To Take the Good with the Bad

December 22, 2016:

Zatanna Zatara gets an unexpected housecall from one Chas Chandler, John Constantine's best friend.

Shadowcrest Manor - Crest Hill - Bristol - Gotham

The ancestral home of the Zatara family.

Characters

NPCs: Chas Chandler (NPC'd by John Constantine)

Mentions: John Constantine, Giovanni Zatara, Bruce Wayne, Peter Quill, Groot, Rocket

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Shadowcrest looks a little more….festive…than Chas would remember.

It has been a few years but in those infrequent visits, it doesn't change on the outside; one still has to know specifically what he is looking for to be able to locate it and once he does, he'll be able to glimpse the old steeples and the wrought-iron gates, and high walls woven with climbing ivy and a curse that automatically teleports any unwanted guest to the nearest bay to live a humiliatiing hour as a mollusk. Nobody knows how old the manor is, but the gothic behemoth has been the Zatara ancestral home for generations - a locus of magical powerful that sits in between dimensions, able to appear and disappear at the whim of its owner.

Zatanna, however, is not its present owner, and despite her position as the Great Zatara's heir, the title and deed have yet to be paassed onto her, hence while she can adjust its settings and enjoys its numerous assets and protections, so to speak, she has no control over its location; it will have to stay in Gotham for now, until her father returns.

Much of its gloomy atmosphere has been dispelled for the time being due to the variety of Christmas decorations that have been placed around the house; inflatable snowmen flanking the front porch, lines of Christmas lights strung over the roof and steeples. There is a wreath hung clumsily in the front door with a ribbon, though instead of the traditional MERRY CHRISTMAS one expects, someone had drawn a red marker over the letters to cross it out and make room for a festive and much more personal I AM GROOT instead.

Somewhere inside, Zatanna has plucked the 'star' off her new 'Christmas tree,' examining it carefully between her fingers. The gem pulses with magic, its warmth seeping into her chilly fingers. Her lips purse faintly, head tilting to the side as she attempts to pry the veil around it slowly, to see what is underneath.

She jumps when the doorbell rings, the booming strains of Mussgorsky's Night on Bald Mountain echoing through the house. She wrinkles her nose, tucking the artifact quickly in her pocket as she rolls off the couch to pad in slippered feet to the front door; Kasim, one of the constructs of the house, is probably already opening the door - but she was home. She might as well see who it is.

That and the fact that there is a visitor is curious enough by itself; only a few people know how to find Shadowcrest.

A tall, beefy Hindu man with a turban and a flowing white beard opens the front door for the manor's latest visitor, but it's clear that the house recognizes Chas; Kasim greets him with a deep bow from the waist.

—-

His car is parked outside, still ticking and pinging its heat off into the cold air — just a rental, nothing like the yellow cab she'd be used to from London. A Civic or an Accord, something like that — something forgettable.

Something old enough to have a tape deck in it, for one of those punk groups he's always listening to, though.

Chas himself looks the same as ever, which is no doubt to be expected. Tall, burly, reasonably fit, worn jeans, a t-shirt beneath a green jacket lined with plaid flannel, worn-in work boots. Hair combed, beard trimmed. He is the picture of a respectable working-class gentleman, and he is burdened with gifts.

One of them might be more exciting than the other. That one is a large white bag with a distinctive red logo and red-and-gold tissue paper exploding festively out of the top, handle tied with a fat, red, satin ribbon: /Harrod's/, reads the logo. Holiday colors, for the famous London luxury shopping institution.

The other one is a cardboard tube sealed at both ends that looks as though it may have seen better days, but it does have a ribbon tied around one end, and a Christmas To:/From: label stuck to it.

"Hey Kasim," he says, all cheer. He sounds genuinely pleased to see the man that isn't a man, exactly. Always polite, Chas. "Is the lady of the house home, by any chance?"

—-

"She is," Kasim - the house's mouthpiece - confirms with a nod, his brown hands already reaching to relieve Chas of his jacket and packages, should he let him. "At the moment, Mistress Zatanna is—"

"Chas?!"

Her voice bleeds surprise; past the butler's shoulder is the young woman herself, black-haired, blue-eyed and clad in her usual black, though her normal flair has been tempered to encourage comfort rather than style, in a baggy cashmere sweater that droops off one shoulder and a pair of shorts with lace hems. Perhaps already anticipating Zatanna's next move, Kasim is already taking a few steps to the side, to get out of the way as she throws her arms, and herself, forward, with all the reckless exuberance of someone who fully expects the bigger man to catch her before she hits the floor.

He is the last person she has expected to call on her today, but his presence is a welcome one. Planting a big kiss on his bearded cheek, she squeezes him to her like the giant teddy bear that he is.

"I didn't— weren't you— what are you /doing/ here?" she exclaims, slowly finding her feet again, taking a few steps back though her hands remain just under his shoulders. "It's almost Christmas, shouldn't you be with Geraldine?"

She already knows /who/ has brought him here, but the whys presently escape her. Curling her arm around his, she proceeds to tug him lightly towards her father's opulent sitting room.

