|The Pilgrim’s Progress
Author: Guede Mazaka
She’s dead. Splattered two to three inches thick over approximately five square yards of pavement. Angela had been able to see bullets coming, and if John knows anything about psychic gifts, she’d seen the semi coming as well, but seeing isn’t stopping.
He’s not going to be invited to the funeral. It’s been half a day and he hasn’t even gotten a notice, though her colleagues aren’t blind or morons. Of course he knows anyway. That’s the John Constantine franchise for a guy—Lucifer himself takes time out of his busy schedule to drop a line.
It would have been easier, John thinks, if the bastard had personally shown up. Then there could have been rage, there could have been violent grief. He could have slashed his hand across the bedsheets, murdering the impressions that still linger in them from earlier in the morning, and wept over the fine strands of hair that drift over the pillows. He could have been the fucking romantic, the noble everyday man, the what-fucking-ever as long as it wasn’t who he really, unchangeably is.
I can still touch you.
So says the note in elegant script. The paper is yellow like the gnarled teeth of old hobos, the ink smells of sulfur. The blood splatter in the corner is a nice detail. A really nice detail, and old reflexes have John smiling hard and sharp through it even though he should be on his knees and bawling his fucking eyes out. Or doing something suicidal, like going into Hell and directly challenging that asshole. Something a normal person would do.
His fingers rub together, then rise to his mouth, and John’s gone through the whole process before he remembers that yeah, he’s a quitter. Good boy, kicked his habits and reached for his golden ring and even had it for a little while.
He swears and abruptly flings away his arm, gesture so brutal that it knocks him over. He catches himself with his elbows on the edge of the bed, breaks his knees on the floor, and so his nose is right in it when the note flares into ash. When the smell of burning hair fills the air—as if Lucifer thinks John might just be crazy enough to work with poppets, or maybe necromancy.
Breathing hurts. Sharp, immediate, like glass shards are stuck in John’s throat. And what is his first reaction to being hurt? “Lou, you anal son of a bitch.”
Right. Yeah, John’s who he is, and he shouldn’t have tried to forget that because everyone else sure as hell didn’t. He doesn’t take names. He simply gets straight to the heart of it, and goes home without bothering to wipe its bits off his hands.
He’s so full of shit. He wanted to go to heaven…but he’s got so many years left to go and no way to cut them short unless he wants to reverse twenty years of hard work. So many years, and what’s left to make him want them? If he plays the straight game, the house takes him chip by chip. If he plays the crooked game, then the house will goddamn break him.
It’s funny. It really is. It’s so funny that John is laughing into the bed despite how much his throat hurts, that he’s laughing and laughing and suddenly he’s coughing, stumbling away through poisonous veils of smoke. His bed’s on fire.
He backs off a few more paces. Watches it burn. He should care, really. Beeman’s dead too and for some reason the man left the building to John, so for the first time in twenty years, John is living without any kind of landlord. If the place goes, then John’s out on the street again, a sadsack old-timer that used retirement as an excuse to slow down and got mowed down by the wheel of fortune. That’s what he would be, should be, could be if only he wasn’t irrevocably himself. So fine. He’ll be that.
His cheeks are dry when he walks through the door. They hadn’t been very wet to begin with.
* * *
Gabriel’s replacement is a redhead and much shorter, but the overall attitude is still the same: cool, uncomplicated disdain. “Such things happen, John. Be careful that you do not commit the sin of wrath and jeopardize your newfound salvation.”
“What, exactly, do you care about my salvation? You know, I just realized—you guys have no motivation whatsoever to do your jobs. You don’t have to worry about yourselves. It really doesn’t make a difference to your life who’s saved and who’s damned.” John gets up from the chair and paces over the carpet, watching how the firelight slings into the half-circle thuds his heels leave in it. His fingers fidget incessantly and his throat still hurts. It feels like he’s been breathing over a red-hot iron since he left his place. “I’m just another soul.”
“John, it’s only fair to treat all as equal. I know you pride—” arch emphasis there “—yourself in believing that you’re somehow superior, but the fact of the matter is that you are only one of God’s many children.”
