Bad Bargains

March 08, 2017:

Bucky Barnes adopts the mantle of the Winter Soldier again to interrogate the mouthpiece of Midnight. Jane Foster assists. Nothing goes as they expect; a death curse strikes Bucky and a parlay with Papa Midnite triggers an impulsive act on Jane's part that may have disastrous consequences later on…

Unused Metro Tunnels, Deep in the NYC Underground

Characters

NPCs: Solette, NPC'd by Jessica Jones, Papa Midnite, NPC'd by John Constantine

Mentions: John Constantine, Zatanna Zatara, Jessica Jones

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

"Bring her up slowly," James Barnes says to Jane Foster.

The two of them have been present through much of the night, Jane working on her specialties and Bucky working on his own. It's really rather remarkable how long you can keep someone out with the right application of sedatives, when the need strikes to keep them under long enough to prepare a warm welcome of an awakening. If you think about it, people need to be kept under for long intensive surgeries all the time. This really isn't that much different.

The only difference here is that, as the woman known as the presumed 'Mouthpiece of Midnight' is slowly brought back to consciousness through the easing of that sedative fog, it will not be to the restful ease of a recovery room in a hospital. It will not be an awakening from some procedure meant to save her life. It is an awakening to the great unknown: to the great likelihood of an impending terror with no form or shape yet that she can perceive.

None yet save a dark colored blur.

James' eyes close as he waits for the sedatives to slack off, as if he were steeling himself— or psyching himself up into something. It's not hard to guess what: the Winter Soldier is a part of him now, a person he still is and can easily be again if he wishes. Though to watch him, it's less as if he's invoking some disparate piece of himself, and more as if he's just loosening some boundary he otherwise keeps firmly raised. He breathes in and out, steadily, easing himself back into that persona like a man easing into freezing water.

There comes a point, eventually, where Jane would look over and see a familiar sight: the man she first met those many months ago. The machine that had no name other than Winter Soldier.

Time passes, the drugs in the woman's system ease. That dark blur resolves into the form of a man crouched before her, elbows braced on his knees. His long hair frames a face mostly-shrouded by a shemagh. Only his eyes are visible, cold blue and watchful.

"Bonjour, Solette," he says, echoing in French the bitter memory of what he himself always heard coming up out of freeze. "<We are going to have a conversation.>"

—-

The day prior, Jane Foster had come to James Barnes with three labelled vials of colourless liquid.

The day before that, made aware in time to begin her own preparations, involved the raiding of a medical storehouse. Involved Dr. Foster, in a span of fifteen hours and four textbooks, teaching herself without food or sleep, advanced pharmaceudical chemistry. The rest was rote work for a mind like hers.

"Other than the sedative, and I'm studied on the dosage," she told James one day ago, "these are mine. The first should make her talk. The second should make her hurt. And the third… should she do something. Should she go into someone's mind. It will make her stop."

Something mirrored in Jane's eyes suggest permanence. She whispers, brief, soft, "It works very fast."

One day later, she sits wordlessly at the sleeping woman's bedside. Dressed plaintly, and face and expression both hidden behind a surgical mask — on his request Jane disguise herself — she attends to the tubes feeding into one slack arm. She switches out the drip bag from the administered sedative, and instead connects the intravenous cord into something else — a coarsely-built, intricate machine forged together in the last few hours.

Jane's three vials are sheathed inside it, and in her hand is a smartphone with a remote application loaded: ready to administer either of the three at a tap of the screen.

For now, she does not use it. Instead, the masked woman prepares a syringe of adrenaline, and slowly injects it intravenously.

Just enough of a dosage to wake someone up for a conversation with the Winter Soldier.

—-

Solette opens her eyes; they narrow sharply. "Bonjour," she says coolly, and continues speaking in her own language, rapid-fire Cajun French. Her black eyes are flinty; if her situation has disturbed her yet she gives no sign. She's still shaking off sedatives so there's no press of psychic energy yet. She does bare her teeth in a smile.

