|The Divine Comedy II: Thrice Shy
Author: Guede Mazaka
John turned around, then turned back and leaned against the wall. The pressure helped remind him not to let his wings spring out where they’d sweep the contents of Midnite’s shelves onto the floor. “Why did Lucifer ask me to do him instead of having me send him back and interrogating him in Hell?”
“There didn’t seem to be much time,” Midnite said. He was busying himself with his herb garden, looking almost domestic with the tiny clipping shears in one hand and the tweezers in the other. But he was dropping the leaves and flowers he culled into an upside-down skull, and the watering pot at his elbow had blood glistening on its spout. “How are you adapting?”
“Fine. I can smoke all I want and never have to worry about the Surgeon’s General’s warning. But it still bothers me. Lou knew Balthazar was up to something big, so he makes me do it? Time doesn’t matter in Hell, and anyway, he could’ve ripped it right out of Balthazar’s mind.” John shook out a cigarette as he talked and lit it. The taste wasn’t the same, even though now he could get better imports. Inhaling the smoke and feeling it prickle its way into his lungs was still calming, but in a duller, more muffled way.
He healed too quickly now—that was why. Everything registered a little more dimly, a little less immediate, because of course sensations were nothing more than assaults on the senses and now John’s body could beat them back more quickly. He didn’t have the time to process what something tasted like or how much something hurt before he’d equilibrated. It made him want to break things, but after a week and a half, he knew how much good that’d do. So he stuck to smoking.
“It’s just that Lucifer never was interested in what I did—he wanted to know what I could do. He was always pushing, and I have this bad feeling that what happened was another one of his ploys,” John finally said, blowing smoke at the lights. He pushed his hair out of his face, then ran his hand over the tops of some seedlings. “I don’t know. I’d like to think I got one over him, but there’s still too many loose ends.”
When he’d taken his hand away, the plants looked greener and the tiny buds on them had been replaced by colorful flowers.
“Those aren’t any good if they bloom before the full moon.” Midnite stepped in between John and the rest of the seed-bed, clicking his shears with more than necessary force. Even with the boost from John’s new status, John had as hard a time as ever at reading Midnite. “What puzzles me is why you seem very concerned about how you became what you are, and not concerned at all about what that actually is.”
“Well, maybe it’s because nobody’s come up to me yet saying, ‘Here, Johnny—this is your copy of the handbook, this is your list of duties and this is who you report to.’ So I haven’t had to worry about that.” It wasn’t like John hadn’t been thinking about that as well, but to him the two questions seemed to be interrelated. At least, if he assumed that he and Midnite were both thinking about the same thing.
Getting used to being non-human was both easier and harder than he could have predicted. He didn’t think anything inside of his skull had changed, other than being able to pick up on a lot more magical and spiritual traffic than before. The loud, incessant voice of God hadn’t yet started speaking to him, if indeed there even was one. And so far the other angel half-breeds John had happened to come across had steered as clear of him as he had of them, so he hadn’t yet had to deal with the fall-out of telling them to fuck off because he still didn’t like their rules.
The wings had taken a while to get under control, and even now they still tended to pop out when John was angry or had otherwise lost hold of himself, but they didn’t require too much adjustment to accommodate them. “I haven’t even had to buy new suits,” he muttered, flicking ash towards the corner.
“That is what I don’t understand. From what I have come to know, you should be feeling an irresistible impetus to carry out God’s work.” Midnite had put down the shears and now was unpotting a bunch of scraggly-looking plants. He sifted and squeezed off the soil clumped to them till he’d uncovered their roots.
Mandrakes didn’t scream like legend had it, but they still gave off one hell of a stink. John smoked faster, but the smoke was no longer enough and he had to go over by the window. “Well, it’s not fucking there. And Lucifer’s been too quiet. He should be clawing up my ass for what I did.”
The flinch was very slight, but it was still enough to reveal that Midnite hadn’t forgotten about how John had beaten off Gabriel in Balthazar’s boardroom, or about what that had implied. “Why don’t you ask Balthazar?” Midnite said after a moment. “He should know more.”
“Because he’s…he’s…” The cigarette was done. So John got a new one, slashed the flame across the tip and sucked it to half-ash with his first drag. He noticed he was tapping his fingers on the windowsill and shoved his hands in his pockets. “And there’s that--I’m an angel, and I have a goddamn demon waiting for me? Is it just me or does that fuck with the accepted state of things in a lot of ways?”
“It’s certainly a unique problem. How does Balthazar feel about it?” Apparently Midnite wasn’t going to let go of his point.
John didn’t actually have to answer him. Saving the world aside, they’d been at odds for too long to rekindle the seeds of their friendship—which hadn’t even got that far before circumstances had squashed it—in only a week or so. If John walked out on Midnite, it wouldn’t be anything new.
But if he walked out on him, then there went the only other person who could even discuss this with John. Well, there was Isabel, but she was loopy in ways that had nothing to do with her psychic gift, and her sister Angela was too nervous about dealing with her newfound belief to let John get anywhere near them.
“I wouldn’t know,” John finally said. He waited till Midnite had turned around to look at him before he went on. “Balthazar’s goddamn catatonic. Well. Almost. He’ll respond to just one thing.”
“Catatonic? He’s still healing,” Midnite slowly replied, confused enough to show it.
Shaking his head, John waved them towards the door. “That’s not it. Here, I’ll show you.” He rolled his eyes at the sharp glance Midnite shot him. “I had to bring him, otherwise he—just come on.”
* * *
Balthazar was still how John had left him on the couch, curled as tightly as possible into John’s coat. He faced inwards so only his feet and the back of his neck, pale between his dark hair and the black coat collar, showed.
He didn’t react when John and Midnite came in, or when John deliberately knocked over a chair. It was a heavy piece of furniture and its fall made the whole floor shake, but the huddle on the couch didn’t move at all.
