|Deal II: Tit for Tat
Author: Guede Mazaka
Balthazar had an amazing view from his balcony, but it would figure that John wouldn’t have more than a few minutes to enjoy it before he was interrupted. He wrinkled his nose and stepped back from the dust swirling on the floor. “What now? I’m on the clock.”
That I seriously doubt, John, came Mammon’s hiss. The dust settled into a grotesque face, then rose to slither around John’s ankles. I can offer you more of such things. People. Once I have rule of this plane.
“I’m sure,” John muttered, resisting the urge to glance at the door. He could hear that Balthazar was still sleeping, and so no point in making Mammon think this was anything more than a fun way to blow off work.
Little snake-heads with mouths on the top snapped up at him, their gritty fangs dissolving into dirt the instant they touched each other. They reformed behind him so he barely stepped out of the way in time. I am growing impatient, John.
“Yeah, I guess that’s understandable. Since you know, we haven’t settled on terms yet or anything. I’m still looking into whether this whole idea is feasible—nothing personal, but I like to stick with horses I think have a shot at making it.” Smiling nicely, John stepped from concrete to the rug, which had warding sigils subtly woven into it. Maybe Balthazar’s hands-on skills were a bit dated, but his taste was excellent, and apparently his bank account quite fat. “Come back in a couple days. I should know something about the Spear of Destiny by then.”
He turned to go, but something lashed around his wrist and tore him back with so much force that his shoulder was nearly dislocated. John cursed and went down on his knees that were already skidding; he clawed into the rug with an oath. His nails scraped off, sank down and elongated, and then held. For a second the tension made his body creak painfully, but then he was falling back, teeth gritted against the broken bones in his wrist. He didn’t make the mistake of toppling so far the other way that Mammon could snatch him up on that way, but instead used his momentum to spin around to face the bastard.
I am IMPATIENT, Mammon’s dust-face snarled. You are no longer under consideration as a potential ally. This was your last chance.
John propped himself up on his elbow so he could give the son of a bitch the finger. He was surprised when Mammon tried an aborted lunge at him, since he’d figured that was a little too modern for the bastard to get, but not so much so that he forgot to spit some of Mass at him. The inside of John’s mouth smoked and blistered like a bitch, but Mammon’s face crashed ignominiously into an oversized dust bunny.
Hand to his mouth, John sat back and coughed till he’d hacked up a couple blood clots. He sighed and poked at them for a moment, then swallowed them again. He needed a drink, preferably directly from the jugular, but it beat curling up in the corner with half his lungs burned up like what usually happened. The pieces he’d gotten from Balthazar were coming in pretty handy, even if the price he was expecting to get charged was damn steep. Then again, John had rarely had to pay the full cost before, and he didn’t see why he had to start now.
He slowly pulled himself up to his feet, rubbing at his mouth till he’d flaked off the burnt skin to make way for the new layer beneath. The sun was coming up, so John went inside where he found Balthazar waiting for him, all nerves and big scared eyes.
Balthazar tasted too damned good, John concluded once they were in the elevator. That and he was getting too good at throwing John off-balance and then looking like he had no idea what he was doing. Of course he did; no one that partnered up with Midnite and managed to turn a profit doing that could be that straightforwardly…John shook out a cigarette and glared at Balthazar, who was doing a lousy job of pretending he wasn’t staring hungrily at John. “Stop doing that.”
Given how much time John had let the man have to get cleaned up, he could’ve fixed his hair. It looked as if he hadn’t even combed it, let alone styled out the curls so he didn’t look like so…young. “Doing what?” Balthazar asked.
John dipped his head to light up, then came to attention as the doors opened. He hooked his hand around Balthazar’s elbow, ignored Balthazar’s wince, and pulled them along before the clerk at the desk could notice them. “Never mind. You remembered your keys, right?”
“Yes…we’re driving?” Balthazar absently pushed his hand into his pocket and pulled out a key ring. After a moment, he started playing nervously with the keys.
“Well, you don’t expect me to fly you there, do you? I’m not Superman.” Actually, John was beginning to think it’d be a better idea to shove Balthazar somewhere and just do things on his own. But then he’d have to think of a place where Balthazar couldn’t contact anyone and no one could contact him, and since John wasn’t exactly welcome in God’s houses anymore, his choices there were fairly limited.
He’d walked a couple yards into the garage before he noticed that Balthazar wasn’t beside him. John stopped and turned around to see Balthazar staring fixedly at the ceiling above him. After a moment, John saw the ghost of a female corpse hanging from there; he was so used to them that he had to make an effort to notice them.
“That one’s not all that lively. Don’t worry about it,” John said. He ashed his cigarette, then looked over again. Balthazar hadn’t moved. “Come on.”
Eyes to John, back to the ghost, and then Balthazar returned his gaze to John. He shook himself a little and slowly walked through the ghost, which made John grin a little. So Balthazar’s earlier snappishness about Midnite hadn’t been a one-off. The man still had some balls.
Once Balthazar was past the ghost, he picked up his pace and consequently nearly ran into John when he pulled up to John’s right. His breathing was a little rough as he rocked forward, hand brushing John’s arm. At first his head was down, but then he raised it to look at John like—it reminded John of a dog waiting for an order. There was a blind trust in Balthazar’s eyes that scorched John’s skin. He would have rather Balthazar had kept looking terrified of him.
“You get used to that,” John said, abruptly turning away. “Just remember that they didn’t bother you when you couldn’t see them, so they can’t now. Unless you trick yourself into thinking they can.”
“Where are we going?” Balthazar paused at the end of the car, but went around to the driver’s side as soon as he saw that John wasn’t about to drive. He slid in and adjusted his mirrors, fiddled with his chair, pulled out the ash-tray drawer, reached for the radio…jerked his hand away when he noticed how John was looking at him. He was still trembling a little.
John reached over and turned the key in the ignition; Balthazar tipped forward so his breath skittered over John’s check. The pulse in his throat was tempting, but John pulled himself away from it in favor of blowing lopsided ring after ring at the window. “Get on the road. I’ll give directions as we go.”
