Power to Resist

October 22, 2017:

With Wakanda behind them, John Constantine deals with Jane Foster's blood magic problem.

Brooklyn, NYC - Constantine's Flat

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bucky Barnes, Zatanna Zatara

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

There hadn't been any kind of confrontation during the party, though it had likely been obvious that John was aware of something out of the ordinary, as far as Jane Foster is concerned. The Englishman had in fact been a model guest, bringing gifts, having a few light conversations, enjoying a reasonable, moderate amount of food and drink, and then making himself scarce long before the last remaining guests were ushered out of the apartment so that the resident couple might get some well-earned rest. The only dodgy behavior that might conceivably have been held against him is practically vintage, imbued in the ward that foisted questionable temporary garments on a surprisingly scant number of their guests that night.

He'd kept his distance from Jane for the most part, but even that could have been construed as an act of compassion, given how exhausted and unsettled she'd seemed, and on the one occasion he brushed past her he'd leaned in, lightly grasped her arm, and told her it was good to have her back. 'Enjoy the party,' he'd said, with a small smile, and then slid on his way, probably to trade barbs with Stark.

For a few days afterward there had been a lack of contact that could be read in any number of ways, attributed to any number of motives, but in the end the message does arrive, as it inevitably must.

'you should swing by the flat' is what the text says, as though it's a suggestion. But there's a time and a location for the door appended to that message, as usual necessary for any individual to gain access, and it's only one time, one location. No 'does this time work for you' to follow, and no alternate options to consider, the lack of both giving his 'suggestion' an undeniable air of expectation.

**

Rather than playing the dutiful hostess, Jane haunted the party more as a ghost.

While the party was a success, and she partook in some conversation, and even a couple laughs, the woman was a picture of exhaustion: while finally rested in body, the mind and the soul need far more time to recover, and months of worry followed by weeks of nonstop, constant life-and-death urgency took it out of her.

For her part, it was nice just to sit a little while, re-attune herself to the slow rotation of an unencumbered world, and listen to a few friends talk about meaningless nothings.

She avoided John in return, not deliberately, but sensed enough off him not to approach the man at all during the night. When he did finally approach her, Jane tensed a little with surprise, and looked those big, guileless brown eyes up at the magician's well-wishes. He would feel her staring after his turned back, her busy mind forced to overanalyze so much spoken in so little.

And Jane Foster's worthy genius has a blind spot when it comes to the human condition. John Constantine's condition, Christ almighty, she doesn't know where to begin.

The next few days she spends re-acclimating to life as it is, as it should be, and bears herself down on work. Her life is a deluge of projects. A new arm for James as she so promised, because it's twisting her heart every time to see him move and adjust as an amputee for the first time in his long life. A suit for Murdock, before he gets himself killed. The conditioning out of James's head. Coulson wants to talk to her about something related to SHIELD, an inter-dimensional anomaly —

And now a text. Jane stares down at it.

Some months ago, she'd simply ignore it. It's tempting even now: she's compiling a test algorithm for the platemovement in Armingjames_v2, and while she's not technically busy, she's considering expediting it along with some application of magic. For as much as she worships at the altar of science, it's beginning to rankle her just how god damned slow it is.

Staring back at her phone turns Jane's mind. She really has no excuse now. She'd avoided the world, her friends too, for so long — for reasons, and all of them stepped up for James. She's in debt.

For that reason, she shoulders on a coat against the approaching fall chill, leaves a note for James, and heads out per John Constantine's expectedly vague instructions. She makes her way in not unlike the first visit she made to him, months and months ago, when their roles were switched: and he was a too-skinny, forced-to-bed thing. Now Jane, despite her recent opportunity for rest and food and peace, is still painfully thin and black under the eyes, and still smelling of magic. "It's Jane. I'm here," she calls.

**

The reversal is virtually complete: she much-diminished and John restored, and not just by weight and volume. Events beyond the scope of his limited circle of regular acquaintences have kept him so busy that he could not even play a critical role in this latest of crises to befall James Barnes, but what he's lost in sleep and control over his own priorities he's more than gained in energy and edges: the bottomless well of intense focus that drives him, and the cutting angles and sharp corners of his character that let him keep some inner distance from the things that need doing.

When she steps into the flat she arrives to find him very much in motion, emanating momentum. Button-down shirt untucked, sleeves rolled up, he's climbing the stairs that lead up to the lofted 'office' that fronts his private room, footsteps ringing metal and hollow in the space. Two at a time on the way up, one hand gliding over the railing, and he doesn't turn around: "I know. Have a seat, Foster, I'll be down in a mo."

Said 'office' is really only the open space before the wall and doors to his room and it's occluded only by the desks arrayed against cabled industrial railings, so he's visible all the while that he's up there. He rifles through shelves, tosses piles of documents aside with percussive thuds that cascade into whispers as sheafs of paper tilt into spreading pools. Things flake and creak with age. He mutters twice, failing to find whatever he's looking for, and after that a seam erupts in the wall to gape, through which aperture is visible a slice of some other place: another flat, a wall of massive windows showing stars and the slim, waning crescent of the moon.

He's back through in short order with a book under one arm of the kind most people expect mages to have — blackened cover, lock bridging gilded page edges, a general air of disreputable knowledge — and he trundles down the stairs as the gap in reality snaps closed behind him, looking for wherever she's decided to situate herself.

**

There are certain things one becomes quickly used to when in the company of John Constantine: don't expect exotic and impossible things like 'hello' or 'hello, Jane', or 'wonderful weather today.'

Or even such things as an immediate and reasonable answer why she's even been called from her work and expected prompt attendance at a specific place and time.

Shouldering off her coat, she steps into the path of Hurricane John, looking on with quiet bemusement and some curiousity as the man moves this way and that with energy she used to have — and it must be some Freudian projecting going on, because is it this annoying to watch when she does it? She doesn't say anything, either way, merely sideeyeing that the world's first perpetual motion machine is somehow a British export.

Coat hung over the crook of her right arm, she moves the other hand through her dark hair, pinning some behind her ear, her eyebrows furrowing as her eyes scan the distant shapes of things weighing his shelves.

Then Jane exhales, and decides to help herself to the first chair she can find — main room, kitchen, wherever, she'll take it. "I don't exactly have time to spare, John," she calls up at him, and her voice sounds more irritated to her than she planned it. She rolls with it. She's not going to snap to attention at his convenience, and then wait on him. Debt or not, her famous impatience has a fingertip-long threshold. "I'm months of backlog."

The grouse, however, isn't deep, mainly because she's all eyes on his effortless use of magic — when has she started to feel envious — and the book carried along.