"Kalfu protects me. You should know. He is the most powerful of all the loa. He walks alone. He would like you, I think. Both of you. I can broker deals. Power like you've never imagined, even above what you enjoy now." She flexes her fingers, grinning like the fanatical loon she really is. "You have earned this, I think. Kalfu respects strength. You have much."

A fanatic or just perhaps wisely trying to bargain for her release, with people she assumes to be just as vile and heartless as she is, using the only thing she has right now…her connections, real or imagined, with 'friends on the other side.' The veve, ritually scarred and burned into every inch of her skin, flex as her muscles slowly flex and come to life, ripple, as if to make it clear that she is a woman who feels she can take a great deal of pain, especially for causes she believes in.

—-

James had wordlessly taken those three vials in hand and turned them over as Jane explained the use of each one. So far as he is aware, she taught herself all she needed to know to create these in less than a day.

It's a good thing the Winter Soldier never got to know you earlier," is all he had to say, as he handed them back and let her set up her chemical web without further comment.

Now Jane sits attendance at his right hand, waiting and ready— administering a shot of adrenaline.

The woman wakes rapidly, to her credit. A wordless energy passes back and forth between James and Jane, a silent agreement that she'll keep the woman just below the threshold of accessing her powers. He taps his second finger once against the back of his steel hand. Vial one.

"I am not interested in power," he says, switching back to English. "I am not interested in strength. I've had my fill of both. I am interested in the name of your employer, their location, their motives for demanding that you arrange what you did. You may go if you give one or all of these things to me."

—-

There was no response from Jane Foster that day ago. Just a strained smile and a glance of her eyes that says: you're telling me.

Now there is no emotionality in those brown eyes, forced into a sort of vacancy, as the surgical mask helps disguise the rest of Jane into an empty sort of facelessness. She sits back down in her chair, some tension in her straight-backed posture, but otherwise someone who lacks nervousness: no need for her to feel anything but trust with James Barnes in the room.

She says nothing. This is James's show, and all the words will come from him. Jane shares that glance. Her eyes follow the gesture of the finger.

And she duly taps the screen of her phone. Its remote activates her crude machine, and depresses the liquid from vial one.

The cocktail hits Solette's blood and feels like moving ice through her veins, thick and painful as it's shuttled to her heart and through it, carried through every highway in her body. Her vision blurs and narrows painfully. The room turns and tightens on the Winter Soldier, and he's there, he's there, he's the four walls, he's the ceiling, he's the universe bearing down on all sides. It is hard to chase thought. It is hard to hold.

—-

Solette makes a strangled sound as the first cocktail takes hold. Her body goes rigid, and the coolness flees her features. The fanatic is washed away in a fire of drug-induced strangeness; a human being remains, one who is suddenly struggling to make sense of the world. She stares up at the Winter Soldier, trying to make sense of the world. He is a strange figure above her. He is…he is Kalfu. And Kalfu has demands!

The drugs convince her of it for a moment, and she mumbles, "Dusty boots."

It's a start…a slow start, but a start. She's fighting it even now, but it's a hard thing to fight. She twists and writhes there on the hospital bed, gasping. She says the words in French, 'dusty boots', like they make all the sense in the world. "The dust of the grave."

She clamps her jaws shut seconds later, shaking, breaking out into a sweat; momentarily finding some defiance in his eyes. No, that cannot be Kalfu. She is confused. She must…she must fight this confusion. She must…have faith!

—-

It is a start. But insufficient. "Meaningless without context," the Winter Soldier says.

He leans forward, the movement writ larger and more menacing than it actually is by the cocktail in her veins. "I asked for a name, not a riddle."

His patience is transparently thin.

—-

The masked woman in the chair watches on. Her eyes have patience, in their way, but Jane holds a hovering thumb over the screen of her phone. She waits.

—-

"The boys to find John Constantine. The vipers," Solette pants softly. "One and only one must have dust on his boots. He will lose something in the scuffle. It must be kicked. It will be valuable, a pearl. Do not pick it up, on pain of death. Allow him to leave with his prize." She babbles the context— the set up, the reason the gang was hired in the first place. It's not exactly what they want, but it's a slow start, an explanation, at least, for what happened in Chinatown.

