|Audition I: Introduction
Author: Guede Mazaka
John was on his way home, and looking forward to it. He’d been up since three in the morning and now it was almost that same time a day later, and in between he’d gotten thrown into a dumpster—thankfully empty—beaten the shit out of a nest of crouchers, and earned enough to pay his heating and electric bills for two months. However, his good mood over that had been completely wiped out by his discovery a moment ago that he’d somehow cracked his lighter so all the lighter fluid had drained out. He’d been smokeless for fifteen minutes now.
He turned down the last alley and nearly stumbled over somebody huddled behind a stack of garbage cans. “Son of a bitch!”
“Oh, my God!” It turned out to be a guy, and the guy was scared shitless. Instead of shoving John back, he plastered himself against the wall and stared up with terrified trapped-rabbit eyes. His pupils were dilated to hell, so he was probably on the downside of one nasty trip. “Oh. Oh, Christ.”
“Sorry,” John muttered. He righted himself and walked off, tugging at his coat-tails. Then he stopped, thought a second, and went back.
The guy was still crouched on the ground, but he flinched when he saw John coming at him. Then he made a frantic attempt to dart out, but he’d only gotten into the lighted part of the alley before he stopped and drew himself up. It was a pretty warm night, and he was wearing a nice-looking jacket to boot, but he was shivering all over.
For a second, John considered that asking this guy for anything might end up with him dragging an inconvenient body to Midnite’s backdoor. But then his cravings gave his nerves a twist and John said to hell with it. He pulled out his cigarette pack—slowly—and stopped a good yard away. “Hey, you have a light or anything?”
“Oh.” The other man calmed down a little. He stared at John’s pack for a good thirty seconds, but when John offered him one, he flinched again. He had some kind of accent—half-Americanized Brit, maybe. “Oh. Um. Yeah. Hang on.”
John hung back and looked over the guy while the other man searched his pockets. Good clothing, and it all came together in a definite style, so despite the grime and crazy way of acting, the man wasn’t a street bum. Maybe some wannabe rocker on his first acid trip—he looked like it, with the black leather jacket, dark jeans, one earring and sneering skeleton design on his t-shirt. His hair was longish and hung in ratty curls in his face, which was pretty in a very come-hither kind of way. All in all, he probably hadn’t made legal drinking age yet.
He finally found his lighter, which was a huge brass monster of an antique, and held out a flame to John. It’d almost reached the tip of John’s cigarette when something plinked and the guy looked up. His eyes bloomed wide and he gasped, then took off so quickly that John couldn’t grab him in time.
“What the…” John looked disappointedly at his unlit cigarette, then glanced upward. He just glimpsed something fluttering into the hazy fluorescence of a nearby strip club’s neons and frowned, breaking into a slow jog after the other man.
The thing in the sky whooshed across the alley, and then everything clicked into place. Goddamn it, wasn’t there supposed to be a war going on? Didn’t these assholes have better things to do than bait hopped-up kids?
On the other hand, John really wanted to go home and go to sleep, and he’d long since come to terms with the fact that the world was a shitty place and he sure as hell wasn’t going to save everybody. He slowed down and stared at the sky again.
Fuck it. He put the cigarette in his pocket and went back the way he came. Then he went around the corner, cut through a different alley, scrambled over a fence, and walked in just as the half-breed had gotten the whimpering kid up against the wall. Stupid shit was so drunk off the fear the guy was throwing off that he didn’t even notice John till John introduced himself with a two-by-four he got from a nearby trash heap.
“Christ! What are—he’s gonna kill you! He’s not a person!” the kid was shrieking.
“Well, I didn’t think people came with teeth that shitty,” John muttered. He tossed away the piece of wood and got out a holy water bomb in time to give the demon a faceful as it got back on its feet. Then John blinked. “Son of a bitch. Zohak?”
Zohak rose up and snarled with both mouths, now that his outer skin was off. The snakes growing from his back hissed and snapped at John. “Constantine. You’re interfering. That is not permitted.”
John reached into his pocket, then had to jump back as Zohak lunged at him. He threw up a warding gesture and slowly pulled out his cigarette with his other hand. “Jesus, you’re touchy. And this looks a lot like direct contact to me, and that’s not kosher either.”
The kid had slid down the wall and was staring wildly at them with an open mouth. “What the…”
“I am warning you,” Zohak snarled.
“Whatever. I’m still pissed about you fucking me over with that deal on the basilisk eyes, by the way,” John muttered. He brought up his hand like he was going to light up, then suddenly threw the packet of ground-up saints’ bones he’d palmed into Zohak’s face.
Bastard went up like a birthday bonfire. After jumping clear of the initial flare-up, John edged back in to get a light off the corpse. Then he nodded to the kid and turned around to go home. This time, he got about ten yards before he walked back, sighed at the moron still glued to the alley wall, and got one hand under the guy’s arm. “Come on. You got a name?”
“Huh? Gabe. Who the hell are…you saw that? You—knew that was real? You even touched it! You hit it with a crowbar!” Suddenly Gabe was all jumpy and bouncing along besides John, making spastic hand gestures and generally giving John a headache. “I’m not imagining this shit! It’s real!”
“Well, don’t sound so damn happy about it, because believe me, it’d be better if you just ignored it. And it was a two-by-four.” John took a good, long hit off his cigarette. “Gabe? That’s not short for Gabriel, is it? Because wouldn’t that just fucking make my night…”
Gabe looked blankly at John. He kept bouncing. “I don’t think so,” he finally said. “Who are you? Where are we going?”
Given the state of him, a detox center and then holy ground probably would be the best combination; he was so high that John couldn’t get a good feel on exactly what was the drugs and what were Gabe’s actual psychic abilities. But he did have some. “John. My place is around the block. Get some coffee, sit you down and explain things so you don’t go fuck up things for everyone else…unless you’ve got somewhere else to go?”
