Tangible Schizophrenia



Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: R. Violence, some sex.
Pairing: John/Balthazar, John/Midnite
Feedback: Good lines, typos, etc.
Disclaimer: I didn’t play any role in creating these characters. I just really, really admire them and their creators.
Notes: Post-movie.
Summary: Angela shows up again with a surprise for John.


It’d been months since the last time John had seen Angela. She looked okay, he guessed. She was still alive and she was dressed like she had a reasonably good income, so that put her at the top of the ex-girlfriend list as far as post-break-up survival went.

After the whole Mammon thing, they’d gone out a few times and had sex once, right after she’d broken down and screamed at John for not getting involved in time to save Isabel. They could’ve fucked a lot more often if John had felt like taking advantage of her frequent breakdowns, but he was still getting over things himself and most of the time, he’d just wanted to sit in a dark corner and lean against something warm. When he’d stopped feeling that way, they’d sort of drifted apart; she had issues about magic that went about as far back as his did, but she hadn’t even started to deal with them. He couldn’t afford to wait for her to catch up.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call,” Angela said. She put her hand up to her head, like she was going to tuck her hair behind her ear, but her fingers detoured to scratch at her temple, flickering like a flame in the wind. “I—I should have—only—”

“Well, I’m in.” John put his shoulder against the door-frame, wishing he had a cigarette. This was awkward. Her nerves were more shot than she was letting on, and it was getting to him. “What did you want?”

She looked at him really strangely, like she wanted to slap him and cry at the same time. She had a big basket, a Christmas jam-and-sausage pack kind of thing, wedged under her arm and it was all covered up with cloth, which didn’t bode well. “I—you need to take care of this. I can’t. I just—I can’t deal with it all right now, I’ve got so much, it’s all so much and I can’t sleep--”

“Hey, hold on. Wait. Come on for…for water, or something. Sit down and explain it to me,” John said, straightening up. He wasn’t exactly equipped or in the mood for company, but he could recognize a melt-down when he saw one, and he didn’t want that on his doorstep. Aside from the fact that she could probably scorch the hell out of his wards if she really tried, she was LAPD and God, he didn’t need that.

He took a step out and lifted his hand, meaning to pull her in, but she flinched away. Then she suddenly whipped back around and shoved the basket into his arms. It was heavier than she’d made it look and John staggered, then fell against the door-jamb. Something shifted inside, making a weird little distressed mew.

“I’m sorry—it wasn’t your fault, I didn’t think either, but I can’t—” Angela backed up, eyes huge and full of holes, then spun to run down the hall.

By the time John had righted himself, he couldn’t even hear her feet on the stairs anymore. He thought about calling after her, but he had a feeling…he’d really liked her. She’d been good for him at a certain point in his life. But the thing was, he had to watch his back, too. He wasn’t exactly the psychological counselor-type to begin with, and lately he’d had his fill of funerals, so he wasn’t interested in getting into something just in time for that. And that was written all over her face.

He went back inside, kicking the door shut as he went. Whatever was in the basket sniffled; John leaned way back so if it had any grabbing or lunging limbs, it wouldn’t be able to get him as easily. Then he set it down on the nearest horizontal surface and gingerly lifted the cloth.

Two seconds later, he was banging out the door after Angela. He got halfway down the stairs before he heard a gunshot from the street.

* * *

“‘Decorated LAPD detective brutally gunned down.’ Five lines about the number of criminals she’s shot in the line of duty, one trite one about how her luck finally ran out. The writer can’t make up his mind whether her death is good or bad,” Midnite snorted. He dismissively flicked the sheet aside and picked up a candle, carefully tipping it so the drippings would land in the bowl of water in front of him.

“It’s a fucking preliminary report. Jesus Christ, they posted it online three hours after she died.” John paced back and forth on the line dividing his kitchen linoleum from the wood flooring of the rest of the place. He really, really—

--the basket rocked on the table, letting out another desperate wail—

--really needed a cigarette. And ear-plugs. And to replay this entire day so he didn’t end up with…goddamn it, somebody was fucking with him. “Can’t you go any faster?”

“Do you want your apartment to blow up in hellfire?” Midnite bent over so his nose practically had to be in the water. “Another minute, John…and would you do something about the crying? It’s disturbing my concentration.”

“Like what? Motherfucking nitpicking witch-doctor—” John started past the basket again, then whirled around to stand in front of it. God, it was a good thing he was the only one living here, because this little shit’s screaming could shatter steel. What the hell did it want?

He jerked up the cloth and stared at it, at its…its screwed-up little eyes, the skin around it all reddened from the salt in the tears. Like it knew he was there, it opened its eyes and that sure as hell wasn’t a naturally occurring shade of blue. Blue. Both he and Angela were brown-eyed…and okay, that didn’t mean anything, but he was pretty sure that neither of them had had genes for fluorescence.

It waved a little pink fist at him, still wailing like its life depended on it. Well, first lesson of life: raising your voice never got anyone anyth—

--its eyes suddenly narrowed to slits and the whole bone structure of its face changed, elongating and getting fur and damn, this must have been what Angela had meant. The little…puppy-thing…fumbled its way over the lip of the basket and tumbled out. It stayed sprawled where it was, still crying. Only it was more like howling now, John vaguely guessed. He definitely didn’t have genes for that.

He warily reached out towards it and it paused, then whined and ducked so it was pressing its head to the table. John carefully touched two fingertips to the top of its head, and when nothing lunged out and tried to bite off his hand, he tried petting it. The puppy made a whuffy purring sound and pushed its cold, wet nose into his wrist. Well, it was kind of cute. Funny that Angela hadn’t immediately taken to it, considering she already had a cat.