Something is happening though. Welts are slowly appearing on her skin, crawling in a ritualistic pattern that starts at the very tips of her fingertips. They crawl, like itching bugs, up to her knuckle in the span of time that it takes to give her answer.

—-

The calm eyes of the Winter Soldier take in the provided information. He draws a few conclusions about what it might mean, but the fact remains he is being given a lot of 'how' and not a lot of 'why' or 'who.'

And then there is the crawl of welts across her skin.

There is a flick of his middle finger against the back of his hand.

Then there is only the subtle, deceptively-gentle whir of metal as the Winter Soldier leans farther forward and slams his left arm down. His fist impacts towards concrete with enough strength to powder it.

Her hand— the one not crawling with strange patterns— is between his steel knuckles and the floor. Unless she has something up her sleeve, she will never use it again.

He waits, if necessary, until she is capable of hearing him again. Then he speaks. "Either stop or explain that. Or accumulate additional permanent losses. It is your choice." His voice has not altered from its calm.

—-

For the duration of those light, insensible words, Jane keeps her silence and listen. A furrow folds the skin briefly between her eyebrows as she catches on the mention of a pearl. Is this to do with the dragon's pearl Jessica spoke of?

But she says nothing. She plays her second role, passively absorbing all information to her eidetic memory, every word, every flinch, every change of Solette's expression. Jane's dark eyes, empty like a star field, watch on.

She sees James's second gesture to her.

Jane prepares. She does not flinch when that metal fist concaves in solid concrete, the power and violence of the strike only reflecting off her masked face, mirrored in the slight blink of her eyes. She taps her smart phone again and her machine depresses the second vial, the one meant for pain.

She only measures out the first, slightest, initial dose, a bare few drops into the intervenous line.

It feels like fire in the blood. Dr. Foster's toxin hits the blood and soaks into the nerves. It adheres to every amiloride-sensitive cation channel as she predicted. It is the pain of snake venom. It is the pain of ant bites. It is torment pulled along every nerve in a racing, ignition-fluid inferno.

Under the mask, her jaw aches with tension.

—-

The woman's hand is ripped from her body, and the screams go on for several long minutes. There are few people in this world bad-ass enough to just take it in stride when they are both pumped full of drugs to confuse, and their god damned hand is just ripped off their body in an instant.

And then there's the agony atop the agony, wielded by the unforgiving hand of one Dr. Jane Foster. Her body arches, every muscle rigid.

"YOU ASKED FOR MOTIVE!" she screams. "His motive was revenge! Revenge and the bounty on John Constantine's head!"

She collapses into sobs again, thrashing with pain as her heart rate takes a dangerous turn for the high-speed.

The welts crawl up the hand that remains, pink and livid in the rich black shade of her skin.

—-

The Winter Soldier waits through the screaming with a sort of patience born of practice. But there is a moment when James Barnes makes a brief appearance to glance at Jane, wordlessly prompting for a cutoff of the pain and the administration of something to stabilize and calm instead. It is also a wordless inquiry if she knows what these marks crawling up the woman's skin are, or whether she can do anything about them.

He does not want to touch them in the event he triggers something. Much like John and Zatanna apparently did, to wind up in Hell in the first place.

"Someone who wants revenge against John Constantine," he echoes. The Winter Soldier doesn't even blink at the idea of John Constantine having a bounty on his head. He'd probably be kind of shocked and disappointed if he didn't, honestly. "That's a long list. I don't want a list. I want. A name. A specific name. Specific like Violetta is specific. Like Henri is specific. Do you understand me?"

He glances again at the welts. "Stop," he adds.

—-

The glance pulls Jane's attention. She rises from her chair, not that tall, and certainly not that imposing, next to the loomed, mantling watch of the Winter Soldier, but she leans to get her own eyeful of those strange welts. She frowns to herself, recognizing the depth of the trauma but still in the dark on its source. She tries to extrapolate past the realm of the purely medical, think in boxes past the ones she was brought up into.

But her attention rivets off them only to, at first, assist. She looks away from the gore of a woman's destroyed hand, trying to do her best to ignore the blood — compartmentalize it, put it in its place, because other things are more important right now, there are two missing people /much more important/ right now — as she sorts through a rucksack of supplies, and tightly ties and turns, turns, turns, a tourniquet down on the limb to stop the bleeding.

