Kill Switch

February 06, 2017:

At the urging of Jane and Zatanna, Bucky goes to see John to speak about 'everything that has happened.' Eventually, John offers him a rather unethical— but very practical— solution for his lingering fear of becoming the Winter Soldier again.

New York City, John's Mystical Lair

Characters

NPCs: Chas Chandler

Mentions: Jane Foster, Zatanna Zatara

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

If asked, John Constantine might say that he'd like nothing more, in the aftermath of events in the underground Hydra facility, than to take a break, rest up for the coming battles, and luxuriate in the unaccountably rare feeling of everything having turned out /well/. There were emotional casualties, of course — there almost always are, in the kinds of circumstances he finds himself caught up in — but so long as everyone is still breathing, there's always a chance for things to get better. It is a crude and low-bar kind of optimism, but it's the only kind he knows.

He would be lying, of course. John has never handled boredom with any grace, even when his downtime is more or less pleasant. Given enough time left to his own devices, he will /find/ something to embroil himself in, whether he understands that that's what he's doing or not, so it's perhaps for the best that he still has a great deal of unattended work to do. With the major crises of the last two months finally behind him, it's time to turn his attention to the reason he came to New York in the first place: drumming up support for dealing with whatever is happening to the fabric of reality.

He spent this grey, dreary afternoon in the library located beneath the site of the infamous Studio 54, now owned by a theater company. It's not a library for the masses. Few people know that it even exists, and of those, even less are allowed to peruse its shelves.

John is one of those. Though his reputation is hardly a credit to his personality, it opens most of the doors he needs it to in the cryptic mystical circles that he travels within. People don't need to like him to respect him, or to fear him, and he's long since made his peace with getting by largely on the latter two sentiments.

After spending hours at work, reading, copying notes, and borrowing something he's required to transport in an old ebony box bound with iron rings and three padlocks — something he tucks away through a rip in spacetime — he finally ascends to the street level and spends a moment standing, hand cupped around a cigarette, the flame from his lighter casting an orange glow on his face.

If asked, James Buchanan Barnes would say that he could identify with having become something not really liked, not really welcome, but at least respected. It was how he was treated when he was a weapon. Nobody really related to him, then. They just treated him how they might treat his guns. Seventy years of that has set in deep.

That might be why, in the wake of him finally getting his freedom after decades of slavery, his first impulse was not really to reconnect with the people around him. His first impulse, in fact, had been to flee. To remove his poisonous presence from those who would be hurt by his proximity. Who already have been hurt, and likely no longer find him a welcome face. Of course, many of those people were not quite ready to let him go so easily, and in their various ways some have come to see him.

Zatanna, in particular, urged him to at least speak to John Constantine. The two men were similar, she said, in that way; it was unlikely John would pull the trigger first on anything relating to social ties made or broken. If John had his way, perhaps he would have none at all.

Such it is that during his moment of standing to light his cigarette, John might look across the street to find a familiar figure has materialized from the shadows. Well— familiar in shape at least, if not necessarily in stance. The Winter Soldier that John first met was a machine on two legs, a cold lethal presence with the stillness of glacial ice.

James Barnes, as he stands waiting with his hands shoved in his pockets, is… not necessarily slumped— his military history will not permit such sloppiness, a faint air of a soldier's bearing to him even now— but he holds himself wearily. As if despite his body having made it here, his mind has not yet caught up, and he has no idea what to exactly say.

He doesn't approach yet. It seems to be a way for Bucky to hold the door open on John simply opting to refuse conversation.

Barnes has said to others since his resurrection as a man that he remembers everything he did when he was the Winter Soldier, so it's probable that even at a distance — across the distance of the street; across the distance of a new life — he'd be able to tell that John looks /better/ now than he did before, features less hollowed by the tell-tale bruises of sleeplessness. There is a vital energy to his stance, his efficient movements and canny awareness of his physical self. Not everyone who participated in the rescue can say the same.

It takes him longer to notice Barnes than it would have before, ironically; his connection with Synchronicity alerts him to threats often. Being stalked by the Winter Soldier often raised the hairs on the back of his neck, even when he couldn't possibly have seen him coming. Being watched by James Barnes does not, quite, leaving him to stand there and watch John smoke unhurriedly for some ten, fifteen seconds before pale blue eyes suddenly slant in that direction, as though someone had whispered in his ear that he had an audience, unerringly finding him even amidst all of that pedestrian traffic.

For a moment, he just…looks. Squinted eyes, expression impenetrable.

It surprises him. He'd not expected Barnes to seek him out — though rationally, standing here, he supposes it was folly to think he knew what Barnes would do, as he's never really /known/ James Barnes, has he? Only fragments of the whole, a few splinters that managed to work their way free of the prison he was in.

John is a cautious, cagey creature, and it's that caution that keeps him rooted where he is, working through the angles, petitioning himself for thoughts about whatever conversation might come. Not that declining to involve himself was ever /really/ an option. Not for John.

So he stirs when that span of seconds passes, slanting his gaze up and down the street — unnecessary, a peculiar lull in the traffic arriving just in time to allow him to stroll across it at his leisure, the world unfolding an open path in response to whatever poignant signal of need he emanates.

Closing in, sky blue eyes flick over Barnes, over the diminished posture of him, not quite enough to conceal the powerful machine he continues to be, underneath it all. He looks whole enough, weariness or no.

What does one even say, really?

John lowers the hand holding his cigarette, exhales a stream of smoke off to one side, and regards the super-soldier almost casually, all of his wariness in the eyes. And they are that: wary. He has no understanding of the nature of Barnes' current condition.

"Alright then?"

Funnily enough, the one thing Bucky has never once forgotten or lost, over the course of his long and tormented life, was his suite of skills. Memories came and went, recollections suppressed, some even deleted, but the muscle memory of all the manifold /skills/ he accumulated over his century-spanning life? Those have never once left his mind. They were the most valuable part of him, to his captors.

It is not hard for him to track another man. Not hard for him to appear nearby without fanfare or preamble, as if detaching from the shadows. Not hard for him to make a short observation of John before he is perceived himself.

Not that he assumes anything. He does not allow himself laxness or carelessness. He has found in the past that it seems to… vary wildly how easy or difficult it is for him to follow John Constantine, as if the tides of luck itself lapped on the man's heels. Fate seems more amenable to James Barnes than the Winter Soldier however, able to discern a difference in the threat level or amount of hostility involved from either personality. Bucky doesn't trip that internal warning quite like the Soldier would.

He is glad, for example, to see that Constantine seems well.

Eventually he is noticed. He grows visibly tense under that brief look of scrutiny, meeting John's eyes briefly before his own averts. It is a subtle gesture rooted back in instinct— the animal parts of the brain that still linger even in humans— a gesture that advertises a lack of aggression. He allows John to make his own observations and come to his own decision. That decision, ultimately, seems to be to approach.

Closer in, it is easy to see aspects of both the Winter Soldier and James Barnes, though now those things that read of the Soldier are only expressed in the man's physicality: a certain poised lethality inherent to him now that may never go away. A blade may return to its sheath, but that does not remove its honed edge nor its perfect balance. His actual behavior is subdued, with no objection to John's wariness.