Angela’s blood splotch was still on the street three blocks down.

John grimaced and shoved her out of his mind, not needing the extra pain. He glanced over his shoulder, but Midnite still looked busy. The cold nose wriggled up the underside of his arm, getting drool and God knew what else on his sleeve, so he pulled back. It looked sad, then snorted and threateningly opened its mouth.

“Don’t even think about it,” John muttered, picking it up. He flipped it onto its back and was greeted with a big dick waving up from behind the hindlegs, which made a wry smile tug at his mouth. Then the puppy shivered and twisted, and suddenly shed a whole load of hair on him; a blue-eyed baby stared innocently up in its place. “Oh, you little bastard…”

“Language,” Midnite clucked, like some fucking housewife.

Clumps of fur were sticking to John’s suit and drifting onto his shoes and floating into his nose so he had to jerk his head around fast to sneeze. “My God, Midnite, if I wanted your feminine side I would’ve called you when you had Maman Brigitte knocking at your head. Just shut up and tell me whose it is.”

Something beat lightly against the front of John’s chest so he looked back down, and just in time to catch the brat yanking at his tie. The knot slid up into his throat and he had to shift the kid fast to one arm so he could keep himself from being strangled. Happy gurgle from the brat, and then another twist and more fur all over—and fucking claws as the puppy climbed up John’s shoulder. It poked him in the side of the head with its nose, then started licking at his ear.

He grimaced and pulled it down by its scruff to much whining and wriggling and then it went all baby again. The little bastard smacked his fist into John’s chest. “No. No. Bad…um, fuck. Midnite? What kind of dog comes with glowing eyes and…and little knobby things around its shoulders?”

“Hellhound. Those bumps turn into the spines—you should know this, John.” Midnite nodded decisively, then stepped back from the counter. “The casting is done.”

“About damn time. Okay, which cocksucking son of hell birthed this…oh.” John frowned, then leaned over the bowl and looked more closely. “You messed up. That can’t be it.”

The look from Midnite promised severe bodily and spiritual harm if John didn’t immediately apologize for that. “John. You’re the father. Angela was the mother, and—”

“And I do not have demon genes, okay? Fine, yeah, I’ve got some weird shit in my blood, and that whole deal with the vampires a couple months ago is still screwing with me, but that was after Angela left,” John snapped. The effect was slightly ruined by enthusiastic burbling and spit-bubble-blowing from the goddamn kid. “Where did that come from?”

Well, Midnite was confused by that. Served the self-righteous arrogant prick right. “If I had to take a guess…possibly Angela’s womb was affected by the time she hosted Mammon. I’d have to have her body to check.”

They looked at each other for a moment. The kid was getting heavy, so John absently shifted him in his arms and the brat gurgled something pretty close to Akkadian and the lights flickered like crazy. John looked up and said the counterspell, and the lights went back to normal. Then he looked down at the kid, who was staring up at him with one of those awed…baby stares, where it was like everything was a goddamn miracle. It smiled at him—it already had a full set of teeth—and hit his tie with its hand. The tie turned into a snake.

“Hey!” John said without thinking.

The kid frowned and hit him again; the snake turned back into a tie. Then the crying started again, and Jesus Christ, like John didn’t already have enough trouble getting sleep. He jounced the baby a couple of times like he’d seen women do, then shrugged and curved his hand beneath it to scratch the back of its neck. Instant hellhound puppy, which flopped around till it was on lying on its belly. It grinned at the room.

“I’m starting to like him,” John commented. “Why do you think Angela let herself get killed over this? It’s not so bad—well, okay, aside from Lou being like a godfather or something to it…oh, shit.”

After a moment, Midnite spun on his heel and began stalking towards the door. “Sometimes the way you process things truly frightens me. I’ll go to the morgue. You…deal with that.”

“He,” John said.

“Ssssee,” the puppy gargled, its jaw-bone visibly molding and remolding itself. “Seth.”

Midnite stopped where he was. John stared hard at the puppy, who stared back. Come to think of it, the eyes were way too big and rounded, too. They looked like the alien little grey men on TV.

“Seth.” John tipped his head. “Stop getting shit on my clothes. You have any idea what my dry-cleaning bill is already like?”

Seth wagged his tail and began to gnaw on John’s elbow.

“Feed it,” Midnite said, like he was ordering somebody to go jump off a cliff for the good of mankind. He whirled out of John’s door, and the breeze in his wake pulled the door shut. The bolts of the locks all slid home by themselves in a clatter of clicks.

Whining, Seth poked his nose repeatedly at the crook of John’s arm like he was trying to burrow down. John gave him a squeeze, only half-thinking about it, then snorted. “Never mind that, kid. Or your mom, by the way. It’s a bitch when people don’t want you around, but that’s all their problem. And while we’re at it, what the hell do you eat? Because look, human flesh is a no-go.”

Happy, clueless dog-face. Sighing, John carried him back into the kitchen and hooked open the fridge door with one foot. What was in there, anyway? It’d been a couple days since John had checked.

* * *

John was sitting on the floor with a half-finished bowl of pureed milk and chuck roast when his wards fritzed. With a frightened yip, Seth leaped into his lap, then had wriggled inside John’s coat before John could grab him. He pressed up close to John’s side, shivering so hard that John had to clench his teeth to keep them from rattling.

Well, he was clenching his teeth anyway. He casually pulled his coat back around, then put his hand on the floor to keep it in place. What he really wanted to do was let Lucifer keep electrifying himself against the wards till he fried like a fucking mosquito, but Lou would just give up and rip up the fabric of the world after a second failure. So John raised his hand and let him in.