**

"It's funny, you'd think I'd be the one saying that," drawls the Brit as he closes in on the sitting area. It occupies the middle of the flat, and tends to be where aimless visitors collect — at least, unless Chas is in the kitchen, at which point the gravity of his presence tilts the balance. He's not here, though. The flat, aside from the two of them, is otherwise silent.

"Because I'm trying to keep this apocalypse from happening. But I suppose if I can't do that, then, yeah. None of us have time to spare." He punctuates this dry remark by tossing the tome in the crook of his arm down onto his coffee table carelessly, with a rattle of everything else on said tabletop. Vague fumes of dust spew out from between its pages in a haze, but he has eyes only for Jane, arms crossed over a lean chest, stark blue eyes flicked over her. "

"Well?"

It's probable he could've let things rest there, and for a moment he seems as though he might, looking at her with the sort of walled-off expectation that communicated itself so clearly in his minimalist text. Some seconds into the silence, though, he amends: "Where is it? What is it? It's already giving me a headache. You ought to be glad I didn't have you plant your narrow arse in the cell to keep the funk of whatever stupid thing you did out of the rest of the flat."

**

"If the entire world stopped for every apocalypse," Jane argues dryly, "then nothing would get done. I assume there's been more than a few of those."

Mood on the way to being rankled, the woman sits a bit more tightly in her chair, unconsciously knotting up as John draws in close. The after-effect of the party is still palpable on her: he makes her apprehensive, pressed down on with the vague sense she's misbehaved. And she hasn't.

Her shoulders jerk up when the tome drops thunderously, and aggravation breaks out all over Jane's face. "Can you at least spill?" she broaches. "You're the one who called me over here to somehow be wasting your time —"

'Well?'

It stops Jane short, her dark eyes up on John. Something plays over her face like she wants to feign obliviousness, but she's a shit liar — helped by the way her right hand alights reflexively over the crook of her left arm. But there's still a certain Alamo refusal in silence, which she holds as strong as she can — until he offers more. Even proposes her a visit to the John Jail to air out the place.

She's clever enough to get it, and respects him too much to pretend he doesn't. Though Jane lowers her eyes, jaw tensing quietly, trying to decide where she draws the line to take offence. Everything abut this world is still so new to her.

"It wasn't stupid," she answers quietly. "I had to do some things for James. Things that /worked/. My proofs," she won't call them spells, "helped everyone."

**

Both of John's brows shoot up toward his hairline, and he pushes his head forward, down, the pair of things together neatly encapsulating 'come again?' "It bloody well was stupid, and you'd know that if you knew your arse from your elbows, magically speaking. You don't." His face bends around the weight of his distaste. "But alright, Foster. Since you're going to piss about like a tween caught with a used rubber in her bedside bin, we can do this another way. Can't say I didn't give you the opportunity to explain, can you?" Sky-blue eyes flick down at the massive book waiting atop the coffee table and rest there long enough for him to make some sort of decision, after which he turns. Not to go anywhere, but to wander while he speaks, occasionally unfolding his arms to gesture, his glances at her sparing — as though this is a monologue properly directed at himself. Given the lack of music or other noise, his footsteps in the silence are crisp and clear, marking out his unhurried back-and-forth.

"Tell you the truth I'm not settled in my mind as to what to do about it. Because you're proving me right and I — this will come as a shock, I know — hate it when that happens. It happens all the time, but I could stand for a change of pace. I knew, way back on that very first day when an excitable J. Crew-Whole Foods dwarf followed me through a brick wall in Brooklyn, that I should kick it right back out the way it bloody came in. Rule number one, innit? Don't feed strays. They hang about. Pretty soon they're not satisfied with the kibble they're getting; pretty soon, in fact, they're knocking over bins or getting into your cupboards, thinking they own the place, and then on the day they mistake a box of rat poison for scoobie snacks suddenly you're responsible for that, because you're the sorry sod who let them in in the first place. So as much as you don't like to do it, eventually you've got to put your foot down, and lock them out. For their own good. For everybody's, in this case, because you have absolutely no idea what you're doing. What you may have done."

Blue eyes angle toward her out of their corners as he pauses, elbow braced, fingertips lifted to slide absently over a chin that was clean-shaven sometime early this morning, already rough again now. "Whatever I decide — because it's entirely possible to lock you out, Foster — by the time you leave you'll have a much better idea of the possible consequences. And we'll have stripped whatever the bloody hell that is out of you, because it's wrong."

**

A bright flush, shocked and outraged and furious, brings a sudden splash of colour to Jane's bone-white skin. Nothing like some anger to help the mild anemia.

"John —" she says, and her voice wavers, like it's unsure whether to beseech him or warn him, but the point is moot — there's little in the discovered universe that can stop John Constantine's tirade.

As she's endured everything the last few months, she endures this too, sitting through all of those /words/ with an open-mouthed, slapped expression, her lips moving every so often like she wants to interject, wants to interrupt, wants to get a hundred words in edgewise, but the more he speaks, the more her argument must change, and in the end, she's struck breathless by her own anger.

He speaks in so many absolutes that she can barely wrap her mind around it: why must the world be do or do not? Be or be not? What she's done as if she's lain an expiration date on reality itself? Things that seem so superfluous because they were not things she was thinking, ever, at all, because it was only James — it was only the matter of bringing him back.

But those sharp words thin and thin and end in the needlepoint of a consequence, and Jane's insides twist with a sick rush of anxiety. He'd lock her out?

"This isn't fair!" Jane finds enough breath to stammer, that rush of fear fragmenting her anger. She paws a hand through her dark hair. "You don't — all right! It was stupid! I was telling myself that the entire time, and I knew it — I know it, I know these things! But — "

Her eyes try to catch his, and the reason is there why Jane keeps faltering on anger. Desperation, urgency, and all of Wakanda still in her eyes, a woman who hasn't yet let it all go. "You'd do stupid shit too! If you were in my position, tell me you wouldn't do that too!"

**

It would probably make most people feel terrible to see her look that way. After the privations she's endured over the last year, most of which he only understands the nature of because he chose to attend the trial on the day of her testimony — a choice he regretted in the moment, the contents too intimate, somehow unseemly to witness — and the rest he can only guess at. Wakanda had not been kind to anyone, so far as he's able to gather.

John isn't most people. Insofar as her ire matters at all to him, it's refreshing to see her looking anything but waxen. The rest he could not care less about, to look at him. Not, at least, about this one thing; this one thing that he is, and does.

Flushed and exasperated, fingers in her hair, her concessions come in a flurry, but it breaks against the seawall of the way he's looking at her with no effect. It's not until her indignant accusation that the look on his face changes, his lips twisting around a valiant effort not to laugh — one that he gives into, in the end. It's genuine, leaving him standing with hands braced at hips and his head lowered, so it would be easy to miss everything else there, underneath the laughter. The few people who know him well enough to understand how dangerously misleading that laughter is aren't here — probably by design.