The shadows on the wall dance to the mockery of the angel’s words. And as John stares at them, they curve, take on the willowy shape of a woman for the blink of an eye. Then a log in the fireplace crashes in a shower of sparks and the air sizzles with hostility.
The angel stiffens. “You bring evil here.”
“No more than whatever was here in the first place,” John snarls. He wants a cigarette.
He reaches into his pocket as he walks out, but his fingers only close around a pack of gum. It’s another well-planted joke, and John can’t even blame Lucifer for it. So hopeful…and so he’d forgotten the basic law of the world, which is that people are never really, truly on their own. There’s no such thing as free will, only how much the will of others can be bent.
“She’s not in Hell. You may have no fear for her salvation,” the angel calls after him. Maybe something of the seething fury John feels has shown in his back, because said heavenly messenger sounds almost worried. “John Constantine. John?”
And it’s a small detail, but it’s one that gets beneath his ripped and raw skin to wedge hard in his nerves. He hunches against it, then whips around. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the white-faced altar boy moving meaningfully towards him. So John throws a handful of spineless, useless dreams in the bastard’s face; the sticks of gum mash under his feet as he treads over them.
“Don’t fucking call me that,” he mutters, seeing himself out.
No one should say his name like they give a damn, because they never do. The only ones who did, the ones he called friends, are almost all dead. Almost.
There’s a drugstore across the street. Before John goes on into the night, he steps into the store and buys himself a pack of cigarettes. They don’t carry anything like his brand, so even that’s a disappointment. But when he stands on the curb facing the cathedral and holds the lighted cigarette to his mouth, death swelling his lungs and creeping into his blood, he feels less.
Then he sees the shining blank stones that line the cathedral’s walk, and something that was barely mended in the first place snaps.
So he’s one of the maddening crowd, nameless and faceless. So he’ll change that. One angry, scrawling message at a time if he has to. This first one is weak, the ash from his cigarette-tip already flaking off before he’s finished, but that’s better. That means they won’t notice till too late.
* * *
Midnite doesn’t charge John for a drink, nor does he say a word when John walks into his office over the groaning body of the visitor he’d been seeing. He looks old and wise, like he saw John coming from miles away. A lot of people do that, and if it bothered John before, it sends his temper whipsailing now.
“I thought you’d learned your lesson by now,” Midnite says, inclining his head towards the half-ash, half-addiction cylinder John dangles between his fingers.
“Don’t we all.” Now that John’s here, he can’t remember why he came.
It’s been a day and a night and a day. He hasn’t slept or stopped walking long enough to eat because his fingers have been rubbing themselves raw on brick, stone, even plywood. His pack of cigarettes still holds a few because his lungs refused to let him go back immediately to his old level of self-pollution, but he can already feel them giving in, bending to the inevitable.
The man across from him seems like the farthest thing in the room, floating somewhere high with the angels and the demons, above the fruitless endless struggles in the shit. When he speaks, his sepulchral tones contain understanding and sympathy and even some reluctant kindness. “I’m sorry, John. But did you really think Lucifer was going to let you get away with besting him?”
John leans forward. Slow, sliding his elbows back on his thighs, letting his cigarette come to his mouth instead of the other way around. He blows his drag right in Midnite’s face, shrouding it in the smoke to match the mirrors scattered around the place. “To be brutally honest with you? Yeah. Yeah, I did. Because you know something? I thought you could win. But before you tell me so, I see that I’m wrong about that. You can’t win. You can’t even get heard.”
Those words sit uneasily with Midnite, whose eyes flicker like he’s taking the measure of John’s coffin. But his hands unfold from around each other and one stretches across the desk, and the kindness inherent in that leaves an awful taste in John’s mouth. “Don’t do anything foolish now. You still are going to heaven—”
“And what fucking good is it?” The tightness wound up inside of John uncoils with lightning speed so he snaps to his feet, his hand smashing into Midnite’s desk. He burns himself because he’s forgotten the cigarette that’s now a red weal across the backs of his fingers and a pulverized blot on Midnite’s furniture. “I’m here, on this plane.”