"Do you want anything to drink?" she asks. "Tea? Coffee? …..Irish coffee?"

—-

He barely manages to divest himself of his gifts before he has a chest full of magician, his expression to Kasim briefly apologetic. The coat never has a chance to come off, but that's alright. He practically swallows her up with his hug, lifts her momentarily off of the floor, and his beard bristles on her cheek as he busses it with a kiss.

"Hey, kiddo! It's good to see you."

He sets her down carefully, as though she were more fragile than she is, and shrugs his big shoulders. "She's going to Renee's parents' this year. We had our Christmas early. Took them to the Isle of Wight. It was good." Of course, Chas has a long history of taking off on his family on short notice to be with John, doesn't he? So she guesses why, without much trouble, and he lets her tug him along to the sitting room without any resistance.

"Well, you know John. He doesn't like to ask for help. I figured when he told me he needed a hand he was probably up to his neck in it already, and if I didn't come, who would?" Once he reaches a place to sit — sofa corner preferred, but anywhere big enough will do — he does finally shrug his jacket off, draping it neatly over the back of his seat. "Coffee'd be great, thanks. You look good! House looks good. Very, uh. Festive."

Amongst friends, his honest face is a dead giveaway. From the way he's looking at her with barely-disguised concern, it seems probable that he's gotten the full story about her father from John already.

—-

"I'm glad," Zatanna tells him sincerely, leaving him on the couch so she could take a few trots over to reach the all-purpose bar close to the windows. Quick, deft fingers pluck out a couple of mugs, working the coffee machine with the practiced ease of a veritable caffeine addict. It isn't long until the smell of roasted beans and a touch of hazelnut fills the room, hot brew poured on the waiting ceramic receptacles.

'If I didn't come, who would?'

That tugs at her stomach, though she tries not to let it show. She /does/ know John, though she doesn't address it yet, her brows stitching in the middle as she casts an absent glance out the ice-crusted glass panes in front of her, fingers drifting over the other accompaniments that come with coffee; a few little tubs of creamer, sugar packets and sweetener, all stuffed in a small wicker basket that she clips with her teeth, so she could have both hands free to take the mugs over to where Chas sits. She nimbly steps around the coffeetable, picking her way through the mess that Rocket has left behind on the floor, having attempted to build…./something/ while she was gone.

"It wasn't my doing," she tells him, resigned. "You'd probably be one of the only people who'd believe that aliens came through my skylight one day and refused to leave. They're a riot to be around though, so why not. Peter and his crew are good people, and it gets lonely in a big house by myself."

She nudges the mug towards him, picking up her own and tucking herself on the opposite corner of the couch, though she doesn't adopt any formal posture while entertaining Chas in her own home; long legs pull up on the couch, tucking one underneath the other, her heel resting on the back of one knee. Her smile curls ruefully, but warmly on her lips; the kind that softens her face and tempers the sharp clarity of those ice-blue eyes.

"Oh, Chas, you're sweet," she tells him, divining his purpose for coming here almost immediately. "I'm…it's fine. I'm fine. It's keeping me busy and I haven't really had the time to wallow. I mean that's good, right? That he's alive, it could be so much worse."

She takes a careful sip of her hot coffee. "…is it really that bad?" she asks, looking up at her visitor. "That big? I'm sure John wouldn't call you out from the U.K. just for a missing person's case in Gotham, because you're right, he generally doesn't ask for help."

Kasim wanders in the living room after a few moments, setting the presents he brought on the floor next to the coffee table before leaving. He doesn't ask whether they need anything else, attuned to Zatanna's wishes as he was. Not everyone had a butler who knew almost immediately what the mistress of the house wanted, but then again, he wasn't exactly human either.

—-

"/Aliens,/ huh." She's right, he does believe her, but the knit of his brows says that that's weird, even for him. Or maybe the weird bit is— "One of the aliens is named Peter?"

He reaches up to take the mug she hands him in one of his big, calloused hands, lifting it in a tiny /salut/ before he takes a cautious first sip. As with many of life's pleasures, he isn't shy about showing his appreciation, sitting back and exhaling a long, deep sigh of satisfaction. Coffee, holiday decorations, an old friend: for Chas, this is a good day, even if he looks a little bit jet-lagged. "That's kind of disappointing, Zee. I'd have expected something, you know. …More…uh, alien-y." Boyhood dreams inspired by pulp fiction and comics: dashed to pieces, clearly.

Nevermind that, though. He looks uncertain about her assertions concerning her fine-ness, but he doesn't push. It isn't his way. "Well, if you need somebody to keep you company or something, you know. Movie nights! Or maybe we can get a game night going again." He lifts his cup to take another sip, then hesitates. "Actually, forget I said that. I'd forgotten how you and John are dirty cheats. But movies, or something."

He sips, lowers the cup to rest on his jean-clad thigh, braced with one hand. He watches the 'butler' set the gifts down, something to keep his eyes occupied. "I dunno, honestly. He's not talking about it much. He did say you were involved, though, which is how he got me here in the first place. I know it's emotional blackmail, but we've got to stick together, right? I can't be the only one left who knows how to deal with his shit."

