The Ties That Bind

June 11, 2017:

Things have gotten complicated for John Constantine over the last seven months. With threats on all sides and the interior of his life expanding to allow for an alarming amount of investment in other people, what's a Hellblazer to do?

Indulge in a lengthy internal monologue. Obviously.

New York City

Characters

NPCs: barflies, denizens of NYC

Mentions: Zatanna Zatara, Dr. Jane Foster, The Winter Soldier, Captain America, Jessica Jones, Matthew Murdock, Azalea Kingston, Giovanni Zatara, David Archer

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Exterior. Night. The garishly yellow and black facade of the Longbow Pub and Pantry, a small Welsh pub in New York, as viewed through dim silhouettes of periodic pedestrian traffic. The door opens and a small party staggers out in laughter, buffeted along on the sound of a footie match and the mingled aromas of rarebit and stout.

Interior. Cozy, crowded. Wood-panelled walls with frosted sconces, leather booths, wooden tables and chairs and only enough lighting for its patrons, mostly expats, to drink by. A proper pub. A haven for people like him; a small slice of home. Accents from across the UK pepper the air.

Tighten focus on the bar. John occupies his bar stool like a crow, hunched around the foam dregs of a miraculously well-poured Guinness. His eyes are upturned. Over the sharp-cut shoulder of his coat we can see the object of his attention: the television mounted in the corner, the sole screen not showing replays from the just-finished EPL season.

Liverpool fourth in the league, Chelsea on top. Still tea-bagging Arsenal and Man U, though, so ha bloody ha, lads. That's not what has my interest, though.

The sound is off but the closed captioning is on. Blocky grey letters on black bars give him insight into the meaning of the movements of the news anchor's mouth. The photo that occupies the upper right-hand corner of the screen is of the face of a man he knows.

Christ, they could have picked a better photo of him.

—-

"—speculation that there may have been significantly more crimes committed than have ever been reported. The United States government has sought Russia's full cooperation in disclosing the clandestine activities of the Winter Soldier, and Russia has pledged to give that cooperation in full, but relations between Russia and the US remain strained. The sensitive nature of these allegations has created a volatile situation in international politics, putting several major world governments on edge. Countries and organizations with grievances against the accused are exercising great care in negotiating the thorny diplomatic issues surrounding what promises to be a landmark trial. US Attorney for the Prosecution David Archer, however, is not mincing words."

Cutaway from the anchor to a handsome, well-dressed man descending a set of concrete stairs outdoors, swarmed by a crowd of reporters that bristles with microphones. The nameplate at the bottom of the screen reads: US ATTORNEY DAVID ARCHER, PROSECUTION. He has a deep voice.

"The Winter Soldier embarked on an unparalleled seven decade reign of terror, leaving massacres in his wake. It is my solemn duty to seek justice on behalf of these victims and the American people whom James Barnes betrayed." The camera cuts away as he's ushered into a waiting car on the street.

This prick threatened to go after the birds if Barnes set foot outside of house arrest. I can't decide if that smacks of arseholery or overcompensatory aggression borne of anxiety. Crosses a line, though. No need for that. I told Barnes he'd be sorry if he tried, and all Barnes could say was that it probably wouldn't help his case. It wouldn't, either, if anybody ever found out about it, but I've got a third of a mason jar of Primordial Darkness and a mean streak a mile wide. He lays a finger on either of them and I'll skull-fuck his entire existence.

The news anchor: "The picture being painted by the defense, on the other hand, could not be more different."

The view shifts to a courtroom and a young, square-jawed attorney. The nameplate at the bottom reads: MATTHEW M. MURDOCK, DEFENSE COUNSEL. "Sergeant Barnes is the longest-held prisoner of war in United States history, and only recently escaped his captors after decades of torture, coercion, bodily mutilation and other horrific abuse. He wishes only to live peacefully in his hometown of Brooklyn and rebuild the life that was taken from him seventy-two years ago.”

Too right, mate. Nice tack, as well — but then it's not just Barnes' life hanging in the balance on this, is it, my wee, green esquire? It dips my bell-end in icewater to think Barnes' case is being held together by a rookie, but I'll give this to rookies: they have more to prove and they're fresh to the fight. Sometimes what you need isn't a general, but a junkyard dog.