"So I'm your standard for behavior now, am I? That is grim. Yeah, Foster. I do stupid shite all the time. But you're not me, are you? And that matters for more reasons than you know. Any road, that fact's the only reason we're having this conversation, false equivalency or not. Otherwise I'd have just put the padlock on you and been done with it. And I should," he adds, lifting his head, one brow cocked. "The fact that I'm not, even now, is — christ. Giving all of the aforementioned stupid things I've done a real run for the bloody money. And that's saying something."

He gives himself two beats of silence, then shifts to prop himself half-seated on the back of the overstuffed chair opposite her, weight settled into one leg, hands loosely clasped in front of him. "You called everybody you know lately, Foster? Checked in on the people you care about, have you? Nobody's come down with anything terminal? Family pet not gotten run over by a truck?"

Whatever his reason for this apparently unrelated line of inquiry, he isn't sharing it yet.

**

Even as John's face is a brick wall, Jane's eyes still relentlessly search. It's what she does, who she is: the person who stares into the undiscovered black void and looks within it for a single point of light. A single mote of concession, or understanding.

Though whatever there could be to find — Jane busily twitches back a half-inch when John laughs, surprised and taken aback. Her lips press together; she's not sure how to take it, not sure what to feel, and the safest of all is simply to let her anger back. Lose her temper and let the rest sort out.

But she's already so angry at so many things, a constant burn surpassing even the capacity of her tiny heart: at her own country, at Wakanda, at a world of people incapable of conceding, compromising, listening, or existing in any way beyond their immovable absolutes. So much anger that her little body cannot fuel, and for this Jane deflates, not so much in surrender as someone taxed so hard she has no more fights left to give. At least not now.

Her hand rubs through her hair, and in the face of John's laughter, she looks down at her lap: a fear hits her, right now, that this may be no different with that single talk she had with T'Challa. Trying and failing to convince a man whose mind was long already made.

But as he continues — says that he should — Jane's weary eyes lift back up, cautious but immediately hopeful for that unsaid. Should, but may not. Should, but for now is not. Angry as she is, even she knows John holds all the cards here: it may be only on her to convince him.

"I don't have to be magician to know that stupid things get results," is what she says in the end, of his behaviour, of hers. It doesn't condone, but states brisk fact. Jane's voice is a sea of weariness. "They were going to kill James. I needed results. I wasn't thinking much more past that. Wasn't thinking of anything, really."

As John resituates himself, Jane smears a little absently at her face: her eyes are starflare-bright, but she's rigid in keeping some vice over her raw-nerve emotions. She's not going to survive Wakanda to cry in front of John goddamned Constantine.

His next question pulls her from whatever circling thought of her morose mind, and confusion fills every pocket of her expressive face. "I —" she stammers, because she's certain from the start she's being tested in some way, but unsure of what. "No… nothing — did something happen?"

**

The words 'I don't have to be a magician to know that stupid things get results' have an astounding impact on John. His eyes roll heavenward, both of his hands lifting to cover his face and then drag downward with pressure, distorting his expression — though not enough to obliterate the long-suffering and exasperation as his rolled-back eyes close. There's an undercurrent of tension about the whole display; it's theatrical enough to be amusing, but underneath is still a steel-cable knot of something hard and brimming with restless displeasure. Held in restraint — for now — but eager for an outlet.

There's a hairline fracture in his facade of what has been, until this point, a dry but unusually mellow confrontation for the likes of John Constantine. "Well quite so! Did something happen? Or has something already happened?" She suspects this is a test, and the way he's looking at her does nothing to disabuse her of that suspicion: teachers look at students that way all the time just before issuing disciplinary judgements. "You know, we talked about magic having a price, and you obviously think you've got that figured out. Somewhere in that brilliant little mind of yours, the girl who thinks magic is science goes, 'Yeah, of course, that makes sense. You can't get something for nothing.' You hear about different kinds of magic, ley lines and items that can fuel spells, and in your head you think, this is just like balancing an equation! Spell has a cost, I pay it with…" Eyes like knives carve across the expanse of her person, as though he could prise out of her sheerly through looking just what it is about her recent activities that has his teeth on edge. "…whatever. Knowing you, probably some part of yourself. Thinking, 'well it's my sacrifice to make, innit?' Very bloody noble." The last three words are not praise. They're spoken the way a person will hold something foul out at arms' length from themselves, delicately but with clear distaste.

"That's not the price we talk about when we talk about magic having a high cost. Sometimes working the art is expensivee all on its own, sure. Some workings are bloody awful, for what they'll take from you. But the real cost of magic isn't one you get to decide how to pay. Every time you use magic you are fucking with the order of things. Dropping reality's trousers. You're telling reality a lie. The bigger the lie, the harder it is to sell, as you might expect. The more lies you tell, the more difficult it is to keep track of them all. And eventually? You get caught. Reality doesn't like being pissed-about with, and it will settle your balance as it sees fit."

**

Confined to it all inside a room, at a table, and rooted to the spot, there is no escape from Jane from John Constantine's displeasure. It's everywhere, like a heavy ceiling pressing down on her shoulders, especially as every moment damningly feels like she's back in that chair in the court house — on the stand, all eyes on her, with the next words to come out of her mouth something that can be turned on her.

Jane flusters visibly, not afraid, but anxious — uneasy. Her mood, still chafingly on edge from Wakanda, and worsened only by the itch for magic in her blood, makes her all the more ragged and uneven, a couple good shocks short of twitchy.

She still has no idea what he's even /asking/ her. "I don't even know — other than James getting put on /trial/, you mean? And the entire world that definitely knows my name for one reason only, and it sure as hell isn't going to be my work? Or screwhead kings from Wakanda?" Heat comes to her cheeks, patience stripping down like burned-off layers of paint. "And now everyone needs five things out of me, and I don't know how to /do/ it all at once? Or I can't even /go/ —"

Jane stops her words before they worsen, go into the territory of things she'd never say. Drawing up her shoulders guardedly, she rubs both hands over her face, her eyes, her fingers pawing up into her hair.

John hits a bullseye on the source of Jane's particular "sacrifice." It's such a correct, pinpoint hit that she flinches from it, gaze shot up on him, the truth palpable in her hurt, offended eyes. "I wasn't trying to be noble," she snaps back. "I was trying to get James back."

And then that warning is back into play: one he's definitely told her before, and one Jane definitely remembers. It haunted her every time she fed that wire up into her vein. Not even she can deny it to either him or herself. "But — bear with me. I wasn't creating natural impossibilities. It was me — powering my proofs. It's not rabbits out of hats, it's tested mathematical and quantum theory. It's not some lie. It's — truth."