—-

That resigned look grows in intensity as Zatanna's expression flattens. "Peter claims he's from here," she grumbles. "But if you ever spend enough time with him, he's /clearly/ from another planet. I told him not to touch anything but he ended up decorating his tree friend with some cursed Christmas ornaments his talking raccoon found in the attic, nevermind that the label /clearly says/ don't touch!!" In Aramaic, but the young woman leaves that part out in her exasperation. "He drinks milk from the carton and /wanders around naked/ at night, Chas! You know me, I don't typically go to bed until three in the morning, and I don't know how he does it, but I turn a corner and he's /right there/, with his…" She gestures vaguely. "…swinging wild and free like a spidermonkey - either the thing defies gravity or he's been doing pelvic thrusts while he goes up the stairs! And it's always milk! Milk in the carton! He can't just get a bottled water and go back to his room like a normal person!"

The more she goes on, the more ridiculous it sounds. She presses her forehead into her warm mug, swallowing the urge to laugh. "…he's a good guy though," she appends, grudgingly. "And easy on the eyes, so there's at least that."

His offer has her smiling visibly again, scooting closer to Chas on the couch. "Movie nights sound good," she tells him. "So long as they're not rom-coms. I, uh….I binged on them a few months back and I got kind of sick of them."

Fatanna. /Fatanna/!

She adjusts her grip on her mug. "Truthfully I've only talked to him a grand total of twice since he showed back up in my backyard and it's all business. I know he's been poking around, but I'm expecting he's hidden a few details from me for…whatever reasons. John-reasons. Reasons that'll probably have me holding his head down the nearest body of water until the bubbles stop."

She inspects the black surface of her brew. "How is he?" she asks, never shy with posing her questions, though she doesn't look him in the face as she does. "Still in one piece?"

—-

What can Chas /possibly/ say to that? He stares at her as she rants, anything he might have said dying in his mouth when she describes someone's junk as a /spider monkey/. Everything that she says after that fails to register. This being an alien they're talking about, he's taking that a little bit more literally than he should, and is absolutely not sure what that means, except that it means he'll be seeing that in his nightmares for weeks. Is it prehensile? Does it have skinny limbs with grabby hands? Does it chitter and throw feces? Who even knows? /It's an alien/.

Long experience with John has taught him that there are sometimes things he just doesn't want to know, so all of these questions get set aside somewhere, hopefully to be burned into mental ashes later with a stiff drink. He lifts one arm as she scoots in, happy to give her a place underneath it. "Never figured you for the chick flick type," he says, still trying to recover all of the mental ground he lost.

This subject is sensitive, and Chas is — as usual, with John — more than just a little bit in the middle. Constantine is practically incapable of handling his social relationships with anything but deflected humor once they go south, so her questions are fair. It's not like she'd have been able to ask him directly.

"He's been busy, from what I can tell. Got himself a place, so it sounds like he's going to be staying for a while. I was helping him move some things yesterday." By which Chas means 'doing literally all of the work,' for reasons brought to mind by her last tentative questions.

John sprawled on a couch, trying not to move much, because it looked as though he'd been hit by a truck exclusively in the shoulder. "Uh…mostly."

Chas lifts his cup, sips, sets it down, and then tilts his chin just enough to look down at her. "So you two haven't patched things up, I guess." There's an awkward pause. "He never did tell me what happened."

Which is /weird/. Weird for Chas. John doesn't talk to other people much, but he tells Chas most of everything — probably because he knows he owes him that much. And Chas doesn't like to pry, but he can't quite get over the total absence of details. No doubt his imagination has conjured the very worst possible scenario.

—-

The news that John would be staying for a while has her snapping her head up to stare at him, her lips parting faintly - clearly, this is news to her though the expression on her face suggests less pleasure and more apprehension. He can practically see it pass over her eyes, something more akin to 'Oh god, more of this, for however long' and the fact that his chances for surviving the year had just been shot, because she isn't confident about her ability to restrain herself from killing him.

Because she knows him and more importantly, she knows herself.

"Let me guess, you carried and unpacked everything," she grouses, exasperation suffusing the line of her mouth. "At least I can already tell that the kitchen area'll probably be amazing, knowing you, if you're staying with him. Where is it anyway? It's not in Gotham, is it?" There are a few areas in the city that would be suitable for Constantine's purposes, but not too many - he would be better off looking in Metropolis or New York.

Taking another sip of her coffee, she sets the mug back down on the table, folding her arms around her knees, pushing them up to draw them to her chest, though these are unconscious gestures at best - her focus is elsewhere, attentively fixed on Chas, taking in his face, homing in on whatever indications of stress that she might find. He is one of the last people anyone should ever worried about, given his unique…condition…but she can't help it. Given the effort one usually levies in raising someone from the dead, /dying/ yourself and coming back was probably a little more strenuous. And painful as all hell.

His hesitant answer about John's physical state has the young woman shrugging, though his answer appears to satisfy her. 'Mostly intact' is his default state anyway, whenever he's on an active case. If anything, that was often the best case scenario.

