Author: Guede Mazaka
John was stuck in a groove. He was walking the same old streets, singing the same old song, tripping over the same old goddamned stones, and he needed a way to stop. The funny thing about suddenly getting an extension on life was how it automatically made everything else a drag. Imminent death and subsequent hellfire might put a damper on social life, but at least it focused things down. Without it, all the little niggling annoyances came back and left John in desperate need of…of something. Something that wasn’t this.
He thought maybe it was guilt at first, this incessant low-grade bite that had him getting up early in the mornings to stare at himself in the mirror, hit the streets for no reason except to kick irritably at cans. But no, it wasn’t that. A few trips to Chas’ grave reminded John of what guilt really felt like, and how to put it behind him. But afterwards he still found himself scrabbling around like a lab rat that had suddenly had the labyrinth changed on it and could no longer find the door.
It wasn’t that he wanted to go normal or anything like that. He wasn’t an idiot, and he wasn’t so masochistic that he’d been willing to cut out his own eyes, which at this point in his life was about the only way he could have a shot at the patsy-life. But maybe he didn’t want to be like he had before, either. Thing was, he didn’t know exactly what needed changing.
Eventually he dropped Angela—easier than it looked, given a cop’s life and his own hectic hours—and took up smoking again. It should have been like sliding into a good broken pair of shoes, but instead everything felt flat. He’d flick the ash off his cigarette and think he could hear the echoes laughing at him. He’d sneer and the things stirring uneasily around his peripheral vision would be gray instead of fierce reds and yellows. Even his cigarettes didn’t taste right.
“And this is how I end up here,” John sighed. At the other end of the bar, Midnite’s guy eyed him nervously, polishing up a martini glass like it was the Pope’s own rosary. It was almost enough to give John that warm, sarcastic feeling again, but the stars weren’t right or the planets weren’t aligned or some bullshit like that. “Hey, am I getting a drink or what?”
“We don’t open for another three hours—how the hell did you get in here?” the bartender stammered.
Well, that was new. Apparently Midnite was into refurbishing his life too, because John couldn’t remember the last time Midnite had gone out and actually hired a pulse as opposed to just jumpstarting an unclaimed corpse from the morgue. Of course, Midnite probably knew years in advance when he had to switch gears, whereas John was left pulling at random levers till the grinding finally stopped.
“Friend of the owner’s. He gave me a set of keys,” John called back. He straightened up in a half-hearted attempt to look like someone who deserved to be served, but the bartender wasn’t buying it. Bastard. “Come on. I can pay for it.”
“Come back in a couple hours, or find the boss.” With that, the man turned his back on John.
And an idiot, apparently. If this was a couple hours later…but then again, maybe the guy would manage to survive. Everyone’s standards seemed to have slid since the near-miss with Mammon; Gabriel’s replacement didn’t even have the guts to be hostile about his standoffishness and the various minor demons that were scrambling for power were less interesting than the nicks in the counter. It made a disagreeable lifestyle even worse.
John steepled his hands and rested his chin on his fingertips, reflecting on this last thought. “So my problem is that I’m bored.”
Which made sense in a way: after spending twenty years with a sentence of hell on his head and then getting it repealed via averting an apocalypse—and an actual one, not just one of those regional near-self-destructs that people kept hyperventilating over—not much would seem exciting. But it was still a dumb problem to have.
It figured, with his karma. Nothing ever worked out, whether it was a desperate rush to save the world or whether it was just sitting still, wondering when things were going to get moving again.
He sighed again and looked around, then glanced at the bartender. The other man was still fumbling with the glasses, and probably wouldn’t notice if John was very, very careful. So he was when he leaned over the counter and groped around for a bottle. His fingers brushed over a couple open tops before he found one that was still closed and thus full; he pulled it up, unscrewed the cap and gave it a sniff.
It was some Chinese thing, label decorated with a pretty redheaded girl in a high-collared brocade dress and a grinning young man bookending the name of whatever it was. Rice wine, maybe, or some version of vodka, because it didn’t have a smell. Well, that didn’t matter too much as long as it packed a punch big enough to knock John out for a while. When in doubt, pass out till the phase goes away.
He silently toasted the racks behind the bar, then put the bottle to his lips just as someone walked into the bar.
“John--John!” Midnite wasn’t in five seconds before he was snapping at John like a crotchety old mambo. Typical. “Don’t drink that!”
“Yeah, no kidding. It’s like water…” John poured some out into the palm of his hand, then tentatively tasted it. “It is fucking water. What the hell is this?”
The look on Midnite’s face was…interesting, to say the least. His eyes were bulging and the underlayers of his skin had blanched so he looked as if someone had taken an ashtray to his face. Then he drew a slow breath, color returning, and carefully pivoted to stare at his bartender. “That is not supposed to be on the shelves.”
“Oh—I’m so sorry—I didn’t mean—” The poor bastard was white as a corpse. Which he was going to be in a moment, and which John didn’t particularly want to see. If the point was to avoid boredom, then he didn’t need to stick around for something Midnite did every week.
John put the bottle down and slid off the stool, and that was when things turned…odd.
* * *
Several minutes later, John was sitting on the couch in Midnite’s office, staring at the pile of clothing that Midnite had literally just thrown at him. The other man was stalking back and forth across the room, mumbling to himself and pushing at his hat so John could glimpse actual hair. If it wasn’t for the groaning sounds coming from the next room, John would have suspected possession.
“…and you ingested it. You drank it. Why you’re still alive is a perpetual amazement to me,” Midnite muttered. He walked past his desk, then abruptly swerved to face the cabinet behind it and begin pulling out drawers. “Change.”
John raised an eyebrow. He talked a little faster than usual because it was bizarre to hear his new higher-pitched voice; he was having the damnedest time keeping himself from looking around for the girl. “Do I want to know how you got hold of a set of black lace underwear this fast? And how do you know it’ll fit? I’m not walking home in a bunch of—”
“Change,” Midnite snarled. For a guy whose job occasionally called for him to toss on fake breasts and jump around a fire, he was being pretty twitchy about this. And he wasn’t the one whose musculoskeletal structure had shifted down about two inches in two seconds. Which had been fucking painful.