**

At least no one can say that John doesn't listen. He does. He listens well, to things that are said and things between the lines, and things deliberately obscured. He'd be dead by now if he weren't able to manage that much. While she answers him he's silent, and initially it's a silence that seems pliant, not wholly intractable — possibly because of the condition she's in, or possibly because he's already admitted that he's prone to doing rash things.

All of that goes out of the window the moment she insists on pressing her theory. Something in John drops closed like a steel bulkhead door and the quality of his gaze alters in a way that would be difficult to put a name to — like something's gone out of them, something sensitive and engaged with the moment on a level beyond the practical or logical. Distant at best. Flat, and clinical. But what's worse is what the vault door conceals: there is a bottomless pit of displeasure beyond. It's worse because the flat is a lozenge sandwiched between two nexus-points of leylines, above and below, and because John is tied to the flat and the flat is tied to John, and it reacts to that wrath by plunging the whole space into an atmosphere of tension so thick it wants to congeal. It's a thing Jane wouldn't usually be able to sense, but the residual magic in her body is going to give her the rare opportunity to be assaulted by the leviathan forces of John's tested patience and the hammer of his willpower, even restrained.

Zee has to stomach this every time they fight.

He lifts a hand, beckons with two fingers. Like most of his gestures, it's neat, precise in an almost calculated way. "Come here and give me your hands."

**

Jane doesn't miss it. She doesn't miss a single quality of it, from the physical she can witness with her eyes to the ephemeral sting she can feel through the unnatural in her blood.

She's fucked up. Trying to be a scientist to a magician — and trying to explain something she believes /so true to her/ to someone who believes something wholly else. John's sea change dries her throat, and at first she wants to mitigate what she said, wants to /explain herself further/, it even know, through that sinking hopelessness, it's too little, too late. Her throat glues together, and any words she wishes cannot form.

His presence braids into all around her — for this time, John's discpleasure /is/ Jane Foster's entire, encompassing world, and she cannot hold a poker face in her best of days. Here?

He makes no request: a simple direction, hooked on the crooking of two fingers. Jane stares at it all, at him, confused as ever, but aware enough that a pair of tears run her cheeks.

She looks down, jaw momentarily tensed tight. James gave John his hands once, in some sort of spell; she remembers the story at the time, was perplexed, was amused. Now, it only chills her.

"I'm not going to fight you," she says thinly, but does not yet rise to John's order. "But can you at least tell me what you're going to do? I can't take someone else putting something in me and not knowing."

**

Almost a year ago, the two of them stood in a dusty warehouse, arguing.

"So fine. But we do it MY way, and the minute I catch you up to something you shouldn't be—" He lifted his head. His neck popped. Ghosts had been dancing in his head. "Just don't, alright? I'm a nasty piece of work. Ask anyone."

And Jane? Effusive at having convinced him, had laughed.

"How bad could you possibly be?"

Now she's sitting on his sofa, looking at a man who seems all of a sudden nothing at all like the man she's gotten to know, just a little bit, in thin fits and starts. She's seen him sacrifice to put a stop to the dark machinations of the secretive organization that spirited her away through James Barnes. She's seen those sharp blue eyes soften, even just a little, at the touch of a young woman with a soul made of magic, as though it quelled something in him. She's watched him catch a tennis ball he threw with his own face in a graceless display of distraction, heard him harass his some-time flatmate with the heart of gold, and heard him talk her up to Ritchie Simpson, even, impressed with her out-of-the-box thinking in having tried to ward off the Empusa with 'star-sounds.' Very human things, one and all, in direct contradiction to the reputation he has: that he's not human at all; that he's a boogeyman, a bad omen.

He looks like none of those things now. If anything, the closest she's ever gotten to seeing John this way is when he told her — over cupcakes — with taut, bland certainty that Midnite wouldn't be taking her soul. Back then, it'd had been John on her side, and that look had been aimed in some other direction. The difference, one supposes, is that now she's on the business end, and whatever this instrument in him is, it isn't affected by tears.

But while John can be cruel — outrageous understatement, that — it's not his aim here. Her question causes the air in the flat to brim with momentary sparks of his ill mood, impatience radiating from him like ripples in a pond, but he does her the courtesy of at least answering her question. "I'm going to show you something. And I'm not going to put anything into you, Jane. If I did anything tonight it would be taking something out. Now come on, before I change my bloody mind."

**

Head bowed, back stooped, hands braced against her knees, Jane holds still for a moment in something that comes very close to fear.

There is no part of her that wishes to fight John; Jane is tired of fighting after weeks of it, hollow and weary, and the last natural inclination of her heart would be to fight a friend. And that is John Constantine to her, a friend, a good one, and she knows she loves him, even though she knows so little about him in so many ways. But her faith is knowing him where it counts most, and matters most to her: like Zatanna, he has always been there when it counted. A confidante to James, a guide to her, and loyal to them both.

Even now, she trusts him. She trusts he won't harm her, wouldn't ever. But trust is not an exercise of control, and Jane cannot control his actions. He might be thinking best for her, or thinking best for the people and world around her, or thinking best for — she doesn't know. He may do something that may not be harm, but may be something /she doesn't want./

Jane remembers keenly, in this moment more than anything else, the moment nearly a year ago when she slammed her foot on her car brake and stopped them both in an intersection. John, from the passenger seat, had something so cavalier about stripping memories from someone's mind, and it hit too painfully close to the man who kept coming in through her window, lost and wandering, trying to focus in the void where his mind had been taken from him.

Would John really do that to her? She needs to know, because it would be the one thing she /would/ fight. Someone back in her head, even a friend —

Her eyes lift and see John watching her in a way he never has before, with her only weapon simply to ask for an honest answer.

He's going to show her something. It's not what she fears, and Jane loosens slowly, haltingly, trying to search his face and only able to hold her breath so far through the deep fathoms of impatience. She wets her lips, but makes up her mind, rising from the sofa. Despite all the questions still in her eyes, she obeys forward on slow steps, resigned to trust.

Jane offers both her tiny, too-white hands.

**

John Constantine's face is an ironclad secret when he's not feeling charitable. Her querying look — heart-wrenchingly framed by soulful brown eyes that glitter with tears in a face made pale by the strain of a year that would drive most people half-mad — breaks like a wave against a sheer cliff face, no footholds to be found.

When she finally rises he waits for her to situate herself in front of him, and once she's lifted her hands he reaches out, beyond them, and grasps her wrists in warm, firm hands.

