Unchained

November 04, 2017:

Bucky, newly freed of his known triggers courtesy of Jane and the machine from Siberia, pays John a call to finally have the kill switch removed from his mind.

John's Flat, ????

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Jane Foster, Zatanna Zatara

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Bucky and Jane never did actually make it out to the Expo. At the time they felt a little bad, but after the news started rolling out, well… bullet dodged, right? Charity events never seem to go off without a hitch. There were manifold reasons for Bucky to feel very guilty that he had not been present to help do something about all that wound up going down, though, one of the top ones the fact that Zatanna was apparently specifically targeted.

It's half that which brings him to contact John, and half the fact that Jane finally completed work on the reconfiguration of The Machine, as it has come to be dourly called. With some assurance his mind is as clean as it can be, the implanted triggers reverse-engineered and removed from the contours of his mind, Bucky thought it was about time to have one last control finally removed from his head.

The Leash has been an assurance for many months, especially in the early days when fear of relapse was a much darker specter than it is now, but it has also been a weight. Bucky both trusts and does not trust John Constantine, and the mere existence of the tether has always been a point of strain between Jane and himself.

Such it is that Constantine gets a text, a day or so after the Expo. 'Hope Zatanna is fine. Do you have time? Need to talk.'

Typically reticent, he doesn't actually mention the leash. Who knows who's listening in?

just tired, is the answering text, which could mean anything. thx. yeah, swing by.

Unlike the terse texts sent to Jane prior to their confrontation at the flat, John provides Barnes with a multitude of times and locations for accessing the flat. He doesn't ask for any kind of confirmation as to when James is going to arrive; the nature of the flat's peculiar existence in non-space means that it's almost impossible for anyone to breach the interior without an explicit invitation. If someone arrives, it's because they're wanted there — no need to be ready to receive visitors.

At the time Barnes actually does arrive, John is sitting at the desk that fronts the 'balcony' of his upstairs loft area, leaned back in his office chair and holding up between thumb and forefinger a little glass vial containing what is obviously blood, his arm braced on that of his chair at the elbow. His eyes are distant, and his thoughts are clearly elsewhere, caught up in something else. The moment he hears the door open, though, he stirs, dropping it on the desk and standing so that he can round the desk to the stairs and begin to descend.

By this time, James is fairly accustomed to the odd nature of 'going to John's flat.' He peruses the list, picks a time and place — four in the afternoon, behind a coffee shop — and heads out.

His arrival is as low-key as John's reception. If James has any thoughts on the rather fraught confrontation between John and Jane that transpired recently, they are kept to himself, and do not show on his features. Whatever he needed to say about it, he needed to say to Jane, and it has already been said.

John, he's recognized early, isn't someone you quite 'change.' You learn to work around him, in the way you learn to handle a venomous snake.

"Hey," he says, a glance spared upwards towards the balcony from which Constantine is descending, before it does that instinctive sweep to check the rest of the area. "Hell of a night, last night. For once — not me."

If James Barnes could figure out how to get John Constantine to change his ways, he'd immediately become one of the most highly sought consultants in the mystical world at large. Downside: having to deal with even more mages than usual. At least he'd never want for anything ever again.

He may have settled the matter of John's intervention with Jane for himself, but in John's mind there can be no other purpose for this visit, and there's definitely an air of determined resignation about the way he's looking at his guest once he reaches the polished concrete floor, footsteps ringing quietly in crossing it to meet Barnes halfway. The first words out of Barnes' mouth cause ripples in his obvious assumption, one brow quirked, blue eyes assessing.

No one else is in the flat. All of the construction appears to have finally been completed; Chas has his own room, the kitchen in the back is fully finished, the bathroom has a door, there's a library area and a sitting area and something that looks like a vault door, dully gleaming and heavy. The warded cell remains — it would be a hell of a thing to try to demolish — and through a gap in the door, propped open, it's possible to see the dim outline of the body that occupies the cot therein: Emily Montrose is still in there, steadfastly refusing to decay.

"Looks like it's somebody else's turn," John says, agreeing. Whether or not that's Zatanna isn't clear yet, but given his casual tone he must not think she was the ultimate objective. "Never a dull moment. 'tanna's alright, so I'm not tripping over myself to investigate. I've got my hands full as it is."