There’s no point in staying. He dodges around Midnite’s grab for him and spins on his heel.
“You didn’t love her!” Midnite sends cracking after John. “You’re not mourning her, you’re mourning yourself again. John. John!”
“And isn’t that enough to cry about?” John mutters to himself. He throws up an arm and catches the swinging door on his forearm, forcing it to stay open so he can leave.
Now he remembers. He came to say goodbye, and he attaches no affection to that.
“Don’t call me that.” The blood and the ashes on John’s hand mix together till he has a gray, sticky paste on his fingers. He smears it over the backs of the chairs he walks past, streaks it on the wall as he exits the building. Writes with it on an alley wall a block down, blotting out the gaudy fluorescent attempted claims of others with his own.
He knows it’s futile, but this time the point isn’t to succeed anyway. The point is to make someone look twice.
* * *
Cracked pavement, oily crumples of trash. The streets of L. A. are a twisting labyrinth that eats its own limbs and knots the people within it from whatever lies outside. For once, John doesn’t resent this because it makes it easier for him to keep moving, keep writing. Office buildings, houses, park benches and nightclubs.
He uses the discarded spray cans of others when he can find them. He traces feverishly from oil puddles and beer spew with the toe of his boot, scribbles with chalk and pen and when there’s nothing else, with his blood and spit.
His feet stumble, his eyes fail him. He starts to hear things. The ghosts crowd close, plucking at his sleeves and moaning, John. John. John. He tells them to shut up at first in his head, and then out loud so people stare when he forgets himself, which he does more and more often.
He hates how they all say his name. So familiar, turning compassion and courtesy into an acid backwash in John’s mouth. If they’re going to call him, they could at least have the decency to be truthful about it. They don’t give a shit about him, or if they do, they hate every bone and bit of flesh in his body. They shouldn’t say his name like that, like they care. They should say it like they want him to kill them.
John writes faster and faster, hands blurring over the surfaces till he can no longer distinguish them. He writes to the edge of pain and beyond it. He smears over the dark till the dark smears him.
* * *
“Dear me, Johnny. I was hoping our reunion would be a little more graceful.”
That’s how they should say it. “That’s exactly it,” John mumbles.
His lips are swollen and cracked, his eyes sting and blur no matter how much he rubs them over with his sleeves. His hands scream when he uses them to push himself off the concrete, and then he sees how scabbed and bloody they are in the mirrors of two highly-polished shoes.
His reflection changes as he watches it, distorted and fractured by creasing in the leather. A finger lands on his shoulder.
“Don’t tell me you’ve lost your mind, Johnny. I’d be so disappointed to have nothing left to do now that I’m back,” Balthazar says. He cradles John’s head in his hands like a mother.
It starts like a barb in John’s gut, but soon enough that blooms into a full-fledged evisceration. The laugh flays John from inside out so he can no longer hold up his head, so his arms fail him and he falls into Balthazar. And he’s still laughing, still shaking his head and helplessly choking his breath, when his hands grip in Balthazar’s clothes, claw them open and scrape the first layers off the skin beneath them.
“What—” Balthazar sounds surprised. This is funny, too. He pushes hard at John, trying to shove away, and this is even funnier.
“I’m so sorry,” John cackles. “So very, very sorry, and here, let me make it up. Let me say welcome back properly, you fucking piece of shit that won’t die--” like me--
After that John pins down Balthazar’s arms and covers Balthazar’s mouth with his own, not out of affection or lust but because that way he doesn’t have to hear it. After that Balthazar is bending into it, thinking it’s another opportunity and yes, John can hear the gears clicking in the moaning, grinding body beneath him, but that’s fine. That’s goddamn fine.
It’s a filthy alley and it’s a half-breed demon that should have been in Hell where John had helped send him, it’s the worst thing John could possibly do if he’s got any interest in himself. But he doesn’t. So it’s fine.
* * *
The first thing John sees when he wakes up is a pen on the side-table. When he reaches for it, his hand is shaking so badly he knocks it off.