Then her dark eyes find his.

James has ordered her not to speak tonight. Not to let her voice be heard. So she taps a message quickly into her phone and tilts the screen his way.

Curse? Started when she began talking to you.

—-

"Kalfu curse you, you shall not touch them!" The woman spits, heaves, pants, wild-eyed, even as Jane ties off the blood, keeps more gore from soaking the bed.

"When I die, I will wipe you out, you maggot cracker."

Calming drugs gives her just a little courage, but then she looks down at her own hand and her eyes widen. "Please, no," she shrieks. "Non, non, I have been loyal, Papa! I have said nothing! Please!"

The welts race up her arm, winding about it like a serpent, surging faster and faster now. The veve at her throat chakra also decides to start burning with a wan, crimson light.

—-

James glances at the screen when it's shown to him. The thought that it may be a curse darkens his eyes. He cuts his gaze back towards the drip, with a minute gesture they previously arranged to mean 'start putting her back under.'

Then he turns back, and is the Winter Soldier again. One last effort to prise a name. One last effort to pull some information that can help save John and Zatanna.

She curses him, thrashing in mingled agony and rage, and the Winter Soldier laughs. It is a short, ugly sound, the kind of sound Jane has not heard from him in months. Not since she first met him, when he was truly nothing but the Soviet Union's most ruthless killer. Hydra's monster under the bed. "Touch them? If you do not give me a name, and quickly, the next place I go will be Louisiana, and I will record for you exactly what it is that I do. Give me something useful, and they will never see my face."

His eyes stare briefly through her, at something else far away. A memory. Many memories, all similar to this one. He recites from them. "If faith to your master is more important than your children's lives, I will tell you where I bury them."

Whether she answers or not, the spreading welts move faster and faster up her arm. Perhaps they sense time drawing short. The woman shrieks, clearly recognizing them, pleading in such a way that suggests she's about to be wasted remotely to ensure her silence. The aspect of the Winter Soldier wavers, James showing through in the cut of his eyes towards Jane. "Put her back under," he urges, already moving to try to interpose between Jane and the woman writhing on the pallet, though he has a suspicion that whatever this is cannot be stopped by anything he and Jane might do.

—-

The gesture is caught and noted. Jane moves instantaneously, setting down her smart phone temporarily, needing two hands free to sort the rucksack for a small bottle of anaesthetic and a fresh syringe.

Her eyes turn, mentally calculating the dosage, their gaze narrowing at the worsening sight of the welts. Not even Jane is sure putting the woman back under, deeply unconscious, can stop a potentially-crossed curse, but James's idea is the best they have. No resident magicians left to consult.

She stays quiet, partially out of necessary, partially out of response to that sound that crawls out of James Barnes's mouth. Jane watches on, her dark eyes taking in everything. It's jarring, so jarring to see him this way, even though she knows it's not him — it's a mirror of months before, but it's not the same. James is not that hollowed-out, frozen man with the taxidermy glass eyes, the one who held a gun to her head, that curled his metal hand around her throat and held her down with inescapable strength.

He's drawing from a well of memory forced upon him.

Jane ignores the threats of murdered children and concentrates on injecting the anaesthetic into the woman's intravenous line, a firm and steady depression of the syringe that will quit consciousness in seconds.

"He…owns…my…soul…" The woman hisses. "He owns their souls…too…"

The drugs enter her system. Her body goes limp; her eyes roll up into the very back of her head. She gains surcease.

But the welts and lines never stop. They spread even as James Barnes steps before his Alpha Lyrae, meaning to protect her. Two curses cast; one that reaches her heart, one that emenates from her throat. One cast from afar, one inscribed into her body, a contingency against the day of her death.

A day that has come.

She flatlines as the final bits of welted webbing seal even over her eyelids.

The veve bursts out of her, a red glowing sigil which slams hard into the chest of one James Buchanan Barnes.

It would have killed a lesser man. A man without a super-soldier's enhancements. She hadn't counted on those, when she'd carved the spiteful curse into her own skin. But it nevertheless has an impact.