Which Balthazar did, but not without showing a bit of frustration. Good, because his act had been so convincing that John had actually started to wonder if he wasn’t faking it. But nothing that good was true, and certainly not in John’s life. He definitely hadn’t submitted so docilely to Lucifer’s attentions.
The nicotine taste in his mouth soured. After rolling down the window, John took a deep drag and blew it out sharply in hopes that it’d burn off the foulness, but traces still lingered. “Take a right.”
Balthazar glanced at him, but did as John said. “So why do you have wings if you never use them?”
“Well, it was either that or have a complexion like acne on crystal meth and I’m kind of vain,” John dryly replied. He took a last drag, then tossed away the cigarette and rolled up the window. L. A. smelled like shit today and he was having the damnedest time trying to think around it. “What kind of business were you and Midnite in?”
Another wary glance, but Balthazar was together enough to keep them from getting into any wrecks. “Why?”
“Because I’d like to know. What the hell did you do to end up in that room, forge his signatures on a couple checks?” Hopefully Ellie wasn’t out and about yet, because John didn’t feel like dragging Balthazar and his strangely pleading looks all over the city. Just being in the car with them made John restless. He wasn’t used to getting this sort of reaction.
“I took his money and rerouted it through certain channels so it appeared to be legal, mostly. Occasionally I arranged transactions between him and various other businessmen in his trade.” Balthazar spoke calmly enough, but squeezed the wheel repeatedly so his knuckles alternated between white and red. He kept his gaze aimed straight ahead. “What are you going to do to him?”
Frankly, John wasn’t yet sure. On the one hand, he should probably kill Midnite just for sheer stupidity, if not for being so contemptuous of John that he thought he needed to stick his nose into John’s business. As if John hadn’t been busy exploring ways to break his contract with Lucifer since he’d been forced into it, and now Midnite was about to get them all killed with his half-assed ideas about intervention.
On the other hand, it was flattering to know Midnite still gave enough of a damn; he was human and made mistakes like anyone else, but he rarely bothered to acknowledge the failures. Apparently the one he’d made with John still stuck in his craw. And when he wasn’t being a stiff-assed bastard looking out for himself, he was a decent friend.
“What would you do to him?” John asked.
It took a moment for Balthazar to answer, but not because Balthazar didn’t know what to say. More like he wanted to make sure it came out in the right order. “Break his body, break his mind, and condemn his soul to Hell.”
John blinked, taken aback by the vitriol in Balthazar’s voice. He stared at Balthazar till Balthazar looked back at him, whereupon the cold fury in Balthazar’s face melted into uncertainty. The anger had actually been easier for John to handle.
“What—” Balthazar started.
“Left here. Sorry to disappoint you, but we’re not about to do that. I need Midnite alive and kicking. Okay, pull into there.” John got out his cigarette pack, but it was empty. He sighed and crumpled up the cardboard, then opened his palm to dump the ashes out of the window. “Don’t tell me you didn’t deserve some of it, anyway.”
Balthazar had been turning off the ignition, but jerked his shoulders at John’s words. The engine revved, then died with a coughing growl. “All I did was skim off some money. What is that worth to your kind?” he said, voice low and hard. His eyes closed. “I was going to quit in a year and go somewhere where I didn’t have to see if I didn’t want to.”
It was almost enough for John to feel sorry for him. “Wishful thinking. ‘My kind,’ as you so nicely put it, are all over. You’d be surprised where the frontlines end up sometimes.”
“Wherever you are?” Balthazar fired back, twisting to face John. The heat in his eyes was enough to make John raise his eyebrows, but then Balthazar dropped his gaze. Watched his hands crawl over the seat towards John.
After a moment, the rest of him followed and his fingers were tentatively patting at John’s arms, sliding up John’s chest to clutch at John’s collar. He tucked his face into John’s neck and licked lightly downwards till he’d grazed the edge of a scar. That was when John pushed his fingers into Balthazar’s hair and forced back his head. “You’re not getting a dead Midnite. Learn to live with it.”
That little spark of frustration flared up in Balthazar’s eyes, but his hands didn’t drop from John. Instead he craned his head around to press his mouth against John’s wrist, stroked his fingers down John’s chest. John dug his nails into Balthazar’s scalp and then Balthazar stopped it, wincing. “You used to be mortal, didn’t you?”
It wasn’t exactly general knowledge. Back then John hadn’t been anything more than another psychic slowly losing it under the weight of his visions, and Midnite had been a skinny pole of a houngan trying to take over his father’s trade after a summoning gone wrong had left him abruptly orphaned. Everyone knew John was a little different, a little more closely tied to the earthly plane, but they didn’t know why and he’d never seen the point in enlightening them. Neither had Lou, for whatever reason of his.
“Yeah,” John finally said. He slid his fingers out of Balthazar’s hair and curved his hand around Balthazar’s face. His thumb drifted over Balthazar’s lip, then dropped down to press hard into the tender flesh beneath the chin. “Yeah, I was. And you know, back then I was as big-eyed and delectable as you are, and you know how much good that did me?”
His fingers went round to take Balthazar’s throat in a pincer-grab. They tightened and Balthazar sucked in a breath, but didn’t move or take his eyes off of John. John squeezed a little more, then disgustedly shoved Balthazar off and got out of the car.
He’d gotten to fifteen before Balthazar got around to pulling himself after John, shakily pushing the hair off his face. “I wish you’d stop talking like you want to eat me,” Balthazar muttered.
“Well, you’re free to wish,” John snapped. Personally, he was wishing he had a fucking cigarette.
“It shows, you know.” Balthazar shot him a look through long, slightly lowered lashes. It made for a real pretty picture. Christ, if someone had been putting together a construct, they couldn’t have done a better job of collecting everything that got on John’s nerves and reminded him of what had gotten burned away. “The constant smoking, how you can’t stand for me to touch you—”
John’s temper got away from him. He had Balthazar’s arm twisted up behind him and had Balthazar shoved against the side of the car before the gasp was even out of Balthazar. His other hand ground hard into the inside of Balthazar’s thigh. He shifted it up, rocked it mercilessly and Balthazar tried to merge with the car, whimpering. Gave Balthazar’s wrist an extra twist, feeling the swollen flesh compress beneath his fingers, and the echoes that passed through John were an excellent reality-check. Yeah, that fucking hurt. Those were bruises. Those were what John had done, and it wasn’t wise to forget about that.
