry about your friend. Believe me, I am searching for them with all the resources at my disposal, but they don't simply have a few days lead on us, they have decades and they know we are looking for them."

—-

John takes in Peggy's explanation, but before he can explain further, Jessica makes note of the fact that they have reason to believe the helm is still local, and he tacks a nod on to the end of her sentence, letting that stand in for whatever he'd been about to say.

Then it's Jessica's turn to do what she does best. He listens to the way she works with an objective interest — always looking for an edge, John — but there's something about him that seems to have been skewed out of true by even that fleeting moment of disruption to his collected exterior; that sudden evidence of powerful currents, moving beneath still water. His silence affords him the time to recollect whatever it was that he lost.

"Well, you're right about that. Our not knowing the size of the thing, or much of anything else, aside from what you've told us." Given everything she's told them about how Hydra operates, or is believed to operate, even having as much information as they've been given is probably more than he ought to have expected. It nevertheless rankles. He had hoped—

But then, that's what you get when you hope, John. You never do learn.

He puts on a smile, though it's small, tired, and touched by rue. "If anything changes and I get the feeling the helm's not local anymore, I'll let you know. Same goes for the rest, and Steinschneider. If I have updates, I'll send them." His smile increases by the matter of a few degrees, gains an edge, eyes glittering with gallows humor. "If I'm still breathing."

—-
"Our tax dollars at work," Jessica quips dryly, as Peggy tells them how it is. Though she regrets it immediately, and a touch of chagrin immediately enters her tone, spawning an apology directly on the heels of the first comment. "No, sorry. I know. You're doing the best you can, and I'm sure the entire organization is. Just…venting."

There was a time she wouldn't have apologized, when she'd have said it with more bite no matter how unfair her snarling assessment was, but these events had been changing her, mostly for the better, and she could see Peggy had frustrations, concerns, and fears of her own. She'd heard the venom in her voice, and as she'd said on the walk up, her contact with SHIELD has been a net positive; she was definitely getting her tax dollar's money's worth in the help she'd requested and been so graciously given. And truthfully, what did she, as a freaking Private Eye, know about the inner workings of espionage and counter-espionage, of secret societies and what it took to handle them? In many ways she was so far out of her depth on this case, neither magic nor military maneuvers nor intelligence work anywhere in the Venn diagram of things she'd handled before, and yet every single one of them touched on this case that was so much more, now, than a case.

In truth, she really was just sort of struggling to keep up, to tread water, to continue to be of use wherever and however she could, no matter how woefully inadequate her efforts often seemed, to her, to be.

So while her mouth runs away with her for a moment, it doesn't run so far or so fast (today, at least) that she can't reign it back in and put herself back on course.

She scowls protectively at John's gallows humor, not finding it at all funny, but feeling no need to reiterate that she'd do her best to keep everyone involved breathing. The one thing she was absolutely able to provide was muscle, and the ability to take damage so others would not have to, and to keep breathing herself after. It might have been obvious from her body language that she'd take a bullet for John, whom she has fallen into interacting with much like, oh, a cop might interact with a partner, especially now that he'd peeled her off the floor of her own apartment, demanded she stop wallowing in her own shit and put her back on course. But she didn't have any verbal reprimand for it either, nor any promises to make about how him not breathing just wasn't an option. She didn't know what was to come, or really what they would face. There was a good chance /all/ of them could end up dead before this was all said and done. Him, her, Zatanna, everyone else she'd met over the past few days, and a whole lot of innocents who didn't even know any of this nonsense was taking place.

So as John brings the meeting more or less to a close, she pulls out one of her business cards. The address was probably not going to be accurate much longer, nor the phone if she didn't get that bill paid, but…she at least had three more weeks on the phone. And the e-mail would last forever. "And if anything /does/ come across the radar, please consider dropping a line." The classic investigator's final sally; call me if you think of anything, if you notice anything, if anything changes. Usually nobody ever calls, but sometimes every investigator gets a break.

—-

Peggy Carter stays where she is. Throughout most of their conversation she has not moved from her initial spot. There is quite a lot of emotion for multiple reasons under all of their ranging exteriors of both calm, calculating and blithe. It's clear that whatever is both at stake and on the line is personal for all of them. "Same," she replies seriously with a nod. The gallows humor is met with an understanding nod and a counter, "You should hope you are. I tend to expect my debts paid."

Jessica's quip is met with a tight frown, even for a little while after she apologizes. It takes a few moments for her shoulders to relax and then she takes the card and slips it into her pocket. Even should the address and phone number not be in service much longer, the spy should have some luck in tracking the PI down when she needs. See, the Patriot Act can be good for something.