Dealing with more mages is exactly the opposite of what James Barnes would ever want in his life, so he is quite happy to let Constantines do as Constantines will. He hasn't lived a hundred years to not develop a very strong sense of what not to get mixed up in, and 'Constantine and mages' is one of those things that just screams of being a bad idea to meddle too deeply in. Especially without more personal knowledge on the subject.

Speaking of that…

"This isn't about Jane," he leads. Decades of experience in professions demanding perceptiveness means it's evident to him what John's assumption is, given the resigned determination. Leaning his hip against the nearest table (after checking he won't touch anything weird), he folds his arms and — doesn't look at Emily Montrose's body, because he's sure there's a reason for that, and he doesn't want to know. "I saw her arms." His expression tics obviously at the memory. "She needed to be reeled in before she hurt herself." A pause. "Though I think her being the cause of Wakanda is nonsense. I was my own cause."

There is a brief silence. "But I think you know where my hard lines are, so there's no need to discuss that," he says, and that will be all he insinuates of Jane's admission that John threatened to erase her memories.

He shakes his head. "Any rate, this isn't about last night, either. It's about this." Steel fingertips tap his temple. "We got the machine working, used it."

One of John's brows rises as Barnes cuts straight to the obvious assumption in play, dispelling any notion that he's here to take issue with the way John handled his issues with Jane. It stays risen as he explains why it's not going to be a problem, until the very last observation. Nonsense, he says, and the arch-browed look returns to something fairly neutral. The temptation to shrug is intense, but the nature of this particular relationship quells it: an agitant is not called for. Would achieve nothing.

More than that, Barnes isn't in the habit of making social calls — or if he is, he doesn't make them with John. The closest he's ever come was in the aftermath of the time he, Jane, Red, and Jess descended into Limbo to rescue John and Zatanna, when he'd perched atop a building and startled the ever-living shit out of the Englishman.

Well — and there were drinks, John supposes. But the birds were involved. It's different.

The matter of Jane thus safely swept aside, he waits for whatever it is that's inevitably going to follow, and this time that brow of his tries to climb all the way up into his hairline. Something carefully guarded in him eases.

"That right?" Blue eyes slash over the former assassin's face, as though he could prise some trace of the results from what he finds there. "And…"

It's not much to say aloud, but it contains a wealth of sentiment, anyway. Tentatively hopeful, in fact, but wary of assuming, just in case things went wrong and they're looking at square one all over again.

It's an obvious sore spot with Barnes, and it's not hard to see why. To place the responsibility for Wakanda at Jane's doorstep is another removal of James Barnes' need to regain some sense of autonomy — an effective robbing of his own ability to be an active determinant of the course of his life. The good, and the bad. Wakanda might have been the culmination of crimes James never consented to commit — but they were crimes his hands wrought.

The shrinks at SHIELD told him that him doing this — trying to accept blame for crimes he objectively had no intent to commit — was just him trying to avoid admitting he was a victim. He'd have to do that someday, they said, if he wanted to heal. He told them where to put their psychoanalyzing. He hasn't been back to the shrinks since, and no one tried to make him go.

John certainly isn't interested in poking that raw spot, and while James knows what that carefully neutral face means, he seems happy to also leave it at a silent agree-to-disagree impasse. "I figure you know best about this magic shit," is all he says, "so whatever you do to keep her outta trouble without poking around in her head…" He shrugs. Fine with him.

No remark on the fight he and Jane had to get to that point. He just moves on. Topic closed, he mentions the real reason he's come to call. John's carefulness about assuming a positive result is familiar — a sort of cynical realism James himself tends to embody — and the former Soldier shakes his head. "No, it's fine. We think it's clean. Anything the machine put into me to begin with, we took it back out."

He looks a little awkward. "I don't think the off-switch is needed anymore. It's just another thing on your mind, anyway, and you've got your hands full. Like you said."

Of all people, John understands what it is to have an anchor in someone else. He could never wholly understand the subtlest nuances of Barnes' relationship with Jane Foster, any more than any person could fully inhabit the subtleties of another couple's intimate and private lives, but he understands enough that receiving that kind of tacit trust from the man opposite him isn't without its significance. He slow-blinks, then slants his gaze down, sidelong. "It was all for her own good. I hope it sticks." The words are quiet enough to make subtext evident: he didn't enjoy it, for whatever that's worth.

