|Grave Measures IV: Dancing
Author: Guede Mazaka
John woke up in a bed. His body felt as if it’d transmuted to lead while he had slept except for his head, which someone had replaced with a throbbing sore. He tried to move and had to stop immediately because of the nausea, falling face-first into the sheets. The sheets got up his nose so he sneezed, and God, did that hurt. It felt like somebody had sunk hooks into all his ribs and then tried to pull them out all at once.
He lay still for a moment, pulling his muddled thoughts together. Bed. Lumpy where his bed was lumpy, but clean. Sheets were clean and smelled nice. He hadn’t had time to do his laundry in…a while. So that was interesting.
“Rise and shine, Johnny,” came a coo from one corner. The mattress dipped besides John as Balthazar flopped down.
Trying to slap him revealed to John that his muscles were completely unstrung. The second mouthful of bedsheets didn’t taste much better than the first had, but at least it didn’t try to asphyxiate him. He spat that out and pressed his forehead into the mattress, gathering up his strength. Then he shoved up…and rolled onto his side, gasping for breath.
“Or not,” Balthazar muttered. He was lying on his side, facing John, and apparently wearing nothing but one of John’s stolen shirts. His hair was damp and strips of it were plastered to the sides of his face.
“Fucking one-night-stand from hell…” John gritted his teeth and tried to sit up again. This time, he made it, but his vision blacked out so he just had to sit there. Eventually it wandered back and he could take a good look around. Definitely his apartment, then. He’d been wondering because of the sheets, but that scorch on the wall was from the accident with the Ring of Surtur, and that faint stink from the bathroom was because he still hadn’t quite fixed what Angela had done to his plumbing.
Angela. Diner. Ellie—John’s headache spiked and he dropped his head, pressing the heel of one hand against his eye. After a moment, the urge to kick something passed. Which was good, because if he had tried to do that, he had a feeling the result would have been incredibly embarrassing. And not in front of…Balthazar. Gabriel. Two Gabriels and Uriel and oh, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
“You weren’t that memorable.” Balthazar laughed at the glare John shot him. His amusement was limited only to his voice; his eyes glittered hard and dark as obsidian knives, and the way he licked his lip was hungry for blood. “I’m joking—I’m not interested in trying to have sex with a coma patient. Don’t panic, Johnny-boy. You asked for all of this.”
John rubbed the crusts out of his eyes, then raked his hands through his hair. He took another look around the room, and this time he spotted the shotgun leaning against the wall. His mouth tasted cottony and he wanted to spit so that would go away, only he suspected if he did, he’d end up having an attack of dry heaves. “I didn’t ask for you.”
“Oh, you did. ‘I’m John Constantine--I know.’ Well, now you’re stuck. There’s no getting out of this noose. You fucked up. Only this time you had to go and fuck up everything else.” The bitterness in Balthazar’s voice was could have taken on a life of its own, it was so intense. He looked away, snarling, and then suddenly flipped around to take a swipe at John.
“Jesus!” One second later, John was on the damn floor with bruises all sounding off. Part of the sheets had tangled around his legs and he angrily ripped them off, then flung them back into Balthazar’s face. He surged after them, hooking his arms over the edge of the bed and groping for the bastard.
But Balthazar was in better condition than he was and slipped out from under John’s arms, sliding around to the headboard. He mockingly waggled his bandaged hand at John. “Nervous? I hope so.”
“What the fuck is your—never mind. Where’s Gabriel?” A growling sound, low and shockingly near, startled John into whipping around. Then he figured out that it’d come from his stomach and he winced, wrapping an arm around himself. He could feel the damn smirk on Balthazar’s face like a bad rash.
He was almost happy for it, because that meant he was distracted from determining exactly what he was hungry for.
“Where do you think? He’s out trying to find the bitch, convince his heavenly contacts that killing Uriel was necessary, and avoid Lucifer at all costs,” Balthazar snapped. He pushed his hair out of his face before swinging his legs over the side of the bed and lurching to his feet.
There were more bandages winding around his calves and ankles, and between his thighs was the dark shadow of deep bruising. A closer look told John those bruises were pretty fresh. Maybe a couple hours old, compared to the dried blood that spotted the wraps around Balthazar’s legs.
He grimaced and turned away, rubbing at his shoulder. Then a memory slapped into John, whiting out the weird resentment that had crept up on him, and he yanked down his shirt. It took a lot of twisting and craning around, but eventually he determined that one, he had a long, ragged scar running across his shoulder, and two, bite-wounds didn’t form any part of it. John felt up his throat just to make sure, and then flipped aside the sheets to check out the rest of himself. No bites. No pants or boxers, either. Shit. Another thing he didn’t want to think through.
“That’s also why he’s out. He didn’t want to accidentally have you shove your neck at him.” Balthazar had only gone to the table against the wall to rummage through a heap of things on it. He limped back and crawled onto the bed, breath giving out on him. In one hand was clutched something shiny—a coin, which he started flipping as soon as his feet lifted off the ground. He rested his head on his arm and watched it dance over his fingers, but only till it’d gone back and forth once. Then he abruptly snapped it into his fist and rolled over, upper lip lifting into a snarl.
“What, do you miss him or something?” John stared incredulously at Balthazar. When he spotted the flush dusting Balthazar’s cheek, he nearly keeled over from the shock. “You know, all those times you tried to beat the shit out of me and get me killed and get my friends killed weren’t scary. But this is.”
First Balthazar’s eyes flicked over, and then he turned over and up so he was kneeling in front of John, flicking the coin so it nearly hit John’s nose. When John smacked it out of the way, Balthazar took advantage of the distraction to grab John’s wrist. “Constantine, do try to think. People would like to see us in Hell. I don’t want to return, and I’ll presume that neither do you. Now, why aren’t we in Hell?”
“Because of Gabriel,” John replied, yanking at his wrist.
Instead of letting go or fighting him, Balthazar just went with it. They toppled over backwards and before John could right himself, Balthazar had straddled his waist. Arrogant bastard apparently didn’t believe in underwear; when he leaned forward, his prick pressed right into John’s stomach.
