Paying the John Tax

March 18, 2017:

Jane Foster and John Constantine finally catch up for the first time since the events of Nadryv. Jane pacifies a very cranky, bed-arrested John with cupcakes, John finds out that Jane is on the hook for a very dangerous favor with a very dangerous man, and there are careful conversations about personal things.

Also, John gets pegged in the face with a tennis ball.

John's Brooklyn Flat

*NEW AND IMPROVED, NOW WITH 100% MORE WALLS*

Characters

NPCs: Chas Chandler

Mentions: The Winter Soldier, Zatanna Zatara, Jessica Jones, Red Robin, Papa Midnite, Ritchie Simpson

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It has been a little over a week since four extremely brave, moderately reckless human beings pierced the veil between this life and the next in order to retrieve two thoroughly reckless and deeply exhausted compatriots of theirs, and for the most part no news has been good news. After being brought to the clinic of Tim's suggestion for evaluation it was determined that both would make a full recovery, given time, water, food, sleep, and the opportunity to practice a better standard of hygiene than was available in Limbo (see also: none whatsoever). Zatanna, once roused enough from the paralytic agent, no doubt mended her own injury and repaired John's fresh bruises, and then escorted the still-unconscious Englishman back to his flat, where he's been on forced bed rest ever since. For John, being stuck in one place and physically inactive is torture almost on par with anything he suffered in Limbo — almost — and so in spite of knowing that to do so is inviting potential headaches in the form of interminable questions, lectures, or thorny patches of emotion surrounding recent traumas on both sides, when he receives the text from Jane asking if she can visit he leaps on the opportunity to have company like something half-feral. Anything, anything, to escape the monotony of doing nothing.

…though, if he's honest with himself, he's been thinking about her ever since they pulled her out of that draconic immobilization device.

As always, the instructions for entering the flat are detailed, with the three doors that grant access to the space rotating through a randomized selection of places within Brooklyn (or wherever, really) at any given time. She's given a window of time and a location — in this instance the side door of a nail salon — and told to text him again if she misses the window.

Assuming that she does not, opening the door to the nail salon leads to a space very clearly not contained within the nail salon. Stepping through, letting the door close behind her, will trigger a tumbling reclosing of bricks that parted to permit her entry to…to…

It might once have been intended for a subway station, or part of a much larger network of cisterns and sewers, though the deco mosaic overhead on this end of the expansive space seems too nice to be wasted on sewage. It's longer than it is wide, with a floor of polished concrete — old, as much polished by time as intention — and the walls are red brick, curving upward toward the top into a high, rounded vault ceiling. Once, this space was expansively empty; now, there are actual walls in place to demarcate different rooms on either of the long sides of the space, and there's now a loft over the kitchen built into that distant back wall, accessible via lightweight metal stairs.

The entrance will deposit her at the far end opposite the loft space. She'll have to pass through the rest of the flat to get there: a darkened bedroom on the left, followed by an expansive, wall-length set of shelves and cabinets with just the kinds of books and artifacts one would expect someone like John Constantine to keep around; on the right the sitting area: overstuffed leather sofa, loveseat, chair. A table. There's a four-chair dining table beyond that, and then the kitchen, which is the domain of one Chas Chandler. He's a full head taller than John (who stands six feet tall without shoes on) and broader, more stockily built, but he has a friendly face — which fits, because he's a friendly guy. The soul of patience, Chas. Affectionate, warm, welcoming.

Usually.

He is currently chopping vegetables with an enormous knife with a vigor that suggests his legendary patience is being sorely tried — which it is. John has been stuck indoors for a week, he's losing his motherfucking mind, and with a dearth of things to pour his attention into, all of that unfocused energy is fueling a personality that turns cranky and argumentative when he's left spinning his wheels.

" — even know what would happen, do you?" Chas is saying, loudly enough to carry, because he's speaking not only above the Social Distortion playing on the stereo, he's talking to John, who is upstairs from him, and not visible from down below. Whatever he's doing up there, it's causing a rhythmic, hollow thwok sound every four or five seconds or so. "You can't just — he's a god, John."

"Elemental. That's like…that's like saying mall security are bloody MI5, mate. I piss elementals."

Chas rolls his eyes upward, pausing in his chopping. "It doesn't matter. He's the Guardian of the Green."

"And a good job he's doing of that, am I right?"

—-

After receipt of those forementioned, detailed instructions, Jane Foster's text messages were her predictable barrage:

Are you serious?
So I'm basically waiting on platform 9 3/4?
Does this mean I'm going to Hogwarts?
You also realize this is basically quantum probability? I could probably do a Belavkin-Schrödinger equation to find out where you live
Yer a physicist, Harry

But, in the end, Jane follows the instructions seamlessly. It's snowing in New York City, because of course it is, it's only supposed to be getting close to April or something, and she shoulders into her winter coat, complains out loud again that she hates the cold and it was never this irritating in New Mexico, pulls up her oversized, fluffy hood, and dares the urban wilds of Brooklyn.

As she finds herself scoping out a random nail salon, and feeling a bit like a weird burglar in the process, she wonders, with some amusement, at what point her life went from regular, unassuming errands and boring housecalls to friends into this. Not that she regrets a single bit of it, but Jane finds it a sane mental task to try to vertice when her entire existence went upside-down. Was it Thor? It was probably Thor.

She watches a brick wall unzipper itself with no small amount of fascination, a crook to the corner of her mouth. Just another thing, Jane supposes. She does make a decision: no matter how weird her life gets or stays, she's not going to let herself get used to the little things like this. It's all so wonderful.

Passing through three-dimensional space in a way that shouldn't be possible and yet is, and finding herself, well, immediately inside, plays a little on Jane's well-established rules of etiquette. Ever so used to waiting politely on doorsteps — now she feels like a burglar and a creep — she moves shyly through the space… and stops when her boots make a wet, slick sound against the polished concrete. She looks down at her boots, dripping wet with snow and sleet.

Cringing, and now unzippering her boots to carry them in hand, because she isn't going to track a mess through someone's apartment, magical or not, and on socked feet roams deeper, Jane's dark eyes taking photographic glances of everything as she goes. It's John's space, and she's absolutely fascinated. Those books — she stops for a moment, dangerously tempted. No, she'll be good.

Soon enough, she hears voices and the clamour of work, as well as a frustrated vegetable slaughter, and lingers closer until she comes into sight. And there is Jane, just standing there, wearing fresh snow melting into her coat, boots in one hand, and a large tupperware in another.

John Constantine and a man whom she's never met are talking about elementals. Jane bites down on the inside of her cheek, wondering how in the hell one interrupts a conversation like that. "Hi!" Guess that works. "Sorry — this is — so weird without a door. I made cupcakes!"

—-

The space is neat. Orderly, clean. It falls a little shy of being decorated properly, and some of the walls are still under construction, but there's competent housekeeping happening in this space in spite of the fact that it's occupied by two twenty-something men.

Chas doesn't look surprised when he glances up at Jane (if one had to give his expression a name, it would probably be 'relieved,' actually) because anybody inside of the flat is almost by definition supposed to be there. Getting in otherwise is not just a difficult task but a personally hazardous one, and that is entirely by design. "Oh, hey! Yeah…sorry about that," says the big man with the blue eyes and brown hair, glancing toward the far end of the room. "It takes some getting used to." He sets the knife down on the cutting board and dries his hands off with a dish towel, taking two long strides in her direction, one of those hands held out for a handshake. He could not physically be more different from the tiny scientist in front of him. He exudes affable calm, though — now that he's got someone to deal with John. "I'm Chas. John and I go way back. Can I get your coat and — oh, you can chuck the boots against the wall somewhere. Anywhere's fine. JOHN." He can reach the bottom of the loft by stretching one arm overhead, and he thumps it with the outer heel of his fist. "You've got company."

"…Wot?"

"COMPAN— TURN THE MUSIC DOWN."

Two seconds later, the volume goes up.

There are whole volumes in the way that Chas' expression empties out and he long-stares at the wall. The whole history of his friendship with John is in there somewhere. He lets himself have a moment that way, and then shoots Jane a sidelong glance, shaking his head, brow cocked. "I brought this on myself," he confides. "I made him take it easy. This is his way of punishing me. He probably doesn't deserve cupcakes, but you can take them up, anyway." He reaches for the knife, then gestures at the cutting board with it, sending a slat of bright silver light down the flat side. "Oh, uh — John didn't know if you're a vegetarian or not, but I figured we'd feed you before you head out again."

Chas' cooking is legend amongst John's limited circle of friends, and he is generous with it: he feeds everyone.

—-

A little relieved that she's, in fact, not being viewed as a creepy burglar, Jane's smile is abrupted and disarming, dominating her entire face briefly in its sunrise. "Chas?" she echoes, "I'm Jane. So nice to meet you." Her words stutter as she awkwardly manhandles all her things to one arm to offer him the other, her proffered, tiny hand swallowed in his.