“That is an expensive piece of furniture,” Midnite muttered.
“So add it to my bar tab.” John took a long drag on his cigarette, then leaned over and blew it into Balthazar’s face. Still nothing. “I can talk about what his old colleagues are up to and how they dove for his company the moment he was gone, and he won’t do anything. I could hit him and I’d get the same response.”
It was clear Midnite wanted to ask if John had actually tried that, but the other man didn’t. He just shoved an ash-tray at John so John could put out his butt.
“But if I do this…” After moving aside so Midnite could see, John reached down and carefully drew the backs of his knuckles down Balthazar’s cheek.
Balthazar’s eyelashes fluttered, then crept open as he turned into the caress. His lips parted a little; John drew his hand back up and Balthazar nuzzled at John’s fingertips. He stretched up his head as John traced over his temple and stroked his hair, eyes half-closed like a contented kitten.
“So how did Lucifer catch you?” John asked, soft and gentle. He made himself sound like he was singing a lullaby, and kept petting Balthazar. His thumb slid behind Balthazar’s ear, pressed lightly into the soft flesh there, then drifted down to run over Balthazar’s lip. Pink flicked wetness over John’s knuckle, then coiled tighter in a slight tease. “Or if you’re still too traumatized, you lousy piece of shit, how about how you met Gabriel and Mammon?”
He pulled his thumb free of Balthazar’s tongue and wrapped his hand around Balthazar’s jaw, pulling it up so he could see Balthazar’s eyes. They were wide and intensely focused on him, but the intensity was shallow, thin layer on top of blank incomprehension. Balthazar wasn’t hearing John’s words—just John’s voice.
“What were you doing? And for who?” This time, John asked more roughly. He pressed his fingers into the sides of Balthazar’s jaw till Balthazar started to squirm in pain, still looking desperately, cluelessly up at John. When John let go, Balthazar’s first reaction was to rub his cheek frantically against John’s hand. Then he reached up and clutched feebly at John’s sleeve.
John shook him off hard so Balthazar fell backwards. That jarred something and Balthazar made his first sound: a ragged, hurt noise. But then he curled up again, locking down in silence. John’s coat had slid off him a little, and when John pulled it back up, he could feel Balthazar shaking.
“He doesn’t talk,” John snapped at Midnite. He started to reach for Balthazar again, then yanked himself away and paced around the room. By the time he circled back, he’d calmed down enough to light a cigarette without being too tempted to set Balthazar on fire. “He just does…that. He keeps crawling into bed with me, and if I let him, he’d…yeah. But no talking, no moving…I have to feed him and dress him.”
Midnite had watched the whole thing, but now he turned away to stare at the wall. All the carved wood idols with their grotesquely elongated expressions and their blank shell eyes, which looked a hell of a lot like Balthazar’s, stared back at him. If he found any wisdom there, then he was one lucky bastard.
Finally he dropped his gaze to look at his hands; he turned one large gold ring around and around his finger. “I never cared for what you did, John. But I never denied your expertise at it.”
“Oh--oh, you think this is my fault? Look, I—did all of that. To him. But he’s a demon, damn it. They don’t break that easily, and when they do, it’s not like that. I should know since I’m the expert.” John started to put his cigarette to his lips, then abruptly stabbed it out. The goddamn thing wasn’t going to do him much good now, seeing as he couldn’t get lost in its addiction any more.
“John. They apparently can, because you’ve done it. You broke him. Like that,” Midnite retorted. Both his look and his voice were cutting. “You should consider it fortunate, since that means when he does talk, it’ll be for you.”
“But I—” But he had, and he hadn’t wanted to but it’d happened anyway. He’d done it anyway, and yes, he would admit to that even if it was making his stomach heave and the inside of his mouth taste strongly of bile no matter how hard he swallowed.
John had noticed that Balthazar tended to bring out the only lasting sensations in John nowadays. That didn’t make him any more reconciled to what he now had to do. “I’m beginning to think it’s all just a big version of pinball. God set up the game, and if you roll in the right direction at the right time, you trigger things, but it’s all mechanical.”
“Clock,” Midnite thoughtfully said. He arched an eyebrow at John. “God as a watchmaker. He wound up the universe and now only lets it run.”
“I like my version better.” Sighing, John looked down at Balthazar. “But if that’s true, then once you’d figured out the gears, you could work them and no one would be around to change the rules, close the loopholes. If you had enough time, and the motivation.”
Midnite’s words about the kind of planning Mammon’s rebirth would have required echoed between them, making John’s gut cold and painting Midnite’s face in sober realization. It’d taken the other man long enough to figure out why John was worried.
After a long few minutes had passed, Midnite turned around and headed for the door. “Then you’d better have Balthazar talking soon.”
“It’s like I never fucking stopped working,” John muttered. While he was speaking, the door slammed.
Balthazar didn’t move.
* * *
Once John had taken them home, he left Balthazar in the bedroom and went up to the roof. They still were in his apartment, even though John was uneasy about staying in a place that had come to him by way of Lucifer’s open hand. But for the moment, he couldn’t think of anywhere safer to go since Midnite didn’t number landlord among his many enterprises. He damned well wasn’t going to move into a cathedral and hunch on the roof with the gargoyles like some pathetic Gothic comic-book hero.
He had a cigarette. And then he had another one. The sun set in a burst of pollution-enhanced color and the sky swiftly darkened behind it. The evening cooled the city so John shivered.
He shivered again, then cursed as he stumbled back under the sudden weight of his wings. When he’d righted himself, the feathers swept out of the way to show the surrounding buildings. They were all taller than John’s place so he could see straight into the windows.
He saw someone looking back.