The lights dimmed, then rose up again. Lucifer dropped out of the ceiling, looking fresh and greasy as a diner just before closing. He had a big smile on his face—and goddamn him, he’d brought company.

Balthazar didn’t look so good. Kind of toasted and frayed around the edges. The cuffs of his suit had burned scallops taken out of their edges, and his hair was falling messily in his face. He still mustered up a sneer for John, which didn’t really qualify as flattery.

“Johnny-boy,” Lucifer cooed. “I heard you got a new addition to the family, and I rushed down for a look.”

Damn. He knew already, so there was no point in playing it dumb. And it looked like whatever Seth’s full background was, he had gotten his dad’s hatred of Lou, since he was still hiding in John’s coat. Hiding and making little dancing lights pop all around Lucifer, which clearly annoyed the fucking bastard, though he was trying not to show it.

“Well, I’m real impressed, but that’s okay. I haven’t had a chance to get a doctor in yet, so I’m trying to avoid all unhealthy influences,” John drawled. He needed a goddamn cigarette; ten months was more than long enough to prove he could fucking quit when he wanted to. And he also needed a big fat squirt gun of holy water, and hey, a smiting of God’s hand might be nice, too.

Of course, heaven fucked off to do its own thing and Lou just narrowed his eyes. “You should think before you talk, Johnny. I’m still not happy about what you pulled with my son, but I’m willing to smooth things over with an eye to—”

“Oh, fuck off. Your family skills are public knowledge, and I’m planning to use ‘em as a guide of what not to do.” John picked up the bowl of Seth’s food and put it aside. If he had to do any jumping around, he’d rather not have to worry about flinging rotten meat all over his kitchen. The rest of the clean-up would be bad enough. “Besides, you’re bullshitting. If you had any real claim, you would’ve been able to barge through instead of waiting for me to let you in.”

Lucifer took a sudden, angry step forward, then just as abruptly settled back. He rubbed one hand over his chin, looking thoughtful, and that was when John started getting worried. “True. Very true. Of course, I got no claim as long as the parents are alive, and I do believe you’re down the mom already, aren’t you?”

He was just baiting John. He was just trying to get John riled up and easy to catch off-guard, and goddamn it, he was good at that. If Seth hadn’t been glued to John’s side, he would’ve launched himself at Lucifer and taken a stab at breaking his neck. “Don’t talk about Angela. Not unless you want the new archangel down on you for breaking the non-intervention clause. You only got away last time because your son’s a complete idiot.”

“Oh, I’m not that sloppy. You know that, Johnny…and so I propose another truce. You want space, I want my interests protected…and you know, you’re not so good at seeing to the welfare of others,” Lou said with a silky smile. He made a showy gesture towards the side. “I’m leaving Balthazar here, since you two already know how each other works. Don’t think of him as a minder, Johnny—think of him as an extra pair of eyes. Since kids, they need looking-after.”

The bastard winked before he poofed out of the room. Good thing, because that’d just been the last straw; John lunged—

--and immediately jerked himself to a stop when a terrified yelp floated up from by his foot. He sank back to put his hand on the floor for balance, then sighed and plucked Seth from the floor. Which was easier said than done, since for a couple seconds, Seth wildly and randomly shifted between human and hellhound. “Jesus, kid, you want me to drop you or something?”

Seth finally settled for human and started to wail, kicking and waving his fists. John winced and bounced him, but it didn’t work this time. “God…c’mon, now what?”

“Brilliant, Johnny. Just brilliant. If you’re so determined to bring him up, then how about you start with not frightening him? Otherwise you might as well let Lucifer take him,” Balthazar muttered. He pushed both hands through his hair, then brought them down to cover his ears. “Make it shut up.”

When they got some time, John would have to figure out exactly how far along Seth was, because as if he knew what was going on, Seth cut loose with an especially loud cry that made a light bulb somewhere pop out. Not in John’s apartment, thankfully, so he got to see very clearly how Balthazar’s shoe suddenly started to melt. He laughed as Balthazar cursed and tried to pull his foot out of the syrupy puddle, then hurriedly went back to trying to calm Seth down as more lightbulbs popped. The orange glow from the street-lamps was starting to dim.

“Hey, hey, I’m not—not going to drop you, okay? C’mon, Lou’s gone and you just kicked Balthazar’s stupid ass for him…and I’m very proud of you for that, by the way,” John said.

Seth briefly stopped crying to stare blankly up at John. Then his eyes screwed up again and started streaming tears—he was like a mini water fountain—and he started screaming. John bit his lip and forcefully pushed the idea of tossing the kid out of his head, tempting as that was really beginning to seem.

“You’re supposed to comfort him. Not that that’s one of your specialties…” Balthazar was bent over, working on scraping the remains of his shoe from his foot. He sounded like this was the last damned thing he wanted to do, even if it’d gotten him back to the earthly plane.

“Yeah, well, what would you suggest? Go take him out to watch suicides?” John snapped.

Telling silence.

“Like I’m taking parenting advice from you. You’re just here to try and turn him into some little freak for Lou.” Singing. Mothers sang to their kids; even in that torture chamber of a Catholic institution, there’d been that old nun who’d walked around at night, softly singing old hymns to the kids. Of course, she’d been dead…but she’d been one of the few things that had let John keep his sanity in there.

“He is a little freak, Johnny,” Balthazar snorted. “You’re his father.”

Besides, he didn’t feel like standing in the same room with Balthazar. Or the same world, but his hands were full so he couldn’t blast the bastard now.