It is his next words that catch her attention; Chas draws a skeptical look from Zatanna from where she sits. Pulling her fingers through her hair, she exhales a breath, her legs slipping from the couch to let her heels rest on the chilly wooden floor, leaning forward on the coffee table and curling her fingers on the edges of the couch. She's restless, she often is, never one to stay in one place too long, not one to stay in one position for too long, a consequence of the mystical mass inside her that pushes her to move, and move, and more until those flare-ups are expended, before the cycle starts anew.

"He left," she tells him at last. "Didn't come back, didn't call, suddenly the line was dead. I spent months trying to figure it out, that maybe there was this huge underlying reason - like maybe I got too intense too fast, the way I usually do. Maybe he thought I was picturing wedding bells, which I /wasn't/, or maybe he got wigged out finding the pregnancy test in the trash, which wasn't /mine/ by the way, it was Fiona's….she stopped by and, ugh, it's a long story!" She rolls her head back. "Anyway, I signed up for it…it took me a while to stop blaming myself for it, but I did it, Chas." Giving him a sidelong glance, the visible corner of her mouth tugs upwards wryly. "That's what adults do, right? Take their licks and move on?"

—-

"It's in New York. …Sort of." The 'sort of' probably says everything that needs to be said.

Chas isn't any more used to seeing Zatanna Zatara look apprehensive and subdued than he is seeing John be evasive the way he had been, and it worries him. He cups both hands around his coffee cup at his belt, watching her profile and wincing when she says that John just /left/.

He'd love to be able to come to John's defense, but he just…can't. It's not out of character, even if the rest of it was.

"Oh, John," he rumbles, mute exasperation and disapproval threading the words together. When her head falls back, he reaches out a coffee-warmed hand to briefly rub her back the way he might rub his daughter's, paternal down to his bones.

"I'm sorry, Zee. I don't know what he was thinking. But…uh." Uncomfortable. Loyal to John to a fault, but honest to the same degree, he wrestles with himself. "Honestly, it's…maybe…maybe that was for the best. Not the way he treated you, that was shitty, but…" He pitches his voice to a low volume, as though the caustic British mage might be able to overhear anything else. "…I just think you can do better."

He looks instantly guilty, pained by this betrayal. "Don't tell him I said that. For whatever it's worth, I never heard one bad thing about you. But you're young, you've got all these opportunities in front of you — if you were my kid, I'd want you as far away from him as possible."

—-

'Sort of' in New York. "Right. Gotcha."

It's cryptic to everyone else, but not to Zatanna Zatara, who's spent her life navigating this world and the worlds in between. "I'm honestly starting to feel /really bad/ for that city," she says, her good-humor returning. "On top of wormholes opening up and the number of capes that live there, the last thing it needs on top of all of it is the kind of shit our lot brings with us. Seriously, I can't think of any other place in recent memory that's definitely suffered enough. Oh, New York, I'm so sorry."

In spite of the talk touching on a somewhat sensitive issue, there is no flare of temper, no outpouring of grief, no feminine drive to rant and be as uncharitable as possible about the details to the best friend of the man who jilted her. Resignation, yes, and most importantly of all acceptance - Zatanna has gone through those five stages of grief in an explosive fashion; thankfully, none of her acquaintances have actually been around to see that, save her father.

Her head slowly drops, her temple resting on Chas' shoulder as he pats her back.

"Well, I know that /now/," she tells him. "I didn't then. I can be reckless too, Chas, and I was crazy about him. Scarily so - you know how it's easy to say there's nothing you'd do for him, but I knew deep down that I would. Even now I'm not even sure if I could say no if he asked me for something, no matter how hard I try. I almost made it you know, walking away from him when he showed up."

She tilts her head, her eyes rolling up so she could glimpse the man's profile, angled up from underneath his jaw.

"It's fine now, Chas. I think. I /hope/. I know better now, I do. But I don't…" She hesitates. "Some part of me doesn't feel right, the idea of just casting him off into the abyss and letting him pick up the pieces by himself, with you assisting. You're right, I know him and really, I should know better. But no matter what happened, if he ever needed me….all of that doesn't matter, in the end, when something serious is on the line. He's so alone, Chas. These days, I at least know what that tastes like."

She wrinkles her nose. "That doesn't make him immune to getting punched in the face sometimes, though."

—-

The sound of Chas' chuckle is a deep, rolling thing in his chest, eyes narrowing. Poor New York, indeed. And London. And Spain, when the Zataras were there. Really, anywhere this demographic tends to go has his immediate and genuine sympathies. He keeps pace as best someone with no magical abilities to speak of can — well, none of his /own/ — but that doesn't mean he thinks he'll ever get used to it. It's always a five-alarm fire /somewhere/.