“Not really. My landlord’s a fly-headed demon and I tried to zap him with a broken razor, but he threw me out,” Gabe babbled.
Once he got started, he apparently broke his ‘stop’ button. He went on and on and on as they got to John’s building and headed up the stairs, through the door and into the kitchen. He only stopped when John handed him one of the two beers left in the fridge and surreptitiously nicked his finger with a thumbhook at the same time.
“Ow.” Gabe popped his thumb in his mouth, sucked on it, then took it out. And then came all the questions.
John answered without really paying attention as he wiped the thumbhook off on the bottom of a small bowl, then started pulling herbs and decoctions from the cabinets. It wasn’t like Gabe was going to remember half this shit in the morning, anyway. “So that’s the short version,” he finished.
He gave the stuff in the bowl one last stir, then turned around to see Gabe fidgeting like mad. The other man kept rubbing his hands against his thighs, though that didn’t hide at all how much they were shaking. He looked at his feet, then sheepishly up at John. “Hey, man. Listen, you got anything…I’m still rattled from earlier and I could really use something to smooth out my nerves.”
“Try this.” The stuff in the bowl burped a small trace of smoke as John handed it over, so crack-brained as Gabe was, he didn’t drink it down right away. “No, really. It’s amazing. It’ll blow your mind.”
Gabe eyed it, then looked at John again. He made a visible effort to seriously think. “You…this really will do it?” he asked, staring plaintively at John. Whatever he’d had before must have been straight-up fire, because he actually looked like he wanted to believe John, and wasn’t just looking for an excuse to try out a new trip. “Looks like dog-shit, but okay.”
He drank it in one long swallow, which John found pretty impressive, having had to try the shit himself in the past. Then he grimaced and handed the bowl back to John.
“That was—fuck. Fuck. Holy fucking—what did you do to me?” he screamed, grabbing at his stomach. Then he tried to ram into John, but fell over instead, moaning and cursing.
John dumped the bowl in the sink, then took off his coat and tie. The coat went onto a chair and the tie he stuffed into Gabe’s mouth the next time Gabe tried to scream. The other man kicked out and tried to punch John, but was in too much pain, so John had a relatively easy time dragging him into the bathroom. Relatively.
Just as he got Gabe up to the pipes, Gabe went limp and John thought it was okay to go get the chains. Nope. Fucking bastard was only faking; he spat out John’s tie and came damned close to jumping John from behind. So John punched him, tied a proper gag in his mouth, and got out the chains in about two seconds. He manacled Gabe’s wrists together, then heaved the kid into the bathtub. “Look, just try to relax. It’s not going to be fun for the next couple hours, but believe me, you’ll thank me after that.”
Gabe twisted around while John was trying to loop the chains about the pipes and stared at John with wide, pleading eyes. Pathetic as that was, the muffled curses he was making didn’t sound all that nice.
“No, really,” John muttered. He picked up the last length of chain and faked a grab for Gabe’s ankle. When Gabe kicked at him, he grabbed the guy’s ankle for real and got that end done. “Not that you’ll remember because you’re so damned drugged-up, but it’s a fucking stupid idea to take hallucinogenics if one, you’re psychic, and two, you have no fucking idea what you’re doing. They can get you through your dreams, you know. You’re okay here, and in a couple hours you’ll wake up all sane and detoxed and I’ll explain things for real.”
Some of that must have penetrated because Gabe stopped struggling so much. Or maybe he was just getting tired. At any rate, he soon slumped against the tub and rested his head on its edge, still doing that begging look. He whined when John got up. A thick sheen of sweat was already coating his face, and it was clammy as hell, as John found out when he reluctantly swiped some of that hair out of Gabe’s face.
“It’s okay. They can’t get you here,” John ended up saying. He gave Gabe an awkward pat on the head. “I have to go see a guy about a skull, but I’ll be around when you wake up.”
Gabe started whacking chains around when John stepped back, but John ignored it and walked out. He shut and locked the door, then stood in the hall and listened. Not much, so if he didn’t make it back before Beeman opened up the downstairs for the day, no one would hear anything. John sighed and headed off.
* * *
Business must have been slow, because John mentioned his new apartment-mate in passing and Midnite up and decided to come look. Or, as he put it, come oversee so John didn’t accidentally open a gate to hell in his sleep-deprived state. “You should rest,” he said for the millionth time.
“You know, I would if someone didn’t keep calling me with ‘John, there’s an impending apocalypse in Chinatown. Go fix it because I’m busy pouring drinks,’” John snorted. He shoved Midnite away from the sink, splashed some cold water on his face, and went to check on Gabe.
At first he thought Gabe had passed out, but once John was leaning over him, Gabe slowly cracked an eye open. It was marbled through with red like the negative of a good steak and the rest of him looked about as good. John undid the gag and shook out his tie, then disgustedly threw it in the trashcan. There went that one. “How are you feeling?”
“You’re a goddamn motherfucking lying bastard,” Gabe rasped. Now he looked about as bouncy as a wet rag.
“And a good morning to you, too,” John said. He really wasn’t in the mood, he decided. Also, Gabe was filthy as hell, and John had already sacrificed his tie to the goddamn nuisance. John reached up and unhooked the showerhead.
When he saw what John was doing, Gabe struggled to sit up. “Hey, what are you--God that’s cold!”
For a reply, John turned the water so it hit Gabe squarely in the mouth. The other man gurgled a scream, then twisted frantically to face the bottom of the tub. Which suited John, since that meant he could unlock the leg-chains without getting kicked in the face.
Somebody knocked. Midnite appeared by the side of the tub a moment later and took the showerhead from John. Of course he’d opt to do that and not get into the messy shit. With a sigh, John rolled up his sleeves, took off his boots and got into the tub.