He turned around and walked towards the bedroom, tunelessly humming while he tried to remember some kind of lullaby. Back when they’d still thought he was normal, his mother had sang a few to him, but he’d been so pissed off at what she’d let people do to him that he’d done his damnedest to block her and his dad out of his mind. Of course, now that meant he was drawing total blanks on the lullabies, and Seth was getting really goddamn loud now. The windows were actually rattling.

“Oh, Christ, please…just…” John racked his brains and in desperation came up with one of Midnite’s ancestor-soothing chants. He hesitantly began it, stumbling over the words because usually when he heard it, he was kind of busy trying to avoid vengeful spirits.

Seth’s crying quieted, then stopped altogether. His blue eyes glowed in the dark room brightly enough for John to see him bring up one fist and pop his thumb in his mouth. His brow smoothed out.

The temperature of the room abruptly dropped, then rose again. Something moved just at the edge of John’s field of vision and he turned quickly around, then winced…but fortunately, Seth wasn’t disturbed enough to start wailing again. Then John looked out of the windows and really flinched: the ghosts were already three thick and he could see more coming in.

This wasn’t exactly cute anymore.

* * *

John finally settled Seth in the center of his bed, then carefully locked and plastered over the door with wards before he went back out into the kitchen.

Which was strangely clean. And the counters were filled with produce and meat, and Balthazar was poking at John’s fridge with a pair of tongs. He hissed at something inside, his tongue waggling like crazy, then darted the tongs in and yanked out a thrashing slimy thing that he promptly stuffed into the sink drain. He flicked on the garbage compactor before John could get over there and stop him.

“Hey, you fucking bastard, do you know how long it took me to dig up one of those that size—”

“You’ve got a cursed lamp over there, dragon bone just lying around waiting to be chewed on…honestly, John. Do you actually expect that brat to reach maturity in these conditions?” Balthazar sniffed.

For a moment, John just had to stand and take it all in. Then he leaned back against the table and watched as Balthazar went back to cleaning out his fridge. “I have to work, you stupid prick. And you’re trashing all my supplies.”

Balthazar had stripped off his coat, tie and vest, all of which were neatly folded on one of the chairs. He’d rolled up his sleeves as well, and his hair was beginning to mat up with sweat and stick to his forehead. He actually seemed to be taking this whole thing seriously…which, frankly, worried John more than Lou’s visit had. Mr. Morningstar had the perspective of centuries, so most of the time he missed the real point. On the other hand, Balthazar was annoying, but he usually had an idea of where the current pressure-points were.

“I can take care of your finances, such as they are,” Balthazar was muttering, head and shoulders wedged deep into the fridge. “Starting with moving to a more suitable location. This neighborhood is terrible.”

“Yeah…I heard a cop got gunned down only one block over today.” John let the acid rising in his throat spin him around and send him stalking right back to the bedroom. If that bastard thought John was just going to let Lucifer slide in the back-door, then he was really fucking—

Something reeked. So badly that John had to close the door almost as soon as he’d opened it, and he was used to ashed demons, basilisk breath, the L. A. public sewage system…he pulled his sleeve over his hand and muffled his nose, then slid back in to see what the hell had happened. A cold pit had formed in his stomach, but there was no point in rushing in and getting his head bitten off.

His left shoe skidded a bit on the floor; at the noise, a small head lifted from the center of the bed. The stinking bed with the obvious wet patch on it, and oh, God, couldn’t John get a break? “Please tell me you can be house-trained.”

Seth put his head back down, looking extremely scared. Then he started to wriggle towards the other side of the bed. John lunged and grabbed him before he could track that shit over any more places and Seth just threw back his head, went to human and bawled.

“Goddamn it, Angela. If you ended up in Hell, then you’d better not expect me to come boost you up any time soon,” John muttered, barely keeping himself from snarling. He hefted Seth and tried to look non-threatening. “Okay. Clean-up time.”

* * *

About an hour later, John had remade his bed, given Seth a good bath, and had come back out just in time to see Midnite and Balthazar in a stand-off. Midnite had his cane, which had an ominous green halo around the top, and a bound and muzzled goat thrown over his shoulder. Balthazar had flames dancing over one hand and what appeared to be a bag of diapers in the other.

“Excuse me, but I just put the kid to sleep, so do you assholes mind kicking off Revelations somewhere else?” John stifled a yawn as he walked over to take the diapers from Balthazar.

It was a pretty nice idea for the half-breed shit, but John had stood over Seth watching long enough to know that the kid randomly switched forms, so that wouldn’t work. He’d just ended up bedding Seth down on top of his oldest towels, layering in some deodorant charms that he normally used to keep the bowlers downstairs from complaining about the smell from spellwork. Later on he’d have to check the references to see if he could get any use out of Seth’s piss, come to think of it. Since it looked like he had an abundant supply now.

“John. What is this.” Midnite was royally pissed off, as proved by his inability to speak in anything but statements. He jerked his head at Balthazar.

“Lou taking an active interest,” John snorted. He stuffed the diapers in a cabinet. All the crap was gone from the counter—presumably it’d been shifted to the refrigerator, so he started taking down jars and herbs.

The green glow in the room got brighter. “And you think this is a good idea?”

“I think that I’m having a bad day beyond anything even you’ve had. I think I’m dealing pretty fucking well with Lou possibly killing yet another person I knew, considering I haven’t gone out and tried to bust up Hell for Angela. I think I’ve got a goddamned kid who’s made me deaf and shat in my bed and gotten me way into the shit, and I think that I’m really fucking—” John stopped. Closed his eyes and concentrated, then opened them. The lights were back to normal, so he went back to what he’d been doing. “I think I really want both of you out so I can have my goddamn nervous breakdown now, and fuck you very much.”

