|Grave Measures V: Belly-down
Author: Guede Mazaka
Of all the things that Midnite looked when he saw who was at his back door, happy wasn’t one of them. John felt a little bad about that, but there wasn’t much he could do now and they were both professionals, so he didn’t dwell on it. “Hey. What do you say to a copy of the Delomelanicon, complete with hand-written notations by Lou himself?”
Midnite rippled the fingers of one hand against the door, a single sharp fusillade. His gaze wandered over John’s shoulder to Balthazar, who was trying not to look like this was the first time he’d ever been to this door, and then to Gabriel, who was impatient and didn’t give a damn who noticed. “This is not a bookshop.”
“Okay, okay. Gabriel’s going to need reading material anyway…well, what about Aunt Caroline Dye’s personal conjure bag?” A little tribute to Beeman in the flourish John used to produce the bag, which he was careful to hold so his hand stayed on the handkerchief wrapped around it. He waggled it in front of Midnite’s wary face. “You know what I could get for this would buy out half your—”
“What authentication do you have for it?” Midnite finally said. His fingers were curling and uncurling by his hip, itching to get the bag, but he was playing it very cool.
Gabriel shifted, instantly garnering Midnite’s attention. “I was a pallbearer at the funeral. She gave it to me.”
Midnite weighed that for a second, then took it. He spun on his heel and curtly beckoned them inside. Balthazar strolled after him, but John hung back to glower at Gabriel. “Now that is why everyone wants to throw you out of places.”
“And you’re an expert, I suppose,” Gabriel muttered. He looked around the door, sniffing, and then he raised a hand to trace some of the protective sigils Midnite had carved into the frame. His feet were starting to shuffle, but something seemed to be holding him back. “He used Arioch’s heart. That should keep nearly everything at bay…”
“Though I really doubt she’s got many favors left to pull in.” John suddenly noticed his hands were fidgeting by themselves, playing with his lighter. He snapped it shut and shoved it into his pocket, willing back the residual nervousness that was seeping into him from Gabriel. Maybe it was touching to some people, but it was annoying as fuck. Not to mention condescending, since maybe Gabriel hadn’t seen him at his best, but he’d survived twenty damn years without an ex-angel watching his back. “Midnite knows what he’s doing. I know what I’m doing, and even if he’s an asshole, Balthazar isn’t exactly stupid. This will work.”
The twist to Gabriel’s smile might have been affectionate or irritated, but it didn’t stick around long enough for John to figure out which. “I wasn’t worrying that much about what she’d do.”
Neither was John, but nobody ever got through a tough spot by pissing themselves over the shit they couldn’t help, and as much as it rattled his nerves to admit, they were stuck in regards to Lucifer. He had the move, and until they settled bitch-Gabriel, they weren’t free to think about him. “Yeah, I know. So, you have the number to my cell, and I just paid my phone bill so my apartment’s line should work. Just try not to break too much of my furniture.”
They were betting that the bitch would try and sneak into John’s apartment, so Gabriel was staking out there while John and Balthazar prepped for the spell. She had to try tonight, or else the blood she’d gotten from Uriel would be too old to be usable and she’d have to trick some other angel into getting close. Given how lacking in charm the bitch was, that wasn’t likely to happen.
If she didn’t show, then the back-up plan was John surfing with the Chair. Even with his new…durability, he wanted to avoid that experience if at all possible, so he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
He turned to go inside, but Gabriel caught his arm. The pull was so hard that John went back over the threshold and nearly bumped into Gabriel; they were a bare inch apart, and their respective heights meant that when his head jerked up in surprise, his nose knocked into Gabriel’s. He opened his mouth and felt a little bit of Gabriel’s breath go in it.
After a moment, Gabriel pressed something long and hard and wrapped up into John’s hand. John didn’t have to look down to know what it was. “We don’t need this.”
“Neither should I. It’d get in the way. Hold onto it till I get back.” Gabriel was more or less pressing his words on John’s cheekbone, lips so close John could feel their warmth. He hesitated, and John was abruptly aware of a strange seesawing feeling in his gut, and a tightness in his neck, a band centered to run over the bite there.
He didn’t move. Another breath, and then Gabriel was a yard away and walking off fast while John stood in the doorway like a dumped chick wrestling with a vague frustration. He figured out far too after-the-fact that that indecision probably had been Gabriel’s.
“Got to do something about this empathy shit,” he muttered to himself, stepping back in. Just then something shut. Clicked off, leaving him in the cold in more ways than one. He didn’t give Gabriel’s retreating back the finger, but it was pretty damned close. Instead he slammed the door and tucked the Spear into an inside coat-pocket, then wandered down to the main room.
Balthazar had already explained things to Midnite, and however dubious Midnite was about the whole situation, he seemed to have gotten over it. He was busy pulling out bags of herbs and tallow-fat candles, occasionally stopping to bark an order at a servant, while Balthazar used blood to paint the binding circle on the floor. By the time John picked his way through the clutter Midnite piled back here, Balthazar had finished and was getting down on hands and knees to eye the lines, carefully holding his tie out of the way.
John paused behind the demon and just looked. He couldn’t help himself with that perfect a set-up.
After a moment, Balthazar glanced contemptuously over his shoulder. “Johnny, I know this is difficult for you, but you’ll have to drag your mind out of your filthy, predictable lusts and concentrate on business.”
“Sorry, honey. I was just thinking that you’d look really good with a bootprint on each of those nice, tight buns.” Behind them, Midnite choked like he hadn’t in literal years; John grinned and temporarily forgot about Gabriel as he squatted down by Balthazar. He ducked the usual hiss-snap, then dragged up a book that Midnite had just tossed down besides them and flipped it open. “Huh. We’re a sigil short.”
“No, we aren’t. That would be the circle if you wanted to make her a werewolf, but I thought we decided it would be a bad idea to give her the ability to make an army.” Balthazar reached over and flicked over two pages, then tapped the diagram. His hair flopped into his face as he did; he’d gotten a nice new suit from somewhere, but had apparently ditched the slicked-back snake-oil salesman look. The derision in his voice more than made up for it.
