Tangible Schizophrenia



Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17. Rough sex, violence, lots of relationship no-nos. Character death.
Pairing: John/Balthazar, brief Balthazar/Midnite
Feedback: Good lines, typos, etc. If you feel like it.
Disclaimer: Does not belong to me.
Notes: Sequel to The Pilgrim’s Progress. References Hellblazer: Rake at the Gates of Hell. Thanks to truwest for the meta discussion.
Summary: Sometimes it’s better to stop reading the text and look at the margins.



If they think he’ll be a stand-in for Johnny, then they’re sorely mistaken. Balthazar never liked standing in a shadow, and after what John’s done to him, he certainly isn’t going to grant that—that asshole a privilege he tried to deny Lucifer.

The smell of burning skin brings Balthazar back to himself. It doesn’t hurt, or even leave angry blisters once he shifts his fingers back on his cigarette; he blinks and the skin resheathes his flesh that is no longer virulent green. He hates smoking. The nicotine triggers no cascade of pleasure-hormones in his mind, the harsh ashy taste does not dull the perpetual bitterness that resides in his mouth. Once upon a time he was odorless, leaving no tracks, but now the smell of smoke clings like a desperate lover to his skin that yellows foully on his fingertips. He hates smoking, and what it does to him, and yet he cannot go without a cigarette dangling from his lip.

“Traitor…” hisses the crisped thing before him.

“Son born of fire, I send thee back to thy womb,” Balthazar sighs, lifting his hand. Not to bless or to curse—oh, no, damn him. To shake out another cigarette and light it from the smoldering end of the last. “Better luck next time. Perhaps you’ll come back with a prettier face. Or more brains—that trick was so very, very sloppy.”

One cinder limb snatches at his feet, shedding long jagged flakes of black skin as it does. He easily side-steps and continues turning around, ignoring the curses and recriminations thrown at his back. The hypocrisy in them had been stale when Christ had been nailed to the Cross.

“I may burn, but at least I do with honest hatred. You—you burn for—”

Balthazar flicks his old butt over his shoulder, and as the heated air sweeps up behind him, he takes the new cigarette out of his mouth for a slow exhale. “Your analogies need work,” he mutters, curt as his pause.

Then he walks on without a backward look. What he does now is only a little less obvious than what he had done before. Demons were all born of flames and bile, and naturally they got along as well with each other as they did with the angels. Before, he’d slipped death oh-so-quietly into the back and under the table to his fellow competitors; now he merely shows the wire and pulleys behind the act. After all, he’s lost any overseers that might have reprimanded him and so he has no reason to be secretive except possibly vanity. And he has no reason to be vain when all eyes are already on him. All—eyes—

He stabs the cigarette back into his mouth, and once again the taste and smell blow through his body, reminding and never satisfying. His former brother-in-arms is so very wrong: he does hate. He hates better than any of them, save perhaps for Lucifer, because of all the legions that have sprang from Hell’s loins, he knows what pattern had to be twisted originally in order to create hate.

Balthazar abruptly tries to pull the cigarette from his mouth, but his hand is shaking again. He rears back and spits it out so hard that it bounces off the wall and lands somewhere behind him where the fire is raging. He hates.

And he travels thirty-three steps before his hand dives into his pocket for another cigarette. It’s not that kind of addiction, but nevertheless he can’t do without them. He can barely do with them.

* * *


Characters of many kinds mingle within Midnite’s, and characters of white light and radiant beauty keep careful watch around its perimeter. Occasionally Balthazar has wondered whether they do so of their own wills, or if Midnite has cut a deal with them as security against…some ruckus. It doesn’t matter now, considering that what lounges and lies and laughs inside the walls no longer interests Balthazar. Now, he’s merely appreciative of how simple this makes his errand.

On one side of the club’s entrance is a record store, staffed by a clerk with eyes as limpid as the river Jordan under a winter moon and as baleful as the sulfurous shadows that always track Balthazar now. On the other is a drugstore with a night manager who watches unblinking with the wariness of centuries as Balthazar walks along the far street.

And across from Midnite’s steps is a coffeeshop manned by a pale pretty thing who gulps when he recognizes Balthazar and almost unfurls his wings before two loitering girls. They’re not gifted, but even they might notice something amiss were napkin dispensers and cream pitchers to be shoved by invisible hands off the counter.