"I will." Her own card is produced and she hands it to Jessica - an exchange of details seems the best call for now. "Good luck," she tells them.

—-

Predictably, John finds Peggy's riposte worthy of giving her just that little bit more of a smile. Jousting is familiar territory, far more comfortable for him than the murky, perilous depths of whatever emotional mire is adjacent to the issue they came here to discuss. "I'm good for it," he promises: a rarity. People tend to owe John, and not the other way around. That this favor was freely given speaks to the seriousness of the matter.

Cards exchanged, he lifts his hand to give Peggy a kind of half-assed, slacker's salute, then tilts his head and starts off across the green. "C'mon then, Jones. Let's go make a report. Evening, Carter. Watch yourself out there."


BROOKLYN, NEW YORK CITY

In mixed company, John is typically a garrulous, charismatic creature: the kind you find in a bar, telling a story from the corner of a booth, surrounded by people who've been drawn in by whatever it is about him that catches people up in his wake, like a planet careening through the delicate balance of a social solar system. It's probably telling that he spends the duration of he and Jessica's journey back to the flat in silence. His eyes are always active, always watching, but they acquire a sense of distance once they part ways with Agent Carter, suggesting that he's keeping a busy counsel with his own thoughts. There is no sense that he finds Jessica an unwelcome companion — only that he's preoccupied with himself, and comfortable enough with silence to let it exist unfilled.

The flat is, as ever, accessed via a door that does not lead to the flat under other circumstances. He holds said door open for her, a portal created within the brick wall near the ladder entry, and then follows her through.

He looks much like he ever does. Jessica, on the other hand, has eschewed street clothes in favor of slacks and a red top, hair in a low bun, a professional vibe that lends itself to fostering credibility with, say, operatives from SHIELD.

—-

Jessica understood that, all too well, and she hadn't tried to push her way in or make him talk to her. She sat next to him in companionable silence. Her presence was the only comfort she could lend, unlike him with his wisely chosen words this morning. But then, he had been able to slice apart her worries and woes with well-placed logic, and there was no logic that could unravel the fears they both shared, or the frustrations.

She accepts his gentlemanly gesture, and enters the flat, growing comfortable with the really weird idea that she is…welcome…somewhere. Given the way she's treated her sister she hasn't even been entirely 'welcome' at her sister's very posh luxury apartment, but…somehow she is starting to feel welcome here, and at Shadowcrest, two strange places carved out of strange magic, as strange as it is that she should have stepped into such a world. But given what she sees as the absolute futility of their meeting with the no-nonsense Agent of SHIELD, she can't entirely muster a smile for it.

Plus, she's beating herself up a little for letting her mouth run away with her ass…SHIELD really hadn't deserved that bit of criticism, and it bothers her that she felt the need to say it after all their help, no matter how frustrated she was. Part of her wanted to push her mental tongue against the canker sore, wondering what it was that made her want to be a bitch, sometimes, even to people that had done right by her. Maybe it was just a defense mechanism that had been building and building with no viable targets…Spider-Man had given her a little bit of a place to vent it by giving her shit, making himself a safe target, and Peggy had done it simply by being one of the few people she'd met in the past few months that she had /not/ felt some sort of instant rapport with. Respect for, honestly yes, rapport with, no.

And, Jess admitted privately, what she had wanted was for the woman to spill vital clues, little gems that would draw her a big freaking red arrow that would allow her or John to say 'ah ha, there's our next move.' When she hadn't gotten it, she'd…felt the need to poke.

She looks around for Zee, betting she's not about to find the younger woman asleep or resting or anything anyone else in her position would be doing. Her guesses were that she'd either be doing more mystical work…or she'd be watching Bridget Jones' Diary, the DVD that was not-hers.

—-

It is her magical signature that heralds her arrival, through Constantine's senses - an ebbing, pitiful spark. A shade of the glorious supernova it was once.

When Zatanna Zatara returns to the Brooklyn flat, it is later than even she expects. The roadtrip to Albany had turned into something…more and even now as she moves to get back to a place of safety, she can't help but worry about Peter Parker and what happened inside of the ramshackle bungalow that they found in the outskirts of the city. While she keeps Tim's assertions to heart, that everyone has suffered at some point in their lives, she was /hoping/ that at least one of the ones closest to her would have been spared it. Would it really be so bad if just /one/ of them had a happy childhood? She's starting to feel a little bit like an outlier with the rest of her acquaintances.