“No, because Gabriel is alive and has a preference for this plane,” Balthazar hissed, spittle flecking against the side of John’s face. John swung at him but he caught it and slammed down that wrist on the other side of John’s head. He was so close that John could not only feel his breath, but could also hear the rapid, angry beating of his tongue against his gritted teeth. “And because he’s taken us. Now, if he should happen to die, or otherwise end up destined for Hell—”
“—we go with him. I’m not a magical dunce.” Everything still hurt, but being pissed off was a damn good general painkiller, and John certainly was that. He abruptly relaxed, then threw himself forward.
It wasn’t enough to dislodge Balthazar, but it got his hands free, and free hands meant John could make a grab for Balthazar’s throat. He got one hand around it, but then something whacked him in the side and his ribs failed to put up a fight. The lapse let Balthazar seize John’s wrist, yank him off-balance, and thus send them both over.
It was a short fight. They were both in pain, weak, and besides, the fucking sheets kept wrapping around their limbs like Gabriel was around to referee in spirit. Finally John pushed Balthazar off of him and collapsed onto his stomach, wheezing into the mattress. After a moment, he twisted his leg and arm free and kicked the goddamned blankets off the bed. Most of Balthazar’s bandages, which had unraveled during the wrestling, went with them. “What is your problem?”
“You truly want to know?” Balthazar gasped. One of his hand-wraps was unraveling and partially tangled around the left head-post. He was on his back with his arms flung limply over his head, and his eyes were closed in genuine exhaustion. “Your incredible stupidity, Constantine. He didn’t bite you—you drank from him.”
John’s headache blew back full force, and he had to forego answering Balthazar in order to fight it back down. He pressed his hands against his head, pushing away the hair, and then he rubbed his palms over his face. Fuck. This was bad. This was really bad. This was—
--he wanted to eat some eggs. Eggs, and not blood, which was what he’d been dreading. Then again, he dimly remembered Gabriel shoving him into a pool of something before feeding him from a slashed wrist. So maybe it wasn’t all like it should be, but apparently enough of it was to piss off Balthazar. Demon drinks from victim first, then gives blood equaled familiar. The other way around equaled…except John hadn’t finished the deal, which might or might not explain why he still felt more or less human. “What the fuck else did I have?”
“Some of Uriel’s blood. If you sealed it, you’d get a nice set of fangs, perhaps, and a much longer life, but otherwise you’ll probably stay as you are,” Balthazar muttered. “You ignorant cocky piece of mortal shit.”
“Aw, Balthazar. Are you jealous? Wanted Gabriel all to yourself, did you?” John pushed himself up and elbow-walked over to peer down into Balthazar’s face. He smirked because that was one of his two reflexes around Balthazar, and he felt too shit to go with snarling rage. As for thinking—well, he was busy processing things like getting yanked from death a third time and making unbreakable pacts with former angels that came with irritating half-breeds attached. Oh, yeah, and pretty much ensuring that he was in till the bitter, fire-and-brimstone end. “You’re really pathetic, you know that? I mean, here you are still smelling like his fucking cock, and you’re—”
Eyes still closed, Balthazar shoved at John’s face. He really was tired, because when John clawed down his hand, he didn’t bother pulling it away. “Johnny-boy, try to look at the big picture for a moment. Lucifer wants you like he hasn’t wanted a mortal since Jesus Christ himself. Only now Gabriel’s got you—partly. Irrelevant, anyway. He’ll go to war over you either way, and I’ll be sucked into Hell if he loses, and it’ll all be your damn fault.”
Good point, John had to admit. As powerful as Gabriel was, he wasn’t God, or the Adversary. He might be able to maim Lucifer, but he couldn’t win. Normally the threat of serious mauling would make Lucifer think twice because of how delicate his stalemate with God was, but he’d been known to take risks with that if he was angry enough. Balthazar probably wouldn’t do it, but John would, and John wasn’t bragging about that. It wasn’t bragging material.
And that was what was eating at Balthazar: Gabriel would declare war over John, because John had lost too much blood for Gabriel to risk drinking and so Gabriel had brought him over as a…mate, John thought with a wince. Whereas he’d made Balthazar a familiar, and even if he treated Balthazar more like a companion, there was a difference. John was almost sympathetic. “Serves you right. Now do you understand why we humans get so worked up when you threaten our loved ones?”
Balthazar went stiff except for his eyes, which snapped open. Rage boiled there for a single second before it roared over the edge.
Then Balthazar was up and choking John with one hand because his other hand had gotten its bandages tangled in the headboard. He was jerking at it so hard that the whole bed was groaning, but he couldn’t get it free. That distracted him long enough for John to right himself and dig his feet into the mattress, then slam forward.
They hit the wall in a smashed knot of limbs. Knee in John’s gut, his own knee grinding up between Balthazar’s legs to work over those tender bruises. His nose ended up crushed into Balthazar’s jaw; he would have bitten the bastard if he could’ve gotten the room to open his mouth, but he didn’t. Balthazar had no such problems and was chewing away on John’s collarbone. Shrugging and ramming a shoulder into Balthazar’s mouth knocked him off, but only for a couple seconds at a time. John tried to yank the bastard off, but one arm was trapped beneath Balthazar’s hip and the other was busy keeping the grip on his throat loose enough to allow for breathing. He snarled and did what was left: shoved his knee higher, aiming to impact Balthazar’s balls back into his squirming body.
It didn’t work. Not really, because while Balthazar gasped and arched up and away, it damn well wasn’t in pain. And when Balthazar’s head went up, John’s was freed to come round, and in true dumb-fortune style, they collided. His mouth hit a corner of Balthazar’s, running up against Balthazar’s tongue, and then slid sideways to get better coverage. Why John wanted that, he had no idea, but he did and he got it and everything else aside, Balthazar knew how to tongue-fuck.
Maybe it was self-preservation kicking in, because rolling around trying to get beneath Balthazar’s shirt was a hell of a lot less painful than rolling around trying to get beneath Balthazar’s skin. Besides, John ended up doing both anyway to judge by the startled way Balthazar kissed back, tongue moving forward on instinct while the rest of his mouth stayed slack. He went with it, pushing his hand up Balthazar’s chest to tweak at a nipple, and was rewarded with a twitching prick rubbing against his leg and a hand raking down his back.
Halfway to his waist, the hand lost its way and slid to grab at the bed. Then Balthazar ripped away his mouth and stared up at John, nothing but thought-fragments showing in those big eyes. Nice look on him. “Have you lost your mind?”