"Old friend of John's, I take it?" she asks. "And you… you are tall. I think I know one other person as tall as you. And he's an alien god."

She makes a half-apologetic, half-thankful sound when asked for her coat, and with a minimal bit of fuss — meeting new people makes the Jane Foster slightly restless — and awkwardly stacks her dripping boots against one wall, as neat as she can.

Shrugging out of her coat and proffering it forward, Jane's head tilts up to the source of music and the Queen's English emanating from up the stairs. When the noise gets noisier, she huffs a small, sharp laugh. "Here," she says, opening the tupperware and delivering to poor Chas first pick of what looks like chocolate cupcakes. "Take as many as you want before I go up. Consider it John tax."

Asked if she's a vegetarian, Jane's eyebrows lift with visible surprise. Surely not one who was expecting a meal, and considering her very fickle, if not absent appetite of late, struggles again with her own manners whether it's all right to brush it off. "I — not officially. I don't really — mostly just healthy, I guess? No red meat and — but seriously, don't need to do anything special for me. This isn't really necessary either if I'm interrupting anything! That's really kind of you."

—-

"Six foot six," Chas says, filling in the blanks with the subtly wry, knowing look of a man who gets asked the question to which that is the answer a lot. "Alien god, huh." He slowly shakes his head, and glances down at the tupperware as she prises the lid open, his interest easily caught. "I'm curious, but not sure I'm curious enough to ask." He plucks a chocolate cupcake out of the container and hoists it a little in thanks, and he's half-turned back to the counter to get back to work when he sets that cupcake down, turns back to her, and takes a second one, angling a wink down at her. In his defense, the two together might make something large enough to look like a normal-sized cupcake in hands as big as his. "Thanks, Jane." He puts the frosting-daubed pad thumb into his mouth after setting the second cupcake down next to the first, and then begins chopping things again, glancing over his shoulder as she demurs about dinner. "It's no hassle! I always make more than I need to. It never lasts long around here. You can grab a plate later if you want, and if not, no big deal. Just…I am counting on you interrupting. Please."

With that quip delivered, he gets back to work.

The loft is fairly spacious, and divided in half. The front, ranged along the railing, is as close a thing to an office as John is ever likely to have. The books, vellum scrolls, and other assorted documents on the desk have been pushed aside in the last day in order to accommodate the presence of countless small bowls, several mortar-and-pestles, a number of glass flasks, and what looks like an honest to god alembic. There are bundles of herbs and bones, jars containing mysterious flakes, and piles of what look like dried animal parts laid out there, as well, but whatever John was doing, he's abandoned the project partway through. There are more shelves here, containing things that look older or more fragile than whatever's downstairs — and a few personal effects, as well. A 12" vinyl sleeve, the image on it a black and white photo of a punk band, MUCOUS MEMBRANE scrawled across it — probably familiar to her from the campus office of one Ritchie Simpson. There's a framed playbill for a performance hung on one wall, too: The Great Zatara, live in London. The silhouette on the front is clearly a man's, though.

In the back of the office space, a door set into a wall leads to what is now the master bedroom, most of which is dominated by the king-sized bed in its low frame. That's where John is.

Most of what she'll see of him at first are knees in sweatpants, shins, feet in black converse shoes that the laces have been torn out of. He's laying prone on the bed with his feet on the floor. The rest of him swims a little in a grey, hooded sweatshirt that he's lost enough weight not to fill out properly anymore, an effect somewhat exaggerated by his position.

The thwok sound is a tennis ball rebounding off of the interior wall above the bedroom door to be caught again. Chas has probably had to listen to this for hours.

—-

That sunny smile still not lost from her mouth, Jane finds herself briefly but deeply taken by just how pleasant Chas is. It's like Ritchie Simpson all over again; how does John keep finding all these kind, gentle-hearted people? Or are they the ones finding him?

Undoubtedly a question for another day, she looks on with approval as her cupcake tupperware is thoroughly pillaged. "Thank you," she answers about the offer of dinner, frankly flustered that much even to be thought of. "I probably — actually, if it isn't too much to ask… if you do make too much, I wouldn't be against maybe boxing up a bit to take home? I have a boyfriend who eats a lot more than I do, and he'd love that." She pauses thoughtfully. "Maybe you met him? Bucky? Or James? Goes by both."

But it seems the best way to help Chas at this moment is to go deal with Sulkstantine upstairs, and Jane is well up to the task. Her smile goes lopsided, and she tosses off a confirming salute.

As Chas goes back to dinner, with lingering amusement, she ascends the stairs up to the loft. It all opens itself to Jane's eyes, in one scanning look, a veritable cornucopia of things that she cannot immediately make out, much less quantify, and finds it that much more fascinating for it. It's a glimpse into the world she's only skimmed peripherally in the last many days, courted in the odd books given to her — enough of a glance in itself to let Jane break her first curse and not much more.

Eventually, it's the sound like a pneumatic hammer that lures her where she needs to go, every hollow thwack of tennis ball against wall deepening Jane's pity for the martyrdom of St. Chas by the moment.

Just like that, after the last crack of the ball, there is Jane Foster, occupying the threshold, dressed down not too differently from the first night he ever met her, in her jeans and button-down and one of her ridiculous scarves, a tupperware container in hand. Still tiny, still gentle-faced, changed only with the shadow of darkness under her eyes — probably chronic insomnia — she looks on John, taking in every too-skinny, bedridden bit of him. Her eyes crease with concern, though the wryness in them never lets it graduate into pity. "You're making your really, really, really, really nice friend downstairs go a little crazy."

—-

"Oh, yeah. We've met once. Hard to forget a name like Bucky. I'll put something together you can take back to him, just…keep John occupied until I finish cooking." And so it goes.

How John accumulates rare souls is a question for the ages. Ritchie, Chas, Zatanna — all warm, all givers. Jane too, in her own way. Jessica Jones. People who tend to burn brightly, who have a longing for something that they keep like a candle. It seems like a thankless thing, to be friends with a man who is often like an emotional crack in the world, a limitless void into which to pour all of those big-hearted things.

And yet.

It wouldn't happen under other circumstances. John's no supersoldier, but his reflexes are good. But diminished as he is, and having hamstrung himself by petulantly turning up the volume on the stereo…

She manages to materialize in the doorway with exactly the right timing to appear to him beyond the obstacle of one of his upraised arms as he throws the ball, and her sudden, unexpected silhouette sends a bolt of adrenaline straight to his heart. He startles, forgets about the ball, then remembers the ball — but not in time to catch it, only in time to turn his head to look back up in anticipation of it and get squarely bonked in the face. The impact makes him snap his head over to the side, eyes screwed shut, wearing a look like he's just smelled something foul. "Bloody…hell, Jane Foster," he grouses, opening his eyes and blinking several times, then stretching his brows upward and blinking some more. They're watering a little: the ball got him right in the nose. He lifts one hand, palms it over his face and rubs roughly, then curls slowly to sit up and take in the figure at the threshold.

He's maybe two days unshaven, but he still looks worlds better than when she saw him last. Would have to, really. He seems whole, intact — just underweight, which probably explains why his sharp-eyed scrutiny of her is uncharacteristically derailed by the sight of a box of chocolate cupcakes in her hand. "Hm? Chas? He loves Social Distortion. What's this?"

—-

In the sensible opinion of Jane Foster, it's all deserved — it's karma for annoying a man as blessedly giving and pleasant as Chas — but she can't help but lift a hand to her mouth and let her eyes widen in shock as John Constantine, in all his prowess and power over the magic and the explorer of countless realms, gets smoked in the nose by a tennis ball.

Her shoulders hike up and she goes totally still, apology and guilt and finding this riotously hilarious all at once, and tries to battle with her own soft heart whether it's enough for her to sputter out loud.

Perhaps fortunately, Jane's soft heart wins, and she lets her hand drop, eyebrows knotted with sympathy as she tries to plead innocence inside an awkward smile. "Are you OK? Maybe you should be ball-fondling less and bed-resting more." Her smile graduates into a grin.

Her spirits find themselves lifted if just to see him, here, alive, in the flesh, and with that evidence the knowledge that Zatanna is just the same. Not missing, not lost in somewhere like Hell, but back where they're supposed to be. Jane wanders closer, encouraged by John's riveted attention on her tupperware, and comes up to his bedside to proffer him the entire container. Frosted chocolate cupcakes, all three of them. "For you," she says, pauses, then appends, "I bake. It was supposed to be a dozen, but, well. I went to answer one email, then James happened."

After a moment, she decidedly lets herself sit, helping herself to the edge of his bed. The mattress barely creaks with Jane's added weight, and she seems to take up less space. She gives him a look-over; transparent in her brown eyes is the question no one likes after suffering a magnitude of horror: 'so how are you doing?' She hates answering that question, so she refuses to ask it.

Instead, she lets her expression tighten at the corners in guilt. "I know it's been a while. I should have come to see you sooner."

—-

"Hah. Yes. Clever. Ball fondling." He over-enunciates the latter two words with delicate British diction, albeit of the slightly slant variety that comes out of Liverpool, rubbing at the bridge of his nose with elegant fingers. "Quite."