The shift in subject matter brings his eyes up again after a thoughtful moment, weighing what's said. As hopeful as he seems, he's also equally wary. There are probably no surprises to be had in that.

"That's tops, mate." Surprised, but genuine. Still, the pause; still, the careful — oh so careful — follow-up question, as a splinter of shadow lodges itself between his brows. "You're sure?"

John's obvious lack of enjoyment in having to put his oar in on the matter of Jane's magic endeavors is certainly worth something. Perhaps James would have more sharp of a reaction if he thought John enjoyed razing Jane to the ground to get her to back up off the blood magic. As it is, however, he knows Jane well enough to know she can be stubborn, and sometimes… you have to make your point VERY clear to get through that.

It's trust he affords John, but also a sort of not-trust. James' thoughts on John are rather complex, varying from a complete trust… to a complete awareness that Constantine's priority system does not work like the priority systems of most people, and most certainly not like his own priority system. On matters of magic, he is content to follow cues… just as he assumes John would afford him the respect of the lead were the topic to be black ops and black sites.

"It should stick," Barnes says. "At the least, there won't be any more of her jabbing magic into her veins."

As far as the wariness on whether he is sure of his mind being clean… "I can't be sure of anything," he says bluntly. "The kind of life I've had, I will never be 'sure' of anything again. But from all I know, if the Russians or Hydra put anything in me, it was via that machine, and we have made it reverse whatever it put in."

He shrugs. "That much, I am sure about. And… you get to the point you're safe enough again that you don't wanna keep living like you're not."

He'd been hoping for certainty, though in the wake of the honest answer he gets, John is forced to admit to himself that certainty might have made him suspicious, anyway. The set of his mouth twists slightly, an outward echo of an internal battle or argument that he doesn't give more life to.

Eventually he nods, lowering his head and threading his fingers back into the tousled gold and brown of his hair. It's not agreement without reservations, clearly, but he seems to grasp the fundamentals. "Yeah. Alright." It's not as though he'd be able to tell one way or another, is it? If anyone's equipped to know, it's Jane Foster — and Barnes himself.

Still. The lack of control leaves him looking distinctly uneasy, in spite of his agreement. It's an unease he compensates for with brisk, businesslike gestures, hitching his belted trousers slightly and gesturing at Barnes. "This'll be easier than putting it in, for both of us. No blood and that. It's going to feel a little strange being gone, right? Like…wearing a watch all the time, then losing it. Your wrist feels a bit naked. Same thing. But what you'll be feeling is a lack, not something else in its place."

As he explains, he unbuttons the cuffs of his shirtsleeves and begins to roll them up with efficient, snappy gestures, articulate movements that make it seem as though he's about to begin doing card tricks, as opposed to dismantling a magical construct founded on the magic of Giovanni Zatara.

There is certainly such a thing as 'too much certainty.' It tends to be associated with a gross oversight of something very key. Perhaps cautious optimism is the best they will ever get.

There is understanding in James' gaze for John's obvious reservations. This is a risk on the mage's part, and potentially a personal one. The last time the Winter Soldier was fully unchained, Zatanna almost paid the price. At the same time, however, there is a quiet determination in the other man's face. He has lived so long with some chain or another upon him that he wishes, finally, to be done with fetters: here at this point where he is the most certain he will ever get that his triggers are gone.

"'Sputnik' was one of the triggers," he mentions, idly. "Of all things. It'd shut me down, apparently. I don't get it. What if someone mentioned the space program around me?"

But John agrees, eventually. Barnes' relief is undisguised, though John's preparatory remarks and gestures are a little alarming to someone as layman as he is in magic. "Easier is good," he ventures. "I'm used enough to the feeling of a 'lack.' It was like that for months, after the conditioning was gone."

'Sputnik' was one of the triggers.