The second time John opened his mouth, Midnite picked up one of the skulls on top of the dresser and banged it hard on the wood. John closed his mouth, shrugged, and figured it might be better to humor the man. Though honestly, it wasn’t like this was the first time either of them had inadvertently shifted their form.
John stood up and nearly dropped the clothes. Okay, the last times hadn’t involved this kind of damned…bouncing and rolling. He wobbled a moment before he got the hang of his lower center of gravity, then slowly loosened his arms from around his…his…he had cleavage. And it’d popped the buttons on his shirt so he could stare right down it. Shit. This was a little beyond the norm, even for him.
Before he could lose it, John looked up and across the room. Midnite was still rummaging in his drawers. John’s boxers, which had fit perfectly fine this morning, were now rubbing weirdly up against his crotch and they could do that because certain things were no longer in the way and okay, shit, stop thinking about that. “Hey, you aren’t digging around for a mirror to peek, are you?”
“Don’t imply that you’ve gained any sense of shame with this. I know you better than that.” A couple of dried ears dropped to the floor as Midnite slammed that drawer shut and opened the next one down.
Right, well, he could do that if it made him feel better. John dropped the bundle of clothing on the table, then began undressing. His shirt was more or less a loss, both because of the buttons and because of whatever the hell kind of puddle Midnite had dragged his pain-stunned body through on the way here, so he tossed it. He draped his coat and tie over the sofa, then picked up the bra.
Putting it on shouldn’t have been a problem, because if there was one problem John didn’t have, it was with the mechanics of sex and what led up to it, like unsnapping a bra. So dressing himself in one should have been the reverse, but for some reason it didn’t work. The steel wire or whatever they used to shape the cups dug into his breasts, which were a lot more sensitive than he figured on, and the little hooks in the back were hell to lock together. He wasn’t a clumsy man by any means. “Fuck. How the fuck does this…it doesn’t fit.”
“Adjust the straps so they’re flat against you and seat the underwire just beneath the curve. Push at the sides if you have to in order to have it all in the cup,” Midnite said. He sounded like he was going to break teeth from clenching them so hard.
But he did give good tips, which necessitated another stare at him. His back wasn’t all that fun a response, so John turned back to the clothes. Thankfully, Midnite had provided an actual shirt instead of a blouse, so that was normal. Mostly. From this angle, curves took on a whole new meaning. John took a good, long look. Hell, they were his, after all. They might actually be better than Ellie’s.
Things rattled on the other side of the room. Rolling his eyes, John tossed his tie around his neck and did the knot, then pulled it out so that hung around the second button, as usual. He reached for his belt and his fingers accidentally feathered over where his dick should have been, but instead there was…leg. Nice leg, but still. John shivered a little and hastily took off his trousers.
He managed to get out of the boxers and into the…the panties, which were incredibly frilly and Jesus Christ. John shoved them back down to his knees and critically eyed the fabric. Well, it looked clean. It looked clean and in this position he couldn’t help but be aware of the dark hair at the edge of his vision. He flinched, then caught himself. Goddamn it, he was John Constantine and he was not insecure. He was going to look, and he wasn’t going to freak out because he did with things like this every day.
Oh, sure he did. When he’d been asking for a little more excitement, he hadn’t exactly had staring at his cunt in mind.
Actually, he was staring at his pubic hair. He had to swallow to work up some moisture in his mouth, but he refused to blink. Okay, that had been there before. So he was just going to stick his fingers in it and push it aside to…nothing he hadn’t seen before. Right, John?
“Right. And I’m going to join the priesthood. Since I don’t have a cock anymore,” he muttered.
Weirdly enough, that made him feel better. He pulled up his panties, then got back into his pants and did up his belt just in time to realize that Midnite was, in fact, staring. “Hey. Just because it happened in your fucking bar doesn’t give you peeping rights.”
“You drank Jusenkyo water,” Midnite pronounced, like how anyone else would announce that the pufferfish had been cut wrongly and so sorry, sir, but you only had twenty-four hours to settle your affairs. “Normally people only splash themselves with it. Also, you’re a magus.”
“So?” John waited a couple minutes. When it didn’t look like Midnite was going to go on, John pulled on his coat. “You’ve got my phone number. Call me when you’re ready to make sense, all right? Don’t send a goddamned zombie around to break my door again.”
Midnite had the urge to cough and promptly indulged, since that meant he got to sound all ponderous and important again. “John. You’re a woman.”
Yeah, he was. He had the breasts and the vagina and the prettier voice, and the odd thing was, John really wasn’t feeling too inconvenienced by it. It’d been a shock, but now that he’d had a little time to get used to it, he honestly could say the curiosity was winning out. At the very least, he was managing to royally get on Midnite’s nerves like he hadn’t in years.
He shook out a cigarette and lit up. “So does the hair make me too butch for you, or would you like to buy me a drink? I still could use one.”
It couldn’t be said that Midnite was childish enough to actually throw a skull at John, but at any rate, one definitely came winging his way.
* * *
The long alley that led from Midnite’s backdoor to the street came in handy because John needed to practice walking a little before he felt that one, he wasn’t going to tip on his face and two, he wasn’t swinging his ass like a whore. His hips had a whole new rocking motion to them and he had to change how he swung his arms because the old way just made his breasts shove out there like he wanted somebody to snack on them. Also the goddamned shirt would not stay tucked in, but instead kept riding up his waist so he finally just let the tails hang loose.
After that, it wasn’t too bad. He almost twisted his ankle the first time he caught sight of himself in a storefront, but his reflexes were still good and there was a lamppost handy. John had to take a second look because shockingly enough, he made a great woman.
He winced. On second thought, that sounded way too much like something Balthazar would’ve sneered at him. But it was true. Once John had started down the sidewalk again, he got way more than his share of looks.
