Two real and one a fabrication.
“But… where is my Zari?”
“Took the words right out of my mouth, mate.”
Within the whirlpool of memories, new and old, it wasn’t hard to locate the presence of two very distinct Zaris. In one of timeline, Zari was a team mate and a friend. In the other, the more recent one, its Zari meant a little something more than a friend to him. That Zari caught in a fervent lip lock with Nate was not his. Most definitely not.
So where was his?
“Well… I’m sort of possessing her body.”
The deeper intonation the other Zari spoke with further cemented his Zari’s absence. There was also no need to see her face to know the sheepishness etched into those familiar features as she pulled away from Nate but, not parting from him completely. No doubt she’d want to stay close to her boyfriend after a year of being separated from him.
John could understand what it was like to want to be with someone. It still didn’t prevent a tendril of something bitter from threading itself about his insides. Thorns of frustration and anger dug their way into his heart. The voice in his head was berating this Zari for her selfishness. Why hadn't she stopped to think before taking over someone else’s body and essentially nullifying everything that his Zari was?
“I mean I love both of you. It’s just…”
Behrad was torn. Torn between the loyalty he had for both his sisters. John could tell as much. In fact, he should be feeling that way too. This other Zari was his friend. John wondered why he wasn’t feeling as much sympathy for her plight as he was at his own loss.
“I know. I get it. She belongs here,” the other Zari said. Dejection clear in every word.
Yes, she does! John’s mind yelled out. Though outwardly, he said nothing.
“Yeah. But what happens to you?” A worried Nate asked his girlfriend.
Everyone must have landed on the same conclusion. For one Zari to exist the other would have to leave. In that moment, John shared that same fear Nate was experiencing.
Not to mention, escaping this TV realm was imperative but it wasn’t going to be easy. It might even end in futility. They could be trapped in this place for who knows how long. And true to his prediction, they were soon deposited back into their respective television programs with the tune of a song.
The chances of being with his Zari again appeared to be slim, if not dismal.
Peering into the pot sitting on a primitive nineteenth century stove, he supplied Mrs Hutchins with some banal comment regarding the blue mush she was heating up. John marvelled at the surreality of it all. Like how his body carried him through the motions which his mind barely registered.
What was even more bizarre to him was Natalie.
Natalie was just upstairs in the study taking her tea which he had personally made and delivered to her. Granted, she wasn’t the same Natalie who was his only friend when he was a boy of six, nor was she the Natalie he had loved so long ago. Nevertheless, she was alive and Astra had her mother and got to live the life that she had been robbed of.
John really had to give his kudos to Charlie for her creativity and attention to detail. She was very good.
Looking through fresh eyes, well, his own eyes, John could see everything he had described at the pub interwoven into the aspects of this reality. In this life, he was Mister Constantine. Butler to Lady Natalie and her daughter, Lady Astra. Within the walls of this big house, Lady Astra had grown up under the nurture of her mother’s love. Mister Constantine was there too. Always one step behind, keeping an eye on them, making sure their every whim was met.
All that he had wished for was that the two women who had places close to his battered heart to have only the best in life. Ever since Highcastle, his whole existence henceforth had been spent trying to atone for all the pain he had entrusted onto both Natalie and Astra. The promise he made to Astra earlier that evening was sincere. If she was happy, he was willing to live as Mister Constantine. He would live to serve the two people whom his guilt clung to the most, to whom he owed so much.
Perhaps oblivious Mister Constantine would have been fine with a life like this, gladly waiting on his ladies’ beck and call, perpetually repressing his urge to succumb to the siren beckoning of dark magic. John Constantine the warlock with magic thrumming in his veins, on the other hand, was finding it a struggle to muster up the same sense of acceptance. There was an emptiness in this world. With his memories restored, it was so acute that it hurt.
The hustle and bustle of the kitchen dulled into a muffled buzz as John took a plunge into his mind. The first thing it conjured up for his viewing pleasure was the myriad of emotions displayed in those large, brown eyes of his Zari’s. Caught off guard was he at just how many of those looks directed his way had made his breath catch.
There was the fiery in them that tended to flash brighter every time they argued that he thought was lovely. There was the vulnerability laid bare for him to see as his hand hovered over her heart, poised and ready to stop its rhythmic beating. And the one that hit him the hardest was trust - a trust that intermingled with that vulnerability. Zari handed them over to him readily, along with her life, trusting him to keep her safe and revive her when the time was right.
That night in London, John had lost his Zari twice. A sense of helplessness had rendered him crippled both times. The last time much more than the first. That glimpse of the terror on her face had branded itself onto his retinas and all he had to do was shut his eyes to see it. His head hit the concrete ground, hard after being barreled off of her by a raging zombie. And through his fading consciousness, he could just make out a horde of them piling up on top of one another to devour their last remaining meal.
He had failed to protect her to the end.