“No, this is me thinking.” John swiftly bent to lick at the scars on Balthazar’s throat. Grinned and sucked at them hard when he started to get moaning. “I’m stuck. Okay. Not like I can kill myself to get out of it, so I might as well live with it.”
It wasn’t nearly as simple as that, but it was a step towards making his life work and he could dress it up in something he already knew—throwing Balthazar for a loop—so he wasn’t going to argue. Not yet, anyway. And damned if Balthazar wasn’t agreeing with him in a way that John liked, for once. The wheel definitely was turning, and John was rolling with it.
* * *
Old reflexes kept Gabriel sitting straight and tall in the pew, head turned upward towards the gigantic cross on the wall. He couldn’t look at the carved Christ nailed to it for very long before he had to turn towards the rose window, which was soothingly geometrical.
“True red glass,” murmured a voice behind him. It echoed slightly in the empty cathedral, the trailing whispers sounding like the rattling of spears and swords. But in spite of that, it bothered Gabriel less than Raphael’s or Uriel’s voice had.
Then again, Michael always had been more tolerable than the rest. Gabriel gathered up his trenchcoat and scooted aside for his old friend.
“Red as blood, only achievable with the use of gold. I am constantly delighted and horrified by the metaphors hidden within the workings of man.” Michael straightened his sleeves before sitting down, the corners of his black coat floating soundlessly outward. He bent his head slightly forward so his long red hair hid his face and neatly folded his gloved hands in his lap. “You’re a little surprised.”
“I thought I’d be meeting Azazel or Raguel.” The flames of the candles on the alter were creeping higher and higher. They stopped when they were six inches tall, casting a soft soothing glow over them. It couldn’t match heaven or even the sunlight outside, but Gabriel appreciated the attempt.
With a shrug, Michael sank back against the pew. After a moment, he reached back to rest his arms on the top of it, though his hair still obscured his face. “They wanted to come, but they would’ve only made things worse. Our Father agreed with me, fortunately enough. You had no choice in the matter of how you dealt with Uriel, and I know you found no love in it.”
“I wouldn’t be that generous. You should know part of me enjoyed ripping apart that supercilious fool,” Gabriel muttered. The phantom taste of Uriel’s blood washed through his mouth and he irritably swallowed the ghost. He was getting hungry again. Unsurprisingly, since Balthazar and, to a lesser extent, John were drawing on his strength.
“There’s a difference between pleasure and love. You fell because of love—your real flaws have always been out of love, and not out of base lust.” Michael brought down his arms, then pulled off his glove. Gabriel politely started to look away, but Michael lifted his hand so he had to look at the wicked gleaming claws, the bloodstained knuckles. “I understand, Gabriel. Our Father made me with the purpose of dealing with the worse elements of creation. I never had to struggle as the rest of you did to reconcile that with knowledge of Him, but I—”
“—was made to understand struggle. Your good fortune.” Then Gabriel bent forward, covering his face with his hand. Behind it he grimaced. His skin felt worn out, dry and loose like a snake just before it shed. Only he couldn’t cast off the past so easily, though he had tried. “I’m sorry, Michael. I’m bitter.”
A quiet laugh made Gabriel look up just in time to see Michael pulling his glove back on. “I know, and you’re forgiven, if you wish that. If not, I hope I continue to see you. I will not abandon the Cause, but I appreciate your perspective.”
He had gotten up and rounded the pew before Gabriel managed to drag himself together enough to react. But Michael was already slowing, hand dancing over the bench-end carvings, before Gabriel had even finished asking him.
“No, we will not take back the Spear. Its fate is bound to the earthly plane. We will refrain from interfering with you in regards to this matter, I am bidden to tell you, and bear you no lasting ill-will for Uriel’s death.” A slash of white gleamed from behind that scarlet veil of hair, and then Michael lifted his hand in farewell. “And personally, I wish you luck.”
Gabriel stayed put where he was, half-standing with his hand on the back of the pew. He looked down at the floor, watching how the shadows poured back after Michael had passed. Then he laughed to himself, shaking his head as he stood up.
It was barely anything in the real scope of things: Heaven was standing back, but then, Heaven had never been a real worry in this matter. Uriel had fallen before Gabriel had gotten to him, and as for his successor, the moment she became mortal was the moment she also lost the attention of God. But it was reassuring to know that not all of Heaven was turning a blind eye.
On the other hand, Gabriel wished fervently that Hell would. He’d barely begun to feel out his way with Balthazar when Constantine had happened, and…it had been a stupid thing to do. But he couldn’t have let the man die, and not only because it would have been a sin of neglect. It…had reminded him of the time, just before he’d lost his wings, and then he hadn’t been able to do anything. With John he could and did, and now he’d gained at least one mortal enemy. Possibly two, since he had no idea how John would view the conditions of his new life once the tunnel-vision of near-death had lifted. This far from the man, hiding in the most power-charged cathedral in the city, and the raw ends of the unfinished binding still ate at Gabriel. He knew what he wanted, but he had no idea if that would turn out to be the same as what kept him himself, whole and sane and alive. And since he had no idea where he’d go if he did in fact die, he had best do his damnedest to stay on earth.
Gabriel made his way down the aisle and nearly out the door, so preoccupied that he nearly rendered it all moot.
He smashed back from the threshold, clutching at a candle-stand as his shoulder burned fierce as the wrath of God. But the stand didn’t hold and snapped, sending Gabriel to the ground before he could reach for his rifle. Just as well, since it wouldn’t have done any good.
“Long time no see, Gabriel,” Lucifer said. He’d taken the form of a young man, suit perfect but slightly dated and slicked-back hair smelling distinctively of Brylcreem. The dazzle of his smile lighted up the whole church.
And the church blazed back, stones rumbling as it sought to eject the great evil it sensed. Though Lucifer backed up a step, he remained close enough for the great stained-glass windows to continue to give off a faint, baleful glow. All the candles that had been in the stand Gabriel had toppled had suddenly whooshed out, as had any flames within a distance of ten yards.
The burn in Gabriel’s arm died down to a low, pulsing ache. He gently pressed his hand to his sleeve and touched warm wetness, torn flesh beneath the ripped cloth, but no broken bones. Lucifer.
