Tangible Schizophrenia


Snap II: Between the Lines

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: PG-13. Mention of menstruation. Gender-switching.
Pairing: John/Balthazar.
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: Does not belong to me.
Notes: Post-movie, crossover with The Ninth Gate.
Summary: Balthazar digs out another piece of the puzzle in spite of his existential issues.


If John actually thought his lies fooled Balthazar, then he was sadly mistaken.

The vitriol of that thought kept Balthazar warm and distracted until he was sitting on the couch, bowl of blood clots in his lap and eyes staring idly at the awkward patch he’d made over the broken windowpane. The glass fragments were swept up, the blood was wiped away, and he was neatly redressed. He might as well call himself a maid now, he snarled to himself. And he might as well stop comforting himself in illusions—John knew Balthazar didn’t believe him and didn’t care, which frankly cut worse.

Life as a human was hard.

A breeze blew through the room, not from the direction of the broken window, and stroked a few shivers out of Balthazar. He hunched his shoulders, belatedly remembered the stitches arcing over one and winced as the movement tugged at them. If he’d still been a demon, those cuts wouldn’t have gone down past the second skin and he could’ve just pulled off the ruined outer layer. Not pretty, but at least it wouldn’t have affected his mobility.

Then again, if he were a demon, he wouldn’t be in this situation. He’d be lounging in his old office, ordering subordinates here and there…and if wishes were souls, he’d have amassed a greater population than Hell itself held by now.

He deliberately gave himself a shake; pain was good for one thing—focusing the mind. It also shook his hands and consequently the bowl, but he ignored that. Another cold draft tickled at his feet and he pulled them up onto the couch, then crossed his legs and rested the bowl on them. Within the bowl, the clots were starting to turn brown. He gave it a shake and one slid around the curve, bumped up to the side and developed a wet crack. A second shake and the crack widened somewhat to expose the fresher, redder center.

“Revenge. Is that all you think about, Johnny?” Balthazar muttered. That wasn’t the only kind of spell that could use these.

He swirled them a little more, then let them come to rest however they wanted to. Tea leaves would’ve been less messy and less painful, but they weren’t as accurate. Anyway, if this damned body insisted on bleeding, then he might as well put that to some use.

A few minutes later, he awkwardly dragged himself off the couch. He went to the kitchen sink and dumped out the bowl, then gave it a wash. Not much good news: Hell was still in an uproar, so Lucifer wasn’t keeping very strict control on things on the earthly plane.

Balthazar took a moment to appreciate his work. Then he took another to curse, because his subverting so many of Lucifer’s lieutenants for Mammon had resulted in him being targeted by every damned idiot that wanted to ingratiate himself with Lucifer. John could afford to be smug, because Balthazar literally didn’t have anywhere left to turn: if he somehow managed to become a demon, that landed him back in a world he positively reviled. Even if Lucifer welcomed him back with open arms this time…there’d been reasons why Balthazar had been happy to help with a coup d’état and none of them had gone away. And joining the side of the angels was obviously out of the question.

His stomach grumbled as he flipped his hands dry, so he took a peek in the fridge. Unfortunately, John hadn’t been joking about going shopping. It was a shame that Balthazar couldn’t stomach the hearts of his enemies, literally or figuratively.

“At least not a complete joke,” Balthazar muttered. There’d been something off about the abrupt way John had left. He hadn’t even stayed long enough to shove Balthazar on his knees, and it wasn’t like John to offer without demanding something in return.

It probably had to do with his morning job for Midnite. Balthazar contemplated calling Midnite, but ultimately decided against it because he suspected he still couldn’t control his temper around that man. So much for being one of the more sensible occultists around; Midnite should have known better than to agree to John’s plan. Someday Balthazar was going to know why, and if things turned out as he wanted them to, it’d happen while he was prodding Midnite’s neck with his shoe-heel.

Something cramped deep in Balthazar’s gut and he gritted his teeth. Then he kicked the fridge door shut and stalked into the bedroom. What he’d wanted to accomplish for the day had been done, along with some extra trouble, and he didn’t see the point of waiting up for John. If John wanted to crawl home bloody and broken without anyone to see him, then Balthazar might as well oblige him.

While he was climbing onto the bed, another sharp pang wormed through Balthazar’s abdomen, crossing from the right just above his hipbone towards the center. He pressed the heel of his hand against it and slipped between the sheets with both his gut and his shoulder complaining. When he rolled over to switch off the light, his arm twinged badly.

Utterly pathetic, and there was nothing he could do about it. The best he could do was hope some of the stitches would come out before he had to switch to have his period. He wasn’t looking forward to whatever a body change would do to the stitches still remaining.

* * *

The smell of smoke was what woke Balthazar. He snorted into the mattress, then twisted around to see light filtering through the sheets. After a moment, he rubbed the crusts from his eyes and grudgingly dug his way out.

John was perched on the edge of the bed, head bent and shoulders hunched. Balthazar pulled himself with one arm till he saw what John was looking at: an old atlas. Occasionally John would exchange the butt between his fingers for the pen between his lips and mark a spot on the page. His chest was flat and his shirt wasn’t tailored to show off his waist.

“Did you sleep all afternoon?” John asked, not looking up.

“Did you buy food?” Balthazar countered. He sat up and automatically pulled at sleeves and shirt-hem, as if his sole audience member gave a damn about that sort of thing. Then he smelled…well, it was probably decent at best, but since his stomach was suddenly remembering he hadn’t had lunch, it smelled wonderful. He tried not to let it show.

