Bona Fide

January 29, 2017:

After visiting Tim Drake, Zatanna Zatara meets Jessica Jones in New York's Metro General Hospital, who asks her to heal Matthew Murdock's extensive injuries from an altercation with members of the Cult of the Cold Flame.

New York Metro General Hospital - New York City

It's a major hospital in New York.


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Tim Drake, Peter Parker, John Constantine, Giovanni Zatara, Sargon the Sorceror

Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

bona fide - latin for "in good faith." Implies sincere good intentions regardless of the outcome.

Six days. That's how long it's been since one Matthew Murdock was assaulted by persons unknown on the streets of Hell's Kitchen, saved by a local P.I. and rushed off my emergency responders to Metro-General's ER. Though Matthew himself couldn't begin to tell you duration; he's spent much of that time comatose either through protective measures taken by his own body or by inducement of the doctors overseeing what will surely go down in the medical books as the strangest of injuries.

A single narrow entry wound that branches like a tree — piercing fat, muscle, and of course, organ tissue. The internal bleeding is stopped with heroic efforts of hospital staff, and the next step is to see whether the thing itself can be salvaged at all. Damage to the pancreas, that slowest to heal of human organs, was blessedly minor. There are hours of surgery followed by days of deepest sleep while doctors monitor vitals and begin looking tentatively for a candidate for transplant — or waiting, as it were, for a suitable candidate to die on them.

He awakens on the 5th day, where the nurse gently explains to him his precarious situation, quick to mention that he is in at least one respect a very lucky boy: his liver damage stemmed from attack rather than years of alcohol induced pickling. That puts him at the top of the list for a new one. And that is where anyone who cares to look will find him: in "critical but stable condition," doped up and dreamy on meds, barely fit to receive company of any kind.


One would think after yesterday's emotional and wholly exhausting rescue Jessica might take a breather. Sleep in. Schlub around in sweats.

But there was unfinished business still, and she wasn't exactly the type to kick back and watch Parks and Recreation in her sweats. She still had people she was worried about, still had debts to pay. So she'd made sure Azalea was settled, made sure Cindy was eating and not timidly worried that she couldn't have anything in the fridge, had showered and changed, and made her way right back to Metro Hospital. The irrepressable Foggy Nelson had gone unguarded for the first twelve hours since Matt's attack because everyone she could have tapped to do it, save Cindy, was somewhere deep underground in Ozone Park, but she didn't feel like it was right to ask Cindy, for a multitude of reasons.

It was a stark reminder of reasons why she couldn't turn her back on this hero thing ever again, no matter how flawed she was. There just weren't enough hands for all that needed to be done. Too few cops, too few EMTs, and too few of the super-powered and super-skilled with both the will and the means to make a difference. Failing to step up was no longer an option. This realization is, of course, just one more to add to her growing pile for the reasons she's making changes in her life.

At this hour Foggy was usually at the hospital, and there he was, sound asleep. The doctor who came out to give the news was a little more observant than the little lawyer, had linked Jessica to Foggy where Foggy had not. She gets the news.

She glances at him, guilty. She could wake him up, tell him, but then she might add more paint to the half-finished target on his back. Besides…she had other ideas.

Zatanna Zatara was #7 on her speed dial. John Constantine was #3…it had been a private joke of hers to associate them with mystic numbers. Nobody really fills the other slots…there's no #1, no #2.

So she had hit the #7 and called Zatanna to let her know that Matt Murdock was capable of receiving visitors, and to ask if she was still up to using her particular brand of healing on him. Upon hearing the yes that she knew would probably come she had paced around the waiting room until Zatanna had appeared.

"Thanks," she'd said, for like the 15th time, when Zatanna finally had.

And so it is that upon waking up the first footsteps to enter his room that don't belong to a doctor or a nurse belong instead to one PI. The whiskey smell is fainter than ever now, but the notes of vanilla and leather coupled with that heavy stride are unmistakable.

"Matt?" Jessica asks, quietly, pitching her voice low. "It's me, Jessica. Foggy's fine—" she figures that's the first thing he'll want to know. "He's just sleeping in the waiting room. One of the nurses seriously tucked a little teddy bear under his arm, it's really adorable. Listen…I've brought a friend. This is Zatanna Zatara; she's…" She glances back at Zee, suddenly at a loss for how to explain, hey, I brought my boo the wizard to fix all this.


As it happens, Zatanna Zatara is still in New York. While she has course work waiting for her in Gotham City, these days her academics have taken second priority to the other things going on in her life. The tumultuous events of the last night had her spending the aftermath with John, if not just to ensure that whatever he did in the crystal's chamber while she was trying to find her way back from HYDRA's police-state utopia didn't damage him mystically in any lasting way, and she had just recently found out that Tim Drake purchased a penthouse in New York City, because of course he did, and that was where she spent the earlier hours of the day after she rolled out of the British magus' bed. On top of other things, she berated him for having left the building before anyone could tend to his injuries, followed by the realizations that she simply didn't want to leave the city either after how these events have affected Peter Parker, or that Bucky was still out there, and Jane was in SHIELD custody.

She was still at Tim's place when she receives the call from Jessica, but these days it takes her very little time to get from Point A to Point B. Ice-blue eyes wander over to the hospital's sign before she ventures inside, breathing in the smell of sterility and antiseptic lacing the air. She had known about Matt Murdock's incident for days, but considering that she is also familiar with the fact that this was Jessica's friend, and that she blamed herself for it, she had kept her distance until the private investigator needed her. It seems that today is the day, and when she arrives, she looks at the very least well-rested, though the shades of worry remains in those large, expressive eyes.

The thanks from Jessica has her wrapping up the other woman in a hug, giving her a warm squeeze. "I said anytime and I meant it," she says, before releasing her and letting Jess inform the bedridden lawyer that she wasn't alone.

"It's nice to meet you, Mister Murdock," she says.

Whoever Zatanna Zatara is, she sounds incredibly young - not just in voice, but the strength of her heartbeat and the cadence of those light steps, the clicking of those bootheels, suggestive of a creature with an errant, effortless grace.