Something tingled the wards in the bedroom; John very nearly slammed the next jar he took down against the counter, which would’ve been bad since they held dried salamander tails and those could spontaneously explode with rough handling. Then again, what the hell was a burned hand when Seth was awake again.

“I can’t go. I’ve been tasked with looking after the child. And you.” Balthazar’s lip-curl was clearly audible.

“We need to discuss something.” Midnite was all implacable and commanding. He still had a goat over his shoulder.

Seth’s contribution was a loud scream.

John spun around and took one step forward, then caught himself, frowning. He turned back to look at the other two.

“Midnite—bathroom. And do not let that goat drop its shit on my floor. Balthazar…” John grimaced “…come on and help me, since you’re here and all.”

* * *

Balthazar warily perched on the edge of the bed, staring at Seth with an unreadable expression. At least, it was unreadable till a moment later when Balthazar made the most half-assed bow towards Seth that John had ever seen.

“Don’t do that,” John snapped. He was busy setting the supplies he’d collected on the side-table, but he made the time to elbow Balthazar in the head. “You’re gonna give my kid a complex.”

Seth, now in hellhound form, sat up and looked uncertainly between John and Balthazar. As scared as he’d sounded earlier, he seemed okay now. Well, except for the too damned awake part.

“I thought you’d want your son to be a self-inflated egotist. Follow in his father’s footsteps and all that,” Balthazar said. For a moment, he seemed relieved to have a chance to look away from Seth.

“It wouldn’t be following in his father’s goddamn footsteps. I know how good I am, and I know that I’m a complete asshole, too. Guess who never understands the second part of that sentence.” If John had had more time, he would’ve fixed his food processor first, but right now he had to make do with a mortar and pestle and an incredibly achy arm after the first minute. He still was feeling the aftereffects of a fight with some half-breeds a few days ago. “So he took you back into the fold?”

Balthazar primly folded his hands in his lap and watched John toss stuff into the mortar and grind it up. Once he did put out his hand to block a curious Seth from edging any closer, but then he yanked it away so fast that Seth’s little ice-spear missed him and clattered to the floor about a foot beyond John. “Obviously.”

John rolled his eyes. “Don’t fuck with me…no, Seth. No…no, I’ll show you this when you’re older, okay? Go…can you go back to sleep or—no! Don’t—ssssh, don’t cry, kid. Just…um…go cuddle Balthazar there for a second. Bite him if he tries anything.”

The poleaxed, slack-jawed look on Balthazar was briefly hilarious. He stiffened up as Seth approached and tentatively curled up against his hip, lifting his arm out of the way. And then he didn’t know what to do with his hand and repeatedly lowered and lifted it over Seth, who seemed fascinated. “Look, Johnny, I—well, what do you think? I tried to overthrow him. He threw me down for the pit guards to play with for a couple hell-centuries, then dragged me back up to deal with you. And your son, who…you have a remarkable talent for making plain insanity turn into respectable theology, you know.”

Which meant Seth didn’t just have to deal with being the next in the Constantine line and having some serious mental problems on his maternal side. And which meant John was looking at another major shit-storm before he’d even gotten over the last one. Great. “So you’re here to sway Seth to Lucifer’s side, and the reason you got tapped is because one, you know me, and two, you’re too damn scared of Lou right now to try anything independent again.”

“Basically,” Balthazar drawled. His eyes narrowed as he looked at John. Then he tipped his head slightly to the side. “What are you thinking of?”

At least, that was how Lucifer saw the situation. Thing was, he—and the angels, and anybody else who lived too long for their own good—looked too wide and just saw the cycles, which made them think it was all predictable. “The only reason I’m not collapsing is because you’re here, asshole. I can’t think.”

“And I’ve got a halo in my back-pocket. You’re always thinking up something, Johnny.” Balthazar looked down at Seth, who was nosing at his belt. He hesitantly lowered his hand and touched the top of Seth’s head; Seth lifted his chin, paused, then decided that was okay and put his head back on Balthazar’s leg.

John was going to have to work on that. Just because Balthazar could pet didn’t mean he wouldn’t scratch later.

“Are you actually thinking of keeping him?” Balthazar suddenly asked. He looked half-curious, half-incredulous. “You have to realize you’re not equipped at all. You can’t even keep your friends alive—what makes you think you could raise a child? For that matter, what makes you think you’d care to raise one? I know you always go on a guilt-trip after a death, but you know you always get over it.”

“Well, I know you’re a goddamn annoying waste of Lou’s piss,” John snapped, getting up from the bed. He turned back to give Seth a head-rub when the kid whined, then chucked Seth under the chin. “Hang out with Balthazar for a moment, all right? I’ll be right back.”

Balthazar stared hard at that, his eyes flicking from the mortar in John’s hands to John’s face. He opened his hand, closed it, and then shrugged and carefully shifted Seth to his lap to stroke his back. “You never do change, do you? Always the same selfish man at heart.”

John flicked the prick off over his shoulder as he headed for the bathroom.

* * *

Midnite glared at John when he stepped into the bathroom. The goat was bleeding out into the bathtub; everything looked clean so far, but if the drain clogged then John damn well was making Midnite fix it. Guy had the zombies for it, after all, and they didn’t mind the filth or the smell. “Where’s Balthazar? Did you leave him alone with Seth?”

“The bed’s warded. He messes with him and he’ll fry.” John set the mortar down on top of the toilet’s water tank, then unbuttoned his right cuff. He started to roll up his sleeve. “Plus Balthazar’s not usually one for the frontal attack, remember?”

“Exactly.” More glaring. “What took you so long to get in here? Do you realize what’s at stake?”