Then he pushed back, drawing off the cathedral so the air inside howled and the ceiling bowed inwards. Lucifer resisted, but after a moment he had to retreat two steps; the church cried out as its stones and wood snapped back into place. It wasn’t much, but the look on Lucifer’s face said he’d been well-reminded of their respective positions, before and after Falling. His eyes flashed with anger, but he still gave Gabriel a little nod of respect. Been awhile since anyone’s bothered addressing me in this language. Nice to rate a smidge of manners.
You’re welcome, Gabriel said beneath his breath. He awkwardly pulled himself to his feet, still holding onto his arm, but was careful to keep well out of Lucifer’s range. A second pull at the cathedral gave him nothing, and his stomach sank as he remembered he couldn’t rely on anyone but himself.
He wasn’t going to draw on Balthazar. He tried not to think about John.
The absence of response hadn’t slipped over Lucifer’s head, and as he leaned forward, the smile on his face grew more oily. See you’re not ready to take up sides again, though. Shame, shame, Gabe. You know there’s always an open chair for you at my table. He ran one finger suggestively along the doorway, leaving smoking scorch-marks in his wake. I’d even forgive you snitching that traitorous half-breed and dear Johnny out from under my nose.
Would you? Gabriel dubiously said. His arm was slowly beginning to numb from the blood he was losing, but he couldn’t heal it while Lucifer was around. Couldn’t risk locking up even that much of his power, just in case Lucifer attacked.
I would. You can believe me on this one, Gabe. Lucifer grinned like a shark, eyes filming over with black. His voice softened, grew beautifully caressing. If you crossed over to Hell, I’d gift-wrap John Constantine for you. I think you’d do him up proper. And I do like to watch.
Not to mention that that way, he would be able to enjoy the suffering of two souls, because no matter how far Gabriel fell, he wouldn’t ever be able to entirely divorce the two halves of himself. If his demonic side took over, the rest of him would be trapped and screaming in the same body, unable to look away. I’m afraid I have to decline that offer.
The black washed away from Lucifer’s eyes, which Gabriel frankly found more terrifying. Opacity was easy to ignore, but the kind of piercing, intensely aware eyes that Lucifer possessed could never be. Last chance, he hissed, the fetid heat of rot flaring up all around him. A red film suddenly flung itself across the sky, and the cathedral bells chimed wildly as powers began to clash. Come on. You’d have them forever. No disobedience, no divisions, no despair…you’d like it, Gabriel.
And part of Gabriel would. He could feel it resonating in his bones, nagging him forward, and it was all he could do to hold fast. No, he reminded himself. That was not him. That was not why he’d left God, why he’d suffered and wandered for so long, and if he took Lucifer’s offer, he would render everything about himself worthless. He gripped harder at his arm, using the pain to keep himself in check. And very slowly, he started to ease his other hand into his coat-pocket. No, Lucifer. And if you have any sense, you’ll leave me be.
You dare-- Suddenly the world exploded into red and orange, the sky bloodied and the land raped till its flesh and bones were bared to the noxious, stinging air. It seemed to wrap about Lucifer like a cloak, eons of hatred and rage all concentrating here.
Gabriel exhaled, knew immediately that it was a mistake and tried to suck in air, but already the pressure on his chest was excruciating. He pushed out with what he could, but this was Lucifer, Morningstar, he who had been God’s First Companion, and even Gabriel’s strength couldn’t compare. The little bit of Lucifer’s blood that Gabriel had gotten through Vlad kept him from being immediately overwhelmed, but it wasn’t enough.
He could hear laughing. It angered him, and he struggled. Used his temper even as he knew it’d only worsen things, but before that could happen, just a moment before…his hand closed on the Spear and he slashed out with it.
The air thickened before him, trying and failing to resist. It pushed back, but the Spear cut through and suddenly everything fell apart to show the cathedral, still trembling beneath Gabriel’s feet, and a furious Lucifer who’d flung himself out of the doorway. He’d caught himself on the railing and now he swung into the shadow of a pillar so only Gabriel could see the flaring of his wings. They were skeletal, grotesquely draped in strips of flesh with the occasional half-burned feather twisting from a bony point.
Gabriel swallowed his nausea and stumbled to the door. He kept his feet within the threshold but leaned out to address Lucifer. I dare because you’re in my debt. I’ve dealt with Uriel and retrieved this, and you know I don’t care about ruling anything, so you can trust me to dispose of it. And you know that I’ll deal with my successor. Whom you cannot touch directly because of her mortality.
Lucifer’s wings snapped shut and he backed into the sunlight. His skin peeled away—because he allowed it, because he was making a point: beneath his outer skin was not the decayed hideousness of most demons, but something painfully bright and beautiful, so bright and beautiful that it stung tears from Gabriel’s eyes. He threw up an arm and stumbled backwards till his back banged into a railing.
When he took down his arm, Lucifer had disappeared. Of course, that didn’t necessarily mean that he was gone, and Gabriel didn’t make the mistake of assuming so. He took his time easing out of the cathedral, Spear still in hand, but finally he made it all the way onto the steps without any untoward events. That hadn’t—
--Gabriel whipped around, but not before something sharp had sliced across his shoulderblade, barring his old scar. His back erupted in pain and he staggered, grabbing at his wound.
Debt there is, but forgiveness there is not. See you later, Gabriel. Everyone does, eventually, whispered the rolling stones of the gravel walk.
Gabriel chewed on his lip till the blood came, gasping and breathing. Eventually he deemed himself under control and got himself back to the car, where he tied a makeshift bandage around his shoulder.
He’d see Lucifer again. And then they’d see just how much each of them were willing to risk.
* * *
Balthazar had a blurry impression of the ceiling moving in circles. He had a clearer impression of John swirling a tongue in his ear, but he was still a little stupefied by John’s about-face, so it wasn’t by much. He tried to say something, possibly about how he still wanted to twist John’s head off his shoulders, but the hands running over his body suddenly dipped to rove between his thighs and that became a very, very bad idea. He could always kill John during the afterglow.
Except he couldn’t. And strictly speaking, he wasn’t even supposed to be popping the buttons off of John’s shirt either, but Gabriel hadn’t yet said no—or perhaps he hadn’t noticed. Either way, Balthazar was a demon and was going to milk the situation for all he could get, while he could get it. He was allowed precious little these days, so he didn’t have the margin to be able to indulge in the sin of wastefulness.