Then again, Matt already knew that; Jessica had mentioned that her client was an eighteen year old girl, surmised that whoever she was, she was either in trouble or /was/ trouble, as always given the kind of company the unique community in Hell's Kitchen attracts. Her appearance would be lost to the blind lawyer, and there is a blink when she realizes that the man is blind, as her friend hadn't mentioned the handicap in the one time she has mentioned him. But the way she smells is unique - underneath the muted scents of the fabric softener in her clothes and the vanilla in her bath bubbles, he would detect lightning and ozone, and something else that is distinctly otherworldly, though not in a way that suggests that she is another one of the aliens that have made New York their home. He could guess, however. This isn't the first time he has smelled magic, but not this potent….or clear. Pure, in the most pristine, powerful sense.

He would feel a gentle hand on his when Zatanna shakes it with a firm grip.

"Jess' told me so much about you. I was actually thinking about seeing you regarding a case…not for me, but for a friend of mine. But I heard about your…" There's a glance at Jess. "Mugging, and that you were grievously injured. I thought I'd be able to help in putting you back on your feet again, if you'll have it. It….I'll try not to make it hurt much. It's honestly the least I could do. Jess told me who did this and….I'm sorry that my troubles have followed you."

Her voice is genuinely apologetic, and truthful.


Jessica Jones cannot know that, even in Matt's present state, he could tell she was coming before she walked in the doors. That the waft of vanilla soap and leather carried over the pervasive scents of iodoform and rubbing alcohol, striking him moments after the elevator door opened, or that he heard each pacing footfall as she waited for her friend. The truth is that there's little for Matt to do in his private alcove other than to reach out with his senses and observe, not in some cursory way, but rather a rigorous a /noticing/, which Stick taught him long ago is just another focus to which the practicing mind may affix itself. It's not his best meditation session — far from it given the chemically induced fog he's in — but it passes the time, and every now and again yields nuggets of interest or use.

Here, it gives him advance warning of Jessica Jones and the friend who soon make their way into his cordoned off cubby of a hospital room, and time to try to clear his mind, beat back against that drip, drip of the IV plugged into his arm and hone his focus.

"Hey, Jessica…" he repeats after she speaks, summoning up a little smile that widens further still when she provides assurance of his friend. "Oh, that's too funny. You know he even had an ex who called him Foggy-bear?" His voice is almost always quiet, but where most of the time it comes at a dignified clip it's sluggish here, tired, even if he speaks of his partner with obvious affection.

He looks rough. Were the young lady besides Jones to keep her pledge to 'rate' Matt, it'd be hard to mark the gowned, bedridden man before them highly with anything like honesty. Thickly stubbled, sallow-skinned, the whites of his dark eyes yellowed with jaundice, Matt Murdock is at the moment a very sick man — and he looks it.

But for all of that, he'll still convey some of the quiet assurance that marks his better days in the way he clasps Zatanna's hand. "A pleasure, Ms. Zatara," he says courtesy fit for an intake meeting with a client. "I've heard a little about you," the lawyer adds dryly, "though not nearly so much as some others seem to think."

Her offer of help has his dark brows drawing together, a crease bisecting the forehead between them. "And that's very generous of you," he says slowly, softly. "What sort of help are you offering, precisely?" Though he can hazard a guess from the whiff of that familiar ozone smell on her, the lawyer in him requires clarity, disclosure.


Upon being hugged, Jess had squeezed Zatanna back, an unbridled show of emotion that would have been impossible for her even a month ago.

"It fits," Jessica murmurs, in response to the revelation about one Mr. Nelson. "If he tells you in a panic people were following him, it was just me and some of my associates. One of them is not the most subtle person on the face of the planet." Even if Peter Quill had mostly only sat with him in the same waiting room, he drew eyes, even in New York City. She had to allow for the possibility that one or more of them had been made…Azalea had mentioned Foggy walking around with a baseball bat during her shift, after all. She didn't want Matthew to worry.

Warmth dances along her voice as she speaks, warmth and guilt and worry as she looks him over. Relief, too. He's talking, smiling, not dead, and Zatanna's going to help. Her heartbeat tells a tale of anxiety, and the state of him doesn't seem to impact the way her temperature rises a bit every time he smiles, even little, drug-induced smiles. But she doesn't hover near. She takes up a position a little distance away, near the door, which she closes with a gentle click. Perhaps making sure nobody disturbs them, perhaps feeling the need to stand guard, as if seeing him awake and not bleeding out on cold pavement has her afraid someone will come and reverse as much progress as he's already made before Zatanna can work her will and leave him whole.

If he consents. Which he might not. And that would be his right, but…

The worried heartbeat picks up a little more worried speed.

She'll let Zatanna explain, however, feeling it more appropriate; this was the young magus' area of expertise, something Jessica only understood in the most abstract of all abstract of principles, despite the fact that fate seems to have drawn her into the orbit of things both wonderous and terrible.


He /was/ handsome. There's an appreciative incline of her head as she examines Matt Murdock, blind and bedridden as he is, with his hospital gown and the messy head of dark red hair on top of his head. Unique, due to the combination of his handicap and profession, and the way he smiles. There's a slight lift on the corners of her mouth, a bemused look on her features though she is careful not to show her friend the full glare of it. There's plenty of room to tease her later, because it wouldn't be her if she didn't. Still she takes the time to admire the man on the bed, not at all immune to the attention of handsome men. Like John - committed, not dead.

"I was told your injuries were pretty bad," Zatanna says. "If it's alright, I can make most of them go away."

She pauses, hesitation more sensed than heard or even seen. "I don't know how much Jess has told you about me." There's a quick glance to the investigator there, though her eyes quickly fall back on the lawyer. Her trepidation there is two-fold, she isn't quite sure as to what degree of skepticism she would receive, though she hopes his attack makes the reality of it clear enough. There was also the incidents that have driven her to be apprehensive in using her talents too much, now that she has been forced to confront what was under her father's seal, and the frightening amount of power and, more worrisomely, /seduction/ that it represents. She has taken to storing magic in items, these days, since her discovery, the better not to go 'over the cap', so to speak, though she had been pushed dangerously close to it the night before, when she was forced to rip through the walls of an entire parallel, alternate world in an effort to reach John as he attempted to do the same in this one.

Thankfully, it all worked out.

His hand is turned over in her hand, her other moving to clasp over his knuckles in a gesture that she hopes is both gentle and reassuring. She smiles, because of course she does. Even if he can't see it, perhaps he can detect it. She read somewhere that sometimes the lack of one sense can heighten all others. Obviously, not to the superhuman extent that Matt has.