God, no. Impossible to forget—John jerked his hands from Balthazar, then spun on his heel to stare at an oil stain in the next space over. He could hear Balthazar trying and failing to smooth out the raggedness in his breath, could hear the muffled thuds and thumps as Balthazar slowly pushed himself onto his side.
John needed a cigarette. He angrily jerked his hand to gesture at absolutely fucking nothing about absolutely fucking nothing, then turned around and pinned Balthazar against the car again. Only this time Balthazar was making little soft sounds, hands coming up to clutch at John’s shoulders, and his mouth was hot and yielding beneath John’s, sweet as sin. He was a new goddamn addiction right when John didn’t need one. He had to be gaming John, and John knew it and couldn’t do anything about it because the bastard tasted so good, moved so appealingly beneath John.
“Don’t get too close to Ellie,” John said, pulling away. He couldn’t help but linger close and smell the sweat and lust and confused longing on Balthazar. “And don’t bother watching her hands. They’re not the most dangerous part of her.”
“If you say so,” Balthazar whispered.
Jesus. And John had always thought that once he’d become a demon, he didn’t have to worry about being tempted again.
* * *
Thankfully, Ellie had her face on and her less human appendages tucked out of sight by the time John and Balthazar got up to her place. She started grinning the moment she saw Balthazar, who probably hadn’t needed the warning given the distasteful expression he wore around her, and kept grinning while she offered John some coffee. “But no, no cigarettes. Really, John, they make your breath smell.”
“You never seemed to mind before.” Out of the corner of his eye, John could see Balthazar stiffening. He ignored the long look coming from that direction and took the coffee, but didn’t drink it.
Ellie leaned close so her hair brushed his arm; behind her, Balthazar blandly stared out the window with one hand moving in his pocket. Occasionally he took it out to look at something in his palm, then shoved it back in. “So what brings you and your new…friend up to my place? If you were hoping for some help in breaking him in, I’m all booked up today.”
Balthazar twitched again. John admitted to being a little put off himself by the way Ellie seemed to lick out her words. Yeah, that was her specialty, but he’d thought they had an understanding: she knew not to fuck with his business, and in return he occasionally sent her a nice fat one. “Thanks, but I think I can handle him myself. I came to find out what you’ve been hearing. Anything out of the ordinary? Anything that’d have Lou acting a little more pissy than usual?”
“Besides you? Let me think…” She put a finger to her lips and pretended to rack her memory. The silk of her negligée clung tightly to her above the waist, but below it the folds were loose and billowing. They still didn’t hide the slight undulations. “No, not really.”
“Well, then anything that’d have you acting more pleased with yourself than usual?” John asked lightly, running a finger down her arm. “Anyone been cozying up to you, whispering sweet nothings in your ear? Making offers?”
At the window, Balthazar had put out a hand to tap on the sill. His mouth was a thin white line.
Giggling, Ellie twirled to rub up against John’s chest. Her hands patted John’s arm and something curled teasingly around John’s ankle. “Like a certain disgruntled heir to Hell? Oh, he’d been doing that for ages. But he’s been sounding a little more desperate now. I guess millennia of disappointment will do that to you—he might even be thinking of approaching Heaven.”
“Tell Lou yet, honey?” John purred, petting her hair.
“But you play the messenger so much better. And you heal faster,” Ellie cooed back. She briefly turned so John could see her eyes, and they were black and emotionless. Then she twisted free and hummed as she meandered around the table.
John followed her, but she took a sudden turn and was hanging off Balthazar’s arm before either of them could stop her. Though Balthazar kept trying, jerking at her as he stumbled back towards John.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t want to drop by with him later? He’s so very, very—ow! John!” From where she’d skidded nearly into the wall, Ellie clutched at her arm and looked aggrieved. “I shared mine.”
“Well, life isn’t fair, is it?” Smiling with his lips closed, John took Balthazar by the arm and led them out of the apartment. He stalked past the elevator to the staircase and stomped down a few flights before he finally turned onto that floor and got on the elevator there.
He’d just shown a little too much and he was pissed off at himself, but he couldn’t do anything about it now. He absently reached into his coat, then jerked down his hand when he remembered he was fucking out. Goddamn it.
Balthazar moved and John snarled, not wanting to hear—he bit down on his lip and tried to focus. “Do I need to explain much of that to you?”
“It depends. She was lying for a lot of it,” Balthazar slowly said. He stuck his hand in his pocket and rattled something in there, then took it out.
“What’s that?” John was still having a hard time getting himself under control. He curled his nails into his hand and made himself turn instead of whip to look at what Balthazar held out to him: a rune. Well, that was useful—John had no problem reading people, but when it came to other demons, tricks like a preternatural sense of smell broke down. “That’s what you were doing?”
“I didn’t think you would have wanted me to curse her till her skin boiled,” Balthazar said quietly. He shrugged and looked at John’s feet. “You…wouldn’t let someone else have me, would you?”
The elevator dinged just then, which saved John from answering. “We’re going to Ravenscar Hospital next. You know where that is?”
* * *
Isabel lay on her back on the floor with her hair over her face. She carefully picked up locks and pulled them back till she’d formed two clear stripes out of which she could peek. “You’re back.”
“Yeah. How’s things? Angie come by lately, or is she ‘too busy’ again?” John perched on the window, enjoying a fresh cigarette; Balthazar had stopped at a drugstore without John having to ask, and John was feeling placated enough by that to let Balthazar stand hip-to-hip with him. “You two getting along any better?”
“Do we ever?” Eyes rolling, Isabel started picking at strands so she could drape them back over her eyes. She pulled up her knees so her gown rode up to her thighs, revealing a pattern of crescent-shaped scabs on her legs. “She’s always crying. I can’t stand it. What does she have to cry about? She’s the one that left me.”
Balthazar was fiddling with his runes again. He’d take out three at a time and line them up on the sill, then sweep them back into his pocket, jiggle it around and pull out another three. His movements were slowly speeding up.