What would kill a lesser man turns a super soldier into a lesser man. The light twists into thorns which snap around his neck and wrists, crimson, almost like a collar. He can feel strength fade away. His metal arm is heavy, unwieldy. Exhaustion creeps in. His body, his muscles, will start to ache. A vicious parting shot.

The welts continue to crawl; Solette's mouth opens as they work their way inside, even, not done with her even now that she's expired.

—-

It seems that what he was able to glean is all that will ultimately come of this particular lead. Whoever holds the strings of Solette has twisted them to choke her off before she can give him— or her— away. There is little he can do to stop that crawling hex as it seems to claim her life.

And her death activates last-ditch contingencies that nothing can stop.

A curse of his own escapes James Barnes as he steps before Jane to shield her bodily from whatever might be coming. He reels back as the curse of weakness strikes him in the chest, driving him to a knee… and then to hands and knees as he feels a strength he has long since gotten used to simply… drain out of him.

He feels weak in a way he has not felt for over seventy years. The weight of his metal arm is already setting fire to his shoulder and spine; he gives up trying to support it, letting it brace heavily on the floor.

"I deserved that," he mutters, dazed and sick, as he gazes at the corpse where a woman used to be. It was not his hand which directly killed her and orphaned yet more children; but rest assured he will wear this guilt on his own shoulders, added to all the rest.

—-

It happens so fast.

Glancing up from her hastily-administered dosage, the only thing Jane sees is… James's back, turned on her, as he braces himself as a human shield between her and the cursed, dying woman. Her eyes widen, the first touch of emotion to reach them a deluge — shock, confusion, and then seeing, realizing what is happening.

So much she does not understand, but she knows, she KNOWS — as mystical wrongness bands forward to collar his throat in a flare of light. No, is all she thinks, the word a brand on every synapse in Jane's head. She drops the syringe and reaches out. No no nono NO —

He folds, and she cries out, seeing James driven down into visible weakness, and still not sure what's happening, how he's hurting, how he's suffering — other than something is on him, something is IN him, delivered from that woman. Jane's voice comes out in a shocked cry, low and muffled by the mask, and she drops to her own knees, following him down in some helpless, desperate bid to support him. She tries to speak, the fucking mask is in the weay, and she tears it violently off. "James?!" she calls. "What happened?! What's wrong?!"

He talks about DESERVING things. She just tries to capture his face in her shaking hands, one shifting down his neck over his pulse, fierce to look in his eyes, see his pupils.

—-

James Barnes is dragged to the floor by the weight of the weapon that is his metal arm, and Jane Foster abandons all pretense of her cool, collected neutrality in the face of so much violence and suffering, turning her attention away from the now-dead woman to attend to the man she loves. And so it seems that the interrogation is over.

It's really only just beginning, though.

A liquid burble in the dead woman's throat might well have been the passage of air from her lungs, corpse bleeding breath it no longer needs — such things happen, as any mortician could attest — but it isn't that. The welting lines that pushed up from beneath her skin pulse once with livid light and then her head rocks back, her eyes open, lids framing iris-less whites as he her mouth spreads wide enough to strain the hinge of her jaw.

When she speaks, it is not her voice that fills the room, but instead a gorgeous bass, cultured and elegant even through the sonorous echoing of the magic that transmits it through the dead, bound vessel of Solette. It is distinctly accented with the same soft syllables of pidgin French, but the speaker's English is flawless.

"Good Sister Solette's soul journeys to a better place. In exchange for her failure, I have given her redemption. Am I not generous?" His chuckle is so deep that it reverberates through the room, tugging on subtle senses. "Please — allow me to introduce myself. You may call me Papa Midnite. I would have made my introductions sooner…" Somehow, he sounds faintly amused. "But I could not find Solette, you see."

—-

What happened? Jane cries out. What's wrong? "I'd like to know," he grits out. "But at a guess— " he hisses as a too-ambitious movement causes fifty pounds of metal to drag right on his spine, "— I'm not too 'super' anymore, if you catch my meaning." His pulse seems normal, his pupil response normal… but that's the problem, isn't it?