He didn’t even notice Balthazar sitting on the edge of the bed, but there he is, snatching the pen from the air and staring at John. “You’ve actually gone insane.”
“Give me that.” John’s head hurts. His body doesn’t, but his body doesn’t feel anything at all.
“No.” Balthazar uses the pen to tap hard at John’s cheekbone, jerking it away whenever John makes a grab for it only to bring it teasingly back again. He looks different. “You’ve made the news. Unless there’s some other lunatic that would graffiti your name all over L. A. By the way, I’m flattered. I didn’t think you liked my pet name for you.”
Beneath the sheets John’s naked. Angela’s dead. They’re in a hotel. Facts jumble together in John’s head and he doesn’t try to make sense of them. He’s tired of it, and at the same time he wants that goddamn pen with a fervor that’s rattling his nerves. “I don’t. Give me that.”
This time Balthazar draws away to study John. There’s more color in his cheeks, maybe. Or it might be that he’s not in the suits that were all John ever saw him in before. “You haven’t eaten in days. Or slept, or showered.”
“You’re alive,” John retorts. He crouches, biding his time. He’s spotted his clothes folded up in the corner and his shoes peeking out from beneath them. He recognizes the hotel stationery, and if he can just get that pen, he can be on his way. He’s not done yet.
“Which I find most interesting of all, considering that that’s your fault.” Then Balthazar tips his head, smile waiting to spring onto his face. He thinks John’s going to be upset.
Instead John lunges, and while they’re weightless in a floating tangle, his hand closes around the smooth plastic of the pen. He lands hard and to the side, but a moment later he’s up and yanking his shirt to him. The pen-tip catches in his sleeve so he rips off a button forcing his arm through, but that doesn’t matter. He just needs to get moving.
“Wait—what’s the matter with you!” Something grabs John’s ankle. When he kicks it off to pull on his pants, it stands up to shake him by the elbow. “Johnny, you stupid idiot—you brought me back with your vandalizing and you—”
“—and you’re not the same and you’re on the outs with Lucifer and I don’t give a fuck.” John’s dressed. His thumb is pushing off the pen cap and he’s turning towards the door when that damned something knocks him over.
* * *
Balthazar hasn’t come back mortal, or any kind of cheap uncomplicated shot like that. He doesn’t bleed right when John’s ragged nails rip over his cheek. He doesn’t wince either.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” he says. He’s on his ass, holding himself up with his arms, and he’s between John and the door.
Fucking fine. John crawls over and between Balthazar’s knees, and he latches onto Balthazar’s throat like a bulldog. When hands come up, he chews and sucks till they’re grabbing at him instead of trying to drag him off. His hands pull and press at Balthazar till the bastard arches into him, till his prick is swelling in John’s hand and his legs are trying to knot around John’s waist. But he can’t hold John, and while he spurts come on the floor, John is slipping over him and away.
“She…was just…” pants Balthazar.
“I don’t give a fuck about her, either.” And that’s the truth now. Midnite was right, whatever comfort that may afford him, and John doesn’t care enough to be offended.
He’s still holding onto the pen. The cap’s gone, but all the better; he can just put the tip to the wall by the door and slash off two words along the doorframe. It’s a start, but he can feel the itch for more and he needs to get outside, to write more till all the blank slates in the world that aren’t really blank slates are filled up and can’t fool anyone anymore.
“Did you just fuck me to get out the door? At least whores do it for money, Johnny.”
John smiles till either it stops hurting or he gets too used to it. “Well, I guess they’re better than me, aren’t they?”
* * *
Write, write, write. Try to brush off the fly nagging at his elbow, but always miss.
“You think this is going to protect you? Johnny, insane people still go to heaven. Lucifer isn’t going to leave you alone yet.”
“Isn’t that why you’re here?” The pen ran dry three buildings ago, but some gang left a cache of spraypaint cans and now John is scrawling big cerulean loops over marble. Specks of it are falling on his sleeves so the black fabric is now spangled as a clown’s, but he doesn’t stop. He should back off and be neater, but he doesn’t bother.