Isabel’s eyes flicked to him, and he froze as if he could see her even though he was facing the other way. “He’s like you, a little.”
Damn. So Ellie probably had noticed as well, but she should have mistaken it for obsession or something along those lines. That was how she thought. “This is Balthazar. He’s not going to bother you. He knows about things, and he doesn’t pretend they don’t exist like your sister.”
“He bothers you, but that’s not why you’re here. You want to know where it is again.” She rolled restlessly about and finally settled on her belly, feet kicked high in the air. She used a fingertip to trace circles on the floor; her nail was ragged and bloody where she’d chewed down one side. “I’m looking. But it’s hard. It hurts. It’s hot there. Hot and dusty so I can’t see very well. South. Not that far. It’s coming here.”
After another moment, Balthazar pulled his hand out of his pocket. This time, he scattered nine runes on the sill. The sound of them falling made Isabel jerk and hiss, which almost brought John up—he didn’t need some nurse rushing in to find unregistered visitors—but then she calmed down. John took a short hit off his cigarette, then put it out and slid his arm around Balthazar’s front. He waited till Balthazar had gotten over his surprise before he curled his fingers over the dip of Balthazar’s waist.
“Someone else has it—they’re pretty. Gold on the outside, all icicles inside. But you can get it later. Maybe. It’s confusing…” Isabel’s eyes unfocused and she turned on her side, pulling her knees up to her chest. She mumbled to herself, sometimes in snatches of Latin from the Ave Maria and sometimes in girlish slang.
“Mammon’s the son of Lucifer and in order to release him, you need this Spear,” Balthazar suddenly said, frowning at the runes. He leaned against John and it looked unconscious, but probably wasn’t. “Then that’s strange…”
John didn’t notice he was digging in with his fingers till Balthazar twisted, rubbing his head against John’s shoulder. He smoothed over the spot and glanced at the runes, but it’d been a while since he’d tried to use those—his gifts had never taken well to structured methods like that. “What?”
“I’m not seeing a Spear—there’s a gun. But she’s telling the truth.” Even after John had let go, Balthazar remained with his head resting against John’s shoulder. He tipped it a little, adjusting how his weight fell, and the light slid over the dark bruises down the side of his face. “You were here. Down three floors, back twenty years ago.”
Suddenly it was too bright in the room, everything harsh and sterile. He’d had more questions for Isabel, but John abruptly decided that there wasn’t any point in asking them here. Others would know more, and even if getting answers out of them would be harder, at least he wouldn’t have to do it here.
He pushed off the window and stepped over Isabel, who seemed to have permanently lapsed into one of her madder spells. Behind him Balthazar followed, the curiosity coming off him in waves so thick John contemplated making Balthazar choke on them.
“How’d your family take your gifts?” John asked.
Balthazar visibly tried to figure out what the point of the question was before he answered. “Fine. Relieved, actually—they were afraid I’d take after my mother’s side and end up channeling ghosts…”
He trailed off as a girl ran by them, sobbing hysterically, before she whipped through a solid wall. Twenty years ago, there’d been a door at that spot.
“Lucky for you. Things in the Constantine family tree tend to skip generations, so we all get to start out blind.” Once again, John had let himself be irked into showing more than he’d wanted to. He saw the comprehension dawn on Balthazar’s face and turned away from it, heading quickly down the hall. And then he felt the beginning prickle, and broke into a dead run.
Balthazar shouted after him, but John was into an empty room and through the window before the man could catch up. He snapped out his wings for just as long as it took him to find a roof out of sight of Ravenscar, and snapped them back in as soon as he could. Flying should have been fun, but in practice it was a great way to attract angels for a fight. Sometimes John felt like that, but most of the time he preferred to get them in corners where their righteousness wasn’t so damn self-satisfied.
Lou showed up right on time, standing on the very edge of the roof and grinning down at John. “So I heard my favorite demon picked up a little pet.”
“Yeah, well, what better way to lure a soul into damnation? He’s still in the clear right now, but I’m getting there.” John played it lightly and stuffed the cold feeling far away where it couldn’t rattle him. Goddamn Ellie and her goddamn mouth.
“Pleased as I am to see you finally appreciating the opportunities of your position…I got to remind you not to neglect your other tasks. I’m depending on you, Johnny.” The bastard damn near skipped his way off the ledge. His skin melted, ran in repellant globs and then coagulated again into a form John didn’t see very often. “I know when something’s coming, but busy as I am…well, that’s why I have boys like you.”
Busy as he was. God, that was a laugh. “I’m flattered, Lou, but have you ever considered taking a turn at doing your own dirty work? Keep you in touch with the common man—demon—whatever. Otherwise you might make the same mistake and lose sight of those closest to you. Your…creations.”
One moment Lucifer was standing across the roof, face and body glowing with all his long-lost glory, and the next he was wrapped tight around John, a snaky squirming hiss that coiled invasively and squeezed viciously. “Are you threatening me? You, Johnny? When you can’t even let go of all that guilt, all those lingering emotions? You like this side—it suits you, but like a fool you keep pushing it away. Once you drink, you can’t spit it back out.”
“Don’t keep feeding me that bullshit,” John gritted out. He relaxed, then twisted hard so one of his arms slipped free. Except that was Lou just letting the slack run out a bit before he yanked John back in, sharp claws passing through John’s clothes without leaving a mark to shred at his flesh. Salt stung at John’s eyes, but he fought back his pained cry. “Oh, come on, Lou. You know it is. You know why you keep fucking with me so much—it’s because I keep doing what you can’t bring yourself to do. You think you’re the eternal rebel, but all you’ve ever done is play by His rules. You’ve—gotten--stale--”
The world around them went dark and scorching. Everything paused but John, who knew what was coming and threw himself desperately forward, whipping out his wings in an attempt to push Lucifer off. It worked; he fell free and so suddenly that he nearly didn’t catch himself in time. His palm smacked the ground and then he was up and running. Running, running, desperate and Christ, every time he got a little farther and he thought—
--he was taken down. And then taken, pinned to the ground and weeping while Lucifer took out all his goddamn issues on John’s flesh. John screamed into the concrete till his voice gave out in the futile hope that that’d make it a tiny bit better. It didn’t.