John resisted the urge to knock the bastard over and use those convenient locks to yank back his head and…he could feel Midnite’s gaze branding a warning on his back. Sometimes Midnite’s pretensions at being so damn cultured were really annoying, but here John had to agree. Screwing Balthazar might satisfy his sense of revenge, but he’d lose the fight anyway. “All right, then. Shapechanger it is. I think she’d make a really nice cat. Would just love to see her face the first time she changes back to human with a mouse in her mouth.”
The faintest hint of approval slipped into Balthazar’s smile as he read through the page, double-checking his work. “You always were delightfully petty,” he snorted. “What took you so long with Gabriel?”
The bastard would have to remind John of that. He irritably snatched up herbs and began shredding them into a bowl. “Just needed to discuss a few last points.”
Balthazar obviously didn’t believe him, but at the moment John didn’t give a shit what Balthazar thought. His nerves were still a bit twitchy from the upheavals of the past few days, and since Gabriel had closed himself off, they were hurting themselves trying to reach out for a goddamn iceberg. For that matter, he was getting annoyed at the fact that they were reaching out in the first place. It was a new feeling and he couldn’t seem to get a handle on it, and it left him feeling uncomfortably cracked, exposed.
He’d asked for it, he reminded himself. “Okay, time for the…for Christ’s sake, Balthazar.”
Who blandly looked up from the mauled throat of the black cock he was holding. He tipped it upside-down over John’s bowl of herbs, licking his bloody lips. “Yes?”
“Jesus, if you need a snack that badly, I’ll open a vein. It’s Saturday—Midnite’s only got a couple of those left and he can’t get more till Monday.” Not that John particularly wanted to, so Balthazar could wipe that leer off his face, but now an ill-feeling Balthazar was a drain on him as well as Gabriel. Well, and maybe Balthazar tended to act a little inebriated after getting a drink so he was much more cooperative about being shoved onto his knees. John was beginning to see the benefits in having regular access to that damned tongue of his.
“I do not need to hear this,” Midnite suddenly said, stalking off. “I will be out front clearing the club. You have twenty minutes.”
Busy shaking the last drops from the chicken, Balthazar rolled his eyes. He tossed the drained bird to a passing servant, then sucked the blood from his fingers. “You’d think he would be happy. He no longer has to worry about watching over your pathetic ass.”
“You sure about that? Gabriel’s got some weird ways of showing he cares,” John muttered. The silver spoon took a while to find in the mess Midnite had scattered around them, so by the time he started stirring the mixture in the bowl, he had to do it hard to break up the forming blood clots. It was oddly therapeutic.
“Don’t be an idiot, Johnny. He does.” Balthazar’s voice was so quiet and his face so pensive that John had to look twice to make sure he had the right demon. Then Balthazar grabbed a chicken and disemboweled it with one swipe that didn’t get a single drop of blood on him, which was more characteristic of him. “It’ll probably kill him, given your sorry history.”
John’s hackles rose and he nearly broke the spoon-handle by shoving too hard at a clot. “And here I thought you didn’t want to go home again.”
The guts Balthazar flung into the blood nearly got him splashed, but he shoved the bowl away from him at the last moment. Snarling, Balthazar got up and started snapping open and shut boxes. It looked like he was done with sparring, which was actually not a good thing because then John had to think about what Balthazar had said, and there was just enough truth in it to be painful. He was tired of people leaving him, one way or the other, and one reason he’d given in was because he thought it’d make sure that didn’t happen again. But strong as Gabriel was, Lucifer had been able to hurt him, and everyone had their breaking point.
John mentally slapped himself and dragged his attention back to the spell. He told himself not to get distracted, but the thought kept circling back to him like a vulture over a dying man.
* * *
Gabriel had only been in John’s apartment for a few minutes when someone knocked on the door. He’d taken off his coat, so he dithered a couple seconds about how to hide his rifle. They knocked again, harder, and he finally just snatched it up.
He silently sniffed the air before putting a hand on the knob, but though it was a woman, it wasn’t her. The door had a chain, so he held the rifle behind his back and eased the door open so it wasn’t visible. “Yes?”
The detective John had seen the first day stood on the doorstep, looking very pale and very surprised. “Oh! Er, hi. I’m Angela Dodson…is John in?”
“No, he’s…out.” It was a useful euphemism, especially if she knew John as well as Gabriel suspected she did.
His guess was confirmed when she accepted it without asking further questions, merely nodding to herself the way people did when they knew something unpleasant and wanted to discreetly toe it under the rug. It didn’t, however, look like she was about to leave, which made Gabriel slightly nervous. He’d been clamped down so she would have no way of telling who he was, but she still might be able to recognize him from nearly a week ago. Granted, she couldn’t have gotten a good look while he was smashing a rifle-butt into her temple, but she was a police detective and a powerful psychic. He wasn’t about to completely rule out that possibility.
At least he didn’t hear anyone coming, so he didn’t have to worry about accidentally involving her in a fight. “I’m a friend of John’s. Can I take a message?”
“Didn’t know he had any left,” she muttered to herself, glancing around the hall. Then she noticed he’d overheard and flushed, waving her hand about in half-hearted denial. “Oh, I’m sorry, I just meant—”
“—you’ve known him for a while.” A little sarcasm seemed to fit, assuming that John picked up people similar to himself. That was what people generally did. Gabriel was carefully not thinking about himself, and about what the last few days said about him. “I’m Gabriel.”
Angela flinched. Then she smiled nervously and wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing at her elbows. Her gaze, however, lifted to fix steadily on Gabriel’s face. “Catholic parents, huh.”
The smile that pulled at Gabriel’s face spoke well enough by itself, so he didn’t add a comment. He thought a moment, then took off the chain and stepped out into the hallway. “John’s not going to be back tonight. Did you…”
“Oh! I don’t—” She lifted her hands and pushed at her hair, then irritably shook herself. A quick pace about the hall settled her down, and when she spoke again, she was calm and firm. “I’m sorry. This is unfair to you, but the last person I met with your name was a little…anyway, I was just coming by to tell John goodbye, and thank you.”