And then he didn’t. John blinked hard and cocked his head, reaching out, but he didn’t come across a trace. He stood there for a moment longer before he gave up and went back inside. If he wanted to move forward, he didn’t have much of a choice, and whoever the hell was keeping an eye on him would just have to put up with the show.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at Balthazar’s still form. It was hard just to tell if Balthazar was breathing, so little did he move. He looked pitiful, and it seemed impossible that he could be playing a double-agent—not because he’d lack the skills or the mindset for it, but because he’d cracked so easily.
Though that, as John well knew, still didn’t put Balthazar in the clear. Pawns wouldn’t be pawns if it mattered whether or not they were conscious of the roles in which they were played. Double-agents and Trojan horses weren’t that different.
He leaned over and laid his fingers on Balthazar’s shoulder, then curled them beneath the coat and began to pull it off. The fabric had slipped only a few inches when it stopped, held back by something. Balthazar moved his head and seemed on the verge of opening his eyes, but at the last moment he shuddered back into the bed. John sighed and scooted a little closer so he could get his hand farther beneath the coat.
Since they’d visited Midnite earlier, John had taken the trouble—and it was a hell of a lot of trouble because Balthazar wouldn’t give John his coat back—to get a shirt and pants onto Balthazar. The space beneath shirt and suit-jacket was comfortably warm and John’s hand was a little cold, so he let it rest for a bit. Then he spread his fingers and slid his hand down Balthazar’s chest. Balthazar’s eyelashes trembled and his breath audibly hitched; he slowly began to untwist so John could reach farther. He shook when John undid the first button, and by the third he was peering cautiously up at John. He still had that dumb fawn look in his eyes.
John willed himself not to grit his teeth or dig his nails into Balthazar’s skin. He knew what he was doing to the extent that he knew where his hands and mouth and prick should go, but he had no idea what niceties were supposed to come after that. When he fucked, he was looking for a quick, dirty and violent escape. When he got fucked, he generally was too busy gathering more reasons for why he should hate whoever was fucking him to think about much else.
“You really better know something worth this,” John muttered.
Balthazar cocked his head and gave John a puzzled stare. Then he arched and let out a surprised, yearning gasp as John’s hand slipped inside his shirt. His head went back as he pressed his belly into John’s palm, and apparently never mind the nasty healing slash there. His limbs unfolded, sudden as a gunshot, and he stretched out as John climbed onto him.
“I’m almost positive this isn’t an act of yours,” John went on, running his hand up and down Balthazar’s stomach. The more he talked, the easier it was to do it. He didn’t have to think so much, and when that happened, his instincts tended to do a better job of carrying him through whatever rough spot it was. “But there’s still the tiniest chance it is, so I guess I’ll just stick to the stuff that’s obvious. Mammon was trying to rebel, and Gabriel was helping him. That was real.”
The more John talked, the more Balthazar seemed to relax as well. He’d rolled with John’s caresses and now lay mostly on his belly, arms tucked carelessly beneath himself. His neck arched repeatedly up towards John’s mouth, and when John finally kissed it, he let loose a tiny, whining cry. John nibbled lightly along the hairline as he slid his hand over Balthazar’s side and up to the coat-collar. He tugged. Balthazar tensed and clutched at the coat.
“And you were helping. I’m going to bet you thought that was your idea.” Another light kiss, another tug, and the coat moved down an inch. John moved over to lick at some of the faded bruising along Balthazar’s jaw, which earned him several more inches. Enough for him to run his hand carefully over the backs of Balthazar’s shoulders.
The bandages had come off, but the area was still extremely sensitive; Balthazar twisted hard so John had to bite into the side of his neck and pin down his arm. Then he went still, breathing ragged. He held himself like he was expecting…well, they weren’t in Midnite’s basement now.
Fucking might as well be, John bitterly thought. He removed his teeth from Balthazar’s neck and swirled his tongue over the spot till Balthazar was starting to press back into him again. When he moved his hand again, he did it so lightly he could barely feel the warmth of Balthazar’s body through the shirt. It seemed to work, since Balthazar was bending his head to lick tentatively at the hand John was using to hold him down.
John got off the coat without any more trouble and dropped it over the side. At the soft rustling of it settling on the floor, Balthazar started and nearly threw John off. But John got him by the forearm and pushed him down again. He went quietly. “Lucifer sounded pretty damn pissed when I got yanked out of Hell. I don’t think he was expecting that to happen, but the thing is, he’s really old. And he invented lying, so he’s probably good at it by now.”
Balthazar drew in a whistling breath. He rose up to press against John when John let go of his arms, but he jerked sharply when he felt John’s hands on his hips. John ran his fingers quickly around Balthazar’s thighs and then over the erection swelling between them. He rubbed the heel of his hand along it and Balthazar mimicked the motion with his whole body, sliding almost frantically against John, cheek pushing along John’s throat so silky hair sneaked into John’s mouth. Occasionally Balthazar winced as something caught at his back, but he was past caring too much about that. John pressed two fingers behind Balthazar’s balls and Balthazar groaned, dropped his head and let John slide off the pants.
“He’s not bad at the indirect route, either. Then again, this could be God working, in which case He’d have beat Lucifer by a lot. God. Damn it, I just hate the feeling that I’m being set up,” John muttered. He idly noticed he was beginning to pant. His prick was taking an interest after all, easily satisfied as that part of him was. Balthazar was rocking back, rubbing his ass into the cradle of John’s hips, and that was all John’s cock needed to say okay.
John slipped a hand beneath Balthazar and wrapped it around Balthazar’s prick, pulling smoothly and slowly at it while he dug around in his pockets with his other hand. Now Balthazar’s head had dropped all the way to the bed and he was whining into it, a high thready sound whose strength wavered with how quickly John’s hand moved. He rolled his hips, and at first John had no idea what Balthazar was doing, but then Balthazar got himself properly braced and did it again so his knees slid apart.