When Lucifer was done, John slumped into the blood pooling around him. Some of it trickled into his mouth and he licked at it without really knowing what he was doing. It was…he tasted…tasted…oh, right.
Laughing hurt. So did the hard nudge Lou gave him, but John snickered anyway. “Goddamn it, you just proved my point for me. You can’t stand to have me tell you the truth.”
“If you’ve got any sense, Johnny—”
“If you’ve got any sense, you’d fucking destroy me. For good—no soul, no anything. Because it doesn’t matter what you can do—what you’ve already done. I’m just going to keep telling you,” John rasped. He pulled his arm beneath him, then slowly began to push himself up. “Except obviously that’s why you never fucking will do that. Go console yourself with a new suit, since you don’t have the balls to actually change.”
The blow put him down again. By the time he’d levered himself up a second time, Lucifer was long gone and that said a hell of a lot. For a moment, John watched his madly grinning reflection in his blood.
Then he swore and awkwardly hauled himself to his feet. His vision blurred and his body swayed with the agony of it, but he fought that under control and made for the door.
* * *
Balthazar wasn’t still at Ravenscar, or at his apartment. John paced furiously through the nice rooms that weren’t fucking large enough till he was positive Balthazar wasn’t dead. Of course that didn’t help too much, considering what could be done short of death.
He could try finding him with a more direct method than guessing, but that would be like putting up a huge sign saying exactly what to kick to get John to jump—fuck it. People already knew about Balthazar, and they’d be expecting John to keep close tabs on him—John reached out and found Balthazar in his office, feverishly pulling out files. Christ, was that his default? Deal with everything by working? He really was a precious little piece.
Then again, John really shouldn’t be throwing stones. He stopped in the bathroom to make sure he wasn’t too disheveled, then went out. His ass still hurt like hell, but thankfully he healed very, very fast nowadays.
He didn’t have to go far before he found a nice surprise. Poor little kid nearly jumped out the side when he saw who was tapping on his window, but Chas had been with Midnite long enough to know when just driving away quick wasn’t going to cut it. He unlocked the door and pushed it open for John with one hand clutching what looked like his grandmother’s rosary. “Midnite’s gone out of town for the day. I don’t know where he is.”
Shit. With everything else, John had forgotten about Midnite. Well, he couldn’t do anything yet, so he’d just have to save that and hope Midnite had regained some of his good sense. “Wasn’t looking for him, kid—I was looking for you.” John suppressed a smile at how much Chas’ eyes bugged out. “Start her up—we’re going to the financial district.”
Chas did as he was told, but he spent the entire time squished as far away from John as he could be and still be in the car. They got stuck at some traffic lights for a while and the kid started to mumble prayers.
John looked at the thin trails of smoke rising from his hand, then at Chas. “Knock that off. If you can’t banish a demon right away, then it’s a stupid idea to get him pissed off with a half-ass job.”
“Don’t eat me,” Chas squeaked.
“Believe me, you wouldn’t make a big enough mouthful. Not for another couple of years.” The sky, where it showed between the clouds of smog and the dark overhangs of the skyscrapers, was blue and cloudless. So it was interesting that John kept glimpsing streaks of fluffy white. He put his arm up on the sill and shaded his face with his hand, then turned his head to peek out the window.
Oh, great. Isabel could’ve mentioned that ‘it’s coming here’ meant ‘today and sorry, Johnny, but Heaven’s going to be extra-bitchy to boot’…on the other hand, Gabriel might be kind of amusing right now. Once they were out of this fucking traffic jam, and John was sure that some of his fellow demons weren’t about to try and leverage him with his brand new rune-reading, touchy-feely, obsessively organized weakness.
“Mister—um—Constantine? Did you—what happened to that guy that was in the basement?” Chas asked. He clicked the beads through his fingers so fast he should’ve had finger-burn. “Is he dead?”
“No. Take a right over there and pull up to that one with the gargoyles.” John got out a cigarette and was lighting it when he absently glanced at the window. It showed him a very interesting expression on Chas’ face, a little relieved and a lot conflicted. “If it makes you sleep easier, he’s not all that nice a guy.”
Chas had enough balls to shoot John a glare, but not enough to keep it up. He banged his horn at some pedestrian, then shot forth a few feet so they nearly rear-ended a semi. “Is that what you tell yourself?”
“I’m a demon. I don’t really have to worry about sleep. Anyway, shouldn’t you be asking Midnite this question?” When they pulled up to the building, the security guard stepped out. Poor guy, he was about to call home at the wrong fucking time and find out something about his wife and his brother.
He stepped back in, absentmindedly waving them inside; John waved his hand to clear the sigil he’d drawn with the cigarette smoke and Chas gave him suspicious looks.
“Look, I did exactly what I’m allowed to do. He didn’t have to listen to me,” John muttered. He didn’t even know why he bothered trying to explain this to Chas, who should’ve long since learned this lesson. And if Chas hadn’t, then he either needed to change hobbies or not be so damn surprised when somebody finally got to him. “Why aren’t you hanging around Midnite, anyway? I thought he paid you enough so that you didn’t have to get fares anymore.”
The only answer John got was a sullen glower. So Midnite had finally pushed his little apprentice’s naiveté too far. Well, John had never understood why Midnite had picked up Chas in the first place, other than having a handy go-fer for the tasks that zombies were too stupid to do. Besides, even if John didn’t want Midnite dead, that didn’t mean that he wasn’t happy to see the goddamned meddling son of a bitch inconvenienced.
“Man, you guys don’t even tip,” Chas snorted.
John paused halfway out of the car, then turned to look at Chas, whose defiance rapidly melted away. When the kid wasn’t squinting to make himself look tougher, his eyes looked a lot like—
--goddamn it. One step, and then John had to turn around again. “It’s a nasty world, Chas. Stay with Midnite. He lies less than the rest of them. And Balthazar’s still in one piece.”
That taken care of, John slammed the door shut and irritably stalked up to Balthazar’s office. The staff was well-trained and distracted, so he had no problem avoiding the little whispering groups they made. He walked in just as Balthazar threw a pile of folders to the floor with some impressive cursing.