“Are you leaving town?” Gabriel quickly asked. He still wasn’t sure, and Balthazar hadn’t been able to enlighten him, as to what John felt about Angela, but he had a sense that John might want to know. Loose ends that John didn’t leave himself seemed to bother him. And anyway, it was a good idea to keep an eye on anyone who’d been in contact with the Spear.
Angela nodded very slightly before turning to stare down the hall. Her lips tightened, went slack, and then she started mumbling in such a low voice that Gabriel had a problem making out the words. It sounded like she was just saying one thought after another, without trying to plan or arrange them. “Yes. Yes, I think so. I can’t lie anymore, I was stupid to try, but I can’t do it here. There’s too much in this city—too much Isabel and how she lived, and I’m not her. I’m her twin, not her. There’s too much.”
“Los Angeles is a hotbed,” Gabriel said. He didn’t mean to startle her, but that was the result and the intensity of her eyes asked for an explanation. There wasn’t one to give; he’d merely been making an observation, but nevertheless she didn’t seem as if she was going to let him go without something more. He caught at the first thought he had. “ But you can’t wander forever. Leave it too long and you’ll be caught where you don’t want to be.”
His own words gave him as well as her pause, but to her credit, Angela recovered first. She tilted her head, eyes briefly unfocusing, then blinked. He doubted that she realized she’d been calling on her gift. “Choose your own battlegrounds for meeting your past, then? That was the idea. I’m—I’m put in a position to kill too often in a city the size of L. A. anyway. There’s got to be other ways to enforce the law…I asked for and got a transfer to San Francisco. Crime rate’s a lot lower there.”
“So is…abnormal activity,” Gabriel finally said. He could sympathize a little with the haunted look she wore when speaking about killing.
In the distance, something creaked. Gabriel was instantly at attention, though he refrained from doing anything that would make Angela notice. After a moment, he decided that it was merely a stray in the alley, but nevertheless he was reminded that this was not the best time to be holding a discussion.
Angela might have picked up on that despite his care, for she suddenly stepped back. “I should be going. Anyway, thanks for taking the message.” She started to say something else, but stopped. Then her head shot up and she stared at him in a way that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand. “Blaming yourself forever isn’t good, either. At some point, there is an end.”
She blinked, shook her head, and then began to apologize for babbling, but in the middle of that, she understood that it was pointless. “Are you sure John won’t be here tonight?” she finally asked.
“Yes,” Gabriel lied.
He disliked doing it, but over the years he’d been forced to learn to do it well. So he was a little surprised when she peered doubtfully up at him. But Angela didn’t push further. With a last, awkward wave, she left.
Gabriel stayed in the hall till he heard her footsteps make it to her car without any interference. After closing the door, he dragged a chair to the center of the room and sat on it, staring at the symbols he’d carved into John’s window-frames. Then he put his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands.
* * *
“Balthazar’s not that difficult to deal with, actually. Keep him well-dressed and well-fucked beneath that, and he’s a happy little demon.” John grimaced as he and Midnite struggled to pry the cat out of its carrier. From the sound of things, the cat was winning.
Good. Little, indeed—they only had an inch’s difference in height, and most of the time it was luck and not that that saved John’s ass. Once they’d seen that bitch safely off, Balthazar had every intention of persuading Gabriel to letting him play a little harder with Johnny-boy. Certainly Gabriel wasn’t going to bend John over nearly as many times as the man’s ego needed.
Midnite grunted and scrabbled around for something. “John, I rarely attempt to speak to you about your personal affairs—”
“—because you pretty much lost that right a while back. Pass me those gloves—fuck! Worse fucking teeth than Balthazar.”
“—but are you sure about this? I was under the impression that you were planning something different.”
Such as working a lone game with Lucifer that would have left Gabriel and Balthazar out in the cold if it’d succeeded. Perhaps the present situation had pushed that to the background, but Balthazar wasn’t about to forget any time soon, and he had a suspicion that Gabriel hadn’t, either.
Then again, that could simply be Gabriel’s reticence towards anything that might express intimacy. He was understandably paranoid, but now that he’d full claims on Balthazar and John, he shouldn’t be nearly so concerned. They couldn’t hurt him any more than they could hurt themselves—at least, Balthazar couldn’t. John had a history of gleefully plunging into self-destruction, which had been amusing before but now put Balthazar in the aggravating position of biting his nails over the idiot.
“Yeah, well, that didn’t exactly work,” John muttered, banging things extra-hard as if he could make up for it that way. He stopped a little bit sooner than Balthazar had expected.
The lack of sound eventually made Balthazar chance a look over: John had rocked back on his heels and now squatted by the carrier, staring morosely into it. He absently licked at a small set of bloody scratches on the back of his hand, tongue moving in small, precise laps that made Midnite look oddly at him. Not that he noticed.
The gunk in the bowl blurped at Balthazar, recalling his attention to it. He smacked it down with a spoon before sprinkling sand made from ground-up stones of Bastet’s temple over it.
“It was a stupid idea, anyway,” John presently said. “Lucifer isn’t going to give up on me that easily, and there’s no way I can walk the straight and narrow long enough to beat him that way. I mean, can you imagine me working a nine-to-five office job? I couldn’t even stay off the cigarettes.”
“Though this time those will not be your end.” There was a crashing sound and then a desperate yowl, which Balthazar took to mean that Midnite had finally gotten the cat. He murmured soothingly to it and in no time at all, it was purring at him.
John snorted. “Didn’t realize you gave a shit, Midnite. Here, kitty…shhh, not boiling you tonight. I just need your whiskers, and a couple drops of blood…”
Balthazar ignored the subsequent cursing and smacking about, but it was hard to do that with the sudden smell of John’s blood. He dug into his coat and pulled out a cigarette. Once it was lit, he inhaled as deeply as possible.