Getting the clothes and the rest of the chains off of Gabe was like trying to skin a kelpie while it was still alive. He squirmed and kicked and cursed so John very quickly lost any idea of what body part he was holding onto at any given time. In the end, he just got his nails under anything that didn’t feel like skin and yanked. Got cracked a hundred times on his forearms and legs, and got clipped painfully on the jaw once. That was when John lost his temper and grabbed for the blur that most looked like Gabe’s neck, yelling that he’d feed the ungrateful little fuck to the shedim if he didn’t knock it off.
Gabe shut up and dialed down the fighting, though he didn’t stop altogether. Midnite, the fucking bastard, hit John with a five-second blast of ice-cold water. “Have you even explained to him what you’re doing?” he said.
“Yeah, but he was high as a kite and probably doesn’t remember a goddamn thing—you’d better be clearing your throat and not laughing, damn it.” John smacked the water out of his eyes and threw Gabe’s shirt onto the floor. He reached blindly out towards Midnite. “Hand me the goddamn soap.”
Soap was handed. Apparently now just realizing that there were three people in the room, Gabe twisted around and stared at Midnite. He opened his mouth to say something, then yelped and attempted to leap over the tub edge to get away from John’s hands. Instead he ended up smushed in the corner, which made it easy for John to haul him back and take a stab at cleaning him. The actual cleaning didn’t go so smoothly, since Gabe freaked out any time John’s hands got near his crotch.
John was planning to leave that for last anyway, but then the crash kicked in and Gabe fell back so fast that John barely grabbed him before he cracked his head on the tub edge. He curled up and made pained little noises, barely moving even when John sluiced suds up between his buttocks. “That’d be your head getting used to things. It hurts because you’ve been repressing,” John told him.
Gabe whined and wrapped his head in his hands. John looked at him, then looked at Midnite, who shrugged.
“Like I fucking said, he’s not really in a position to hear me. Don’t know why I bother.” After rinsing himself off, John got out of the tub. He started to unbutton his shirt, then said to hell with it and just put up with the clingy wet cloth as he walked into his bedroom to get a spare set of clothing. He had a feeling that if he changed now, he’d just get wet again.
And he turned out to be right, because Gabe went back into fight mode while John and Midnite were toweling him off. He got in one good smack to Midnite’s face, whereupon Midnite’s aloof calm went icy. Midnite snatched Gabe’s wrist out of the air as easily as a falcon could catch a dove mid-flight and stared ominously down at Gabe. “Stop that.”
John tugged Gabe, now frozen stiff, from Midnite and finished stuffing the kid into some jeans an old, dead friend had left behind. Header had been about Gabe’s height, but a bit bulkier; Gabe was closer to slender than lean, though he had some muscle on him. “Jesus, and you were yelling at me for freaking him out. Go make breakfast or something if you’re so worried about my health.”
“Your fridge is empty,” Midnite dryly said. But he got up and left John to haul an exhausted Gabe into the bedroom.
“Hurts,” Gabe moaned as John flopped him onto the bed. He curled up again and pressed the heels of his hands into his temples. “God, it hurts so much.”
God, he looked pitiful. He…John was rolling his eyes at himself even as he sat down on the edge of the bed. He got out another cigarette and lit it from his own lighter, which Midnite had graciously fixed for him. After John had pointed out that yeah, Zohak dead was a mess but now Midnite didn’t have to worry about his African shipments getting hijacked. “Yeah, I know. But it really will be over in a little bit.”
“Am I supposed to believe that?” Gabe moved his arms so he could peer out from between a slit in them. “You fed me something that felt like it ripped out my spine and then you chained me to a bathtub.”
John sucked on his cigarette and thought about all the ways he and Midnite could make Gabe disappear. Then he started to get up. “You’re really a pain in the ass, you know.”
“Wait! Wait…you’re really serious?” The arms moved a little more.
“About you being a pain in the ass? Yeah,” John said.
The face between the arms looked disgusted, but when John started moving away again, it turned fearful and a little frantic. “No, about…it being over.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I am. About that part, anyway. But yeah, you still probably aren’t remembering too well…” Flipping his hand at Gabe, John walked out.
When he got to the kitchen, Midnite was in fact cooking. Knowing the other man, John decided it wasn’t a great idea to think too closely on where and how Midnite might have gotten the food that quickly. Anyway, it smelled great and John was hungry and about ready to collapse. As soon as Midnite backed away from the stove, John grabbed himself some and inhaled it. Then he got himself a second helping.
Midnite sighed and leaned against the counter, watching John with a mixture of amusement, disapproval—at the bad manners—and a touch of worry. “You seriously should consider slowing down. Or taking another—”
“Yeah, I really could use some new cannon fodder. Running pretty low nowadays,” John muttered. Hopefully, the sharpness of his voice would cut Midnite back.
“Chas’ death was a tragedy, but John—”
John scooped up the last bit of food and shoved his spoon into his mouth while he banged his plate into the sink. In his peripheral vision, he caught Midnite’s flinch and he felt marginally better. Though now he was down a tie, a dish and probably the rest of his suit, which was at the intermediate stage of dryness where it still clung to his skin, but was itchy as hell. Fuck.
A hand fell on his shoulder. He let it pull him around, getting ready to give Midnite another piece of his mind so the bastard could choke on it, and surprise, surprise, he got a mouthful of Midnite’s tongue instead. Apparently today was Charity Day and John had forgotten to skip town. He bit down.
Midnite’s hands made C-curves of themselves and scissored hard into either side of John’s waist. He sucked his own blood from John’s mouth and ground them hard backwards so John hit the counter edge. His hands stayed where they were, their long fingers splaying to massage from John’s back down over his hips, while his leg slanted forward to get some decent, rough friction going. At least his condescension was going to have some snap to it.