Well, that had always been true, but it was different to have those looks be more towards the admiring end of the spectrum than towards the slightly repulsed, slightly fearful end. Ellie had once told him that he was a good-looking man, but the pallor and air of self-destruction more than offset that. Apparently women were allowed to look like they were prowling for hell.
He passed a set of old ladies who stared repugnantly after him—that was a little more like old times—then began whispering loudly about loose girls and…cigarettes? John pulled out his butt and glanced disbelievingly at it. It was past the millennium, for God’s sake.
He stuck it back between his lips and smoked the rest of it with more relish than he had for a few months. Something about sticking it in someone’s face just made everything taste better.
* * *
The glow lasted till he was nearly home, which was something of a record for him. Then John made the decision to pop into a liquor store; he wasn’t feeling like he needed to get smashed senseless anymore, but he still thought it might be useful to have a bottle. If nothing else, he needed to make a couple offerings to certain powers in order to renew his protective wards.
He was eyeballing the more expensive whiskeys on the top shelf when a drawling, overconfident grease-streak of a voice spoke too close to his back. “Well, hello. You buying for your hubby?”
John made a face and stuck a cigarette between his lips, then snapped his lighter across the tip. “You see a ring on my hand?”
Wrong thing to say. The guy, who was a good three inches shorter with a beer-gut that could’ve qualified as a separate life-form, grinned to show worse teeth than the last half-breed John had deported. “Don’t tell me a gorgeous lady like yourself is buying real hard stuff like that for yourself. And you got short hair, but something tells me you ain’t a dyke.”
Human, John reminded himself. He took a slow drag as he considered his options, blowing the smoke into the other man’s face. “Thanks, but no thanks. I think Jack Daniels is all the man I need.”
“Aw, honey, don’t be like that,” cooed the man. He put a hand on John’s hip.
A couple seconds later, John was rapidly departing the store without the goddamned whiskey, and to the tune of the store sirens going off. He hurried up a bit to catch the light at the corner, flipping at his wet, wine-smelling sleeve. And wincing a little at his wrist; it’d jarred him more than it should have to break the bottle over that slimy fuck’s head. Shit. Women had their muscles arranged differently…John slowed down and stretched out his arms. He hadn’t lost much of his reach, just some of his brute force. He’d have to remember to account for that.
John walked the rest of the way home at a quicker pace. It was getting dark and that made him inexplicably uneasy till he started thinking about how people were looking at him again. He was still getting attention, but…it was like he was raw meat. That was it, and it was goddamned creepy to be getting that from regular people instead of just the half-breeds.
People were swerving towards him as he walked, especially the men. It was like they were trying to run him into the walls and doorways, and no matter how much he glowered around, they didn’t seem to be getting the message. His feet sped up without him noticing and he had his hands full trying to keep from breaking into a run till finally he had his door open.
He slammed it shut behind him, then leaned against the wood and slid down to sit on the floor. “Well, shit. Real great idea, John.”
* * *
Hot shower. He’d just taken out the tub completely and now he had a room-size shower, which kept him from feeling trapped and vulnerable. The water calmed him down, even relaxed him enough to laugh at himself for having an actual panic attack. After all, it hadn’t been anything new to him; it’d just been more of it, and he knew how to deal with that. He should be carrying more weapons around anyway, what with the state of the balance nowadays. Apparently as long as the chaos on either side was at the same level, everything was peachy-keen with God and the devil, but it was hell on the people on the ground.
Still, John missed his cock. It sounded silly even inside the privacy of his head—he snickered as he laved the soap down between his legs—but it was true. Five minutes with his hand and that was a dependable two minutes in oblivion and away from the pressures of his life. So much for that. Maybe.
He settled himself back against the wall and tipped his face into the warm spray, droplets a thousand tiny fingertips pattering his skin. The soap bar slipped a little from his fingers so he had to dig his nails into it to hang on. Then he shrugged, took a deep breath, and let the bar drop. He pushed back with his thumb, combing through the wet thick hair covering his crotch till he just grazed one of the weird little folds around the new hole in his body. Didn’t sound appealing, but feeling, on the other hand…
Hand. He pressed down harder, splaying out his fingers so he thoroughly mapped the new topography of that part of his body. Before it’d been sensitive but sort of narrow and not really interesting to mess with. Now it was a little broader and there were wrinkles that were apparently attached to nerves, because whenever he fingered one, he shivered. He stroked further back and was a little surprised when his hips rose of their own accord. Tensed himself up again.
John willed himself to relax and explored farther. His index finger pushed over a hump, then swept back over it and pushed back a fold to accidentally graze fucking lightning. “Shit. Okay. Right back there…”
He did it again and his right knee wobbled a little. He slid further down the wall, not wanting to fall on his ass in the middle of it all, and pressed hard right there. Ended up choking on all the water that splashed into his gasping mouth, but who cared? His finger was right there, moving back and forth, and occasionally it slid far enough back to suddenly go inside where it was…not really velvety, because it was too wet, but it felt good the same way velvet did when brushing against the skin, and John was all for that. Back and forth, back and forth, he rocked on his fingers, and he could feel part of himself swelling up beneath them, getting hot and firm and hell-fuck, wasn’t that different. Still was good. Still responded to rough treatment the same way: explosive. “Jesus Christ!”
His knees crumbled and he did end up banging his ass, but he was so limp it didn’t hurt much. He didn’t realize he was still breathing at first because it was so fast and shallow and Jesus. Jesus.
A breathless snicker broke from John’s lips, and then he laughed. His hand was still playing with himself and fuck, his pelvis was all liquid and weird and good. “Jesus. I need a cigarette.”
So it wasn’t all bad. If he could just think of how to cut out the shitty parts, it might even be fun.
* * *
The next day, John went out for coffee and some time in the arcane sections of the public library, because of course he wasn’t going to forget about getting himself a backdoor. Being a girl was a blast now, but he damn well was going to figure out a way to change back.