Cut back to the anchor. "So who is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, really? Once he was lauded as an American hero; now he faces charges of high treason against the country defended so valiantly by the man who was once his closest friend: Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America. What does not seem to be in question is that Barnes committed at least some of these alleged, heinous acts, but instead whether or not he was himself at the time. Historically the American legal system has taken a dim view of pleas of insanity, and while it remains unclear how the accused and his legal counsel intend to proceed it seems safe to say that they'll be facing an uphill battle in the days to come, not least because of ongoing public outcry."

—-

The camera cuts away after that to pan across an angry crowd, then to several brief snippets of individual interviews with 'average citizens' on the street in multiple countries. There are three men wearing Tottenham jerseys beside him at the bar, and one of them snorts. "Brainwashing. Fack me, gonna use that with the missus next time I'm in late."

Raucous laughter from the other two he's with. "How's a bloke goin' t'be brainwashed enough to kill whole families like, start wars like, and just snap out of it all of a sudden? The mind is no an on-off switch, thank ye kindly. Just, conveniently all better, is he?"

"Tell you why. 'ave you seen his little piece of it in the footage? She's well fit." The voice pitches up into falsetto. 'No murderin' and rapin' anymore, or I'll show you what frigid is, Winter Soldier!'" More laughter.

"Even if he was brainwashed, an' I don't believe that but if, then he's bloody damaged goods. What if he's ridin' the F train of an evenin' and it gets stopped with no air or lights like what happened recent? Has himself some kind of relapse? No thank you, mate. Put'im down, I say."

I can feel it. I've had enough and I'm going to open my idiot mouth. "You think you could never be made to do something you didn't want to do?"

Three pairs of eyes turn to look at me in perfect synchronization, as though they're all just extensions of the same consciousness. In some ways that's true. They are the mob. They are the Everyone, Them, and They recklessly referred to in passing conversation; interchangeable nobodies full of uninformed, passionate opinions that they'll defend with fists and feet. They derive pleasure from the perception of being better than The Accused, a cheap high facilitated by the sacrifice of community on the altar of metropolis. It's easy to hate a man you don't know and will never meet.

The air tightens around us. They're scenting it, sniffing for a fight. I haven't decided yet whether or not I'm going to give them one.

"You making threats, pal?" asks one.

Who you calling pal, friend? Etcetera. But I'm not Casey Affleck and I like my teeth, so I restrain myself. "I'm saying it's complicated. People under hypnosis — "

I don't get the words out before the tension shatters. They laugh, hard, and in that instant they write me off as a lunatic. Which I am, or at the very least have been, but they're still wrong.

"IPNOSIS! Go on mate, have a yank on me other one. An' I suppose you believe in faeries, as well."

He's wrong about that too. I've done a lot of things with faeries, but I try not to believe anything about them unless I have no other choice.

They're already shaking their heads, turning back to one another and away from the loon on the stool next to theirs. I want to prise open their narrow lives with violent revelations. I can think of no greater way to inflict suffering than the burden of uncomfortable knowledge, or the paranoia of realizing the world isn't what it seems.

But I'm trying to be better these days, so I pay and I leave. I even get as far as the sidewalk and a cigarette I'm about to light before I change my mind and go back inside. Last year I wouldn't have made it that far, so my soul is obviously ascendant. The only regret that this better version of myself has is that he won't be around later to see the looks on their faces when the hypnotic suggestions wear off, and they find themselves the proud new owners of Liverpool FC bum tattoos.

—-

The lighter's glow slashes harsh shadows across the contours of his face as he lights his cigarette, the ember a pulsing glow in the dark. Scented smoke stains the puddle of orange light brass-plating the empty sidewalk. The sound of his shoes on concrete marks time as he moves from one island of arc-sodium glare to another.

I haven't stopped thinking about the trial since the arrest.

Not because it's a surprise — it's an ugly world, ennit? And nowhere is it more hideous and depraved than in houses of power. The engines of order are lubricated by blood. Someone always has to take the fall to preserve institutions that would otherwise collapse beneath the weight of hypocrisy, iniquity, inadequacy; an absolute squalor of purpose.

A rant for another time.