Alright then? John asks.

"Yes and no," Bucky answers. "I have my memories… and I have my memories." One a positive… one a negative. "You look well enough. I'm glad of that."

Restlessness seems to become too much for him. He fishes in a pocket, digs out his own pack of cigarettes, taps one out. His right sleeve rides up as he does, exposing something odd and anachronistic on his wrist: a silver bracelet, comprising a heavy chain with a graven metal band upon it. The bracelet of a World War II serviceman.

"I failed you," he says eventually, "I nearly killed what was most important to you. I owe you a debt. I'm not suggesting I can pay it and be off. But if there's anything you want of me…"

The answer John receives sounds…surface normal. Concise, simple, honest, vague enough not to burden anyone with more details about the complexities than necessary. He can see echoes of the man he /almost/ met that night in the bar, when Barnes asked him to keep an eye on Foster if things should go south…before they did precisely that. Subtle things, little mannerisms, micromovements in the eyes and face. It is surreal to watch him and be able to track the differences.

John tilts his head one way, then the other, skews his brows. "All things considered? Can't complain, really."

He shifts himself out of the flow of oncoming pedestrians to stand beside Barnes, watching him give into the need to occupy himself with something other than the conversation, physically. That's how sky blue eyes track the glint of light at the wrist, a token reminder of everything that Barnes used to be. Might still be. Who can say? Where does one begin, and the other end?

John does not know, but he's certain, given what Bucky Barnes says next, that it isn't where Barnes thinks it is.

He regards his companion's profile out of the corner of his eye for a long moment, then flicks his gaze to the fore. "Ah, bollocks to that. I saw the tapes like everyone else did. Weren't you, was it? That other prick though…" From the way his gaze slides back to rest on Bucky, brows only very slightly knit, gaze watchful, it's probably clear that he's talking about the Winter Soldier, not any of the other myriad personalities caught up in everything. "What are the odds of his coming back again?"

John speaks eventually. He saw the tapes— everyone did. It wasn't him. "Wasn't me," James agrees quietly. "But I get all the memories of it. Everyone else gets the memories of it being my face." He can see that much already in how John's demeanor has shifted… his gaze perpetually watchful, as if not sure when the dog beside him might turn upon him.

To John's observant eye, James Barnes is a myriad of tiny cues. Some things clearly are left over from the Winter Soldier. Some things are recognizable from the moments, in the past, where John would see him almost break through the conditioning. Other things are presumably mannerisms from when the man before him was still young and untouched by his torture. Still other things are entirely new: the way he keeps his eyes lowered, the way he keeps his posture closed, the way he is visibly tense… keeping a tight rein on himself. A man who does not trust his own mind.

And to speak of that… John asks, eminently practical: What are the odds of him coming back again?

Bucky does not reply at first. The cigarette trails smoke silently in the air. A glance downward would reveal metal fingers unconsciously twined in the bracelet, twisting it so the links dig into his own wrist. It looks habitual… a regular application of pain to re-ground himself in the present, in reality.

"Nonzero," he says. "I don't know what other things might be coded into my mind. What switches are left that can be pulled. I almost wish they had put a killswitch in my head. It could be reprogrammed, somehow. I wouldn't even still be here if not for Jane needing me. If not for the fact running from facing Zatanna wouldn't have been…"

He is briefly silent. "I've done too much I need to account for."

The silence that follows John's question lingers, unfilled but also unapologized for. His expression is — caution notwithstanding — not unsympathetic, but needs must, and this is certainly need-to-know. He waits in patience, tracking whatever small changes in Barnes' expression might give him a window onto whatever thoughts are circling behind the man's blue eyes, whatever calculations or self-analysis might be taking place. It isn't often that John spends time in the company of another person as reticent as himself.

Which is not to say that there aren't hints. The worrying of the bracelet, the aversion of the eyes.

He finally ticks his gaze away again, drawing a long inhale of cold, damp air following the word 'killswitch,' but when he speaks — after an exhale equal parts the hot mist of his breath and smoke from the cigarette he finishes and then crushes underneath his foot — it's not about that.

The quiet tenor of his voice is careful, but too-casual. He is not sure he's looking forward to the answer to his question: "'ow is she? Foster?"

Bucky seems eminently unoffended by John Constantine's need-to-know questioning. In fact, his expression advertises that he expected this question much sooner than he got it, and is somewhat surprised it took this long to find someone asking about it with wariness in his face. "Day by day my mind is clearer," he says. "I can't feel their influence. Not anywhere I can see. But I can't see all corners of it. You know? If they have some switch they can pull still in there, they wouldn't put it somewhere I could see."

His features are… reserved, not easy to read. James Buchanan Barnes has a definite old-world air to him— both an old and new aspect of him, as it was his most base nature and rarely expressed by the Winter Soldier— and the number one rule for men in such an era was composure and an air of strength. It is therefore transparent he's trying to keep a damper on showing too much, but John's observant eyes can catch plenty nonetheless.

The way he twists that ID bracelet periodically, a consistent reminder of who and where he is. The way he has trouble meeting John's eyes for long before his composure shakes and he looks away. The way he seems poised continually on the edge of departure, tense and unsettled. The way his eyes go bleak when he admits there is a chance something is left in his mind.

How is Foster? John asks.

"Not good," he says. He does not see profit in being dishonest about it. "She doesn't sleep. She has the poor judgment to insist I be around. I bring people to see her, but I think what she really needs is work."

'Not good.'

The corners of John's eyes tighten, and for the first time he drops them, looking down at the stained sidewalk in front of him.

He hadn't seen much of Foster during the rescue — only whatever glimpses he was able to steal from between the bodies of others as they circled her, trapped inside of that — whatever it was. Machine. Rig. Something. What he'd seen had looked so unlike the Foster he'd briefly come to know that he's still having difficulty putting the two together, reconciling that one became the other. So few of the signposts of her nature had been visible, and her physicality had wasted away enough to disrupt even recognition of that aspect.

His brows do slide together then, locking around a faint seam of shadow. The anger he'd been waiting to feel finally makes an appearance, a slithering coil of it low in his stomach — not at Barnes, exactly, but at whatever it was that gave rise to Barnes. Some duplicitous organization, espousing peace and the reversal of every ill in all of the ouvre of humanity, whilst twisting someone like Barnes out of true, repurposing him to do their dirty work. To take some lives, ruin others. To experiment on Jane Foster.

He pushes thin jets of air out through his nose with enough force to suggest the things moving beneath the surface, but his expression is iron-clad, troubled only in that vague knit of the brows.

"I'll have to see what I can do about that. She'd been working with a mate of mine on my request, but I had to put him into hiding when everything went sideways. I'm not his favorite bloke at the moment." Squinting, he tugs his gaze back up, thrusts his hands into his pockets, and pushes his shoulders forward briefly before a neat half-pivot toward Barnes. "Look. We're good, mate. You an' I. Like I said, I saw the tapes. If anybody's been fucked here, it's you. An' I'd like to put that behind us and just forget about it. Thing is, neither of us know exactly what's in there. I'm not worried about /you/. I'm worried about /him/. So how can we lock the bastard up, without having to piss about with your mind? Could be both of us sleep better once that's done."