“You know, I always had a feeling you wanted my ass for more than kicking around,” John whispered, laving the tender spot behind Balthazar’s ear. He gasped as Balthazar’s hands got to his ribs, writhing and flinching as Balthazar alternated between stroking and scratching. Plenty of sore spots there, but Johnny was being enough of a sport to retaliate instead of just whimpering.
Whimpering got boring rather quickly, anyway. That was why Balthazar had always liked batting John around—he’d turn around and do something like sink his teeth into Balthazar’s neck, just at the edge of the fresh bruise Gabriel had left on it earlier. His snicker tickled against Balthazar’s leaping pulse and he flattened down, rubbing his whole body against Balthazar’s at a maddeningly slow pace. His hand was pressing up behind Balthazar’s balls, twisting to slide a nail-edge against the thin, sore flesh there, tipping a fingertip inside the hole that was just slightly behind so Balthazar couldn’t help clenching down. All for naught, since as soon as he did, John would whip his hand down to pet at his prick.
“I mean, you took so damned long to try and kill me.” John dragged his teeth around the bite scars, just catching one with a canine that felt a little longer than it should have been. One of his hands roamed up Balthazar’s side and then jerked away just a little too late to avoid getting caught.
Balthazar pulled it out and shook off John’s mouth so he could nip at the delicate inside of John’s elbow, just over the bluish veins. He trailed a line of bites down the arm till he could lick at the long scar running along the wrist-vein, and when John groaned he just had to smile. Once a suicide, always a suicide. “Constantine, if that is your idea of flirting, no wonder your girlfriends keep dying or running away.”
The hand on his prick abruptly tightened, squeezing till the pressure had gone past pleasure and well into pain. The world briefly whited out; Balthazar snapped at where he remembered John’s neck being, but John wasn’t there. Then the pressure slackened—shifted to his captured wrist. John flipped him over and then smashed him down as he was trying to rise, pulling up his hands behind his back. He snarled into the mattress and humped violently upward, trying to throw off the man, but his knees kept slipping on the sheets so he couldn’t find the leverage.
“I should really rip you open for that,” John said very softly, once Balthazar had stopped struggling. His voice more than his sudden strength sent chills down Balthazar’s spine. “Actually, I could. And Gabriel would have issues with that, but that’d be afterward because you couldn’t do anything, could you?”
Balthazar’s mouth went dry. He’d forgotten how vengeful John could be, and of course he hadn’t missed a nuance of the respective positions in which Gabriel had put them. “Johnny…”
Something light and cool touched his nape. It traced a rune there that made his skin shiver, too hot and then too cold, before wandering downwards. The fingertip hooked on the edge of his shirt and pulled it off his shoulders, chasing warm spots over his back before drifting in a wavy line down his spine. Then it lifted, and a moment later John’s hand settled on his hip as the man leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “The name’s John.” Voice savoring the next word. “Asshole.”
Then John slid down, so rapidly that Balthazar didn’t have time to realize what for before he was suddenly whining and wriggling the little he could against the mattress, knees trying hard to spread and ass pressing backwards into the hot, sly tongue running over him. It seemed to trace over every tight wrinkle before it finally deigned to tease inside of him, tip rolling so his clenching muscles never could quite catch it. He was still feeling the morning, when he’d irritated Gabriel into taking him over the kitchen table, and if John had guessed, he wasn’t cutting Balthazar any slack for it. He was merciless, rimming the edge while Balthazar moaned and thrashed, waiting till exhaustion had turned Balthazar limp before pushing into the raw passage, fucking too hard and not hard enough. Not deep enough, not enough to twist up Balthazar till he broke, and damn it, John knew it and he was laughing. He laughed and pressed his mouth around the hole so the quivering of it would torment the sensitive flesh.
“I really have to love how you demons are so hairless,” John murmured, nuzzling down the inside of Balthazar’s thigh. He took a shallow bite, then jerked back to avoid the vicious buck into Balthazar’s overloaded nerves sent him. “Nothing to get stuck in your teeth. Well, unless you want it to get stuck.”
Another rune traced there had Balthazar down and unstrung, every muscle locked stiff in agonizing pleasure so he couldn’t move as John rose up, worked a hand under him to tease at his nipples. “Ellie?” he managed to croak.
“Yeah.” John’s hands momentarily slowed. They sped up again as soon as Balthazar had unraveled enough of the spell to push up at him; John ground Balthazar’s wrists into his back as he dragged his cock up Balthazar’s leg. Rubbed it against the crease where hip joined body, then higher so its hard, hot length was pressing between Balthazar’s buttocks in a devastating tease. “I liked her. Gonna miss her.”
“Sure she’ll be flattered.” The grandstanding bitch, she would be. A burst of irritation powered Balthazar’s sudden twist for freedom, which was almost, almost successful.
But Johnny had a good sense of balance and better leverage, riding it out till he had Balthazar flat again. He yanked Balthazar’s wrists up a few inches, just till Balthazar gasped, then let them back down and draped himself over Balthazar. His prick was still rubbing just where it could almost but not quite slip in, and his hand had sneaked down to pull firmly along Balthazar’s cock, stopping on every upslide to briefly swipe the thumb over the head.
Balthazar cried out and tried to twist, to bend, to do anything that would release some of the tension rapidly coiling within him. But he couldn’t—he was too pinned, too worked over, too lost. He went limp, offering up his neck in hopes that it’d be enough, but it wasn’t. The rhythm didn’t stop, didn’t give him a moment to catch his breath, but instead raced ahead so he was helplessly dragged after it. A last moment of resistance, and then he broke.
His body somehow found the energy to spasm till he’d shaken off John, but almost immediately afterward he collapsed in the same spot, his come soaking between him and the mattress. Only his arms had changed position, coming down to clutch at the bed while John snarled brokenly through his own climax.
John came down half-on, half-off him, one hand lying on Balthazar’s back almost affectionately. As was typical, he didn’t like feeling vulnerable and tried to get up at once, but his limbs flopped out from under him and he fell back on Balthazar.
Old aches and new ones sluggishly woke at that, making Balthazar hiss. He managed to drag himself onto his side, but after that he gave up on moving for a while. “How nice. And for your next trick, are you going to rid the world of greed and hatred?”