"I can do this two ways," she explains softly. "I can regenerate what you've lost, but from what Jess tells me, you were in critical condition…that means the pain of healing you this way will be commensurate with what you felt when you received them. I can also turn back the clock to get you to the point where you never received the injuries at all. That will hurt less, but it'll require…" Her brows stitch faintly in the middle. "….more from me. More effort, more magic. Manipulating Time is trickier, but I've had some experience and I'm confident I can do this. But I'd like you to make the choice, Mister Murdock. This is your body, after all."


"Thanks," Matt murmurs regarding one Foggy Nelson, with what seems like genuine appreciation towards Jessica. "Thanks for looking out for him, Jessica." And then Zatanna is laying out the details.

'If he consents,' thinks Jessica Jones. It's good of her not to assume. Matt Murdock, practicing Catholic, has had little exposure to the occult before this week — and his most recent brush with the practice of magic did little to commend it to him. That might go some distance towards explaining the quiet apprehension emanating from the man Zatanna hovers over as she very patiently, very gently explains what should be utterly impossible.

She offers him two potential courses, but there's very little to debate once he arrives at a decision about pursuing either of them. "Those are quite the options you lay out, Ms. Zatara," Murdock says. "And I can't really say no to the help when my current options are…"

More surgery. A transplant. Months and months of rehabilitation if it all takes and he survives.

"But look, you don't need to roll back time to save me some pain," he says quietly, seemingly unsettled by the prospect that time can be rolled back to begin with. He's made his decision readily, though it's only a partially educated one. Yes, the gruesome torture he was subjected to in the alleyway remains a vivid memory; he can still feel phantom flashes of those burrowing, wormy shadows tearing through his insides. But much of the damage to his body that keeps him bedridden comes not from the cultists who attacked him but from the doctors who saved his life by opening up his insides to keep him from 'bleeding in.' Their work is evidenced in the long red incision trailing up the middle of his abdomen, replete with stitches and purple bruising on its edges. For that part he was — blessedly — under anesthesia, and woke only to find its after-effects days later. He's brave, certainly, but in a very real way he only has the dimmest idea of what he's actually signing up for.

But then, what else is new?


A sharp intake of breath. Jessica may not know the doctors did more damage than the cultists, but…it was his screams that had drawn her. She'd seen the agony on his face, in his eyes that night. She opens her mouth as if to speak, but closes it, changing her mind. Her eyes meet Zatanna's for a moment. It all comes with prices, and in this case, the price is going to be pain and lots of it. If there had been ways to mitigate that Zatanna would have said.

But even as Zatanna had laid out the options, she'd known. She'd known exactly which one he'd pick. This may only be the third time she's ever been in a room with him, but both of the previous times were under somewhat extreme circumstances. Enough to allow her to take that much measure of him.

"I'm going to make sure nobody comes in case…" In case his anguished screams bring the whole hospital down on his head. "I'll be right back."

She slips out the door. If Matt follows her clicking boots across the cold hospital floors he'll hear her pass the nurse's station, heading to the other side of the wing. She's ducking into room after room, any room where people are unconscious. Hitting call buttons, one after another, sending beeps across the floor, causing nurses to curse and race from their station at the end of the hall. When they start emerging she briefly ducks into a woman's room and lets them pass, lets them burst into the room to figure out what the hell is going on, then quickly makes her way back. She doesn't want to see his pain, but neither does she want to avoid giving support. The brief burst of Something To Do had made her feel better though. She's always better when she's acting with purpose.


Her pale expression flattens. Zatanna lifts one hand off of Matt's so she could rub the back of her neck, exasperation and bemusement laden on her features. "Never knew New York was full of masochists," she ribs the lawyer, a brow quirking upwards. But a smile does tug up a little higher. What did she expect? For all of Jessica's caustic outer shell, she seems to attract good people on her own without any help from her. There's a slight cant of her head, observing how the private investigator walks out of the room to make sure that nobody disturbs them, a grateful look cast there, but otherwise, she gets to work.

There's a shift, a rustle of cloth. He'd feel a flat stick pressed against his mouth lightly. "Bite on this," she tells him, her words and tone leaving room for no argument. "I don't want you biting your tongue of, just in case. I mean, I can tell you can probably withstand a beating or two, but can't be too careful these days, right?"

Hopefully he will accept it, though once his teeth are clipped over the instrument against his mouth, she takes a few steps back. "May I?" Ever courteous. She withdraws the covers, folding it flat and neat over his ankles, and proceeds to draw his hospital gown to the side to take a look at his injuries. The long, angry red line, marking where the surgeons have cut him open, earns him a wince, a slight hissing of her teeth. "Jesus Christ," she whispers softly, unaware that she is taking the name of God's son in vain right in front of a practicing catholic, but Matt was a lawyer, he wouldn't have survived in the legal profession long if he balked at everyone who rubbed his Catholic sensibilities the wrong way. "Those Cold Flame bastards really did you in…"

She sucks in a breath through her teeth, reaching over to press one palm flat, and light, over the staples and stitches keeping him shut. Another hand moves towards his forehead, sweeping gestures made there by a careful thumb, tracing an invisible symbol on his skin. It would not be one that he recognizes - it's certainly not a cross, the edge of her manicure etching a circle and a few other arcs and slashes. Her lips part, soft whispers leaving it - he would hear it all, though she wouldn't know it, but it may as well be gibberish to him. Her backwards speech must require some deft, complicated cerebral gymnastics, but she makes this seem effortless, almost easy.

Cold heat emanates from his forehead, the puff of magic lacing the air, as strong as cinnamon or garlic, the kind of spice that drapes heavily and clings stubbornly on intangible spaces, unable to be dispelled without help. The mark she has traced on him pulses with a faint, white-blue light.

"Alright, we're ready," she murmurs. "I'll try to work as quickly as I can, Mister Murdock."

She reaches that free hand for his, grasps it for support, and does.

The pain is indescribable. Internal organs strain and push, cells replicating and pushing outward in an effort to mend the devastating wounds wrought into him from within. White-hot spikes of sensation ripple over his most delicate parts, as blood weaves and tissue stitch together. It is not quick, and the young woman has not exaggerated at all - it was painful going in, and it is just as painful going out, the beats of his heart ratcheting up in time with the beats and pulse of magic as the young woman next to him deftly commands reality to bend to her will. The ripples she generates brush over his skin, makes hair stand on end…and forces every nerve to ignite, burning him from within.


She removes the blanket and lifts his gown and he shivers; as much from being suddenly exposed to a near non-medical stranger as from the cold. He allows it, makes no protest, but it leaves goosebumps on his skin. "Yeah," he says of the damage, "they didn't pull punches, I guess." Of course, he reminds himself quietly, neither had he on his first tussel with them.