Did his Zari make it to this reality? Did she get to live like everyone else, even just for a little while? If these fictitious lives were what all of them had to settle for, John at least hoped his Zari would get to live the life she wished for. Instead of lying in slumber within the Other Zari, he wished for her to be happy and well with Behrad, making the world a better place with her talents that he only now began to appreciate.
The distortion in his sense of time made their incandescent meeting in the back of that London pub seem so long ago but it was all still clear in his mind. He should have realized how easy it was to surrender to that something he was unable to resist. All it took was a touch of his Zari’s lips for all those emotions to overflow; those repressed feelings he had been keeping under lock and key. His fingertips still tingled with the phantom warmth of her skin. His lips remembered the sensation of her plump lips fused with his. He could still feel the soft silk of her curls sliding through the gaps of his digits as he untangled her intricate hairdo. And as Zari lay panting on top of him in the aftermath, her heart racing alongside his, he knew without a shred of doubt that it could never be just a one-time thing for him.
They were so busy trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, John never had the time to acknowledge just how much he had grown to care for his Zari. This woman who never stood for his shit, who trusted him and for some reason, cared for him. All of that which he wasn’t sure he deserved any of it but a selfish part of him longed for it all. He longed for the banter, be they flirtatious or born out of frustration. There was no point denying that he had wanted more. More than anything, he longed for the chance to explore a future with her.
Alas, what they shared would now and forever remain as ‘what could’ve been’.
Itching for his lighter and a smoke, a sense of resignation rippled over him. He missed his Zari but he knew in time she would fade away and for Astra’s sake and his own, he would try.
He would try to live here for what was beginning to look like a long eternity.
At quarter past seven, Mister Constantine arrived outside his mistress’s bed chambers. Rapping his knuckles against the mahogany door of his mistress’s chambers, he spoke with his voice slightly raised, “Dinner shall be served shortly, my lady. If you would make you way downstairs, I shall go and fetch Lady Astra.”
There was a long stretch of quiet before what sounded very much like a sniffle drifted from the other side of the mahogany wood door.
“Is everything all right, my lady?”
Another sniffle came followed by a soft, audible clearing of the throat and a drawn-out sigh.
“Mister Constantine? Could you come in for a moment please?”
“Very well. Pardon my intrusion.”
Pushing down the handle, the door creaked open to reveal Lady Natalie clutching a cream-colored handkerchief to her chest. Dabbing at the corner her eyes with it, the smile she gave John was wobbly and small.
It was uncanny.
The look this fictional version of Natalie wore was identical to the one John had been on the receiving end of many times before his Natalie’s death. More often than not it was his stupidity or his selfishness that had provoked such sadness.
“There is a matter that has been weighing heavily on me for some time now. I think a second opinion is needed. I need yours, specifically.” Lady Natalie said to him.
“Of course. I will do my best to assist you any way I can.”
“This afternoon, I happened to overhear Astra and Lord Behrad talking about going to London. I never understood just how much Astra craved for a taste of the world out there. So much, that she wished she were born a man.”
John counted the three steps that took Lady Natalie to the window by her writing desk. One of the maids had drawn back the curtains for the day and through the glass. He knew what she would see from the window too. From up high, the manor’s compound sprawled out to reach the walls running around the parameter of the grounds.
“Lady Astra has voiced such desires to me as well.”
Clasping his hands behind his back, John considered his next words. Could the plot of this story be in flux? Did that mean there was a slim chance of a reunion with his Zari? Squishing down that emotion fizzing in his chest, he stopped his traitorous heart from going there. Majority of his life had been a constant pendulum swing between moments of highs and lows. From experience, hoping for goodness usually lead to disappointment. It never bode well to jump to conclusions.
“Aye. I apologize for not telling you sooner. It never appropriate nor my place to act.” His Natalie had been the better one out of the two of them. She wanted only the best for the people she cared about. Even if that meant losing them, she would do it. John could hazard a guess that this Natalie would be the same. “That being said Lady Natalie, you should know that no matter how much she longs to leave this place, Lady Astra could never bear to leave you.”
Pride and love shone through the sadness in Lady Natalie’s watery eyes as she bobbed her head in a nod. Fingers pressed to her lips she tried to stop herself from crying again but to no avail when she let out a hiccup that was a cross between a sob and a laugh.
“Which leads me to my dilemma. Going on adventures and exploring new horizons is her dream. I want nothing more for my darling daughter to be happy. And yet, I worry, you see. Astra has never ventured outside on her own before.” Crossing the room to stand before him, Lady Natalie implored, her voice tremulous, “Mister Constantine, please tell me, as my oldest friend. Is sending Astra away to a world where I can’t protect her the right choice?”
There it was.
That fork in the road that could change the narrative of this reality. John could see two paths ahead. One of them was the route to escape this world. But why was this an option now of all times? Charlie’s algorithm was created to keep them in here by utilizing the temptation of the things they wanted the most. His wish was still the same. What changed? Was it the restoration of their memories that might be altering the system? Or was this per chance the consequence of Astra’s faltering belief in this reality?