“I’m not a priest, as you once pointed out. And definitely not a saint,” John mumbled. He rolled over so he could face Balthazar; his expression was surprisingly introspective for him. “Not to worry, Balthazar: I don’t expect you to change a single bit…because of me. You’ll be the same reassuring shit you always were.”
“Getting used to the new company, are you?” Now that his breath was back, Balthazar was starting to remember he was nervous. He hadn’t heard from Gabriel in hours, and given the current circumstances, that was worrying. The best he could do was reason that since he couldn’t feel Gabriel, then Gabriel still had to be alive and in relatively good condition in order to be blocking him.
John glanced down, then looked back at Balthazar. Resignation, frustration and a certain insane excitement mingled in his eyes. The corner of his mouth lifted in a sarcastic smile at nothing. “Stop being such a prick about it. You could’ve had worse.”
Balthazar opened his mouth to retort, then shut it and tucked his head into the rumpled sheets. He thought for a long time, trying out potential plan after plan, but in the end that all came to nothing. There was still this one truth, and it couldn’t be dodged around—not when evidence of it was drying on his thighs and belly, and pricking at his throat. “I don’t necessarily see why that means I have to stop. You’re like a bull in a ring—no entertainment at all till you’ve been goaded a bit.”
“And now you remind me that you’re a bastard who killed my friends without thinking twice,” John sighed, sitting up.
“You deported a good many of my acquaintances, not all of whom that I particularly hated.” Though to be honest, Balthazar could have counted on the fingers of one hand the number of other demons he’d been able to relax around enough to share a project.
John cocked his head, thinking. Then he shrugged and got stiffly up. “True. But we’ve pretty much gotten booted past that. Christ, I need a cigarette—what’s that?”
Balthazar frowned and reached out as far as he could. Then, pain and fatigue and all, he rolled off the bed. “Gabriel.”
* * *
“What the fuck happened to you?” John incredulously greeted Gabriel. Okay, it wasn’t the brightest reaction to have, but it was damn well appropriate. Even with the dark trenchcoat covering up the stains, it was obvious that Gabriel had been through a hell of a fight, and hadn’t come out too well.
Balthazar didn’t say anything, but just went around to pull at Gabriel’s sleeve. Gabriel instantly whirled away, which startled Balthazar into jumping back. Most would’ve taken offense to that, but demons weren’t prone to hurt feelings; Balthazar shrugged, waited for Gabriel to relax and then reached out to slit the sling off with a claw. The fabric only slid apart an inch because of all the blood soaked into it.
Gabriel kicked the door shut and then fell against it on his unhurt shoulder, eyes slowly losing their glazed sheen. He took a deep breath, then gave them a cursory glance. Something must have caught his eye—maybe it was the mussed hair, or the lack of pants, or hell, the come smeared all over them—because his second scan was long, surprised, and towards the end, a bit aroused.
John suddenly realized he was smelling that. He stepped back and started to lift his hands, then dropped them. Christ. That…he needed a minute.
He’d nearly gotten killed by the Spear of Destiny, drunk angel-blood, gotten himself half-mated to a seriously fucked-up archangel, and had sex with Balthazar. On second thought, this might need more than a minute.
“What happened?” Gabriel asked, staring back and forth between John and Balthazar.
Balthazar, John noticed, was doing his best to blend into the surroundings. Odd for him, even given the way he acted around Gabriel. Then again, John supposed it wasn’t strictly kosher for the familiar to be fucking around with the mate without prior permission or something, but it wasn’t exactly like any of them were playing by the rules.
“We…figured out a truce. Of sorts. Come on, get into the kitchen before you fuck up my floor even more.” John went over and started clearing off the table. There wasn’t much; it looked like Gabriel had even less taste for living accessories than John did.
After that he still needed something to do that didn’t involve getting close to Gabriel, so he started pulling things from cabinets. Anyway, Balthazar was surprisingly good at persuading off clothing, so that was taken care of.
Or maybe not so surprising. A cabinet door swung too fast and nicked John’s hand, making him curse and shove the cut into his mouth. He tasted his own blood…and it was a bit richer than he remembered. Not so disgusting.
But also not lessening his earlier craving, now returned with a vengeance, for a good omelet and coffee and cigarettes. He repeated that under his breath while pretending to be rummaging for thread, and eventually he calmed down enough to understand. Different, yeah, but he could deal. He had been dealing pretty well with Balthazar back there, and that should’ve just short-circuited his mind. “Really not time to be losing it,” he muttered to himself. “You’re okay with this. Hell, you really like parts of it. Better than getting beaten sideways for every brownie point.”
“If you’re done chatting up the furniture, Johnny, I could use some—” Balthazar abruptly threw himself backwards, clutching at his hand and hissing.
He’d gotten off Gabriel’s coat and shirt so the wounds were bared, and they were bad. Claw-swipes: one had taken Gabriel across the triceps, and the other ripped across his back. The second set were still bleeding sluggishly around what looked like partial searing. And for some reason, John couldn’t look at them straight on for more than a second without his eyes watering.
Gabriel had his eyes closed and head bent, breathing shallowly. If he hadn’t been leaning against the table, John might’ve taken him for passed out. But no, after a second he opened his eyes and gazed dully around the room. “I need some holy water.”
“Want L. A. or River Jordan?” John knocked through his shelves till he found a box of each, then offered them to Gabriel.
Guess it didn’t matter, because Gabriel just grabbed one at random and crushed it above his shoulder. The stuff turned to steam as soon as it touched the wounds, briefly blocking Gabriel from view. When the fog cleared, he was picking the glass out of his palm, which was healing on its own. The cuts on his back and arm, however, had all turned black and crusty. It had to have been painful as fuck, but Gabriel was as stony as ever.
“You’ll have to scrape out all of that. I think only the middle two on the back will need stitches by then,” he said, like he was talking about the best way to bone a steak.
“Right. Uh…” Did John have anything for that?
Balthazar snorted and pushed him aside. His claws flicked out and he started digging away, occasionally stopping to clean them off on a dishrag. Once or twice Gabriel flinched, but otherwise he held perfectly still.
“Yeah, of course. Claws. Why didn’t I think of that?” Well, that left John at loose ends. He paced pointlessly about for two seconds before remembering. He had the needle and thread, but it was going to take Balthazar a while to finish, so he might as well…work on getting the important stuff stitched up.