“And I’ve got the damn wings, but I don’t feel like an angel. Whatever the hell that’s supposed to feel like. I just think somebody’s trying to bend the rules in their favor, and I don’t really like that they’re using me as a tool.” The damn vial finally turned up. John tried to get the cap unscrewed with one hand, but he couldn’t get the coordination quite together and ended up biting down on it so he could turn the vial.
Balthazar groaned and twisted, one eye rolling back to look at John. He blinked, then focused and froze even though John’s hand was still working on his prick.
It took John several seconds to get it. He snorted to himself as he undid his fly and shoved down his own pants. “It’s not Lou’s goddamn—Christ, I hate him. I want him out of my fucking life, and I guess you really want the same thing.”
The oil slopped out onto John’s fingers. He spat the vial over the side of the bed and shoved one finger into Balthazar so Balthazar jerked his head back around and stopped staring. Flesh clutched hard and hot around John’s finger, trapping it, and Balthazar briefly trapped John’s eyes by throwing himself into it with painfully beautiful abandon. His back bowed in a curve that begged to be licked, and his mouth produced a cry like a descending bird.
John had to toss himself into breathing again. He forced in another finger just to hear that cry again. The inside of his chest went tight, and the skin over his prick strained till he had to lift himself and push into Balthazar, get to the center of that sound. It was like being too drunk—or like being happy. What John remembered of that, anyway.
“And mostly it’s that I’m not—supposed to get this—this much,” he gritted out beneath his breath. His fingers slipped on the sweat coating Balthazar’s hips, and he banged a knee once against the huge raw scars that halved Balthazar’s calves, but he couldn’t stop to accommodate Balthazar’s pained hiss because it was too much. Too much thrown at someone who’d never had enough and so had never learned to deal with it, only to swallow madly when he had the chance.
His wings suddenly snapped out, unfurling to their full extent, and nearly sent John over with their weight. Did send John slamming deep into Balthazar, who whimpered and twisted feverishly, body clutching as greedily at John as John was taking it. John was cursing at the goddamn wings, and blushing as well, but that was swept beneath the mad roaring in his ears and hands, the fierce wind that seemed to catch him up and blow him into Balthazar.
He fell apart before it, incoherent shout the last thing to go, and came down on Balthazar so hard his teeth rattled. John’s vision smeared white, then came back in streaks that gradually focused into the world. He jerked himself up and felt Balthazar coming beneath him, body going stiff in one long last spasm. His breathing came so hard that at first he couldn’t hear it; the breaths all ran together in one harsh wheeze that he mistook for water rushing through the pipes.
He’d been beating his wings through it, John eventually realized. Knocked a lot of things to the ground, broken his alarm clock. Now his wings sprawled over them, a pair of suffocating dead weights. But he was too tired to pull them in.
After a moment, he roused enough energy to slip out of Balthazar and crawl to the side. His prick slapped limply against his leg, leaving a faint trail of stickiness that stuck the sheets to him. “If that didn’t work, I might just drop you out the window,” he muttered.
Balthazar had collapsed even harder than John had, but when John spoke he began to roll awkwardly over. His eyes flicked to John’s face, then dropped as he dragged himself closer, rubbing his face along John’s arm. “Please don’t,” he whispered.
His voice was so raspy that at first John didn’t even realize he’d spoken. Then John put the pieces together.
He grabbed Balthazar by the chin and jerked up his head; Balthazar gasped in pain, but John wasn’t paying attention because he was looking at Balthazar’s eyes, and someone was looking back at him. Someone with brains.
* * *
“I told you, I don’t know what happened. I want to know as well—I don’t appreciate being knocked out and hauled away from my own office,” Balthazar snapped in frustration. Then he stiffened, jerking his head up to stare warily at John.
John was tempted to hit him, but refrained. He pulled himself into a slouch against the headboard. Forgot about the fucking wings and knocked over his lamp; good thing it wasn’t on. “Goddamn nuisances.”
But he didn’t pull them in yet. Maybe because he needed to stare at the pretty feathers curving around them to convince himself that he couldn’t revert back to before, maybe in hopes that some divine inspiration would kick in, or maybe just because he’d just had the best sex of his life and he was that damned tired.
He rubbed a hand over his face, then pressed the heel of it against his temple. Fingers lightly ran over the edge of his right wing, sending hot shivers all the way through John’s body. He let it go for a moment, then slapped Balthazar with a faceful of primaries—the stiff feathers. “Don’t do that.”
“Lucifer never would have risked letting Mammon free,” Balthazar said. He sounded oddly pleading, hesitant. “That…wasn’t why he had me taken to you. You can do other things with the Spear of Destiny that would be detrimental to Lucifer’s reign. That had to be why.”
The bed dipped as Balthazar crawled forward. He put a hand on John’s knee, paused, and then settled it there when John didn’t do anything. Then he slid forward another few inches.
“But why me? If he wanted information, it would’ve been quicker for him to do it him—would you stop that! Why do you keep doing that?” John hissed, yanking up his leg. He dropped his hand in time to see Balthazar flinch, a surprising amount of pain crossing his face.
It seemed to surprise Balthazar as well, because for a couple seconds he just opened and closed his mouth, looking blindly about. He lifted his hands, then shook his head and glanced at John as if he expected John to have an answer. His shirt was twisted up around him, damp with sweat. Dark bruises shaded his jaw and temple and the insides of his thighs, and angry red patches joined the half-healed cuts on his belly into one stretch of rawness. One of his shirt-tails wound over it and down between his legs where, since he was a demon, there wasn’t any hair to hide his slender prick.
John closed his eyes. “Button up your shirt.”
He counted to ten, then opened his eyes. Balthazar had done up most of the buttons, but his hands weren’t very steady and he was having trouble with the last two. After a moment, John grudgingly reached out to help.