The metal hatch opens and she descends from the top with careful steps. Bundled up in a fitted jacket, jeans and boots, her fingerless gloves sport signs of wear…and the unmistakeable signs of blood, drying over her fingers and caking over her black manicure. The darkness of her clothing has soaked in the rest, and keeps it from view, but by the way she moves, she is decidedly /not/ injured. All she is, at the moment, is exhausted.

The days are taking their toll; she sleeps longer and longer, though she forces herself up due to the multiple alarms she sets for herself. She forces herself to run. She makes an effort to see her friends. The night before had seen her return to the bunker particularly well into the wee hours, curling up into the warmth that John freely provides, though sleep did not come until much later, wordless as she burned herself for whatever pain she had caused Tim Drake because of the choices she made. Today was supposed to be more straightforward. It could have even been fun. It started /out/ fun, giving Peter Parker shit for blasting ABBA the entire way to Albany and doing what they could to delay the bad news that she would inevitably give him…

But it can't be as simple as that, can it? Every time she helps, some other monster comes out of the woodwork.

This is, however, infinitely better than torturing herself with the thoughts of her own demise and the terror associated with the people she could leave behind.

She strips off her jacket in a frustrated tug, leaving it hang on one of the hooks by the wall. She moves to the sink to wash her hands. She is so preoccupied that she doesn't realize that bodies have returned to the flat when she steps into the main living area, blinking slowly.

She has faded, again. Little by little, the normally stark contrasts to her coloring inch closer to grayscale. She is tired, but the exhaustion is offset by relief in those eyes - pale, fogged up blue mirrors. Relief that she hasn't given into the urge to sleep the rest of her remaining hours away, that she still finds it within her to keep moving.

"…so….caffeine or booze tonight?" she asks.

—-

John glances up just seconds before there's any sound to indicate Zatanna's arrival. And the sight of her —

His face betrays nothing. For her, he has a quick, sharp smile, a flash of white teeth, practically extravagant by the standards of his usual expressions. One of his brows cocks on a wry angle, though it's a quiet humor. "I'm starting to wonder if I might be having a bad influence on your health habits. Caffeine for me."

All of that checks out: emotional responses green across the board. Business, to all appearances, as usual.

The flat is the thing that gives the lie. Here, held at a crossroads of intersecting ley lines in a virtual whirlwind of magical energy, the space — attuned to John in peculiar and indescribably intimate ways — resonates with whatever he contains. There is a peculiar stillness to the air that typically seems so vibrantly alive for a space theoretically underground, as though all of the bubbles in a glass of champagne have gone flat. The dramatic volatility of the magic here is such that even someone not typically attuned to that sort of thing, like Jessica, is likely to notice the change.

Because it squeezes his heart. Not just this time: every time. Every time he comes back to the flat after a day of working to find more information and finds her with less of herself. He ought to be reassured by her ability to stay busy, stay focused, reach for normalcy and refuse to let her circumstances beat her — and in one sense he is — but it also makes it that much harder for him to watch her decline, all of those qualities echoes of the person they stand to lose.

But for her, and for Peggy, and for Jessica: a brave face.

"We've just come from a meeting with Miz Carter," he says, slowly beginning to shrug off his coat. He'd continue, but that's when he notices the blood. He says nothing, but the slight uptick of his brow is question enough.

—-

Jessica notices the change in the air, but she doesn't react. She doesn't direclty attribute it to magic; it's more the 'mood of the room' to her way of thinking, and because it's a mood she more or less shares it doesn't really strike her as alarming in the least.

She puts the laptop bag that had been slung over her shoulder into the corner. If she can find a plug down here, she'll plug her dead phone in too. Her mouth tightens at the sight of still more fading in her friend, and that pang of raw guilt overwhelms her for a moment. She keeps her face very still while she rides it out, focusing on repeating John's earlier words to her mentally until her emotions shut the fuck up.

He ticks up an eyebrow, and Jessica starts, frowning. Only the quick assessment that says this is not Zatanna's blood keeps her from having a more dramatic response. But John is already turning towards the meeting with Carter. She nods fervently at the notion of caffiene vs. booze…she knew damn well she didn't need another drop of booze for some time.

She finds a place to sit herself, still shooting concerned, surruptitious glances at the blood. She'll let John take lead on providing the information just as she let him take lead during the previous conversation with the government agent.

Besides. If she stays really really quiet maybe Zee will answer John's non-verbal question about the blood, and she'll get that answer too. She reaches behind her, undoes the bun, lets her shining uneven locks fly free, and shucks off the jacket, revealing the shirt was nothing more than a red tank top. This all rather leaves her looking quite a bit more like herself.