No matter what John did, he just couldn’t fucking win, could he. “Do you want me out there or in here?”

After a moment, Midnite screwed up his face and swallowed down his curse. He went with door number three: changing the subject. “I examined Angela’s body. Her womb shows clear signs of contamination by a very strong demonic presence.”

“Really.” John turned his back to Midnite and opened the medicine cabinet. When he needed a shave, he did that with those cheap plastic one-blade razors, but he did also keep around an antique straight blade.

Not for nostalgia; at fifteen he’d tried to do himself in with an extra-sharp pair of scissors. They just didn’t make good edges like they used to, and for various reasons he didn’t care to keep around a scalpel or anything else that reminded him of hospitals.

He flipped out the blade and tilted it; the light and then a pale face flashed across the flat of the razor. Frowning, John tipped it slightly back, but instead of long dark hair around a woman’s face, he saw Midnite’s scowl. “That thing is a potential catalyst, John,” Midnite curtly said. “It might not be able to trigger the apocalypse, but what it could start would be so close to as to make no difference.”

“Figures.” The skin on the back of the hand was thicker and less likely to scar, so John made his cut there. He turned his hand over to let the blood fall into the mortar. Tiny wisps of smoke started to curl up from the clotting powder within that.

Midnite sniffed, then made an aggravated noise low in his throat and whirled about. He actually stalked around the room once, which was a sign that he was really damn close to losing it. “This isn’t a matter for gambling. Even if you turn it fully human, it’ll still have that capacity just because of whose blood it carries.”

“I know. I did Magic 101 just like you did,” John muttered. He scraped the blood off the razor against the edge of the mortar, then used the razor handle to squeeze around the cut, forcing out the few more drops he needed. The gunk in the mortar flickered from black to red to brown and then back to black, with the additional of an eerie blue sheen.

“Then you should know what to do!” This really seemed to be bothering Midnite. God knew why, since it wasn’t like he couldn’t handle himself against the worst that Seth could turn out to be, and normally he didn’t give a shit about what trouble John got coming to him. “He’s a menace as long as he’s alive.”

I’m a menace as long as I’m alive. Leave the kid alone, Midnite.” John stuck the razor back in the cabinet before picking up the mortar. He swirled the stuff around a few times, checking the color.

Angry exhale. “Listen to how you talk, John. He’s not your child—he’s simply another excuse to take stupid chances in the name of other people. You don’t really care for him except as that.”

Midnite damn well knew not only how to twist the knife, but also how to use it to crack apart the joints, too. For a second, John was really close to losing his temper and chucking the brew at the other man.

He turned around and of course, Midnite was right up in his face even though it’d sounded as if the other man had been on the other side of the room. John tried the whole deep-breath thing, then decided a cigarette would’ve worked a hell of a lot better. “Look, the bullshit you just spat at me aside, what’s your problem? You never had much of a problem with my methods before.”

A spasm took over Midnite’s whole face: the whites of his eyes flashed and his cheeks bulged as if a whole rush of furious words had flooded them. He actually choked a bit, then turned his head to the side and coughed. “John, you are a blind man.”

He turned a little more away, then abruptly spun back. The heat of his palms slapped into John’s face and John jerked back, but he didn’t get to move far before Midnite’s mouth came down on his. Midnite pressed his advantage so the rim of the sink bit into the small of John’s back; the movement almost jostled the mortar out of John’s hands. Goddamn, he’d thought the voodoo bastard had sold all his passion to the loa for more power.

John took it for a second, and damn well enjoyed that second—the rawness and the sheer zing of the magic that filtered through everything they did. Blood-taste leaked into his mouth and it was full of sparks; Midnite’s exhale became his inhale and he felt his lungs soak up the harsh burn like nicotine.

Then he yanked his head away. He did have to take a breath before he spoke, but then, Midnite needed a moment before he leaned back, resettling his hat. “Well, it’s been awhile. And I thought you’d stopped liking me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You know that never was the problem,” Midnite muttered, sounding ruffled and mad as hell about it. He darted a glance at John that was full of burning coals while he straightened his suit. “That woman was an irresponsible fool. For once you can’t be blamed—”

“Yeah, really? Angela needed help and I just let her go off,” John shrugged. He felt pretty rumpled, but taking care of that would’ve meant he’d have to put down the mortar, and he didn’t feel like doing that. “But really, aren’t you just pissed off that I don’t get this way over you when I’ll do it for random women whom I’ve only exorcised and fucked once?”

“That was her problem. She didn’t want any help you could give her, and she paid the price for it. And now you’re trying to settle the bill as well, even though it’s—John. John.”

John swung away so Midnite’s fingers just missed his elbow, then opened the door and walked out before the other man could stop him. “Sometimes you’re a font of collected wisdom, but Midnite? Sometimes you’re just a big bag of multigenerational shit.”

Then he stopped where he was and stared, not quite sure whether to laugh or…well, John didn’t know what another appropriate reaction might be. Maybe curse enough to raise Lucifer again.

Balthazar was stretched out over the bed on his side, slightly curved towards John. He had one arm supporting his head and the other out so he could point at various parts of a floating model in lines of electric blue that was in front of him. Occasionally he had to push Seth down to keep the kid from trying to bite at the lines.

“…and this is where they handle disobedient demons,” he was saying. “I’m not certain if that’s where you’ll be spending most of your time as well, but I’ve heard rumors that they did take Mammon when he was young enough, so—”

Doggy-Seth had cocked his head and lifted an ear, then spun around. By the time he was facing John, he was a baby with glowy eyes and a big smile, holding out his arms in welcome. John warily crossed the rest of the way and scooped up the kid. “And that’s all true, but later on I’m gonna explain the difference between useful knowledge and Balthazar being a fucking dick who’s about to be crucified six ways to Sunday, okay?”