The humor is quick to fade, though. He listens to her outpouring and tries to keep his troubled expression to himself, with mixed success. She is famously giving of her time, energy, and affection, and although the irony doesn't escape him, that kind of blind loyalty to someone like John worries him. Probably because he has a daughter of his own. It changes everything. Zatanna Zatara is a big girl and she's had to grow up faster than most, but he can still hear Geraldine's voice hidden somewhere in that of this much more sophisticated individual. His kid would do anything for /him/, too, and it scares the ever living shit out of him.

What does he /say/ to all of that?

"Just…take care of yourself first, that's all I'm saying."

The threat of violence does alleviate his worry a little bit, though. "Yeah, well. Sometimes he needs it, so punch away."

He lets a beat of time just long enough to be polite pass by, and then gently steers the conversation into less difficult territory. "So are you going to open your presents, or are you going to wait until Christmas?" The toe of his workboot nudges the bag by the coffee table.

—-

"I will," Zatanna says simply, making the promise to Chas solemnly - and he would know that she would keep it, being a woman of her word as always. "That was then, this is now, and a lot of things have changed since. I wouldn't be able to do what I /need/ to do if I just let my /amazing/ self waste away in the service of someone else. I can be devoted too, Chas, like you, but I'm done getting stepped on, also. And since not all of us can come back from the dead, that just makes it more imperative that I be cautious." She gives him a wink. "Have a little faith, yeah? I know what I'm doing. Mostly. Like….a little over half the time. Maybe……sixty percent."

She pauses, and deflates. "Fify-five percent." A more conservative estimate.

His blessing has her laughing, waving a hand sideways so she could move further up, shifting closer to the table, a hand extending to retrieve the presents. She takes the big one first, decorated with all of the trappings one would expect and more. "Oh, Chas, you really didn't have to," she gushes, a rare pink flush blooming over her cheeks. "One small thing and I would've been happy, but two? You spoil me."

She starts with the first, threading her fingers over ribbon and wrapping, to get to the box underneath. Many things have changed, she says, but this is, at least, something consistent - Zatanna still loved surprises, though it wasn't confined to the good ones. The bad ones, she also relished, as strange as that was - it kept her on her toes, tested her mettle, enabled her to learn….and she was never shy about getting burned.

Once that is unwrapped, she'll reach for the other, eyeing the worn out cardboard curiously and the To/From sticker on top.

—-

His brow creeps upward as the percentages keep decreasing in size, and eventually he's shaking his head, looking away from her. "You guys are unbelievable," he says, and he doesn't just mean 'she and John' but 'all of those crazy magician types who like to live life on a wing and a prayer.' Her father, their friends — all of them.

It's an affectionate insult, though.

His eyes twinkle while he watches her reach for the gifts, taking the time to put more of his scented coffee away. He's the kind of man who enjoys giving gifts more than receiving them, deriving pleasure entirely from the act of watching someone else's joy.

Very happily, the bag that claims to be from Harrod's /actually is/ from Harrod's, because otherwise that would've been a very dirty trick, indeed. It contains several things: a basket of luxury toiletries, bubble bath, a Turkish Pestemal towel, some tins of tea, a tiny box of petit-fours. Chas tilts his head. "Renee helped me out," he admits. "I'm not really good with…that." You know, girly stuff.

Two, she says, incredulously!

"The other one's not from me, though."

She's probably already realized, once she gets her hand on the cardboard, because the To/From sticker just says 'Zatanna' on it in John's handwriting, which is distinctive: years of practice rendering arcane script have given him surprisingly beautiful penmanship. The name is scrawled across the entire sticker. There is no 'John' for 'From,' which makes one wonder why he bothered at all; it's almost worse to slap a sticker on it without wrapping it than it would've been to just send the tube — the absolute bare minimum of effort, really.

Said tube is stained in some places, scuffed in others, having obviously led a long and eventful life. There's dust on one of the caps closing either end.

While she pries one end of the tube open, Chas sets his cup aside on the side table and spends some time scrubbing his bearded chin, looking at all of the decorations in the room with sudden interest.

The tube contains a roll of paper. It's also old, starting to yellow. The edges are crinkled.

It unrolls into a poster, a two-color job that was clearly printed a few decades ago. It's a gig poster, done in a minimalist graphical style. The central figure is crafted from abstract slashes of black on an orange-red wedge, but it's still easy to identify. It ought to be. It's her father. It's an old date — her father would have been nineteen. The year he began performing professionally, as it happens.

There's something scrawled on the back in pen:

'For JC.

Remember: _everyone_ begins.

-Z'

—-

His exasperated tone has her grinning widely, broad enough to scare the normally hidden dimple on her left cheek into visibility, eyes brightening like stars, all mischief and merriment and absolutely unrepentant about the recklessness that often has her bulling into other people's lives and getting into trouble because of it. There is hardly anything ever reserved about Zatanna, who chased runaway rabbits all over her father's stage when she was five; if anything that propensity has probably only gotten a little more worse over the years.

The Harrod's bag has the young woman throwing her arms around him again, pecking at his cheek. "It's everything a girl like me needs to keep her from losing her mind, Chas, you absolute cuddle-bear! I love it so so so so so much!" Each 'so' punctuated with kisses and distressingly staining his beard and cheek with the remnants of her favorite dark red lipstick. "You're the absolute best, I can't wait to try all of these. Have Kasim just prepare me a bath automatically with the tea and the…./oh god/ petit-fours, I haven't had them in ages!"