But all trespasses, even those imagined or invented, are forgiven the moment cupcakes are in the offing. John's focus on them is impressive, to say the least, verging on fixation. He has the same obnoxiously quick metabolism of most of his gender, and he's been consuming enough food since he landed back on the shores of celestial terra firma to require every-other-day grocery trips on the part of the man downstairs. He cannot consume calories quickly enough to make up for the deficit in any timely way. The pure sugar in those cupcakes might as well be siren song.

He glances up at her briefly when she says 'for you,' as though somehow her saying as much changes the character of the giving. Not just, 'oh, I had these laying around and thought you might like some' or 'I wanted cupcakes and had some leftovers,' but a deliberate gift, an effort. There was no reason to assume otherwise to begin with, but…still.

John does not get gifts very often.

He reaches slowly, lifts the weight of one of the surviving cupcakes, and lets the corner of his mouth twitch upward. It's a small expression, but it looks like 'thanks.' He might even have said that if she hadn't explained the atypical number of cupcakes in the container, at which point the look on his face resolves into something more typical, a one-sided smirk. "Did he? That cheeky bastard."

He shifts when she sits, turning himself onto a slight angle better for conversing, and spends a moment picking at the top of the cupcake paper, peeling the corrugated stuff downward. When he does glance up at her it's in time to catch that questing, solicitous brown-eyed look, and the blue-eyed one she gets in return manages, without much in the way of a change in expression, to acknowledge the ungainly vastness of their recent tribulations, and it does that with an underlying sense of gallows humor about the whole thing. Truly a study in economy of communication.

He's worrying at the frayed edge of that, trying to decide how to answer the question she didn't ask him, when she says something else entirely, and it surprises him enough that one of his brows ticks upward. "Should you?" The slight loft of that brow turns into a gradual sinking down and inward, the look dubious. "Bugger me if I know. I figured you'd stop in when you were ready, an' here you are." He holds the undressed cupcake in one hand without taking a bite while he takes a good, long look at her, as though spending more time at it, holding eye contact that way, might clarify something for him. In the end, though, he lets the look soften with eyes that lid, then tick down and away, back to the cupcake that he stirs to take a bite of. "What's the plan? Are we mutually pretending the last two months didn't happen to either of us, or…?"

There's a thin thread of humor in that, but it's not entirely a joke. He has no better sense of the contours of negotiating the subject of all of that suffering than she does, but where Jane politely avoids the issue, John simply asks straight-out. Probably not a surprise, that.

—-

"Here I am," Jane echoes and clarifies both, in a wan, quiet tone that belies how genuine all of her smiling and small-talk and sunny smiling really is. Sincere roots to all of them, her warmth, her emotionality on over-drive, but much of it a dressing for how she really wants to look, behave, be.

The longer he holds her eyes, the more her superficial levity fades, and transparently someone unused to such a degree of attention, the woman shifts under the watch of John's eyes. Hers strain like she would like to avert them, hide whatever it is he's looking for, before Jane simply lets something go, and whether in some silent act of trust or faith or something else, just lets him have her eyes. The eyes of a woman who can't sleep and eats in small doses, who has her own hard days and is with a man whose bad days are even worse, who works constantly to keep her active mind from devouring itself, who has spent the last month so worried for him, for Zatanna, for everyone.

Then he looks down, and says the thing she's been too polite to ever speak with such brevity or candor.

That drops Jane's eyes, and she stares down at her lap until she… just huffs a short laugh. A smile curves her mouth. Whatever tension was left in her body, nervous to simply be intruding in someone's bedroom, leaves her like an old ghost, and she relaxes, pulling up her legs to cross them more comfortably.

"No," she says, tired and amused. "I don't think I could do that. Too pathologically honest."

Sighing noisily that almost seems to sound like relief, Jane stoops forward to lean her elbows against her legs. "I did want to say something first off, before we get into that. All of that. I know what you did for James. He told me, and…" She searches for the words, with fidgetting hands, her eyes watching her fingers move. "I was pissed off. Maybe I still am. But I wanted to thank you too, because it's a big thing. A really big… big thing. I want it to be temporary, until we can fix — but, it's helped him a lot. So much."

She looks back up at John, into his eyes. "I know you'll keep him safe."

—-

He ticks his gaze up once when she answers him, hoisting a single shoulder in a shrug that accepts her verdict, and then again when she leads off by saying she wants to Say Something. She doesn't say it with any kind of ominousness, but the phrasing is particular and John, having tangled himself up with feminine wiles considerably more often and casually than his recent fidelity to Zatanna might suggest, is immediately wary anwyay. He continues to chew, but his movements are slower, his general physical state more still. Watchful, one supposes. Or guarded. Bracing himself for whatever's coming.

It doesn't turn out to be so bad, after all — not, at least, until the very end.

Pissed, she says. He thinks about that, holding that fact up and examining the angles while he probes the inside of his lower molars with his tongue, chasing out bits of cupcake. "Mm," is what he says, which could mean anything.

And then she puts her faith in him, and his eyes refocus on her, and he frowns. Just a little, but enough. "I feel like 'safe' might be overstating things a bit, luv. But…" He shifts his weight on the bed, uneasy. "…yeah. Safe-er."

Sky-pale blue eyes drop to train on the confection he's holding. "Should've seen his face when he realized what I was offerin'. I couldn't say no after that, but I almost wanted to. Nobody should want that as much as he wanted it." After two long beats of silence, he drags a long breath in, enough to expand the entire breadth of his chest, which summarily collapses again as he lets it leave him in a rush. "For what it's worth, Foster, it's not something I get a kick out of. An' I don't really think of it as doing something to — " He asked Bucky what he wanted to be called, and Bucky vaguely told him, giving him license to use 'whatever' name, really, but John still can't really decide. His mind refuses to wrap around the name 'Bucky.'

"— James. Yeah? He's fine. I mean…" His expression levels. He waggles his free hand in the air, the gesture for sort of. "As much as any of us, right. It's that other bastard in there that needs watching — as much for Barnes' sake as ours. You find a way to handle it that's better, and I'll pull it off him straight away and throw a bloody party, as well. Meantime…"

He looks at the wall a long moment, then at Jane, and follows up with another one-shouldered shrug. There is no apology there. Sympathy, maybe, but like most of his expressions, it's subtle.

—-

His words, his allusion to the look on James Barnes's face, vices Jane with a painful silence. She can picture it too — did picture it, in her memory, that weightless, child-like excitement he wore on his face when he came home to her — and it breaks her heart all over again. Because John is right: nobody should. Nobody should ever, with such a degree of relief, want their mind and soul in fetters.

"Yeah," she answers in quiet confirmation, if such a brief, blunt word is even enough for what they're discussing. "I didn't want to understand it for the longest time, but I do. And I do want to find a way. I'm not even sure where to begin, but, the universe has an answer for everything. So I guess I'll get back to you."

Her mouth tugs up ruefully in a smile she does not particularly feel, and Jane's eyes soften. There's no apology in John's face, but at the same time, she doesn't look like she's particularly looking for one. In her eyes, the only people who need to apologize are Hydra.

That said, Jane lingers a moment in silence. Then, in some strange shift of topic, blurts out, "So I broke a curse the other day. Well, wasn't all me. Jessica handed over some books on hedge magic Zatanna had lent her. Gave me this medallion thing. But I broke a curse on James." Her smile crooks up, a little lop-sided, something searching in her brown eyes — probably hopeful to get a bit of praise.

After a beat, she adds, awkward, "And now I'm just rambling because I really just want to ask you how you are and I want to ask you, out loud, how you are, because it's the worst question in the world to ask anyone. I was worried about you. I was worried about Zatanna. Was that… the first time you were in Hell?"

—-

Silences are comfortable for John. The vast oceans of his self-confidence (barring a few glaring, devastating exceptions) — bordering on, and often tap-dancing into, arrogance — do not allow for him to feel much social anxiety. He can recognize her discomfort in the way she veers from one topic to the next, but there's nothing like that in him, no answering awkwardness — or, if there is, he's absolutely mastered the ability to keep it hidden from view. The information causes one of his brows to arch. "A curse, huh." There's a story there, obviously. He's ruminating about which part of the efforts to find he and Zatanna it might have come from when he realizes she's looking at him expectantly.

As blunt and ruthless and unforgiving as John can be when it comes to his professional life, he's had years of teaching experience, and he can be surprisingly encouraging when it's called for. He opens his mouth to say something, only to have her continue before he can, lurching from that momentary digression back to the gravity well of the more significant things between them, whole worlds of hurt that conversation seems inadequate to engage with.

Her awkwardness is endearing, even for John. He lets that stymied open mouth reframe itself around a crooked half-smile and exhale, eyes lidding. And while he heard her question, he circles back to respond to the digression first. "Nice work on the curse. That's a solid place to start. Defensive magic. It's less likely to kill you if you get it wrong, and it comes in handy, as you've obviously noticed."