Seth stopped smiling and blinked up at John in solemn confusion. Then he looked at something across the room and whimpered, withdrawing into the crook of John’s arm. John glanced over and saw a scowling Midnite.

“You can’t make me leave, John. Believe me, Lucifer’s covered that angle very thoroughly,” Balthazar sighed, pulling himself up into a sitting position. He sounded like he’d tried hard enough to look for loopholes, so John was inclined towards buying that. “I’m bound to that child’s fate no matter what.”

“You specifically.” John twisted away so Midnite wasn’t in Seth’s line-of-sight anymore.

“Yes, me specifically. The binding’s by name, not by form or type. So if you’re thinking of deporting me, it won’t work. I’ll just come right back, and probably in a non-human shape.” Balthazar’s eyes flicked to the mortar. For a moment, he looked startled, but that quickly went to contempt. “Or if you change his form. And really, John, I thought you would’ve learned that that doesn’t work. That won’t make him safe.”

Midnite’s glower ratcheted up a couple notches so they looked at him. “You have to kill him.”

Seth opened his mouth, but before he could start yelling, John gave him a squeeze and Midnite a glare. “I’m not fucking killing him. For one—I just worked my fucking ass off to get off Hell’s guest-list and I’m not about to get put back on. For two—he hasn’t done anything yet. I’m not a fucking saint, but I don’t go that far.”

“Then—” Midnite started.

“Do it and I’ll have your goddamn head,” John said. And he meant it. He could forgive, or at least put behind him, almost anything Midnite did because they went that far back and that deep in so many tangled ways, but that would cross the line. “And you know I could. If I really wanted to.” John snorted. “That’s one of the reasons you can’t leave me alone.”

He watched the other man take that. Midnite’s lips tightened and his eyes flashed, but in the end, he nodded in acknowledgment. Inflated ego Midnite might have, but he wasn’t yet delusional.

In the cradle of John’s arm, Seth subsided, but he still looked pretty scared. He should be—the smart ones learned to tell as soon as possible when the odds were turning against them—so John didn’t try to comfort him.

“Fascinating, but that doesn’t touch on all of your stupidi—”

It didn’t mention what an incessant airheaded talker Balthazar could be, either, but since that worked in John’s favor, he didn’t bring it up. He just tossed the brew at Balthazar’s face, making sure a good bit would make it into Balthazar’s chatty mouth, and then got the hell out of the way.

Balthazar tried to dodge at the last moment, but he left it too long. White spirals of smoke immediately started to rise from his skin and he thrashed wildly around, scrabbling at his face. Then he fell off the bed—John jumped up, which elicited a startled cry from Seth, and went around to keep an eye on the transmutation’s progress. He almost thought not enough had gotten into Balthazar’s mouth because all Balthazar was doing was clawing at himself, but then Balthazar’s hands went down to his throat. Then his gut. And he wasn’t screaming…it seemed like he could only make a horrific gurgling noise.

Seth whimpered. On the other side of the room, Midnite stirred. He still looked disapproving, but that had lost its edge to a strange kind of comprehension dawning on his face. Actually, he almost looked…impressed. Not that that kept him from bitching. “If you’re so determined, then stop traumatizing him.”

“What?” John asked, setting the mortar on the bedside table.

Midnite managed to stalk over, take Seth from him and stalk out into the living room all during the same eye-roll, and without seeming to rush. “You’re completely unqualified to raise a baby.”

“He’s not just a baby, as you’ve repeatedly pointed out to me,” John said to Midnite’s back.

He didn’t get a reply back, but that didn’t bother him too much since Balthazar’s writhing was starting to slow down. John resumed his seat on the bed and absently reached into his pocket, then cursed. He bit the side of his finger in frustration before sighing and turning to the floor.

Balthazar had ended up on his back and now was weakly propping himself up on his elbows. He looked like he wanted to break John’s neck, which was a little closer to normal than the weird half-fearful half-jittery sarcastic combination he’d been throwing off before. “You just turned me—”

“Human? Well, yeah. You think I’m going to put up with a fucking demon around Seth?” John said.

Instead of snapping back, Balthazar’s eyes suddenly narrowed. “I knew something was missing. I don’t smell cigarette smoke. Is withdrawal making you a complete idiot? I could do things as a demon! I can’t do them as a human and that’ll ensure I get killed very soon, but since Lucifer’s…Lucifer…”

Yeah, he was getting it. For all his snotty airs, he really wasn’t that bright sometimes. No wonder he’d fucked up his rebellion. “Lucifer made sure you have to stay with me and Seth, but now he can’t touch you. And stop whining about being a goddamn person already.” Had he noticed exactly who had been kicking the asses of both angels and demons for the past thirty-something years? “It’s not like we can’t do something about making you useful again. Once Midnite stops being a jackass about this whole thing.”

Balthazar opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. He sat back and stared at John for about a minute through slitted eyes, obviously doing some fast calculations. “What are you asking in return?”

“Well, Lou already took care of that for me,” John said.

“He bound me to your child, not to you.” Though Balthazar was already easing himself up. He twisted over onto his side, then onto his hands and knees just before he would’ve been in a sitting position and eeled over to put his hands on John’s shoes. His clothes really were a mess now, and from the way he held his head and lowered his eyelashes, he was taking full advantage of that. “Do you actually trust me to expand my duties?”