A pause. "Could put something on you. Emergency brake, like. But, eh." His expression shifts, but it's difficult to give a name to the change. "I'd be the one with the button. An' you don't really know me."

Bucky senses the anger of the man beside him right away, but he doesn't react much beyond making note of it. It's easy enough to understand why the anger, and where it springs from. Easy enough in context with John promising to do something about that. He mentions a friend he had Jane working with, though he had to put the guy into hiding once everything went… pear-shaped.

James winces visibly at that. Another sin to put on his soul.

The expression of discomfort does not abate as John turns and makes more explicit that he has no issue— none— with James Buchanan Barnes. It's the Winter Soldier he's worried about, the Soldier he wants to find a way to corral. Bucky looks like he desperately wants that way too, but just has no idea of what it might be. Up until John offers him an option.

The look he turns on John is almost feverish with its intensity. The look of an exhausted man being offered a chance to sleep. "You could do that?"

Bucky winces, John shrugs, albeit only a little. "I wasn't his favorite bloke to begin with," he allows, because it's true. He'd pushed Ritchie to accept Jane to begin with — for sins of his own, going back long years.

And still, John calls him 'a mate.'

Such is the quality of friends that John Constantine has: people who tolerate his existence, for the most part, rather than feeling any more substantially positive emotion than that. A subtle but illuminating thing that sheds light on just why it is that being told he'd been Barnes' first friend in sixty years was so very effective at wedging open the door to John's more merciful self, when all he'd wanted to do was slam that door and commit to punishing the Winter Soldier for his transgression.

He does not feel guilty when he makes his offer, but some guilt manifests when he sees just how visceral a reaction that offer gets. The intensity of desire in James' face makes him uneasy — the first truly intense thing he's seen on those new-familiar features, rising out of the subdued monochrome of emotional exhaustion like a sudden tongue of fire. His lips part, then close again. Blue eyes slide over the naked hunger there, enough to almost make him reluctant to agree: it disturbs him to see anyone like Barnes brought to a point where they have such a deep need for something like what he's suggesting.

Which is not to say that he doesn't understand it. John is an excellent con man /because/ he understands human nature so well; he finds it effortless to put himself in Barnes' shoes and grasp, even without intimate knowledge of the atrocities visited against Barnes over almost a century, that he would want the same — if he didn't just decide to kill himself outright. Some assurance that he would be prevented from becoming someone other than himself.

All of this takes mere moments, and in the end something about him softens a little, his edges rounding.

'Listen,' he wants to say, but doesn't, 'This isn't something I'd usually suggest. I don't really want to be responsible for it, I've had enough responsibilities I've bollixed up. I don't like the idea of it, of doing this to you when you've been through so much, or of holding something like that in reserve over someone I think I could be friends with.'

But John would spontaneously combust if he said anything like that, so what he eventually says is, "Yeah…I could. Can. Will. If you want." There's a pause. "I wouldn't if I thought there was another way. I'm not keen on being responsible for it, but bloody hell, mate. I'm not keen on round two of that shite, either."

It probably says something about the life of James Barnes— once as pure and earnest and /normal/ an American youth as you could find— that he came to a point of feeling kinship and friendship with a man like John Constantine. It probably says something, too, about John Constantine's life that just having someone consider him a friend could affect him so deeply.

Maybe that's why both men are still standing together, right here and now.

Perhaps it's that sense of kinship that makes guilt arise where it was not previously, when John sees that look flare to life in Bucky's eyes. It is disturbing to see such a desperate need for such a questionable, even heinous measure: in a way, something similar to what Hydra did to him for seventy years, except now done for 'benevolent' purpose. A switch to keep him from killing, rather than one to make him murder. It almost makes John want to take it back, because it is… sad to see a man reduced to wanting some kind of leash.

On the other hand, when you become the Winter Soldier when unleashed, you would probably want some kind of control too.

That brief moment of disquiet, before John eventually assents, is not lost on James. But he is too desperate, even, to care about that, nor about John's reticence to be responsible for it.

"Please," he says. The bracelet digs its heavy links harder into his wrist. "I can't trust my own mind. Something to just… shut me down. If I start to lose it again."

Another man would no doubt let his unease be his moral guide. He would listen to his heart's reluctance and insist that another way be found, or at least looked for in greater depth, before consenting to pacify both the Winter Soldier and James Barnes with the same broad technique.

John Constantine is not that hypothetical man. He's done worse things to equally good people — arguably better people — because he felt there was a need to address, and while he may find the prospect distasteful in light of just how badly Barnes clearly wants to be bridled, he has fresh memories to firm his resolve: Zatanna wasting away in the depths of his flat, with the color, warmth, and life bleeding out of her almost by the hour. It galls him in another way to have that be the engine of his determination — it carries with it implicitly the acknowledgement of just how precious she is, how destroyed he would be if something were to happen to her — but time and self-awareness have left him little quarter to dissemble. She is everything he needs and most things that he is not, and he would set the whole goddamn world on fire thrice over to keep her safe.

"It doesn't have to be something that changes how you behave, it can just be sleep, yeah? Temporary off switch." He pauses. "Yeah. I'll do it. Just…" A glance up and down the street. "Not here. An' here's the other thing: I can't really make it respond to something you do. I don't know what they've done in there, how they've mucked about with things. I don't want to just set it to trigger anytime you get violent. You might have good reason to do that. I could set it to trip if you have intent to kill someone, but that doesn't really cover it either, does it? 'e's a clever bastard, an' maybe killing isn't what you'd be getting up to. There are other things just as bad. It's better if it's something I do manually. But that means I'd need to /know about it/. So…ehh. I might have to bind us together a bit. So I can sense if you…change."

John has memories that fire his resolve. Specifically, one memory: Zatanna dying, draining slowly of her life.

From the staring, haunted look that passes through James Barnes' eyes, he has thousands upon thousands of memories that are firing his own resolve. Thousands of similar memories of people dying under his hands. Men and women wiped from the earth as they pled for mercy. Children shaking their butchered parents. The memories revisit him nightly. They come in dreams when he manages to stem them from his waking mind. He cannot stand to make any more memories of that nature.

Any price seems worth paying.

His gaze ticks over, clearing slightly, when John elaborates that he can do it. Nothing as dramatic as death nor invasive as a behavioral change— perhaps just a sleep. But there's one catch. He can't just set it to trigger, because the conditionals are not that easy to write. It is too difficult to quantity the breadth of human depravity into simple switch statements, magical if-elses.

He will have to do it manually. And for that, he will have to bind them so he can sense any changes.

"The only problem with that," Bucky says immediately, "is if you don't want to."

Impossible to tell from John's expression how he feels about it, because he keeps it to himself. His only response is a long, drawn-out inhale, which turns over into a slow, longer exhale, pale blue eyes drilling into the man next to him, as though he could pierce that outer shell and sense what lay beneath, something on which to base his final judgement.