Point of fact: Matt Murdock can read, and not just braille. Let his fingers trace a page and he'll pick up the indentation of script and follow along. But nothing in the symbols she traces across his pale brow are any more decipherable than the gibberish — heard and committed to memory, but nevertheless unintelligible — that she speaks above him.

The whole thing makes his hackles rise. He had an easier time dealing with extraterrestrial machinations than demons and magic. It really does touch on his faith, and in unexpected ways. Matt is a conventional, modern, 21st Century Catholic. He was reared by Jesuits in his teens, and it was their philosophical, humanistic bent that shaped his understanding of the Church and its faith: more Walker Percy than Thomas Merton. This, though, makes the stories and parabels that he'd once processed as allegory or history gently refined into lesson-filled legends into something more literal. And therefore more dangerous.

Such musings can't last, not when the magic begins. He uses what senses are available to him to piece out what's happening, but never has the shifting crimson shadow-mesh of his perceived world seemed more obscure and threatening.

And then the world explodes in pain. Searing, excruciating pain that sees him biting down /hard/ on his the stick she very sensibly offered him as his face tightens and contorts in agony. "URRRRRRRRGGHHHHHHH," he shouts through his clenched mouth. There's fierce strength in the hand that grips of his; even in the moment of intense agony he tries his best to hold it back, to spare the woman currently torturing him any pain, but it's still unmistakable.

Murdocks can take a beating — they're famous for it — but this is another plane of pain entirely. The searing continues apace as his insides are rearranged, reshaped; tears begin to stream from sightless eyes searching vainly upward for salvation, or even simple relief. With any luck, his wordless, choked-back screams don't break through the commotion Jessica is causing outside those doors.


Jessica can hear it in the hall. She stops, looks quickly back. Nurses are still going room to room, talking about some sort of glitch. But that might not hold them long with a patient screaming. Of course, she was listening for it, expectant. Finally she just closes the big hall doors on the wing to muffle more of the sound and hopes for the best. Zatanna worked fast, perhaps it would be enough. But she positions herself by the fire alarm and waits, fingers poised to commit a misdemeanor as she peers through the glass panes in those doors if she has to.

Then again she supposes she already *did* commit a misdemeanor. Good thing HIPAA kept cameras out of most places. Her face sets into grim lines as she hears it. Her impulse, to her own surprise, is to run in and offer some sort of comfort, much as she had in the alley. She focuses on this instead, because of how very /bad/ it could be for someone to decide to show up right about now. It won't look like Zatanna is helping. It will look like she's harming him a great deal, and that would just be a mess. Not to mention all the other reasons why trying that would be a bad idea.


At the hard grip on her hand - bruising, forceful, /surprising/ - Zatanna's fingers lace within his and holds fast, gritting her own teeth at the pain he manages to give her while she does the same to him, and in spades. This isn't unlike the concept of equivalent exchange in her world, where Magic costs - favors from Fate, seconds, hours, days, years of a life, a guaranteed opportunity, anything can be bartered so long as someone is willing to pay. She is an anomaly in that regard, lent to her unusual nature even for the likes of them, with a soul ten times larger, greater than a normal human being's, and made out of the purest magic. There is no lien on her soul, no price to pay for her significant skills, half of the reason why so many are after it, when so much power will remain unclaimed by Heaven or Hell should she die, unless they do something about it through either influence or direct means.

She has no idea that Matthew is a practicing Catholic, and until she does, she has no reason to tell him that Heaven and Hell do exist, though this is a fact he already knows by Faith and nothing else. Though while experienced, she doesn't have the nuanced grasp on their rules as John Constantine has, who is so adept at them that he can beat its players in their own game. Perhaps she will learn, one day.

But today she concentrates on the more overt applications of her Art, her face stricken at the pain she is causing him, but resolute in her determination to see him whole. From what she has gathered, Matthew Murdock is a good man, a rare gem in the legal profession who willingly left plenty of opportunities in the corporate world to assist the poor, helpless and downtrodden in one of the more beleaguered parts of New York City. She isn't just doing this for his community, but for her friend, who certainly can't afford any of those exorbitant fees. Her worries with respect to Peter Parker are just beginning, however, resting somewhere in the pit of her stomach all the heavier, given what he had suffered in HYDRA's perfect-imperfect version of New York. Which wasn't even called New York.

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, her magic fades. The sigil on his forehead fades away. There is a lingering soreness, but nothing that won't leave him in three days or so.

She retracts the hand from his center, and loosens her grip on his hand. Her fingers there feel numb, pins and needles pricking at her skin from underneath when blood rushes back into her extremities.

"How do you feel, Mister Murdock?" she asks quietly. She attempts to be soothing, at the very least the young woman's bedside manner is well-honed, indicative of a life accustomed to looking after others.


How is he doing? The magic fades, the work is done, but Matthew Murdock is hanging onto consciousness by the barest thread. Eyes that had at one point rolled ceiling ward in intimation of a seizure are blinking away the last remaining overspill from their tear ducts. The stick, which buckled under the force of his jaws, shows proof of his bite with a series of deep indentations that become visible when his head sags back against the pillow. The hand that could have broken hers slackens as the tension seems to leave his frame all at once.

It's a few moments before he can give her a proper answer, before he can pull the stick out of his mouth and cough away some of the bile that rose during the worst of his repair. "I… I don't know," he answers the young woman honestly, tone a little vacant as he gathers his wits. His other hand reaches tentatively underneath his gown to feel for — what? Nothing. Staples and stitches holding together otherwise unblemished skin that needs not a one of them. His ordinarily closed features are blank at first as he feels along his stomach, and then show unguarded astonishment as his brain processes what his fingers communicate. "Jesus," he mutters. "Jesus."

Obviously she needn't worry about taking the Lord's name in vain.

One beat. Two. "Where did you learn to do that?" he finally asks, tone full of quiet wonderment.


The screaming has stopped. The nurses are all crowded around their station, phoning techs to look into the "glitch." Jessica sighs in relief, hand falling away from the fire alarm.

She slips back into Matthew's room. There he is, whole, hale, and okay. It makes her smile, it makes a rush of relief move through her system, her heartbeat returning to something far more normal. She catches the question and the grin stays for just a moment. She shares it with Zee, giving her a thumbs up.