She refrains from mentioning her diet, still trapped in the paranoid sphere that she would suddenly regain all the weight she had lost in her mourning period.

She finally, /finally/ lets go, to take up the tube and knows well before Chas confirms it that it wasn't from him. Still, there's no hesitation, her blue eyes falling on that distinct penmanship and the lack of a name on the From line; it /is/ almost worse, but she knows him and knows there is probably a reason - either to emphasize his lack of sentimentality or the uncertainty that she would accept it if it so obviously came from him….or more likely, that she would know who it was from just by seeing his mark there without any further elaboration.

Before he was her lover, he was her teacher, and it was never his style to state the obvious unless he wanted to be an ass.

The contents of the tube give her pause; her fingers run lightly - reverently, fondly - over the depiction of her father emblazoned on the paper, well before Sindella of the Homo Magi, well before Zatanna had even been born. The inscription, the autograph; her giddy smile fades but only slightly. Her lashes blink once or twice.

"….Chas…" She looks over at him. "I don't understand. This is /his/. It's addressed to him, it belongs to him. If he's kept it all this time, it means something to him, doesn't it? I…I know I'm probably the worst daddy's girl ever but I'm surrounded by his things every day."

—-

Under that absolute /onslaught/ Chas leans and struggles, half-hearted efforts to keep her from making it look as though he's been singing 'Goodbye Horses' in his spare time, lipstick all over his goddamn face. It's only a token effort, though. /That/ is the Zatanna Zatara he remembers, and what lingering ghosts of worry there were in him are eradicated like shadows when the sun comes out.

She'll be /fine/.

"I'll — I'll tell Renee you liked it, then."

By the time she's opening the other gift, Chas is preoccupied with the Christmas decorations, not sure exactly how this bit is going to play out. There's a lot he doesn't know about them, obviously, and who knows if there's subtext? Not him.

Not Zatanna either, apparently, so Chas lets his shoulders relax once all risk of an awkward emotional moment passes.

"I don't know. Maybe because it's the piece of your dad that belonged to him?"

Or maybe John doesn't want reminders of his colossal fuck-up with Zatanna laying around in his new flat, Chas thinks, and doesn't say. It's not a charitable thought, and he feels another of those guilty pangs.

"There /is/ a story that goes with that poster. I've heard it just about five hundred times."

—-

"Please do! Tell her hi for me also, and give her a big ol' hug for me!"

She is all smiles still; Chas would observe her even while he braces himself for a potential emotional fallout, when the young lady picks up the poster and holding it up to the light. While her words speak of some hesitation to accept it, it is less about it coming from John and more about the fact that her father had given it to John, and clearly knew enough about him to inscribe what he has at the back of it. Reminders of the people in her life are something she collects, to look upon fondly and remember, to fill the growing tapestry of her life with names and faces, to take in the good and the bad and somehow love both.

It doesn't feel right to deprive someone of the same thing, but it is the sort of gift that she wouldn't turn away. Deep down, she decides to keep it if not just to keep it safe, in the event that John wants it back.

"Hm?" Zatanna gives Chas a glance, curiosity evident there. "I've heard a lot of stories about John from Daddy over the years, but nothing about this one." She wiggles the poster, though she does this with care, the crinkle of old paper reminding her of its age. She was going to have to get this framed /immediately/, and cast a few charms to render it unbreakable, considering the aliens living in her house.

—-

"Hey Kasim, can I get a, uh, napkin? Wet towel, or something?" His efforts to wipe her lipstick off with his thumb are failing spectacularly. He stares at his still-clean, barely-discolored thumb in abject bafflement, and gives her the same kind of look. "What the hell do they make this stuff out of, napalm?"

Giving up on cleaning his face for the time being, he reaches for his cup and crosses his legs, one ankle on the other knee. "I was there for the first part of it. Your dad's act came to London when John and I were still just kids in Liverpool. We didn't think of ourselves as kids, we were teenagers, but let's just say John's attempts to grow a beard at that point were still /pretty sad./"

He grins, pleased with himself, and amused by the memory.

"Anyway, John was on fire about it. He said we had to go. Mind you, he'd already started picking up knacks here and there, but it was early days. He told me your dad was the best magician in the world. So we pooled our pocket money, hitched into London for the show. And it was a /damn/ good show, so he was right about that."

Tilting the mug, Chas eyeballs the little amount of coffee left in it, just for something to look at as he pulls memories back across a distance of over a decade. "After the show he goes up to your dad, doing signings, and tells him he wants your dad to teach him. And you know John — if you think he's full of himself now, you should've seen him then. He was convinced there was /no way/ your dad would ever turn him down. Told him flat-out that one day he'd be the greatest magician on earth." Chas shakes his head slowly, still incredulous after all this time. "The nuts on him, eh? But your dad didn't chuck him out the way I thought he would. He gave John a long look, and then wrote something down on the back of John's playbill and gave it to him. Goes, 'I'll be back on tour next year around this time. If you can figure out how to cast this spell by then, I'll teach you.' Something like that."

