|Deal III: Hard Bargains
Author: Guede Mazaka
Midnite glanced up at the banging, then returned his gaze to the pig he was gutting. “You are not getting out. If you continue to do that, you’ll hurt yourself and I’ll have to restrain you.”
“I would comment on the delicious irony in that sentence, but it just speaks so eloquently for itself,” Balthazar snapped. He gave the bars that cut the room in half one last kick, then sullenly backed away. His hands squeezed up and down the edges of John’s coat, which he held tightly around himself. “What kind of hold do you have over the boy? Did you promise him you’d free his mother’s soul if he served you for ten years?”
Since the contract Midnite had made with Chas was none of Balthazar’s business, Midnite didn’t bother answering. He deftly flipped over the heart with the tip of his knife, then cut it free of the last remnants of membrane that had encased it. After dropping that in a bowl, he put down the knife and wrenched open the gut cavity with both hands so the entrails fell freely onto the floor.
The intestines were so full of knots and unexpected twists that Midnite could hardly make sense of them…which in and of itself told him a great deal that was sensible. He turned to the liver and found it an inflamed scarlet, so swollen that it seemed liable to burst at the slightest touch.
“I wanted to make you suffer before, but now I think I won’t be satisfied till I see you crushed,” Balthazar hissed. His words had a touch too much sibilance to them.
“And what did John say to that?” Midnite calmly asked. He wasn’t so sanguine about what he saw when he sliced open the liver and examined the lobes, but there was no point in letting Balthazar know that.
The laugh Balthazar released, however, was sharp and high enough for Midnite to pay attention. When he turned around, he saw that instead of taking the chair he’d provided, Balthazar was lounging against the bars. The man’s fingers scrolled languidly up and down one, raising thin bluish spirals of smoke in their wake, but he didn’t seem to be in any pain.
“John said he wanted you alive. I thought that was a mistake, but at least it was an honest one. He still thinks you’re his friend.” Balthazar attempted to trace another spell onto the iron bar, but the wardings laid over it burned away the magic. This time, they did so quickly enough to catch Balthazar’s fingertips; he snatched back his hand, but remained leaning forward to stare furiously at Midnite. “Do you really think this is smart? You might win on this plane, but after you die I think things would be different.”
“You’ve been spending entirely too much time with John,” Midnite muttered, irked enough to reply. He reached beside himself for the big cleaver and brought it down hard on the thigh-bone.
The cracking of the bone made Balthazar flinch, but didn’t quite show him the wisdom of silence. “Then perhaps I should have been something that concerned you.”
He was right, but Midnite saw no virtue in letting the other man know that. It was bad enough that the plans Midnite had been carefully laying for the past decade had been completely wrecked by John’s inability to keep his hands to himself. At this moment, Midnite did not need to be distracted from his emergency contingency-planning by contemplating what kind of potential for trouble he’d missed seeing in Balthazar; he could deal with that later.
Once he’d gotten all the use he could out of the pig, Midnite stepped back and used a long stick to prod the carcass into a large hole in the ground. He flipped the stick horizontal and bent down to scrape as much of the blood as he could towards the hole.
“Why are you doing this?” Balthazar suddenly asked, sounding somewhat calmer. “John forgave you for inflicting me on him—what could you possibly ask for that would need this kind of precaution?”
“He probably thinks that’s all my fault, so I shouldn’t even have been blaming him in the first place,” came John’s seething voice. He tipped his head ever-so-casually around the door, eyes sweeping around the room. They hesitated oddly on Balthazar, who’d gone very still with his eyes trying too hard to stay on his hands. “Well, well, Midnite. And I was betting that you’d let the full twenty years run out before you made a play.”
Midnite tossed the stick aside and slowly began to stand, wiping his hands on a rag. He kept the hole between himself and John. “I need you to listen to me.”
Of course John did nothing of the sort, choosing instead to swing himself nonchalantly into the room. He ostentatiously shoved his hands into his pockets and sauntered around the edge of the room, continuing to address Balthazar. “You see, I was already damned but Midnite didn’t quite get off the hook for his fuck-up. You send a soul to Hell, you send a soul to Hell. But he got to put a temporary freeze—his little vow of neutrality—to keep his soul off the market for twenty years while he tried to fix things.”
“As long as he kept his nose clean, so to speak? But he didn’t fix things.” Balthazar had been resting on his side, but as John neared him, he rolled over to dangle his hands through the bars. He rested his arms on a cross-bar. It would have been a good act if he’d been able to keep his fingers from restlessly squeezing each other. Or if Midnite believed for a moment that John was doing this for any reason besides irritating Midnite. As familiar as Balthazar acted around John, he was hardly the type to catch John’s attention for long.
“Exactly. And when his soul did go up, guess who has rights of first bid?” John stopped about a foot before the bars and looked them up and down with a frown. He took one hand out of his pocket, jerked his arm so the sleeve slid back a few inches, and lifted it.
“John…we don’t have time for this. You may be angry, but you either listen to me or else—” The moment John touched the bars, Midnite leaped over the hole and dove for the right of the door. He swung his hand to catch the knob and yanked it in front of him just as brilliant white light crackled up around the edges.
The room instantly filled with the stench of burnt flesh and thick black smoke. The second one Midnite could have blown away with a word, but the first lingered as he slowly pushed the door back.
Balthazar had scrambled for the back of the room, but that wasn’t necessary: the wards were designed to blast the outside intruder. Now he was cautiously coming forward; his eyes flicked once over John’s shoulder to promise murder, then returned to John.
John coughed. Without turning around, he raised his hand as if he was looking over the bloody and burned patches on it. They were covering over with skin as Midnite watched, but he doubted that mattered to John.
“Sacramental oil from Jerusalem. I’d be flattered if I didn’t want to rip you open so badly,” John said. By the time he’d turned around, he’d composed himself so all the rage was concentrated in his eyes.