—-

She knows even without the magic of the flat clueing her in on John's emotional state. Even without the astral tether that binds them together, developed not out of deliberation or even necessity, but an automatic manifestation of what they've shared, continue to share, and suffered and continue to suffer together, she knows. There is no one more aware of his worries - if they could even be called that - than Zatanna, and knowing John Constantine like she does, she does him the very distinct consideration of not directing any attention to it. It will build, she knows, bubble up under the surface, like a pressure cooker left neglected for far too long, but to force a confrontation now would prove disastrous because she is well aware of his tendency to resist such overtures and she…

The inquiring brow has her smirking faintly, lifting her shoulders in a shrug. Nonplussed about the company, she drops a light peck on John's cheek as he's shrugging out of his trenchcoat. "It's not mine," she says, wiping her hands with a towel as she keeps herself with the very serious business of making a pot of very strong coffee, digging out the decadent roast that Chas has managed to procure for the flat, pouring a few into the grinder and pressing the button while filling the machine with water. "A friend got injured and I helped patch him up." There's a glance to the other woman. "Jess, I don't suppose you know any lawyers in the area, do you? Inquiring minds wanna know."

What?

Maybe said injured friend wants to sue someone?

She fetches a few mugs and assembles a small basket with creamer and sweeteners.

"What did Agent Carter say?" she asks - the brew machine is quick, the scent of rich hazelnut starts to fill the flat, though not enough to drown the deadness of the space within. It isn't long that she's bringing a tray with mugs and the other necessities, setting them on the table around the living are and plucking up her own.

Slowly, she sinks into the couch, pulling up her legs, because of course she does. She never sits properly in a place she is very comfortable in. Her head tilts back against the back rest and she closes her eyes.

—-

"P.I.s and lawyers fit like hands and gloves. I know two he can go to. If he needs a shark he can go to Hogarth, Chao, and Benowitz and ask for Jeri Hogarth. That's where your friend goes if your friend has a lot of money and a strong case. If your friend is a lot less wealthy and has a /just/ case, he should go see Matt Murdock. I've only recently met him, but…he's really kind, very level-headed, really cares about people."

She never had needed to pull out the 'big guns' that would have had her mentioning the latter lawyer to Zee the other night. Jess looks up sort of strangely when mentioning him, perhaps trying to hide the way her eyes soften, just a little, the way her cheeks take on some color, just a little. That is one name she hasn't been able to get out of her mind since meeting the man, despite the fact that the way she'd spent her evening last night rather indicated she was in no shape for trying to signal her interest to a man who probably didn't want to get wrapped up with a booze-head P.I. with more issues than an episode of the Jerry Springer Show. And oh, yeah, the killer Nazi-wizards and secret societies and brainwashed assassins and government facilities. There was all that, too.

But she has relaxed, now, knowing Zee was just patching a wounded bird.

She reaches for coffee. She drinks hers black, but she can't help but give the faintest of smiles at the whimsical little basket. There were a lot of things that Zee did that carried a touch of magic that did not need to flare into spells to convey the touch all the same. She herself probably would have just flung the creamer and sugar on a tray haphazardly, not thought to arrange them at all, but that extra bit of effort made the whole thing just…somehow more special. It was a detail she filed away, something she'd want to remember if…

Failure. Not an option. Shut up, brain.

"We tried to press her for any anomalies that might generate some clues," Jessica adds. "Anything at all. But she says these people have been one step ahead of the American government since WWII, that they mostly operate as a series of sleeper cells and private sympathizers who rise to power or put themselves in strategic places, doing what needs to be done for their organization when called upon to do so before returning to their lives."

—-

Everything in subtleties for now. The half-mast of John's gaze when Zatanna leans in to kiss his cheek; the momentary stilling of the hands that have set his coat aside and are turned now to the purpose of unfastening his cuffs so that he can roll up his sleeves; the blossoming of something softer and warmer into the sterility of the energy of the space: those say more things more eloquently about John's insides than the man may ever manage in any other way.

He does not press her for more details about her adventure, or misadventure. They've gone rounds with one another already about her safety, and John remains leery of pressing. As it isn't her blood, it seems needless to waste the time — and he is painfully, perpetually aware of wasted time, now, with uncertainty riding every handful of seconds that her soul isn't living where it should.