It isn't necessary, though. Not really. He knows that he's going to do it. Knows that he wouldn't be able to take James Barnes back into his life if he did not — not honestly, not with any degree of trust, and for John Constantine there's no point in their association without it. He would be forever looking over his shoulder.

No sense drawing it out, then.

"Yeah, alright." He pivots, looks up the street, skims the shopfronts, the doorways. "C'mon then. We'll go to the flat and get it done." And with that he strides off toward the side entrance of one of the nearby theaters. Something between he and his underground flat bends, spectral pressure enough exerted to snap the location of the entrance to the door he's moving toward, with every intention of following through /now/.

There is no hint of whether John Constantine wants to or not. There is only the neutral look of a man who must do it.

That, Bucky understands. He doesn't press the issue.

Yeah, all right, John agrees, before offering to get it done right then and there. A sigh of relief exhales out of Bucky. "I'll rest easier until I can find a way to get this shit out of my head for good."

Reality bends, and John starts heading for a door. There is no hesitation from Bucky when he follows. Either he trusts John Constantine completely… or he simply does not care, because a life lived in constant fear of his own mind seems far worse than the possibility of being betrayed and killed.

'Until' alleviates some of John's immediate concerns. "We'll find a way," he says, a rather grand promise from a man who has just confessed that he doesn't know what Hydra might have done to the inside of Barnes' head. He says it with confidence, nevertheless; he's done several 'impossible' things in his lifetime, and knows better than to be daunted by the odds. Odds have been his plaything for as long as he can remember. His certainty is not manufactured, not bravado: he genuinely believes there is a solution to James Barnes' Winter Soldier problem.

John hauls the door open, stands aside to let Barnes step into his home.

The last time Barnes was there, John had time to prepare. He'd sent Chas away, leery of introducing an assassin to his best friend — even if Chas is possessed of an ability that would by definition make an assassin less of an immediate threat. This time, though, without any warning in advance…

Chas Chandler glances up from where he's sitting in the overstuffed leather chair halfway down the long length of the cavernous space, book propped on one leg. The unfamiliar face coming through the door gets a blink and slow arch of the brow, though the sight of John in the background means it's an expression of interest rather than one of concern. He folds the book closed, slowly stands.

Chas is a /big man/. Not big like Captain America, necessarily, but solid, broad-shouldered, large hands. John is six feet tall and Chas stands at least a full head and change over John's height. He has an amiable face, dark blue eyes, brown hair, a groomed, short beard. He wears flannels over t-shirts, jeans, work boots. No cap, at the moment, but he still exudes a kind of working-class respectability.

"You didn't tell me we were having guests," he says. His accent is wholly American.

"Didn't know we were," John says, leaving the door to drop closed behind them.

"Chas, this is James Barnes. Barnes, Chas Chandler. 'e's been a mate of mine since we were lads." The look on Chas' face gains enough in the way of realization as John introduces them to suggest that he's in the loop of what's been going on, and recognizes Bucky's name.

James Barnes, the one accepting a leash on his brain, the one handing another person complete autonomy to put him into sleep mode at a moment's notice, the one shackling himself down like a dangerous animal… looks troubled, in a way that suggests he's feeling like HE'S the one imposing on JOHN. He doesn't like the idea that John has to continually monitor him, to steward him, to go so far as to bind himself to him. Not because he believes he doesn't deserve to be treated in such a manner. But because he doesn't want to inconvenience John in such a way.

It motivates him to find a final solution for his problem, fast. John agrees, to Bucky's visible relief. "Between you and Jane," he says, "I believe someone will."

Until then— the shackle. James twists the bracelet unconsciously on his wrist again, as he steps through into John's abode… and finds that someone is there. His mind— able to catalog and retrieve information quickly, a necessary skill in such a profession as his— helpfully recalls a previous time he came to John's place and saw the belongings of another person. Someone John had sent away at the time.

Bucky could smell an attempt to protect someone from him from a mile away. That he's now trusted with the information, though the person in question is not… quite what he had in mind when he was thinking of someone John was 'out to protect.' James himself stands six even, but he has to look up to meet Chas Chandler's eyes. Bemused eyes, not expecting company.

"…Sorry about that," Bucky says, his discomfort only growing when Chas transparently recognizes his name. He tries not to think about what Chas was told as he takes the offered hand, though none of his doubts show in his handshake. "I got no call to ask anybody to clear out. Up to— Constantine."

He realizes he doesn't really have any clue how he wants to— or how he /should/— refer to John now, after… everything. He'd used the man's first name in his conversation with Zatanna, but more as a response flowing naturally from her own extremely-familiar way of referring to everyone around her.

John shrugs his coat from his shoulders as handshakes happen, letting the heavy garment slide down his arms and then tossing it, folded together, over the arm of the nearby armchair. He turns his attention to unfastening his shirt cuffs and rolling up the sleeves, keeping a pale gaze on the pair in front of him.

Chas Chandler has an expressive face. He can guard it when he has to — and running around with John Constantine means he does have to do that more often than one might expect — but in company that he can assume is friendly, he doesn't take the time, and there's no wariness in his face when he shakes Bucky's hand. It does not linger on the fringes in his dark blue eyes or constrict the small, easy smile. He has the look of a man for whom it's a simple thing to be genuine: remarkable, really, given what he's endured.

"We've got a rite to perform. Stay or go, doesn't matter to me," John says.

Chas glances at him, brow quirked. "Is it going to involve naked rolling-around-in-pig's-blood stuff? Because—"

"Chas."

"I'm just saying. I'd rather not."

"Mate."

"…again."

"No."

Chas stares at John skeptically, and then seems to relent. "Well, I still need to go get groceries. Zee ate all of the raisins."

"I know. It's bloody strange. Raisins aren't—"

"—'aren't food', I know." The big man flicks an apologetic look at Barnes: this is apparently the way their entire life is conducted here, a never-ending back-and-forth. "Just shoot me a text when you finish up, John. Good to meet you, James."

And then he's off, heading toward the ladder, and John is moving in the other direction, toward a set of shelves off to the far side of the sofa against one wall, where books and peculiar items of opaque purpose have been piled.

After seven decades of work conducted in the shadows, of endless lies and half-truths and knives in the dark, of handlers with empty eyes that do not smile even as their mouths grin, it is a refreshing thing to look at someone's face and see nothing but genuine forthrightness. James finds himself liking Chas instantly, which contributes to him starting to feel that his answer about whether Chas ought to leave should be modified to 'yes.'

He settles for locking his fingers back in his bracelet after the handshake ends, the noose-twist of the heavy links keeping him grounded. It's also helpful to control his reaction when people start talking about rolling in pig's blood.

"I'd rather not also, if it's all the same," he contributes dryly, when he's glanced at, worrying the chain on his wrist.

A nod offered Chas' way when he takes his leave, Bucky turns his attention back to John as he heads off towards the shelves. He is reticent to follow, a little out of his depth in this place and clearly hesitant to disturb something he shouldn't, though out of habit his eyes move back and forth continually, scanning and aggregating information about the place: the items scattered around, their exact location and orientation, various other details that might or might not ever be of importance.