He did not begin there because he had no intention of addressing the rest, though. The silence afterward is short, dense with thought. "Not for me. It was the longest, though. I'd been twice before, just…very briefly." Blue eyes slip off of her face, down to the cupcake in his hand. "Briefly was enough. It's never the same twice, far as I can tell, but it's never good."

And how is he, then?

He hasn't been thinking about it. Hasn't really stopped to consider. "To be honest, I've been so bloody thrilled to be back in a place with working plumbing, food, and water, I've not really taken inventory. Maybe I'll skip that bit and just get back to work." And he more or less will do that, too, if his psyche allows it, rather than having his fears bubble up like ichor between the cracks while he sleeps at night.

There are things that happened that need his attention, though. "I'm a little concerned about something that happened when 'tanna and I got separated. I wound up spending a little bit of time with the First of the Fallen — " He pauses, glances at her sidelong. "Eh…I'll go over the Grimorium Verum with you sometime, get you acquainted with the infernal hierarchy. First of the Fallen was the first entity cast down by God. Anyway, that prick an' I don't get along, particularly, but he's got the rights to my soul when I die. 'e was all ready to unzip me and cash in that voucher, but I…" Remembering causes him to feel that sudden thrill of satisfaction all over again — the sweet, sweet victory of thwarting the inevitable. There's a flicker of wicked joy in his expression, ever so brief. "Found a way out of it. He was absolutely bent about it…at first. And then…" The joy wanes, yields to consternation. "I don't know. He knows something I don't. Seems convinced I'm hell-bound sooner than I think." His eyes unfocus, recalling the dark glee in that otherworldly bass voice. It leaves him looking uneasy, though that is abruptly replaced as his eyes snap up to her again. "I've not told 'tanna about that piece, an' I'd appreciate it if you keep it to yourself for the time being. Christ knows what she'd do. I'd rather know more about it before I open that can of worms."

—-

Even with the insomnia haunting her eyes and old worries chasing the peace from her features, Jane positively lights up when John Constantine gives her his approval. Her smile is a star-flare, brief and vividly bright, dominating all her face in that too-bright moment.

"Yeah," she agrees thoughtfully, uncrossing and recrossing her legs — restless thing she is. "It felt… feels right? Not that I feel like a magician or anything, but I think I'd like to learn more magic of that kind, or whatever I can learn. I know I signed up — OK, more like annoyed you into compliance for a different sort of magic education, but I wouldn't mind something in that area too. Whatever a third pair of hands can do to help with those sorts of things. And I promise no defence against the dark arts professor jokes. OK, maybe one or two, but not right now."

Her chatter and quiet levity carry on in that manner until, well, John addresses the question Jane's had reflected against the lenses of her eyes from the first moment she looked at him, too-thin and mandated to bedrest. She cringes palpably, wearing a wince through all hundred pounds of her body, because she hates that question, but — she needs to know. She wants to know.

Her humour gentles into seriousness when he answers. Jane goes quiet, her eyes up on the man, listening. Her smile comes back, though it's slightly crippled this time, lame with sympathy, when he speaks of skipping certain things and going back to work. Essentially what she's doing, and it's working well so far to keep her head together. She can't fault that logic.

Then, and with a slight lift of her eyebrows — perhaps not expecting John Constantine to keep going, to actually begin to divulge hints and tastes of Hell to her private audience — Jane takes in so much more. Mention of the First of the Fallen is met with her predictable confusion — Grimorium Verum, Jane makes a note of those words, remembering that — and she twists her lips pensively.

It's John asking Jane to hold this to her confidence that pulls her attention from her thoughts. She frowns visibly, because this is serious, this is more than serious — this is suggesting John has some forced betrothal with the gates of Hell and all of this isn't over. This is as serious as it gets, and he wants to keep it under the radar? With a cringe to her eyes, and reaching up to rub ruefully at the back of her neck, Jane exhales noisily, but seems to understand his reasoning. She did meet Zatanna because the young woman went foolhardily looking for her in an abandoned, to-be-destroyed derelict apartment building. "All right," she promises. "But bring me in to help on this? Kinda don't want you back in Hell."

Her smile sneaks back in. "Don't be a jerk and undo all that hard work we did."

But Jane doesn't stop there at that quip. She does have a question. "And, what you were saying about a first entity? I mean, I don't know anything apart from like, the Omen, or a couple really bad movies, but that's… that's not Satan, is it?"

She's no good Catholic girl, but wasn't he the first one that God…?

—-

Three months ago as counted on the calendar of the mortal plane — hell, two months ago, even — John wouldn't have kept talking. He might not have answered the question at all save to shrug and smile a meaningless smile, say what he said to her that time he got into her car to drive to Ritchie's campus: 'I'm breathing, so it must be a good day.' If he stopped to give it any thought, he'd be impressed with himself for giving her anything at all.

He'd know why, though. Why some of his jagged edges are rounding down, and he's extending a hand more often, striving to exhibit some sort of faith in the people around him, or at least give more often in the transaction of friendship than he ever has before. All of that is owed to Zatanna. Negotiating the turbulent, volatile parameters of whatever it is that they have has required him to stretch pieces of himself bound tightly in decades of scar tissue and long since crippled, social mechanisms in him that were barely even vestigial any longer. Hardly extant at all. A messy, painful process, and here is the fruit of that bloody battle: the smallest of things. A tiny piece of him that he wasn't obligated to give, but gave anyway. Weeks ago, that would never have happened at all.

"Ah…no," John admits. "Not Lucifer. He was the first of the Host, not the first of everything." The corner of his mouth quirks as the memory of Zatanna groaning in exasperated displeasure and dropping her head against his shoulder the night before they were rescued flits through his skull. "All you need to know about him, really, is that he's a twat who doesn't take kindly to being out-maneuvered. Honestly, I'm not sure what sort of help there'll be to give, but if it comes to it, I'll try not to do anything rash." No promises, of course.

"Like, for example," he says slowly, lowering the half-eaten cupcake as something in him shifts gears, "Negotiating with Papa Midnite when you're not a sodding magician. Or at all." Eyes like sky blue crowbars pry at her expression with an expectant look he does not qualify with words.

—-

Weeks ago, it is something that would have never happened at all; weeks later, it is something that draws a bit more purpose to Jane's weary face and her sleepless brown eyes. It is an extension of trust she undoubtedly senses, and readily accepts; her own wholeness is her ability to help others. That is the significance of Zatanna's impact: reaching out and touching others if even indirectly.

Lucifer is first of the Host, not the first of the fallen, Jane notes, making yet another mental regret that she didn't take some sort of theology elective in college. When John remarks he's not sure what help she can do, Jane turns on him a flat look, her brown eyes already stubborn.

Too bad, they seem to say, it's help that you're going to be getting.

In fact, she even looks inclined to open her mouth and reiterate that much, to really grind that point home, because if Jane Foster is in the business of keeping things from people, then she at least needs to be solution-oriented about the whole thing. With an entire lecture magazine-locked into her, she arms up to —

— not say anything when John instead cuts into mention of Papa Midnite. It's probably a compliment to him that the surprise on her face lasts only a moment, before Jane heaves out a deep breath in weary acceptance. Of course he knows, because John Constantine always finds out. She knows better than to try to lie to him — she's not even good at it — and she doesn't even know how to minimize or rationalize away whatever deal she made.

"I had to," is all she says, her voice small, tight. Not particularly ready to have this conversation, Jane looks down at her lap, more than aware of John's eyes on her, feeling them burning into her like a branding. "James was going to — I had to. Who is he? Why does he hate you?"

—-

Score one for John, then, avoiding a lecture by gearing up to deliver one of his own.

Truth is, once he'd figured out who put him where he was put, and found out from Jessica when she came calling yesterday that Midnite had been the one who'd facilitated the rescue team's trip to Limbo in the first place, he'd known that someone, somewhere, had paid something for the privilege. No one in his community ever does anything for free — particularly Midnite, and especially since it had something to do with John. He'd put John there on purpose; he had no reason to take him back out again — and John has his suspicions, based on just how last-minute that rescue was, as to why Midnite was so benevolent to begin with. Even the thought of that clever little play causes a pulse in the muscle that strings the hinge of John's jaw.

But he didn't know what took place between Bucky, Jane, and Midnite — only that they'd conversed, and results had been gotten. So what she says, vague as it is, is still elucidating. "Why does anyone?" John asks with an expression of mild irritation, tone dismissive. He stands up off of the bed in a movement that seems restless, and takes two steps to stoop and retrieve the tennis ball from where it rolled after ricocheting off of his face. "The answer is always, A) I don't care, and B) I suppose I've made an entire profession out of getting in people's way when they're being colossal pricks, and they usually object. As pricks go, Midnite's practically priapic." He takes advantage of the brief pause here to demolish the rest of the cupcake, and then slants his gaze across and down at her, irises thin rinds of pale blue between thin scrims of lash. The food in his mouth makes his next question seem innocuous, almost. "What did you 'have to,' exactly?" Any illusions about the question being a casual one are summarily smashed to bits when he swallows and follows that up by leaning on the emphasis of his next words: "Be specific."