"She gave us a name for the organization. Hydra. Nazis interested in the occult. Lots of that going around lately." Dry. "But beyond that, she couldn't tell us much of anything useful. She's got a line on a tracking device that Hydra attempted to plant on Barnes, and it leads to Germany. Something for us to look into later."

He finishes tucking his sleeves up just below his elbows, hooks a finger into the loop of his tie — he'd bothered to wear it properly for the meeting, his only concession to their businesslike agenda — and drags on it, tilting his head, impatient with the ghostly restraint it imposes. There is no exhaustion in the way he crosses to the couch, but he exhales as he settles, sliding over toward Zatanna until his greater weight displaces the tilt of the cushions, with the happy result that it tilts her into him whether she likes it or not.

Strange though it may seem, aside from Chas, this is the first time the two of them have been Something in front of another human being. Someone who didn't know John quite so well might expect him to be standoffish about expressing that kind of affection, but there isn't a trace of discomfort, or even undue self-awareness, about him as he arrays his arm along the back of the couch behind her.

—-

A disbelieving expression crosses her face. Zatanna lifts her head up from the back seat of the cushions to stare at the both of them from where she sits. Her coffee, warm - blessedly so - in her palms, remains forgotten for the time being and honestly, she hasn't had much of an appetite. But the stimulants will help, the better to rejuvenate her tired bones and do…/something/ tonight. Like read, or do some yoga, fire off some texts and reassure the rest of her small circle of friends that she was still breathing and she was thinking about them because she almost always does.

"You're /kidding/." Her voice is dry and John will know the tone very well. The beginnings of a rant, and fortunately or unfortunately, depending on who is listening, the people who violated her have not drained this particular aspect out of her. "HYDRA? Really? /Really/? Am I gonna wake up tomorrow to hear about the Illuminati wanting my entire Victoria's Secret collection next? Or the cabal that's actually running the Vatican under Pope Francis' nose? Because I'm /pretty/ sure they're after my shoes. I guess I better not close my eyes tonight, because if I do, the Druids might come back from their centuries-long torpor to clip off my toenails and sacrifice the remains of my sanity to— I don't know! Bring rain?? Does Ireland get droughts?! For fuck's sake! You'd think that with all the artifacts they might've collected back then, they wouldn't /need/ my goddamn s— "

She would have continued until she was blue in the face, which in retrospect would be a welcome change from the sickly pallor she has undertaken in the last few days. But before she can, John manages to cut the distance between them and use his weight and the laws of mundane Physics to drag her into him, her smaller, slender, tired body finding a cradle against his side and blinking once or twice, derailing her nonsensical stream.

She sighs instead. Drawn inexorably, she tilts her head in a lean, to fit the side of it at the point where his shoulder meets his chest, and takes a quiet sip of her coffee. Pale blue eyes flick over to Jessica and her slight blush.

"….I guess I'll look up Mister Murdock, then," she says, mischief surfacing there. "If not just to see for myself how cute he is. Because you obviously think so. I'll hand you my scorecard when I'm done."

She buries her lips against her mug, and sneaks Jess a wink.

Angling her head towards John, her brows quirk upwards. "So what do we do next?" she wonders. "Red Robin's a pretty good detective, and Bucky was active in Gotham for a while. There might be HYDRA elements still there he could shake down."

—-

Zatanna rants.

It does more for John's mood than anything else across the cold, damp span of a long day out of doors could have done, leavening the texture of power in the room. "That's ridiculous," he says, though only once she quiets of her own accord, having been fully committed to letting that tirade against the absurdities of the universe play out in full. "The cabal running the Vatican doesn't live underneath it. And they don't wear shoes." There's a twinkle in his eye that says it may all be a joke, but then who can ever tell, with John? Jessica Jones blushes, and the world does not suddenly upend itself in fire and cataclysm, though John is momentarily certain he feels a rumbling somewhere down in the depths of Hell, where surely they're beginning construction on the first of many ski lifts to come. He refrains from tacking on a verbal addendum to Zatanna's teasing, but there's a devilish spark in blue eyes that accomplishes much the same feat. He angles it at her as he leans forward to retrieve his cup of coffee, and though the shape of his mouth doesn't change, there is a lingering sense that his earlier smile hides there, somewhere just beneath the surface.

Serious questions, then. He puts away a fair amount of his coffee, lowers the half-drained cup to rest on his thigh, fingers encircling the body of the mug, the ring of the handle arching over the knuckles of his middle and ring fingers.