The exchange that follows moves in both directions, much to John's surprise. He comes by a sudden and deeply uncomfortable understanding of what kinds of things she was doing with magic, the flesh beneath his palm alive with blood magic. For just a heartbeat, during the window it takes him to block his reception of that nausea-inducing sensation, her condition infects the flat. It ripples into him, through him, and taints the air. The ozone purity of raw magic tilts, turns sour, and as he pushes it back he grits his teeth. For a few dizzying moments the urge to follow through with his threat — to lock her out — is so strong that he shuts his eyes against it. There's a howling gale of unkind sentiment passing intangibly through the web of magic that cages the flat, but he banks it as best he can, and when he opens his eyes everything changes, this time for Jane.

"I've never seen what you're about to see," he says, voice taut and chilly, but even in tone, metered. "Something of a secret. Not that you deserve to know, since you've done exactly what I told you not to do with the other secrets you nicked off of me, but here we are. It's just you and me and my bad ideas, once again."

While he's saying this, the air around him has begins to shimmer, then seems to shatter into sharp, transparent planes, visible only because of the faint shadows and rays of light along their gleaming, razored edges. Everything around him fragments into ephemeral geometries, like jagged-edged planes of glass that revolve through one another, bisect and kaleidoscope and reform in impossible reconfigurations. Endless movement, all of it suffused with light a golden color she might recognize from those few moments in Berlin that he succumbed to the temptation to use the piece of Zee's soul entrusted into his care: flagrant, flashy displays of magic use utterly unlike him.

This is magic, even an aura, but it's nothing like the magic in Ritchie Simpson's laboratory, or the blood magic she used to prise her lover from the jaws of another unjustified fate, or even the universal magic from which Zatanna's rarefied soul is made. It's something else. Something all its own, a point at which the reality of everything breaks down and becomes malleable, changeable, dynamic. At the center of it all, terrifyingly to anyone with the least amount of sense: John Constantine. Cast in shadow within the net of infinite possibility, the conduit through which it flows. Not a man, but a crack in the world. A crossroads of potential.

Proof, one might fairly argue, of his assertion that the celestial overseer is absolutely crackers.

"Giovanni's the one who told me, and that not straight-off, the bastard." He tilts his head, watching her face. For him, nothing at all changes: he simply peels away the veils that keep her from seeing what some others are born with the ability to see. "This is why I get to do what I do, Foster." In the shards of spinning Fate faces are occasionally reflected back at her as though from the surface of mirrors. Most of them are angry. Some of them look sad, or sympathetic. There's the very real sense that the latter are seeing her directly. All of them are dead. "I do things and I get away with them all the time, and this is why. Things rearrange themselves to make sure of it. And you'd think that would mean I can get away with using magic however I bloody well like, wouldn't you? I thought that too. I was wrong. It eats the people around me alive. I told you that when we met, and you thought I was joking. I wasn't then. I'm not now. You think you paid the price, but you haven't. You'll never see it coming."

He quiets, but it isn't gentle, or soft. "Tell you the truth? You've been messing about with magic since before Wakanda. There's every possibility that Wakanda even happening was part of the cost you were supposed to pay for things you'd already done. It will take everything you love, Foster, and you can't control that. You can't bribe it. You can't cut a deal. The next time something terrible happens to someone close to you, you'll have to sit there the way I do and ask yourself: was that my fault?"

**

He steals her wrists into his hands, and Jane tenses, taking in a quick, deep breath that's equal parts steeling and grounding.

The touch narrows down the seams between them. She saturates with it — blood magic — and moves like a parasite through all her veins, a passenger cycling through every beat of her heart and spidering out through her fanning miles of capillaries. Jane has not indulged in it since she walked the soil of Wakanda; not since she made a promise to James Barnes not to add to the puncture marks down her left arm.

Though even as she holds true to her vow, the magic has not left her behind, and nor does Jane want to let it go — and it still finds a home in her flesh, continuously begging her for indulgence.

It moves into him, too: magic borne of life, magic that needs life to survive. Magic borne of someone giving, and knows only how to take.

In exchange for sharing that parasite in her blood, Jane is returned Constantine's derision and revulsion — running all through every wall, like an entire world rejecting Jane down to spaces between her atoms. It eats into her. It is everything for her not to close her eyes, turn her cheek, and try to hide from the feeling.

Though when Constantine speaks aloud of secrets, Jane does not, cannot — all souls, at some time, must root to their one purpose, and the purpose of hers keeps her eyes wide open.

Jane looks on as the world changes indescribably. The world fractals into polyhedron shapes she can name and calculate and quantify, from their shapes to their positions to their angular spins, but their purpose escapes her — innocent to a glimpse into a world she's never seen, never known.

Her mind works to reconcile it, as her dark eyes turn and implore this new reality, all no more than a single, allotted glimpse. A look into the framework of Fate. Her eyes run so many permutations of the same face looking on her, and she can do little but listen to John speak. As she had to give magic her blood, her life, to make her many, desperate deals, he takes from something different.

She can think of it only in the way it makes sense to her: John Constantine is zero-probability event.

But in a zero-sum game, all outcomes balance. There is no net win and no net loss. Outcome negates outcome, and if he is the game, then —

— but he is not. John speaks deeply of a wisdom, the price of magic, and it draws Jane's eyes. She does not say a word, only seeing, only hearing, and trying to understand.

To a mind that is open to nearly every possibility of the universe, John's insinuation is a dagger. It slides, clean and neat, between Jane's ribs, and hits her heart.

After these long months, there is little left to Jane. Worn down in every way, from her sleepless eyes to the way her too-small wrists swallow into his hands, she is wan and depleted and tired. So tired, as if more than this magic has fed from her blood and the pulse of her life: broken down in every way, and yet after it all, never coming close to entertaining the possibility that she could be the cause of it.

Her wrists tense up, horrified, repulsed — until something breaks, and the center cannot hold. Her hands go limp, heavy and defeated. And sick with a guilt she's never felt before, and with nothing /left/ to her to guard against it, Jane unravels into soft, broken weeping.

**

Almost a year ago, John Constantine knowingly made a terrible mistake.

He met a woman on a sidewalk and needed something she had, and he did not, to overcome an obstacle in front of him. That should have been the end of it, one more person used and left behind in the dust of his passing, but everything that followed compounded that first mistake. Her bravery had been admirable, her creativity under pressure unusual and noteworthy. More than that, there had been unbridled, guileless joy in the way she spun on the far side of that piss-stained warehouse wall, and there had been equal parts feverishly vital longing and fiery, stubborn determination in the way she looked at him when she insisted he not pat her on the head and send her on her way.

There is a part of John — very small, for the most part forgotten — that remembers being young. A ghost. A phantom of poverty and abuse. Discovering magic, and the buried secrets of a six hundred year old bloodline, had resurrected him. To have meaning, to find worth, to be something-

And it had led him to terrible places. Led his companions to worse, for the error of having trusted him. He should have sent her home. He knew it. He knew that. He felt this on the horizon, even then. The names and faces are different, the pain seasoned as uniquely as the character of the broken woman in front of him, but the broad strokes are not new. And that? Makes this John's fault, in so many more ways than the merciless seed of self-doubt he's planted in the fertile soil of her pain, in the hollows carved out of her by a year of harrowing.