It's all normal. Human and mundane and not at all the perfectly-tuned, purring engine of efficient destruction she has gotten to know. And James Barnes was always far beyond normal.

Even then, a vast proportion of what made him so deadly as the Winter Soldier was not solely his enhancements. He was an excellent soldier and natural fighter before the serum ever found his way into his veins, and it's the discernment that comes as part and parcel of that which keeps his eyes on the corpse even through the pain and exhaustion and stress pressing down on him.

"It's not over," he whispers to Jane. Even in his condition, he bodily tries to stay in front of her. "Careful."

And of course, because that's how things always go when John Constantine is in the picture… the dead body sits up and starts talking. Because why the hell wouldn't it? Jesus Christ, Bucky thinks to himself.

"Sick bastard," he gets out, easing himself to a seated position with the muted grunt of a man finally feeling all his age. "At least I leave people alone after I kill 'em. I take it you're the man I've been trying to meet all night."

—-

Not so super? Jane looks up at him, silent, incredulous— before vivid horror opens up every inch of her face.

"Jesus Christ," she curses, because the first thing she thinks is that arm of his, that too-heavy arm grafted into his skeleton, replacing so much of his essential muscles with steel-fiber facsimiles, too heavy, too solid, too much for the body to handle. If he tries to lift his prosthetic arm, much less use it, he might paralyze himself at the least. Kill himself at the worst.

"Don't move," she says, as if that were an option. Her hands touch down over his left side, where that arm has been grafted in decades ago, helpless to try to offer support, to feel with her hands the tension on his remaining spinal muscles. Jane's head reels. Just stay calm. Just think. "All right? Just don't move. I'll get— "

But it's not over. James issues so much a warning, and Jane narrows her eyes, her hands tightening on him her head jerks toward the corpse— the corpse of Solette—

— that has begun to speak.

The colour drains out of Jane's face. This is definitely a first for her. She listens, helpless not to, as someone's voice — some man's voice — vents out of those dead lips, speaking of redemption. Of generosity. Even now, even cursed, James is still trying to protect her.

Seeing James Barnes sit with all the helplessness of a trapped man, trapped by a body he never even asked for, makes something inside her snap. Jane stands, because now it's her turn to stand between the fallen soldier and that corpse, hot-eyed and stiff-backed in a desperate bid to protect him. "I don't give a shit who you are," she interjects, in a voice like propellent, "whatever the hell you just did, take it OFF him!"

—-

The instincts that James Barnes has honed over a century of assessing threats serve him well. He senses the shift in the room almost instantly. His instinct after that originates from an even earlier period of his life, however: to protect Jane, which he successfully does. Solette — rather, the consciousness inhabiting her, or speaking through her, or whatever the /fuck/ is actually going on — does not seem to notice Jane at all — at least until she speaks.

Before that, the focus is wholly on Bucky. "They are happy to serve in death, as they were in life. Power…" Here Solette's head tilts on an unnatural angle. She does not smile, her mouth still wide open, but the sound of the smile transmits through Midnite's tone, suggesting he refers to the dead weight of Barnes' arm. "…always has a price. But yes. I am — "

Jane inserts herself into the conversation, brimming with righteous, protective fury, and the sound of Midnite's voice temporarily fades. The silence that follows is strangely long, like a pause in a phone conversation, someone stepping away a moment to find or check on something…

"Ah. That was Solette's parting gift, not mine." Affectionate: "She was always given to spite, my sister. I'm afraid you'll have to attend to her killing curse for yourself. You have been capable enough in trying to find me; I expect you will find some way to solve this other problem, aussi. Now, then…back to business. As you have been told: I have my own reasons to send Constantine where he has gone. History. Rest assured I am honest with you when I tell you that he deserves what he has gotten. But the girl…" He trails off a moment. "I did not intend for her to be caught in my trap, and I find it…regrettable. Through your investigations I have learned what happened to the daughter of Zatara, and I have no wish to trespass against her family. So I am willing to…parley, with you. Come to…an agreement. But there is a bounty, you see, on John Constantine's head, and I would claim it for myself. To release them I would be forfeiting my claim. We will negotiate. I will be owed."