John put his elbows up on his knees and rested his chin on his hands. The moment he did, he had the damnedest, most irrational urge to stick a finger in his mouth and suck on it or bite it or something that was vaguely like having a cigarette between his lips. He couldn’t go back to smoking, but he couldn’t override himself much longer, and he couldn’t afford the distraction. He needed a new bad habit so he could take care of things. “I trust that you’re going to be slightly smarter than most half-breeds and work more on the self-preservation and less on the creating suffering. If I’m gone, then Lucifer gets Seth like that. And you go back to Hell.”

Balthazar’s mouth thinned. He pulled himself up, tilting his head back so their mouths were only inches apart. “You and your two minutes,” he said, quiet and breathy and bitterly savage. “You don’t have the slightest idea what it’s like there.”

Then he kissed John, which was smart on his part since his last comment had almost made John kill the bastard right then. But Balthazar’s hands slid up his thighs and massaged over his cock, so John just wrapped one hand around Balthazar’s head and dug in hard with his nails. The son of a bitch would be learning soon enough anyway that Hell had been modeled on the earthly plane. There wasn’t anything a demon could think of that a person hadn’t first—demons just could do it longer and harder.

Which was about what John needed at the moment. He sank into it and took what Balthazar had to offer. The bruises and the bites and scratches were their own kind of promise, after all—not some idiotic thing about romance, but the real, visceral connection of exchanged blood and spit and semen that John could call on later if things got complicated. It made…John snorted his grim amusement into Balthazar’s belly at some point…Balthazar family, which was the original Hell.

* * *

Later on, John padded back out to the living room to find Midnite dozing on the couch with hellhound Seth curled up on his stomach. The moment John came within ten yards, Midnite woke up, but he just stayed still while John crossed the rest of the way, then gathered up Seth.

“I still think you’re doing this for the wrong reasons,” Midnite murmured. “You do that child no favors.”

“Except you know, letting him live.” John carried Seth over to one of the windows and checked out the street. He’d been a little shocked and worried when Lucifer hadn’t come storming right back up after Balthazar had gotten transformed, but now he saw why: he had angels stationed all around the fucking neighborhood.

Dealing with them was going to take up the whole damn morning at least, and he was pretty sure they hadn’t dropped by out of the goodness of their hearts. They couldn’t directly touch Seth, but if Angela was much of an indication, they weren’t going to give him any help either.

“Not many allies on your side, and the ones you’ve got aren’t that trustworthy,” John whispered. He glanced down and saw that Seth had gone human again. The little baby stared up at him in an eerily intelligent way, like even if he didn’t get everything, he was memorizing it for when he was older. That…probably wasn’t that far-fetched, actually. “Which includes me, by the way. Sorry, but you’ve got an asshole for a dad. Your mom wasn’t that bad, but she just didn’t have the stomach for things. And you’ll have to.”

Seth slightly lifted his left arm. His fingers were loosely curled and he pushed them up by his mouth, like he was thinking. He had a pretty strong look of Angela to him, but his hair and fur were jet-black, and that wasn’t going to be John’s only contribution to him.

He was so goddamn small and delicate-looking, and maybe it was just John’s fucked-up life, but he looked damn near perfect, even with the glowing eyes and the hellhound alter-ego. He had a blank slate and all he’d done was get born, while John had had to—the different feelings twisted up inside John, then sullenly subsided for later battles.

“I’m selfish and I use people up and I’ll leave them behind and regret later. But you know, for a couple moments I think I did love your mom. I’m not coldblooded—I do feel sorry. Jesus, do I feel sorry about some things.” John feel his mouth twist up with wryness. “I loved Angela because she was all broken inside and she’d plastered over it like me. You’re still in one piece. It’s kind of weird, seeing something like you. I don’t really know what to do with it.”

Blink, blink. Seth was listening.

“You’re probably going to end up hating me like I hate my father,” John said. “I get that. I’m not going to be all that great. I’m not going to try to be great—I’m what I am and when I try not to be that, I fuck up the worst. But I’ll understand, Seth. Whatever happens, what I do to you and you do to me and how we end up—I’ll understand all of that. That much, I’ll do for you.”

He didn’t sing a lullaby or say a damn thing after that, and he didn’t rock his arms either, but after a couple moments, Seth went to sleep. And he was pretty serious about it, because he didn’t wake up when John walked back to the couch, or when Midnite scooted over, or when John sat down.

“You really mean to do this?” Midnite asked. He seemed less disapproving and more curious.

“Yeah.” As used as John was to little sleep, he was starting to feel that getting to him. He couldn’t keep up the sarcasm anymore. “And I know my reasons are shitty, but I’m not changing my mind.”

Sigh from the other end of the couch, but Midnite didn’t go anywhere with it. He just put his hands together and pressed the edge of them to his mouth, which was…yeah, he was praying. John rolled his eyes.

After he’d finished, Midnite got up from the couch and turned towards the door. But he surprised the hell out of John by stopping to briefly lay a hand on John’s shoulder.

“You’re welcome in my bar again,” Midnite said.

That was nice, but honestly, it didn’t mean that much. Midnite had banned him so many times that he never bothered keeping track anymore. “And—”

“And so is he, for the time being.” Typical caution. “And…I’ll consider my bed.”

“I hope you’re talking about me again, because that’s pretty twisted even for you,” John remarked.

Midnite grimaced and promptly let go of John’s shoulder. He didn’t dignify that with a response, but then, he didn’t walk off really fast either. “I’ll see you.”

He left then. Balthazar was still getting used to the whole human stamina thing, so it wasn’t likely that he’d be up soon. They would have to do something about that, John absently thought. He looked down at Seth again, then sighed.

“More good omens than bad so far. But omens are pretty shitty, so I guess we’ll just have to see where things go,” he said. “Get a good night’s sleep, kid. You’ll need it.”