He'd agreed to let her stick around, for all the wrong reasons. Told himself it was to keep an eye on her, that minds like hers wouldn't leave well enough alone, but even if that's true it's not the whole story, is it? He'd seen the opportunity in her innocent, rapt face to change the past in some small way. Balance the ledgers of his mistakes. Do it right. Because he's John Bloody Constantine, isn't he? In the end, it's always about him.

All of which is to say: it was a mistake, and it needs correcting. There is little he wouldn't put on the pyre to spare her a Newcastle of her own. He'd told her that, too, more or less. In the car.

"And one day, let's say you actually feel like the worst could happen. What lengths would you go to, Dr. Foster, to make sure that it didn't? That all of creation could continue to exist, blissfully unaware how close they came to not existing because of a small accident with YOUR work?"

"This happened to you before, didn't it."

"More than once, I'm 'fraid."

"I do what it takes. It don't make me popular, but the alternatives are bloody worse, aren't they?…I don't piss about because it's always serious as a 'eart attack."

It's only the link she has with the magical field in the flat that will let her understand that something in John changes the moment she breaks. Two emotions echo out of him and through the space, neither of which manifests in his hard expression. Both are potent, absolutely contradictory, and nevertheless coexist.

Satisfaction, and suffering.

Whatever energy hums through him into her wanes, the glimpse of his aura evaporating, and he leans forward. Not to speak into her ear, but close, anyway. He can afford to let the rime of ice in his tone melt, the edges soften. His voice may gentle, but there's no regret in him at all. "I won't apologize for telling you the truth. You chose this. All of it. You can't say I didn't try to bloody warn you." Blue eyes watch her cry as though for all the world they'd never seen anything like that before, a wholly alien act bereft of any emotion he's able to connect with. A lie, of course — the air hums with the damage he does to himself by hurting her, even willingly — but one he tells himself so adeptly that he can, at least temporarily, believe it.

"I understand why you did what you did. I can't even tell you I'd have done any different. But this? Is wrong. This is the only time we're going to do this, Jane. Just this once. It's my fault we're standing here in the first place. I let you in, and that makes me responsible for what you bloody do." Leaning, again, incrementally more, to look for her eyes. "I solve magical problems. The solutions are not always pretty. Don't make me solve you, Jane."

The word with which he punctuates that request is simple enough, and simply said. British. Polite. It lacks much in the way of inflection. "Please."

The dark thread of magic in her bloodstream is an adept spy. It feels what can't be heard, or seen: the twisting, violent, sickening heartache of the certainty that that day will eventually come, and he'll find himself with another ghost in his ever-growing 'gallery of regrets' — Zatanna's favorite way to describe the graveyard of his history.

**

In one moment, Jane finds understanding. A single fact to summarize it all: it's not fair.

For so long, she's felt like a passenger to her own life, deigned to sit sideline, deigned to watch and do little more. To watch the people most focal to her move on, going to places she can't follow — in this life or the next — and always leaving her behind. To take the reins on her own path and find it always just beyond the reach of her fingertips, whether held hostage by the government or dependent on the stranded knowledge of god-like aliens or simply beyond her — the only thing truly beyond her, whether it's her own failing or simply a failing of this entire world, to not gift Jane with the resources or materials or longevity that she'll even conquer this problem before she dies.

To fight so long to solve something, to control it, while witnessing a magician like Zatanna do so effortlessly, in just a gesture and extension of her will that Jane's science cannot prove in years. To stare up and up on those stars and know, down to the pits of the soul, it's the first and most thing she's ever wanted, and to meet people who have visited them already, and she wants to condemn them as unworthy for how blaise they are about, how unconcerned they are to have in their life what she cannot reach and take.

To watch James Barnes toil and suffer and never be able to help — he tells her again and again she does, but it never feels that way — because it's her with her head in the machine, weak and helpless, or it's her watching him across the table in the Raft, wearing chains and looking so small, truly believing his own execution is the only good he can give this world, or it's her on the train, and those men are surrounding her, holding her down, touching her, and she doesn't do anything. A passenger, looking down and meeting her own eyes, and seeing only helplessness.

And then Wakanda —

Jane finally acted. She found her footing, claimed her strength, and rose to share the front line with far more powerful, far more skilled, far more purposeful people. They looked on her with mixed fear and awe, and it felt right. She walked equal to them, and she paid the price for it — paid it in the blood she knows she was sacrificing, in the sicknesses that deepened some corruption in her with every use. But it was always her, her choice and no one else, and she did it for him —

— and, all the while she thought herself the hero, maybe she was doing it to him too.

It's not fair, and that weight shatters Jane, bows her as the first sobs well up, low and soft and in pain. With her hands caught by the wrists, she cannot even hide her face from John Constantine; she cannot cover her eyes or wipe her tears or mask in any way how badly he breaks her. What he implies is the last thing she wants, worse than being the passenger.

The cause.

Satisfaction and suffering. They run through her from him, the emotions like swallowing down two too-big pills, and Jane's stomach turns to hold it all. Tears running from her lashes, she stands there in quiet defeat, her hands loose and cold, her fingers unmoving. His words move over and through her, and at first, it does not seem like she's listening, too far lost in the selfish unravelling of her own mind — until one word cuts up her eyes.

'Please' is a privilege not many receive from John Constantine.

Guilt runs her. Shame. And grief. I'm sorry, want to say her eyes, and not only to him. "I get it," she says instead, voice hollow.

**

Sharp, inscrutable blue eyes watch her for a very long time in that misery, when common sense might suggest that there's nothing to be mined from it. He must have his reasons, but he's as mute about those as he is about the roiling forces underneath an exterior that suggests he feels nothing about this exchange at all.

Whatever he's waiting to see, he either does or does not find it, and whichever of the two it is, he — 'relents' is the wrong word. Something dangerous departs the room, anyway, sliding out of him in the wake of some decision or other that closes the door on a possibility neither of them wanted realized.

"Most of the people on this earth," he says, releasing her hands and moving away from her toward the kitchen in the rear of the flat, "Have no idea magic even exists, and they somehow manage to lead fulfilling lives. More fulfilling than most magi, probably. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that most of them aren't a tenth as bright as you are, either, and maybe that's where the curse of it all comes in. You're clever, so you're not content."