"Once this is secured and set up," he begins. He starts to say, 'if it works,' decides that might offend John, and doesn't, "you mentioned there's a friend you had to send into hiding because of all this." Because of me, he's actually saying. "Any friend of yours needs surveillance, or something… harder…" His eyes aren't cold— not the way they looked when the Winter Soldier last promised John death— but calm and assured, the eyes of a soldier confident in his kit. These are small things to try to hang his reclamation of identity upon, but meaningful. "I'll do it. Keep an eye until it's certain he's clear."

John's movements are efficient, calculated. He has none of the perfect physical acumen of the Winter Soldier, but there's a conscious care in the way he searches the shelves, pushing things aside, flipping through books before tossing them onto the ground at his feet (!) that is every bit as at odds with the overall image he projects as his hands, which would not be out of place on a world-class pianist: something refined, belonging to something so unapologetically rough.

"It's the wrong season for naked pig's blood rituals," he says. "It's too bloody cold. I try to save the pagan rubbish for— ah, here we go."

He tilts the book in question down from the shelf, sets it on the narrow ledge that forms the top of the cabinet-door enclosure at the bottom of the shelves, planting one hand and leaning into it, over the book, his other flipping it open and paging through. The contents of the pages would be nonsensical to anyone without an extensive grounding in esoteric arts, diagrams which make no sense, sketches of human beings engaged in things that make equally little sense: two individuals phasing through one another; crowds of faceless individuals tumbling into one massive, seemingly trepanned skull; a person pulling on the skin of another, the two sitting cross-legged beside one another, the flayed individual apparently perfectly content to meditate whilst all of their muscles are on full display, skull leering, eyes wide and lidless.

He does not stop on any of those pages.

He also pauses partway through his search, to glance around, past the line of his shoulder, expression inscrutable, as Bucky makes his offer. He allows himself a few moments to consider.

"Whether or not he's safe depends on whether or not they were able to learn anything from Foster about his work. But even if they didn't…" His lashes flicker, just a little. "I might take you up on that. Like I said, Ritchie's a bit ut off. I need him, though. There's a lot of shite going on. An' I need him to be fine with working with Foster again. Anything that makes him feel looked after…"

John dismisses naked pig blood rituals. Too cold. There's a season for pagan rubbish.

Something like an amused smile comes and goes on Bucky's features. It is odd, on a face John would be used to associating with the Winter Soldier, who was not exactly much for smiling. Or emotions.

It's fleeting, and does not come accompanied by any smart remarks. His attention is occupied almost wholly by watching John work, adroit hands sifting through books until he finds the one he wants. Bucky has a look at the pages as they flip past, and from what he sees represented on them, he's kind of glad that John doesn't stop on any of them. Especially not the flaying picture. He could really do without that image.

A forgotten memory knocks on the door of his mind, wanting to be let in and re-introduced. Bucky closes his eyes and vehemently denies any reintroduction to it. After a moment, his mind quiets.

He distracts himself additionally by offering something else that occurs to him. It is, admittedly, as much for his own sake as for John or Ritchie— a certain need to feel benevolent or useful again— and he is not surprised that John takes some time to consider it. His answer is one of tentative acceptance, however, something which makes James exhale quietly.

"He'll feel looked after when working with Jane, with me around," he says with no small amount of grimness. "If he doesn't have problems with guns, anyway."

It's something in Barnes' phrasing that causes John's expression to waver, momentarily ghosted with something amused. "You don't have to worry about Ritchie trying anything with your bird," he says, his amusement subtle and pale in the deeper character of his voice. "She's not really 'is type." The corner of his mouth quirks, then settles, and he returns his focus to the book in front of him, speaking in a more grandiose sort of way: "'e hates guns, does Rich. Probably best to keep that subtle."

He pauses, skimming a page, and then taps it twice with one index finger. It depicts a man dressed in extremely peculiar, antiquated clothing, holding a shepherd's crook. Around him gambol countless creatures of indeterminate nature, chimerae, composites of many different recognizable things, and a few less recognizable besides. "Right then." He leaves the book where it is, dropping into an easy crouch in front of the cabinets that line the bottom of the shelves so that he can tug one of them open and paw carefully through whatever's inside. It takes him less time to find what he wants: a packet of sewing needles.

"The spell in the book allows a magician to keep track of shape-changing beasties. Useful for 'unting werewolves or skinwalkers, for instance, or keeping track of your garden variety self-arranging homunculi. I'll modify it, put to use a few things I learned about hex architecture from—"

Zatanna's father.

"—someone else."

He'd paid attention when she unlocked it and stripped it away, tracking the manipulations of its pieces in order to understand how it functioned, because he'd never given himself the opportunity to poke and prod it, choosing instead to honor Giovanni's wishes.

…for a while, anyway.

Rising again, he takes a few steps back in Bucky's direction and stops at arms' length, scrutinizing his face. "I can take this back off again at any time. It's not permanent. But it's not /pleasant/. You'll be aware that it's there, at least at first. You are /sure/ that you want this?"

Bucky glances John's way as the other man says something about not needing to worry about Ritchie trying anything with 'his bird.' Confusion flickers across his expression, before he realizes what John's talking about and double-takes. "Not— what I meant," he hastily corrects. "I meant to say— I'd be looking after Jane real close, so… not really gonna be anywhere much safer than standing right next to her."

Well, unless Ritchie DOES try something, but one, Bucky trusts John when he says he won't, and two, Bucky has no doubts that it will be an issue he can very easily resolve if it does come up.

Either way, it's probably the most awkward John has ever heard the vaunted Winter Soldier be. A little disgruntled, the man lets go of his ID bracelet and shoves his hands in his pockets. Rich hates guns, John says. "I'll see what he thinks of the .338 and work my way down," Bucky allows dryly.

Soon enough, John happens on the page he wants. A spell for a magician to keep track of shape-changers. Werewolves. Monsters. James' expression looks briefly pained, then closes off into tired resolve. He might not like it, but he can admit that this is what he is now. A shapechanger beast that needs a tag. In thinking about it, he misses the slight hitch that is John thinking about Giovanni Zatara's 'gift.'

His expression stays closed as John comes back and has a frank, scrutinizing look at him, giving him the caveats— and asking him, again, if he's sure. There are a few moments of silence where James looks at John, as if measuring him with his eyes. He is not blind to the implcations. As long as this spell is active, he will exist on a leash once more— except one now held by a single man, one he believes he can trust but does not /know/ he can trust. One who is bastard enough to choose another over him, if it came to a choice.

Like a choice between him and Zatanna, for example.

"Yeah, I'm sure," he says, after only a few moments worth of pause. The risks are, to him, entirely worth the peace of mind that he will not go mad and become the Winter Soldier again— that he will not lose himself and kill countless more innocent people— and he does not intend this leash to be permanent if he can help it.