Balthazar puts his own hands on the sticky, garish red and smiles with his lips closed. In the eyes of the waiter he can see his reflection and he sees that it’s tired, gaunt. He sees that it hardly looks threatening, though that he could have known from the relaxing slope of the waiter’s shoulders.

“You should leave,” the angel says.

“I’d like a double espresso with cinnamon,” Balthazar replies. He leaves the exhaustion in his voice, lets it weigh him down till he’s slumped on a stool. After a moment, he glances up at the conflicted face. “Even we drink coffee, you know.”

“I…don’t…think…” stammers the waiter. So delicate and young beneath his dutifulness. He certainly doesn’t. Do any of them? Do they ever lift their heads from the ground over which they’ve fought to lose and regain and lose so many times to see the truth?

The laugh is a coil with a barbed end that catches Balthazar in the corner of the mouth. It’s bitingly salty like blood, and slippery as well so it escapes before he can stuff up that crack, bar back that memory. Think of that truth, and curl his nails into his palms till they’ve pierced through the flesh and still the pain they bring cannot wipe out the sheer want.

He’s lucky tonight. Or Lucifer has decided Balthazar might be doing his side some good and is offering a hand, but either way, the hardness fades from the angel’s eyes and something else replaces it. Something that brings a different laugh beating at the inside of Balthazar’s lips, that brings his own laugh to him.

“A…double espresso with mocha?” The harsh fluorescent light seems to cut right through the angel, he’s so slender. And breakable.

Balthazar smiles again. Tiredly. He rubs at his temple, lowers his voice, lets his body slump. “Cinnamon, please.”

By the time the other angels show, he’s already dressed and crumpling up his come-soaked handkerchief. Feathers dance all around him, and as they fall, they slowly curl and blacken till they’ve liquefied into oily foul stains on the pavement and brick.

“What have you done?” hisses beautiful redheaded Michael, Gabriel’s replacement. Heaven’s soldier, so dutifully inattentive at the wrong times.

“Only what he asked for.” And they dive at him so Balthazar is forced back against the wall, but the too-thin waiter is teetering to his feet between them, reddened tear-tracks violating the whiteness of his cheeks and newfound knowledge carnally clouding his eyes.

He stares dazedly at his former comrades, who shudder and draw away as if he carries a plague. “I loved that,” he murmurs. “I loved that. And mortals know this, and we—we are denied this joy. Why would He—”

“Wrong, ain’t it? Unfair,” slithers a voice that sends the angels scattering into the sky, cawing their curses. Lucifer clarifies the darkness but makes it no lighter, no more understanding. He winks at Balthazar. “Some days, I’m almost of a mind to keep you up here.”

“If you still had any choice in the matter.” Balthazar picks himself off the wall and steps around the fallen angel. The bricks are coated in graffiti, smears of paint and chalk and one old, faded scribble of ashy charcoal that wrenches a dripping handful of flesh out of Balthazar’s chest.

He closes his eyes and turns away, walking out into the street. His right hand is already putting a cigarette to his lips, and his left hangs loosely beside him, soiled handkerchief still in it and now beginning to warm with what he’s taken. Lucifer doesn’t immediately follow because he believes he has the angel to claim. But Balthazar drains the smoke from his cigarette, hating it all, and crushes the angel’s heart in his hand till the blood begins to clot between his fingers.

He wishes he could do the same to the one that beats now against his ribs, dull and heavy, but he has to settle for the outraged scream that rises behind him, and the buffet of angry wind that strikes at him but in the end, has to pass over him because, oh, because Johnny was so damned clever. So clever, and Balthazar will never stop hating him for it.

* * *


When Midnite comes to see Balthazar, it is on top of a glittering tower of glass and steel, a monumental testament to man’s feelings of inadequacy. No, Balthazar does not see the virtue in poverty, in making do. He keeps his comfort. He has little enough of it as it is, and sees no reason why he should make himself suffer. Another has seen to that job with an efficiency that makes him nearly snap his knuckles in making fists.

“You look better than I thought,” Midnite says.