Balthazar grabbed John’s wrist and stopped it. He hesitated, staring at John’s hand, and then he slowly came forward, using John’s arm as a guide. He settled himself astride John’s legs and picked nervously at John’s buttons. “You keep staring at my eyes. Did you notice anything odd about them yet?”
“No—wait.” John tipped up Balthazar’s head with two fingers. “The hell…”
The slitted pupils, like cat’s eyes in the dark, looked anxiously back at him. “I can’t make them go back. And I can’t feel—beneath my skin I can’t feel—”
Before he could finish, John was yanking him forward and pulling up his shirt to see his back. It hadn’t healed all the way. The cuts John had made stood out starkly amid huge patches of scabbing, looking moist and bloody. It didn’t take much to force a fingernail down one, far enough so that John should have been hitting the second skin. Which wasn’t there.
Balthazar twisted his hands in John’s shirt, but he didn’t claw or bite. Just breathed raggedly into John’s neck. “I’ve been thrown out,” he shakily said. “For good.”
John swallowed hard and thought about that while he slowly withdrew his nail. Blood immediately welled up from the gouge he’d made; he tasted a gritty bitterness in his mouth. He swiped his thumb over it, but more blood kept coming up. Frustrated, John ripped his palm across it.
Something sizzled. A thin, short trail of smoke rose as Balthazar bucked, then slumped hard into John, and John suddenly remembered the plants in Midnite’s place. He swore, then pulled his sleeve over his hand and dabbed at the blood till he could see.
The cut didn’t look any better, but the hole was gone. In its place there was a small burn. “You didn’t get thrown that far,” John muttered.
He let his sleeve go back, then tentatively touched Balthazar’s shoulder. No flesh started to smoke, so he ran the fingertips up to Balthazar’s cheek. “So this doesn’t hurt?”
“No.” Balthazar lifted his head and pressed into the touch, eyelashes coming down. “No,” he said more softly.
John jerked his hand away. He started to swear again, but told himself to forget it and just pushed Balthazar off. Pulled in his wings so he could go looking for fresh clothes without breaking more of his things. “You know, when I do find out who’s behind this, I am going to tie one end of their guts to the top of a skyscraper and let the fall unravel the rest.”
“Who’d be behind this?” Balthazar desperately demanded, dragging himself to the edge of the bed. He even started to swing a leg over, but the pain crumpled him to the mattress. “John—wait—”
“What? The reason you said fuck it to Lucifer was that he didn’t hurt you in the right way, and you went looking for someone that could? Or is it that between me in the basement and figuring out that you’re not quite a hotshot demon anymore, you’ve suddenly developed a need to be protected?” It was just too fucking clever, and perfect. It made John want to stomp somebody’s face into the dirt. “If it’s choice B, then you really chose the wrong guy.”
“I’m not trying to fool you!” Right after that outburst, something thumped heavily on the floor. The groan Balthazar made grated on John’s nerves.
Before John could help it, his wings swept out and smashed into the walls. He yanked them back in and staggered his way into sitting on the floor, clutching at his throbbing shoulders. “I beat the shit out of you for three hours and crippled you for good measure.”
“You argued with me,” Balthazar said. He wrapped his arms around himself, then dropped them and turned the palms towards John. “It’s different from taking orders, or just being punished. It—I want you. That’s not—I usually want things. Souls, not people.”
John had to swallow four times before he was sure he wasn’t going to throw up again. That was an interesting discovery—angels could still be nauseated. “I fucked you up.”
“Don’t leave,” Balthazar begged.
“I fucked you up,” John dully repeated. “Oh, Christ.”
* * *
Whatever Midnite was cooking, it smelled like something even God might have trouble recovering from. For a couple minutes, John thought about asking for a cup to pass on to Lucifer.
“It won’t be done for another fifteen minutes,” Midnite said. “You can sit down.”
“I’m going to stand.” John lit a cigarette and pretended he didn’t notice Midnite trying not to stare at how Balthazar, who was sitting on the table, was resting his head against John’s back. “What happened to Gabriel? I never got a straight answer out of Angela.”
Midnite reached above him and retrieved a jar of some kind of salt, which he liberally sprinkled into the pot. He flicked his fingers a few times afterwards and the gas flames of the stove leaped up a brilliant green. The smell got worse. “Because I knocked her out before I killed Gabriel.”
“You killed him?” Waving away the smoke, John stared hard at Midnite.
“Lucifer came up furious, but you hadn’t come back yet and he couldn’t reach you. Apparently God withdrew His grace from Gabriel, because Lucifer was able to blast off his wings. Then Lucifer left. I came in while Gabriel was splashing in the pool and held his head down.” The story rolled off Midnite’s tongue as coolly as a prescription to cure the evil eye would have, but John didn’t doubt its authenticity. It was too free of braggadocio to be a lie.
Nevertheless, he admitted to being a little surprised. “You killed him?”
The look Midnite gave John said to stop being stupid. “Fallen angels are still dangerous. I didn’t see the point in leaving him be.”
“And you’ve got your path to salvation already locked up, so no need to worry about a little thing like breaking the sixth commandment,” John snorted.
Midnite shot him another irritated look while reaching into another cabinet. This time, he produced a skull that had been plugged up to serve as a gruesome version of a salt-shaker, which he shook hard over the pot. “Don’t generalize.”
“Oops, forgot, there’s plenty of loopholes for that one. So Gabriel’s dead. Too bad for him that God decided to pay attention right then.” John twisted around to ash his cigarette and Balthazar shifted, moving up to press his mouth against John’s neck.
When John stiffened, Balthazar kissed his throat again, harder and more desperately. Then he sank back, fingers sliding slowly down John’s back. After a moment, John roughly turned around and smoked the rest of his cigarette in restrained fury.