John does not rush Bucky to a decision, nor does he seem invested in one choice over the other — though he is, and that latter fact owes itself entirely to his awareness of Barnes' need to make this choice free and clear of pressures, and whatever respect Barnes has managed to drum out of the sardonic Englishman. He keeps his personal interests to himself, well away from the stage of his expression, but it would be a lie to say that he isn't relieved when Bucky says he'll go through with it in the end.

The alternatives do not seem better for anyone involved. Not for he and Zatanna, not for Jane. Not even for Barnes: even if the worst happened in the best possible way, and he relapsed but was brought back to himself, any amount of tragedy inflicted by his hands seems likely to undo him…especially if it involved Foster.

John doesn't have to like the situation to understand that it's probably the best option they have.

With the sticky business of layman's explanations and reconfirmed consent taken care of, John wastes little time. He's rarely ever had patience for the ~grandeur of magic~ so carefully preserved by his colleagues; he participates in rituals with the necessary degree of respect and gravity to succeed, but nobody is ever going to catch him swanning around in dark velvet robes or dragging the moment out in order to milk it for its theatrical value. Mystery exists; mystique, he feels, is just so much wanking in public: the only person who finds it interesting is the person doing the wanking.

Thus, efficient gestures open the packet of needles, plucking one from the rest. He drops the remainder into his trouser pocket, and uses the one in his hand to jab his thumb with a gritted-teeth wince. "I've been stabbed," he says in a distracted murmur, "Set on fire, electrocuted, poisoned to death — twice — drowned, the list goes on and on, and for whatever reason, jabbing pins into my fingers is still the absolute worst."

He tosses the pin aside onto the low table in the sitting area, grips the base of his thumb and pushes, enough to cause a thick drop of blood to well up on his skin. Holding it there, careful not to allow it to rill off to the side, he lifts his gaze to meet his opposite's, stepping in close enough to violate what most people would consider personal space boundaries. "This is going to involve touching," he cautions. He does not give much time to contemplate that remark before lifting his pricked hand. He's aiming to put his bloody thumb on the stretch of smooth skin between and slightly above Barnes' brows, his fingertips in an array over the top of his crown.

Eyes like sea glass remain locked to Bucky's darker blues. It's difficult to make out the words that John is saying, partly because they're murmured on the threshold of a whisper, and partly because they seem to run together, syllables extracted from another language that echo back and forth into one another, reverberating unnaturally. The flat that John lives in was selected for its potential in assisting him with works of magic: it exists between two nexuses of ley lines, sandwiched there, a veritable torrent of mana passing through it at all times: like a battery of power that he can draw from as he works, to spare himself from having to expend any of his own. The air in the space whispers, stirs like invisible, refrigerated silk, sliding like gossamer over the skin, through the flesh and bones. It twists around John's arm, siphons itself toward the point of contact greased by the blood on his thumb.

The chant accomplishes one thing — it contours the spell to contain the properties of the one in the book — while the gestures he executes with his free hand accomplishes something else altogether, applying the architecture of the hex itself, stolen and reworked from the man who used a similar one to leash John's libido, under the mistaken impression that this would somehow solve a far more complicated problem.

James Barnes will feel the magic as it does its work. It is unlike the magic associated with Hydra, with the Tarnhelm or the runes — non-terrestrial magic, and of a wicked bent, to boot. A hex is not a /desirable/ working of magic, but this one lacks malice, and the sensations are utterly different. It is a kind of origami unfolding of forces within him, laced up the line of his spine, interlocked around vertebrae as it telescopes toward the base of his skull, where it expands into a seal he can practically see in his mind's eye; a glowing, luminous symbol that fluidly changes, filaments of intention braiding together, locking themselves to the fabric of who James Barnes is. It is an infiltration of a kind, as it must be: the magic spills like chilled honey over the shape of his soul, making a map of his interior spaces, because it is designed to understand when that nature has changed, and report that development to the man on the other end. And it achieves this through—

The sensation of John's blood being absorbed through Bucky's skin is no doubt the least pleasant. It does not hurt, but it feels anything but natural, and there's something of the magus in it, some essential distillation of him difficult to describe: strange, vast power, but unbridled and unharnessed, for the most part incapable of being used. It is unlike Zatanna, whose soul is a fusion reactor for Universal magic. The seat of John's power is luck, Synchronicity, and it does, to put it frankly, whatever the fuck it wants to. Trying to 'use' it would not be unlike trying to use the entire ocean.

Fate has an interest in James Barnes, as it turns out, and a small piece of it slips into him, nestled in that sanguine fluid exchange, a tiny, significant stowaway. There is a golden radiance misting around the place John's thumb rests on Barnes' crown, subtle but evident.

And then, almost too quickly for the significance of what they've done, the rite is over. John is still bleeding, but Barnes' skin has no blood on it when John retrieves his hand.

Time passes and nothing about James Barnes' determination to shackle himself changes. His expression does not vary from its tired resolve, from his awareness that this is a /poor/ option— a return, in a way, to the situation he was in previously, if under at least marginally better management— but at the same time the only option he has until a permanent fix for the potential of his mind betraying him can be found.

There is an even worse alternative— to go back on ice— but there's not a lot of handy cryogenic freezing chambers around, and besides there is much about Bucky that feels uneasy about being out cold and helpless once again. Especially when there are people around him that now rely on him.

John gets to business, and a quiet sort of relief joins the other emotions in Bucky's eyes. He's thankful that Constantine isn't the type to stand on ceremony and unnecessary dramatic flash. That makes the utterly alien /magic/ that John does a lot more relatable to Bucky, a lot more similar to the rituals he himself goes through in cleaning and maintaining the many weapons in his own, much more mundane arsenal. He watches with faint interest as John draws his own blood, remarks on how out of all the many ways he's /died/, somehow a needleprick is still the worst.

There's a lot more pain receptors concentrated in the fingers than in most other parts of the body," Bucky observes. He doesn't offer any explanation why he knows that. He just pauses, and thinks about the other things John says, and frowns. "Are you really poisoned to /death/ if you come back after?" he wonders.

A small amount of levity to try to lighten the mood. It doesn't really /work/, but at least John isn't dragging it out so the situation has time to get any more awkward. He cautions about touching— Bucky's eyes get tired, but he makes no objection— and then reaches up, smearing blood along the other man's brow and starting his incantations. Bucky isn't sure if the eye contact is necessary, but he holds it in case it is. There is no particular expression in his blue eyes: only a weary sort of waiting, the look of an old man who has finally seen as many years as he is willing to stand.

Magic stirs in his blood, up his spine. He tries to resist the urge to shudder, but a shiver rolls up his spine nonetheless along with the spell. He tenses… but it is a tension which seems to dissipate one he feels that seal start to form in his mind. He can /perceive/ it there, writing itself into the fabric of who he is so tightly that any change in the warp and woof of his soul could not help but disturb the seal in turn. A disturbance which would, in turn, alert the man on the other end of the line.

A man who Bucky can now… perceive, in a way, as the blood soaks through his skin in an extremely disconcerting manner. It is brief and indistinct, a mere taste of who the magus is: a vast and capricious sort of power for which Bucky has no reference, and which he could not even begin to describe with his total lack of exposure to the world which John and Zatanna inhabit. A flicker of Fate gleams as it too slips through in the transaction, a subtle halo that James does not notice.