He’s angry beneath the cool exterior, seething with it and at the same time, he isn’t fully comfortable with the emotion. He lets it bubble and simmer instead of harnessing it, which would have only been a stopgap measure at blocking the weakness, but at least it would have been something.

If Balthazar cared whether or not Midnite preserved himself, that is. He smokes so his ash floats off the edge towards the infinite disaster that is humanity’s flow below, and he rolls his coin over and over his fingers, thinking whether this too might be turned to his advantage. “I would thank you, but I doubt you’re here solely to flatter.”

“You’re killing my clientele and business partners.” Midnite keeps his hands at his sides. His long fingers flex occasionally, but he’s an intelligent man. He stands on Balthazar’s territory and he recognizes that he’s emotional and thus vulnerable, whether or not he’s come to terms with it.

“It’s a novel way to keep the balance, don’t you think?” It hadn’t been Midnite’s death that had sent John over the edge. No, Johnny had done that knowing that Midnite was alive and well, without a care as to how Midnite would take his death. From where Balthazar is, that can mean whatever had bound John and Midnite together had been broken, or it can mean that John forgot. That he’d been careless. “You’re not here because of that. You never cared when John cut into your pool of potential clients.”

The rage—and grief, Balthazar is distantly interested to see—slams up in Midnite’s eyes, crests and then falls back from the cold stare. Then Midnite deliberately shifts, turns and lights his own cigarette. His nostrils flare almost imperceptibly and Balthazar knows that he’s smelled the significance of the smoke that never quite hazes the world enough for Balthazar.

Suddenly Balthazar wants to shred it all to ribbons anyway, revolted at this grudging but undeniable likeness before him. And he wants to dig in his nails, feel the flesh for himself and know that this is tangible. That it’s concrete and he’s a fool for wishing so because it is not: it’s smoke and mirrors, and it slips away before he can kill it. He can never destroy it. “Did he say good-bye? Say anything at all to you?” he abruptly says.

His voice sounds like the raw scrape of a blade on bone. Unsurprisingly, Midnite does not flinch from it. “He came to me, and he talked a good deal but told me nothing of what he intended,” Midnite says, words almost a snarl.

Balthazar has to laugh, even if the laugh that comes so easily from his throat does not belong to him, does not like him and lacerates deep. “I don’t see why you’re complaining. It’s only fair that he betrays everyone.”

“On what authority do you speak of?” Midnite flicks the butt away as if it’s a dagger and wards flare. His fingers stretch and splay in the air and it comes to him, molds to his will to give shape to his fury. His feet bring him forward and his temper, at long last free of his caution, paves the way. “You stand here alive and well while John is dead--”

And Balthazar can stop him. He can but he doesn’t, he doesn’t even put up a fight because his cigarette is finished and his pack is empty, a crumple of cellophane and cheap pasteboard that he lets the wind rip from his hand. Because Midnite’s hands rise and the wind lengthens them so their pressure grinds into the flesh of Balthazar’s arms, because suddenly the distance between them snaps to nothing and Balthazar is breath-to-breath, rage-to-rage with what John left.

He’s laughing and he can’t stop. His hair snarls over his eyes and he is clawing at the same time at fingers of air that clench brutally at his throat, but he still laughs. Midnite shakes him, and Balthazar lets him because the momentum lets Balthazar crush their mouths together.

Their angers meet and annihilate each other within a second, and then it’s nothing but a mistake eating like acid between them because no, this did not mean anything to John. This cannot make do for Balthazar, and now he forces them apart. Now he stumbles away to grip at his knees and hang his head low between them because yes, damn it and damn him, it’s possible.

It’s not possible to win, but oh, is it possible to lose. Every ragged breath Balthazar takes, every time his body shakes, every ache he can’t run from or cover up tells him this and he is beyond hatred because of it.

He senses more than sees Midnite straighten up, recover and reassemble the broken pieces of his composure. “I see what I came here to do is not necessary.”

“I didn’t kill him, you fool. Lucifer was the weapon, but John was the hand on it.” And he’d killed something in Balthazar at the same moment, something that had taken up so much room and now what replaces it is worse than hell. “I cried over his body. I ripped it into shreds and that’s why you never found it. I mutilated it and violated it and broke it in all the ways that I wanted to when he was alive, and I couldn’t stop crying.”