“It’d also keep anyone else away so that won’t concern you.” Midnite considered taking a step forward. There were things on the far side of the room that might help persuade John, but as matters stood…in the end Midnite stayed where he was. “I didn’t realize you’d taken such a liking to him. I thought he would have annoyed you into killing him by now.”
The corner of John’s mouth twisted, but whether it was in fury or in black humor was impossible to tell. He started to say something, then half-spun to mutter at Balthazar. Apparently it wasn’t something Balthazar found agreeable, but a hiss from John quieted him. Then John turned back, taking out a cigarette as he did. “What are you trying to do?”
“I told you—I was trying to free you from your servitude with Lucifer.” Which was the truth. It’d been a long time since Midnite had been foolish enough to tell an outright lie around John. Longer than John had been a demon.
A flash of exasperation surfaced in John’s eyes. “What else are you going to do?”
For a moment, Midnite contemplated not telling him. No matter how many times Midnite had considered this step and how many precautions he’d taken to channel the outcome the way he wanted it, he still wasn’t sure John would let that happen. But then John took a step forward, fingers curling so his claws slid out, and Midnite saw the pointlessness of refusing. Their friendship hadn’t been strong enough to count on that for a while, though Midnite had hoped he’d be able to reverse that trend. Circumstances, however, had intervened and he had to leave that idea for much later.
“My vow of neutrality only kept my soul shelved for fifteen years, not the usual twenty. I had to make the deal right after you were turned into a demon to save myself, and so I had to bargain away five years because of the magnitude of what I let happen with you,” Midnite quietly said. He swirled up the spirits with one hand and they pushed at John, reminding him to watch his step. “I go on the soul exchange in a few hours.”
John stopped and narrowed his eyes at Midnite. He took his cigarette out of his mouth and waved away the smoke so he could take a clear sniff. An incredulous laugh slipped from him to wither on the floor.
He finally turned around and stared at the ceiling, shaking his head. “Christ. I wonder when Lou was going to get around to telling me…if he even was. But now I get it. You were going to trick my soul out of Lou’s grip, then hold it hostage so I’d get yours.”
“Wait, wait…this soul exchange is real? There’s actually a market for that?” Balthazar stuck his arm through the bars again and waved to get John’s attention. “I thought it was just a metaphor.”
“No, it’s real. Fuck, is it real.” One perfect smoke ring floated out of John’s mouth. Then he abruptly looked over and down at Balthazar’s hand, which instantly froze. He carefully raised his hand to a little short of Balthazar’s fingertips, then delicately ran his finger down the back of Balthazar’s hand.
Nothing happened. The next moment, Balthazar had pushed his head as far through the bars as he could and John was stroking his hair as if he were a kitten. And Balthazar was not only submitting to it, but also apparently enjoying it: his eyes were closed and his head tipped slightly to move with John’s hand. The contentment in Balthazar’s expression raised Midnite’s hackles.
The smile on John’s face wasn’t one Midnite had seen before, having nothing of slyness or sarcasm or even flamboyance. It was…possessive and hesitant at the same time, but not fleeting. It gave Midnite shivers.
“Remind me later, after I’ve taken care of all this, and I’ll show you it sometime,” John told Balthazar. “I think you’d get a kick out of it.”
It’d suit Balthazar very well, which was why Midnite had never bothered to inform Balthazar of its existence. Midnite coughed.
“Yeah, I know. I’ll take care of it.” John slid his fingers a last time through Balthazar’s hair, then backed away. He was using his injured hand to smoke so when he took away the cigarette, blood was smeared over his mouth. It pointed up the sharp white of his smile. “Just for you.”
“I didn’t want to do it this way, but you forced my hand,” Midnite said. He knew the words carried little worth, but he wanted to say them anyway. His mouth tasted of ashes.
The only reply he received from John was a look that said Midnite hadn’t ever apologized before, so it was useless to start now. With a last glance at Balthazar, John began to walk towards the door.
“Where’s Chas?” Midnite carefully stepped away from the door at the same rate John approached it.
John laughed unpleasantly, his eyes shining darkly through the cloud of smoke haloing him. “Now you remember. He’s in your office, safe and sound. Still got his mind and reason and everything.”
He didn’t say it as if he meant to be reassuring, and Midnite didn’t make the mistake of thinking that was his intention.
* * *
Chas was indeed where John had claimed he’d be, curled up in a chair with his arms around his knees. He was chewing on his knuckles, a nervous habit that cropped up whenever he was deeply conflicted about something. He didn’t notice Midnite till Midnite had laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Oh, my—Christ! You scared me!” And from the looks of it, Chas was still scared even after Midnite had moved back towards the door. He was slow at first about following, but he hurried to catch up to Midnite by the time they were into the storage areas. “Is Constantine gone?”
“For the moment.” Midnite began to pull boxes away from one wall while muttering the unlocking spells. When he’d reached the chest hidden beneath them, he paused to dig a vial out of his pocket, which he uncorked with his teeth. He put both hands on the lid and flipped the vial around with his lips so a single drop fell from it onto the lock.
It was old and massive, and it didn’t clink but groaned as the tumblers within it moved. He gave it a moment, then pulled hard on the lid, which grudgingly rose.
“What about Balthazar?” Chas asked. He was looking at Midnite when he should’ve been fascinated with what Midnite was doing.
After putting away the empty vial, Midnite dusted off his hands and reverently reached into the chest. His fingers touched leather, and he slid them along it till it began to slope away. Then he gripped the bundle and lifted it free of the chest. “Balthazar’s still here, and he must remain here until John returns. So do not, under any circumstances, let anyone into that room like you did the last time.”
Chas flushed and ducked his head beneath the reprimand, but persisted in looking at Midnite as if he was expecting something else. He started to speak several times as Midnite led them through the halls, but each time he stammered to a stop before Midnite could even guess at what he wanted.