John reached up and flicked off Midnite’s hat. An irritated grunt promptly forced its way into his mouth, but he leaned forward and chased away Midnite’s protests while he spread his knees, got himself stabilized—if a little more open to Midnite’s pressure, but hell, sometimes bending was good—and then slid the edge of his hand down Midnite’s back in a snaking, rippling motion.
The other man arched and arrowed his hands across John’s belly, then down. There was a little bit of awkward struggling then to get their clothes out of the way; Midnite might be graceful as a panther stalking the wounded, but his hands were large and the space between their shifting, shoving bodies wasn’t. But then his fingers got in, knuckles pressing the zipper teeth into John’s skin, and okay, between the warm sandpaper calluses and the insistent slide of their bodies, it was pretty damn good. Good enough to get John’s teeth out of Midnite’s tongue.
Afterward, John leaned his hip against the counter and tucked his shirt back into his pants while he watched Midnite rinse out his dishrag. “So careful, huh. You could just start coming over again, and not act like I’m some fuck out to get you all the time.”
“We tried that. If you need a reminder of how well that went, I suggest you take a look at your back,” Midnite said. He glanced over to make sure he’d really gotten the knife into John. “If I gave you half a chance, would you really refrain from keeping back some of my come, just in case?”
John looked at the thin white streaks swirling down the drain with the water. Then he laughed and got out a cigarette. “Why the hell haven’t you died yet?”
“Not from lack of effort on your part. But John—I am serious when I say you should consider it.” Midnite moved his head slightly. He didn’t really turn it in any particular direction, but it somehow clearly indicated John’s bedroom.
“You make a shitty matchmaker, Midnite. Let yourself out. I trust you don’t need my oversight for that,” John snorted, walking away.
When he went into the bedroom, Gabe was still curled up on one side of the bed. Way too still, though…he’d been listening. Not that John really cared. He glanced at the kid a second time, then decided against chaining him up and stubbed out his cigarette, then got onto the bed. The mattress sank to gather him in and John gratefully let it.
“Listen, Gabe. If you’re going to steal anything on your way out, do me a favor and stick to the stuff you recognize,” John muttered, turning onto his side. He closed his eyes just as the front door banged shut. “Don’t make me spend my afternoon scraping your stupid self off my walls.”
Gabe pretended to be deeply asleep, which sent John into Never-Never-land with something to snicker at.
* * *
John woke up in a disturbed state, but didn’t make the mistake of leaping out of bed to see what was the matter. He lit a cigarette, stared at the ceiling, and figured out what was the matter first. Then he got out of bed and changed his clothes before heading for the kitchen. He winced a few times; his bruises had stiffened up during his nap and were making him pay double-time. His head felt like it’d been filled with damp cotton and his mouth tasted about the same, and somebody was making coffee.
Somebody had done the laundry, too: a freshly-cleaned leather jacket and pair of jeans were spread over the top of John’s couch, and he spotted a familiar t-shirt wadded up in his trashcan. Then he rounded the corner and found Gabe sitting at the kitchen table, bare feet nudging at each other beneath the chair while he bent over one of John’s basic necromancy references.
He looked up, then smiled uncertainly and waved his hand towards the pot of coffee on the counter. “Want some?”
After ashing his cigarette, John ambled over and checked it out. “Oh, good. You didn’t use the monoceros dung.”
Gabe blinked. “Was that the weird-smelling stuff in the other can? What the hell is that? Why do you have it? You into…what’s it…homeopathy?”
John snickered as he poured himself some coffee. It wasn’t bad, considering John’s coffeemaker was shit in plastic. “So you’re nosy and ungrateful.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry about that.” When John turned around, Gabe was doing a pretty good impression of a chastened puppy. He hunched over the book and nervously picked at the few bits of gilding still left on its pages. “Um. I feel a lot better now. A lot better. I can…finish a thought, you know? I haven’t felt this sane in months. And I kind of…remember I wasn’t all that pleasant, but…”
What was it with John and picking up people that felt the need to pour out their neuroses to him? Everyone said he dressed like a funeral director, not a psychologist. “You read Latin?”
“What?” Gabe glanced at the book. “Oh. Well, yeah, went to classical English snob school and everything. You’ve heard the accent, anyway.”
“Great. I’ll…” John dug around and found a pencil. He ripped off a paper towel and started writing on it. “Reading list, so you can pop on out and stop ruining my books. But just so you have the basics and don’t get yourself turned into a crumpet before you hit the library, you should know that God and the Devil—”
“—made a bet. I might’ve been out of it, but my memory’s not that bloody terrible,” Gabe said. He sounded a touch annoyed, which was a first. Then he made an elaborately casual attempt to look around the room. “Where’s the other guy? He your lover?”
It took a minute for John to stop laughing, which got him within a couple inches of stabbing himself with the goddamn pencil. He took out his cigarette and downed some coffee. “Midnite? Hell, no. He’s just the kind of old acquaintance you have to fuck once in a while. All right, you’ve got the story so you should be good.”
For some reason, this did not make Gabe look happy and ready to bolt from the room, which was the standard reaction. Instead he looked offended. “You’re kicking me out?”
“I’m sorry, did you start helping with the rent sometime while I was cleaning your filthy ass?” John drawled. He dragged on his cigarette, then blew a long stream in Gabe’s direction. The phone on the wall rang and John reached behind him without looking to pick it up. “You’ll be fine, kid.”
“But—you did all that—” Gabe was back to the manic hand-waving. Apparently it wasn’t all drugs.
John rolled his eyes and coughed into the phone to let whomever know he was listening. “Chalk it up to a stupid Good Samaritan impulse. I’m not that sane either, you know—spent two years in Ravenscar’s mental ward. But I took my meds this morning and I’m good now, so there’s no need to thank me. Yeah? Well, fuck, that’s great.”
The phone was Midnite, of course. Friday night, club was bouncing, and he had a problem that he needed John to bounce. That pretty much settled it—he wasn’t concerned about John so much as he was about losing a garbage-man.