Jusenkyo was actually a bunch of water: a series of magical springs in China that conferred shape-changing properties on anyone who bathed in them. Supposedly the shape-change was triggered by hot or cold water, but something had gone different with John, whether it was because he’d drunk it or because he had his own magic. He was betting on the latter. There was a man-shape spring, but the whole area had been buried in a rockslide several years ago so no one could get to them. No wonder Midnite had been pissed; bottles of Jusenkyo water must be worth their weight in gold now. Well, if anyone wanted the ability to change into a cockroach.
The important point was that they worked by magic, and magic was right up John’s alley. He had a feeling it was pretty primitive stuff, so he might not even have to bother with a blood sacrifice. Maybe…
“Uh, can I help you get that? It looks like a pretty heavy book,” stammered somebody.
John rolled his eyes as he turned, ready to rip out their backbone. Then he blinked and reconsidered. He hadn’t tried that yet, and this guy was definitely better than the last one. Taller, for one—it was strange having to look up. “Knock yourself out.”
The helpful sucker’s name was Steve, and he obviously lived a boring nine-to-five life, and he had been raised to be a perfect gentleman, which meant he carried John’s huge stack of books and still held the door for John. It should’ve been irritating, but strangely enough, John found himself more amused than anything. He knew he could take care of himself, but it was interesting to have someone offering to do it for him. Men didn’t help other men without expecting payback—especially the ones that moved in John’s regular world—and the women John tended to meet generally wanted him to solve their problems for them.
“I didn’t get your name,” Steve said, panting.
After a pause, John decided to go with it. He wasn’t about to go jumping for the white horse and knight, but he figured he deserved a break. “Johnny.”
“Isn’t that a guy’s name?” Steve asked. He still was staring at John’s breasts.
“Do I look like a guy?” John adjusted the strap of his duffel bag and sucked on his cigarette. He had a hard time not laughing at the eager way Steve shook his head. Jesus Christ, talk about popcorn.
Though John enjoyed a good snack now and then, and it’d definitely been a while.
* * *
John stretched, then rolled off the couch. And hissed, but smiled lazily at the same time. He hadn’t been able to make it from the door to his bed and for once, it wasn’t because he’d been beaten up and down and sideways. So long, Steve, but thanks for the great fuck.
After a moment lying on the floor, John grudgingly obeyed his body’s complaints and dragged himself up. He put a hand down to press at his belly, which seemed to be aching a hell of a lot. And not just where it should have been, but higher up and to the sides…what the hell was running down his legs? He swiped his finger over his clit, then brought it back up to stare at the blood. For one crazy moment he was thinking hymen, but then he remembered Steve just sliding it home.
John blinked. Closed his eyes. “Fuck. Fucking nuisance…fine, fine, I’ll actually get started on changing back now…oh, ow. Ow.”
This was fucking shit.
One quick improvisation with tissues and a dash to the drugstore later, John was squatting on the toilet with his head craned around to squint at the tiny print of the instruction pamphlet that had come with the tampons. He snorted, then stared at the plastic tube he had in his hand. Pushed its end so a bit of cotton began to protrude from the other, then quickly went back to reading the instructions. “This is fucking shit. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Well, at least he was still nice and open, John sourly thought. If the matter ever came up again, he was holding out for the demon-girl water. He was pretty sure that Ellie didn’t have to deal with this shit.
He sucked air between his teeth, then lowered his hands between his legs. It was just like bringing himself off, he told himself. Same moves, same place, same…it pinched. “This is bullshit.”
John gritted his teeth and reached around the counter till he found his cigarettes. He smoked like hell while his fingers probed and poked and finally got the fucking thing in. Jesus fucking Christ. He was changing back. Just as soon as his guts stopped leaking from him.
* * *
After a deep breath, John cracked open one eye. Then he opened both and leaned forward over the sink, trying to resist the urge to beat his head against the goddamn mirror that was telling him he was a one-breasted Amazon.
He willed himself to calm down, and then closed his eyes again. Concentrated hard. It was just magic and if it was magic, eventually he would find a way to get an edge on it. Goddamned Jusenkyo water thought it was in him, well, it was going to learn what that meant. He could internalize this. Go back to how it was and take care of business, and if he did it right, he would have time to play around with this again. He just needed to focus. Focus.
* * *
John walked in and Midnite nearly killed him. Well, not physically, but the look Midnite was giving him was a pretty close call. “Where have you been?” the other man demanded. “I’ve been calling you since—wait…John?”
If John laughed, Midnite could raise the dead against him. If he laughed…with an effort, he suppressed the urge. “Yeah?”
“You’re a man.” For the second time since John had first met the man, Midnite’s eyes were bulging.
“Well, yeah. Breasts are fun and all for a night out, but they really get in the way in the middle of a brawl,” John drawled, ambling across the room. He took a seat at the bar and checked out the new guy behind it: dead stare, over-careful movements…Midnite was back to the undead. “Don’t tell me you were worried about me. Come on. I can deal with a little cursed water by myself.”
Midnite’s lips compressed into a thin line. After a moment, he stiffly nodded and came over to spread out a old, cracked piece of parchment on the bar. “Good. Because we don’t have time to deal with your personal issues right now. We’ve got a problem.”
“No, it looks like a prophecy…” John pulled the parchment over and squinted at the faded Latin, occasionally mumbling out a line to put it together. The meaning of the words began to sink in and they were like lead weights attached to his heart. “Oh, great. Everyone’s going to hell unless we pull together a quincunx ritual in a few weeks. And for that we need Medusa’s Heart, and when was the last time anyone saw that?”
A flash of what might have been humor went over Midnite. “When Balthazar showed it to me.”
“So he sold it to you, and you have it?” John hopefully said. Stone-face from Midnite, which sank John’s heart again. “So he had it, and he’s the only one that knows—knew where it is. Shit. Midnite, no. He’s a demon. It’s not like raising your fucking auntie, okay? You can’t just shove him back when we’re done. You have to—oh, no goddamned way.”