Then she moves what she thinks is in an unobtrusive fashion across the room. She pulls open a few drawers before she locates his glasses. She moves to the side of the bed Zatanna is occupying, holding on to them for the moment, ready to pass them on when he needs them. But she had just told Peter Quill that wonder was a rare quality in the world, that it should be honored and preserved when possible. She isn't about to intrude on Matt's moment of wonder with something mundane, nor would she wish to keep Zee from answering his question.


"Tibet," Zatanna replies to Matthew with a hint of a grin, which he can detect easily by the way her voice sounds. "Knock on the right doors and talk to the right people and they'd be able to guide you to others who can somehow transcend physical and mystical limits. I'm an American citizen, but I was born in Europe and I've been on the road apprenticing for Daddy since I was but a child. I've never known what it's like to stay in one place too long, but what I lacked in stability I made up for with adventure." A double-edged sword - it certainly honed her skills, her ability to adapt, but it has made her prone to recklessness and wanderlust, and how healthy was it, really, to live a life so transient that she has failed to make lasting connections, and at such a tender age?

Her life back in the United States, though, has been making up for the lack in spades.

She is open with her life, not all too prone to secrecy save for the aspects of herself and others that she needs to keep under lock and key. That is her all over as well, that mad accessibility that has both opened doors and opportunities for heartbreak and betrayal, of which she has had more than her fair share in the last two months. But to remove these characteristics of her would be to tear out the fundamental foundations of what makes Zatanna Zatara herself, just as intensely and as potently as the act of ripping out her soul.

She pats his hand lightly before folding his arm gently over his stomach, where stitches hold closed a human seam that is no longer there. She could have removed them as well, but it is unnecessary and the days have found her only using her magic unless absolutely, utterly necessary - a page from John Constantine's book, he who has never had much respect for the mysticism all of that generally entails, and typically abhorred those who spent mana like water. Deeper reasons drive this newfound resolutions; Zatanna has not lived through Newcastle, but what she has seen inside of herself has propelled her into taking some preemptive measures. Not that she has ever confided her fears in anyone, including the Englishman himself.

"I don't know how fast you heal, but you're pretty young….mid-twenties, yeah? I'm sure they'll be able to check you out in a couple of days. I'd talk about…you know. What I wanted to consult with you with now, but I think I should bring my friend with me also, and you're in bed rest. I absolutely refuse to talk about business while you're laid out." As Jessica re-enters the room, she wiggles her fingers at her in a wave, flashing her a wink, and pointing right at him while mouthing a few words:

'He's a twenty.'


The tale she outlines is a strange one, for sure, especially to a guy who's never been beyond the Eastern Seaboard. But parochial a New Yorker as Matt Murdock may be, he's had his share of strangeness in his life — a fact which only his Eastern-trained, blind martial arts master is at all privy to. Who is he to judge?

So instead he simply says: "Thank you." They're two paltry words with worlds of sincerity behind them. "And yeah, I imagine they'll either want to clear me out for the bedspace or put me in a lab to study my miraculous recovery," he adds wryly. "I can probably talk my way out of the latter, though. If I can't, I'm no good to anyone."

He draws in a long breath and gently exhales it, digesting his new circumstances and checking in with a body made once more at its peak. No transplant. No hospital. No months of being weak, vulnerable — as he hadn't been in decades. Reprieve from a fate that was, to him, almost as bad as dying. It's more than he can believe, but there are new fears to replace the old ones, and move him to say: "Of course I'll see your friend. Bring him by the office later this week and I can get his story down. But…"

He can't look Zatanna in the eye, but it's still hard to miss the gravity in his gaze. "I'm incredibly grateful to you, Ms. Zatara. You've no earthly idea just much. But whatever you and Jessica are into, I'm in the thick of as well. There needs to be — an extensive discussion. I need to know what I'm dealing with, and most importantly, how to protect myself and those around me." It may seem absurd; the idea of a blind man protecting himself, much less anyone else, from a cabal of evil magicians. But he means every quiet word, and you don't need to be a human lie detector to see it.


If there were ever a way to make Jessica flush from head to toe, Zatanna's impish salvo would do it. Her heart rate picks up enough to slam through her throat, her body tempeture rises, and she damn near fumbles his glasses. The look she gives Zatanna? Real deer in the headlights stuff. Well thank God he's blind and can't see any of that right?

Because boy it would be embarrassing if he could sense that whole exchange or anything.

His words erase all that with a certain gravity, reminding her of his plan to get the Hell out of his life for his own safety, remaining at the shadows only to make sure no more Cold Flame Cultists came out of the woodwork. Something as cold as their name worms its way through the pit of her stomach, and she stares guiltily down at him. He'd also asked her to tell him more before, saying almost the same, in gentler terms, with an offer to talk, to confide in him, and that had never happened.

"I'd have come to talk to you more as you'd asked," she says, contrite as she lays his glasses against the back of his hand, much as she'd laid his stick. "But I was in a hospital for days myself, and then…everything started going wrong, and by the time I had a moment…you were getting attacked." She glances at Zee, brows drawing down, tone worried. "Are you /sure/ you want more, Matt? The closer you get to this stuff, the worse…"

She trails off. Really, how far away is he going to be able to stay from it? He's already there, in their orbit. She can't find the moral high ground, the right place to lay her own responsibility. In sixty days she's been drawn into this world of magic, cults, spaceships, secret societies and superheroes. But she's uniquely equipped. He's a blind lawyer.

He's also got incredible will, and the right to make his own choices. And he's already sort of paid the consequences. It's not like he's blindly optimistic…he knows what he's doing, for better or worse. And if he says that's what he wants, it's what he wants. She's taken that much of his measure, too. She takes a breath. "Actually…forget I started that sentance."


There's a glance towards Jessica. She'd be able to see her clear trepidation there, a faint worrying of her bottom lip by the edges of her front teeth. Zatanna lowers her eyes to the floor, her fingers quietly hooking into the belt loops of her black jeans. There were already so many people involved, but she has managed to justify it with the fact that they were all special in some way - Peter Parker could do everything a spider can, for instance, and then some. Tim Drake was a billionaire philanthropist genius inventor detective and highly trained martial artist and tactician with the entire network of Bat-persons at his disposal. Jessica Jones had super strength and durability with hardboiled detective skills. Her house guests are /aliens from outer space/, she occasionally has a Norse god crashing on her couch, her father was a living legend to such a near-mythological degree that he tacks 'Great' to the beginning of his moniker and people don't roll their eyes at it.