“Do me a favor—lock the door on the way out,” John said. He hung up and walked out before Gabe could finish whatever he’d been about to say.
* * *
All right, sometimes even John thought he could use a vacation. He spent way too much time collapsed against alley walls nowadays. And he’d ruined another fucking suit—John yanked open his collar and tossed his tie into a nearby dumpster, then painfully pushed himself off the bricks. He managed to stagger a few more yards before he had to get up against the wall again.
His head was on fire. He pressed his hands against his ears, but that didn’t deafen the dull, insistent pounding in his skull. John stared around for God knew how long before he finally recognized the fire escape up ahead. Thank fucking Christ. Only twenty more yards.
He made the last few feet in a haze that faded and intensified in various shades of red. The sound of his shoes on the rungs was barely audible, but the chipped paint on the railing seemed to gouge its edges right into his palms. He dragged himself up, then fumbled to get through his window safeguards. Goddamn it, he really was a paranoid bastard.
The window opened kind of fast. “John?” someone said. “Jesus, you look like—aaah! Christ! What the fuck—Christ…”
Warm. Nice and warm, and they were covered in fabric that itched and squirmed beneath John’s hands, but he ripped that out of the way and beneath was smooth and silky. He couldn’t get enough of it, wanting to fill up his hands and then his mouth because it didn’t taste bad either. The throbbing in his head intensified and he snarled.
Whoever the hell else was there shut up. John showed his appreciation by digging his fingers into them till he couldn’t tell the difference between them and him. He moved deeper and harder and faster, but he still couldn’t escape the beat in his head. It slammed at him, and he slammed back, but finally he had to give way and goddamn it, he was so fucking tired. Sleepy. At least he was warm this time.
* * *
The other thing John spent way too much time doing now was waking up at home and having to figure out what was fucked up in the world right away. He swallowed, grimaced at the disgusting taste of his own mouth, and tried to pull up his hand to rub the crusts out of his eyes. After a moment, he got it up, but it’d gotten stuck beneath something. Something that was pressing down on his chest and stomach and making weird little noises.
He got his elbows beneath himself and heaved up till he could see what it was. Gabe lifted bleary eyes to John, then blinked. Grinned. The sides of his jaw and throat were just about one big red-purple bite-mark. “You sleep like a corpse, you know. It’s kind of creepy.”
John really wanted a cigarette to clear his head, but his coat was heaped up on the floor on the other side of the room. So, apparently, were the rest of their clothes…shit. “Fuck. Fucking Midnite and his fucking succubus bartender who just couldn’t—right. Gabe, I wasn’t really with it last night.”
Gabe stopped grinning and started looking uncomfortable. He ducked his head and started to say something, then coughed instead. Then he looked back up at John. “Wasn’t like you were drunk?”
“Wasn’t like I got whammied by a sex-demon that didn’t like being fired. Bitch. But anyway…is the window still broken? And why the hell were you still here?” John said, voice sharpening as his mind gradually got with it. He pushed himself up farther so Gabe either had to get off or sit up.
The other man chose to sit up, looking first puzzled and then extremely upset. He kept pushing at the hair in his face and it kept flopping back. “Oh, I don’t know—because you helped me a lot and I wanted to pay you back? Plus I distinctly remember saying that I tried to kill my landlord and he threw me out, which pretty much means I’ve got nowhere to go right now. Though if I knew you really were this much of a bastard, I would’ve just chanced the street again.”
“You should’ve done that in the first place,” John muttered. He rubbed at his nose, then dropped his hand. Flicked his eyes up and down Gabe’s body, which Gabe hadn’t bothered to cover up with sheets. “Jesus. Is that what you thought we were doing? You’d do all right on the streets. Better than in here.”
Gabe went still, eyes wide and cold. Then they blazed up and he made a pretty credible attempt at strangling John. “You fucking son of a bitch!”
John intercepted one wrist but only managed to deflect the other. He used the hold on the one he had to yank Gabe forward and set him off-balance, then roll them over. The sheets went flying up as Gabe kicked at him—his foot actually thumped past John’s ribs—so for a few seconds, John was wrestling with a bunch of linen. Then things cleared up, and Gabe was on his back and John had him reasonably well-pinned by the hands and one knee.
Both of them needed a second to catch their breath. Gabe spent the whole time glaring up at John, and the moment he had the air to, he cut loose. “I was thinking of offering to help you out with—whatever you do. The other thing would’ve been because I wanted to. Not that you’d get that, I can see now,” he breathlessly snapped.
Actually, John did and it gave him his first headache of the day. He had to wait a second to build up his sarcasm. “Where, exactly, did you get the idea that I’d want to screw some crazy kid?”
“The…well, you chained me to your tub, and then you and your friend were…” Embarrassment was getting the better of Gabe’s anger. His flush redistributed itself to reflect that; he was paler in the morning light than John remembered. His tongue came out to run over his lip and he blinked with girl-long lashes. “It made more sense when I was crazy, all right?” he finally said. “Never mind. Sorry.”
Fucking Midnite and his fucking great ideas, John thought. He sighed and looked off to the side, then back at Gabe. “I’m an exorcist. I pull demons out of people and I fuck with Hell, and it generally fucks back. How old are you? Want to see fifty? Then get the fuck away from me.”
“I’m twenty.” Gabe saw John’s skepticism and raised his eyebrows. “Really. And…you know, getting away is a bit hard when you’re on me like this.”
He moved when he talked—slow, almost inviting. It might have been accidental: cramp, stiff muscle. And John’s body seemed like it was so used to getting fucked with that now it was asking for it. He gritted his teeth and moved his hands off Gabe’s wrists.
For a moment, Gabe just stared up at John. His eyes had lost the anger and were strangely thoughtful, like he was the one that was fifteen years older. Then he grabbed John by the head and yanked him down, and yeah, Gabe was twenty. Kissed like the world was going to end at dusk.