“I don’t need one, and you seem to provoke him more anyway. We’ll need that if we’re going to have him tell us what we need to know.” Now that was definitely amusement in Midnite’s face. The malicious bastard was really enjoying this.
“And after we’ve saved the goddamned world again, what am I supposed to do with him? I don’t need a familiar either,” John snapped. So much for his good mood. Suddenly all the weight of humanity was riding his back again and he wanted it fucking off. He wanted to stomp out of the room and dig out a fucking bra and hit the clubs, pretend Johnny didn’t have to put up with this. Couldn’t he ever get a break?
Midnite’s hand suddenly hit the bar and the ensuing crack echoed wildly about the room. His face had gone cold and serious, and it was crystal clear that John wasn’t leaving unless it was to help out. “Do you have any other suggestions for bringing him back in a way that doesn’t let him cause trouble?”
“N—actually, yes. Do you still make raids on the city morgue?” John asked. He saw the wary look in Midnite’s eyes and snorted. If the man wanted John’s help, then he’d better take what was offered and not expect something nicer. “Trust me, my way will annoy him even more.”
* * *
Balthazar groaned and spasmed, his abused muscles overcompensating for the sudden lack of…pain. And stress and torture and fire, come to think of it. He went very still and kept his eyes closed, trying to understand what was going on.
“That was less than appealing to watch,” muttered a familiar voice, which was followed by the even more familiar sound of a cigarette lighter clicking. “So you’re sure he won’t revert to a corpse, right? I really don’t want to explain why there’s a dead woman in my apartment.”
Dead…woman? It suddenly occurred to Balthazar that curled up as he was, he could feel some distinct changes in how his body felt, and those changes had nothing to do with the lack of Hell. He slowly loosened his grip on his knees, idly noting the breeze on his bare skin, and looked at himself.
“He won’t. I know what I’m doing,” Midnite said, voice icy. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“How often don’t I?” John lightly replied. Footsteps walked over from his direction to stand by Balthazar.
At that point, Balthazar uncoiled and lashed out; he caught cloth but no flesh. His lips peeled back in a snarl and even that felt wrong. “What did you do, you miserable piece of—”
He overbalanced when he shouldn’t have, his weight shifting in ways he hadn’t expected it to, and suddenly a glowing line arcing over the floor was rushing up at him, a cutting wire that’d cross his neck if he didn’t catch himself. His nails scrabbled on the wood, but his muscles were too weary and too different. Just before it happened, Balthazar’s eyes closed. It was instinct by now, expecting hurt and not being able to stop it, but at least being able to shut it out of his sight. Small mercies. Hell was built on them.
Someone caught him by the shoulders and Balthazar’s eyes jerked open to see the line an inch from his nose. He slowly put his hands down, then angrily shook John off. He could still do that much.
“Yeah, you might want to watch that. The hips take a little getting used to…Midnite, can you stop that already? I want to walk around without worrying about getting myself turned inside out,” John said. He laughed and stepped around Balthazar’s pathetic second try at him. Something soft dropped on Balthazar’s head, fabric veiling his face. “Get dressed. Midnite’s staring at your cup-size.”
“John,” Midnite growled.
A better man might have taken a cue from that, but of course John didn’t. He merely reached down and pulled Balthazar up by the elbow so the clothes slid from Balthazar’s head to his lap. Balthazar snapped at John’s hand and the click sounded off to him; he changed the motion into a jerk that freed his arm so he could clutch at the clothing. It’d been a long time since he’d had that and the fabric against his skin was an alien feeling, scratchy and welcoming at the same time.
John squatted down to look closely at Balthazar. He still wore his jester’s face, but his eyes were devoid of humor. “Couldn’t you have brought him back looking like the woman? This is…weird. He barely looks any different, but…”
“Touch me again and I will spit your fingerbones in your face,” Balthazar softly said. He could feel his fingers convulsively working in the clothes and the breeze in the room was beginning to make itself felt as a chill. It was an effort to keep his head up and his eyes level with John’s.
“Oh, I don’t think so.” There was a smile, slip-sharp like a stiletto, and then John’s hand came forward too fast. His nail clicked mockingly against Balthazar’s bared teeth, nicking Balthazar’s lip that was straining and straining for a change that wouldn’t come. “Blunt.”
In all honesty, that was what cut. Not the female form, because what did demons care about that? That all stripped away with the outer skin, the frail human shell that masked them to the world.
That had masked him, but now when Balthazar dug his nails into his palms, they penetrated down and then lower and they hit nothing but hurting flesh, brought up nothing but little red spots on the bundle of black and white he’d been given. He was out of Hell and in a mortal body, and he genuinely had no idea which was worse.
“John. Let him get dressed,” Midnite was saying.
John’s eyebrow quirked. He didn’t turn around to look at the other man. “You know how to do that?”
“I hope you’re enjoying yourself, Johnny. All the way to when St. Peter spits in your face for being a disgusting example of mankind,” Balthazar muttered. His hands were beginning to shake from holding onto the clothes so hard.
“Don’t know why you’re worrying,” John said to Midnite as he stood. “He sounds fine to me.”
“I don’t worry,” Midnite replied, each word a bite.
Balthazar wished he could make his chin lift high enough to see if they left any marks on John. But his eyes were fixed on the clothes; on top of the heap were the undergarments and he was torn between the desire to throw them at the men and the desire to face them with some dignity. The difficulty was that he didn’t think dignity still had any currency. He was a rotting, pathetic human, a plaything of the Bet with at best another sixty years to prove exactly how pointless his existence was.
“Hey, are you going to get dressed, or do we have to stuff you into them?” John was staring expectantly at Balthazar, probably hoping that he could humiliate Balthazar that much more.
Petty little bastards. Balthazar watched his fingers snatch up the bra and start to put it on. Pathetic, responding to that.
* * *
Sometime while Balthazar had been…down there, Midnite had installed more mirrors in his bar. From his seat, he had a full view of himself in two of them. He supposed as far as human aesthetics went, he was pleasing enough in that category, but all he could think about was how it would peel away to reveal nothing but wet, gross red flesh. The high breasts, the curving hips, the smooth complexion—the delicate facial bones would snap and never heal right. It’d all go straight back to hell.