No, I'm thinking about it because I'm back on the old Synchronicity highway, being shunted along at light speed toward some unknown destination, and the only way I know is that I've noticed that everything's bending in one direction again. Coincidences, resonances. I'm seeing links everywhere I look. It gives me the creeping horrors.

(And because Barnes is an alright fellow, sure, that's another reason, but there's no way we're going to let him die.

This is the thought that makes it possible to accept the ongoing circus. That it's temporary.)

—-

So: connections.

I've spent most of my life ducking those, and suddenly they're all I see. The way we get tied to things so tightly that we don't know who we are without them, even if we don't bloody want them in the first place. Maybe especially then.

Shoes dangle from an overhead power line. That used to mean a bad block, but these shoes look old enough to have seen the horrors of gentrification firsthand. Tied together and slung over the live wire they droop, robbed of purpose. He watches them as he passes underneath.

In the case of Barnes it's not just one tie but many. He's tied to the Winter Soldier in some way we don't yet understand, though Foster's probably six days awake working on that very problem. But even if she can sever that tie, he can't be free of the Winter Soldier's history. It follows him like the train of a funereal gown, stitched together of battlefields, bones, and broken homes. Busy phantoms, all. I know a thing or two about those.

That skin is ill-fitting because it doesn't belong to him, but I don't think he'll ever shed it. He may have been hostage to the man who did those things, but while Barnes may be eager to kill the Winter Soldier, he's connected in other ways to the Winter Soldier's victims — as is proper, I suppose, being one himself. It's for them that he shoulders the yoke and mantle of The Accused. He's giving the public something at which to spit, hoping all the while that a man can be baptised that way and reborn, free of the leaden weight of his guilt — but I know something he doesn't know, or maybe he knows but chooses to hope against the fact of, which is this: the noisy ghosts of a guilty man can't be sated by his suffering. Their hunger is infinite.

'Course, he's a man with principles as well — poor sod — so he does it for the principle of the thing even though it matters about as much as tits on a bull. He'll still see them in his dreams.

—-

He stops on the street corner and vents smoke on a sigh. Cars flash past, neon snakes drooling over their glossy curves and angles. Bass thunders into his core from the tinted windows of a passing Escalade. Flicking the butt into the street, it sparks when it bounces and is quickly lost underneath rolling tires. Across the street a couple is having a very public disagreement, sniping at one another across the span of a sidewalk. Her arms are folded tight and she stalks along in perilous high heels like a furious giraffe, tiny purse bouncing at her hip. The man beside her strolls, endeavoring to seem in control, but he's struggling to keep up. John watches, leaned against the post of the crosswalk signal while he waits for it to change.

Anyway, that's not the point. The point is the nature of connection, of being tied to things. He's not even just bound to the Winter Soldier, or the Winter Soldier's crimes and history. He's bound to his old life, too. Who he was before who he became next, and before what he is now, whatever that is. Seventy years later and there are parts of him that still stretch backward through time, hitched to things that don't exist anymore. Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes is reaching forward across that same distance, tugging on that connection, saying 'hey, if we don't go down for this nobody ever will, and somebody ought to.' Fucking hell. That man has been dead for almost a century and he still wants to call the shots. More than half of who we are is who the world thinks we are, and the world that put flesh on the bones of that man, gave him context, is long gone. But that doesn't matter, either, because it's just as easy to become chained to things that aren't there anymore, or things that never were.

Like dead mothers, for instance.

—-

The light changes. John crosses the street, half-blinded by headlight glare. The sidewalk beyond is lined with bars, many of them with front-facing opened windows. Conversation, music, and ruddy light flood the street. Inside of each one, relationships form and break apart on subtle signals — the touch of feminine fingers on a forearm, the indiscretion of a wandering eye.

We like to think of ourselves as islands. Tidy little tyrannies we rule with an iron fist. We look at our social lives like transactions, importing and exporting as we see fit. Trade agreements, taxes on the people who piss us off. The weather may change, people come and go and some of them leave a mess behind — psychic pollution — but we still view our rule as absolute.

That's rubbish, though, ennit? Connections infest things. You get one and it multiplies itself endlessly. The world puts it on you, and all you can do is try to balance that cargo as ballast so that you don't go belly-up and sink.