He almost immediately regretted it, because the strangely pungent smoke was a component of Gabriel’s own distinctive scent and that reminded Balthazar of too many uncertainties.
“Drop it, Midnite. I mean it.” The words were softer but much sharper than how John usually spoke to his friend. “I agreed to this. And I know what I’m doing. Mostly.”
Midnite chuckled, but there was no humor to it. “You want this. You might as well say so.”
A moment later, John scooted over to toss three bloody whiskers into the bowl. He passed it back to Balthazar, and while Balthazar was taking it, stole Balthazar’s cigarette. John grinned through his drag and then blew the smoke at Balthazar’s snarl, casually insolent as always. Or so said his face; his hands stayed curled into fists until Midnite had walked away. “Just making sure you don’t get ashes in that. Might fuck it up, and then we’d have to start over.”
“If you bled on any of those whiskers, that would be a worse disaster,” Balthazar retorted. He flicked his gaze over the new scratches that decorated the backs of John’s hands and wrists; one even laced his chin with red. They were all healing rapidly, but a few smears still lingered.
John raised an eyebrow and stabbed the cigarette out on the floor. “Having a little problem, are we?”
Balthazar didn’t stoop to answering that. Instead he put aside the bowl and undid his cuff, letting the claws on his other hand come out as he did. One sharp cut, and then he tilted his hand so the blood would mostly trickle down his forefinger. He added the last seal to the design on the floor.
The moment he’d torn his flesh, John’s eyes had jerked to his wrist and they never left while the blood was beading up. When Balthazar finished, John made an aborted grab for his wrist. He stopped himself and ducked his head, biting into his lip. “You’re a real fucking cocktease, you know that?”
“At least I’m not still in denial about whose cock—” Balthazar hissed, lunging forward. He latched onto the scratches running over John’s chin, sucking and probing so the ripped edges of skin rippled against his teeth.
They went over with a crash, John twisting so he barely avoided smudging the lines painted on the floor. Keeping away from those kept him busy enough so that he couldn’t block Balthazar from mouthing down his throat to press hard against the scarred holes over the pulse. John groaned, went slack, then stiffened again when Balthazar’s knee ground up against his prick. His hand got into Balthazar’s hair, but he couldn’t get the angle or the time to use it to pull off Balthazar.
“I’m not him, you goddamned—” he gritted out.
Balthazar flinched before he even knew he was doing it; John instantly wrenched him aside and sank teeth into the back of his neck. Even as he was going limp and moaning, he squeezed out a last dribble of bitterness. “Neither am I.”
For a moment, they were frozen in their mangled knot. Then John abruptly pulled away and sat, knees up and hand behind him to support him. He rubbed hard at his mouth, then at his neck before viciously kicking to his feet. The floor echoed his angry steps so they formed a hollow song that wandered from corner to corner.
The mixture in the bowl was beginning to bubble again. Though he wanted to simply toss the gunk across the room, Balthazar didn’t. Instead he levered himself up and resumed stirring, and after a second he straightened his clothes. At least he wasn’t so blind as to pretend this was still anything remotely like a business transaction, small comfort though that was.
Very small comfort. He gave the contents one last hard stir, then carefully walked the bowl into the center of the circle without stepping on any of the lines. There he poured it out and, stepping delicately backwards, smoothed it till it formed a thin coating that just filled the innermost circle.
“That’s done,” he said to himself. Though that was hardly the truth.
* * *
Two hours had passed since Angela had visited. Normally Gabriel’s patience could extend much, much further than that, but for some reason his ability to wait was shot. He caught himself fidgeting twice, and once he even had to get up and pace around the apartment before he could make himself settle down. The stitches in his back had come out only a few hours before and the raw scar tissue itched; so did his throat, but drinking tap water didn’t ease his thirst.
He had an idea as to what he was missing, but he steadfastly refused to consider it at any length. Firstly, it was distracting. Secondly, it wasn’t under his control. Perhaps John had agreed to complete the binding, but that didn’t necessarily mean he wanted to live with it according to traditional interpretations. And for that matter, Balthazar probably would prefer staying in L. A. to being dragged along to the wastelands of the world.
The frustration with being immortal, Gabriel thought, was that he had all the time to consider the angles but had never managed to learn how to. He’d stepped—briefly, and that expectation made him smile sourly now—out of an ongoing life to take care of Ariel’s business, and what he’d left behind was not about to disappear. He’d have to go back, recalibrate everything. Attempt to lose the habits born of centuries of largely solitary wanderings. Think of how he was going to keep his old grudges from entangling John or Balthazar.
Gabriel knew that he wasn’t the only one with that problem, but he suspected he could deal better with the ghosts and enemies the other two brought with them than they could with his. For one, he’d had far more time to accumulate his.
He sat back down and pressed his hands against his face again, suppressing the urge to groan. This was exactly why he’d spent so much time alone: company brought complications and weaknesses and inevitably, loss. Fourteen hundred years of not remembering who he was, of being able to do things and call on powers that he’d forgotten how to understand, and though it’d hurt to live with gaping holes in his memory, sometimes he missed the ignorance. At times it’d been better than living with the knowledge of what had thrown him into such shock, what had made him hack off his own wings. And then he’d begun to remember, after he’d met Vlad, only to lose it all again through his own stupidity.
Occasionally he still had nightmares about it—that had been a human quality he hadn’t cared much to receive. Angels didn’t sleep or dream, so the past could never drag sharp icy nails through their minds. Couldn’t deceive them with the memory of soaring past the sun’s warm rays and into the far hotter, far more glorious light of God—with the memory of hesitantly touching a cheek and suddenly, blasphemously finding that same radiance in a mortal’s smile.
“But I didn’t fall. I pushed myself over,” Gabriel said to himself. With open eyes and mind, and a heart flayed more than badly enough to also qualify as open, so he had no room to complain about what had been done.