“So where is it?” The view changed, though Balthazar hadn’t moved, to include John. Lounging across from him, looking as if he’d never grow old and he probably wouldn’t. Someone would kill him if he failed to get to himself in time.
“You know what the average human lifespan is now?” Balthazar said. He forced his eyes away from the false promise of John’s reflection and down at his fingers, watching them tap and scratch at the wood till he started to rip off his nails. The blood welling up, the ripped quick…that was the truth.
John shifted. Beside him, Midnite was like a stone statue. Yet another fool, if he hadn’t yet learned the lesson of Ozymandias. “Well, for you it’s seven years more than before,” John said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s centuries less. After that, what, exactly, is another sixty years to me?” Balthazar slipped lower in his chair, hoping to change his line of sight sufficiently so that he could no longer see his reflection. His hips did move differently, as John had said they would, but he was indifferent to it. Let them. It was all fallible flesh in the end. “Do you expect me to care about the fate of this world now?”
“Do you want to go back to hell? Because I can do that. I’d be happy to.” Rings and rings of smoke hazed John’s head in a mockery of a halo. He looked at Balthazar through lazy, narrow eyes.
As time went on, John’s eyes slowly cracked wider. Eventually he pushed himself straight in his chair, waving the smoke out of the way so he could look more carefully at Balthazar, who wondered exactly what John thought he’d see.
“Balthazar,” Midnite started.
“You’re actually more pissed off that you’re mortal than that you’re a woman. I’d find this funny, except…” John cut himself off by lighting a new cigarette, the flick of the lighter case in his hand like a knife. Some dark emotion, bitter and familiar too, slashed over his face. He laughed harshly over Midnite’s second attempt to say something. “Except get over yourself, Balthazar. Tragic really doesn’t suit you—you think you can just sit there? Give me a break. Push comes to shove, you’ll shove back.”
Balthazar produced his own cutting laugh. “That’s amusing coming from you, Johnny. Push comes to shove, you always toss other people in the way so you’ll have time to run. And then you wonder why you always end up sitting around unhappy—”
The table edge flipped up, blocking out the sight of rage suddenly flooding into John’s face. It teetered, then went crashing to the side; part of it caught Balthazar’s arm as he instinctively threw himself back and he tumbled to the floor. He stopped himself on his arm, then rolled over in time to be yanked up by his shirt and greeted with hissing hot breath.
“Yeah? Really? Well, look at what you just did, shithead. Look. You dodged,” John snarled. He gave Balthazar a shake, then laughed when Balthazar tried to twist free. His teeth flashed and his eyes sparked blackly. “Look, bitch. Now tell me you want me to send you back. Because I can do that. That’s. What. I. Do.”
Then there was nothing but their harsh, heavy breathing. Somewhere nearby, Midnite’s breath came in slower, more hesitant beats, but John was gasping for air as much as Balthazar was. John’s fingers twisted harder in Balthazar’s shirt so a button popped off and John’s eyes involuntarily flicked down. They lingered unashamedly.
With a snarl, Balthazar snapped out with his elbow and yanked free, then crawled away a few feet. He closed his eyes, opened them, then closed them. “It’s in a safe deposit box. I’ll give you the number and the key. You bastard.”
“Yeah, whatever, honey,” John panted. He was trying to laugh, but he couldn’t get enough air to. It sounded like he was choking instead. “Well, now that that’s over with, let’s go home. I’m tired.”
“What?” Balthazar raised his head.
For once, John did look tired. He stopped grimacing a smile and merely grimaced. “I don’t trust you no matter what you look like,” he wearily said. “And anyway, would you have anywhere else to go? With the way you are?”
“John—” Midnite said.
“Shut up. You sow, you reap.” John pushed himself onto his feet, then walked over to stand in front of Balthazar. He didn’t offer a hand as Balthazar got up. “You’re a mess.”
“You always were one,” Balthazar acidly replied. He looked for the twitch in John’s hand, fingers half-curling before they stiffly straightened, and smiled when he saw it.
* * *
Demons savored weakness, and John was right about one other thing—Balthazar didn’t look so different that he wouldn’t be recognized. If he were, his former associates would lose no time in exploiting his new mortality.
If he was going to put up with this—this half-life, then he intended to do it properly. He went to John’s apartment because despite all John’s talk, the man had too much respect for human life to do much to Balthazar now. It would give him time to adjust and to plan, and he supposed he would have been lying if he didn’t say it would also give him time to rediscover John’s weak points.
He stayed indoors and learned while John barely breezed through long enough to shower and sleep. Sometimes John came home smelling strongly of sex and men and women’s perfume, and that was interesting. Sometimes Balthazar would walk very softly in on John and for a moment, John’s shadow would look strange, and that was also interesting. And then one night John came back and found the bathroom door locked because Balthazar was behind it and wadding toilet paper between his legs, teeth locked together so every breath was a high whistle.
“Balthazar? Open the door or I will break it,” John called, voice pitched oddly low. “And if you’re doing anything—”
“I’m going to rip your throat out and then I’m going to make Midnite choke on it. I thought that man had some sense.” Balthazar lifted the bloody, soggy clump of paper and ran his finger down between his legs. He was still bleeding, damn it. “I hate you, and I hate this body and I hate being human.”
Bleeding and bleeding and he felt weakness in every single fiber of his body. His muscles were slow and heavy, and the bones of his pelvis were oddly disjointed so when he moved they ached and he thought he could feel them cracking. If he were out on the street, packs of scavengers would be arrowing in on him for miles around, smelling the damned blood. He smelled like bait. If he weren’t himself, he’d be coming for himself.
“What the hell is going on?” John sighed. For a moment, his voice changed. It was higher and less rough, more…“Oh. Oh, fuck, Balthazar. Open the fucking door. Now, all right?”