Then it ends. Bucky reaches up instinctively, but feels no blood left behind on his brow. What he does feel, however, is that seal latched into him.

Relief makes him look decades younger, some of the haggard fear leaving his face. "…Thanks," he says eventually, stepping back instinctively to regain space. "I'll… figure out some way, soon, to clean everything out of my mind properly. Take this off your shoulders."

With the cessation of the working, the interior of the flat loses its fey qualities, lapsing back into a quiescent state that will seem mundane to anyone without the internal apparatuses to sense magic. John spends those first few moments afterward assessing, eyes narrowed and flicking across the man's face, but not /quite/ his face — more like the space behind it, as though he can see the hex he's left behind. Which would make sense, because that's exactly what he's doing: he's checking his work.

The presence of the hex feels…unusual. It has mass and structure, shape and form, but it does not impede movement in any direction, nor does it have anything like weight. It resides in him like something half-phased out of existence, bound up with the most intimate parts of him.

Like jewelry, or clothing, perhaps.

Or a collar.

At least it isn't restrictive, and it certainly isn't /painful/. It's only…abnormal.

"It's a load off my shoulders as it is, mate. I'm just exchanging one load for another, and this is the better one, I reckon." He dips his chin, gestures loosely in the direction of Bucky's head. "You get in touch wi'me if it causes you any problems. It shouldn't. It's not supposed to /do/ anything unless— you know."

And with that said, business concluded, John slides his hands into his trouser pockets and straightens, his gaze — looking until that point /through/ the front of James Barnes — refocuses on the foreground of him, and he veers the conversation off into entirely another direction.

"I'd like to see Foster," he admits, with enough hesitation to communicate that this is a personal wish, rather than part of some broader agenda. "I don't know if she's…" Ready? Able? He lets the sentence hang, helpless to finish it. "Maybe you could ask her?"

In turn, Bucky spends the first few moments in the aftermath just examining the new sensation that has taken up residence in him. He can feel it /existing/, yet not existing at the same time— can perceive its presence, feel that it is there, yet not feel any sort of weight or solidity to it. It isn't painful, or obtrusive, or even that perceptible if he's not thinking about it in particular.

It's just a collar.

Bucky keeps his expression, thinking about that, neutral. It's definitely the better burden to bear, for the time being. "Seems fine for now," he says. "But I'll let you know. I, uh," he fishes for pen and paper, because of course he just carries that stuff around, writes down a number. "This number probably isn't going to change," he says, clearly referring to his proliferation of burners. "I don't… do that stuff anymore."

He hesitates, looks uncertain, but transparently decides to continue. "I… wanna talk at some point about what's still unfinished. Hanussen, whatever his name is. That cult. They're still after Zatanna, last I checked. And I…" Want to atone for what I did to her by killing these other assholes who want her. He can't seem to say it, not sure if anyone even wants his pathetic attempts to make things right, but the implication is loud enough in the silence.

John has hesitations of his own, it seems, though on different topics. James glances up, surprised, when John says he wants to see Jane, but phrases it as a request she might likely deny. "…I think she'd be glad to see you. Talk about work, maybe. Don't give a damn if she feels ready, necessarily, cause it's what she needs. I'll ask her, though. Give you a call."

John reaches for the piece of paper with the number on it. It should surprise him, this old-world preparedness as opposed to the universal dependence on smartphone technology one gets everywhere else, but magicians tend to hew toward traditional things, and many of the people he deals with on a regular basis do not own phones at all. Later he will place that anachronism within the context of who James Barnes is, and /why/ he is, but in the moment the scrap gives him no pause. He glances at it, tucks it into his pocket, and nods his understanding. Nods about Jane, too, with a relief that's subtle, but enough to change the set of his shoulders. He says nothing more about her for the time being, satisfied with the prospect of having contact, whenever that may be.

Focuses, instead, on the Germany angle.

Had he been asked before they did what they've just done together, he might have hesitated. Asked now, though, there's no reluctance at all. There are failsafes in place, and in any event, no one else he knows possesses Bucky's unique skillset, and there is /bound/ to be violence of some sort or other, in addition to the danger of sorcery. Much as he appreciates the dedication of Red and Spider-Man to non-violent resolutions to problems, there is a place for someone like Barnes in that arsenal. One hopes that it does not become necessary, but one also prepares for the eventuality that it will.

His smile is quick, thin, sharp. A blade, underneath eyes that spark with cutting wryness. "I hope you like bratwurst and lager B—" Pause.

"What should I bloody call you, anyway?" Before, he'd avoided using names at all, and his inclination is usually to use last names, but…

They did kill a man together. And, for all he knows, James Barnes might feel strange about any one of his given names, for any one of a number of reasons.

While Bucky is more adroit in the modern world than his fellow time-lost brother, he's still not… great at managing all the changes that have transformed the world since 1945. The knowledge he did manage to acquire was mostly need-to-know, just enough to equip an assassin to navigate his hunting grounds and find his prey: the knowledge of how to turn on and use a tablet or smartphone, for example, but without the true experience that comes of /using/ the devices in daily life to their full potential.

On top of that, he was never allowed to roam off the leash too long outside of the parameters of his mission. There was never any time for him to make any personal discoveries about the world. Never any time for anything but the briefest indulgences in the tiniest of mundane pleasures. Even the feel of the sun on his face was a luxury…

Bucky realizes, several seconds too late, that he's drifted. He does that often now, losing moments and minutes and hours of time. He shakes his head in mute apology, handing off the phone number, with a promise to call after speaking to Jane.

He shifts the topic. Jane isn't the only one who likes to cope by focusing on work. This is something Bucky himself had waited to ask until this insurance policy was in place, for the same reasons as John. He wouldn't have trusted or taken himself, either, prior to some safety being placed on him. Now, however…? Regardless of his /feelings/ about his skillset, James Barnes is extremely confident in it, and has a feeling it may be needed. Not even just in the realm of locating and terminating targets— a thing which Bucky would like to resume considering as a last resort— but in espionage, surveillance, intelligence.

John seems to feel the same way, so starts to reply in the affirmative— then pauses. What /does/ he call the man? "Don't matter," the former assassin opines, "long as you don't call me Winter Soldier." He pauses, tilts his head back and forth. "'less the name would be useful. Could be leverage in some situations.

"Anyway, my proper name is James, though most people just call me Bucky, there's a James every five feet— or used to be, anyway. Call me Barnes if you don't like either." He slants a look at John. "What do I call you? You prefer something?"

He takes note of what John says about the mission, as well. Bratwurst and lager. "Ach so. Rückkehr nach Deutschland," he murmurs. His German is fluent and easy. "Shit, feels like I just left."

'As long as you don't call me 'Winter Soldier,'' says Bucky.

John's expression changes only in the most subtle of ways, but there's enough dryness there to suggest that it would not have been his /first/ choice. "Think I can manage that."