"Maybe," he says, in a tone that reads more like demurral. He gives himself two beats of silence, then turns his head just enough to angle his gaze down at her, a hard enough angle that his irises are reduced to thin slices of blue, and that mostly shaded by lash. "I don't really want to wait for more information, 'tanna. If you're asking me what I'd like to do, rather than what I think the safest thing is, I'll tell you: I'd like to follow the traces I get of the rest of you, and bury the lot of them. Not even SHIELD has much information about Hydra. They thought, until /now/, that it had been entirely disbanded. I don't like the idea of waiting around for information that may not even exist."

—-

Really, it warms Jessica's crusty black heart to see them snuggling; some bit of that warmth and affection crosses briefly over her face. She really is rooting for them, their happiness, together, and there's something comfortable about it, something about being allowed to see this side of them that makes her feel a warm sense of belonging that successfully washes away a great deal of the stress and strain she'd been under just one night before. It seems a distant, dark memory to her, despite the way the consequences of all her actions continued to loom. And the rant is funny, finally teasing a smile out of her, brown eyes twinkling, almost, /almost/ momentarily merry in a way they almost never are.

Then Zatanna teases her verbally, and John /non-verbally/, and all she can say is: "You do that." The tone is both good natured and grumbly now that she's been caught out in her infatuation. She even winks back before saying, "Just…maybe be careful what you say if you're concerned about him knowing more than he does. He got caught in the crossfire when some of those Cold Flame assholes went sniffing around Sal's the other day. I had to tell him a little after that, it just seemed the right thing to do. I named no names and kept my explanation general, but the man is sharp."

She hadn't told them because they'd gone to Switzerland, and then she'd been in the hospital, and by then, "Sal's fine. They hit him with a sleep spell, I guess, cause the hospital thought he had narcolepsy. I'd have asked one of you two to look at him, but then shit hit the fan and he's fine now. One of the shitheads assaulted Matt after going after Sal, but he held his own until I guess me knocking out Tweedle-Dee caused Tweedle-Dum to activate his failsafe and Get-FO. Which is also what Dee did, unconscious or not. But Dee was there that day at the temple, so I think they're both accounted for."

But on to more serious matters. "I tend to agree, John," she says. "I brought that map thinking we could work together pinpointing where you'd felt all those traces, find a pattern, narrow down a search grid. If we weren't on a deadline? Sure, wait for them to poke their head out again and make a mistake. But we /are/ on a deadline. And it's not like we're devoid of muscle here, of people we can call in. We've got us, we've got the Guardians, we've got Bird and Bug, Captain America probably would want in, and Agent Carter sure wouldn't turn down a chance to kick HYDRA in the head. They probably have a lot of guns and a few spells, but we've got a lot up our sleeves too, and we might just take them by surprise. They seem like they expect to have the upper hand an awful lot…might have made them complacent."

—-

Pale irises tick up at that downward glance, Zatanna quietly assessing the look of the Englishman there. Her lips press together thoughtfully and reservations do slip over her features; she always did have such an expressive face, unable to hide what she feels even without the use of her words. She shifts, her eyes falling on her coffee mug, curling and re-curling her fingers around its circumference. Her brows stitch together in consternation; HYDRA was infamous, as an avid lover of history, she knows who they are. If they've been steps ahead of SHIELD all this time, whose to say what they'll find in wherever they end up tracking her soul? Her mind tracks back to Switzerland and the /massive firefight/ she found everyone in the middle of and…

…she is /diminished/. Weak. She does /not/ have the firepower she had when they stumbled into the stronghold of the Cold Flame and she remembers how her shield sputtered on the edges when the man named Blake /shot/ at her and Peter. But she can't countenance /not/ going either, because if she can just get close to her soul, the rest would follow. She'd be able to /take it back/ and like they said, they were on a deadline…

"Alright," she says quietly. "I know Spidey and Robin will definitely want to help. We should at least take Robin for sure. HYDRA I /think/ spent plenty of its early history as some….Nazi science outfit. Means technology, so definitely not my forte. Or yours." There's a glance at John at that. "There might be systems there that he can mess around with to make our lives a little easier. But if we're going to do this, we should…probably take as big of a group as we can."

There's a glance down at her hands. She eases away from John just a touch, to set her mug away.

"I might be able to borrow some juice," she continues after contemplative silence. "But that'll require making a deal."

—-

Regret underpins the carefully curated solidity of John's expression when Jessica mentions her map. "I'm not sure I'd be able to put pins in with any accuracy. It's a feeling, not a direction." How can he explain the nuances of the astral interstices in words that mean anything to someone for whom they do not exist? "It could become a direction if I chose to follow it, but that means moving through space. An' that's fine, luv, but the stop at the end of the line is, in theory, the place we'll find the helm. So I've not."