The room next to where Balthazar was functioned primarily as Midnite’s armory, so that was where he led them. He told Chas to stay in the hall where he could keep an eye on both rooms, then went inside and straight for the counter beneath the ammunition cabinet. There he put down his burden and gently undid the elaborate knots and wrapping that enclosed the Ace of Winchesters.
On the outside it appeared to have weathered the years remarkably well, but when Midnite had disassembled it, he found a serious clog in the barrel. He organized the rest of the parts on the counter, then took out his cleaning kit.
“Yes?” Midnite absently answered. A careful scraping taken from the clog told him that one of the past owners had had an extremely close encounter with a demon. He rummaged around till he found a spare bottle of holy water, then poured a few drops into the barrel. After the smoke and sizzling had stopped, he tilted the barrel to shake out the damp flakes, then poured in a little more holy water.
Shuffling feet. Like John, Chas had a difficult time standing still. “I’m kind of confused. What we’ve been doing…doesn’t this violate your vow of neutrality?”
It violated a good deal more than that, and would ruin even more if Midnite’s gambles didn’t pay off the way he hoped they would. He hated taking risks for that very reason, but at this point he couldn’t do anything else. It would have been pleasant if he could have trusted John to bid for his soul and not extract a price for the favor, but the world wasn’t pleasant and Midnite wasn’t a dreamer.
Still, he regretted having to push John so far. He really hadn’t ever expected John to take notice of Balthazar, other than to laugh and tweak Balthazar’s nose a few times. It’d been a long time since John had taken serious interest in another person…and Midnite would have expected his taste to have improved by now. John couldn’t seriously be thinking of keeping Balthazar around for good; the two of them were connected thanks to the botched spell, but that link could still be broken. And objectively speaking, it’d make more sense for John to do so—he had entirely too many enemies to be bothering with someone like Balthazar. The man had gifts, but he’d left developing most of them rather late. He was also probably scheming for his own benefit.
“It does,” Midnite finally said. He irritably shook himself and concentrated on the task at hand. Whatever John did in his private life generally did end up being a concern to Midnite, but that did not mean Midnite had to always cater to that.
“But—isn’t that bad? Shouldn’t we be worried about what this is going to mean?” Chas hastily asked. His voice faded as he walked further away, but every so often he’d kick the wall and that would pinpoint his position.
The last flakes finally floated out of the barrel. Midnite swung up the rifle and peered down it, checking to see if he’d missed anything. He hadn’t—even the water had sizzled away, leaving the barrel completely dry.
Satisfied, Midnite quickly attended to the minor fixes the other parts needed, then began to reassemble the rifle.
“Chas, the balance is not a static thing—it’s an equilibrium. It’s better described as a series of small choices made to favor one side or the other that cancel each other out at the end of the day.” Later on, when they had time, Midnite would have to sit Chas down and explain some of the simplifications he’d used to introduce the youth to the supernatural. He’d hoped Chas would have figured out more of it on his own, but Midnite supposed that was partly his fault. He hadn’t had the time to address Chas’ hands-on training, leaving Chas to glean what he could from the books.
And the books, of course, were generally biased to the same extent that the Bible—either Hell or Heaven’s version—was. The reality was far more complicated, which Midnite had long since accepted. But as John might say, that didn’t mean he liked it.
“So you are violating your vow of neutrality,” Chas called. He sounded almost accusing, as if Midnite were somehow letting him down.
He was hardly in a position to judge. “The vow of neutrality was useful. Now it’s not. Something you’ll have to learn, Chas, is that change is not necessary, but inevitable.”
Once the rifle was reassembled, Midnite picked out a box of ammunition for loading. But before he could start on that, his system of wards and house-spirits informed him that he had an impatient visitor in the front. Midnite hesitated, then put down the gun and walked out.
Chas was leaning against the wall, apparently deep in thought, but he quickly straightened when he saw Midnite. His hand unconsciously went up to push at his hat. “So is everything just ‘useful’ or ‘not useful’ to you?”
“In one sense, yes. But if you’re asking if that’s why I took you on, then you’re looking at the matter wrongly.” Midnite glanced over his hands for stains. He decided they were clean enough and rolled his cuffs down, then buttoned them. “I thought you could benefit from some training, and I thought I could teach you something. I hope you remember our first talk—I promised you no rose gardens and no cozy sanctuaries.”
“No, you said you’d give me an education,” Chas muttered. The way he emphasized the word, sarcastically dragging out the end, was vaguely familiar.
After a moment, Midnite decided this wasn’t of immediate importance. “We’ll talk more later on this. Don’t let anyone into that room.”
Since he didn’t hear Chas walking away, Midnite assumed the youth would do as he was told for a little longer. He straightened his tie and went out to the front, where he found a priest waiting for him. It wasn’t one that Midnite personally knew, but the man seemed informed as to who Midnite was because he showed no visible expression at his surroundings. Nor did he attempt to preach, but instead launched straight into his business for coming here.
“I am Father Nigel Hawthorne. We have reason to believe that one John Constantine may have tried to sell you a relic that belongs to us,” the man said.
“That would be interesting. I’m curious as to how he’d manage to carry such a thing to my office, considering his…nature.” Though that could be less of an improbability than before, Midnite suddenly realized. That botched spell might have resulted in leakage of traits, which could have given John some of his humanity back. That would also explain why he’d apparently become so…affectionate towards Balthazar.
The priest shrugged, one old hand silently nodding to the other: nothing ever was how it was supposed to be, and no one could do anything about it. “My superiors think so as well. But be that as it may, we do know Constantine has the relic.”
“How?” Midnite asked.
“Because he called us and told us so.” Father Hawthorne seemed mildly amused by whatever trace of expression made it onto Midnite’s face. “I and who I represent do not mean to pressure you, but this…artifact is very dear to us. Should--when--Constantine visits you again, we would appreciate it if you could somehow persuade him to return it. I believe you have our number; I look forward to your call.”