John enjoyed it. Then he shook himself free and pinned Gabe down again when the other man tried to follow him up. “You’re being really stupid.”
“I’ve gotten better at that than smart,” Gabe quipped. That accent of his stirred equally strong desires to smack him and to lick up his voice. “And I want to know what’s going on. I was trying to figure it out on my own, but it wasn’t—well, you saw how well that was going. You…you killed that thing. I didn’t know you could do that.”
“That was a really stupid thing to do. Zohak’s got connections up his fucking ass.” A glint of something caught John’s eye, but his hands were occupied. He was still calling himself a moron when he leaned down and nuzzled the sheets out of the way with his nose and mouth; Gabe inhaled sharply and twisted prettily up to meet John. “Of course, everyone fucking does around here,” John muttered. “The hell did this come from? You didn’t have it in when I was rinsing you down.”
Gabe slid one leg to the side and shook it till he’d gotten the sheets off. Then he wrapped it around John’s back and urged John down farther. His head lolled back as John poked his tongue through the silver ring, teased where it pierced Gabe’s nipple. “Had…these nightmares…demons were hanging me by them, so took…took them out. Didn’t…realize you were looking.”
“Smartass.” John flipped the ring up to rest on his teeth and tugged lightly at it. The blankets beneath him surged and slid till Gabe was rubbing his half-hard prick against John’s thigh. He messed around with the ring some more till the cock smacking his leg was fully up, then mouthed his way back to Gabe’s throat.
It looked like John had really done a number on him last night. Not that he really seemed to mind; he moaned and jerked when John worked his mouth and tongue slowly over the bruises. Both his legs were wrapped around John now and pulling hard till John finally gave in. Got down and dragged himself over Gabe to run his tongue-tip over the other man’s lips.
Whimpering, Gabe tried to lunge up, but John backed off. He bent down once Gabe had slumped back and teased him again, then lazily came all the way down and showed him something about not fucking in a frenzy.
“Now what are you waiting for?” Gabe rasped, biting at John’s jaw.
John shrugged and slid his hand between Gabe’s legs at the same time. He rubbed his thumb up between Gabe’s buttocks—his fingers enjoyed themselves with squeezing those, which were a nice handful—and around the tight folds of skin. Dipped it slightly inside of Gabe, trying to gauge what he’d done last night. Gabe wasn’t wincing, and things didn’t feel all that inflamed, so John guessed they hadn’t gone that far. “Nothing, really. I just like being a bastard.”
Gabe cursed and moaned and finally just yanked at John’s shoulders. Which John let him do, but just sucked on Gabe’s lower lip while the other man pushed and dragged himself pointedly against John. He could go on ahead; it gave John something to do while his hand got something that’d work out of the bedside drawer. Then John pushed up, got his hand down again before Gabe could get snippy, and hell, that was pretty.
“Bastard—yeah, that’s about—oh…” Arched up again, Gabe shivered and whined till John finally got round to the main event. Then he crashed back to the bed and his knees came up in a rush, yanking John in so fast everything almost ended right there.
“Fucking—stop that,” John hissed. He grabbed Gabe’s wrists again and slammed them down on the pillow. “Slow down, goddamn it.”
The only thing that came out of Gabe’s mouth was a long, thready keen. His eyes were so wide John was vaguely surprised they hadn’t fallen out yet, and he was constantly squirming, squeezing and clenching till John thought the world was going to white out. Goddamn it—John gave up on trying to draw it out any more and got down to the fucking. And then it was sweet even if it was too fast, and Gabe was moving like every single dirty thought or dream John had ever had, eyes big and open like an angel’s, and John just lapped up the twisted combination. He just couldn’t help himself.
* * *
Gabe pushed himself up on one elbow, adjusted himself so his face was shoved farther into the crook of John’s neck, then whuffed out a deeply satisfied breath. “Mmm. That wasn’t the succubus shit, was it?”
“Nope.” John raised his hand and let it hang over Gabe’s tousled curls so his fingertips just grazed one. Then he gave himself a mental smack and dropped his hand. He pushed himself up and wiped some of the sweat off his face. “Fine. You can stay for a while, but don’t expect me to turn into Yoda. I’m not interested in cleaning up someone else’s cock-ups.”
The other man stiffened. After a moment, he rolled over and sat up crosslegged. His cock was just lying out there again. “Wouldn’t I fuck up less if you were telling me how to do things? I mean, it’s not like I can just pretend that shit’s not there. If it tries to get me again, I’m not going to sit there and die.”
“Look, just trust me on this. I’m not going to improve your chances of survival. What I can do is tell you all the ways you can die that you didn’t know about, and most people don’t find that real helpful,” John muttered. He threw off the blankets and walked into the bathroom. Behind him, Gabe was yelling something, but John didn’t want to hear it. He was already regretting their little interlude.
He washed up in the sink, then put his hands on its edge and leaned over it with closed eyes. After a few moments like that, he took a deep breath and stood up to look at himself in the mirror. He needed a shave. He also needed the ability to stop getting himself into these situations.
John fixed the window before he went out to face his latest mistake. By then, Gabe was already dressed: the jeans John had dug up for him, plus he’d appropriated one of John’s shirts. He was poking around the kitchen cabinets.
“Not that one. That one’s unstable,” John said. He grabbed the relic from Gabe and shoved it back into its box, then closed the cabinet.
Gabe compressed his lips into a thin white lip, but didn’t say any of the scathing comments he was clearly holding back. He gingerly pushed himself up onto the counter and swung his legs. “I had some stuff back at my apartment that I wouldn’t mind keeping. The landlord might not have pitched all of it yet—I know he’d keep back some to sell off, anyway.”