—-

The shift in the mattress rouses her, and Jane glances up, fixing John with a questioning, slightly-askance look as he all but abandons forced bedrest. Her lips twist with what is undoubtedly a question whether he's well enough to be moving around, though she says nothing, perhaps satisfied enough to be able to keep an eye on him. He's not keeling over on the spot, and that's a good thing.

He's also doing a grand good distraction job in saying all the things not helpful for anyone who'd like to find out a bit of information about the magician with whom they've made a dangerous deal. She bows her head to rub wearily at the skin between her eyebrows, then paws back her dark hair, meeting John's dismissals with her own aggravation. "Well, I do care, and you basically know something about everyone, and there is kind of a significant divide between 'annoyance over someone in your way' and 'sending them LITERALLY to Hell'."

His restlessness makes Jane restless, though she tries to hold some sort of guard against that, forcing herself to remain seated — girding herself mentally against whatever questions John has to ask. Jane, to be perfectly honest, was not hoping for this conversation at all. Some part of her wonders who even told him — James? — but even that question is not immediately important.

She makes a face at 'Papa Midnite' and 'priapic' occupying the same sentence.

And then John talks around chocolate cupcake. Asks her what she had to do.

Be specific.

Jane meets his eyes, in her own a silent battle between hesitation and wilfulness. She did this for James; she did this for all of them, he can't just order her around. She bites down on that impulse, and her indignation, and forces out, "I made a deal. He would give us a way in to find you, find Zatanna. In return I said I'd do anything."

—-

"I dunno luv," John fires back, ignoring solicitous looks about his physical condition in favor of turning to very slowly wander toward the wall containing his closet door, allowing himself that much in the way of outlet for his itch to move. "In the circles I run in the degree of separation between those two things doesn't have to be very wide, because on the whole, magicians are absolute pillocks," He says that without any apparent self-awareness of the fact that he's just painted himself as a pillock. Or, perhaps, without any objections to the self-burn.

That rapid-fire dismissiveness is forced to take a hard back seat to her actual explanation of the outlines of the deal she made. It's enough that he stops moving altogether. When he pivots to face her it happens in phases: he turns his head that way until she can see his face in profile, and very gradually the rest of his body turns to follow. It would be difficult to describe the look on his face, but it isn't reassuring. Serious eyes beneath tentatively knitting brows that want to be incredulous, only they've got to determine from her expression whether or not she means what she said and, yes, she did, so they widen just a little, and his brows follow through, sliding down and in.

"Wh…" There's a beat, and then he tries again after that false start. "What. Really? You said that. You…"

Two more purposeful strides take him back to where she's sitting, and John Constantine places a hand on the edge of the bed beside her, sinking down into a half-kneeling crouch in front of her, as though that different vantage point might produce a different result. His voice is quiet and his tone level. "You said 'anything?' That's what you gave him?"

At least he isn't yelling?

—-

Jane Foster thinks she would prefer yelling.

She's prepared for it; she's girded down, braced for volume and noise and whatever frequency of vivid language and cutting insults he has armed for her. She can handle it. She's expecting it, actually, slowly uncrossing her legs and moving her arms to grip unconscious, deliberate handfuls down on the edge of the mattress.

There is no yelling. No anger. No outward display, just the urgency in which John crosses the room and approaches her, and the way he crouches before her. So tiny is Jane, that their heights nearly match even in his position; so close is Jane, that there is no way she can snuff or disguise the surprise opening up her face. This is new, a sense of directness and seriousness she's never seen in John Constantine, and it unnerves her to the bone.

The truth is she'd not even given her deal with the devil any real thought. She feels reticence, sure, and certainly worry — but as quickly as she agreed, she wrapped and boxed those feelings away. She doesn't regret any of it.

But this? This forces that box open. Forces everything open for her to hold in her hands, face, and confront.

"I did," she repeats, the words concise, but her voice far more uneasy. Jane's dark eyes search John's face for the answer to a question she will not say. "I had to — I had to make it so he'd pick me. I said whatever he wanted. And — anything."

—-L

Anything.

She said she would give Papa Midnite…

…anything.

Her eyes search his face, and he's doing the same in reverse, none of that sleepy, lid-eyed look on him now. The intensity that lingers beneath it is on full display — but he's holding things in reserve, out of view, clearly.

For those first few moments of silence, John isn't thinking about punishing a wayward student. As the magnitude of her promise sinks in for him, in those first few moments what John is thinking about is his own catastrophic failure to protect the people around him from making a mistake like this one. Because it was for his benefit — for he and Zatanna — that she wound up in that position in the first place, wasn't it? And, if he's understanding what she's implied in a couple of ways, to protect Bucky from cutting his own deal. She put her neck on the chopping block because she didn't want to risk anyone else's, and the ultimate blame for that rests, as it always must, on his shoulders.

It's all well and good to lecture Jones about how she should never have gone to Limbo, telling her it was reckless (it was) and they had no idea what they might be getting themselves into (they didn't), but it had been a token tongue-lashing at best. He'd been grateful. Is grateful. And he'd known, even as he dressed her down in that most half-hearted of ways, that it wouldn't change anything, really. Jones was always going to put herself in there, and so was Red, if history is any indication. After the role they played in helping Barnes and Foster escape the clutches of Hydra, he supposes it shouldn't surprise him that they might feel the same.

But the truth of the matter is that 'anything,' in John's world, really means anything. It means definitions of the word 'anything' that are absolutely incomprehensible in a world without magic because there's a hell of a lot more 'anything' possible in his world than in the one she's used to. And now she owes it to Papa Midnite, of all people, and the only thing that might be worse for her than that is if she tries to renege on her promise.

He absolutely cannot stomach that. He'd object to any price she might have to pay on his behalf, but this is barely a price tag, it's absolute authority over everything she is, was, or could someday be.

His jaw tightens. He lifts the hand on the mattress edge and gently clasps her shoulder, finding a small, tight smile to give her. "Well. Don't worry about that. I will bloody well sort that out."

He pushes to his feet again, rolls his shoulders. The corners of his eyes tighten. That heaviness recedes a little bit, edged out by more typical briskness, a demeanor he shrugs on like a coat. "But can we talk for a moment about what a shite deal you made? 'Anything' is not a thing you give people, Foster! It's — we are going to work on your haggling."

—-

In these moments, Jane Foster looks so small. Small like she did in that machine two months ago, small and terrified and broken, with the skin on her face burned from the salt of too many tears. Small and caught up in the grasp of a world just too big for her.

It's only the steeliness of her dark eyes that contrast all her smallness, the way that, despite how his seriousness palpably frightens her, Jane yet refuses to look away. She wants to know precisely the magnitude of her decision, and all the details still held unknown. She wants to face whatever consequence waits for her, and do it without apology, regret, or, most of all, fear.

She refuses to stay passive, numbed to relief by John Constantine's promising words or the touch of his hand on her shoulder. When he tells her he'll sort it out, Jane's face only fissures worse with a wince. She doesn't even hear his words that follow, refusing to be distracted.

Her own hand reaches to touch his, her fingers curling around and holding. It's not a touch of thank-you or relief; it's one to hold him there and arrest him from that particular train of thought.

"You can't," she argues, with still that softness in her voice. Jane's words do not even sound sharp enough to her liking, so her hand tightening to punctuate her intent, and to stop John before he returns to something brisk and cavalier and decided — taking the reins from her hands and steering this beyond what little control she even has. "You can't sort it out. He," the sentence breaks with a huff, because even she's morbidly amused to realize — Papa Midnite apparently knew this would happen. Knows John enough to predict it.

"He said there can't be any meddling. He said he knows you'd meddle. And if you do, then it means I'm going back on it." Her eyes search his. "And after watching him kill a woman, I… I assume he's serious."

Jane blows out a rough breath that sounds like it scrapes off a few years of her life. "So you can't just go sort it out. Probably not in the sort of way you might have planned."

—-

It's testament to just how perceptive Jane Foster is that she knows already that John's not going to have much respect for the words 'you can't.' Her expectations are borne out when he frowns at her. "Bollocks I ca—"

And then she tells him why.

The frown was mild before. He augments it with narrowing eyes and more angry brows, irritation a look he wears well — and ought to, as he's certainly put a hell of a lot of mileage on it. He visibly bristles, piqued. "'Meddling?'" That air of restlessness intensifies exponentially, but somehow the grasp of petite fingers is capable of keeping him where he is, the most absurd anchor in the universe. Given the look on his face, it's a bit like having a tiger by the tail, though. "I have no sodding intention of meddling."

Pause.

"I'm going to fix it."

Right.