It was a testament to Midnite’s distraction that he let the priest leave without asking which relic to which they’d been referring. By the time he remembered, he was already half-way down the back corridors and it was too late to call after Father Hawthorne. A relic? And John would be stupid enough to give away his possession of it to the Church—today. He had to have called today. He’d been busy with Balthazar before that, and before that, he would have mentioned it to Midnite before he would have to the Church.
Midnite glanced towards his office, but that was too far away. He wasn’t carrying anything…he snatched a candle off the wall, lighted it and began calling up any loa within hearing distance. “Chas?”
The wave of relief that crashed through Midnite was enough to stop him for a moment. He dismissed the spirits that had sluggishly begun to assemble—most of them would be attending the soul exchange right now—and blew out the candle. “Is everything all right?”
“Look, I just want you to know—I really appreciate everything you’ve taught me. But like you said, it’s about choices. Right? And I had a really hard time falling asleep last night, and I’m starting to think that maybe this isn’t the kind of education I should be—”
Chas’ nervous babble broke off with a muffled groan. Midnite had been walking quickly before, but now he broke into a dead run. He whipped into the room and had a blurry vision of Chas’ body on the floor before the long muzzle of a rifle shoved into his face and forced him to stop.
Balthazar smiled over the other end and eased back the firing pin. “Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I remember of the specs, the demon-killing option was an add-on. It’ll have no problem handling you as well.”
“He let you out,” Midnite muttered. A quick glance at the floor showed that Chas’ temple was developing a large bruise, but otherwise he seemed unhurt. “What did you promise him?”
“I didn’t even have to say a word to him. Funny, that. I suppose John must have had a word with him while they were driving over.” With a sarcastic click of the tongue, Balthazar nodded towards the door. “It probably helps that between your hospitality the other day and John’s penchant for ruining my clothes, I look absolutely pathetic right now. Now, where’s this soul exchange?”
Midnite raised his hands and Balthazar stiffened, jerking the rifle up to point directly between Midnite’s eyes. Very slowly, Midnite pointed to the side. “You have to cross planes to get to it. They hold it in Limbo.”
“Naturally,” Balthazar muttered. For a moment, his uncertainty showed; he’d had little if any experience with plane-crossing that Midnite knew of, and it wasn’t a skill to be taken lightly. But then Balthazar composed himself and waved Midnite on with the rifle. “Well, if you get me killed, I’d hate to imagine John’s reaction. So lead on.”
“I think you’re overestimating John’s capacity for fidelity,” Midnite said. He did as he was told, but kept one eye on the tightening of Balthazar’s expression. “He’s had many people die on him. He even loved a few of them. That didn’t stop him from letting them go when he was forced to make a choice, so I doubt he’d give you any more preferential treatment.”
Balthazar couldn’t help pressing his lips together, but didn’t rise to the bait. Though when they arrived at the bathroom, he did hesitate on the threshold. He was a bit shorter and less lanky than John so John’s coat hung a little loosely on him; he had keep shaking back the sleeves from his hands. Midnite was tempted to try something when Balthazar did that, but then Balthazar looked up at him and the opportunity was lost.
“Here? You’ve got to be joking me,” Balthazar said.
Shrugging, Midnite backed up to the great tub in one corner and reached out to turn on the tap. He sat down on the edge to the accompaniment of Balthazar nervously adjusting parts of the rifle and began to take off his shoes and socks. “This is the quickest way. I’d have to kill a goat to take us through any other way.”
“You know, with all the animals you use up I never understood why you didn’t invest in the meat industry. It would have cut down on your livestock expenses.” After another moment, Balthazar edged into the room and toed off his shoes and socks. The way he was watching Midnite said he had some idea of what Midnite was planning to do, but not enough of one for him to trust that Midnite wasn’t going to double-cross him.
It was a sensible attitude, but wrongly timed. There was no point in attacking Balthazar while they were on this plane, since as far as Midnite knew, Balthazar was still slated for Heaven if he died. Marginally, but nevertheless…Midnite rolled up his pants to the knees before he swung his legs into the water. It came halfway up to his shins now, so he shut off the tap. “You know your business and I know mine.”
“Oh, yes. Don’t presume. Have I ever mentioned how incredibly irritating I found that particular attitude of yours? No wonder you’re forced to employ zombies.” Belligerent as he sounded, Balthazar took several minutes to cross the room and step into the tub at the other end. He’d lowered the rifle to his waist, but kept it aimed upwards at Midnite’s chest. “And I do wonder how true that is now. You certainly seemed to have made one mistake after another in regards to John.”
It amazed Midnite that Balthazar hadn’t talked John into killing him the moment they’d left the club. Granted, John did prefer personalities that would stand up to him, but he wasn’t fond of being constantly on the defense. “And you seem to think you’ve gained some kind of exalted status. You’re a demon’s pet, Balthazar. You’re going to breathe and work and sleep according to John’s whims—and he has them. Or have you already forgotten everything you’d heard about him?”
From the look on Balthazar’s face, he actually had. Naïveté was an interesting expression on him, even if it only lasted a second. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you sounded like a jilted lover.”
“If you knew better, you’d realize John has the instincts and the habits of an alley cat. He gets bored very quickly—did he tell you how he ended up a demon? I wanted more time to make sure all the details were right, but he insisted we do it. He didn’t want to wait and earn his soul back.” Midnite turned around so he could sit down on the edge of the tub. Once he had, he put his hands in the water and pushed it around, testing the viscosity. Still thin, but getting thicker and warmer. “It probably was fortunate he ended up in Lucifer’s hands—I can’t imagine that the greeting he would have gotten in Heaven would have been very warm, since he would have cheated his way in.”