Partway through rolling the cuff of his shirt over on itself again, all of those clean gestures of John's come to an abrupt halt. He was looking down at what he's doing, so when he lifts his eyes it's beneath his brows, one of which angles upward. "…Sputnik," he repeats. Not to test whether or not the trigger works anymore, obviously it doesn't. It's more that what he's just been told does nothing to disabuse this former (?) anarchist that governments — this one, that one, whichever — are all just exericises in cruel absurdity. The slow shake of his head suffices for the remainder of his thoughts on that subject, and he's just finishing rolling up his other sleeve when Barnes continues on, touching on some small part of his previous life.

That, too, gives John pause. It's not something Bucky talks about a lot — with him, at least. Now and then, small pieces. A delicate matter — or intensely personal, at least. Not something the Englishman is likely to take lightly. For some moments he seems to mull that over, maybe searching for something to say about it, and in the end all he does is nod once. What could he possibly ever say? "It shouldn't be that…intense."

Pause.

His brow perks again, differently. He raises a hand. "Ready, then?"

John's reaction doesn't really surprise him. Barnes had a similar enough reaction on finding out that one. The slow, incredulous repeat of the word is proof enough the trigger is gone; Bucky doesn't fall over, or flip out, or lose his shit, or do anything more really than share John's moment of judgment about the ludicrousness of governments and secret governmental agencies.

"There were a couple others," he says, "most of which were less dumb. I guess they refined the technique as they went along."

It leads him to touch briefly on an aspect of his life directly after freedom from the Winter Soldier. It is not something he really talks about — he barely even talks about it with Jane — and John's pause makes clear he registers that. Despite how fundamentally similar the two men are in mindset and approach to the world, they rarely talk about anything that isn't business. Perhaps it's a vague, odd way James has of thanking John for the favor done. If a currency's value is its rarity, there is nothing more valuable than James speaking briefly of his more personal thoughts. If there's one thing he hates, to which John can no doubt relate, it's feeling vulnerable.

It shouldn't be that intense, John finally says. "No," James sighs. "Not a lot of things are as intense as feeling seventy years of controls and fake memories and lies just lift out of your head. But I expect it's a bit of the same 'sensation.'"

Ready?

"Yeah," he says, by now an old hat at John Constantine doing Magical Stuff to him.

No bleeding this time, as promised — on John's part, or Bucky's. He extends his lifted hand, fingers splayed and palm slightly concave, as though he were waiting to intercept a basketball or place that hand on Barnes' head, neither of which actually happens. It's for his own concentration that he closes his eyes — not a necessary thing, but easier. In the darkness behind his own lids he can get a better sense of the shape of the thing he built in the other man's — what? Skull? His soul? Both, and neither, in the infuriatingly vague way that magic has of refusing to be pinned down to anything simple.

He spends a moment admiring that handiwork — a twist on something he stole — and then he begins to whisper in a language that isn't terrestrial. It's a single long phrase repeated over and over again, and it has a solvent effect on the magic crystallized in his opposite, gradually eroding the substance of it in a way Barnes will be able to feel. It begins at the outermost edges of that construct generated through his own blood, linking the two of them together. The weight and steel of it shrinks and softens, the outermost limits diminishing slowly.

It's two minutes, perhaps. A long time as measured by two people standing in a room in what is otherwise silence, strange sensations radiating through one. By the time it's over, though, there's no question that the process is complete: it touches on every part of the thing that John constructed in him all that time ago, leaving nothing out. It scours him clean. As devious as John is — and he is that — he's as good as his word on this, leaving no remnant behind.

As he lowers his hand and opens his eyes, he shakes his wrist out on that side, coaxing blood back into his long-lofted fingers. Pensive blue eyes examine Barnes. "Alright? Nothing alarming going on in there?"

Bucky tenses as if expecting to be touched, though when it doesn't happen he cautiously relaxes. Not all the way, of course — he can feel what is being done in his head, can hear John murmuring in no language even this polyglot spy can understand, and no man could really feel totally at ease in such a situation. Especially when it goes on for two minutes… though the waiting is not what troubles Bucky. He's spent two days sitting motionless in one place, much less two minutes.

Eventually it comes to a stop. James can feel the moment the last knots and coils of that construct unwind and diminish into nothing, leaving behind a certain lightness. A certain sense of finally being… alone in his head. He had forgotten what it felt like. He has not been alone in his head since 1945.