“Demons can’t weep,” Midnite says, and finally he sounds shaken.

No, they do not. They lack the physical means for it, even if they’d ever gained the emotional capability for it. And beneath their human skin lies their demonic skin, which can be anything but bloody red, and beneath their flesh lies only a pulsing knot of self-involved ambition. Nothing more.

Balthazar closes his eyes and slows down his breath till he can sit without fearing that his trembling will see him fall over. He calmly takes out his cigarette lighter, and he holds the flame to his hand till a fierce red burn has been seared across it.

Midnite leaves before Balthazar has picked apart the blisters far enough for the striated muscle to show. He hadn’t needed to see that, anyway—the bright red that Balthazar’s blood now is would have been enough for him to understand. But it’s the flesh that Balthazar needs to see. It’s the flesh that he stares at till finally the scarlet coils around his vision and squeezes it into the dark.

* * *


“Congratulations. You must have scared ten years off Midnite’s life with one try. I don’t think I ever got up past eight,” says a nightmare crouching close to Balthazar.

“I hate you,” Balthazar mutters. His lips rasp against hard and rough and cold. His hand is healed but burns when he puts pressure on it, slips on a sticky thick pool that soaks his shirt and stains his face with clamminess. He uses it to push himself up anyway, keeping his eyes closed.

Hands slide ungently beneath his arms and help. Body-warmed traces of cigarette smoke mixed with incense filter into his nose, husky voice drawls verbal knives that cut effortlessly through the leashes Balthazar has put on his memories. He would have had them be bars, but those always broke.

“Yeah, I figured,” comes the dry response.

Balthazar opens his eyes, and though he sees, the sight smashes into his eyes so he does not comprehend at first. Then he does, and he lunges out so his fingers catch John’s cheek, leaves more blood than his drying stuff dripping from there. “No, I hate you,” he snarls.

And he lunges again, wrenching at the arms John throws into his way. A knee catches him in the gut and he’s almost amused, because no matter how much of frankincense and myrrh John smells of, those holy scents haven’t managed to purify him. It’s a dirty, furious fight, with nails gouging and ripping and punches thrown without mercy, bones breaking and flesh nearly torn from their fractured ends. It’s so many days and weeks and months that Balthazar has been choking and now he can spit it all out, revile and retaliate till he can hardly see for the red in his eyes. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,” is the high raging chant that streams from his swollen and smashed mouth.

John fights back with fists and feet, rolling them over and over. There’s no magic because even the foulest magic is too pure for this. No, John just rips strips from Balthazar’s body and sinks his teeth into Balthazar’s neck, wrist, ear. He breaks the wind in Balthazar’s belly and makes the chanting a desperate gasp, he rattles Balthazar’s skull against the hard ground. And he grunts when Balthazar crushes his wrist-bones to powder, he half-screams at the wet pop of his arm dislocating under Balthazar’s enraged guidance. He’s here, breaking and being broken, and Balthazar has a hold on him that lasts even though it turns slipperier and slipperier, though their fighting knots them into such blind fury that they begin to blend into each other. Though consonants and vowels slur, transpose themselves in Balthazar’s torn mouth, and finally they slide into a crystallization of something different that Balthazar almost gladly forces into John’s mouth with his tongue.

Their rolling changes, slows, and Balthazar’s hands squeeze over John’s wounds, not in them. He shuts his eyes again against the razors clawing up his throat and chokes on them, chokes on John who presses bloody palms to Balthazar’s sides, thighs, cheeks. Blood dribbling out between his fingers as he traps Balthazar’s face in his hands, blood trickling into Balthazar’s ears so he’s deaf as well as blind and he doesn’t care. He can smell, he can taste, he can burn and burn and never turn to ashes.


He gasps against the sweet pressure of John’s mouth, fights it away while the lack of it slowly returns to shadow his every move with bitter, bitter hate. Balthazar twists hard and after a moment’s resistance, John lets him go. The absence swells to fill the space between them and once again, Balthazar would kill John if he could. He pulls himself into a curl, a crouch, a withdrawing fist of a body.

John’s narrow eyes watch him. The other—but it isn’t quite man now, is it?—sits back on his heels, black and white and red suit falling in careless folds around him. And yes, then the wings softly slide into the air, twin curves that cage them.