“I imagine they’d have left less scars on him,” Balthazar snapped. “If I had to choose between a cold shoulder in Heaven and a welcome from Lucifer, I wouldn’t have done differently.”
Now, that was an interesting thing to say. Interesting enough to make Midnite look past the rifle and at Balthazar, who stared defensively back. It occurred to Midnite that perhaps Balthazar was capable of forming attachments for reasons besides personal advantage—personal business advantage, at any rate. He wondered how shocked Balthazar must have been when he’d realized that.
Midnite let himself smile and took his hands out of the water, shaking his head. “You’re a fool. You actually think he feels anything for you? He was bothering me for ages to introduce you to him. I didn’t and that’s why he’s interested—that which is denied to one always looks better than that which is readily available.”
Balthazar’s jaw worked once, but he had commendable self-control. He didn’t even look down as the water began to bubble. “I think,” he slowly said, “You and John have unresolved issues. Or at least you do—I didn’t realize I was so interesting to you merely because I happen to be the one he takes with him. Since you did, after all, think I was worth enough to use as leverage against him.”
“Right now,” Midnite corrected. He kicked his feet out and let himself slide into the water.
As his head slid beneath the surface, something cracked above it; porcelain cups plinked down from where he’d been sitting a moment before. It was a wasted bullet. The in-between caught him up, smashed his body and tossed it back together on the other side before the first chip even managed to reach his face.
* * *
There was no water in Hell, and there was very little in Limbo, either. Midnite rolled painfully over the floor, then came to a stop against someone’s desk. The bottoms of his trousers were still wet, but the rest of him was bone-dry.
He sat up, then whirled around as claws clicked behind them. A face that was normal except for the long, sharp beak sticking out of it beamed at him. “Midnite! Didn’t expect you here today.”
“Shax,” Midnite nodded. He politely waved away the black-feathered hand the demon offered him and got up on his own.
A small ripping sound alerted him to Balthazar’s entrance, which wasn’t too bad: Balthazar came out on his side, rolled once and managed to scramble to his feet without letting go of the rifle. He stared about with wide eyes while the various demons and angels in the room immediately fixated on the gun.
“Who is your guest?” someone rumbled. Asmodeus, looking on Midnite with less than a kind eye.
“He’s not my guest. This is Balthazar Cruce,” Midnite said. He straightened his clothes while their audience absorbed that bit of information. Most of them immediately recognized the last name and looked even less friendly.
Shax moodily clacked his beak and stalked around Balthazar, who slowly turned to look at him. “With the Ace of Winchesters. I hope you brought more bullets—”
Quick as lightning, Shax’s head flashed out on his long stork’s neck. He struck at Balthazar’s shoulder before Balthazar could leap out of the way…
…and recoiled, flapping at his smoking beak. Asmodeus laughed nastily. “Idiot. You didn’t recognize the coat?”
“Yeah, really,” said a voice from the doorway. John slouched there, insolent as always, with cigarette sending off smoke spirals that were more or less superfluous, considering how much was coming off of Shax. He raised a hand and waved mockingly to the room. “Hands off, boys. I have an option on that one.”
Balthazar shot a challenging look towards Midnite, then crossed the room to curl himself beneath John’s chin. And for some reason, John not only let him but also seemed to encourage it, wrapping his arm around Balthazar and licking blatantly at Balthazar’s throat. His fingers slid down Balthazar’s arm and over the rifle, which Balthazar let him take without the slightest resistance.
“You’ve gotten demonstrative,” Midnite said, walking over. He arched an eyebrow at John. “Usually you only resort to that with those that can provide you with something useful.”
“Always fun to watch him begging from the Morningstar,” Asmodeus added.
John looked narrowly at Asmodeus, then spit his cigarette towards the floor. He ground it out with his heel and began to move towards the window that spanned one wall, but at the last moment the rifle came up.
Midnite froze, then slowly lifted his hand to touch the wind-burn on his cheek. When he saw that there was no blood, he turned to look over his shoulder. Plenty of blood there. Some of the lesser demons couldn’t help themselves and had dropped to snap and chew at Asmodeus’ corpse, while the angels in the room either looked ill or disgusted.
“I don’t beg,” John icily said. Then he went over to the window. To do that, he had to let go of Balthazar, but he pulled the man along by the elbow. Under his other arm, he tucked the Ace of Winchesters.
Balthazar contentedly fitted himself to John’s side, but not without a few wary looks at the rest of the room. When Midnite approached, Balthazar’s gaze turned vitriolic, but John’s fingers pressed hard into his hip and he remained silent.
“You have no idea how much I’d like to kill you right now,” John said. It wasn’t one of his more pleasant conversation-openers, but it was nowhere near as bad as Balthazar seemed to think it was.
“I had my reasons, which I think you can understand. If things had gone as I’d meant them to, we’d both have our souls and you’d be free. I did intend for that to be an end-result and not a by-consequence.” Midnite put his hands on the sill and looked out over the trading floor.
If the New York Stock Exchange had been multiplied by a hundred times, then it might have begun to approximate the soul exchange. The trading floor wasn’t even visible—only the endless sea of hands and other appendages waving tickets, and red screaming mouths, could be seen. It stretched to every horizon, uninterrupted except for the slightly higher hills that were the podiums where new offerings and other changes were announced.
Dotting the plain were towers like the one in which Midnite was currently where the more important figures could carry out their transactions in relative comfort. Their room emptied out fairly quickly thanks to John’s reputation, but Midnite waited until Asmodeus’ remains had dissolved away before he asked. “So?”
“So it hasn’t come on yet, but you’ve got an interesting bunch eying it. Lucifuge Rofocale, believe it or not—I hear he wants a new secretary. Also Marinette.” John shifted the rifle, then took it out from under his arm and laid it on the sill. He also pulled out another bundle from somewhere: a smaller one, wrapped in bloody white cloth. “Those two won’t be too hard to beat off—they both owe me. The one I’m worried about is Mammon. He’s sort of pissed off at me right now.”