Balthazar grits his teeth. Loud, like he thinks it’ll get through to John. “I’m here because you invoked me.”
“Of course I did. Of course. Sure, if you want to think that,” John says, laughing under his breath. The can sputters a little and he tenses up, willing it to last a while longer. And it does, but a while is only a few seconds before it runs dry. It’s the last one so he shakes it, presses the button and then shakes it harder and harder because goddamn it, he’s not done. He’s not—fucking—done—
His back hits the wall, and his hand automatically throws the can, but Balthazar slaps it away. The grip on John’s throat is hard enough to make him rasp, to remind him that yes, that hurts, and the look in Balthazar’s eyes is furious frustration, which is yet another reminder of how much of a joke it all is.
“Is this it?” Balthazar delicately asks. His fingers shift on John’s neck and he nods triumphantly when John gags. He leans in close, breath warming John’s skin, and whispers like a priest. “Is this what you’re looking for? A quick way to join her?”
John drags at Balthazar’s wrist till he’s got enough air, then snickers. “You know, if I’m really insane, then I’m probably just imagining you. Poor Johnny, so fucked up he has you for a pretend friend.”
“I’m not your friend.” Like it’s a point, Balthazar drops John. He steps back, dusts off his hands and sticks them in his pockets.
“Nah.” So Balthazar won’t kill him after all. While John can’t say he isn’t a little annoyed, he also can’t call it torture. It doesn’t matter enough to him for it to hurt. “No, you just want attention like everyone else. You’re just pissed off that I fucked you to get a fucking pen.”
And suddenly John does have a point to make, a message to stamp. He pulls himself up the wall, then sways towards Balthazar. When he gets an uneasy shift but no retreat, he takes a step forward. And a step forward. He’s careful this time even if he doesn’t actually give a damn, lifting his hands to Balthazar’s shoulders and neck and throat. His fingers stroke lightly along the bruises there. He makes his voice soft and sweet. “Is this what you want? Somebody that’s all yours to break?”
Balthazar’s eyelashes twitch, though the rest of him remains expressionless and still. John leaves a hand curled around Balthazar’s neck and pulls open his collar, picks up Balthazar’s hand and makes it run down the scrapes and cuts and bruises on his chest. He hisses when Balthazar’s nail catches the edge of a scratch, licks hard along Balthazar’s jaw when it presses in deeper. Moans like a whore, shoves Balthazar’s hand lower.
“I didn’t do this.” The words grate out of Balthazar’s mouth.
It’s hard, but John keeps himself from completely falling into a fit of laughter at Balthazar’s disappointment. At the sheer bitterness in Balthazar’s voice, which surprises the hell out of Balthazar long enough for John to back them against the wall. “No, you didn’t. Congratulations. This is what being fucked over is like.”
Before the snickers can fully make it out of John’s mouth, Balthazar is slamming him up against the stone again. It hurts, a little, and John rips at Balthazar’s neck trying to get him close, to get more of that. His hand slips off and he grabs at Balthazar’s neck again, the fresh scratches a set of thin low burns against his palm. His tongue stabs into Balthazar’s mouth and he coils it around the over-long teeth till he can taste his own blood.
He lets Balthazar rip off his pants, jerk him around so he nearly breaks his nose on the wall. The marble’s cool and smooth—too smooth, nothing there for John to hook into and hang on so he slides when Balthazar’s nails sink into his hips, he scrabbles helplessly when suddenly his ass is burning and straining and Balthazar’s teeth clamp into his shoulder. Good thing he’s used to that. Good thing he doesn’t give a shit.
He listens to Balthazar pant and groan. There’s a desperate, fierce edge to Balthazar’s voice and to how he tears at John, so precise and so frantic at the same time. The bastard knows what will make John scream into his forearm, what will make him bite down for the bone, and for all that knowledge he still can’t get what he wants out of John. So he tries harder, digs deeper, slashes farther, and in the end he gets nothing. In the end he’s the one who gives out with a protesting cry.