“They made you one. Standards are slipping today,” Balthazar says, breathless because the sheer painful impossibility of it has cut out his lungs. He tries to laugh and it twists out jagged.

“Aren’t they? Hear Lucifer’s still on your back, even though I think even the most generous guy would label you damaged goods,” John replies. He’s calmer, more foolish still, and he actually reaches for Balthazar. More than that, he’s surprised when Balthazar jerks away. “I thought you missed me.”

Balthazar staggers to his feet, clutching his stomach as if that’s what’s about to fall to pieces. He looks and he looks because he knows there’ll be no more than that, not unless he’d like to make the same mistake twice, and now the fury of knowing what is missing and being denied it makes him want to kill everyone. He’d call for Mammon if he were able. “I thought you were done,” he hisses. “You were out, damn you, and you left me and it was over—”

He turns then, making for the door without caring what he looks like. He doesn’t hear John behind him, but he listens all the way down seventy flights of stairs, fearful and longing.

Once upon a time he hadn’t wanted it to be over. Now he understands: it’s only safe when it’s over.

* * *


Balthazar wades through the fallen corpses of angels, choking on the feather-fluff and filling his hands with gobbets torn from the wings. He can’t seem to stop, and somehow they can’t seem to resist him. Once in a while, he remembers to wish that they would because he doesn’t need this reminder of how delicate the balance is not only in the great wide world, but also within every being that walks it. How easily it can be tipped, how simple it is to give a push and watch even the holiest drop within reach of the millions of starving, ferocious mouths and grasping hands that stretch up from Hell.

Then he switches to demons. He’s no more merciful because he knows from where they’d come, what they’d known without knowing anything else. He’s not selfless. He’s not benevolent. He’s understanding. It’s a cruel, playful monster of a feeling and he unleashes it on them till his arms are soaked up to the elbows in their blood, till he can no longer smell the smoke for the blood.

He still does smoke, though it does less than nothing for him now. But he can’t let go completely, even though he knows that would do more than all the gory horns and blood-spattered feathers. He can’t.

He still wants him, and all the blood in the world cannot wash that out of Balthazar. Nor can it change the rules.

* * *


“Come to leave flowers?” Gabriel has looked better, but she could look worse. Her clothes fit her badly, but they have no holes and if her hands are roughened and chapped, they are not thin with starvation.

Merely for that, Balthazar might leave her limp and broken-necked across the pauper’s grave that separates them. Even if her part in his—his death--didn’t still rankle, her mere presence would be enough. Her mortality. Her existence as proof that the wheel of fortune could grind even them down, rip holes in their lives.

“I didn’t think so,” she says, smile like a razor at Balthazar’s throat. She has a few roses, and while he watches, she lays them at the head of the gravestone. The long moments she takes to arrange them say much more about her contempt for Balthazar than they do about how well she knew the pale, pretty one in the coffeeshop, who now rots between them. “You can’t succeed in this. They will always break too easily, too quickly.”

But she is a fool, and unlike him, she has not learned from it. If that is why she thinks he sweet-kills his way through the angelic hosts. “Like you, I suppose,” Balthazar softly replies.

The muscles beneath Gabriel’s skin tense, though she betrays no emotion. Her fingers stroke lightly along one thorny stem, then catch a bead of red. A moment later, she’s wincing and sucking the blood from her finger. She stares over it at Balthazar.

“Except John didn’t kill you.” Saying the name hurts, but Balthazar clenches his jaw against it and rubs his fingers in his pockets, concentrating on the stickiness that coats them, on the brief flush of triumphant forgetfulness that always accompanied a delivery of death. “You fell—and why? Because you overestimated God’s loyalty to you? Because you thought yourself higher than you were?”

This time, Gabriel purposefully wraps her hand around the rose stems. She hisses, but prods unmercifully at her bloody palm to force out the splinters. Her tight voice flattens her words so they drift like so many torn petals. “Because I was made to learn something that broke my faith. You should know, O wise Balthazar. But here you are, asking me to confirm something so you won’t have to look for yourself. If you’ve learned how to pity, then waste it somewhere else.”