“Why don’t you break it like you promised?” As if Balthazar intended for John to see him like this, after everything else.
Something thumped against the door. Then John gave the knob an angry rattle that didn’t cover up his words. “Because you fucking moron, you synchronized us. I just started my fucking period and the stuff I need is in there. You goddamn bastard, I can’t change back till it’s over—”
Balthazar somehow got to his feet and hobbled over to unlock the door. He swung it open; the creak of its hinges cut off John’s rant so they were left staring at each other in silence. He’d had a feeling, but it was one thing to be curled up day after day with disgust and rage and fear boiling together into bitter insane thoughts and entirely another to look it in the eye.
“You didn’t die,” he finally said. “I would have known. Lucifer would have been furious.”
“No, I didn’t, and no one would’ve brought me back if I had. Ungrateful bitch. Move.” The side of John’s breast rubbed up against Balthazar’s arm as the other—the—as John pushed past. He stalked to the sink and opened the cabinet above it, then fiddled with the back till it detached. From it he pulled a box of ordinary female hygiene products with a stunning nonchalance. “God, you bled all over. At least get by the drain so it’ll be easier to rinse down the floor.”
John was a little shorter, a little more slender, but overall it was like as it’d been with Balthazar—not so much a change as a kind of ripple in the looking-glass. Though he seemed more imposing; as a man he would have had to force a physical presence if he hadn’t had his magic, but as a woman he had a natural impact. He’d lost less height than Balthazar had.
He dropped the box on the counter and wormed out of his tight pants, cursing softly as he checked the fresh bloodstain on the crotch. He wasn’t wearing underwear, and while his clothes were still black and white, his top was strapless and decidedly feminine. No make-up, but he probably didn’t need any.
Balthazar felt a smile curving his mouth into a razor. “What on earth were you doing tonight, Johnny?”
“Stop bleeding on my fucking floor,” John snapped over his shoulder. He took out a long plastic-wrapped thing from the box and unwrapped it with practiced speed. “I thought you said you knew how to deal with bodily functions.”
“I do, but even female demons don’t have to bother with this—this revolting process.” A throb low in Balthazar’s belly illustrated his point and he bit back a hiss, wrapped his arm around himself. Instead of going over by the drain, he leaned against the wall and squeezed his arms over his shirt. “Did you do this on purpose? Are you so desperate you have to switch bodies?”
John had been crouching over to probe between his legs, but at that he straightened up to glare at Balthazar. Then he crossed the one pace that separated them and held up the tampon. “You know? I just started—I can wait. Whereas you’re bleeding like a fucking pig. You first. Now, see this end?”
Balthazar grabbed for John’s hands, but John was quicker and taller and heavier. He pinned Balthazar back, his hand diving down to press the plastic tube into the slickness on the inside of Balthazar’s thigh.
“Feel this? You should be listening if you want to survive, you little shit,” John hissed. His teeth were a hair from clipping the end of Balthazar’s nose.
He only had one of Balthazar’s hands twisted up to the wall, but when Balthazar tried to push John off, John shifted to trap that arm between them. So it was down to words. “I just wonder what could make you so desperate,” he rasped back. “You do a lot of running, but this is different. This is really, genuinely pathetic of you. This isn’t even fear, is it?”
The hand John had between Balthazar’s hand jerked up so the end of the tampon jabbed hard into Balthazar, an inch from his clitoris. It had a cross cut into the tip, or something of the sort, and he felt it grind in, catch hairs that were pulled out when John dragged it across the folds of flesh, nicking them with the hard plastic so Balthazar ground his teeth. The blood slicked it a little, but not enough because when it suddenly caught on the edge of the vulva, Balthazar couldn’t help jerking. “It goes in your cunt, and then you push at the end to shove out the actual tampon,” John said, each word ground down to a point.
“Do you think it’s different because your body’s different? Think it isn’t going to come back to get you that way, think you can fuck up and leave it back there when you put your prick back on? You’re so naïve sometimes, Johnny.” Balthazar hissed as the plastic suddenly slid an inch inside of him; it was angled wrong and his hips frantically jerked around trying to make it right so it wouldn’t burn. “You can’t escape.”
“Then you pull it—” John suddenly twisted his head to the side, then snarled as he pushed forward. His grip on the tampon loosened, then let it drop and in its place stabbed his finger, just as in place of his words cut his tongue. It ripped across Balthazar’s lips before shoving inside to tangle briefly with Balthazar’s own tongue. A moment later John tore back his head. “Neither can you,” he snarled.
He moved enough to let Balthazar free the arm trapped between him, but instead of shoving John away, Balthazar flung his arm around John and left five bloody streaks over John’s white top. He couldn’t see them, but he could feel their wetness arching against his palm as they slid, wrestled, fell.
John’s finger was still in him, but it was turning the right way, crooking so it touched something that made Balthazar smash his mouth against John’s shoulder and scream. His scream trailed off into a series of low moans that he trailed over the tops of John’s breasts, feeling their softness swell into his lips. He clawed with his nails to pull the bloody top over John’s head, then twisted so John’s finger, hooked into the top of his shirt, could rip it open. Then John’s head was down, hair so black against Balthazar’s breasts, and his teeth were scraping against Balthazar’s breastbone, closing around the clasp there. His fingers moved and twisted inside of Balthazar, raking him bloody. Bloodier. Brutal and perfect and there, there, there, “There, there, there…”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know there,” John laughed. Giggled nearly, except somehow him came through so it didn’t go that far.
He bit down hard and suddenly the pressure around Balthazar’s chest relaxed. His mouth migrated to Balthazar’s nipple where he nursed till the piece of flesh was standing hard and heavy and swollen in the air that brushed too hard at its spit-wet skin. Then he was climbing up, fingers in to the knuckles, and sucking on Balthazar’s lower lip while Balthazar ground their hips together, hands kneading John’s breasts and leaving nailmarks up John’s sides. Balthazar was breathless now, working with flesh alone and perhaps it was a failing thing from birth, perhaps it was nothing but raw meat, but right now raw and hot and furious was better than cold and clinical. He tossed his head as John’s fingers climbed up, thumb-knuckle on his clit and twisting, twisting till he was knotted around it and ready to snap.