Staying on the subject of Barnes to illustrate: the Winter Soldier was, is, still in there. So now he has another tie: a tie to me, or me to him if you prefer, in the form of a magical leash. A muzzle to make sure that he doesn't bite the people he's not supposed to. It's really just trading one thing for another — the Winter Soldier for me. It shouldn't be that way, we think to ourselves. He ought to be sovereign over his own life, right, in theory. Since he can't be, he chose. Eagerly enough it'd break my bloody heart if I were a better man.

You know you're ambitiously deep in the shit when I'm the lesser of two evils.

—-

Heavy guitar fuzz blares from the inside of a dive bar, spewed through the propped-open door. Modern punk. John stops, head tilted, to listen. Through the door, shadows crash against one another in imitation of the mosh pits of yesteryear.

Flat as week-old fizzy drink. Punk's got no teeth anymore.

He lingers, listening to indecipherable lyrics, a growled scream of unintelligible sound layered over notes that have lost all discernible placement on a scale. Taps another cigarette unhurriedly out of the pack under the watchful gaze of the bouncer at the door.

Barnes might be an extreme case, but it's more common than you'd think — giving up control to someone or something else because there's a hole in you where your agency used to be. Drugs, food, military service, religion. Ritchie with his bloody pills, Jones and her drink. Foster and her work; me, and mine. And the booze, yeah, alright. And the birds. …Feels like I'm missing one.

The lighter glints knife-silver in the dark. He lights the cigarette and snaps the lighter closed, spends a moment running the pad of his thumb over the delicate lines engraved into the surface and the cold iron set into the front.

That kind of thing keeps me in dosh. Know how many exorcisms I've done for people who got perforated by life, mended badly, then invited something in to fill the space left behind? Look at Azalea and Xiuhnel. Bad enough, right? But now Azalea's bound not just to Xiuhnel but also Itzpapalotl, because those two've got history. Multiplying connections, like I said. You can't call it a love triangle without taking the piss, but the existence of each hinges on the existence of the others. Is that Fate? Somebody upstairs havin' a giggle?

Az is fused at the soul to something dangerous, and that thing is bound up with something more dangerous still — something territorial. There's no pretty solution to that mess.

The faintest blue-silver glow trails along the engravings after his touch on the lighter's surface. Magic embedded there, though not his own. Expression inscrutable, he stares at it.

Not unlike me and the Zataras.

The corners of his mouth turn down.

…Shit. Exactly like that.

—-

Sky blue eyes cast down, off on an angle. He drops the lighter into his pocket and walks on, leaving the incomprehensible sonic fist of a punk performance to dwindle behind him. People pass him and hardly see him at all. The shadows swallow him save for the cherry of his clove.

'tanna's no Xiuhnel, but that doesn't make her less dangerous for me.

I can bloody feel her.

A different scene than the street on which he's walking, laid atop it like double-exposed film: Zatanna in the library at Shadowcrest and buried in ward theory, surrounded by the books they've pulled to help them design an ambitious, tri-cities-spanning magical shelter against the possible petulance of a spited Aztec goddess. The determined, focused set of her expression, the way her nearly colorless eyes track again and again toward the vicious blemish of stolen Hydra technology she shares the room with. A scorpion of a chair. The cradle and womb of the Winter Soldier.

And she's craving tacos.

When isn't she, right? But I shouldn't know that. Any of it. I shouldn't be as fine as I am with knowing she could do the same anytime she wanted — peek in at me. I've spent my whole life trying to keep people out. I've got good reasons for that.

I could sever the link. Gi told me to. I think about doing it every day — not because he told me to, and fuck him while we're on the subject — but because I know it's only going to bring tears and tragedy in the end. None of my reasons for keeping it are right.

The distant rhythms of her life drown out most of that ghostly chorus. What she likes to call my 'gallery of regrets.' It spares me the constant accusations of treachery I more than deserve. And, if I'm honest — Christ, this would piss her off — for as long as it exists I know I can keep an eye on her. It gives me, if not the genuine article, then at least the convincing illusion of control. She may think I managed to take her soul-siphoning near-death experience in remarkable stride but she'll never know how close I came to cutting and running. If I'd thought I could have lived with myself for leaving her while she was dying —

But I didn't leave. Good job, eh? And now even if I did, I couldn't get away. Not unless I cut that cord.