—-

Bucky grits his teeth as he tries to figure out how to maneuver his old body in tandem with his metal arm. He certainly remembers how his body handled pre-serum, when he was still a young man, a normal man, a soldier in the army, and it was far from being weak then… but he has no memory of ever handling it when its left arm was fifty pounds of solid titanium and steel, its synthetic roots spidered throughout his entire left side. That came only after the serum in his blood activated, giving him the strength and constitution to bear the invasive prosthetic.

In the end he settles for grasping his own left arm with his right, holding it up to keep it from pulling his spine out of alignment. It's an ungainly way to move, and imperfect: he grimaces a few times as it jolts him. Power, that resonant male voice intones, always has a price.

"Least my face didn't fall off for mine," he laughs breathlessly, in what sounds like a bit of an inside joke.

But then Jane leaps to her feet and tries to protect him, and that isn't funny at all. "Stand down," he murmurs. "Don't antagonize. I'm gonna need you to take this shit off me."

He lapses into silence, listening as this man— Papa Midnite— illustrates his dilemma. He absolutely wanted to send Constantine to Hell, but he definitely did not want to send Zatanna… and from what Bucky's heard of Giovanni, he can guess why. So now Papa Midnite's willing to parley. Negotiate, as it were. The only issue? Releasing John and Zatanna would forfeit his claim to the bounty on John's head, and just by the nature of the grudge he holds… it'l take a great deal for him to forfeit that.

He will not do this for nothing. He will be owed.

James Barnes is silent for some time. When his head lifts, his eyes are tired and empty. "If you want recompense," he says, "I will sell you a future use of the Winter Soldier." He grimaces. "Me. I'd show you a CV, but I don't keep one of those lying around."

He smiles, but it looks more like a baring of teeth. "Maybe I'll tell you which of the crises of the past century were my work if you're interested in the offer."

—-

Told by that new, mysterious voice, that this curse is not his doing, and neither his undoing, Jane sets her jaw. She goes quiet, adapting to the knowledge, listening on with a razor-sharp clarity. Adrenaline makes her heart pound, her stance still squared, guard up, still uncertain, prepared, if she has to protect James from that corpse speaking a man's voice. Told to stand down, she arches a sharp look back over her shoulder, face unreadable as she wages a war of sense against anger, and she is so angry.

She cannot cull her temper, but she pulls it back enough to stay temporarily silent. Frowning, she retreats back a step, kneeling down to James's left side, trying to get her shoulder under his steel arm to try to share the burden of its weight. Its mass is half of hers, but ferocity keeps her strong.

As this Papa Midnite speaks, she absorbs. He is the one behind sending both Zatanna and John to hell. Wants John there. Not so much Zatanna. Willing to barter to see them both out; something good enough to trade for how badly he seems to want John Constantine to suffer eternal torment.

Her lips part— and then James Barnes speaks. His voice rises at her side, and Jane looks over, stricken. Anger, shock, outrage open up her expression, because he can't, he can't offer that up— he's had enough butchers cut meat off his soul. She's not going to let him sell what's left.

"James!" Jane snaps, because fuck silence. She tries to intercept that would-be trade in her fury. "No! No! You're not— you can't even stand up!"

God damnit, she thinks. God damnit. This isn't how it's going to go. She can't just stand here and watch this, let this transaction happen— while James weighs already with a curse won by protecting her. She's so sick of watching, sick of waiting, sick of reading, sick of biding, while John and Zatanna both risked so much to come for her, while James slices more and more of pieces of his humanity await because he feels it's his duty, his burden, his last lot — and yet what can she do? How can she stop this? Could she even offer anything comparable to the service of an assassin?

Jane can at least try, because while she's here, James is losing /nothing/.

"Mr. Midnite," she speaks up quickly, urgently, "I'm Dr. Jane Foster. I work with John. He owes you? I owe him. Whatever it is you want, I'll get it for you. I'll do anything to have him and Zatanna back. I'll do anything so you don't use the Winter Soldier."

—-

There is patient silence as James Barnes lays out what he has to offer.