“Thankfully, I haven’t.” His words are light, but her words were heavy and clutching, and with every step Balthazar takes from the grave, they grow weightier. They tell him what he asked for but hoped was not true, they tell him there’s never an end and they tell him that he’s the greatest fool of all for allowing a beginning.

Three steps, three truths and he turns around. She snaps as easily as a brittle stick. Her pale form contrasts prettily with the rich dark brown of the ground. God’s creation, beautiful in all its permutations.

It does not remove the stain of her words. Balthazar rubs his hands harder and harder, scrubbing them against his thighs. He throws a vicious glance back at the grave, only the body that receives it is not Gabriel’s.

Then it is, but the sight has been seared into Balthazar’s eyes and he cannot run from it. Though he tries.

* * *


And he tries and he tries, but there is nowhere to hide, no end in the labyrinth, and finally he collapses against a turn somewhere, curling away from the lessons and the rules. He remembers hitting the wall once, but of course it doesn’t give.

He misses him. He can admit that now because it won’t do any good.

* * *


It’s a long dark time but it still has an end, as much as Balthazar fights against that. He kicks and he bites, he wrestles himself free again and again, but always he’s dragged back until finally he doesn’t have the strength, doesn’t have the will and oh, no, there cannot be that mouth against the back of his neck. Those hands wrapping over his belly, that voice speaking into his ear. Not if he wants this, and he does. He does and he thinks somewhere he’s gotten so wrapped into the hating of it that he’s forgotten how to hate it.

“You really don’t deal well with some feelings, do you?” John says, and it slashes Balthazar to the bone, lays him open so he sprawls into the hands that move over his arms, his chest, his legs.

“It wasn’t a problem that was supposed to come up.” He tries a last time to free himself, but his body disobeys him. His head turns into John’s voice, his hands slide over John’s instead of pushing them away, his hips rock back into John’s warmth. “Get off.”

And no, no mouth moving down his neck, unraveling the last pieces of him so he cannot even be a puppet-mockery of himself. No wet heat causing him to arch and sigh, no sweet smooth strokes up his thighs so his belly melts and folds him over himself. “No,” John murmurs.

“No,” Balthazar echoes, writhing for more. He turns and clings with hands and mouth and knees, he sucks the breath from John’s lips and scents everything but bitter heaven along the curve of John’s throat. His fingers run over and over John’s back, his belly trembles as John’s hand passes over it. He licks again and again at the underside of John’s jaw. “No. Stop. Don’t—it’ll—you’ll—”

“Worried about me? Christ. I really managed to fuck you up.” John sounds pleased, he sounds regretful, he sounds disbelieving. His mouth peels Balthazar from throat to groin, his hands run silk and fire over the exposed nerves. He gives Balthazar a kiss for every time Balthazar shudders until Balthazar can’t stop shaking.

Then he takes Balthazar, hard and rough without apologies, and Balthazar breaks for him. It’s all going to shatter anyway. It’s gone too far and Balthazar is losing his grip, has lost his mind, but he can’t make himself stop. He bends so John’s mouth takes his neck, he opens his legs and takes John’s prick into his body and he can’t stop. He wants the blood that seeps from between the furious coupling of their bodies, he wants that and the blood he can claw from John’s back. The pain that strangles him, the drowning pleasure that fills him till his skin seems to burst. He cries out and John swallows the sound, hand as tangled in Balthazar’s hair as Balthazar’s legs are around John’s waist.

And even then, though there’s the sliver of a chance that they could stop before the last barrier between them and the inferno is broken, Balthazar pulls at John. Wraps arms and legs around John, locks his elbows and knees in willing bondage. He moans beneath the laving tongue, the hands that push and crush and clutch. He pulls the fragments of himself together till John’s cursing at the tightness, cursing and forcing through it till Balthazar falls back again. He can’t stop.

He’s lost.

He remembers, dimly, John’s tongue-tip delicately running around the underside of his eye, dampening the lashes. And then John saying, wonderingly, “Tears?”

Before suddenly it seizes them and John throws back his head, drives into Balthazar till they’re nearly melded bone to bone and flesh to flesh. He’s the most beautiful catastrophe Balthazar has ever seen. That’s how he excuses himself.