"So John goes home and he starts throwing himself at this thing. I don't think there'd been anything in magic he'd found that he hadn't been able to learn, until he tried to take on the spell your dad gave him. Some kind of 'simple transfiguration spell,' is what he said, but he just came up dry every time. He looked for answers to the problem everywhere. Probably learned more about magic trying to figure out how to cast that damn thing than he'd ever learned before that, but he still couldn't do it. So for a year, he's keeping a detailed log of his work, his research, all of the ways he failed at casting it."

—-

"Of course, Master Chas." Kasim is suddenly there, when he had left the two of them to their devices all of this time; as always, he materializes at the precise moment when someone needs something. He proceeds to move out of the living room just as Chas flashes her an incredulous look, to which Zatanna tilts her nose up at.

"The wonders of modern cosmetics, Chas," she tells him, her lips twisting into a more wicked bent. "Hard to get off, but stays when it matters. It's a /very encouraging/ sign of the times, you know, in days when women aren't about to let the lot of you get away with anything. No escape, darling. No escape."

Kasim does return to make Chas' life easier on that front; on the silver platter he carries is a folded stack of makeup removal wipes. Zatanna flashes him a /look/ at these, lips turning out in a faint pout at her mischief cut off at the knees, but otherwise she decides to pick up her coffee mug again, tucking in for storytime….that and she doesn't want the mug accidentally tipping over the poster.

"Would explain why he hardly scrapes a razor over his face now," she says with a laugh. "Must've remembered those ill attempts before, now that he has it, he's not letting it go so easily."

She digs into her coffee at that, listening, her amusement growing more pronounced at every word; all of that sounds familiar, and while Zatara has always been indulgent of his little girl, his other students have not been so lucky. She distinctly remembers an eighteen year old Bruce Wayne dumped ass over head in a tank of water in handcuffs before Zatara had sealed it shut, if not just to see if the boy at the very least knew how to dislocate his thumbs before the air in his lungs grew toxic.

Bruce had been the only other recipient of her father's professional talents on stage - the art of escape, ventriloquism, sleight of hand; John was the only other recipient of his more mystical ones.

Once she hears that the spell is a 'transfiguration spell,' Zatanna visibly bites down on her lower lip, restraining the urge to grin, or even to let her imagination run wild at all the possibilities /that/ entails. She knows John, and above all, she knows her /father/. Whatever she could think of, herself, she was extremely confident that her father could do worse.

"….please tell me this is connected to the beard thing," she says, because she can't help it. The idea of John's hair - all of it - growing /uncontrollably/ is pretty horrific but hilarious all the same.

—-

"Thanks, Kasim." He picks up a few wipes, and begins slowly divesting himself of that lipstick. God forbid he go back to New York with any of it on him. "So, yeah. Sure enough, a year goes by, more or less, and your dad has a gig in the same theater at roughly the same time of year, and John gets more and more frustrated. I think he knew with only a month left that he'd never figure it out in time. When he said he was going to the show alone, I didn't argue the point. I don't think he wanted me to see him have to fess up to his failure, and anyway, he was in a pretty foul mood by that time. Everything I know about what happened next, I got second-hand from John, or your dad, or someone else who was there.

"So John shows up at this performance, corners your dad afterward in the signing line. Your dad's so polite. 'So, can you cast it?' All the people he must meet in all of his travels, show after show, and he still somehow remembered John."

"John admits that he can't — must have stung like hell — and then slams the book down on the table and demands the answer. Says he's done everything he can think of and it still doesn't work, that he's owed. Your dad pages through the notebook and just starts /laughing./ He says, 'I'd have preferred a student smart enough to know when he's wasting his time on something impossible, but I'll settle for one stubborn enough to fail for an entire year.'" Chas' grin is boyish, wide, his shoulders shaking. "Damn, John was pissed. But that's the story of how he got his foot through your dad's door. Bloody-minded refusal to quit."

He sets the soiled makeup wipes aside. "There's an addendum to the story, and it's John's favorite part. Had to be five, six years later that he was out at the pub with your dad and some of your dad's contemporaries. Big players in the game. John was only just starting to make a name for himself. Your dad starts telling them this story, about the impossible spell, and they're laughing it up, giving John a hard time. And then /John/," he says, lowering his voice and lifting one eyebrow, "/Does the spell./" There in his face, finally, is a glimmer of the thing that keeps him following John bloody Constantine across the ends of the earth, in spite of all of the misfortune involved. It's a little spark, but it's common to the people who trail after the Brit — some kind of shine. "No shit. Makes it work. He'd never stopped trying to work out how it could be done. To this day, he says that putting that look on your dad's face is one of the best magic tricks he's ever done."

A beat, and he lifts his cup, draining what's left of the coffee. "The way he tells it, he didn't pay for a single drink that night."