In the kitchen he opens a cupboard, reaching into it and retrieving an electric kettle, which he sets beneath the tap to fill. "And here you've got this cleverness you could depend on to get around life's little speedbumps, and most people haven't got that. Most of them are going to go face-first into every obstacle in front of them. But it's not enough, is it? Because you can see all the ways you could be clever better." He flips the tap off and plugs the kettle into the wall, flipping the switch. A little red light winks to life on the handle. The next cupboard he opens contains mugs, and he plucks two out to set down. One is black, glossy, blank. The other is white and depicts a T-Rex in a green silhouette shape. It's wielding two 'Imaginarium robot hands' — robot pincer claws at the end of poles, of the kind that kids use. Underneath is printed the word UNSTOPPABLE.

It's…probably Zatanna's.

"You ever stop to ask yourself why Giovanni would ask me to teach 'tanna anything?" Brow cocked, he turns his head to look back over his shoulder, though not for long. "Don't know as you'd noticed, but she's different than most of us. She's not entirely human. Her soul's made of magic. What could I possibly have to show her, right? Maybe you thought it was just general experience. Books and a solid, academic education in the esoteric fundamentals?"

There's a little silence as he retrieves a box of tea from the cupboard, popping the lid open and retrieving two sachets. It's not commercial tea, though. They look hand-filled. "No. He knew that I know better than most what happens when you use magic like water. She's always thought she doesn't have to pay a price. Sometimes I think she still believes that. She's wrong. She wouldn't get away with expending even a tiny fraction of what she's got without being obliterated by repercussions. Giovanni didn't really hire me to tutor her in how to use magic." Everything prepared, only the hot water to wait for now, he turns around and leans back against the counter, folding his arms. "He hired me to teach her how not to."

**

Jane's eyes hold John's, steady even through her running tears.

Usually there is a searching quality of her gaze, hungry for answers in all things, but his face is opaque, and her soul is weary. She is not searching for anything now. Just watching, and waiting, with the patience of someone who understands enough to resign herself to fate — to punishment, if that so be the word. He holds all the cards here, and she holds none. There is no power she possesses but to wait for him to decide for her; no power that, at this moment, she even wants.

For a short, weightless while, she felt finally in control: and now it leaves an aftertaste of bile bitterness under her tongue.

And then, just as opaque, John lets her go. Jane takes back her hands, looking after him as the man makes his way to the kitchen. She uses the time to compose herself, finding her spot again on the sofa, and sitting heavily, smearing her face dry with her fingers. Her closed eyes burn against the bones of her thumbs.

Between the fumbling swipes of her fingers, comes John's voice, filtering through the way even sunshine sees its way through the arms of a moving, racking storm. The story lifts her dark eyes, red-rimmed and too-bright, but even now, listening.

Even Zatanna, who is made of magic — may well, in the end, answer to the same forces.

She leans back, heavy, tired, taking all this in. Magicians, trying to outstep their debt with deft footwork. And her, Jane, thinking she knew so much.

Not content — he calls it. Calls Jane straight down to the truth of her. Swallowing thickly, she lets her lips press pensively to the joints of her fingers, before her hand slides away and she tries speaking. Her voice is rust. "And what about you?" she asks.

It's not an accusation; not spoken to turn on him the ruling he just invokved on her. Jane sounds tired, tired of not knowing as much as she should. "You made it sound like you're immune. But. When I first met you, and you tried to — warn me. Was it so much expecting this? Or expecting I, or someone else, would be part of your paid price? Why make roots, if magic can just take it away? Why continue with magic, knowing what it will do?"

**

Handling the magical education of Dr. Jane Foster — such as it is, anyway — is difficult. She's sharp, and like all sharp instruments, it's terribly easy to wind up in a position where manipulating it — her — results in the cutting of one's self. A honed edge will always find a way to sheathe itself in tender things. That's the why of them.

Exhibit A: some of the questions she asks, always grappling to understand. Even as the rest of what little terra firma remained to her is eroded and washed out to sea. That isn't an impulse John is unfamiliar with. The truth remains true, even when a man has been so thoroughly reduced that he no longer knows who he is.

He presses his lips into a line, cocks his jaw to one side as seconds tumble past, long in the silence of the converted cistern he sleeps in.

"Yeah. Of course I expected it. The rest, too. If it wasn't this, you windin' up this way, it'd be the other. Something I get caught up in turns on everybody else. May still happen." But these are the easy questions to answer — the ones about her, and the things he knows.

Harder by far: the questions she asks about him.

"I don't make roots," he says, finally. It's quiet, and flat. Stale, like soda left out too long. The energy of the flat stirs as uneasily as the contents of his chest in the wake of that declaration, but he doesn't rescind it. It's a lie he tells flawlessly, empty of expression, gaze distant. He's said the words many times before, and sometimes they're more true than others. They might be less true now than they've ever been, though, and the wayward magic decomposing in her bloodstream is wise to that reality. John Constantine has attachments, now, and even the thought of that creates a yawning chasm in him so vast that it swallows blackly any conceivable horizon by which he might orient himself to escape.

"I'm not immune. I thought I was, ages ago. I was wrong. A lot of other people paid the price." Blue eyes slide away from her to nowhere specific. "Are still paying it."

The hot water kettle clicks as the contents finish boiling, and he turns back to the counter readily. There are hauntings in him. The thought that she might glean their nature from across the room is ridiculous, but even so. "Ritchie and his ten-pill-a-day habit, for one."

The brief silence is filled with the sound of water gurgling into mugs. The scents are easy to identify for someone into that kind of thing: chamomile, lavender, valerian, lemon balm. Something of Zatanna's. Something out of her past, in fact. Context has made it grow on him, for all that he usually turns to hard-proof libations when he's unable to sleep. Aromatherapy cannot begin to touch his bad dreams.

He carries them back to where she is before saying another word, setting her unasked-for mug down on the table and his on the side table beside the chair he actually lowers himself to sit in, rather than remaining braced on the back of it, the better to loom over her.

"I do as little magic as possible. Most of what I do is small. Tricks. I use objects and circles. Rituals. I prepare things. Any casting I do here that's bigger than that follows a serious need, and I try to do it here in the flat." He slants himself to one side in the plush of the cushions, eyes lidding but still watchful. "This place took some doing to find. It's sandwiched between two nexus of ley lines. You don't want to know what I paid for the privilege." Probably closer to the truth: he doesn't want her to know. "The only time you've ever seen me piss about with magic on a grand scale that it wasn't necessary was in Berlin, and that…" The shift in his expression is subtle, but it has the look of something spontaneous, uncalculated. A tightening. A grimace. Something disconcerted, displeased. Irritated, almost, but not with her.

With himself.

"I put a stop to that."

He shifts his weight in the chair, and reaches for the mug for something to do with his hands. "Got a little bit of 'tanna's soul in me. I had her lock it off. Can't use it now." He lifts the mug, nearly takes a sip, and then angles his gaze up at her and smirks in a way that's chilly, even snide — but again, she isn't the target. He is. "It's insidious, Foster. I'm not a rank amateur and I know better, but you saw what happened. What I did with it. It's too bloody easy. I knew you'd wind up here, but not because I knew anything about you, all that time ago. Didn't fucking need to, did I? This is how it goes. It's not your story, or mine either. It's just magic."