* * *


The air ripples above Balthazar as he wakes, teasing the sweat drying on his skin. Dread is the taste on the tip of his tongue, harsh and awful, but he forces himself to crack open his eyes. And then he opens them wide to stare, because a dome of fluttering feathers arches above him, and beside him, tangled with him, is John.

“Bite them and I’ll rip you open,” John mutters. His eyes are still closed, and he seems to rest without a care grooving his face.

Balthazar lifts a hand, which possesses a hair-fine shake, and hesitantly traces the edge. The wing instantly spasms, buffeting cold air into his face so now he’s conscious and moving past his shock into uncomprehending disbelief. He jerks up and stares, but no, no hellfire surrounds them.

“What?” John folds back his wing to avoid hitting Balthazar, then extends it once again over them. He looks up at Balthazar as if the world had always been this simple and undemanding.

“You—didn’t lose these.” Very carefully, Balthazar puts his hand back on the wing. The feathers are cool, but beneath them he can feel the ghost of heat. He runs his hand lightly over them and John’s eyes grow briefly distant and dizzy. “You’re not human again.”

But his words are as pointed as a stiletto. “No. No—oh. That’s why you went crazy and knocked over all those…they didn’t know. They didn’t know. But I do. I did before I died, and it’s not like I forgot everything just because I was in heaven. You can’t fall when you’re starting from the gutter in the first place.”

“You…” The slow rise of anger must show in Balthazar’s face, because John snaps his wings into non-existence before Balthazar can curl his nails into them. “You--bastard.”

Then he is trying to bite, and John is shoving him back, knotting up their arms in each other so he can slam Balthazar’s head into the floor. Balthazar curses and spews the cruelest words he can think of in a torrent that soon gets away from him. Washes him away like the fury of their fighting tumbles them over and over till trying to wreak flesh bleeds into trying to bind it to him, till hissing brutal words turns into groaning them and then into swallowing them, trying to drink John as deeply as possible.

And when Balthazar is weak again with this need that kills him and makes him live, John pulls away with eyes that are hard and raging and cold. “I was in Heaven,” he grates out. “I was there. It was peaceful—God, it was peaceful. I didn’t have to do anything anymore, I didn’t have to try, I didn’t have to hurt--”

“I dragged you back,” Balthazar gasps, and it’s not pride that makes his throat hurt. Not when he thinks of the past months and how they’ve raked over him till he hangs in uneven strips and shreds.

“Yeah. Yeah, you did. And I hate you for it.” Then John presses forward and his mouth is the match that sets Balthazar burning. “And I don’t.” Another kiss, another fire, and there shouldn’t be anything left for it to consume but there always is. “And you understand? It’s all fucking signposts. Heaven, Hell—places to go, places for traveling. Neither of them could hold me. They’re not this. Asshole.”

And his mouth is on Balthazar’s, and they’re searing each other to white-hot. Whether this is souls or life or love or hate, it doesn’t matter. Because Balthazar sees the point, and the point is that it never ends. It never ends, they can never stop, and he can’t let go.

“Lucifer—” he gasps, hands twined in John’s hair.

John laughs, sucks at the leaping pulse in Balthazar’s neck, and in that laugh are scars, proof of the lessons John’s already learned. Reassurance of a kind. “And God. Screw them. They haven’t figured out how to break their own rules yet, that’s their problem.”

“But they won’t—”

“No. Of course not. Of course it’s still a fucking unfair fight. Of course I still hate you and you hate me. We’re not dead, and we’re on earth, so that’s how it goes.” For a moment John’s eyes flick opaque and flat and cold, and his hands freeze to Balthazar.

But it connects to a knot of ice hate within Balthazar and both of them know it. Even in this they know where to push and tear at each other, and that is how they break back into the fire.

* * *


“What do you think you’re doing?” asks a virulent Michael.

John shrugs, flutters his wings so their tips tickle Balthazar’s bare back. “Fucking him. Fucking you as well, only that’s metaphorical because…I really, really don’t like you.”

“What do you think you’re doing?” asks a malicious Lucifer.

“Walking where you won’t,” Balthazar says. He steals John’s cigarette and blows smoke so the feathers split them into thin threads. “Or can’t. It makes no difference.”

“This isn’t over,” comes the hiss, just before Michael and Lucifer withdraw.

No. But then, Balthazar knows how to live with that.