—-

There's a park around the next bend. The wrought-iron fence that divides the park from the sidewalk is dressed in a thick sweater of ivy. Wind stirs the leaves and they create a lather of moonlight with their nodding.

It nearly broke us in Berlin. Fuck — it nearly broke me. There's such a thing as being too connected to someone.

Just ask Jessica Jones. Someone gets inside of you, they can make you do things you wouldn't otherwise. Then when it's over and you break free, you can't stomach letting anyone in close again. You crush every tender shoot that springs from every seed of something new before it can vine itself through your life and strangle that life out of you. The wasteland of you is starved for a remembered Eden, but the only way to stay safe is to salt the razed earth. Take no chances.

I know that would have been the smart thing, but I'm John Constantine.

I do stupid in spades.

Funny thing about vines. Ivies can pull a brick facade to pieces but you'd never know to look at them, delicate as they are. We let it happen because it's lovely to look at and goes a long way toward concealing the flaws beneath, and that very weakness is what dooms the thing they climb. Get them when they're young and you can peel them off of anything easy as you please, but the longer you leave them the more little tendrils they send out, thin as threads, and those tendrils find even the smallest fissures and invade. They find their way in, gentle as a whisper, and before you know it you can't pull the thing free without it tearing the thing beneath to pieces, taking chunks of whatever it's clinging to with it.

See also: Newcastle. But I'm not a bloody building, am I? No bricks to take. Just my sanity, and whatever humanity I had left connected to the mates I put in the ground. When I sent Astra to hell she took my keys to heaven with her. Those gates will never unlock for me.

People insinuate themselves. You wind up connected to them and then when it all goes wrong they take a piece of you with them when they go. Eventually there's not much left to give, so you learn to keep a reservoir of pre-emptive loss in you and mourn them while they're still there. For most of my life I've spent the first few moments of consciousness each morning imagining that everyone I know is dead. I mean really imagining it; convincing myself it's true. If I can do that, I thought, maybe I can hang onto whatever bits of me are left. God knows why I'd want to, but self-preservation is a bastard of a habit to kick.

—-

Ahead is the familiar outline of the door that will open at John's bidding onto the underground Brooklyn flat. A cone of light curtains it, angled downward from the fixture above. The low wall beside it is bare, but his mind's eye conjures up the ghost of himself sitting there on New Year's Eve, trying to work up the nerve to reconcile with Zee. To put back together a thing they were only just beginning to suspect the shape of.

Last week I realized that I haven't been doing that lately, and the worrisome bit is: I can't remember when I stopped. Distracted by the beauty of the ivies, forgetting to think about what they are and what they do. I never meant to let any of them get this close.

I fucked up. Narcissism at its best. I saw parts of me in all of them. In the damage and shame of Barnes and Jones and that bloody-minded yearning for redemption. Foster's need to pierce the mysteries of the universe, even knowing it could cost her everything and probably will. 'tanna…

I don't see myself in Zee. She doesn't remind me of myself.

Zee makes me forget.

—-

"I can see it coming. The day Giovanni gets tired of us dancing around his goddamn hex, or you get tired of having to dance around it. The day something happens. And on that day I'm going to look back at all of this and see how I set myself up for it, because I know better. I don't get to have this."

Believe it or not I meant every word, but here I am anyway, caught dead center in the web. I've always been bad at following directions, and it doesn't matter if they come from me. The mortal and celestial spheres are hanging by floss, I've been put under contract by a great, winged wanker to fix that — no suggestions as to how from the Holy Host, fuckin' of course — and the last thing, the very last thing I need is to be distracted, caught up in other people's lives, because when the stakes get this high I know the score. I know what happens. People around me start to die.

Giovanni's the perfect example of how wrong it can go. I never used to see myself in Gi. 'Being magicians' wasn't enough for that, loads of prats are magicians, and we were nothing alike. Lately though, I'm starting to suspect that I'm seeing myself in him after all — a me from a future that hasn't happened yet. Bound with astral thread to a woman that not even vast power could save in the end. Wracked with grief over that loss, grown cold and hard, hunted across worlds in spite of a lifetime of standing vanguard against one cosmic mess after another.