"I—"

But Jane is having none of that. She cuts in angrily over the negotiations and what happens next is something that few people on earth can claim they've ever had the privilege (?) of hearing: Papa Midnite's long-suffering sigh, rushing out of the inert lips of a dead woman. "Brother," he says to Bucky, with weary amusement, "Your house is not in /order/."

Two beats, and then he addresses Jane, instead. "Everyone thinks they 'owe' Constantine. That is his best trick, non? But very well. These are both adequate offers, but 'anything' is the better of the two. I will accept this pledge of 'anything,' and I /will/ collect — when I have need. When that day comes, you will ensure that Constantine does not try to interfere with our agreement. He will object to your offer. If he meddles, I will hold you accountable for his meddling and consider that reneging on our transaction. I have no tolerance for false deals."

It's probably too much to hope that a language barrier is responsible for Midnite deciding that 'anything' was the offer, and not just a testament as to the range of more specific things he might ask of Jane Foster. Such is the world of magicians: give them an inch, and they will take for miles and miles. "I can send you to Limbo, and I can bring you back. You will want assistance if you mean to assist Constantine and the Zatara in escaping. When you have assembled those willing to put themselves at risk of eternal damnation for the likes of John, you will come to the following address. You will be respectful. You are not part of this community but rest assured you do not want to cross me, mes amis. It is not wise to be clever."

As he speaks and delivers those subdued threats, letters and numbers etch themselves across the smooth skin of Solette's forehead — an address leading to a nightclub near the waterfront.

—-

Even in this most desperate of situations, the Winter Soldier bargains carefully. He is reserved in what he offers— but not too reserved. He certainly feels that offering himself as a weapon is a considerable offering— he has turned the tide of diplomatic relations between entire countries with one bullet— and as such, he restricts the use of his skills to once. One and done. Simple.

Of course, then Jane objects.

His head turns sharply in surprise as she cuts in. "Jane— " he starts, annoyed. "I could stand if I wanted. I'm human, not an invalid. I could— what are you doing?! Jane!"

But try as he might, he can't talk over her and her rapidfire, loud voice. The offer she makes brings him to pale. 'Whatever' and 'anything' are dangerous words to use even in regular transactions. With a presumed magician of the caliber James currently thinks he's dealing with? It could be lethal.

Brother, your house is not in order.

"It's gonna get ordered," he says, grimly. "God damn it, Jane. Go and take what you bought, then. Hope you don't pay down the line with your life."

—-

In the end, it's her deal that's chosen. Jane goes quiet, at first in clear surprise, before her expression locks down into steely acceptance. This is no particular victory she exults, and her insides twist to the realization that her desperate, angry words have been turned against her— anything, indeed.

But there is no regret. Only relief, at least for now, that something can be done, and for its price James Barnes has not bartered away his humanity.

Order in houses. James's words earn Jane's flinty eyes. She replies his bleak hope with a glance of fire. Whatever it is she fears right now, it's not this. Not anything but: "You're not paying for it with your soul."

She duly rises, standing to her not-so-tall height, stepping uneasily forward to look down on the face of the corpse. Jane reads the address, trying to ignore the fact she's looking on someone's dead face, and stores the information to memory. "Thank you," she answers out loud to Papa Midnite. "So long as this gets us to them. Gets them back. John won't interfere."

—-

While Midnite may have openly found the bickering between the two distantly amusing thus far, when things are knocked enough askew by their contentious, opposing need for each to protect the other, he fails to chuckle or make any other indication that he's taken note — as he surely has — of the small rift in motives. Whether that is a sudden lack of interest or a more formal respect for the contours of actual business dealings is not clear.

"I am many things…but I am a man of my word, Miss Foster. You will receive what it is that you have paid for. I'm glad that we could come to an amiable compromise. Situations in which everyone gets what they want are the best foundation of a relationship, are they not?"

Solette's body slowly begins to …diminish, somehow, as his presence begins to abandon it. "I will be ready for you when you come. You should be careful in how you prepare. A journey into even the outermost fringes of Hell is not for the weak of spirit. Until then, mes amis. Bon courage."

And then he is gone.

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