And her paramour, John Constantine was….well, John Constantine. The walking crossroads of Fate, a gestalt of independent, but interconnected arcane secrets she only half-comprehends. Secrets that he may not even know about himself, remembering that delirium haze that had overtaken her when she stumbled into his flat, her well open and seeing everything and catching the confusing, beautiful but terrifying nebula that signified his mystical makeup.

Matthew Murdock, as far as she knows, is a blind lawyer who has a small private practice in Hell's Kitchen. An incredibly handsome one, but to pull him deeper into her troubles would be…

"Jess is right, Mister Murdock," the magician says quietly. "Believe me, nothing tears me up more than knowing that innocents are getting caught in the crossfire because of me or the trouble I bring with me. I've been….I thought a few months ago it would be better if I did this alone, you know? It was really only desperation that led me to seek out Jess and only because I knew her talents were….far above normal and I knew if I was going to bring people into what I take with me, they'd need to be able to take care of themselves. Believe me, I know that information helps for sure. It keeps your head above water and it helps you prepare. But in my line of work, it kills also. I'm sorry if I'm being a little hesitant but…if I do tell you what's happening…"

She gestures vaguely to him on the hospital bed.

"….there might be more of this, in your future. I don't know….if I can have that in my conscience. Not to say I'm not above giving someone a choice, I just…you've been bedridden for days, there's drugs in your system, and I'm sure you're very very angry about what happened to you and what could happen to your own. I'd prefer that you think about this first with a clear head or something, maybe a cheeseburger in you before I talk to you about a bunch of /very weird stuff/ that you might regret hearing about."


What Matt could glean of that little exchange before their conversation grew weighty is likely to be lost to the ages. Zatanna mouthed rather than whispered — just how good could his hearing be? But the flush, safe to say, he won't miss. That would be too much to hope for.

But he's in deep waters now, and he keeps pressing forward. "Respectfully, Ms. Zatara, there's no assurance you can make that there won't be more of this in my future no matter what you tell me," he says. Whatever high the opiates leant him has been long since banished by blistering pain. His world may be rocked, but he's as lucid as he's ever been. "Now, I know that's not your fault," Matt assures her, before casting his gaze in the direction of Jessica's voice, "and it sure as hell isn't /yours/. But it's still the truth, and there's no reason to think that keeping me in the dark will make me any safer. On the contrary. Unless I know what they can do, what they're capable of, all -I- can do is go on pretending nothing happened and pray they just forget about me." The set of his jaw, the shake of his head — they're all Wolverine-ready adamance. "I refuse to live my life like that."

A beat, then, before he lets out a breath that flares his nostrils. "That isn't to say it has to be now," he adds quietly. "If you'd feel better knowing I had a cheeseburger in me, I won't turn it away." His brow crinkles. "I — don't suppose either of you brought one?"

Regeneration is hungry work, after all.


Matt being so emphatic that it's not her fault weirdly increases the guilt for a moment before decreasing it, agitation going back to normal. The funny thing is, with all these reactions, were he just someone watching her face and body language he'd see very little…she's often closed off, hard to read, for all that people have been drawing more smiles from her lately, more jokes, more expressiveness. And the feelings that would leave her the most vulnerable are the ones that tend to hang out behind that wall. At most he'd have seen a friendly smile of relief when she'd felt relieved, a scowl of concern when concerned, and awkwardly guilty looks. She never thinks to control her physiology, never knows how it might be read like a book with those with the right abilities. If she knew she'd have done whatever she could to control those too.

The fact that she'd relaxed enough to show anything of her feelings to John and Zee was an indication of just how strong her trust for them had grown, and then it had been harmless enough, with their subject far away where he couldn't be impacted for them for better or (in her estimation) probably for worse.

It shows in how almost nothing touches her voice other than the subtlest of undercurrents; outwardly it's professional, businesslike, friendly or warm on occasion sure, moreso than with most, but not overly so, the emotions mostly spices in the sound rather than infusing every word, as they might in someone more expressive. Certainly her words are not indicative of much, because what Jessica says is, "I could go get some. There's a decent place about a block away. Unless you don't wanna do this in the ICU, at which point maybe we just…deal with getting you out of here and we can all go eat cheeseburgers and talk in a different setting. I could go pick up clothes for you if you want me to find your keys and can point me in the right direction." She doubts he wants to wear his blood soaked mess out of there, after all.


He seems resolute and once again Zatanna wonders whether there's something in the water in New York City, these days, where everyone she meets is so eager to get embroiled in the dangerous trouble of others. Either there has been a change in the outlook of its populace since aliens came down from a wormhole in the sky to start a war, or the infaous, even downright hostile apathy of its citizens has been greatly exaggerated. Still, the raven-haired magician glances at Jessica there, a somewhat helpless look on her face. Matt Murdock was her friend, and she is clearly hesitant and apologetic about letting him in when he seems so normal, recommended only by his regard for others and his determination not to hide in the dark where it could be safer.

She remembers John mentioning that he had given a similar choice to Dr. Jane Foster and she wonders whether she ought to risk it here as well, but with the face he presents to the both of them, whatever she finds there draws out a quiet, but resigned exhale. At the very least if anything happens, though she is determined that nothing does, the lawyer has at least knowingly assumed the risk.

She addresses Jessica's offer to get his clothes and cheeseburgers though, shaking her head. "Oh, don't worry Jess…there's this new app…" She digs out her phone, drawing out iDol's GUI, tapping a few keys on the screen with a pale thumb. "I can have some delivered. I think Mister Murdock should stay in bed for at least a couple of days if not just so the doctors can monitor him for just a little longer. I'm only as good as the information given to me when it comes to healing, so…if there's other complications I might not know about, best let the professionals figure it out before I come again if that's necessary."

Pulling up a menu, she selects her own orders - a tuna sandwich and fries. "How many cheeseburgers, and do you guys want fries or a milkshake or anything with that? We should at least have something good while I talk about…weird things. It's a good equalizer!"

True to form, Zatanna actually /withholds/ information while they wait for food, just another incentive for the patient to eat before she brings up more worrisome subjects. That and she can take the time to assess her options, and wonder about what she should and shouldn't tell him.