He leaned back and stared at the door. That lasted two and a half minutes before he caught his fingers rubbing together; Gabriel growled to himself and fished his coat from the chair-back. He was just pulling out his pocket copy of the Delomelanicon when his head jerked up. A moment later, his mind caught up with his instincts and he was on his feet and padding softly towards one of the windows, rifle in hand.
It was loaded, but he held it so it’d be easier to swing than to shoot. He took up a position at the side of the window, where his shadow wouldn’t fall over the sill, and listened as someone struggled up the fire escape. A woman, smelling of sin underlaid with heaven, and more scared than angry, though she’d be loathe to admit the former.
She paused near the top and Gabriel belatedly realized the silence must have been suspicious, but it was too late to fake any kind of bustle. He held his breath and hoped she’d assume they were sleeping, or temporarily out.
Eventually the window creaked. Gabriel glimpsed a pale arm glide up along the center to press something at the lock, which clicked open. She still had some small spells up her sleeve, he noted. Charms, cantrips, the hardscrabble magic of the streets.
The window swung open and something dark swooped over the sill to clunk heavily on the floor. Everything nervously froze.
Then, like a large spider, a scabbed and cut-up hand crept over the sill. She peeked over the edge and thoroughly looked about before finally pulling herself through the window. Gabriel let her feet hit the ground before he soundlessly slammed her in the head with his rifle.
She crumpled with a small gasp, her hands clawing at nothing as she folded neatly over his arm. He needed a moment to adjust to her weight. Then he lifted her—she hadn’t been eating well—and quickly wrapped her in his trenchcoat. He slung his rifle over his back and snatched up her bag, then headed for the door.
Once they were in the car, he riffled through the knapsack to make sure the manuscript was inside. It was, so he started the car and headed for Midnite’s. All the way there, he was tense and expectant, anxiously watching every shadow, but nothing happened. Uriel must have been her only backer, and once she’d killed him she’d been on her own. From the looks of it, she’d struggled.
A small pang of empathy caught Gabriel in the gut, for he remembered how he had fought to survive his first days without heavenly support. He was still surprised he hadn’t simply given up on the earthly plane and continued down to Hell.
But he hadn’t. And she’d nearly cut off John’s head—the dark curled tight around his gut and growled through his bones, murmuring for her blood for that. Gabriel set his teeth and ignored it, steering his way into the parking lot.
He got her and the knapsack out without too much difficulty, but trying to retrieve his rifle proved too awkward, so he reluctantly left that in the car. When he’d reached the door, he stopped to sling her over his shoulder so he could knock; as he did, something clattered softly on the ground. Frowning, Gabriel backed up to see what it was.
The same moment he recognized it as the Delomelanicon, she suddenly came awake with a vengeance, writhing and screaming in—Latin. He knew the words, but even if he hadn’t, he would’ve known what they were for from the resonance of the earth with them. The ground rippled up once, twice, thrice, and every time it rumbled higher around Gabriel like approaching war drums.
He flung himself against the door, smashing her head into it, but it was too late. She knew it and she was laughing hysterically when she wasn’t trying to claw at his eyes. He seized her wrists and slammed her again, which shut her up. But only for a second.
“You cannot cheat the Devil!” she screamed.
“Neither can you cheat God. This is not the way back into His good graces,” Gabriel snarled. Something ripped at his elbow and he whirled around, spitting out a spell as he did.
The light arcing outwards from him burned away the soft, tarry tentacles that had risen out of the pavement, but he knew that that was only the beginning. He backed up against the door, trying to get as far into the frame as he could—Arioch’s heart’s blood was painted over it, keeping it safe from all other denizens of hell. It wouldn’t bar Lucifer himself, but it would slow him, a little bit. If he got through Gabriel.
“Why? Why should I suffer because I tried to do right?” she was hissing. Almost sobbing, jerking her hands wildly as she tried to get away from him, tried to keep clear of the hungry shadows that were coiling nearer and nearer to them. “All I wanted to do—and it hurts It hurts so much…”
“That’s why. Mortals are born to hurt, to pain, to hatred and sin and they still rise above it to love. They love selfishly, generously, cruelly and kindly, but they love on their own. We have to learn it.” Gabriel gritted the words out from between his teeth. He wanted to break her damned idiotic neck but he couldn’t, if only because blood spilled here would do all the more to ease Lucifer’s passage.
Suddenly a scavenger of the dead screeched out of the dark at her; Gabriel knocked it away, but not before hot blood splattered his face. It wasn’t his.
She cried out, then went stiff. “Oh, God. Oh, Father. I loved Him…”
“No, you adored Him. There is a difference. And I wouldn’t bother calling—you just sold your soul to Lucifer, and all because of some petty revenge,” Gabriel snarled, banging again on the door with his fist. Two more scavengers leapt at him and he had to resort to unleashing a pair of shadow-wolves to rip them down. “You finally had a soul, you—you could’ve returned to heaven. But—”
Gabriel lost his balance as the door behind him disappeared. He barely caught himself on the frame, but his grip on her slipped and she crashed backward. Someone—John—cursed as he fumbled to catch her. “What the—”
“Get her in and do it!” Gabriel hissed, whirling around. He saw Balthazar skid up behind John’s shoulder and tossed him the bag, then threw himself backwards through the door. Claws immediately sank into his arm.
A second later, the red cleared to show a twitching corpse on the ground. He had demon blood in his mouth, and from the looks of things, he was going to have more in a moment.
“Holy shit,” John breathed.
Gabriel took a swift step backward and yanked the door shut in John’s face just as it went from shocked to comprehending to furious, mostly at Gabriel. He was sorry, but there was no time to apologize.
Gabriel… came a whisper from behind him.
His blood ran cold as ice, and even the surge of hatred and rage did nothing to thaw it. Very slowly, Gabriel turned around.
* * *
“What. Did. You. Do. You. Fucking. Bitch!” John punctuated every word by picking up her by the arms and slamming her into the floor. Once she started to say something and he simply snapped unusually long canines in her face. Her face went white, and continued to drain of color as he yanked her up to throw her into the wall.