Gabriel had been concentrating on his hand, but he looked up inquiringly when John hesitantly moved to stand in front of him. The last bloody piece of glass dropped onto the counter, and he was about to wipe off his hand when John grabbed it. He got in a couple good licks before Gabriel jerked it away, some half-formed exclamation spitting from him. Behind him, Balthazar snarled and hastily pulled away his hand. John glimpsed him licking a couple drops from a nick he’d just made in Gabriel’s arm. Then Balthazar went back to scraping, though he kept his head at a careful angle to listen in on the conversation.
“John…” Gabriel started.
He was still holding the rag, which was helpful because no matter what kind of being it came from, come dried itchy and annoying. Wiping off his stomach and legs wasn’t too bad, but when John got around to pulling up his shirt and dealing with his groin, he found himself dropping his gaze. “So I woke up and I thought, what the hell did I do? Did I do. Pay attention to the subject there.”
“Pay attention, period. You don’t hear Johnny-boy taking credit for his disasters too often,” Balthazar muttered. He caught the rag John threw at him with a grin and paused to clean himself off as well.
“Comments from the demonic gallery aside, the point is that I did know what I was asking for. And…I guess I’m still asking for it.” Even if the first flickers of its enormity was scaring him half to death. Let it never be said that John Constantine didn’t have the balls to follow something through to the end, once he’d started it. He reached for Gabriel’s hand again.
He’d almost gotten it when Gabriel suddenly spoke, low and fast. “Those were from Lucifer.”
John couldn’t help stiffening, and it pissed him off. He grabbed Gabriel’s wrist and held onto it. “Yeah, I guessed. What with Balthazar’s panic fit and the holy water.”
Gabriel’s gaze was clear and steady and a lot more piercing than John usually allowed. He had the uncomfortable feeling that Gabriel was seeing right past his witty front to the hyperventilating, frightening and wanting mess inside. “When he lashes back, it’s nine times worse than the original offense given to him,” Gabriel said.
Balthazar stepped out from behind Gabriel, using the rag to wipe the last of the charred flesh from beneath his claws. When he was done, he tossed the rag into the trashcan and edged up beside Gabriel, who briefly ran his hand over Balthazar’s throat. Then he pushed Balthazar gently but pointedly aside.
For a moment, it looked like Balthazar was going to fight, but Gabriel locked eyes with him and he dropped his head a little. Then he walked carefully around John, giving him a hard elbow as he did. “If you’re not done in an hour, I’ll take it as a sign that I can carve out your guts.”
Which was the height of tact for him. John didn’t say anything, but just pulled at his collar, flashing his unmarked throat at the bastard. He hid a grin as Balthazar growled, but that died as soon as he turned back to Gabriel.
“You know, I hear I’ve got a whole city of old friends and family in Hell, just waiting for me to show up so they can stomp my face into the ground while telling me exactly what they blame me for. Which is pretty much everything.” John caught himself kneading Gabriel’s wrist and dropped it. He juggled the needle and thread for nearly a minute before remembering what he was supposed to do with it. “Believe me, this is nothing new.”
But when he went around to take care of Gabriel’s wounds, an arm around his waist snatched him away. He ended up pressed to Gabriel’s chest, unnatural warmth of Gabriel slowly melting his back. Lips ghosted up and down his neck, feathering his suddenly jumpy nerves with words; he suddenly got an idea as to why Balthazar got so hot and bothered whenever Gabriel decided to take a bite. “You say that, but you’re lying. You’re terrified.”
“Smell that, do you?” John said. He sounded shaky. Hell, he was shaky. Shaky and still with the aftershocks of Balthazar going through him, and damned if he wasn’t developing a taste for it. “Okay. You’re right. I am terrified. But I’m terrified because I’m alive, and I want to keep living. No, scratch that—I want to live, finally. I spent twenty goddamn years as a suicide, mind and body and soul. Not doing that anymore.”
“And you think this is your way out?” A bit of strain was breaking through the smooth caress of Gabriel’s voice. They were pressed so closely together that John could feel how his jaw was working, trying not to snap down.
Last chance to take the half-way ticket, try and bail out of this life. But salvation wasn’t enough for John—he needed a resurrection, too, and all the ordinary ways weren’t going to cut it after what he’d been through. So he reached back till he’d gotten hold of Gabriel’s knee. Used it to push up till the pulse in his neck was practically rubbing against Gabriel’s teeth. “Yeah. So do you want a pint, or what?”
There was a laugh, or something colored to look like a laugh, just before Gabriel caught him up and then it was fucking painglorygoodgreatmore.
Needle and thread hit the ground. John smelled fresh blood on Gabriel’s back, dimly, but if Gabriel cared he wasn’t showing it. His teeth were buried deep in John’s neck and now he was sucking, tongue wriggling in between so there were points of ecstasy stabbing in between the pain that was so damn fierce and keen and good, somehow. The grip John had on Gabriel’s knee clenched till John almost thought he heard bones grinding, and then it slackened. The pressure on his neck vanished and the shock made him whimper. He wanted it back.
A hot, broad tongue laved soothingly over the spot, turning his noises into begging little moans. He rubbed against it, ran his hands up and down Gabriel’s thighs, his ass against the erection he was beginning to feel rise up, and was rewarded when Gabriel’s hands started roving over his body. No wandering there; every stroking, every scratch and pinch was knowing and firm. In no time at all, John was reduced to the same kind of limp pleading that Balthazar had been under him.
Gabriel turned them around and heaved John up onto the table, and John was so damned boneless that he didn’t feel it. One hand stayed to run over his back, setting off teasing sparks in the various cabbalistic tattoos he had there so soon he could barely stand to feel the cotton of his shirt, his skin was so sensitive. He mustered up a burst of energy and yanked out his arms, then flopped onto his back to get the rest of it off.