—-

"Damn." She snaps her fingers, though the grin remains. "Ah well, I'm pretty sure I would have heard it /well before/ today if that was what happened. I don't think you'd be able to keep it to yourself, you'd be telling /everybody/." Or at the very least everyone who knew John bloody Constantine.

That bright expression grows more muted as the story continues, but it is nothing sad or even melancholy - genuine affection tempers most of her sharper, more bombastic edges, and any story that involves her father is capable of doing just that. Seeing Chas take such relish in telling it adds onto the faint, glowing sensation of pleasure stirring her stomach - the kind of joy that could only be drawn from something so simple and heartfelt.

The mention of John, too, picturing it in her head - young, /too/ young, really, to demand such things from the likes of her father. But he does it anyway, because it wouldn't be him not to. She picks at her mug, those softer motes of emotion directed more at it than Chas. Power - the kind that her father wielded, that John inherited from his constant study, always had a price; it often takes more than it gives, but these small stepping stones remind her of the humans and the personalities underneath it all.

There is, of course, the plot twist and it's easy to see just why this was John's favorite part, and probably her father's least. She looks up at the shift in tone, the slight lowering of Chas' face, the lift of that eyebrow. She can't help but laugh, tilting her head back at that, a warm hand reaching up to press against her face. She meant what she said earlier, that many things have happened between now and then, but there's /relief/ in her laughter - for all of Constantine's attempts to be unpredictable, he can at least do one thing consistently, no matter how many times he fucks up, how many people he screws over or chases away.

"/Typical/," she says at last. "I bet he drained them dry, too, that night. I wish I could've been there to see it, Daddy tends to be indulgent though he could be harsh when the circumstances called for it. I guess the poster is nothing to give away when he can reach into his memories and remember the look on my father's face. Better than any polaroid, I imagine."

Reaching out, she gives Chas' arm a squeeze; a consummate performer, Zatanna's face is naturally expressive, but in her eyes, the line of her mouth, the very subtle hint of those pale cheeks rounding at a smile that doesn't quite manifest, there is something elusive and undefinable about the way she looks now.

"I'm glad he has you, Chas," she tells him softly.

—-

"The poster was what your dad gave him when he agreed to take him. I think what he wrote was meant to be encouraging. I guess it worked." Chas tchs his tongue. Maybe /too/ encouraging. But all of that is comfortable. Telling stories about what an ass John is tends to be the sympathetic side-hobby of his associates, necessary for keeping sane. War stories, really. Like a support group.

He glances over as she touches his arm, aware — because he is an empathetic person, sensitive to people and their feelings — that something in her has changed, though he's unable to fix a label to what that change is. He very clearly perceives that it's something — not fragile, but what would the word be? Vulnerable? — and he should be careful.

Still, it makes him self-conscious. And not just self-conscious, but instinctively inclined to make light of it on John's behalf, covering for his friend's lack of close friends. "Me too," he says archly. "Can you imagine the kinds of crap he'd get up to without somebody sane to point out all of the reasons his ideas are usually bad?"

—-

That expression vanishes quickly at his quip, though really, he isn't telling her anything she doesn't already know. War stories are certainly a good term for it.

"Well, better you than me, buddy, I can be reckless, too, so I clearly can't be trusted," Zatanna says with a grin, finishing off her coffee and settling in. "Anyway, here, let's crack these open…" She unwraps the Harrod's gift basket, plucking out the tin of petit-fours and opening it, offering him the first taste. "…and you can tell me what Renee and Geraldine have been up to these days."

She leaves their world behind for just a moment, stepping into the temporary bubble of normal that Chas provides with his presence, to catch up with a good friend who she doesn't see so often. She indulges herself in these reminders because they are rare to manifest so physically the way Chas does, and by the time she sends him home and back to Constantine, it's already late, though she makes the trip easier by sending Chas and his rented car back to where he needs to be; teleporation is a handy trick, one she has already mastered no matter how big or complex the object, so long as she can picture the destination clearly - and New York is a city that she knows very well.

Asking him to spend the night had been tempting, but she is as always a person who means what she says, and all of its implications. While it has been months since she has convinced herself of the arrogant belief that she could save Constantine from himself, she can't help but revel in the assurance that with Chas around, that aspect of her life will be relatively fine. Or so she hopes.

She wanders back into the living room; Kasim has already started taking care of cleaning up the discarded wrappers and spent coffee cups. Sinking further into the couch, her eyes fall on the poster again, much more memorable now that there is a story attached to it.

It's all too easy, to overthink it. To mull over and dissect whatever subtext John had been trying to communicate with the gift, starting from the To/From sticker and down to the specific item that he had chosen to send her. It's a normal reaction, human…for a man or a woman.

But there's no harm, and infinitely healthier, to turn her thoughts the other way - that John Constantine was being nice, and had returned a piece of her missing father to her, reflecting the recognition as to just how much Giovanni Zatara means to her. For all of his flaws, she knew better than almost everyone else that he was capable of it, still. If anything, it speaks of his resilience above all else.

With a sigh, she carefully rolls up the poster and tucks it under her arm, to carry up to her bedroom so she can peruse the Internet and decide on a frame.

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