“I don’t know if you can discount the chance that it might have been a kind of automatic process. Your theory might still be correct.” Midnite turned around, saw more than John was letting him or wanted him to, and paused. He parted his lips, then decided not to say it and went over to the cutting board, where several dead lizards awaited him. He gutted and diced them with quick, efficient flicks of the wrist. “Have you tried healing him yourself? What I can do is going to take another month before he’s back to normal.”
“What?” Actually, John knew exactly what Midnite was talking about, but he didn’t want to go there. He didn’t want to feel Balthazar pricking to attention, hands tense on John’s waist and asking for something, anything. He just didn’t want to know what he’d done.
It figured. It really did—the only way he got anything he wanted, whether that was getting out of his deal with Lucifer or finding something that might make his nightmares go away, was if he fucked it up first. Broke it, twisted it around and then recognized what it was from the fragments that were left. Because of course he was good at that.
“John,” Midnite said.
“Yes,” John shot back. He snapped the word in Midnite’s face. “Yeah, I have. It works but it hurts him. Whatever the hell he and I are now, we’re still tied to the whole damn old system.”
Balthazar dug his nails into John’s back. “You can do that, if you want. Hurt me.”
John bit down on his tongue. The taste of blood was slightly better than the taste that had been in his mouth before, but it still wasn’t enough. Suddenly the kitchen was too small and airless. And Midnite probably wasn’t going to appreciate getting his place bashed up because John couldn’t control his wings.
He shook off Balthazar and stepped quickly away before Balthazar could make a grab for him. “I’m out of cigarettes,” he said. He tried and failed to avoid looking at Balthazar’s pained eyes. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
The stale joke didn’t even prop up the mood like John had hoped. There was too much truth in the warning.
* * *
John was only on the roof for a few minutes when he smelled sulfur. Deep down, something in him sagged with relief. The rest of him stiffened with old reflexes and urged him to run, but he knew how well that’d work. Instead he finished his cigarette and threw it over the edge.
“Miss me, Johnny?”
“Definitely not.” When the first tendril curled lovingly, revoltingly against John’s cheek, he brushed it off. The slimy thing came back with a gang that whipped around his throat; he ripped at it and was briefly, pleasantly surprised to find that this time, he could yank it off.
He stumbled back a few steps, then turned around to look at Lucifer. The bastard had shown up in the white suit he liked so much, but this time he’d come as a pretty young man. A familiar-looking one. “Like what you see?” Lucifer purred.
Lip curled, John spat at the viscous plumes of smoke snatching at his feet. He watched with vicious enjoyment as they flashed white, then disappeared. “Get the fuck away from me. We don’t play that game anymore, remember? You touch me and you’re touching God.”
“You’re so funny, Johnny. That’s what I like about you. Doesn’t matter how depressed I am—I just need to look at you and I’m all smiles.” To demonstrate, Lucifer grinned wide so his yellowed, jagged teeth were on prominent display. His skin wrinkled to accommodate and then continued wrinkling till it’d jerked itself into how Lucifer usually looked when John saw him.
John let his wings come out on purpose. A couple beats of them and the ensuing breeze whipped all of Lucifer’s grabby little mists to shreds.
Lucifer’s grin vanished. He took a step forward, and even if God was for once getting John’s back, John couldn’t help but retreat.
Then Lucifer was gone, and John knew to pull in his wings, crouch in on himself a split second before a hiss licked possessively at his ear. He threw back an elbow, but Lucifer had already shifted to stand in front of him. John tried to dodge, but he was too slow: Lucifer slammed him back into the wall.
Billows of smoke rose up from between them as Lucifer’s hands sizzled, seared against John’s belly and John gasped with the pain of it. He twisted and hit out, but only struck blackened air.
“Don’t forget, Johnny,” the smoke snarled. And Lucifer’s hands slid down to set fire excruciatingly near John’s groin. John was shaking his head and dropping back into his old denying chants, but the burning jerked an inch closer and he slammed his head into the wall, going silent. Old habit. Old goddamned habit. It made Lucifer laugh. “Don’t forget. I watched you longer than anyone, made you more than anyone else did. I know you, no matter what form you have.”
“I’m the one that broke you.”
And then he was gone, and John was sliding down the wall with his arms wrapped over the fading agony in his gut. He let his head fall forward, then pressed his wrist to his mouth till he felt his teeth beginning to rock in their sockets. Then he bit into his wrist till he felt the blood running down his chin.
Some day, he was going to find the big book where all the rules were kept, and he was going to correct it to say that salvation was not the end. Salvation never ended anything—all the shit was still there on the road behind, waiting for the glow to fade.
* * *
Balthazar was just putting on his shirt when John came back down, but he stopped with one sleeve still off. His eyes went to John’s stomach, up to John’s face, and then slowly back to the scorch marks on John’s shirt. “What happened?”
John answered Midnite instead. “You need to redo your wards.”
“I meant to do it two weeks ago, but then you died and came back. I haven’t had the time since,” Midnite calmly said. He was cleaning off his cutting board by taking the knife and using it to sweep the bits of lizard off the wood and into the trashcan. He whipped it across so fast and hard that he scraped off a long splinter.
His territoriality never ceased to amuse John, and in this case, it helped John steady himself. He was able to walk over to Balthazar and help him off the table without flinching or gritting his teeth. Then he pulled Balthazar’s shirt on for him and did up the buttons, ignoring the incredulous stare he got. It was harder to stay calm when Balthazar leaned in to take a long sniff at John.
“Lucifer,” Balthazar said, and for the first time since they’d met in the basement, Balthazar was snarling.
Balthazar suddenly pressed forward, hands running over and over John’s stomach and chest. He didn’t seem to care that Midnite had abandoned all pretenses at cleaning the kitchen and was now just watching. His hands were shaking and they kept curling into fists, then smoothing out over John’s body as if they could erase the marks there.
“Try to come back in two days for the next application,” Midnite finally told John. He picked up a rag from the counter and began to wipe his hands.