He slants her a hard look. "That is entirely something different and no, I'm not interested in negotiating this point! You do realize Midnite could give you a bell tomorrow and tell you what he really needs from you is for you to, I don't know, cannibalize yourself starting arse-first and you'd have to figure out some way to do it, yeah? You said anything. That's what that means. And that /cheeky cunt/—"

He reigns in whatever he'd been about to say, biting the words back. Denied the ability to pace or whatever it is he would usually do to burn through his own lashing, unfocused annoyance, he lifts his unclaimed hand and scrubs at his face instead. "Oh, piss on it."

—-

In the back of her mind, in some distant, synaptic flare, Jane realizes this is the second furious storm she's weathered in the last many days: not just weathered, but walked straight into, in hopes of finding its eye. First James Barnes, and now John Constantine.

They are both angrily demonstrative men, she finds, but in completely different ways. Either way, she finds that same vein of bravery and taps it again, and it keeps Jane's hand tenaciously secured around John's, insistent to root him there no matter how perilously close she courts that rage in his eyes. He's not going to go stalk off yet because she's not finished.

What he intends to do sounds like the textbook definition of meddling.

Jane's expression tries to hold like steel, her brown eyes flinty, though even he finds a weak point into her through that descriptive cannibalism story. She pales around the edges, queasy and quietly horrified, while the more logical part of her thinks: why? why would anyone ask anyone else to do something like that? what worth does it have to anyone?

"The thing is, no, I don't realize!" she interjects helplessly. Her hand stays knotted around his. "I don't know anything about him, or who he is, or what he does, other than he's powerful and can kill people without even touching him, and that even though he didn't want Zatanna in Hell, he's sure gunning for you to go there! I want to know something so maybe I can try to make some sort of informed decision about this! The only thing I do know, and what terrifies me, is you deciding you're going to do something for me, and I know James will help, won't take no, and God knows who else, and — what happens if something goes wrong? Something happens to you all? Or," she hitches out a weak, humourless laugh, "I end up in Hell or somewhere? I don't think I'm cut out for there."

She goes silent for a beat. "Would he really ask me to do that?"

—-

At one point John tries to interrupt her when incredulity unfolds on his face, and some of that swirling tension focuses itself: "'Informed decis— ??" Had she not shifted the content of what she was saying in the direction of her personal fears, no doubt that handful of syllables would have turned into a sharp little dissertation on the merits of timing.

It's difficult for him not to be sympathetic to her fears for the people around her, given not only the fact that this fresh crisis owes itself to people coming to his rescue, but also 'basically the entire rest of his personal history.' He understands the terror of seeing the people around him caught up in the grinding gears of his life altogether too well, and though it doesn't sap him of his obvious irritation, it serves as a kind of speed bump to the momentum it had been gathering.

What if, she asks him with a bleak little laugh, she ends up in Hell or somewhere? The ire in his expression flickers like a light bulb on a faulty circuit, tempered with a splinter of something more the look he wore when he crouched down to ask her if she really meant what she'd said. "That's not going to happen."

And then she asks if Midnite would really ask her to do that, and the iron-anvil intensity of the previous moment slides off and askew like something greased, back into the log flume of John Having a Contained Fit. "Well that's not really the point, is it?" he asks, exasperated. The hand she isn't holding flings itself out wide. "The point is that he bloody well could if he wanted to, because there's nothing stopping him!"

And in spite of this display, he's exercising a tremendous amount of restraint, because John's private theater of horrors doesn't contain the ludicrous act he described. He can think of things a thousand times worse — like asking her to flay James Barnes alive and fashion Midnite a jaunty little hat out of his tanned hide, say, or things even worse than that — and it's in his nature to assume the worst so that he can prepare for it. A hundred tragedies have already passed through his skull, and he keeps them all to himself, because to saddle her with them when they have no sure way to free her of that burden yet would be cruelty without a point.

He holds that position for a heartbeat or two, then deflates with an exhale, torso rounding, head lowering into his splayed hand, which rubs his face again, then roughly rakes back through the tousle of gold and light brown hair on his head. Two beats later, he draws a breath, pivots, and sinks into a controlled seat beside her on the bed's edge. He takes her grasping hand and lowers it to hold it with firm pressure between both of his atop his knee, a gesture that braces as well as demanding that her focused attention remains on him, paired well with the level look he puts on once he's schooled his expression again. "Look. Midnite's a big topic to cover. He's probably the most powerful houngan in the west. As magicians go, he's a major player, and he more or less runs New York. He's got fingers in organized crime. He's — he is a very dangerous man, and he's bloody crafty, so I'm not going to lie to you — it's not great, the position you're in. Under normal circumstances I'd be uneasy on your behalf with him just knowing we were acquainted at all, if that tells you anything. But…if I know him, and I do, he'll hold this card for a while to keep me from having his bell-end on a plaque for what he did to 'tanna and I. I doubt he plans to use that favor straight-off. He'll hold it in reserve and threaten to burn it in the worst possible way just to keep me in line…so we have time, probably. We'll sort it out, Foster. I've butted heads with him before and come out on top, I don't see why this ought to be any different."

—-

Frustration tightens all of Jane's features, the look of her in that moment one of burden. Whether it's ignorance, naviete, or simply that innocence of hers, the woman just cannot comprehend this facet of John Constantine's world: where someone would force someone else to do something so needlessly monstrous, and for no reason of merit or worth or use other than they could, or that they want to cause that sort of pain.

She so badly wants to make her informed decision. She wants to make sense of this: make sense of whatever life could create a man like Papa Midnite, and make logic of it, make reason of it — educate herself properly as to know how to proceed.

But it's like Hydra all over again. There is no logic Jane can make to understand some actions in this world, and the darkness inherent in them — a deliberate maliciousness that is so foreign to her. And the fact remains: she believes wholeheartedly in knowledge, but is this sort of thing something she even wants to learn?

The only anything that pulls Jane from those circling thoughts is how — how John sounds — when he promises her helpless joke that she's never going to Hell. It earns her eyes, shocked again to see that intensity on him, unused to it, and at the same time, helplessly drawn. It's like a light in the window after wandering a too-long, lonely night. Inadvertently, that admission does something else, and it's to strip her down, all of her hollowly-laughing, thinly-joking, and stubbornly-reasoning veils pulled to reveal Jane, for a moment, in the way she tries so hard not to let others see: she's trying to be so strong, but she's terrified.

Her hand does not fight his hold, and folds docilely between his. The action leashes her, to make sure she listens, and she does, still seated there on the edge of his bed, her brown eyes turned up and locked on John Constantine. Their gaze tightens as he speaks; Jane looks so relieved to receive some sort of knowledge, some amount of information, even if, at the same time, she looks troubled to hear it. Looks lost for even what to do with it. Houngan, she puts to memory, becase she doesn't understand the word: something to follow-up on later. Organized crime. Dangerous man. Not a great position she's in.

But he gives a calculated hypothesis on what he intends to happen, and even if it in itself is not a solution, it's something. It's somewhere to start, and Jane is deeply grateful. They'll have time. They'll sort it out. She looks up on him with an infinite faith of someone, whom in this moment, has decided to trust John — trust all the things he says to her.

Then Jane moves. The mattress shifts, her hand weighs down between his, and she's leaning closer — to press a light, gentle, meaningful kiss to his cheek.

"Thank you, John," she says.

—-

If Jane is shocked by the piece of him she's yet to have any truck with — the piece of him that makes him genuinely formidable, really, responsible for all of his impossible victories…and also most of his willful trespasses and atrocities — then John is shocked by the tiny little token of thanks she presses to his cheek.

Not because he misunderstands what it is, or why she does it. He knows the look in her eyes because he's seen it in countless other pairs, most of them interchangeable in his memory: frightened people who've gotten caught up in things beyond their understanding, who find themselves sitting in their own living rooms with a strange man who's telling them strange and often terrible things about the horrible things happening to them lately — things that maybe nobody else in their lives have believed were true. Nobody but an abrasive Englishman who turned up all of a sudden, inexplicably, out of nowhere, suggesting that he might have answers they need. That he might be able to open the door back to whatever sane life they'd had torn away from them. They're shipwrecked in a storm in waters full of sharks and worse things besides, and to them, John looks like a life preserver. They don't know if they trust him — most of them do not to start with, and many of them never will, no matter what he does for them — but they cling to him anyway because he's the only thing in the flotsam that seems solid enough to keep them afloat.

He knows that it's gratitude even before she says the words, but casual physical affection is just not something aimed at him very often. He isn't often casually touched, period. It doesn't make him uncomfortable on its own merits, but coming from Foster it gives him a pang of anxiety, the warning note that always accompanies the realization that someone's getting close to him in ways that might make it difficult for him to do his job. It trips perimeter alarms, more or less. And that look, the look she gives him before she does it — that helpless trust, because what else is there to do, really? — makes it ten times worse. That look hangs around his neck like a leaden weight. Responsibility. Even if he'd planned to hold himself responsible, that guileless look of trust ratifies circumstances into obligation.

Shit.