And John snapped him.
It was different as mortal. More immediate. No distinct sensation at all except for a mad rush that left Balthazar reaching for it, wishing he’d had more time to…and wistfulness like that hadn’t been there before, lending its sharp edge to the pleasure. He lay on his back and stared at the ceiling, smelling blood.
John’s fingers moved in him again, slow, before dragging out and up to trail sticky blood from Balthazar’s cunt to his mouth. “So I wasn’t bored,” John muttered, metallic and brittle. “No, wasn’t that. Goddamn it.”
Blood. Balthazar tilted his head, old instinct pushing him, and his mouth caught John’s finger. He sucked it clean and found the taste different, yes, but still good. Still a favorite, and perhaps his tongue was broader and shorter but it could still curl the slickness off the back of John’s hand into his mouth. He heard John suck a breath, smiled to himself and pressed lazily down to run his tongue along the edge of John’s hairline--not the one near his eyes.
“Cocktease,” John hissed. His hands threaded into Balthazar’s hair, gummed it up and twisted it hard.
“You hardly qualify for that expression right now,” Balthazar mumbled, pressing his open mouth down the curving mound till his tongue-tip just touched the beginnings of thinner, hotter skin. He was too crowded by the toilet and twisted so he could push farther between John’s legs, John’s hands urging him on. His tongue curled once around John’s clit, then licked farther. Just a little bit of blood was starting and Balthazar irritably pushed at John’s knees till they were out of the way and he could stroke his tongue in and up. He knew he wasn’t quite reaching that one spot and John knew it too, rocking so his clit scraped against Balthazar’s incisors and cursing softly and steadily. His fingers dug into Balthazar’s scalp.
Balthazar resisted, just long enough to prove a point, before he took hold of John’s thighs and used the leverage to force farther. The blood was flowing a little faster and he lapped it up, trying to will it to speed up. John was starting to go from restless to frantic and Balthazar slapped John’s thigh a few times before he gave that up as a lost cause, let John push hard and long and just tried to breathe when he could.
John’s knee abruptly jerked in and banged him hard; Balthazar elbowed it back. Then he pushed himself up on his knees and wriggled around till he could get a finger crooking in beside his tongue. The cursing had turned into deep moans, and when Balthazar drew back to suck hard on John’s clit, the moans turned into a snarling scream. John forced him back down and held him there till a sudden burst of sweetened blood filled Balthazar’s mouth and he choked, had to draw back while John bucked into a collapse.
He nosed back to catch what drops he could, and when there were none left, Balthazar laid his head down where it was. If that happened to be John’s thigh, then so it was.
Eventually John lifted his head. He snickered, then fell back. “Your face is all bloody…Jesus. You still think this is a revolting existence?”
“You still think you can live more than one life?” Balthazar retorted. After another moment, he rolled off and tiredly crawled for the shower.
John didn’t answer. He stayed on the floor and bled while Balthazar rinsed himself off. When Balthazar squatted down on the toilet, John finally got up. He took the fresh tampon from Balthazar, reached between Balthazar’s legs and silently showed Balthazar what to do. Then he took his own shower. He was still in there when Balthazar fell asleep.
* * *
“I should not have to knock in my own house,” Midnite snarled, slamming the door behind him.
That hadn’t made John pause at all in his laving the pulse of Balthazar’s neck. His hands apparently were determined to bunch Balthazar’s shirt up around his breasts. “He’s much more of a prude than I thought he’d be.”
“I believe he’s just trying to hold onto his good taste,” Balthazar muttered, struggling with John’s bra. He finally managed to free his thumb and promptly slid his hand around to fight with the back-clasp. “By the way, it seems my appearance isn’t the only thing that can come through.”
John went still, then withdrew to look closely at Balthazar. “Really.”
“And for that matter, the rest of my appearance might be doable.” It’d taken some practice, but Balthazar had remembered John speaking of being able to change, and if John had been able to manage it with all the ingrained gender-identity issues that humans had, then Balthazar should be able to as well. As long as he still had some power, and it seemed that he did.
“You aren’t telling me this because you’ve suddenly gained a sense of gratitude or anything,” John said. It wasn’t a question. His hands were beginning to slide off Balthazar.
Balthazar resisted the urge to move. “I’m telling you this because I refuse to die of some ridiculous sexually-transmitted disease because you think trawling in human trash once a week will make you feel better.”
John stared at him for a little longer, hands stopped on Balthazar’s waist. One side of his mouth quirked upward without any humor, but with a good deal of recognition. “And you think you’d make me feel better if we tried this as both men?”
“I think you know what it’d do.” It’d feed both sides of John, the one that wanted to get away so badly that it’d even drop his identity and the one that knew better than to leave. It’d be easier and safer than trying to split in two and hope like a fool that the halves would never meet. And it’d give him something new and old at the same time.
“And what would it do for you?” John abruptly said. He rolled his shoulders back—
--and Balthazar suddenly had to grab for him again because John had grown, flattened his chest, broadened his bones. It was a cheap trick and it grated, and John was amused because he’d known how much it would irritate Balthazar. He folded his arms across his chest and merely watched Balthazar; his eyes flicked to Balthazar’s hands, which were gripping white-knuckled on John’s sides and which didn’t drop away.
“On second thought, I think I know that.” John reached out and took Balthazar’s chin in his hand. “I know you.”
No matter what the form, damn him. Balthazar looked up at John and didn’t blink as his bones stretched, his flesh strained and twisted and resettled so finally they were both standing—not quite as they’d been before.
With a half-shrug, John leaned forward. He didn’t have to go all the way and even as that was burning beneath Balthazar’s skin, it was transmuting to a different kind of heat.
“What the hell,” John breathed. “Not much else to try.”
He moved half of the last inch, and he didn’t touch air when he stopped.