“Don’t you have secretaries for that?” John said.
Balthazar’s head came up as if he’d been electrocuted. His eyes were huge and bruised and just asking for it.
After a long moment, he put a hand up to push the hair out of his face. His fingers were shaking like he had palsy. “Where have you been?” he asked, voice unnaturally calm.
“Dealing with some people you probably wouldn’t enjoy meeting.” John closed the door behind him and rounded the desk. He lifted his hand with the fingers half-curled and lightly touched Balthazar’s scabbed-over cheekbone with his knuckles.
At first Balthazar barely seemed to notice. He stared past John’s shoulder without moving or blinking. Then, very slowly, his head turned a little into John’s hand. A little more, and suddenly he folded like a crushed cup against John’s chest, hands clutching at John’s coat-lapel and face pressing into John’s throat. He drew a ragged breath as John curled fingers around his cheek, rubbed a thumb beneath his jaw. His eyes closed, then opened to peer at John’s wrist.
Balthazar stiffened, and John belatedly remembered that the bruises Lou left took a while longer to fade than most. But it was too late to pull his cuff down, because Balthazar was already running his fingers over them. “Who were you seeing?”
“What were you doing?” John countered. He bent down and nipped lightly at the nape of Balthazar’s neck.
“I remembered something,” Balthazar answered readily enough, though the look he gave John said the matter hadn’t been dropped. “A few months ago Midnite wanted me to put him in touch with some people in England—he wanted to buy a rifle.”
A hand drawn gently down Balthazar’s side and over his hip made him shiver; an echo of heat wafted through John’s corresponding side. “For what? Guns aren’t any good for voodoo.”
“He didn’t want it because of that. Supposedly it was the Ace of Winchesters, which—”
“—can kill demons,” John finished. He wrapped his arm around Balthazar and leaned back till he was resting his hip against the desk, thinking. Absently buried his nose in Balthazar’s hair, which smelled a hell of a lot better than Lou had. Traces of sheer terror, but mostly strong in…contentment tinged with lust. It wasn’t exactly what John had been expecting. “You have a secret thing for demons, or what? Most people would be trying anything they could to get away from me after what I’ve done to you.”
“You could’ve done worse. And no, I can’t stand most demons. They’re worse than people—too small-minded.” Balthazar slid his hand up and down John’s chest. He caught a sore spot and stopped when John winced, then moved his hand more slowly over it.
It still hurt, but John was prepared that time and made sure he didn’t flinch again. He impassively met the curious glance Balthazar sent his way. Something else caught Balthazar’s eye and he cocked his head to stare at it. Then he lifted his hand and touched the side of John’s mouth, picking off a fleck of dried blood. Or that was what he tried to do, but suddenly he jerked himself back and made a wild leap for the wall, clutching at his head. He thrashed and kicked out when John seized him back by the waist, then abruptly subsided with a harsh moan.
“Oh, my God…what was he doing to you…” Balthazar mumbled. His nails dug into the side of his face till he’d cracked the scab over his cheek, and he resisted fiercely when John tried to pry that hand away. “Was that Lucifer?”
“Yeah. Look, sit down—no, let go of me unless you want another look at that. I haven’t had time to clean up.” John teased Balthazar off of him and into the chair. He wanted to sit down and groan himself, but unfortunately he had too many balls in the air.
More importantly, it looked like Midnite had a couple of his up there that were about to fuck with John’s. Link Lucifer up to a human, get him weak enough to be like an ordinary demon and then shoot him. That was the best recipe for anarchy that John had ever heard of. And he’d always figured Midnite to be the sensible sort, too. Thinking about assassinating Lucifer was…more in John’s line of thinking.
Balthazar slumped in the chair and stared up at John. After a few moments had passed, he slowly bent over and began to pick up his files, carefully reorganizing the contents of each before he stacked them on the desk. “Is that why?”
“What?” Of course, now John was thinking a little more clearly and didn’t favor the drastic approach as much, given his contact with the heir apparent. Maybe Mammon wasn’t guaranteed to win out, but he’d be a major player in the first few weeks after Lucifer’s dethroning and he was a right brainless bastard. At least Lou could occasionally be a thinking one.
“I’m not him,” Balthazar patiently said, as if that made more sense. “For one thing, I’m human, even if I am taking on some of your traits. I couldn’t—I can’t even keep you from breaking my wards, even if I wanted to. So why do I make you nervous?”
John snorted as he stuck a cigarette between his lips. He stuck out his foot and pushed away the file for which Balthazar had been reaching. When Balthazar moved his hand, John nudged the file back. “You? Make me nervous?”
Balthazar’s fingers curled, then splayed to wrap around John’s foot. He didn’t let go when John kicked out, but instead let the motion carry him out of the chair and onto his knees in front of John.
The second time, John kicked hard enough for his toes to connect with Balthazar’s knee. Wincing, Balthazar dropped John’s foot, but slid his hands up John’s shins before John could slip out from before him. He paused, then pushed them higher, rising up so his head was level with John’s waist. “Like you are right now.”
“Whatever you’re about to ask for, you’re wasting your time. I don’t play this game with people—you should look up Ellie if you’re looking into this kind of trade.” So much for John’s newly-restored sense of taste, since Balthazar had a great knack for ruining John’s enjoyment. The cigarette should have been calming John down, smoothing everything out into a tang that wasn’t too harsh or too sweet, but instead it was just making him jittery.
He started to put it out in the never-used ashtray on Balthazar’s desk, but then thought the better of it and instead stabbed it into Balthazar’s desk. Which Balthazar noticed, and flinched at; his hands briefly tightened on John’s thighs and John thought he’d gotten the clever bastard back. But then Balthazar looked up, and his face said he didn’t care, which made no sense. “Do you always think of things as if they’re business transactions?”
“That’s really funny coming from—” John bit down on his tongue. For a moment his hands were clamped to the edge of the desk, kneading the wood hard enough to flake off splinters, while Balthazar nuzzled deeply between his legs.