For two people who so often find themselves traveling opposing angles on an intercept trajectory, they seem to understand one another better than one might expect. Mute understanding looks back at Zatanna as she internally debates, peeling apart the elements and weighing one possibility against the next. The character of her hesitation is not difficult for him to discern, but he sets remark to that end aside in favor of addressing her spoken response.

She suggests Robin, and he lifts his shoulder in a small shrug, dips his chin in a short nod. That's an easy thing to agree to; Robin had been practical, skilled in his area of expertise, efficient. That isn't the only name being tossed into the hat, though, and John isn't quite so quick to greenlight every one of them. He presses his lips into a thinned line, and the tension stands the cut of his jaw out in sharp relief. He has his reservations. He courts them quietly, draws a deep breath, and returns his atetention to the woman beside him. It is not an easy decision, but it is the child of a promise he's made, and means to keep. "Whoever you want. It's your soul, 'tanna. Whoever you want to bring, we bring." And in the wake of that, room enough for a quiet addition, looped back around to address things that went unspoken: "You won't be alone. We can do this. You'll only need to push if things go very wrong — which they may, but trust that we'll keep you on your feet."

Malleable on the subject of her compatriots, he is more skeptical — and openly wary — of the word 'deal' coming out of her mouth. In the sordid world of ecclesiastical folly and demoniac intercession, deals are things to be made only in the eleventh hour. The fae are no different, come to that. "Let's talk about what you mean by 'deal.'"

—-

Jessica nods her own understanding as John explains where she's missing the mark on understanding what he can, and can't do. She's still at that stage where magic is alternatively something that seems capable of accomplishing /anything/, with enough, as Zee puts it, 'juice' or just another technology, like calling up a GPS app on her cell phone. Whatever her ability to grasp quickly what is explained to her and file it away, not only is it like explaining music to someone born deaf but it is further her trying to keep up with their lifetimes of experiences. She floats ideas, it's what she does, knowing that ideas, even unworkable ones, often breed more, better ideas. Like nope, not a grid, but he can just follow the thing right to their destination— no wonder he hadn't been as concerned as she about getting info on locations out of the stoic SHIELD Agent.

As for greenlighting, Jessica was doing the same, throwing out names. She'd even forgotten a few, like Thor and Kitty. It didn't matter— the point was more they had people, whether they greenlit everyone they could tap, or only a few. In the end, his assessment— Zee picks the team— rings true for her.

As for deals…well, she's lost there. She instead turns her attention to the two, listening, knowing if she does she'll learn just a bit more about how their world works.

—-

Robin was brilliant, yes. He is trained to fight multiple foes and she knows for a fact that he is science oriented, but Zatanna would be lying if she didn't have other motivations for him going, like the remembered look of fury and helplessness there, and how his unfocused anger had led him to get hurt after pummeling anything and everything for answers. The idea of her best friend running himself ragged because he doesn't know /where/ to direct his efforts is something she intends to solve by pointing him in the right direction and at the tacit agreement on John's features does wonders in alleviating some of the tension coiled tightly in her stomach. She knows very well how he feels about 'capes', and for the first time since returning to the flat, she smiles at him faintly, with eyes like embers, vivacity returning there - the look of her so tender and adoring that it's almost embarrassing to witness. If only for just a few moments, before the void within drains it all away again.

"Save for Robin, the rest, I'll leave you two to decide," she continues, glancing at Jessica also….in a very surprising show of deference, for one who is usually so decisive in communicating what she wants. "You brought a few with you two to Switzerland and John says it was somewhat of a mess. I think in the end the two of you are better fit to judge as to who should and who shouldn't go, since I wasn't there for most of it. It was chaos when I came in, and I don't know what happened in the moments before. I'm all for a big group but if it's a big group that can't work together, it might end up worse for us and we can't afford to waste the first chance we get in getting what's mine back."

John's wariness at the last makes her pause, chewing on her bottom lip. Those large, pale eyes move over to the back of the flat where she normally sets up her punching bag, at the circle inscribed out of chalk that she has prepared in the day Jessica visited. She has not used it yet.

Slowly, she returns to that outstretched arm, her cheek turning against the side of his chest and closing her eyes. The closest arm to him folds over her stomach and she takes a few moments to siphon off some of his heat, to ward off the edging chill that continues to slowly seep towards her blood and bones.