“Mammon?” Both Balthazar and Midnite stared at John.
Then Balthazar cocked his head, putting something together in his head. “That’s what you and Ellie and then Isabel were talking about. Mammon—Mammon and the Spear of Destiny?’
“A priest came asking about a relic you’d taken.” Midnite flicked his fingers at the bundle on the sill, struggling to believe that John could be so—so foolhardy. “And you were calling me an idiot?”
“Excuse me? It wasn’t my idea to go after Lucifer—Mammon approached me, and I…thought about it. I ended up saving Lou’s ass, not that he’d ever admit it. Fucking Gabriel was going to unleash Mammon on the world, but…” The grin on John’s face was, quite simply, shit-eating. He gazed proudly at the bloodstained wrappings.
The jump from implication to realization was far too easy to make. Considering everything else that was going on, it should have been the last thing to give Midnite a headache, but then, that was John’s specialty. “You killed Gabriel and that is the Spear of Destiny. Did you consider the long-term repercussions at all?”
“Don’t sound like that, you ungrateful son of a bitch. That damned thing is what I’m going to use to buy your soul,” John snarled. He glanced down when Balthazar hissed, then pried his grip off of Balthazar’s hip and moved it to the sill. “What the fuck else did you think I’d have to trade for it?”
At first Balthazar blinked in confusion, but then he understood why Midnite was looking at him. He went white, then red with rage, and he nearly grabbed Midnite before John yanked him back. He was still fighting even then, but John gave him a sharp, short shake that rattled his teeth and Balthazar instantly subsided.
“He’s of the Cruce bloodline. Any part of him is worth a great deal. I didn’t even know you were plotting with Mammon—and don’t look at me like that. I know you considered whatever proposal he made at least once.” Midnite gave John an incredulous look. “Don’t tell me you’re seriously considering keeping him.”
“But Papa, he’s so cute!” John sing-songed. His hand wrapped over Balthazar’s neck and playfully spun Balthazar around so John could present him like a kitten to Midnite. Balthazar was less than amused by that, but then John turned serious. His fingers rubbed gently up and down Balthazar’s throat and he pulled Balthazar flush against his chest; Balthazar sighed, tipped his head back and went limp with half-closed eyes that did little to hide his smugness.
The corner of John’s mouth curled in contempt as he put away the jokes. “Don’t even try, Midnite. You lost the right to comment on that a long fucking time ago.”
“I’m not commenting on it so much as refusing right now to deal with whatever mess you leave behind when you get tired of him,” Midnite acidly replied. He turned back to the window, but reflected in the glass he could still see Balthazar glancing anxiously up at John. He snorted and concentrated on the podium. An announcer had just warned that the next batch of souls was going up in a quarter-hour.
John was silent for several minutes. He ignored Balthazar’s whispered questions with successively more forceful shrugs, and finally he pushed Balthazar off of him. Balthazar went still in hurt disbelief, but John deliberately turned from him in order to light a cigarette.
“Are you trying to prove his point?” Balthazar finally said.
“Shut up. I’m thinking.” After a few seconds of furious smoking, John looked at Balthazar again. “And stop it with your stupid catfight. I can see what you’re trying to pull with Midnite, you know. Don’t assume it’s going to be all roses from hereon out.”
It looked like Balthazar’s first reaction was to snatch the rifle off the sill and use it on John, but he restrained himself. His hands clenched and unclenched, and then he did something odd: he moved forward again to lean on John. “Because you’re a demon, and you like being a demon.”
“Exactly.” For a while, John remained stiffly aloof, but he gradually relaxed. The moment before they called out Midnite’s name, he even ran his hand down Balthazar’s back.
Balthazar blinked. “That’s your real name?”
“Oh, for…you are a fucking pet. You’re so easily distracted,” John muttered, tapping on the glass so it dissolved. He ignored Balthazar’s irritated protest and leaned out to shout at the podium. “I claim first bid!”
“By what right?”
“By right of fucking vengeance, you assholes! By right of he sent me here, and I want his soul so I can return the favor,” John yelled back. His face had gone cold and smooth, and the fury compressed in his voice was enough to make Midnite take a few steps back.
Midnite put his hand down on the sill, over the Ace of Winchesters. The trigger was on his side. He glanced at Balthazar, but the other man seemed fascinated by the rapid-fire bargaining exchange that followed between John, the announcer, and several traders on the floor. Very slowly, Midnite eased his hand under it and began to lift it off the sill.
I claim him as well, cut in another voice. The hiss was barely above a whisper, but it cowed the whole floor into silence. I claim him by right of domain, for he sacrificed his friendship with John Constantine for the sake of self-gain, and I claim him by right of my rank.
Mammon. With a very clever argument, Midnite had to admit even as he gritted his teeth. Once he’d moved the rifle into a more favorable position, he let it rest again and removed his hand from it, but kept it near.
“You’re just doing this because I fucked up your little plan,” John retorted. He snatched up the Spear—Midnite went stiff—without even looking at the rifle, and thrust it out so the wrappings unraveled down to where he was holding it. “Poor kid, he wanted into Daddy’s shoes so badly he was even willing to bargain with Gabriel. But he couldn’t even pull that off. All he had to do was lure some mortals into doing his dirty work and dupe an angel, and he couldn’t do it.”
It was impossible to tell whether the enraged shout that rose came more from the demons or from the angels. Both sides seemed ready to leap at John, but none were angrier than Mammon—the tower in which he was burst into flames.
You dare insult ME--
“Are you even allowed here? I thought Lou banned you from the Exchange after your little stunt with Faust and Mephistopheles.” John gestured obscenely with the Spear. He had to take a quick step back from the uproar this time, but even that didn’t wipe the excitement from his eyes. He was in his element here.