As soon as he did, Gabriel was back on him, mouth fixed to the underside of John’s jaw so his head was forced back, hands brushing all his blood to his groin. They ran over his chest, sides, lingered on his belly, then scraped roughly up his thighs so he squirmed and bucked. Got Gabriel off his neck long enough to kiss him, get a taste of his blood mixed with spit. Getting better, so maybe it was an acquired taste and fuck, John didn’t care at all when Gabriel’s fingers were teasing him open like that. Somewhere along the line Gabriel had gotten his hands on one of the salves John had absentmindedly pulled from the shelves, and God knew what it was supposed to be used for, but it made his skin icy and prickling and he groaned, struggling to get away, but Gabriel held him put. Pushed it farther into his body till suddenly he was pushing down and hooking his legs around Gabriel, asking and asking for it even though it still burned coldly at him. Thank fucking God Gabriel was quick with clothes.
Gabriel slid his mouth against John’s neck again, brutalizing the sore bite, and John bent up under it so he met Gabriel’s prick sliding in, and it seared a swath through the cold, swept it away in a moment so then he was writhing in fire. He grabbed for the edge of the table and hung on for fucking life, crying out incoherently and knowing nothing except yes, he wanted this, and yes, he was taking it, and yes, fuck, yes. Blood trickling between Gabriel’s mouth and his neck, blood dripping between his lips from Gabriel’s wrist that’d just been shoved in, blood beating inside of his body, straining the thin layers of flesh that bound Gabriel’s separately from John’s.
And then something ripped through, slashing from John into Gabriel and back into John in an electric circle. John’s shoulders slammed against the table and he gasped, tearing his mouth free of Gabriel’s wrist just in time to avoid choking. His old world spiraled out of sight and he calmly let it, waiting for the new one to swallow him up.
* * *
Fortunately, Gabriel needed even fewer sutures than he’d predicted after downing a couple quarts of John’s blood. Balthazar got it done soon enough for him to be able to lick still-moist clots from the edges.
Gabriel let him for a couple seconds before pulling him away and casually ravaging most of them out of Balthazar’s mouth. It was considerably more than pleasant, but it still didn’t disguise the fact that Gabriel had been trying to get him away from the scars on his shoulderblades.
John lazily crawled up Gabriel’s back from where he’d been lying on the bed, one of Gabriel’s cigarettes dangling from his mouth. He took it out, stared at it with a look of utter bliss, and then leaned over to put it out. “God, I missed these.”
“You can still die,” Gabriel said. He seemed to have sobered again, though he didn’t stop himself from running hands over Balthazar’s back and buttocks. “Not cancer, but—”
“Well, I always figured it’d be one of those ways, and not something that goddamned…normal.” The face John made when saying the last word was delightful, and Balthazar made a note to try and get it to appear again as soon as possible. Then John lifted a hand and touched the scar.
Gabriel stiffened, but didn’t yank him away. Then again, his hands were too busy with Balthazar to even keep him from peeking over Gabriel’s shoulder.
“Are these from your wings?” John quietly asked, watching what he could see of Gabriel’s face. He started to draw his finger down one, but stopped when Gabriel flinched. “Who did you? I’ve—well, I’ve seen worse, but not much.”
The silence that fell was so long that Balthazar didn’t think there would be an answer. Neither did John, who was on the point of dropping his hand when Gabriel suddenly replied.
“No one.” Then Gabriel looked at the ceiling, ancient grief in his eyes and so strong that Balthazar could almost touch it. “I did it myself. You need something like the Spear if you’re going to assault another angel, but if you’re cutting off your own, you just need anything with an edge…all I had was a Roman shortsword.”
“That must have been messy,” John lamely said. He visibly regretted it as soon as he did, which was not going to keep Balthazar from tossing him into a wall the moment he wasn’t looking.
Gabriel shrugged a little, dropping his gaze and pulling into himself. Then he carefully put Balthazar aside and got up, hunting around till he found a spare shirt of his. “The shock made me forget who and what I was for fourteen hundred years, so I suppose so. Get some rest. I’m going to try and scry for my successor again.”
“Yeah, about her. I was thinking.” Which meant Johnny had not, but had just had some offbeat, insane idea that was going to end up working anyway. “This whole loophole’s because she’s mortal, right? I mean, normal mortal. Would it still apply if she were—”
“—a werewolf? Or a vampire?” Gabriel said, spinning around to stare intently at John.
Balthazar sat up at that point. “Johnny, I’ll put up with you, but I will eat that bitch’s eyes for breakfast and grill her ovaries for lunch.”
“Oh, for—” John rolled his eyes “—I didn’t mean Gabriel should do her. There are plenty of—actually, we wouldn’t even need one. Midnite’s got some things, and I know this spell…”
That one. It wasn’t too difficult to actually perform; most of the trouble was in gathering the ingredients, but Midnite certainly should have everything needed in stock. On the other hand…“Still two points. First, she was an angel. What if she ends up like Gabriel? And secondly, why not just kill her?”
“Because if she had two seconds, she could ask for absolution and since she’s not actually killed anyone as a mortal, she might get it. I finished off Uriel, remember?” Gabriel stared down John’s startled look. There was a hint of that wry humor in his voice that Balthazar occasionally glimpsed. “I didn’t think you wanted her to go to heaven. You have this tendency to hold grudges.”
“Oh, yeah. That.” John flicked a look at Balthazar, then returned to Gabriel. “Well, I think she deserves a fighting chance to damn herself completely like everyone else. And I don’t hear you objecting.”
For a moment, it almost looked like Gabriel would crack a smile. He didn’t, but he did come forward long enough to run his hand over John’s shoulder and over his throat. “Grudge-holding has never been limited to Lucifer’s side.” Then he turned around, and this time he was definitely determined to make it to the door. “I’ll take a look at the manuscript to check, but I think it’ll work. I was a special case—I never turned completely mortal when I lost my wings, and I was a full angel to begin with. They…fixed that loophole after me.”
There were interesting echoes in that, but Gabriel had swept out of the room before Balthazar could think about exploring them. Suddenly the room was a little colder.
“I really hate how he does that,” John muttered. He leaned over to dig Gabriel’s coat up from the floor and dig in its pockets, then came up with the cigarette pack, which he offered to Balthazar.
After a moment, Balthazar took one, and he generously lit both their tips. “You’re in no position to comment.”
“No? But I’m going to anyway, you hypocritical bastard.” John grinned around his cigarette. Then he tried to swing out of bed and sat back down in a hurry, wincing and shifting his hips. “Jesus…right back where I started today…”
Balthazar had a good laugh at him. It was going to be a while before he could have another.