All right? John asks. "…I think I'm good," is the answer, after a cautious feeling-out of the contours of his own mind. Nothing seems amiss. "Don't feel like anything's broken." His expression turns wry. "I'll stay indoors a couple days. Just to be sure."

He falls silent a few long moments, transparently spending time with himself in his own head. It is an exploratory sort of quiet. Perhaps, with anyone else, it would have been awkward.

"This is the first time in seventy-two years I haven't felt anything in my head that wasn't mine," he finally says, and it is a short and wholly unremarkable sentence to try to encapsulate how much is carried in the sentiment. "…Thanks."

John will never be able to truly and with perfect insight understand what it means to be James Barnes. He isn't sure that anyone else could, and that's something even the cynical Brit can be glad of: no one ever ought to have. He receives the 'indoors' joke with a smirk, but pushes it aside into a bucket of things best not thought about. He's leery enough of Barnes without any stop-gaps that he doesn't need to excite his own prodigious capacity for paranoia by dwelling on the what-ifs.

Instead, what he focuses on is everything after that, a sentiment he tries to wrap his head around. He understands it intellectually, knowing as he does what went into creating the Winter Solder. He can even understand what it's like not to be alone in his own skull: Ravenscar has more than a little to do with that. There were a few years there where he wasn't sure who he was, save that he knew he didn't like the answer. No one did.

But the span of time involved trivializes both of those understandings, really, and also the means through which that span of time came to pass.

It's rare for John to be sentimental in mixed company. Rarer still when the company is Barnes, and he has the luxury of being able to reside fully in his taciturn aloofness, because he knows Barnes gets the whys of it. But not even John could possibly remain aloof in the face of something like that. Not just the incredible nature of it, but the fact that he's there to see it; that he had a hand in it, one supposes. His brows knit, the corner of his mouth quirked. Calling it 'tender' would be misleading, but it's a quiet look, and his voice is quiet, too, when he claps the super-soldier on the shoulder. "Hell of a thing, innit? Come a long way." From, you know — that sex dungeon thing.

"You did all of the heavy lifting, though," he announces, pivoting and suddenly conversational again as he strides toward the kitchen. "Speaking of which: there are about fifteen tupperware containers here with food in'em from Chas. For Jane. He's bloody outraged on her behalf, mind. I thought he was going to give himself a sodding aneurism in here, cooking up apologies. You'd better take all of it."

Perhaps some people would take offense at John's wariness of leaving them in an unleashed state. James looks like he's taking the opposite of offense. He looks like he might be more affronted if John was completely comfortable with him. Much as John would be suspicious of complete confidence on Bucky's part, Bucky in turn would be weirded out if John ever completely trusted him. If anyone did, really. He doesn't even fully trust himself.

It is not unreasonable to worry about the what-ifs. There are always what-ifs. But there comes a point where the what-ifs cannot stop a man from living.

In the aftermath, there is a short silence. Both men find themselves trying to get their heads around things it's exceptionally difficult for them to wrap their minds around: John, the sort of bafflingly overkill suffering James has experienced over the years, and James the mere sensation of finally being alone in his head again. No strings strung through his neurons to keep them firing in prescribed ways. No leash to chain him down should he stray off course.

He only rouses from his brief reverie at the feel of John clapping him on the shoulder. "Been a long year," he agrees. "For damn sure." His gaze turns wry. "Bit of a stroke of luck for me, in the long run, that I held you up at gunpoint, and not anyone else. Though I coulda done without where you put us."

The light joke is the start of their inevitable veer away from any sort of indulgence in rank sentimentality. Suddenly brisk again, John walks off to point out Chas's cooking; equally brisk, James follows.

It's not just any cooking, though: outraged apology cooking. James sighs a bit. "Chas can deal with it when Jane opens up some kind of magical hellmouth portal by accident, then," Bucky sighs, as he starts stacking containers. Fifteen, some of them not exactly light, and he handles them as if they were no more weighty than big styrofoam blocks. "She already popped open a black hole in Wakanda. I was afraid she was going to open a black hole in Wakanda."

A stroke of luck.

A stroke of luck that he wound up with John in his life. In a lot of ways, this is the strangest thing to come out of his mouth all evening — certainly the one John is most surprised to hear, far less likely to come up in conversations with or about John Constantine than hellmouths and suffering.