Bucky. He still has trouble reconciling that name, so early-Americana cheerful, scrubbed-cheeks squeaky-clean with a red-and-white-checked picnic blanket kind of texture, with a man who spent the last century being tortured and forced to murder people. But then, who is John to judge? Amongst certain circles of his friends, he is — and always will be — Johnny Con-Job, aka 'Conj.'

"Bucky, then," he says, obviously trying the sound of it out. Liverpool makes a practically exotic thing of his name: 'Boh-keh.'

And what about John, then?

The magician tilts his head, hoists the breadth of his shoulders. "John. It's John amongst friends. Most people use the whole name, though."

Implied: most people are not friends.

His lips quirk to one side. "Like an epithet. It's usually drawled with a great deal of arrogance by somebody who thinks they've got my number. 'Joooooohn Constantine,'" he gravels. "And then they follow up with what they 'ope is a menacing chuckle." He emphasizes precise diction on the last two words. "Usually just before I push their shit in with a pointy stick." The smile takes on a restrained but wicked cast. "They never learn, though, do they? Always with the monologues. But yeah, alright then. I'll tell 'tanna you're in for Germany. We're going to give it a few weeks. Some of the others…" He stops. Chooses his words carefully. "Could use some recovery time, I think."

Bucky doesn't miss that implication— that most people aren't John's friends. He can sort of see how that might be a result of John's general… John-ness, but at the same time, he can also see how it is a consequence of John Constantine wanting to call very few people friends.

Neither does Bucky miss the other implication: that to John, Bucky now counts 'amongst friends.'

The thought renders him unexpectedly somber, the soldier visibly cloaked down with the heavy air of a man who has received a gift he is not certain he deserves. Typical of his reserved nature, however— and aware of John's own— he calls no attention to it, simply nodding and shoving his hands in his pockets. "Works for me," he says, aware that they have finally completed some sort of transaction of friendship, and amused at the irony of it happening only months later… after they've already murdered together.

The whole thing makes him a little guilty, a little grave… but it's also pleasantly normal, loosening him up enough that a rusty chuckle escapes him at John's pantomime of his enemies' dramatics. "Yeah, well, s'what they get wasting time with the dramatics. Saw quite a bit of that even back in the day. Nothing could stop the monologues. They'd monologue even as they were running the hell away. Glad to see at least some things don't change."

John mentions, then, he'll tell Zatanna to put Bucky down for Germany. The soldier nods, starts to glance for the door… only to pause perceptibly as John chooses his words cautiously. Even blunted, they sting, though Bucky obviously tries to hide it. "Yeah," he says, that momentary levity gone again. Guilt weighs back into his eyes. "I got a few more stops to make, related to that."

Barnes won't hear John's chuckle, but he'll see it in the eyes, which narrow, crinkle at the corners, lending just that much more wryness to the phantom of a smile that haunts his mouth. He is (in)famously difficult to read when he likes, but in comfortable company his expressions range widely, and never is that more true than when he's entertained. "As they were running away," he repeats, savoring the mental image. He can only do that now because Bucky has become something else altogether; it would have been less funny to think about if he'd been casting the Winter Soldier in the role of pursuer, a deadly, silent thing immune to the absurdity of his targets grandstanding in the moments before they would inevitably perish.

One takes their laughs where they can get them, though.

He does sense the weight that steals back in to depress Bucky's shoulders, and after a moment of internal debate reaches out, half-turning, to clap him on the back. "It'll be fine," he says, and seems candid in that analysis. "The boys in spandex are young yet. We all had 'ard lessons to learn at that age. Better they learn them doing something worth a shite than learn them for no reason."

The way John had.

"Anyway, unless you want to hug it out, mate, that's all I've got for you. Let me know what Foster says, yeah?" Behind Barnes, the brickwork in the far end of the space rumbles, the rectangles folding back on themselves in a ripple of aggregate and mortar, to leave an aperture through which Barnes can return to Broadway.

James Barnes undergoes a similar transformation— not just in comfortable company, but in comfortable /mind/. For the first time in seventy years, his mind is his own again, and he's rediscovering… himself. Who he was.

Who he was was apparently a sarcastic, insouciant asshole. Well, someone had to balance out Steve Rogers.

A brief smirk comes and goes on his features as John enjoys the mental image of a fleeing monologuer. Definitely a lot better if you picture it happening to the Bucky persona, rather than picturing the Winter Soldier: implacable, uncaring, and certainly indifferent to the desperate monologues of prey. "Oh yeah," he says. "First time I ever laid eyes on the Red Skull, he was monologuing his way into an elevator and just… fuckin left." A pause. "The prison camp WAS on fire and self-destructing, admittedly."

The moment of levity is brief— though it's probably a good sign Bucky remembers how to have any at all. It's soon replaced though by somber thoughts of the conversations he has yet to have, his shoulders weighing visibly. John is not only canny enough to see Bucky's troubled state, but canny enough to deduce the cause; the clap on the back is unexpected but bracing, the offered words about the 'boys in spandex being young yet and in need of lessons to learn' what Bucky needed to hear. "Yeah, I tell myself that. They'll get it eventually."

Anyway, unless you want to hug it out—

"No thanks," Bucky quips, a hint of humor returning to his eyes. "Keep me posted on Germany. I'll let you know about Jane," he promises, before he turns to step out through the provided exit.

'The Red Skull,' says James Barnes.

The look on John's face is restrained, but for all of its nuance, it is easy enough to read his thoughts:

/Bloody capes./

It would be hard for John not to know what it was that left Bucky looking that way. Guilt over the damage done to people within one's blast radius, even by accident, is the kind of guilt John is most familiar with — and in any event, Zatanna has spent the time since their tango with Hydra in visiting all of those assorted individuals, checking in, finding out how they are and in several cases talking them through the darker shadows that remained with them. It's her nature — for which John is grateful, and not merely because he is often the beneficiary. It allows him to keep an eye on the condition of everyone else without having to initiate those conversations himself, leaving the difficult details to someone more capable of handling them sincerely.

He meant what he said, in any event. He does believe the boys will be fine, and he hopes that carries in the exchange. Not that it matters: they will or they won't, and if they won't, that's something of a self-solving problem.

Barnes turns him down for hugs, and John shrugs, wry. "Suit yourself."

He watches the man retreat, stepping out of the flat, and then watches the bricks tumble back into place, his expression gradually changing, some of the levity waning. What remains is pensive, full of gentle but conflicting things and a solemnity that says he has not forgotten that the road ahead of Bucky is going to be long and fraught with peril — not just for the man, but for everyone around him. Much as he'd realized in the days after prising Zatanna out of the clutches of Hydra with only a scrap of her soul left in her possession, he understands that just because they've pulled Jane Foster and James Barnes to safety, it doesn't mean that they've saved the life of either one. It's too early for certainty.

Eventually he drags a long, slow breath in, exhales it, and lets go of all of his myriad thoughts, glancing down at the angry red spot on his thumb.

With Zatanna, they'd done all they were able to…but in the end, it fell to her to tear what belonged to her out of Hydra's hands, reclaiming the life they had stolen. He suspects it will be much the same for the others. With the hex in place, he's done all that he can do. The rest will be up to them.

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