“You did that,” John says afterward. He hisses at the last thrust Balthazar gives him, then slumps as Balthazar roughly pulls himself out. His body makes him rest a moment before he turns around to look at Balthazar. “Well? Make you feel better to see it?”
Balthazar’s arm blurs into motion, but it stops before it reaches John. He’s shaking his head, very slightly at first and then harder, and his lips are moving as if he’s choking on the words.
John gets himself dressed, ignores the small trickle of blood down his thigh and the ripping pain in his rectum, and he limps off. In the next alley over, he finds a box of markers someone’s thrown out. It doesn’t take long for him to lose himself in the sweep of the line again.
* * *
Bodily needs force John to collapse every so often. He crawls to half-empty bottles and drinks what’s in them without knowing what that is. He scrounges for food from the trash. His clothes rip and he doesn’t fix them. Poor assholes shove him out of their makeshift newsprint-and-cardboard shelters. Rich ones try to beat the shit out of him, but even insane, he’s who he is and that includes being someone who can fuck up people better than anybody.
Eventually he wakes up in the hotel again. Or a hotel, anyway, because it’s not the same one but the set-up is almost identical. The only important difference is that this time, Balthazar is sitting on the bed and smoking. He has dark circles beneath his eyes and his fingers can’t stop twirling the cigarette in between drags, flipping it back and forth like a coin.
John can’t remember the last time he had a cigarette. He can’t help staring at it, magnetic pull gluing his eyes there even though the need to finish writing is still around. For the first time in God knows how long, there’s a new sensation: he’s torn.
“Would you like this?” Balthazar asks. He does so quietly, without any coyness.
“Sure. Why not?” When John reaches for it, Balthazar withdraws. Now this seems familiar, and he puts his hand on Balthazar’s thigh and leans forward, but Balthazar pushes him off. “What?”
“Don’t—do that.” Balthazar abruptly shoves the cigarette at John, then quickly lights himself another. He isn’t awkward about it, but it’s clear he’s just recently taken up the habit.
The first hit off the cigarette is a beautiful descent into hazy disconnect. Everything slows down, and even the lure of the door dies back a little. “What’s the matter? I thought you of all people wouldn’t have a problem with meaningless sex.”
“I thought you of all people would realize that nothing’s ever actually meaningless.” It takes less time for Balthazar to finish his whole cigarette than it does for John to finish his half-smoked one. Once Balthazar’s done, he leans over John to stab out their butts in the ashtray on the side-table that has paper but no pen. And he pauses that way before turning and pressing his mouth to the side of John’s throat.
“What, because it’s all part of the grand scheme? Because it’s a move somewhere on somebody’s board?” John lets his head loll against the wall and stares at the ceiling while Balthazar keeps kissing his neck. “Newsflash—that doesn’t actually give meaning to anything but the players. Doesn’t mean shit to the pawns.”
The nicotine is seeping slowly through the old starved channels, satiating them with unexpected poison. It makes John dizzy but strangely calm and unwilling to move. Now Balthazar’s hands are roaming over his chest and stroking across the dip of his waist, but all John does is stare upward.
“This isn’t going to work, you know,” he tells the mouth working its way down his front. “You can’t make me back like how I was before. You can’t win.”
Balthazar freezes, then slowly lifts his head. His eyes are angry and bright. “I don’t give a fuck,” he says with perfect enunciation.
John has to stare, because in Balthazar’s face is reflected everything that is drowning John, and it’s so different to see it in someone else that he’s shaken. Enough to raise his hands to Balthazar’s shoulders, and then to Balthazar’s face so he can kiss Balthazar almost like he means it.
* * *
There’s no point in lingering, in trying to luxuriate in a sensation that can’t last, but maybe that’s why they do it anyway. Why John keeps kissing Balthazar slow and deep while he takes the time to actually unbutton and pull instead of ripping and yanking, why Balthazar forgoes any sound except little breathless hitches.