“So go get it.” John shook out a cigarette and was about to light it when Gabe suddenly yanked it out of his mouth. So John turned around and grabbed Gabe by the throat, then seized the man’s hands and bent them behind his back when Gabe tried to pull him off. “All right, I’m a goddamn motherfucking lying bastard. Yeah. And what, you think that’s gonna change after a quick fuck? Think smarter.”
“Like getting everyone pissed off at you and then stocking your apartment with nothing but cigarettes and whiskey?” Gabe snapped back.
John sneered at him. “Cuts down on the number of funeral wreathes I’ve got to buy, doesn’t it?”
“I’m not some idiot kid that thinks this is a fun lark, this is going to make me king of the world. I’m in this to survive, all right?” Suddenly Gabe went limp in John’s hold. He dropped his eyes, then lifted his head again. The corner of his mouth quirked up in grim irony. “I’ll listen. I have to. I know I’ll die if I don’t.”
Well, that was a new one. It probably wasn’t the whole truth—hell, even John admitted to liking the power part of it, sometimes—but it sounded like it had some of that in it.
He ended up relaxing his grip. Second headache of the day. “Yeah, they all say that.”
“If I end up faking, you can yell at me all you—er.” In the middle of that, Gabe realized that that was pretty stupid to say, since if he was in fact faking, then he’d be dead. He winced and shrugged and sort of tilted in John’s direction. One of his curls fell forward and grazed John’s forehead. “Please. I don’t even know where to start. You’re the first person I’ve met that’s even got a clue.”
“I have a hell of a lot more than that. ‘s why I’m always in such a fucking bad mood,” John said under his breath. He moved his head so the lock of hair wasn’t touching him, but that put him closer to Gabe’s earring, and John never could fucking focusing when it’d be healthiest for him to. His mouth brushed Gabe’s cheek, then latched onto the earring.
Cocky and kinky little shit. The moment John’s mouth wrapped around the bit of jewelry, Gabe was pressed up against him and nuzzling the side of his face. Gabe’s breathing was already getting uneven.
“Please?” he whispered. He twisted his hands around to grab at the fingers John had wrapped around his wrists.
Now they were getting into the wrong kind of territory, and John was a son of a bitch, but not that kind. He reluctantly pulled away, and stepped back into the bargain. This time, Gabe didn’t try to slap the cigarette from his mouth.
“Let’s go get your stuff,” John finally said. “Jesus Christ. You’d better not live that far from here. I’m not springing for a cab.”
“We could try to find my car. I left it…” Gabe thought a moment “…a couple blocks away? I’m pretty sure I locked it.”
John exhaled a shapeless cloud of smoke. It fit his mood. “Yeah, what the hell. Since being stupid is the order of the day.”
* * *
The car actually was still there, and was a good-looking piece of work as well: big, black, vintage. It looked like the kind of thing Midnite would drive if Midnite didn’t have his mysterious way of popping up where and when he’d annoy John most.
Gabe’s former landlord was, predictably, a fat and loud bastard who shut up the moment John pulled out a couple surprises from his inner coat-pocket. He’d kept back only the saleable stuff, which meant Gabe only ended up hauling out a slack duffel bag of things. It didn’t seem to bother Gabe too much.
“I sort of had to strip down ever since I was thirteen, so all the other stuff-that’s just convenience. Things I care about are in here,” Gabe said, patting his bag. It sat between him and John on the car seat.
“What happened when you were thirteen?” John asked. “Take a right. Midnite’s is straight ahead—those stairs, there. Don’t park right in front. He saves that for paying clients and hexes the hell out of anyone else that uses the space.”
One eyebrow went up, but Gabe did what he was told, which was more than Chas had done his first time here. Chas. Hell. John dragged on his cigarette and resisted the urge to beat his head against the window.
After he’d parked, Gabe turned off the engine and sat back instead of getting out of the car. He took out his lighter and played with it, watching the flame flick on and off. “When I was thirteen, my grandmother died and my fucking cousins thought it’d be funny to lock me in with the body for a few hours till the adults brought in the undertaker. She wasn’t…exactly dead yet. She talked to me. After that, things weren’t ever the same.”
“What was her maiden name?” Saturday afternoon, but the line in front of Midnite’s was already getting started. Whole bunch of up-and-coming half-breeds with their favorite pet human scum…John watched Ellie skip the line and waltz through dragging a big blond schmuck.
“Mabb. Why?” Gabe slewed around to look at John.
Hopefully John’s face wasn’t showing anything that’d freak him out. “Just wondering if I knew your line. Things run in families a lot of the time, but it can skip generations. Time to go in—you can ask Midnite about it if you want. He’s more up on the genealogy bullshit than I am.”
“Do you?” When John got out, Gabe got out. He had to spend a second locking the car, so he had to run to catch up afterward. He skidded to a stop, nearly banged into John, and then grabbed John’s arm. “Hey—”
“Johnny!” some fuck sang out. Mortal, no less. Cocky shit. “Who’s the arm-candy?”
“Your dearly departed mother. I dug up her body and made myself some fun out of her fat corpse. Even had enough left over for a barbecue,” John drawled back. He kept walking the same speed, but jerked away from Gabe.
To his credit, Gabe seemed to get what was wrong and stayed a foot away. He followed John down the steps while glaring over his shoulder, so he almost ran into John again at the rope.
Bouncer held up a card. “Pair of scales,” John said. Someone was hitting him over the head with the warnings today.
He walked through, then turned around to watch Gabe as the bouncer held up the next card. Gabe rolled his eyes. “A bear fishing.”
He was still incredulous as he walked in to join John. “That’s it? Don’t you get a lot of stupid kids in here that way?”
“Yeah.” John gazed at Gabe till Gabe flushed and started to snarl, then started walking again. Once they were in the club, John paused to take stock of the who’s who. He scanned the room and saw Ellie in the corner just as she pointed to him and Gabe, then turned to giggle. At the bar, Nergal was sipping a pitch-black martini and looking thoughtfully at Gabe; he smiled to show his fangs when he saw John looking.