Balthazar gave the knob one last yank, but it wasn’t going to open to any normal force. Gabriel had made certain of that. Beyond it he could hear the first muffled sounds of fighting: hisses, wet slices, thuds. A soft patter. The scrape of claws over concrete. And the smell of sulfur was so strong it caused even him to choke.
He stumbled backwards, coughing, and then spun to hit John in the back. “Pull your teeth in and get her to the circle.”
“What is going on?” Midnite came hurrying from the front office. He suddenly stopped, eyes widening. His hands came up to make a warding gesture, as if that would help.
“John!” Balthazar snarled. He would’ve added something along the lines of indulging in crude testosterone vengeance later, but a stabbing pain in his belly temporarily robbed him of breath.
He dropped to one knee, but halfway there the pain was already evaporating. So Gabriel could still keep himself locked away, but he was losing his control…
The blow had staggered John as well, loosening his grip on the bitch so she could duck out from between his arms. She made a run for it, but John was already whipping around to stop her. He got her by the elbow and flung her down the hall so she tripped and fell at the edge of the circle. There she started to grab wildly for a weapon, but suddenly she stopped, staring at the circle. “You’re…you’re not sending me to Hell?”
“No, but I wish I were now, you goddamned bitch.” John came running after, hurrying so much that when he stooped to take her by the arm, he nearly fell himself. His balance held, but for a moment he was too preoccupied to force her the last few feet.
“But—then—I thought and I called—” She looked dazedly about the room. “Then I—”
“Called up Lucifer and set him on Gabriel in exchange for your eternal soul. Brilliant. You’ve taken to mortal ways like a professional,” Balthazar hissed. He dragged himself forward, kicking her knapsack out of the way, and caught her by the other arm.
The bitch remembered she was in the middle of a fight and pulled against him, but by then Johnny had gotten back his breath. He shot a look at Balthazar, who was already yanking up on his grip, and then the two of them bodily slung Gabriel into the middle of the circle. She landed neatly in the innermost set of lines, skidding a little as she hit the mixture they’d painted over the floor, but staying within the lines.
Before she could get up, Balthazar scrabbled a coin from his pocket and flicked it into the air. The bright silver flash got her attention for the small amount of time he needed to mesmerize her. Then it was just a matter of concentrating to make her stay in place.
“I bet you’ve been wanting to do that to Gabriel for ages.” John’s quips had a shaky edge to them, and his hands trembled as he snatched up the book from the floor. He more or less leaped into place, already reading out the spell.
In point of fact, yes, but it was far less enjoyable than Balthazar had intended it to be. Her mind was still strong so he needed to use all of his energy. Normally that wouldn’t have been a problem, but normally he didn’t experience phantom pains every time someone else was injured. He bit down on his tongue as one of his ribs seemed to explode, reminding himself that it was not his, that he was going to ensure she regretted this for centuries.
“Mvatis mvtandis--” The pain was great enough to take both John and Balthazar to their knees, and John nearly dropped the book. In the center of the now softly glowing lines, Gabriel jerked herself onto her elbows. John’s eyes shot to her and his upper lip curled in a hate intense enough to surprise Balthazar. His fingers clamped down on the book till they were white from tips to knuckles. “Sic…haud ignota loquor…
Balthazar dug his nails into the floor and fixed his eyes on Gabriel, willing her to look at him. The muscles of her neck stood out in sharp relief as she fought him, sweat slicking over her skin and dripping from her hair, but slowly she turned. Her lips were drawn back from her teeth in a snarl that he wasn’t about to let her voice.
An effervescent mist was beginning to rise from the ground, starting at the outskirts of the circle and growing thicker as it moved inwards. Gabriel looked horrified at its approach, eyes almost popping out when tendrils began to coil around her arms and legs, but she couldn’t break Balthazar’s hold on her.
John was chanting as quickly as he could, nearly doubled over the book. Midnite walked up behind him, hesitated, and then carefully pulled him back so he wouldn’t fall on the lines if he was forced down that far. Then Midnite retreated till he was across the room from them.
Smart man. Just then something hooked into Balthazar’s side and ripped across his belly, so deeply that he thought he’d been disemboweled. He gasped and crumpled to the side, curling around himself; Gabriel abruptly jerked forward and he barely willed her back in time. Across the circle, John hadn’t stopped reading, but there was blood dripping from his nose. He wiped it off with a hand shaking so badly he had to use his wrist instead of his fingers. Then he glared at Balthazar.
Balthazar returned it with interest. John was going to fumble a word if he wasn’t careful, and then the word for what they’d be was fucked.
Actually, John should have been the last problem on his mind. The pain had receded, but hadn’t disappeared altogether, and Balthazar was suddenly aware that his exhaustion wasn’t only due to the strain of ignoring that and keeping the bitch in place. Gabriel was drawing on Balthazar for power. It was the first time he’d ever done that since he’d taken Balthazar.
This was not the best time to panic, so Balthazar didn’t. He did, however, signal for John to speed up.
The mist was so thick now that he couldn’t see the bitch, so he had to trust that the spell would hold her in place. If he’d had the energy; as soon as Gabriel’s eyes had disappeared beneath that blue foggy hump, he’d slumped to the ground and concentrated on not passing out. The moment he did, the drain would fall entirely on John and John wouldn’t be capable of finishing the spell.
“Father!” came a hideous shriek from the fog. It was one of the most beautiful things Balthazar had ever heard.
A hand briefly broke through, its fingers all sticking out at broken angles and parts of it rubbed raw. Just as quickly as it’d appeared, it was re-enveloped by the fog, which suddenly turned opaque and hard, like a gleaming shell.
Balthazar’s vision was beginning to waver in and out of focus. He dragged a hand that felt heavier than lead to his mouth and bit down to keep awake.
John didn’t look much better. He’d abandoned holding the book, but even leaning over it was costing him so much effort that he was swaying. His eyes fluttered as he struggled with the last words. “…factum est!”