Moaning, Balthazar jerked his knees apart and arched lewdly as if somebody was nosing at his crotch. His hand slid over John’s fly, and that was when John got himself back together enough to yank Balthazar up by the hair.
Except once Balthazar was on his feet, he was on John’s mouth and sucking at John’s tongue, using his own to pull it deep into his throat. It took all John had to jerk him off and shake him till he finally began to look frightened again. “What the fuck do you want?”
Balthazar looked at John, and John had to look down.
He dropped Balthazar’s shoulders and hauled him in by his tie instead, tugging till Balthazar was squirming. Then he hooked his fingers behind the knot and gave Balthazar a little air. “Listen. I like being a demon. I like being immortal, I like being able to not give a fuck without worrying about being sent to Hell, I like fucking with people. And I’m good at all of the above.”
“I knew that,” Balthazar murmured, suddenly pressing forward. He rubbed his cheek along the side of John’s face like a cat.
“Don’t fucking think you can turn things on me. I take—I don’t pay out.” John wrapped another turn of the tie around his hand and jerked up Balthazar’s head. Bad move, since then their lips were grazing and Balthazar tasted, smelled, felt too damned good. But then, John had never exactly been a poster child for the healthy lifestyle.
Balthazar stared at John through lowered lashes, his breathing coming in short, uneven bursts. But he looked strangely serene, as if he’d figured out something John didn’t know. “I know. That’s the bargain I’m asking for, if you have to think of it that way.”
“You smart little son of a bit—” Then John was tearing the groans out of Balthazar’s mouth, fingers ripping at Balthazar’s hair while Balthazar was equally frantic about trying to get closer to John.
They were already pressed together from knees to shoulders, and then that went up to the neck because Balthazar was dragging his mouth across the side of John’s face, bending his neck into John’s teeth and John had to follow his nature. He took it, took the writhing body in his arms and shredded the clothes off of it. His claws skidded too deep over Balthazar’s back, drawing blood, and Balthazar twisted in pain. Whimpered, tried to sink in instead of away in a reversal of every dictate of self-preservation.
Suddenly it was too hot; John had to get some air. He spun them around and shoved Balthazar over the desk so the man nearly skidded off the other end. Knocked a lot of stuff off, messed up even more, but Balthazar didn’t go diving to set them back in order. No, he was kicking at his precious files and kneeing them out of the way to come crawling back to cradle his hips in John’s hands. He was pathetic. He was beautiful.
He collapsed when John pushed his face between those pale buttocks, laving hard at the bruises from last night. There were raw patches, badly-healed scrapes, nail-shaped scabs and it didn’t matter which John caught his teeth on because Balthazar cried out in the same needy tone for all of them. His hips shoved hard at John so John had to catch them, pin them down and feel them shake as he slipped his tongue to taste inside of Balthazar. Still good. Still too fucking good. This was against every painfully-learned lesson of John’s code of self-preservation, but stopping had long since ceased to be an option. He corkscrewed his tongue and Balthazar screamed, he doubled it back on itself to coil-press against that one spot and Balthazar shattered for him. For John. Because…because that was what John wanted.
It still didn’t feel right to not have a bill handed to him—or more usually, ripped into his hide—right afterward. It made John a little unsteady as he stood up, leaned over Balthazar’s limp body to catch his breath. His pants stuck to him, resisting the movement, and then slowly gave and that was when John noticed he’d come without even…he hadn’t done that since he was a teenager.
He muttered a spell to clean himself up. Tiredly, because suddenly he was that. He looked down at Balthazar, seeing the patchwork of red and purple and blue-black swelling beneath fair skin, the crisscross of cuts and scrapes. “You’re a mess.”
“You are hard on the wardrobe,” Balthazar said, laugh warily rasping out of his throat. When he rolled over, he didn’t look so confident. Far from it.
John closed his eyes, then turned around and rubbed at the side of his face. After a moment, he took off his coat and folded it onto the desk beside him. Papers and cotton rustled behind him, but he didn’t move. Fingers walked hesitantly up the sides of his back, settled on his shoulders, and then a warm, damp body settled against him. One of John’s coat-sleeves brushed past his neck as Balthazar pulled himself up, then dropped back. Balthazar ran his hand down John’s spine, paused and then drew a fingertip around that one vertebrae.
Fifteen years and John still couldn’t get that damned reflex under control. He’d had Midnite poke around at it once, and gotten some explanation about where the muscles must hook up and interfaces of different forms, but hadn’t really been paying attention. All he knew was it was annoying to have his fucking wings shoot out like that. “They’re not that pretty.”
“I like them. They’re more efficient than if they had feathers. Bats are more maneuverable than birds because their wings are bare.” Balthazar rested his head against the back of John’s neck and ran his fingers down the leading edge of John’s right wing. He stopped when John shivered, then deliberately did it again. “This doesn’t make any practical sense to me, but I—I stood there in Ravenscar for a good twenty minutes because I didn’t know what to do. Finally someone asked me if I was looking for the exit. Then I remembered about the Ace of Winchesters, and I thought if I found it then I could get you back.”
“Do I want to know how? Human stupidity gets boring real fast,” John said. He reached behind himself and immediately bumped into Balthazar’s knee. After a moment, he slid his fingers into the shredded trousers and wrapped his hand around it.
“I couldn’t really think that far ahead. I just thought—apparently I can’t survive without you, so I’ll have to rearrange my sense of practicality to accommodate that.” Shrugging, Balthazar turned his head so his lips moved against John’s throat. “Or you could kill me. I don’t see there being any other choices.”
Either he was insanely calm or insanely self-confident, because he was still playing with John’s wing as he spoke. Running his palm over the webbing so he left the few tiny hairs that were on it prickled on end. It felt surprisingly good. It was surprisingly easy to take the contingency plans that had been forming in John’s head and add in Balthazar. It was a little more difficult to realize that those plans fell in place more easily when John was around Balthazar—hard to believe there was something better at that than smoking, for starters.
John snorted to himself and half-turned to get his arm around Balthazar, bringing in his wings as he did. He pulled the man snug against him and tipped up Balthazar’s chin. “You’re serious about this.”
“Were you being serious about preferring to be a demon?” Balthazar cocked his head. “How did that happen?”