Balthazar was seeing that as well, Midnite suddenly noticed. The other man looked from John to Midnite to the crowd outside, finally realizing where the true competition was. He didn’t like the thought, and it showed. But…instead of looking crushed or furiously impotent, he appeared to be thinking it over.
“Lancea Longini for a second-rate houngan’s soul! You’ll never get a better deal!” After waving it a last time, John dropped it on the sill and—of course, he had to give Mammon the finger.
The scream of rage echoed in Midnite’s bones and rocked the earth itself, but even Mammon wasn’t going to risk attacking as long as John held the Spear of Destiny. Though afterward, when John had traded it away, there were going to be problems.
Down on the floor, they conferred. And conferred. Midnite couldn’t keep himself from tapping his fingers, and John didn’t call him on it because John was too busy staring at the arguing knot below as if he could will their decision to come out in his favor.
Balthazar hesitantly eased up to John’s side. His first touch was roughly shaken off, but he persisted. The second time, John let him come close but looked as if he was ready to rip off Balthazar’s head for it. Which Balthazar understood, but he leaned forward anyway to whisper in John’s ear.
John dropped his head, then raised it. He’d mostly smoothed out his expression, but traces of a delighted grin still lingered. “Incidentally—if you refuse, then I guess I’ve got no choice but to keep the Spear of Destiny. Maybe console myself with starting something nasty with it up on the earthly plane.”
That sent the traders into a new frenzy, but this time they were throwing worried looks up at John, which was an encouraging sign. A very self-satisfied Balthazar curled up against John, who eyed him a little curiously.
It wasn’t long till John had to ask. “Did you just help out Midnite?”
“I helped you,” Balthazar said.
“Because it helps you how…” John’s voice trailed off as he nipped at Balthazar’s ear.
Arching prettily, Balthazar turned into it. “You rip up my clothes less when you’re not working out your problems with someone else on me?” He twisted to shoot John a heated look. “I hate being used like that. I might as well be anyone then. I want you to see me.”
“That is the most ironic thing I’ve ever heard a psychic say,” Midnite snorted. He was going to say more, but before he could, the congregated traders below abruptly dispersed.
One rose up and pointed to John. “Bid to Constantine.”
Midnite’s body went numb. He sagged and he couldn’t stop himself; he had to make himself take three long breaths before he felt as if he had enough air.
Then he whipped around and back, snatching up the rifle as he did.
“Damn it—” Balthazar started, but John pinned him against the sill before he could do anything.
John looked at Midnite, and Midnite looked back. Then John started to snicker and lifted the bill of sale that had appeared in his hand. His eyes were less amused and more knowing. They recognized the kind of history, close to the bone and full of blood, that went into this. “Christ. I don’t know why we keep calling each other friends—did we ever just trust each other?”
“There were points when I wanted to, and times when I think you wanted to, but…” But circumstances had always intervened, and though Midnite tried his best, he was only human. He didn’t want to go to Hell any more than John had. “Pass me that and I’ll leave first.”
“Leaving me still picking up Lou’s trash,” John said. “But no, you don’t have to say it—if I hadn’t fucked up your grand plan, then we’d both be in the clear. Well, thank you for trying. Really. You complete asshole.”
Midnite listened. He raised the rifle, but he paused.
He was only human. And he remembered when they’d at least believed in each other. And though he kept telling himself differently, he missed John.
Then he missed, and John had slapped away the rifle—
“Constantine? John Constantine—an irregularity has been discovered in your transaction. Please stand by for further information.”
“Oh, no need,” purred Lucifer. He looked at Balthazar, backed up against the sill, and then at John and Midnite, frozen in their struggle on the floor. His tongue flicked out over his lips. “I’m already here. I do love a good domestic.”
* * *
Perched on the ledge and swinging his legs like that, Lucifer bore a disturbing resemblance to woodcuts of mischievous urchins that Midnite usually associated with Dickens’ books. But the way he smiled couldn’t have been farther from that impression. “Hi, Johnny. Got your call.”
John pursed his lips, then let go of Midnite’s shirt and calmly stood up. He was suspiciously unsurprised. “About fucking time. Why is it that nobody shows up when they’re supposed to except me?”
“Well, I’m a busy man. Even busier—I’ve been thinking about certain things.” As he spoke, Lucifer’s form shifted: he grew taller, thinned out. His hair went red and his face lost its jowls and weathered skin to become beautiful. His eyes slowly turned green as he tracked how Balthazar edged around him to end up behind John. “Which I’ve come to realize is your fault.”
“That’s why you keep me around,” John said, smiling too nicely.
Lucifer tipped his head and smiled back. “You might as well reach for him. I know you want to. You’re so much fun sometimes, Johnny—you know exactly what’s bad for you and you go for it anyway.”
Midnite rolled onto his hands and knees as soon as he was able to. His hand fell on the rifle, but he knew better than to try that. Instead he backed up till he was about even with John’s left side.
“Got to say, I approve of your taste,” Lucifer said.
“Thanks,” John dryly replied. He hesitated a beat longer before reaching behind himself to take Balthazar by the forearm. “Figures you’d be the only one.”
“Oh, Johnny, Johnny—you know I do appreciate you despite our little disagreements.” Lucifer examined his nails, which turned to claws as he looked at them. He turned his wrist and stroked the air; John went stiff and blank-faced, while Midnite had the impression that Balthazar was trying very hard to keep his glower directed towards the floor. “I can watch you and watch you and still you manage to surprise me. I thought you’d take up Mammon’s offer. You even tracked down the women and you almost had the Spear. But no…”
John sat back on his heels and got out a cigarette. He was reaching around to light it when Lucifer hopped off the sill and flicked a flame on the end.
“No, you didn’t take it. And I’m beginning to think you never—well, almost never—planned to. You kept talking to him for a different reason. You knew I was watching. Now, that puzzled me. I said to myself, ‘Lucifer, why on earth would a smart boy like Johnny do that?’ And you know what I realized?” Lucifer said, squatting down before John.