Fuck. They already assumed, and they’d act on that assumption whether or not it was true.
“Could you tone down the—hey. Ow. What’s the matter?” Gabe hissed.
John just kept hauling him by the elbow, making for the quickest route to the backrooms. His inner alarm pinged just as someone hissed, soft and teasing, and Gabe damn near jumped John in trying to get away. “Fuck off, Asmodeus. Unless you want my boot in your face again.”
“Just greeting the replacement, Johnny,” Asmodeus leered.
Bastard, but no time to deal with him now. They were almost through and thank God, because Gabe was shoved up hard against John’s side and not only was that not helping the impression they were making, it was also making it fucking hard to walk. “That’s what’s the matter. Don’t know if I forgot to mention this, but sending demons back to Hell tends to make you unpopular.”
“What did he mean by ‘replacement’?” Gabe was asking, but by then they were walking into Midnite’s office.
Midnite was rising like he’d expected them. Maybe he had. Maybe he’d been goddamn planning on it. “John. Gabe.”
“Oh, good. I don’t need to do the introductions,” John said. He kicked the door shut and flopped onto the sofa. “He’s a Mabb—hey, which side? Mother’s or father’s?”
“Mother’s. So that does mean something? That’s why I have to put up with this shit?” Gabe carefully set himself down on the sofa next to John. “Is that how it was with you?”
Midnite noticed. Midnite was amused, as indicated by the way he steepled his fingers and leaned against a cabinet across from them. Usually by this point, he was throwing skulls at John’s head.
“Yeah, yeah and yeah.” John pulled out a fresh cigarette, lighted it off the old one, and leaned forward to stick the used-up one in the ash-tray. He stayed forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Listen, Midnite. I have that thing uptown and I won’t be back till late, so watch Gabe for me. You can have him file things or whatever.”
Short pause, mostly because Midnite clearly wanted to see Gabe’s reaction before he answered. As for that…Gabe almost went for John’s throat again. “You’re dropping me off to get babysat? With all those—those demons out there? That want to fuck with me to get to you?”
“No, I’m leaving you here because Midnite’s actually pretty patient when it comes to telling people how not to do shit, and I don’t feel like coming home to your corpse in my trashed apartment,” John said. It came out a lot sharper and rawer than he’d meant it to be.
At least it wiped all that humor off Midnite’s face. He glanced worriedly at John, then nodded. “I suppose I can find something for him to do. But I thought you’d fixed your wards since last—”
“—I did. But I’m having a bad week and I just don’t really want to think about it. Okay?” John got up.
“—but while you’re here, I’d like you to look at something,” Midnite smoothly switched. He picked a few thick books off his shelves and dropped them on the table in front of Gabe, then pulled John so they were standing just outside the room. “Those are good primers,” he called to Gabe. Then he pulled the door closed. “John, you’re overreacting. Calm down. It’s making you sloppy.”
The whole club was having a damn hard time pretending that they weren’t trying to listen in. After giving them the finger, John poked the door so he could check on Gabe. The other man was staring at the books with a lingering annoyed expression, but he slowly reached out and opened one up. “Like last night?”
“Last night I wanted you to stay here, but you ran out. I almost sent someone after you.” The acid in Midnite’s voice bit deep.
But not the way he meant it to, probably. “Yeah, that would have been a better idea,” John muttered.
After a moment, Midnite sighed. “You have many flaws, John, but you rarely ever make the exact same mistake twice.”
“Well, I do my best to keep things interesting.” Now Gabe was curling himself up with the book. Looked like he was a secret geek at heart. “Can you just—brainwash him and send him back to London or wherever the hell that accent’s from? And shut up about me needing help, or company, or just something to keep me distracted from my shit life—I can already tell this’ll turn out worse than the last time.”
“Because you didn’t want to fuck Chas?” Midnite asked in a perfectly normal tone of voice.
John winced. Then he glared at him. “Would you not fucking do that? What’s with you, anyway? You thought I was nuts for taking Chas on, and now you want me to do it again?”
“I didn’t disagree with the idea of you taking an apprentice—I disagreed with your choice. Chas had a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm, but no gifts. He would’ve done better to study with Beeman.” Midnite gazed steadily at John. It was pretty amazing how matter-of-factly cold-blooded he could be…but his judgment couldn’t be faulted, unfortunately. “Now, that one’s more suitable.”
“That one is a kinky slut with some serious attachment issues,” John said.
Sage nod from Midnite, who stroked his chin like he was actually taking John seriously. “He seems to think I pose a threat to you. At least, that was what I gathered from the looks he was sending my way.”
“This is not a fucking joke, Midnite.” John swung himself about and disgustedly threw his back against the wall. He stared out at the crowd, then gave them the finger. Half of them were stupid enough to look offended and prove they’d been watching. “Christ. You’re just doing this because it’s easier than saying no to me.”
That one hit way down low on Midnite. His hand briefly curled into a fist. Then it uncurled, and he glanced inside the office. “You’re a problem for me. I freely acknowledge that. But you also are someone whose death I’d regret. And for the past few weeks you’ve been cutting it very fine.”
“’Don’t I usually?” John snorted. He laughed beneath his breath and pivoted to check the clock on the wall of Midnite’s office.
Gabe had looked up from his book and their eyes met. Then John turned away and gave Midnite a fake-hearty clap on the shoulder. “I’m aiming to be back around three.”
“Good hunting, John,” Midnite solemnly said. He walked back into the office and slowly closed the door. Over his shoulder, John could see that Gabe hadn’t gone back to reading yet.
John cursed at himself, then started shoving through the crowd. He hoped he got to kill the fucks tonight instead of bargaining. It’d make him feel better.