“Right. Thanks, by the way. For the…for things.” John looked at the empty pot in the sink, then up at the ceiling. Because there’d been no way Midnite had missed that, and even if Balthazar was more human than demon now, he should’ve felt it as well. Unless someone had been blocking him. “I’m beginning to think you like me again.”
Midnite snorted quietly and flicked the rag into the sink. He dug through his cabinet till he found the skull into which he’d been stuffing herbs the day before, which he handed to John. “Or I’m cultivating a potential contact with heaven. I had to kill my last one.”
Actually, John was beginning to like him again. It was too damned bad they never seemed to have enough time to really work that out.
* * *
“I’m not under Lucifer anymore,” Balthazar repeated. His fingers kept squeezing at John’s shoulders. “I’m not. He isn’t why—”
“Would you just shut up for a moment?” The elevator pinged and John shifted Balthazar’s weight so it wasn’t coming down on only one arm.
When the doors opened, John stepped through them into a pool of silence so dead it could have been a warzone. It was close enough; he put Balthazar down on the nearest chair, then looked around.
All the others in the room were staring with huge eyes and gaping mouths, but the one nearest them turned suspiciously white when she saw Balthazar. The realization made a distinct click as it leaped from her to Balthazar, whose hands curled into fists and face began to pale with extreme rage.
John unslung the bag from his shoulder and took out the skull he’d gotten from Midnite. From it he pulled what looked like an herb-sprinkled cat ‘o nine-tails, right down to the knots in the ends. It wasn’t. He dropped it in Balthazar’s lap without saying anything and then leaned against the wall to observe.
The knots unleashed offensive spells when undone. There were enough to take care of all of the half-breeds without Balthazar ever having to get up, but he staggered to his feet before he’d used half of them. He could walk now, after a fashion, but not for very long or very well. It didn’t seem to impede him much from ripping up and gutting the half-breeds that were left.
When it looked like Balthazar was winding down, John finally pushed off the wall and walked over. He had to swing wide to avoid stepping in one large pool of blood, so by the time he actually got to Balthazar, he was too late to keep the one human in the room from getting her arm broken. She screamed and fell back, and Balthazar was just about to tear out her throat when John spoke: “You haven’t completely changed.”
Balthazar jerked to a stop a hair from the woman’s throat. He strained in mid-air, then jerked himself away and spun to stare nervously up at John. “I—you—do you want me to stop?”
“Do you want to stop?” John asked. He looked past Balthazar to the woman, who was silently mouthing pleas at him. She was the one who’d blanched when she had seen Balthazar.
“I’m a demon, and she’s the one that put me in that basement,” Balthazar slowly said. He reached out a hand and gripped John’s shoe, then pulled himself through the blood to clutch at John’s ankles. “I want to kill her. Painfully.”
John pulled out his lighter, but didn’t reach for his cigarette pack. He flicked the flame on, then off. On and off. On and off. “If you hadn’t been in that basement, then you wouldn’t have met me. You’d probably be better off.”
Balthazar wet his lips and started to say something, then bowed his head. His hands began to squeeze up John’s legs. “I want this. I didn’t want to get it this way, but I still want it. I’ll let her live if you want.”
The woman was slowly starting to crawl away, but when John raised his eyes to her again, she froze. He jerked his head towards the door, and she scrambled to her feet. On the floor, Balthazar remained holding onto John’s knees.
On and off, on and off—off. John put away the lighter and pulled at his legs till he’d worked loose enough from Balthazar’s grip to squat down. He put his hand to Balthazar’s cheek, watching how Balthazar’s eyes closed and how his mouth parted. Then he threaded his fingers in Balthazar’s hair and pulled him forward. He ran his tongue over Balthazar’s lower lip, feeling it drop beneath the pressure, and tasted blood. Pushed his tongue into Balthazar’s mouth, now taking Balthazar with both hands, and tasted more blood.
Balthazar made a disbelieving noise, but came eagerly forward, grabbing at John’s arms and melting into the kiss. He tasted sweet beneath all the death, and he bent however John wanted him to.
John ripped him off and threw him to the side; he hit a pool of blood and went sliding across the floor. The wall stopped him with a jolt that drew a hurt cry from him; he fell forward and didn’t immediately push himself up. When he finally did, it was to look at John with an uncomprehending shock that twisted the daggers in John’s gut.
“What did I do?” Balthazar asked.
“Nothing much. You just made a choice.” The doors behind John suddenly slammed open, but he didn’t turn around to look. He curled his nails into his palms and waited.
“Johnny!” bellowed Lucifer. “I knew I could count on you.”
His boisterous shout was accompanied by a female whimper. John stiffened, then turned around and leaped over the table, but the woman was already dropping to the ground with a broken neck. She rolled over and came to rest with her dulling eyes staring straight at John. “Goddamn you.”
“And still with the ingratitude? I thought you’d finally begun to catch on.” Lucifer dusted off his hands and slowly began to stroll across the room. He was grinning, so damn happy that he just lit up the room. “You know, I couldn’t do that before. Because of the rules. The rules, the rules, the rules.”
Every bit of John wanted to go after that smirking son of a bitch, but he held himself back. He did the smart thing and cut across to Balthazar before Lucifer could get to him; Balthazar was staring at Lucifer with a look of absolute hatred, but when John yanked him onto his feet, his expression went soft and open. His hands still tried to grab at John, even when John spun him around to wrench his wrists up to his chest and hold him up that way.
“They make everything boring, don’t you know. But there’s the old lesson—time beats everything. Drops of water and stone. A little prodding, a little bending, and eventually they’ll break.” Lucifer ambled to the table and pulled himself onto it, knees wide so he could drop his threaded fingers in between them. He was going for the soulful look and naturally didn’t carry it off well. “And you, Johnny, were so very good at that. You like rules about as much as I do. About as much as that thing you’re holding does—you know, I considered him for a while, but like all demons, he lacks a little…imagination. Not his fault. I made him that way. Didn’t want them getting too uppity too quickly.”