Forty-five minutes later, their delivery arrives, which the young woman fetches herself at the lobby, her bootheels clacking back into Matt's room. He'd be able to smell it before she re-announces her presence again - of meat and cheese and fixings, french fries and whatever else they could have ordered using iDol's cutting-edge interface. She does leave it to Jess to set things out, though, and to see to Matt - a subtle way of playing cupid in her own way, well familiar with Jess' interest in the handsome lawyer.

She perches on a chair, drawing her legs up, never one to sit properly when she's in the company of people she is comfortable with. She unwraps her tuna sandwich and takes a bite. She had told Jessica before that she was a vegetarian, though it seems that dairy and fish have been incorporated in her diet - these days, protein is something she definitely needs.

"The people who did this to you, the Cult of the Cold Flame, are…they're like a cross between the mafia and the Freemasons. Their presence is global, and from what I've been told, they have a headquarters in Switzerland, somewhere in the Alps, but truth be told, they've got some homegrown roots in New York. Plenty of its more local members hang out in Oblivion Bar. You might've heard of it, but not many people know it's a popular watering hole for…well, people like me. Practitioners. It's a first stop for networking, too, if you're a foreign magician. You want to apprentice under an American mage, you go to the Oblivion."


The time between does Matt a few favors too. It gives him the pause he needs for internal stock taking, to get past the shock of his injury and his literal recovery. Glasses restored to their proper place thanks to Jessica Jones, he's feeling — despite the gown, the room, the multitude of details that have him off balance — a little more like the self he knows and likes best. He's restful in the down-time, affable, fully capable of small talk but unlikely to encourage it.

And then Zatanna is coming back with food in tow. He accepts it readily — he's been fed through an IV the last five and a half days, and now that his gut is no longer a ruin he's suddenly ravenous — pure carnivore as he bites down into the cheeseburger and listens to Zatanna tell her tale. "So, there's an international cabal of murderous sorcerers," Matt says in quiet tones, registering less surprise or consternation than one might expect from someone who had only recently been nearly murdered by them. He's in intake mode now, assessing a client who doesn't even know she's signed up for his particular brand of service. "OK. I get that you're a magician, and you come from a family of magicians. But why are they after you so badly that they're willing to attack the acquaintances of people who know you? What's their beef?"


"Not all of them are, but they can be. What they are is fanatical. If one of the four founders drops down a directive, the rest follow without question for the promise of power. It's a prevailing philosophy - no sacrifice is too great, no price too high, and it's only when you lose every tether to your humanity, loved ones, attachments, possessions that you become a force to be reckoned with." She remembers the words, the lesson, the point in which she knew that the man she called affectionately as Uncle Sargon was going down the path in which her father has tried to prevent him from embarking upon. The knowledge, remembering the guilt, how he considers it his personal responsibility now, is…

Zatanna glances down at her tuna sandwich, conflict on her expression - one that Jessica would see but that Matt would not. As always, delving into her father's lesser known history remains a small roadblock to the young woman's frank openness, but she has always considered this as her own way of protecting Giovanni Zatara and his legacy. She has always been happy to keep up the facade that the man was more myth than human and if there was anyone in the world who could make even the most coldblooded skeptic believe it, it was the master magician, who has saved the world from silent threats for decades.

"They've been sworn enemies of my missing father for decades," she continues. "He has been repelling, undermining and ruining their ambitions since they first got off the ground. Going after me is just an added incentive, though. A mutual friend of ours, John Constantine, seems to believe that they're after my soul and that they could have been promised something significant if they manage to deliver it to…"

There's a pause.

"Mammon. I'm not sure how familiar you are with Christian lore, Mister Murdock. If you know your Bible, though, he'd be in it. When he was first written about, he was a concept…an old term for greed. He's most widely known as Beelzebub. He's a Demon Prince of Hell, directly subordinate to the Three of the Fallen. It's….it sounds unbelievable, I know. I'm not really here to debate about the existence of God or the Devil, but I know for a fact that they exist. Mammon has already tried exerting his influence in Gotham City just recently, a person of interest managed to convince a novice to sacrifice twelve women in his name in exchange for power."


Jessica sucks at small talk, so she'd just sort of found a seat in the room. She's the type who can sit in companionable silence, and is content to do so. She does indeed take care of getting Matt his food, then settles down with her own. Fortunately there's a little table in the room. She goes straight for the French fries, having a particular fondness for those, especially when they're hot and crisp, which these, miraculously, still are. She gets a nice pool of ketchup going and works on those.

The question is for Zatanna, and it's a good one. She takes note of the tone, the 'interviewing a client' tone. She's used that herself. Putting the client at ease, remaining quiet, impassive, keeping signs of any judgment or reaction off the face, but asking probing questions, questions that draw out the information.

And now she's learning new things about the Cold Flame herself. She absorbs information like a sponge, listening with total focus now. No piece of knowledge is wasted.

She gives Zatanna an encouraging look when the younger woman looks at her so uncertainly. It's the least she can do.

"Zee's soul," Jessica adds, "is as to most of our souls like a nuclear reactor is to a bonfire."


Well, he asked for this, didn't he? For his world to be rocked, and for his tidy view of faith, with its modern interpretations that all too often sound like equivocations. He told them he was ready for things to get, well, a little medieval. But that was just another lie, or at the very least the second gross overestimation of his abilities he's made in a week. The truth is, he's not ready in the slightest.

"You cannot serve God and Mammon," Matt murmurs numbly. "Matthew, six nineteen. Yeah, I'm familiar." Says the man who, unbeknownst to him, the Daily Bugle has called out publicly as someone who visits Church even outside of regular services. He sets the half-remainder of his burger down on the flimsy paper wrapping; suddenly more intent on digesting this bombshell than the meal he was so recently attacking with gusto. He's glad he has his glasses back, so they can hide some measure of the shock of it all; the tightening at his eyes corners or the blanche of fear. Matt has never been afraid to die; not since he was ten years old. But the Church has raised him ever since then, and damn if they didn't put the fear of Hell in him. "So… what you're telling me, Ms. Zatara, if I'm understanding you correctly, is that some hybrid of the mob and a magical monastic order trying to snare your soul for one of the seven princes of Hell." He won't question her; he won't balk or express incredulity. He's witnessed enough miracles — black or otherwise — to accept that what she's laying out is at least potentially true.

Jessica's helpful addendum prompts another question — or several questions, really, but he'll make them one at a time. "Can they… do that? Take from you what you won't give willingly?"