From the middle of the circle rose an agonized cry. The silvery shell suddenly split and dissolved away, and the lines faded as if they’d never been there. All that was left was a small lump of fur lying in the center. For a moment, Balthazar wasn’t certain if it was still alive, but then he saw the sides lift and fall in a quick breath.
“Thank fucking God that’s done—” John rolled over and staggered to his feet. He tumbled down a mere yard later, but clawed his way back up in a burst of enraged energy.
Somehow Balthazar got up and followed, grabbing at statues and smashing against walls in his efforts to get to the door. He was still five feet short when he saw John bang on it. “Gabriel! Open the fucking—I have it, remember?”
Something glinted dully in John’s hand—the Spear. The one earthly weapon that might be able to deal Lucifer a fatal blow.
The door didn’t open. This time, John threw his whole body against it. He couldn’t muster up enough force to even make it rattle. “Open the fucking door!”
“Of all the idiocies…” Balthazar stumbled the last few feet and fell heavily against the wall besides John. He bit off his cuff-link, and then he ripped open his wrist. Messy, but then, neat wouldn’t bleed enough. He hoped Gabriel would be distracted enough to go on instinct and remove the barrier between himself and what would feel like a hurt familiar. And that Gabriel wasn’t so distracted that Lucifer could—
--the door lock clicked. John unceremoniously pushed Balthazar to the floor so he could yank it open. He almost collapsed as a wave of agony cut through them, but his grip on the door held. The next moment, he was flinging the Spear.
Balthazar had twisted himself around to see, cradling his bloody arm against his chest.
The world was painted red. Gabriel was crawling on the ground, wounds gaping wherever Balthazar looked, with a pack of limping, crippled shadow-wolves defensively circling him. Over him stood a Lucifer Balthazar had never seen before: an achingly beautiful figure with horrifically skeletal wings—wing. One of them had been ripped off and lay to the side, a jumble of bones and blackened rags of flesh, while the bony stump left on Lucifer’s back spurted black blood.
And—and John had missed. He’d thrown their only advantage and he’d given Lucifer a dashing cut on the cheek, but he hadn’t hit anything.
“Shit,” he said.
Exactly Balthazar’s sentiments. Balthazar pushed himself up with the beginnings of a scream in his chest. He couldn’t look away. Gabriel was snarling, rolling himself over for a last futile lunge, and Balthazar couldn’t stop watching. Couldn’t stop—
* * *
John only had one thought running through his head: you fucked up you fucked up again you dumb shit.
He swallowed, but there was no moisture in his mouth or throat. He held the door-frame, but he couldn’t feel it because his grip was so tight. He wanted to say he was used to sacrificing others, but the old dulled sense of loss had gone away and what he clutched in his chest now was razor-sharp and fresh and devastating.
“No—” he started to say.
--then twisted, suddenly, so Lucifer overshot him. At first John hated him for it because that was just a stalling tactic and that was going to prolong the pain, but then he saw what Gabriel had. And he stared. “Angela?”
She’d scooped up the Spear from where it had clattered on the ground and now held it out before her. Her hands were shaking, but her gaze didn’t waver as she stared at Lucifer. “If you’re who I think you are,” she steadily said, “Then you can’t touch me. Not directly. Not this time.”
Lucifer was too far gone to have a human voicebox, so she didn’t understand his cursing. But she seemed to get the gist, for she slowly started to walk between him and Gabriel, always keeping the Spear pointed towards Lucifer.
“I didn’t think so.” Angela took a quick peek at Gabriel, who’d drawn himself up into a standing position. How he was managing that, John had no idea, because he damn well should have been dead. Not that John was disappointed—very much the opposite. “You’re the first ‘friend’ of John’s I’ve met that was one, still alive, and two, nice. I thought something was up.”
Gabriel looked incredulous, with which John could sympathize. He’d probably been worrying so much about Lucifer or bitch-Gabriel that he’d never noticed a simple police tail, and that had to grate, given all his abilities.
He got over it fast, stumbling up besides Angela. She’s mortal, both your blood and mine is on the ground, and I’ve the Spear and the manuscripts. Don’t force my hand, Lucifer.
You wouldn’t, Lucifer sneered. She’s not willing. And neither are you. Not if it involves forcing someone’s will. She doesn’t want anything to do with Hell, let alone to rule it.
Are you certain? The cool, deadly way Gabriel replied was impressive, and that was saying something, considering John’s experience. He straightened up and stared Lucifer in the eyes. Beside him, Angela shifted uneasily at his tone but held her ground. Do you want to see how far we can take this? Do you dare?
Something pushed at John’s foot: Balthazar, who’d somehow gotten both manuscripts to the door. They were bloody as hell from his wrist, and come to think of it, John was beginning to feel lightheaded. He stooped down and covertly licked Balthazar’s cut, sealing it. Then he took up the manuscripts and dangled them out the door. “Hey, Lou. If you don’t want these, I’m sure I could find somebody else that would…”
Lucifer swiveled slowly from Gabriel to John, enraged but unable to do anything except think. At last he took a step back.
No one relaxed.
He took another step back, and then his remaining wing snapped out of sight. His flesh twisted, then untwisted to show him as a bruised old bastard in a stained and torn white suit. “I will call it even. This time.”
Gabriel’s lips drew back in a feral smile, and for a second John thought he saw Lucifer stiffening in wariness. “That is all I ever expect from you.”
He nodded to John, who tossed the papers with much better aim. Three-quarters of the way over, they suddenly flashed out of the sight. As did Lucifer. “Drama queen,” John snorted.
“So…do I want to know what you two were saying?” Angela asked, turning to Gabriel. The world around them was slowly fading to normal, and John was relieved to see that Gabriel’s wounds were already beginning to close.
Gabriel looked frankly at her. “No. Not unless—”
“No, I’m still going. Oh, and here.” She handed the Spear back to him. As soon as he’d taken it, she rubbed her hands against her legs as if the touch of the thing had disgusted—or pained—her. “You know…if you’re ever in town, I don’t think I’d mind a cup of coffee.”