Eyes narrowed, John just blew smoke from his nose.
“I thought I was wrong at first. Watching you scramble around trying to figure out what your old friend had done to you—to you instead of to me, and I do love you for always taking someone else’s fall—and playing with that lovely-eyed treat that’s hiding behind you, that confused things.” Lucifer leaned forward and lifted his hand to gently brush his knuckles over John’s cheek.
John flinched very slightly, then held still like a doll. His face told everyone he was barely putting up with it for the sake of self-preservation.
“But we had our talk on the roof, and it all cleared up afterwards. Dear, dear Johnny—you’ve been trying to set me free.” With a smile, Lucifer ran his thumb over John’s lower lip. He plucked out John’s cigarette and leaned in so their mouths were nearly touching; Balthazar made a noise and John shoved him back, but otherwise didn’t move. “Showing me how my son’s following in my footsteps, trying to run away and start his own kingdom in the mode of the old one, and now I see how pathetic that is. Killing Gabriel, playing the soul exchange to prove to me how very arbitrary and stupid the rules are—and how very easily they bend.”
“And why would I be so selfless?” John asked. His tone was curiously light.
So was Lucifer’s, though Midnite thought that was genuine admiration in Lucifer’s eyes. “Because you get your soul back. If I abdicate, then I have to give up everything, including the souls under my personal control. And then you’re a demon in possession of your own soul, loose on earth.”
Some expression finally crept onto John’s face. At first it was merely a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth, but then it grew till it was a full-blown grin. “Yeah. More or less. Doesn’t that sound good, Lou? The Adversary, in possession of his own destiny, loose on earth.”
“It does indeed, though I am going to miss you. And I suppose I’ll be wondering forever how much you planned and how much was serendipity—well, or I could burn it out of you before I give you this.” Lucifer held up a slip of paper. It fluttered slightly, then whipped violently back and forth as tiny flames snapped at its end.
John tensed and drew a hissing breath through his teeth. “Lou—”
“But that’d just be tying me back to the old way,” Lucifer said. He flicked the paper at John, which dissolved as it hit John’s face.
The air shuddered. Balthazar suddenly pushed himself off of John, eyes wide as he watched something that wasn’t there. As for John himself, he twisted. Jerked himself up and down, and finally smacked his palms against the ground so hard that Midnite thought he heard bones breaking. John’s head hung limply between his hunched shoulders.
“Have a nice life, Johnny.” Lucifer stood up, then paused. “Oh, what the hell. Have Midnite’s. And Balthazar’s, too—he just came up for helping you get Midnite’s soul back there. I wouldn’t want things to be too boring now that I can’t be there to keep an eye on you anymore.”
He flicked two more papers at John. They flew through the air and slipped past Midnite’s mad dive to disappear into John, who cried out and jerked so hard he fell over. Even if Midnite had wanted to hold up John, he couldn’t have because the world twisted--
--it was very wet. And chilly. The bathroom tile was filthy, Midnite absently noted.
* * *
“You really were a bastard. I can’t believe some of the things I saw in your memories.” Though Balthazar didn’t sound anything remotely like repulsed. “So I’m yours for good. Does this mean when I die, I come back as a demon?” he asked.
John was sprawled over the couch, and Balthazar was sprawled over John, stretched belly-up over John’s legs. He still had on John’s coat and he seemed fascinated with John’s tie, toying with it like a cat would.
“I’m not sure if you have to die. Let me think about it for a few days, look up some things,” John said. He grinned down at the man, then ran his finger over Balthazar’s lips. When Balthazar tried to suck it in, John pulled up on Balthazar’s chin to tap at Balthazar’s teeth. “I don’t know—I think it might be starting already. Your canines look a little long.”
“I know a good dentist,” Midnite muttered. He was slumped in the armchair, hand over his face because right now he didn’t feel like being the unflappable one. “This will never work.”
“Yeah, you’re probably already plotting new ways to fuck with me, and I’m still pretty mad at you for all the stuff you pulled. But look on the bright side—we’re all alive, not missing pieces, and you even still have an apprentice. Once he gets over the concussion and all.” The grin John flashed was more open than Midnite had seen in years.
It was something to marvel at. It also made Midnite want to walk over and punch John.
“Hey. Watch it—I do have your soul,” John said more seriously. He shot Midnite a warning look. “I think I’ve been a paragon of restraint, but I don’t know how much longer I can keep that up. Even for you.”
“He really doesn’t deserve it anymore.” Balthazar nuzzled at John’s stomach, then pushed himself up and reached around John. When the wings popped out—breaking Midnite’s lamp in the process—he rubbed his cheek over the right one.
The hand John had raised to twist in Balthazar’s hair slowly unclenched, smoothed down over his neck. Midnite covered his eyes with his hand again and gritted his teeth. When he’d been thinking of ways to make things up to John and rebuild their friendship, this definitely had not been one of the scenarios.
“But it’s what you got, so deal,” John suddenly said. He looked soberly at Midnite. “There are millions of ways it could have gone worse.”
“So I’ll say this once and only once—I never intended to do what I did to you. I never wanted to do what I did to you. I should have told you more,” Midnite slowly replied.
John stared. “Did you just apologize?”
After a moment, Midnite nodded. Then he glanced distastefully at Balthazar. “If you’re going to do that, either watch the furniture or leave. I have to open up in two hours.”
“Fine. I think you’re still having problems dealing, so I’ll give you that much.” John pulled Balthazar off the couch and led them towards the door, then turned. “But I’m going to be back.”
“I know.” That never changed. And deep down, Midnite was afraid he was relieved that it didn’t.
He sat for a few more minutes, then slowly pulled himself out of the chair. He had a business to run, appointments to prepare for. Life went on in some form or the other. There was always the next time.