"From what I've been told, that's the plan," Zatanna says, though she holds her tongue from other things - that there are other issues that need solving, before she can even address that problem. That there is an immediate need to go to Germany and end what and who started this once and for all. That there might be another life in danger, from what Jessica and Red Robin and John have told her about Switzerland, not just her own. The fact that they've somehow constructed a spitting image of her father, and how they were using it to further their ends. She sticks to what Mr. Murdock, blind lawyer, needs to know however - after all, that isn't what he asked. She has interpreted his request to give him enough information to keep his head above water and to protect his associates, whoever they are, and hopefully what she does provide gives him an idea as to what sort of players are involved with the game, what kind of forces are poking around New York.

And were she asked, that is the least of her worries.

The white noise she senses every time she steps out of her home, or John's flat, the tingles left on her skin, the creeping uneasiness that comes with the certainty that /things are happening/, but without knowing what, or why. Just that she isn't the only one in her community feeling this way. That she feels it in Gotham, here in New York. She has felt it in Switzerland, the harrowing notion that there is something out there, and it is potentially global, bearing down on all of them. Everyone she knows. Everyone she loves, and those connected to them in the endless web of human connections.

And the only person she has told is Peter Parker.

But one thing at a time. She shakes her head once and focuses on the following question instead. "Demons and members of the Host are bound by rules," she tells him. "They can't take anyone's souls unless he or she agrees, and while there've been instances of forced possessions, they often don't last, at terrible cost to the host. The lasting ones are those that are let in willingly, like you said. Which is why Demon Princes like Mammon tend to rely on human agents to forge their contracts for them, not many humans know how to contact them directly after all. They're called Soul Brokers, and there's quite a few in New York. Benji Raymond of BR Talent is one of them, for instance. And of course, humans who have paid enough of the Price can strip a soul from someone's body, because they're not bound by those same celestial rules."

After a pause, she finishes her sandwich, crumpling up the wrapper.

"If you'd tell me how many people you need to look after, I can have wards made," she tells him. "They should be able to repel attacks so long as you keep them on your person, unless they really bring some serious magical firepower brought to bear." There's a hint of a rueful smile. "You're…going to have to try and explain why they have to keep it on them every time, though."


Jessica watches Matthew, marveling again at his capacity to just believe them. Most people wouldn't. She's familiar with the knife cut of skepticism, she's felt its bite. She's familiar with what it feels like to tell the truth and have it scoffed at. He just takes it seriously, asks follow-up questions, takes it in stride.

But his question has an impact on Jessica; a grimace, a tightning of her chest, a glance at Zatanna, a sudden shift that is reminiscent of someone taking a body guard's posture; protective, alert.

The image flashes across her mind. Zatanna, weak and sick, as pale as an old photograph, fading, fading, fading away.

It twists her stomach, makes it ache, tightens the back of her throat, tenses the space between her shoulderblades.

But Zatanna doesn't mention that it's already happened once, and that's not her interjection to make. She moves to the far more practical issue of wards, which Jessica approves of. "When they start burning I suggest you get out of there," is what she says. "They really, really don't last for ever if someone feels like pushing it." She says it dryly, like someone who has had some personal experience with having someone shove their way through wards with a great deal of power.


Demons can't steal your soul, but humans can. Somehow that twisted logic of magic and metaphysics strikes Matt as right, and true, and reflective of the everyday world as he knows it. He listens to what information she deigns to give him, and picks up whatever else he can through quiet and unconventional observation: the worried and protective click in the back of Jessica Jones' throat, for one. "Note to self, no retainers for BR Talent," Matt says dryly. Not that they'd ever come knocking.

A finger taps contemplatively on the sesame sandwich bun as he considers her latest generous offer, which offers at least some measure of protection where his own powers have fallen dangerously short. "Let's start with three, counting myself." And with that, he's laid out the contours of a limited social circle that hints at an insular and decidedly private life: no family to speak of, just a few close friends. The rest are acquaintances, clients, passing in and out of his life with little to fear from the association. "I'll… figure out what to tell them. As little as I have to to get them to agree." A beat, and then a grateful: "Good of you to look out for me when you're the one they're really gunning for, Ms. Zatara."

And to Jessica's cautioning advice, a wry: "After this week, you don't have to tell me twice. I'll get out of there as fast I can manage without tripping. Fair?"


"I'm not about to let innocent parties get caught in the crossfire of my problems," Zatanna tells Matt with a hint of a smirk. "Daddy would be very disappointed in me if I didn't at least try to do something about it."

She makes a note to ask John for help with the wards - she had power, yes, but he has experience and his own spiritual and magical protections are not something to scoff at, reminded of the tattoos carved on his body and whatever else is imbued on his favorite trenchcoat. "I'll get them for you as soon as I can have them made. With me and John, we should be able to get them to you pretty quick."

With that, she stands up. "Besides, I need you alive for the problem a friend of mine has," she says, her grin hinted at by her voice. "Not that I wouldn't have done it regardless even if I didn't need your services for a legal matter, but…there's that, and once you're well on the mend again, I'll set an appointment to come see you along with my friend. His name is Peter Parker, he's around my age. The case has something to do with what happened to his parents."

Moving to gather up her bookbag, she moves to hand Matthew Murdock a thin, small object - what feels like a calling card, transfigured in the last moment to read in braille:

Zatanna Zatara
Mistress of Magic, Princess of Prestidigitation

And her number.

"I'm an entertainer also," she says with a laugh. "On sabbatical, considering everything, but if there's anything else, if this comes up again, please give me a call." She reaches out to give Jess a quick hug.


The suddenly braille business card is over the top, ostentatious, worthy of a performer — and it wins from Matt a chuckle that just a few hours ago he couldn't have given without choking in pain. That realization, in turn, earns another moment of quiet amazement — and gratitude too. "Yeah, I can tell," he says of her being an entertainer, the tone affable and somehow already fond. "Well, Ms. Zatara, you saved me from this little purgatory of mine. If there's any way I can return the favor, I'm listed. I'd give you my card, but —"

I'm naked as a jaybird underneath my polka-dotted hospital gown.

"Take care of yourself," he tells Zatanna, and means it. Then he's allowing the two friends to say their goodbyes, and settling back into his bed to ponder what is, to date, the strangest night of his life. He hears footsteps linger, the crinkle of wrapping and bags being stuffed together. "Jessica, come on, you don't need to do that," he says with a crack of a smile, almost incredulous. He nods her over in his direction. "Come here a sec, will you?"

(Continued in A.K.A. No Balloons, Bears or Flowers)

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