His jaw slackens, then tightens again. He blinks, ticks his gaze to the corner of his eye to look at the side of her head, then tracks her face as she sits back again, uncertain how much of that internal conflict is visible. He's rarely at a loss for long, though, and there's a quick path forward to short-circuiting this development, he suspects — as well as a light segue away from the grim subject of Midnite.

His expression clicks over almost audibly to allow for a louche half-smile. "I've just survived being in Limbo for two months, and now you're going to put the moves on me, get me murdered by the former Soviet Assassin you're shacked up with? And then whatever bits are left, 'tanna will cobble back together so she can kill them again. I'm flattered, but I'm afraid I really have to decline." He pats her hand in a theatrically consoling fashion, then retrieves both of his and reaches for the box in which there are still a couple of uneaten cupcakes. "Can't say I blame you, though. I'm irresistable, apparently. Just yesterday I had Jones in here, literally swooning. I ought to buy a fainting couch."

—-

Sometimes the gravity of a moment gets so much that all you have to do is trip it and let it fall on its face.

That joke catches Jane Foster entirely by surprise. And it's perfect, really: it doesn't undermine her gratitude, doesn't dismiss her too-vulnerable admission that she's frankly over her head and frightened, and it doesn't punish her for being willing to trust him. It just offers an immediate and gratifying reptrieve from… everything, really, talk of repeat trips back to hell and first of the fallen and Papa Midnite, and she fixes John Constantine with an indescribable look of shock.

She's apparently putting the moves on him now, and she doesn't know whether to burst out laughing or lightly smack John on the arm, so Jane just does both, drinking down all the levity like someone painfully parched. "You are such a jerk!" she blurts out, then laughs all over again, and after a pause — and scrunching up her face — imparts another smack for good measure.

Shoulders jumping, her small body quaking with laughter, Jane eventually just bows her head and buries her face into her freed hand, letting go a laugh she sorely, sorely needs. Has needed for a few days now.

"Yeah, you apparently are," she intones dryly about John's irresistibility. "Because apparently what's this about holding hands with my boyfriend?" Jane slants the magician a look, a failed attempt of outrage utterly undone by the way a grin crooks her mouth.

A moment later, she sighs gustily, crossing up her legs again and tucking in her feet, taking some relief in just being able to file away that burden and happily forget it for now. "I'm really glad we have you back," Jane adds, far more soft, because apparently he's one flag short still on the dangerous game of Jane Foster's Emotional Minesweeper. "Zatanna too. I need to go see her after. I don't — would you be able to give me her address?" There's a beat. "Is she all right? You think she'd be fine with me visiting?"

—-

John puts on a look of delicately affronted injury as she laughs at his allegations. "An' what's so funny about that? Hm?" And then injury transitions to understanding when she calls him a jerk, chased with a slow, exaggerated nod. "Yes, well. Leave them broken-hearted by the side of the road, that's my M.O. Sorry, luv. Someone ought to have warned you."

It's what he wanted, though, really. To undermine the moment in some way, make her look at him with eyes less serious. The laughter he accepts as a surer sign of his benefit to her than any kiss to the cheek or soulful expression of gratitude; that she can still do that, still laugh that way, means she's intact after all. Until that moment, he hadn't been sure that she was.

His deadpans are good, but he lets his gaze glitter in that tell-tale way, eyes brimming with the laughter he doesn't usually let overtake him. They shine even as he puts on mock hurts for her. "What. He told you?" Brows knit, his look put-out as he picks up another cupcake and efficiently strips the paper cup from the bottom. "No one has any discretion anymore."

He's prepared to tell her why he held Barnes' hands, but she's moving the conversation along, and John's content to let it go. Very fortunately, he's chewing a full half of a cupcake when she softens and it spares him the necessity of finding an expression for that occasion, and by the time he's swallowed, she's skipped right along to asking him about visiting Zatanna.

"I can tell you the address," he says, "But it won't do you any good. Unless you know the house is there, it won't be." Because why would a magician ever just live in a condo like a normal human being? "You'll have to get in touch with her about it to make sure the house knows you're coming. But I know she'd be fine with it, yeah."

Though…

He stops, and thinks about that for a moment: Zatanna and Jane, spending time together.

His brows knit, just a little. Always adept at sensing things that have the potential to be dangerous to him, he feels compelled to investigate.

"Eh…you two getting close, then…?"

—-

Despite the darkness under her eyes, the slight wilt of her spirit compared to before, and a hollowness about Jane Foster that came long out of her brief, nightmarish captivity — she still laughs. She laughs freely, meaningfully, and well. A little broken, but intact. She's not going to let anything or anyone take away any more, crucial pieces of her — and Jane making the world her punchline is one integral part.

She doesn't even think to ask the specific particulars why John Constantine, here on the bed beside her, once held the flesh-and-steel hands of her boyfriend. Jane, who is so intent on uncovering every little secret in life, thinks she prefers this one to remain a mystery. It's funnier that way.

Eventually, with mention of Zatanna turning Jane's thoughts to the young woman — memory of her standing on her doorstep, her arms full of about five different gifts, and her kind, hopeful face peeking in around the sheer volume of it all. Just seeing her there, so intent to help, pulled Jane out of such a dark place that day. How could she not want to return such a precious favour? How could she not want to keep such a beautiful person in her life?

"I'll definitely give her a shout," she says, cracking a bit of a smile at mention of magic-shrouded houses. Of course. Muggles like Jane Foster assume everyone's on Google's street view.

There's little in the world that gives John Constantine pause, however, and Jane seems already astute of that; she glances up, curious of that deliberate beat of silence. Her brown eyes do not miss that brief knot between his eyebrows.

Can he imagine it? The universe forcing collision of two chaotic forces? A woman of magic and a woman of science, both equally reckless, equally spirited, equally stubborn —

— equally enabling of each other?

He asks if they're getting close. The answer is there in Jane's eyes, a twofold one: she, who loves immediately and impulsively and unashamedly, already loves Zatanna Zatara. And she also is sure John Constantine is a little askance of the idea. "Absolutely. She's actually asked me to help her here and there with things."

Her smile is an unsheathing knife.

"What's the matter, John? Afraid I'm going to hold her hands?"

—-

The uneasy look is not alleviated by the knowing smile she aims at him like some sort of weapon. "I wish that's what I was afraid of," he says, which isn't actually the wry, idiotic 'hurr, girls making out' joke that it might be coming from anyone else. John is absolutely, literally serious, because what he's worried about is the fact that Jane Foster and Zatanna Zatara are both lemmings, and given a choice between the two, he'll pick hand-holding every time.

It's a difficult concern to have, because few people on earth know better than John how lonely Zatanna has sometimes been. He'd never try to discourage anyone from getting close to her — well, within reason, given the nature of his relationship with her, one supposes — but his concerns about that friendship are real.

"It's just…" He lets the knit of his brows deepen, his gaze helplessly tracking back and forth across her expression as he tries to find a way to say this that isn't impolitic. "The two of you can be…" He lets the sentence fragment hangs, and in the silence that follows wills her to fill in the blanks, sparing him the trouble.

—-

"Can be what?" Jane asks diplomatically, with raised eyebrows and crossed legs and the most pleasant of smiles. It's that skill all women have, to look like very charming hanging guillotine blades.

She tries to stare at him dangerously for a good beat, but her feeble poker face falls apart, crumbling into another bout of good-humoured laughter. "Is this where I finally get to tell you you're being too uptight?" Jane asks, amused. "It's fine. I think she's looking into some scientific understanding and testing of who she is and what she can do, and most of that at this point is just pure theory. So she's in some danger of a few unwanted lessons in quantum physics. I'll try not to torture her too much."

Something does seem to come to mind, flickering like a star-flare across Jane's expressive face, reminded enough to lose some of her light-heartedness and fix John far more severely, pensive, concerned. "I hope you do tell her what's going on with you soon. I get why you might not, but there's just some things you can't hide from someone in your life the way she is. It's kind of the sacrificial gambit when it comes to letting someone in. If James kept something like that from me, I'd… I don't know. I'd be devastated. So don't wait long."

—-

You can't con a con.

John looks at that pleasant little smile and his expression flattens, emanating 'you know goddamn well what.' He relents just a little when she laughs, but the uncertainty remains, a background sentiment haunting the edges of the way he looks at her. "Yeah, that's what they all say," he tells her, grousing, when she accuses him of being uptight. "Right up until it turns out I was right, but by then it's usually bad enough that 'I told you so' feels inappropriate even for me."

Solace is had in the remaining half of the cupcake in his hand, which he dispatches with brutal efficiency. He dusts his hands, then reaches for the tennis ball on the bed beside him, more to have something to do with his hands than anything, turning the sphere over in hands made for every kind of duplicitous mischief.