"I don't know because I haven't talked to them yet," she confesses. "I've been picking at my inheritance and it tells me that there's a way to communicate with my mother's people. I've been holding off because…" Lashes lift, peering up at John, a small wry tug on the corners of her mouth. "Because if I just went off and did it, you'd flip your shit. I thought about leaving a note but /something/ tells me you wouldn't like that either especially after finding my body in such a deep trance I won't be responsive for a couple of days, so I figured I'd mention it first like a responsible young lady. As you so eloquently put it, I'm not alone, I figured I'd at least conference that out."

Her eyes drift shut again.

"I was considering it, but depending on the terms, I might not agree to anything if I don't like what they say. The option is there, though. I've been mulling it over."

—-

Before whatever it was that happened to Barnes — before whatever catalyzed his reversal of progress, or more likely his digression from one thing into entirely another, no less unpleasant — that look, on Zatanna's face, would've inspired in him nothing but pleasure and a tiny spark of something almost abashed, his opinion of himself not nearly so high as hers appears to be. Now it's a complicated chimera of a thing, stitched together from different, not-entirely-congruent feelings. The pleasure, yes, but with it a deep-seated ache in his chest, like a muscle tightening around a scrap of shrapnel. Part of the explosion of whatever this is.

Worth it, though, to see even a momentary infusion of the vitality she used to have. And with that thought comes another hard on its heels, something that loosens the muscle of his jaw.

He lets that go — for now.

Turns his attention to Jessica, brow ticking upward. "You blushed, and now 'tanna's deferring to us about something we're going to do. Am I — tell me, honestly. Have I died? Is this the afterlife? There's a lot less brimstone and suffering than I'd expected."

By the end of it the corner of his mouth's tilted upward, something he lets simmer as he slowly shakes his head. "We'll have a chat then, Jones and I. Tomorrow, alright, Jones? And we can move as soon as we have a team sorted."

The other matter is…more difficult.

He is careful with his words. "I don't know if it's…safe. To do something that'll take several days. But we can — we'll talk through it. Yeah?"

—-

"I did /not/ blush," Jessica complains, defensive, but only a little, her mouth quirking also in that hint of a smile that says that part of her not only doesn't mind the companionable teasing, but actually likes it, even as she begins to babble in embarrassed fashion. "The man just has a fantastic smile and is smart as a whip and is…Fuck. No. I didn't just say that either. That did not happen." She's not blushing, now, she's gushing. "It's not even on topic." Grr.

She gets focused on the stuff that /does/ matter.

"I'm game to have a talk, but this is something I think you should mull about in your brain before we do, John. The problem wasn't necessarily the specific people, it was the lack of an understanding on what to do and when to do it," Jessica muses slowly. Here, she /does/ have insight worth sharing. "I think Sargent Barnes appearing and acting as the wild card also didn't help as his values were different from everyone else's…a man trained to kill as soldiers do, interacting with people mostly trained to incapacitate, however willing some of us were to make exceptions. This time, though, he'll likely be shooting at us, so there's that. Maybe we sketch out a plan, give everyone roles. I leapt for the clone and directed the Bug to focus his efforts there because I knew we had the best chance of getting there fast rather than letting him escape with the blood while we all got distracted by the cultists and their spells, and it more or less worked. Even so, I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing when I made that call. Of course, knowing your role in general doesn't help much when the shit hits the fan."

She leans forward and looks at John. "I know why you made Cap the leader, but…you can't this time. It's not who we bring, it's how we're led. You have the knowledge. You have the expertise. You command respect, whether you realize it or not. There are very few people on this earth who can tell me what to do and have me listen. Who can tell me 'ask for help' and get me to do so without even feeling like my pride is singed.' You have that. Zee's thrown the decision back to us, so. My vote? Pick the team, Constantine, and lead us, pick one whose capabilities you know, and direct us. We'll follow. We all want the same things."

She has a bit of a confused look— Zatanna's mother's people? But…this seems patently out of her depth. Having said her piece on it, she rose. "I noticed Chas wasn't about so I'm going to steal his bed again," she announces. There were lots of reasons why she didn't want to go home, and by now she was tired, and comfortable, and unwilling to give up the companionship she's found here tonight. "I think I should leave you two to talk about this other issue." It's delicate, she can't offer anything to it, and she can read John's subtle hints that he wants to segregate these discussions. "Goodnight, you two."

She reaches out to ruffle Zee's hair as she passes. A ruffled head and a heartfelt speech about just how deep her respect runs for one John Constantine.

If they can't read 'I love you both' in that, well, they're just not paying attention.

(OOC: Continued in Worth It.)

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