**

John Constantine doesn't make roots.

Jane slants him a look at that, wan, tired, yet entirely unconvinced. It's a good lie, better than she'd be able to say if she practised for years, but she doesn't need blood magic's barometer, up and down her veins, to make her doubt.

She doubts merely because she's similar, and for her own reasons; an annual flower, blooming once where the season shines sun down on her, and disappearing after. Never wanted roots in the soil to hold back a soul made to wander. She sold her childhood home without a glance back. Misses little about it; has no time or need for nostalgia. There is nothing save the forward momentum when it comes to the journey, when it comes to discovery — to look back is the Orphean mistake her kind make so even, and many end up never leaving.

She doubts because it's caught her up just the same: roots. Belonging. It hit her the moment she landed back on American soil, home from Wakanda — home. Home, it felt for the first time, when there's no reason it should be. This city is the farthest thing from home. This country went against all her expectations and hopes, failing her in so many ways — failing James. Jane, in many ways, never wants a home; yet, in many ways else, thinks she may be on the start of making one.

And John — his attachments, binding him down. She looks him askance, thinking only of Zatanna, the way she's yielded him so many ways in so many months —

But she offers no argument. Not her place, and especially not now, when she has so little now to even keep up with the storm in her own head.

Her raw eyes follow the mug he sets out for her. Jane considers it a moment, not as anything but another object to absorb her eyes as she things, then leans forward in silent acceptance. She sits there, warming her hands on the heated ceramic.

John concedes he's not immune; that entreats a glance from Jane. The people paying for it: her eidetic memory looks back on the story Ritchie told her. It'd not seemed real to her, despite how every word of it seemed to haunt him; Richie Simpson, and all his pills. Nothing so horrific seemed real — but that was so long ago. Before she learned better.

Nearly a year, she thinks.

She sips the tea and drinks it down, letting it wet and warm her scorched-out throat.

"I'd lock it off too," she agrees of John's actions, listening to how he has a piece of Zatanna inside him — part of her very soul. How that even is possible, she would ask, at any other time — any place but here and now. "I thought it was me I was bartering. Like you said, I thought it was noble. Stupid too. Really stupid. But it was going to start and end with me."

Her fingers curl around the mug, her knuckles bending white with absent pushes of her phlanges. "I won't… I can't barter with other people. It — makes me no different than those people —" Her eyes crease. "Those people I hate. It's no one's right. I've already lost too much to things I don't understand."

**

Roots, and Zatanna Zatara? That situation is so complicated that even if he were the kind of man who wanted to explain he wouldn't be able to. How do you explain a phenomenon that manifests spontaneously and binds two souls together like string between two tin cans..? Not even John — who seems to have an answer for everything, right or wrong — has the answer to that question.

That's before factoring in the way that the word 'home' is and always has been freighted for him, the locus of his deepest hurts and greatest desires.

I thought it was me, she confesses, and elaborates as to all of the reasons why, and all of the reasons why any other possibility is anathema to her purposes. For his part, he fails utterly to look surprised, lifting his own mug for a careful sip of the still-steaming contents.

"You're an easy read," he says, lips quirked and rueful, even apologetic — like he expects her to be offended at the very thought. He would be. "For me, t'any rate. Good intentions in my world are just going to get you killed. There's no place fer it." He drills his fingertips on the side of his mug once, letting that silence extend.

"You're better than magic, Jane." This has the sound of something conclusive, a final statement in a comprehensive argument. "You've got to remember that. What you've got between your ears? I don't think there's much you can't sort out with that alone, and it's not going to change who you are the way magic will."

The bedrock truth is that John will barter with other people, and has, and he would insist — and some might take issue with that insistence, but nevertheless — that he often has no choice. The lesser of two evils, if such a thing can be said to exist.

"I'm not telling you it's off-limits. It's not like it belongs to me, is it? Just don't be stupid. I'm tellin' you, I know how it ends. It's not pretty."

**

Easy read, Jane Foster is. Her dark eyes look up at that, the look in them heavy, aggrieved, but not offended in the least.

It's where she is his antithesis, because neither her eyes have the disguise nor the will to stop Constantine from seeing right down. Jane is as honest as they're made, and worse — as they want to be — from her expressive face to her heart bleeding out where she's stuck it to her sleeve. There's no hiding any part of her, no desire to, a person whose strength is to show all of herself and let the world weight her immediately for all she is. One can wonder why an old Soviet spy chose her, even wants to stay with her now. It must drive him mad at times.

Or maybe he likes having one thing, one place, that will never keep secrets from him.

Eventually, Jane looks back down on her tea. It cools enough to let her drink more, the heat a salve on her cried-dry throat.

Good intentions have no place in his world, John says. Jane thinks the world over with a sinking heart. It means she could never explore it — his world — the way she wants to. She would have to take it for herself and make it her own, a place for her specific faith, though even that may not be possible.

But it culminates in — she's not certain if it's a compliment any more than it is a warning. But told she's better than this — all this — she looks at him.

Maybe at any other time, hearing such a thing — and from him, no less — would bring a small, wan smile to her mouth. Now, her eyes only reflect circling, worsening, white noise worry. Now, doubt haunts Jane too hard even for that. What's she got between her ears is busy trying to calculate when, what, and how she could have caused Wakanda. Which throwaway spell? What month? What would she have /done/ to put James through all that? Subject others to it too?

"Thank you, John," she says, and though there is little life to those scratchy words, there is still tired, hollowed-out sincerity. Fear at the wings keeps her half-distracted — this is all she's going to be thinking about for a long, long time.

**

Of all things, a thank-you.

John sits there across from her, having gone about the very serious business of pressing certain bricks in the foundation of her understanding enough out of alignment to rattle everything atop it, and watches her thank him for the trouble. It ought to make him feel worse. Any normal person, any person with even the most modest empathy and self-awareness would stand in reception of that courtesy and feel shamed by it, humbled somehow.

This being John, it has precisely the opposite effect: he could ask for no better evidence that he's been justified in what he's done. For a moment, in fact, he wonders if it's possible he didn't go far enough. If he won't regret, later, that he didn't fling her as far from him and everything to do with him as possible, while she still retains the capacity to be the person she is now, however battered and bruised that person may be. Able to do something like that: say 'thank you,' for something like this, and even seem to mean it.

Christ.

All of that passes through the space behind inscrutable blue eyes, until he slow-blinks and drops his gaze to the mug in his hand, which he lifts. "Drink up," he says. "And then I'll ring Chas to take you home."

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