“You must have gotten something in your eye when it was my turn, then,” Balthazar sneered. “It didn’t take me that long.”
John shook him hard so he gasped and slumped back. He craned around to stare at John, but John ignored him even though the intensity of Balthazar’s gaze was burning the side of John’s face.
“You did well enough, I guess,” Lucifer said. He bared his teeth at Balthazar and his tongue flicked through them, winding up and down one long canine in disgusting insinuation. “You got Johnny through his fit of morality, and then you got him through his fit of angelhood.”
“I cheated Hell,” John slowly said.
Nodding vigorously, Lucifer slapped his hands against his knees. “Yes, my boy, you did. And now you’re going to cheat heaven. You’re going to prove their little offer of salvation isn’t worth anything. Not like Gabriel or the others, no—you aren’t going to make the mistake of doing wrong through too much good. You’re going to flat-out say you had the cake and you didn’t like the taste of it.”
“Because I’m an angel now, and I really should be killing Balthazar, but I’m not?” John lightly said. He felt Balthazar go stiff against him and stroked the side of Balthazar’s face, then got a handful of Balthazar’s hair and began to slowly force Balthazar’s neck back.
Balthazar jerked at his wrists, not trying to get free so much as to get hold of John’s hands. “John…”
“No, because you are going to kill him. You’re an angel now. You’re all clean and pure, but you look at him and you realize you got there through the dirtiest way possible. You look at him and you realize salvation hasn’t changed you a damn bit.” Lucifer leaned forward. This time, his smile was a dazzling white, all his teeth perfect. “You’re still what I made.”
“John…please don’t…” Balthazar was whispering.
The shake John gave him was nearly enough to snap the bones in his neck. He sucked in a breath, then went absolutely still. His eyes begged.
Very slowly, John nodded. “You’ve got a point there, Lou.”
Something like a whimper clawed out of Balthazar’s throat.
“Just one thing I’m curious about, though,” John went on. “So I turn my back on heaven and hell, and you think this will bring…”
“The war stalled because of that damn bet I was tricked into making. Now it’s going to start again.” Pure blissful anticipation rolled Lucifer’s eyes upward, and he sighed like a girl. “Total war.”
John looked at him, feeling his stomach roil, and then he resettled his grip on Balthazar’s hair. “Like hell it is. This is free will. For once, everyone gets to choose.”
He spun Balthazar around and smashed their mouths together. Balthazar was slack for only a second before he was clinging to John and moaning, pulling his hands free to wrap them around John’s neck. He kissed back with the fervor of the…saved, John supposed. And that thought made him snicker so he almost forgot to duck.
The wind slammed into the wall above him and tore feathers from John’s wings, which were finally being fucking useful. They shielded him and Balthazar from Lucifer’s first blast.
Lucifer was, literally, screaming mad, but even he had to take a breath once in a while. The moment he did, John scrambled up and forward so he’d have the room, then whipped back his wings. Air collected in them with an audible whoosh that was amplified a thousand times when he slammed them forward.
That wasn’t enough to knock Lucifer off his feet, but it did get him off-balance so he didn’t notice the man walking into the room. Midnite was carrying a Bible from an age when that book could serve as a bonafide physical weapon as well as a spiritual one, and his voice carried well over the wild winds.
Lucifer screamed again, so John screamed back at him. With Midnite. “Et Spiritus Sancti! In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti! In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus--”
“Sancti,” Balthazar muttered. Then he gasped, grabbed at his throat and choked so bloody spit flew from his mouth.
John dove at him, momentarily forgetting what was going on. Stupid thing to do, but it worked out because just then the room attempted to implode around them.
* * *
Midnite stared at the wreckage they’d made of Balthazar’s boardroom—for the second time. “He’s going to come back.”
“Yeah, well, he always does. He’s annoying like that.” John sat up, pulling Balthazar with him, and took his own look around. “I don’t know how much you like this building, but I think we’ve messed this part of it up too many times.”
Balthazar didn’t speak or move, and for a moment John had the cold thought that he was stuck with a semi-functioning zombie again. But then Balthazar turned around and bit John’s hand. Hard.
“Son of a bitch!” John snarled, ripping his hand away. He hit Balthazar’s shoulder, but the blow mostly glanced off because Balthazar had thrown them into a ferocious kiss.
“You—you—bastard. Don’t ever leave,” Balthazar rasped. Then he lunged forward again, sucking at John’s lower lip. His hands clutched hungrily at John’s body.
A polite cough came from Midnite’s direction. “A man, an angel and a demon banishing Lucifer. As powerful as its unorthodoxy makes it, that won’t keep him down for long.”
“You know, I think you’ve just about fucked your vow of neutral…” John started to get up, then stopped and cocked his head. His hand slowed, then went still on Balthazar’s back.
“John?” Balthazar withdrew to look questioningly upward.
A slightly sour grin made its way onto John’s face. “I just had a thought: sometimes you have to switch gears out of the clock to keep it running. Which means there’s still going to be fighting. Guess your tendency to rip up people might be useful.”
He saw the anxious uncertainty seep into Balthazar’s face and ran his thumb over Balthazar’s lip, then leaned down to kiss him again.
Then he pulled them up, and flicked the finger over his shoulder.
“I’m over here,” Midnite said, slightly puzzled.
“It wasn’t for you,” John replied. He smiled more wholeheartedly once the goddamn singing and tinkling bells had shut up and pulled Balthazar to him. “Okay. You’re still a demon, but you’re my demon.”
“And you’re not his,” Balthazar said fiercely. “Not anymore.”
John laughed. “So now everything really is going to be my fault. Guess I can live with that.”