Wearing a cape and top-hat, if the timeline gets well and truly dark.

—-

Interior of the flat. Lights off, empty. Shadows sit cool and thick on every surface, the feel cavernous and vast. Chas still in London, Zatanna at Shadowcrest, still hard at work. All is silent.

"Here's what I'm good at, love: seeing when a storm's coming. And you know what? It never helps. I can stand on the highest bloody hill and scream til it's only blood coming out and nobody believes me until it's too late, and by then they're all fucking dead and I get to spend every night trying to sleep while they stand 'round the bed and ask why I couldn't save them. Didn't I care?"

The storm is coming. The old wounds ache and it's getting harder to ignore the muttering phantoms. This has always been my cue to leave, but I'm so deep in it now that I can't see the way out.

Barnes under arrest, on trial for treason. Barnes fighting through the lead blanket of the Winter Soldier as he stole Zee's soul, telling John he was the first friend he'd made in seventy years. Barnes grinning, pushing a bottle of Asgardian liquor at him. Barnes drowning in a century of guilt. Barnes with the secret to ending Giovanni Zatara's life, pacing like a caged animal in Brandenburg when his quarry escaped.

Jane Foster shock-eyed and raw in a Hydra facility. Jane Foster, slaving away to find an answer to James Barnes' Winter Soldier problem even though there's every chance he could be put to death. Jane, turning circles with her arms out in the thick dust of a warehouse, overflowing with unguarded joy after passing through a solid brick wall. Jane yanking her car across three lanes of traffic to jam on the brakes and lay into him about something he said. Jane with cupcakes. Jane handing her entire life over to Papa Midnite.

Jessica Jones face-down in her office, paint sloshed on every surface, furniture broken, on the ugly end of a black-out drunk. Jones trapped in Muller's sadistic labyrinth of personalized cruelty. Cooking eggs for him in Berlin after his return to the penthouse, trying to discern the depth of his injuries and fix them if she's able. Half-shattered in a church graveyard. Blaming herself for everything. Taking in strays.

Azalea, Xiuhnel, and Itzpapalotl. The Cult. The Primordial Darkness and the Brujeria. Giovanni's curse, keeping him from going up to bat for Team Fuck The Apocalypse — and if he solves that problem, rotates back to the world, the problem he'll become for John. Slighted father, disrespected tutor, infuriated magical titan.

And Zee.

Zee and Mammon, Zee and the Cult, Zee and Berlin and all of the things they broke and could not put back together, by choosing to push back against these ties: his work, her father. Zee bleeding and wracked with sobs on his floor after a dip into the pool of his memories; singing into the end of her hairbrush in her bedroom, unaware of any audience. Zee drugged and assaulted by Bruce Wayne; Zee telling him she's forgiven Bruce Wayne. Zee destroying a legion of demons in Hell to pull him back from the brink; urgent atop a shattered building with a lurid sky overhead, getting into his head and undoing him from the inside out. Zee wasting away without a soul; vibrant with life and wicked purpose on her birthday; floating in a maelstrom of wild energy the one time he ever saw her come close to losing control, back at the very dawn of their acquaintance.

Zee and everything about her, and about everything she does to him.

So many complications. So many ways for everything to go wrong.

If I were stronger I would already be gone.

—-

His footsteps knock hollow in the space as he traverses the length of the flat, navigating via moonlight bleeding in through a window that looks out onto a place far from Brooklyn. He sheds his coat and leaves it on the arm of the couch, then slowly ascends the stairs that lead up to his loft, one hand on the railing.

Fate's fingers are all over this. I don't believe in coincidences. We're all being held up like mirrors and stripped down, set at odd angles to one another — and why? What in the bloody hell am I supposed to see?

At the top of the stairs he looks back. View: the flat, empty, silent as a tomb. Devoid of life and light, details lost in swaths of grey. Safe…and sterile. A place over which he has absolute dominion — as long as he's in it alone. The only sounds are that of his heartbeat and the faint rustle of cloth when he breathes. He stares, frowning, brows knit, wearing the helpless, worried expression of a man sensing a lesson he's supposed to learn and finding himself incapable of recognizing it.

He turns his back to it abruptly, and closes the double doors to his room.

Bollocks to it.

I wonder how those tattoos turned out.

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