“Oh, just one fuck-up after another. My parents were a lot less understanding than yours—they just thought I was nuts. Sent me to electroshock, the Church…since I was underage, the only real way I could get them off my back was by taking a one-way trip to Hell.” John held up his wrist to show the only scar that had carried over from his mortal years. “Only lasted for two minutes before the paramedics brought me back.”
As calm as he seemed, Balthazar had slumped hard in relief when John had pulled him forward. Now he seemed determined to melt into John’s body. “But you’d still be mortal.”
“Just walking damned. That didn’t exactly sit well with me, so I started looking around for ways out. Met up with Midnite, and he said he had a solution: partial exorcism. He’d take out my soul, have this priest-friend scrub it clean and then stick it back into me. Only the priest turned out to have gotten Lucifer sucked into him a couple hours earlier, and let’s just say things didn’t go like they were supposed to.” A shadow passed over the window. It would have been perfectly normal if they hadn’t been something like fifty stories up. In John’s head, a little clock started ticking again. “Lou resurrected me as a demon. And depending on the circumstances, that can be a hell of a lot better.”
“Or a hell of a lot worse?” Balthazar slowly turned to stare fixedly over John’s shoulder. His hands were tight on John’s arm. “I keep an extra suit here.”
“You’d better get used to keeping a couple more,” John muttered. He let half his mouth smile at the disbelieving, hopeful look Balthazar gave him, then pushed Balthazar off of him. “Get out, and stay away. I’ll come after you.”
For a moment, it looked like Balthazar wanted to protest, but he quietly did as he was told. The door had just swung shut behind him when the windows opened and Gabriel stepped in, smiling.
It figured Ellie wouldn’t have been lying about that part. John sighed and began unbuttoning his sleeves. At least Balthazar had taken John’s coat with him so that wouldn’t get dirty.
* * *
Spitting out a mouthful of blood, John painfully levered himself up on his knees and elbows. He still hadn’t fully recovered from earlier, and Gabriel had apparently forgotten the dictate about being merciful. “Gabriel? Have I ever said to your face how very, very fucking nuts you are?”
“No, hell-trash, I don’t believe you have. But then, you could hardly have walked into the cathedral in order to do so,” Gabriel smoothly replied. His feet didn’t make a sound—one moment he was making like a Grecian statue on the other side of the room, the next he was kicking John up three feet and over ten.
The wall didn’t so much hurt John as pulverize him. He bounced off it and onto the floor, which received him with bone-breaking hardness. He collapsed and drew a deep, ragged breath, then slowly rolled himself over. Gabriel had followed and was crouching over John with the Spear, which he tapped against John’s chin.
“I’ll ask a last time—take your protection off the sisters,” Gabriel said.
John jerked his chin out of the way and finished rolling over onto his belly. Once he’d done that, he happily threw up a lungful or so of blood on Gabriel’s pristine white shoes. “Sorry. I don’t like to share, and they both wandered into my jurisdiction years ago.”
“And to think Mammon thought you were worth approaching. But you’re just a dog like all the others, blindly following their fallen leader.” With a sigh, Gabriel raised the Spear. Then he laughed, a pretty little tinkle, and sheathed it. “I will not despoil this holy object with your filthy blo—”
“Because you know, it wouldn’t work then,” John snarled, whipping himself up and flaring out his wings. He threw up his arm to knock away the dagger Gabriel had pulled out; it slashed painfully but fuck, that about par with what getting a handshake from Lou was like.
Gabriel was less quick: the edge of John’s wing took him across the throat, and unlike with Balthazar, John had let the razors come out. John squeezed his eyes shut against the spray of blood and dove for Gabriel’s hip; his fingers scraped the Spear’s sheath and he ripped it off along with a big swath of Gabriel’s trousers, which he hastily wrapped around the hilt.
Still spouting blood, Gabriel struck out at John but missed. The blood didn’t, but John lunged through that till he touched flesh. When he felt that, he grabbed on and sawed with the Spear till it caught on bone. When that happened, he dropped the Spear and yanked till the bones came free in his hands.
Feathers and hands had been madly striking at him, and that knife had even come back to cut a gash over John’s shoulder, but once he’d torn out Gabriel’s spine, all that stopped. The body went limp and fell back, great gaping holes in the throat staring up at him while those eyes stared serenely at the far wall.
“Asshole. How’s that for righteous punishment? And via the blood of the Savior, too.” John shook his fingers free of the gobbets and bone splinters that stuck to them, then clambered off to the side. He started to get up, but slipped in the blood and nearly touched the Spear’s blade.
After righting himself, he ripped at Gabriel’s clothes till he had a big enough piece to rewrap around the Spear’s handle; thanks to his little exchange of traits with Balthazar, that was enough to keep him from getting burned. He stuck that back in the sheath, which he pulled off Gabriel, and then stood up. “Jesus Christ. You can’t save souls, you can’t even fight…some soldier of God you turned out to be.”
Gabriel’s body was already turning to ash. The particles rose a few feet, then drifted back down as John scuffed through him. He batted at the few that managed to float to his face and hoped Balthazar hadn’t liked that carpet too much.
John pushed open the door and found himself in an eerily empty lobby. He frowned—it wasn’t yet the end of the working day—and slowly turned till he spotted someone. Chas. Sitting in the corner, rattling something in his hands, and looking sorry as hell that he had to be there.
His head jerked up when he saw John and his hands shook so what they’d been holding spilled out: runestones.
“Midnite says you two need to talk,” Chas stammered. “He—he just wants to make sure you’ll be ready to listen to him instead—instead of—”
“Instead of taking the Spear of Destiny, shoving it up his ass and adding his fucking skull to his own collection?” John said. He thought he was actually being pretty goddamn restrained, but Chas ran for the door like someone had sicced hellhounds on him.
Before the kid got there, John had gotten him by the shoulder and spun him around. “Oh, no, you don’t. You’re driving, kid. You’re driving and you better get ready to get an education, because I am not in the mood for the kind of bullshit we were throwing around earlier.”
Chas opened his mouth, closed it, and shakily jerked a thumb over his shoulder. He backed out of the room, and John softly walked after him.