Balthazar ends up beneath this time, and he’s there because he pulls John on top of him, not because John’s shoving him down there. His hands run over John like he thinks John’s spun out of crazed glass and like he doesn’t want it all to shatter. Which is a lie, but it’s a lie that kneads the knots out of John’s back and runs a hot tongue over John’s lip, jaw, cheek like a kitten. It’s a lie and John swallows it with open eyes because he doesn’t care, but Balthazar does taste sweet and the feel of his muscle beneath John’s hands is pleasurable. His knees sprawl on either side of John and he tucks his head into John’s neck, sucking gently on the pulse while John traces the curve of his thigh and the line of his cock.
And of course, John realizes. Of course he can make words here, can loop them into being with his spit and with the tracks his fingertips make in the sweat that slicks their bodies. He laves broken phrases across Balthazar’s shoulders and down his chest, he uses his nails to cut single words into Balthazar’s thighs till Balthazar reaches down and shoves John’s fingers into his passage. Even when the increasingly fervent twisting of their limbs wipe out the messages, John can feel them burning beneath Balthazar’s skin. He has to write more—he does write more, and it stays and it means something to someone.
Balthazar gasps, eyes so wide that John can see the comprehension and the impotent rage at it in them. But too late, too bad, because John is almost done and Balthazar can’t untangle himself in time. Doesn’t want to—his hands slide an inch and stop before they return to clutch at John, his knees don’t even move from their tight press into John’s ribs as John pushes his prick into Balthazar. As his thumbs scroll the last phrases down Balthazar’s pinned forearms, as he bites the closing sentences into Balthazar’s throat, and suddenly Balthazar is bending frantically into John, twisting and turning so it’s easier. So John can get that much more into a space before he has to move on, so the searing of the words beneath Balthazar’s skin grows till it burns straight into John.
For a moment, John cares.
* * *
“I betrayed him to his son. Of course he made Hell unpleasant for me,” Balthazar is saying, curled around John so his knees bump John’s belly and his breath tickles John’s chin. His eyes are half-closed and he looks oddly content. “Though then you called me up here.”
“Are you saying thank-you?” John feels hollow and light, barely tethered to the ground. He’s also tired—so very, very tired, and finally he can stop and relax. His hand is on Balthazar’s waist because it just fell there, and he’s rubbing it in circles because he needs to waste time.
Balthazar moves into the touch, sighing, and some kind of tightness glances off of John. It’s almost a feeling, but not quite, and it’s gone beyond recall by the time he’s noticed it. “You’ve already lost enough of your sanity. I don’t see the point in unbalancing it further.”
“You missed me. You possessive, selfish son of a bitch. You really do want it to be all about you, and fuck the grand plan.” That sharp, jagged laugh sneaks into John’s voice, and he’s amused to see Balthazar’s eyes snap open at the sound of it. No, he’s not better. He’s just finished. He keeps smiling when Balthazar digs nails into his arm, then shakes him, and then finally pulls out the pen that was missing and stabs it into John’s hand. That’s not needed anymore, so John tosses it off the bed. “It’s not insanity. It’s just very, very clear thinking.”
“I don’t—” Balthazar pushes himself up and stares down at John, searching John’s face over and over for something that’s been burnt out of it. “You’ve had people die on you before, and you knew them longer and cared more about them. What was so special about her?”
John props himself up on his elbows, but doesn’t bother getting all the way up. Whatever he does now really doesn’t matter, so he might as well wait for it to come to him. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing at all.”
“But then—” Balthazar starts to say.
He’s interrupted by a slow, mocking clap and a dimming of lights. Lucifer steps out of the bathroom, fresh as a daisy, and smiles toothily when Balthazar scoots all the way back to the headboard. Then he turns to John, flash of black tongue sweeping over his lips. “Well, hello, Johnny. And how are we feeling today? A little more appreciative?”
“Oh, very,” John drawls. He puts his head down and closes his eyes. “Thanks, Lou.”
“Ah…” Lou sighs in fake ecstasy. His shoes cross over to Balthazar’s side of the bed and the mattress abruptly dips as Balthazar scrambles over to John. “Finally, some appreciation for all that I’ve done for you. Keep it up and I might let you have him back once we’re all home.”