“I think you already have a decision in mind, don’t you my lady? If it would make things easier, might I suggest you remember to have faith in your daughter. We both know that she is remarkable.”
In the end, Lady Natalie had acted just the way his Natalie would have done. She set them free with a ticket to London in a metal box and the promise that she would never be far. All that was left for John to do was utter a spell and out they’d go, ejected from TV land.
It would be a lie to say that his mind and heart weren’t eager to go home.
Because maybe, just maybe, his Zari could be found out there.
With a split of a thread, one became two.
He watched her turn, instinctively seeking out the baby brother whom she had fought so hard to save. She was a vision as always. Just like the very first moment he laid eyes on her, dancing with Behrad at Ray and Nora’s wedding. Oddly enough, the image before him mirrored that night. His Zari was smiling up at her little brother who held her by the arms in a loose embrace.
The swell of relief that rose from the depths of him up to his lips, quirking them up in a smirk. When those brown eyes met his from across the room, it felt so silly now, all the fear, worry and premature sadness that sunk his heart at the notion of losing her.
And as they stepped out of the TV studio and into the light, it was almost as if he were Alice stepping through the looking glass into another world. Everything was grey, from the industrial looking buildings, to the militant clothing the people were garbed in. Even the sky was aptly overcast.
To his left, Astra glanced about, taking in the sights of yet another strange place that wasn’t Hell. Lagging behind them, just a few feet away, was his Zari. Living, breathing and right where she belonged. Her laughter carried through the air as Behrad informed her that he was swearing off oatmeal for the rest of his life. Discreetly eavesdropped on the siblings, John couldn’t help but smile.
Despite the gloominess of this dystopian reality, John was hyperaware of the fact that some things were finally right in his world.
“My, my, don’t you look pleased?” Astra teased, amusement dripping from every word.
John lifted a shoulder and let it drop. He wasn’t all that compelled to refute Astra’s observation.
Stopping mid stride, Astra grinned at him. It was one of those grins that would have had Mister Constantine bracing himself for incoming mischief. Knowing Astra much better now, he wisely followed suit. John narrowed his eyes at her.
“Lord Behrad!” Astra called out to the younger Tarazi in a sing song drawl.
Behrad’s head snapped towards his once betrothed so comically fast, John wondered if he felt the whiplash.
“Yeah?” Behrad practically squeaked. The gleeful curiosity on his face was plain as day.
“Would you mind walking with me?” Astra asked, slipping effortlessly into the shoes of a lady, down to the coquettishness and her posh accent.
“Yes! I mean no. Not at all.” Behrad hurried to comply to Astra’s request. He scampered over and offered his arm for her to take. “I would be delighted to.”
Linking her arm with Behrad, Astra proceeded to drag him away. Though not forgetting to mouth a silent ‘you’re welcome’ at John over her shoulder. Then, off they went, leaving John and his Zari behind in the dust.
Watching, Behrad and Astra amble off with the rest of the group, Zari asked, “What’s all that about?”
“Right. They were engaged to marry in my TV reality. Highcastle Abbey.”
“Wow.” Zari’s eyebrows rose up towards her hairline. “Never would have seen that coming.”
“Aye. Charlie made some choice decisions with our fates back there.”
Several moments passed by in silence with the two of them rooted to the spot, staring at one another. Zari’s fingers fiddled at the ends of the large bow attached to her dress, while John swayed on the balls of his feet with his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his slacks.
“Where did you-"
“How was your-"
Nervous laughter floated uncharacteristically from them at their botched attempt at conversation. For the first time in his life, John didn’t know what to say. He opened his mouth but words refused to grace his tongue. How did one ask if the person they cared about was well? After coming back from the dead and escaping an apparently fake reality, all the while unconscious in her own body. How did one convey the internalized tangle of emotions they felt? Especially after a rollercoaster ride going from fear to anguish, to sheer joy at having the person you thought lost for good returned to you.
Closing the foot of distance between him and Zari, John chose to use his actions to do that for him. He reached for his Zari. Hands falling to the flare of her hips, he gave her a tug. A quiet ‘oh’ came tumbling from her lips with the collision of their bodies. Snaking his arms around her slender waist, John rested his chin comfortably on her shoulder.
“What’s wrong, John?”
“I’m just glad to see you again, is all,” he replied, swallowing past a lump in his throat that came out of nowhere.
The solid warmth of her body and the feel of her pressed against him told him that this was his reality. A reality where she was safe and sound. With her right there in his arms, John relished in the wave of comfortable calm rolling over him.
No. That wasn’t quite the way he would describe it.
“It’s good to see your face too, magic man.”
John could hear his Zari’s smile as her hands slid under his coat and around his back like she wanted to anchor him to her. That only had him tightening his grip, securing her more firmly to him in response. John nuzzled his face into his Zari’s hair.
This was contentment.