Her well-intentioned advice leaves him looking unconvinced, thoughts visibly kept in reserve behind level blue eyes. "This isn't a secret I want to keep for long. I'd like to have answers. But…you know, Foster, 'tanna and I both have our secrets, and we've got our reasons. She knows better than to pry into mine, and I return the favor. We'd never work otherwise." He tosses the tennis ball a matter of inches up into the air, catches it again, studying her with that very slightly squinted look. "At some point you've just got to decide whether you trust someone or not, haven't you? And if you do, then it's pointless driving yourself mad wondering about whatever they keep to themselves. You're in or you're out. Everything else is wasted energy." For John, this mechanism played a role in sorting out his anxieties about the possibility of losing Zatanna the way he tends to lose everyone else who gets close to him, a means to quiet all of the fears that resulted in his helpless yo-yo back and forth between a state of wanting to be with her and needing to distance himself from her in instinctual self-defense.

A thought occurs, and he debates with himself heavily before he offers it. He is not in the business of editorializing about other people's relationships. He lacks the ability and the interest…but there's something about Barnes that reminds him of himself, and maybe that's why he feels more qualified to speak on the matter. "Maybe…go easy on Barnes for a bit wi'that, hey? The man's just spent an entire human lifetime keeping secrets. It's — you don't seem like the type to have any, so maybe it's not easy for you to understand, but it's not as though a body can just turn around one day and change that. Secrets keep you safe. For some of us they keep you alive. They keep other people alive. Right? It becomes an instinct. Frankly, if I wanted to do things differently — an' I don't, but if I did — I'd have a hell of a time trying to change that and I've got fifty less years of it under my belt."

—-

There are some people who would answer a gentle caution like that — one John Constantine is not obligated to give — with offence or dismissal. Jane Foster, however, glances up, unable to hide the appreciation in her face for the way John tries to help James. It touches her foremost to have James Barnes be considered that way, and her first instinct is a quiet gratefulness.

Eventually, that feeling weighs down with her own thoughts, and advised to be more patient with him — and Jane thinks she has been, though perhaps not patient enough? — burdens her with a strange sort of unease. It's discomfitting to perhaps realize that John, or perhaps others, may implicitly understand the man she loves more than she can, and may ever could. It casts doubt that makes it harder to argue her point.

"I'll try to," she answers, weary, but sounding sincere enough to consider, even accept John's advice. "I'll keep it in mind."

Jane glances down at her own hands, gnawing momentarily down on her bottom lip, a look on her face like she wants to say more. She's not so weary she can't hold it in.

"I get…" she starts, words a little stilted as she tries to find her own patchy eloquence, "people needing to keep things to themselves. I get privacy. I even get there may be some things about James he'll never feel fine to tell me, and I'm all right with that. I /get/ secrets too, and… I might not look it, but maybe I even got some of my own."

All Jane feels is her own ignorance, and she's not sure if that innocence is something to arm herself with or realize it's the impediment she someday may have to let go. "I know I haven't lived the lives of you or James, and maybe I'm too soft, or naive. It's just, some secrets, whether we like it or not, affect others. And it pulls them in, and forces them to make it their problem too. Things like you living or dying, or your soul being sent to Hell for all eternity. She loves you, so it's her problem too, OK? You don't… always get to keep that one to yourself. Or decide when to say it when it's more advantageous for you."

—-

There, finally, is a small grace note of apology in John's expression, watching the way her laughter drains out of her and weariness creeps in. He manages to hold his tongue until she finishes sharing her halting thoughts with him, and he listens in spite of his reservations, his historical interest in maintaining absolute sovereignty over the inside of his own skull and the many pieces of him he's unwilling to share.

There's something in his gaze that softens in the end, and it softens only in part because of the woman beside him. The rest is owed to thoughts of Zatanna, things he won't say directly but knows to be true: that he fell for her because she's so willing to crack her ribs open and give him everything, so ready to embrace even the ugly, broken pieces of him and be one single point of softness and warmth in a difficult, dangerous, painful life. "Who's to say how things would have gone with the two of you if you'd not been soft and naive? I'm not trying to tell you you're doing it wrong, I'm…" He is, as she's surmised, defending Barnes — who may or may not appreciate that unasked-for defense, but John knows too much about being with women who ask more of him than he's been able to give them. Knows how that traditionally ends.

After a beat, he brushes that line of discussion off, tossing the tennis ball off to the side and letting himself sprawl backward again, hands lifted to lace behind his head. He shifts his planted feet, crossing them loosely at the ankles. "Poking my nose in. Nevermind. You'll sort it out. I'll take all of that under advisement. With any luck it's nothing, and the First was just having me on."

He doesn't believe that. Not for a moment.

"Meantime, we've got other work to do. You back in the saddle with Ritchie yet? If not we're going to get you that way. The three of us need to have a sit-down chat soon."

—-

In her own way, Jane Foster seems to undergo her own, silent unravelling, probably torturing herself with the questions and doubts of too many thoughts. For all the grand lecture she gave to Jessica Jones a couple nights ago about not overthinking things, she's piss-poor at taking her own advice. Fortunately, at least it seems that unravelling counterintuitively nooses her up, drawing on herself far more tightly to keep that mental dialogue caged safely in —

— when John leans back and lets it all go, already having poked his nose in too much. Jane glances back at him, over her tiny shoulder, her eyes relieved for the change in topic, as well as silently apologetic. Because she was sure poking her own nose with equal measure.

He packs that conversation well away and she exhales noisily, transparently just fine to add the box its postage and send it on its way. Shop talk is more than wanted. "Not where I'd like to be," Jane admits, honest as ever, and with a healthy dose of self-admonishment. Her workaholic soul is less than impressed what the last couple of months has done to her productivity. "But that's changing. I'm ready to start work again. When we do chat, I'm hoping Richard and I can bring something to the table."

—-

John lets loose a note of incredulous humor so spontaneous and so strident that it tightens all of the muscle that strings his chest and abdomen together, enough to make him uncross his ankles and drop his feet back down flat to the floor. "'Richard,'" he says, as though her insistence upon using the man's full and proper name were the most outlandish, inexplicable thing imaginable. "Oh, Foster, you're killin' me." Eyes closed and brows knit, the grin he's wearing is sharp enough to cut, a pale blade. "Richard. Incredible. Good to hear it, though. The end of the world waits on no man, or woman. I'll give you a bell soon and we'll go 'round to see him…though I expect we'll be off on a jaunt across the pond to settle an outstanding debt with that nazi wankstain before we can really get to work."

—-

And for the second time in Jane's recent memory, she witnesses Constantine enjoy the world just a little more for having the name 'Richard Simpson' in it. She cranes her head and stares down at him dubiously, still not sure why it's so funny, because it's always been her habit to use full names — more formal that way — and… just using 'Ritchie' seems to undercut just what an astounding genius that man is.

In the end, her own eyes soften and she mirrors his grin with a tamer, gentler one of her own. For being a man stranded in Hell for too, too long, Jane's happy just to see on him that precious sense of humour. It is so important. She would have turned one of James's guns on herself weeks ago if she still couldn't laugh at things. "I'll see what I can do in prep. I'll juggle a few of my other projects and get back on the horse," she promises.

And jaunts across the pond to fight Nazis. Jane lifts her eyebrows. There was a time in her life that might have sounded a little odd. Now, all she can think are in terms of mild surprise, consideration and approval, and the relief just to get out of New York for a while. "You know that dickhead almost killed me? Sent me off to some alien ice planet with giants. James had to — punch one. He'd tell that story better. But count me in to put my foot up that piece of shit's ass."

—-

The cocking of John's brow says clearly before he even opens his mouth that he didn't know that dickhead almost killed her, no. It's enough to get his eyes to open, though he has to lower them so far to look at her from his prone position that his lashes almost touch his cheeks, only the thinnest possible slice of pale blue iris visible. "Alien ice planet?" With giants. Even for John, that's a little bit strange…but then, he's just found out that Thor, as in the god, is real, and apparently also an alien, so…

Really, it's all just perspective, one supposes. One man's nine-to-five job is another man's impossible, hidden world. It's just a question of which one a body is accustomed to inhabiting.

Hell…for John, social media is strange.

"Wouldn't dream of leaving you out, though you may have to get in line when it comes to putting the nail in his long-overdue coffin." He says this in jest, even furnishes a thin smile alongside it, but he's anything but joking. John Constantine avoids violence if he's able, and he's never killed a man or woman in cold blood in his life; the casualties outside of Hydra's remote station in the woods when he rescued Zatanna were in the way of that rescue, and technically, he was not the one who pulled the trigger on Muller the first time, either.

He's ready to make an exception in Steinschneider's case. Steinschneider is the reason he had to spend weeks watching Zatanna sapped of life in a long, drawn out kind of death.

The anger surfaces, quick and hot as ever at the thought…but he's not quite himself again yet. Not recovered sufficiently to be a vessel for that kind of fury. Almost as soon as it ignites in him, it exhausts him, visibly.

"Thanks for dropping by, Jane," he says, in a rare concession to using her given name. He rests his hands on his middle, turns his head to the side to look at her more squarely. "It's good to finally see you're…" Pause. Shrug. "You know."

He doesn't dwell on that overlong. "And for the cupcakes. I'll save one for 'tanna. She'd have my bollocks in a tin if I didn't."

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