Balthazar muffled a laugh in John’s ankle. “Your girl prefers him over you.”
“You know, you’d suck a lot better if I stomped the teeth out of your mouth,” John snapped. He tugged his foot free of the bastard and awkwardly came forward, since it looked like Angela wanted a word. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, even if I don’t know for what. Not that that’s an invitation to tell me.” She looked down, then up. And then she gave him a closer, slower look-over. “I came by earlier to apologize for flaking out on you like that, but I ran into—”
“Gabriel.” John couldn’t help looking over her shoulder at him. His chest was still in the process of unclenching and just…Jesus, it’d been so damned close. So close, and he fumbled out a cigarette because the other thing he wanted to do was stick his face in Gabriel’s bloody neck to feel for the pulse with his tongue, and he couldn’t do that in front of Angela.
Her eyes flicked to the cigarette, then to the doorway where she momentarily went into shock. But her toughness was always surprising; she recovered quickly. And then she glanced at Gabriel for some reason. “You’ve been busy.”
“There’s been…things,” John vaguely said. “So…”
“I was a flake. But that—Spear kept sending me these horrific visions. I couldn’t close my eyes at all for the past few weeks because all I’d see is Hell. Hell and—it was wrong, if Hell can be that. Someone had it who wasn’t supposed to. I don’t know if that makes sense…” Angela saw the look on his face and offered him a wry smile. “Oops. Forgot I was talking to you.”
Balthazar was coming across the lot, something tucked in his arms. John drew on his cigarette as he and Angela watched the demon’s progress in lieu of making awkward chitchat. When Angela figured out what she was going to say next, she’d say it, and trying to talk about the weather just to fill up the space in between seemed pretty stupid at this point.
“Anyway, I changed my mind. I’m keeping with this—I can pretend myself out of this world, but that won’t keep me from still knowing. The thing is, I can’t do it here. There’s the Spear, and there was Isabel, and…don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s you.” She wrapped one hand around her wrist and twisted her fingers, looking embarrassed. Then she took a step closer. “You’re…fine, right? You’re smoking again, and—and that’s—”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. I’ve…let’s say I’ve gotten a new life to go with the fresh start.” John smiled at her as nicely as he could. Because after all that’d happened, he knew what she meant. And he meant what he said, so what she’d said didn’t hurt. Well, aside from the tiny pinprick at his pride, but that could go take a shit because they were all alive and everything was okay for a little while. Even when that little while was over, he’d still have something to fight for. To look forward to besides the gaming over the sordid little bet between God and Lucifer.
He took the cat from Balthazar’s arms and plumped her about, dodging the skittish little swipe she took at him.
Angela looked at it, and then she tilted her head and unfocused her eyes to look at it. Her mouth dropped open a bit. “Is that…”
“Yeah. Caused me another shitload of trouble, but I believe we’ve gotten that all straightened out. Of course, she’s still got Lucifer drooling after her soul, but there’s precedent for tricking him.” The cat slitted her eyes and hissed at him, which John cheerfully ignored. “You just have to come up with a plan.”
“You know, this is probably a bad idea, but…here,” Angela muttered, reaching for her. She glanced up at John when he held back. “I remember, I was nearly ripped apart by Mammon because of her. But I have this feeling…”
John kept his hold a moment longer, but Angela seemed sure about it, so he let go. “Okay, but Gabriel, you’d better watch it. I know these guys that raise killer pit-bulls—”
“John!” But Angela was smiling in spite of herself. She cuddled Gabriel, whispering something to her, and after a moment, the cat actually relaxed in her arms. Angela took one step back, and then another, and then she was waving to John as she walked away. It was too dark to make out what the glitter in her eyes was.
“We’d better go as well,” Gabriel said. He was standing, but barely, and even though he was trying to close himself off, bits of pain were still leaking out.
Idiot, John thought. But going over and taking Gabriel by the arm still felt awkward, and it was awkward so that he hesitated in the middle of it. He did, however, do it, and he even refrained from commenting on how Balthazar sidled up to the other side. “If you have to, you have to. It’ll be worse for everybody if you pass out.”
Gabriel gave him a long, unreadable look. Then they all staggered, adjusting to the draw Gabriel was making on them, but not for more than a couple seconds. It was something John could get used to.
* * *
Balthazar was still asleep, curled in the sheets around Gabriel’s hip, but John woke the moment Gabriel shifted. He rolled over and pushed himself up the headboard, rubbing at his eyes. “Christ, don’t you ever sleep? Or do you not need it?”
“I…don’t need much.” Gabriel looked at the man, and at how his white skin and black hair and eyes turned to poetry in the nighttime, and he tasted a sweetness in his mouth that was like the memory of heaven, but without that memory’s pain. He lingered.
John noticed, glancing from him to the coat draped over a chair. “Going somewhere?”
“I need to dispose of the Spear. And tie up a few other loose ends,” Gabriel said. His hand moved slowly over Balthazar’s back, savoring the smoothness of it, and gradually he realized that Balthazar had only been feigning slumber. The muscles were too tense. “In the morning would be best.”
He felt the muscles relax, but not completely. Likewise, John was only half-satisfied. He laid back down so he was weighing down Gabriel’s hand. “Are you coming back?”
It was difficult to know what to make of John’s tone. “Did you want me to?”
John looked up at him through slitted eyes. Then he exhaled sharply and pulled at Gabriel’s arm, making him lie back. “Take the cell phone—I don’t need it. And remember to fucking call this time.”
Gabriel rested his head back on the pillow and stared at the ceiling for a very long time, weighing past and present and future. Then he carefully packed away one, left the other to tomorrow, and turned over to smile slowly against John’s neck.
* * *
1. Mvatis mvtandis: The things that ought to have been changed having been changed with the necessary substitutions made
2. Sic…haud ignota loquor: Thus…I say things that are known
3. Factum est: It is done.