He watches Barnes stack the tupperware as though it's nothing. He finds it just as fascinating now as he used to when he first met, say, Jessica Jones; it's a different sort of advantage over the world entirely from the one he's used to, and at least neither of them wear spandex while they're doing it. Maybe that's what makes it interesting for him, rather than slightly ridiculous and a little bit embarrassing.

"Can't do a thing about the science bit, mate. It's not my wheelhouse, sorry. Black holes might still be on the menu." Who even knows, with Jane? She keeps space sounds on her phone. She looked offended when he said 'space sounds.' She is the kind of person capable of being offended by that. It's completely beyond him to manage. "Just…let me know if she starts pissing about again. I don't think she will…" The sentence ends in hesitation, hands on his hips. He wants to believe that. He sounds like he's trying to believe it, and not quite able to get there. "Well. Anyway. Sounds like it's some sort of American holiday celebration portion sizes later this month. We oughta get the birds to do a thing."

Most people definitely do not regard John Constantine as a 'lucky' addition to their lives, and for very good reason: John Constantine is typically NOT a lucky addition to ANYONE's life. James Barnes might be one of the only exceptions to this general rule, if only because his life has already been so inutterably bad, that even John Constantine might function as a source of 'luck' in such a context.

Which just goes to show how utterly bad the erstwhile Winter Soldier's life has been.

That, and the two men operate much more similarly than most. They might inhabit completely different spheres of power — evident enough in the fascination John has for James' physical gifts, and the mirroring interest James has for John's mystical mastery — but their core modus operandi has a common critical thread: whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to achieve whatever is necessary. Not comfortable, not right, not good, but necessary.

It is that understanding, perhaps, that forms the underpinning of their interactions, which move easily from silence to speech, seriousness to light aloofness, with seamless ease. Bucky stacks tupperware placidly, as if they hadn't come perilously close to Sentimentality. "Nothing can stop the science," he sighs. "I made the mistake of doing math when she was around, once." Though was it really a mistake, in the end? "I'll call you if she starts worrying me again, though. I doubt she'd fuck around intentionally, but…"

He shrugs. Mundane discussion about things like social get-togethers is taken as a welcome relief. "…Yeah. We should. You know," he muses, "I completely forgot about Thanksgiving. I haven't done one since…" He mentally counts, stacking the last container. "…1941? Last one before I shipped out to London."

Hefting the well-balanced monstrosity he's stacked up, James nods around the pile. "I'll bring it up to Jane. I'm sure she'd be glad enough for something normal after everything."

Jane is, actually, the one thing John's not certain about with regard to Thanksgiving plans: like he expects her to still be sore with him, or things to be awkward. He considers, then puts in, "I'll send Zee 'round before then. They can…" One of his shoulders rolls. "Plan." Or whatever, his expression says. Zee, too, is a force of nature in the kitchen, though her interests focus squarely on the cuisine of her heritage. …Her human heritage, anyway. The Italian bit.

For his part, he's learned that it's best to stay out of the kitchen at all costs, and since this arrangement agrees with him he has no compunctions about taking advantage of it to ensure that things are well and truly smoothed over with Foster.

"I'll, eh, set the door to let you out on your block," he adds after a moment, side-eyeing the stack of containers. "And, listen. You have any weird side-effects from earlier, let me know. Shouldn't, but…" But James Barnes' mind is a minefield of other people's meddling, and god only knows what kind of unprecedented complications might be possible.

Bucky is pretty quick to diagnose the motive behind John sending Zatanna as a vanguard. He cants his head a little — he had not mentioned any awkwardness about asking Jane because it really hadn't occurred to him that Jane might be nursing a grudge at all. He knows her well enough to know that this isn't something she really… does. It's one and done with her, things got out in the open and swiftly resolved.

It's one of his favorite things about her.

"Oh, you know Jane. She doesn't hang on to this kinda stuff. But that sounds like a plan," he says, of John's proposal to just put 'the birds' together in the kitchen and wait for the results. "I'd be more guilty about letting them plan it all, but Jane won't let me back in the kitchen." Not since the Massive Sim Fire incident.

Hefting the Chas-offering, he nods to John's final comments. "I'll ring you if anything. Thanks again," he says, and from his tone it's plain it's not just for the food.

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