“What?” A hand squeezes past John’s head and clamps into his wrist, jerking at him. Lucifer’s clothes rustle and suddenly Balthazar is pressed up against John’s side and jabbing him hard in the ribs. “John.”
It should have been obvious, really, so John shouldn’t have the least bit of concern. But he has to admit there’s the slightest wince at the shakiness of Balthazar’s voice. Just a little, easily shouldered away. He’s been too long in the cold to thaw now; he’s lost all of that. “Like I said, you’re here because Lou wasn’t through with me yet. You didn’t actually think he’d let me call you up on my own, did you?”
“John, you complete--”
And John does open his eyes for this. Soon as he feels Lucifer pulling on Balthazar, he looks and he sits up, wrenching off Balthazar’s grip, and so he has a perfect view of the dazzling white light that cleaves Balthazar out of Lucifer’s hold. It literally throws Lucifer into the wall, while Balthazar falls stunned back to the bed.
John crawls around him for the cigarettes on the side-table, and has a last one while he waits for Lucifer to brush himself off and get it. He doesn’t have to wait long; the sulfur stench flares up before Lucifer’s even completely stood up, and the hatred in Lucifer’s eyes as he raises his head is something to see.
“What did you do?” he hisses.
“I think I’d drop dead right here if it was actually love,” John says. His sense of humor is dying to get out, but he forces it back for a little longer. A little bit longer, and then he can rest. “But it doesn’t have to be, luckily. The only difference between mortals and the rest of you is that we give a shit. We care, even though it’s pointless and it ultimately doesn’t matter. So if I can get one of you to do that…” he snaps his fingers to the tune of two snarls “…redemption’s a bitch, isn’t it?”
And then the laugh spills out of John, and he’s so busy in it that he doesn’t even see Lucifer coming. It’s just a sudden blinding pa sl la i sl
When John comes to in Heaven, he’s still laughing.
* * *
Balthazar’s smoked the equivalent of two packs today. He has about ten or so brands scattered on the table in front of them, and the yellow of Johnny’s favorite sticks out like a sore thumb. The butt of his last cigarette has been sitting in the ash-tray for so long that it’s stopped giving off smoke. His fingers are curled around the table-edge and the table itself is rocking from the force of his grip.
Bastard. Clever, clever bastard. When he’s not trying to deal with the raw hollow inside of himself, he has to admit it was impressive.
It’s been long enough. He unwraps his hands from the table and slowly reaches out. For another moment, he hesitates, but then he can’t wait any longer and he plucks out a cigarette from Johnny’s brand.
The lighter flame shoots up, then clicks off to show Lucifer standing in front of the table. Balthazar doesn’t get up. “Yes?”
“Just thought you’d like to know I haven’t forgotten about you. No, you’re a great concern to me.” Lucifer tries to make his smile fawning, but the flatness of his eyes gives him away.
“I’m sure. It must be bad for morale to know that someone’s not only successfully rebelled, but also can’t be touched through the usual channels,” Balthazar drawls. He takes a long drag off his cigarette, then blows it into Lucifer’s face. It is strangely satisfying to see Lucifer forced to squint.
The dark shadows all around loom closer, but are forced to stay just out of lunging range. Some of Lucifer’s rage works its way into his tone. “Don’t think you won’t end up right where you were born. I made you. We don’t change.”
The inaccuracy of that statement speaks for itself, so Balthazar doesn’t bother commenting on it. He does take another drag to distract himself from how the words still eat deep into himself. He never wanted this, and damn John—
--which Balthazar can do till the sun imploded, just like he can banter with Lucifer, but that would get him nowhere. He taps the ash off his cigarette, then gets up and walks past Lucifer; the hiss he gets at turning his back on the Morningstar calls up flames and monsters, but they all have to stay behind him. “While I appreciate your concern, I have work to do.”
And a ladder to climb, because this is not over yet. Oh, no, Johnny—it isn’t that easy. Not for anyone, and especially not for John Constantine.