The abrupt stab of pain below his bellybutton didn’t help with that, but Balthazar couldn’t help clutching at his stomach. Of course that attracted John’s attention; he glanced over, then swapped pen for cigarette and blew smoke through his nostrils. “You due?”

“In a few days,” Balthazar reluctantly said. He hated this restriction and the weakness it brought, but it wasn’t as if he easily could hide it. They’d put him in a woman’s body and so certain conditions had to be met, even with the modifying ability of magic. Either he changed and had a period, or…well, he’d only lasted three hours before he’d blacked out from the pain and his body had changed for him. “How much did you get from Midnite?”

“Enough to pay the utilities and finally get that asshole that wants to buy the building off my back. God. It’s not like there aren’t other bowling alleys, and it wasn’t my idea to have Beeman will this one to me.” John snapped shut the atlas and tossed it and the pen onto the side-table before Balthazar could see more than the outline of America. He turned around and coolly looked Balthazar over, then grabbed Balthazar’s chin for a closer inspection.

Balthazar shook him off and went around John to get off the bed. “You smell like cigars.”

“Maybe I switched brands?” floated John’s mocking voice after him. After that came footsteps, lazy and swinging. Of course.

“You have all the style of the common alley-cat. Shame you don’t seem to have nearly its sense of self-preservation, either,” Balthazar muttered. He went into the kitchen, where anger made him bang the pot lid as he lifted it. He managed to regain control of himself before he started spooning food into a bowl, but not before John had more than enough fodder to justify leaning against the counter with an insolent smile on his face. “What are you trying to track down? Your good health?”

“You’re a real riot, you know. Top-notch stuff, but then, that’s to be expected. Sorry, but the store was all out of ’97 Rothschild. There’s orange juice, though.” John’s retort was more sharp than mocking. He flicked his eyes away when Balthazar looked at him, then leveled a stare back.

It was a little late for that, Balthazar thought. The kitchen table only had one chair, so he stood and ate. “You never said what Midnite’s job was about.”

Bull’s-eye. Instead of answering right away, John hooked his hands in his pockets and stared off to the side. He was thinking, which reminded Balthazar of earlier, and how even though Balthazar had been too distracted to catch John’s exact words, he had heard the raw fear breaking through John’s exclamation. That didn’t happen very often.

“You know anyone named Dean Corso?” John finally asked. It was plain he’d rather have fucked a corpse.

Balthazar leaned his hip against the counter and considered. He could irritate John now, or wait and see what developed. The latter course seemed more appealing for two reasons: he didn’t exactly remember the name and John was so paranoid that the longer Balthazar waited, the more the wait itself would do Balthazar’s work for him. “It’s familiar. Why?”

“Just familiar?” John arched an eyebrow. Then he frowned and reached out to swipe something from Balthazar’s hand, turning over the finger to show a powdery streak of dried blood. “Tell me you didn’t get my bed dirty.”

“I think you do that fine by yourself,” Balthazar acidly replied. His bowl was still a third full, but suddenly he’d lost his appetite. He dropped it in the sink—John could rinse it out for once—and…took an abortive step forward before he remembered this wasn’t his high-rise and he couldn’t lose himself in the labyrinthine hallways because there weren’t any.

Of course John’s response was to laugh. “My God, you’re so bitchy sometimes. You can smell cigar smoke—well, do you smell sex, too? No?” His voice hardened. “Maybe that’s because I wasn’t out getting fucked. I was doing work. Where people were smoking cigars.”

And that made more sense, but that only made the sour taste in Balthazar’s mouth worse. He hated how all his perceptions seemed duller now; habit made him draw conclusions too quickly on insufficient input, and that just made him look the fool. He started to reply, then gave it up and pushed back from the sink.

Right into John. Balthazar rolled his eyes and moved right, then left, but each time John blocked him. “What?”

“Corso?” John pointedly pressed his hands down Balthazar’s sides. He looped them around to the front and up as Balthazar hissed a breath, leaning forward so Balthazar could feel the other man’s prick rising.

Oh, yes, earlier had never been fully settled. Typical.

Though as the clothes began to fall, Balthazar had to admit to a tiny bit of relief: this approach, he knew how to handle.

* * *

Some of the stitches on the back of Balthazar’s shoulder felt strained, but hadn’t quite pulled out. He smeared a fingerful of salve over them, then awkwardly started wrapping fresh bandages over the cuts. “Corso. Bookdealer, very elite as such things go but not terribly well-informed. I think that’s deliberate—he specializes in tracking down and obtaining rare books for clients by any means necessary, so the less he knows about what he’s doing, the better he sleeps at night.”

“You ever use him?” They had moved to the bedroom. John was curled up with his back to Balthazar and a trick of the light made the bruises from a fight a few days ago look like ink dapples on his skin. He sounded more tired than he probably would have liked Balthazar to hear.

“A few times. He was convenient when whoever wouldn’t sell was a mortal that wouldn’t easily disappear. Why? Did he offer to sell you a book?” Balthazar fished around in the sheets for the salve tin. Once he’d found it, he attended to the cuts on his arm; if he could cut his healing time in half, then he might even be able to have all the stitches out before he had to change. “Did you already buy it from him?”

John rolled over and sneered at Balthazar. “Are you kidding me? Where would I get the money for it? I have to pay for you, pay to get the bowling alley shut down right so the city won’t bother me…”

“Did you steal it from him?” Balthazar interrupted. He twisted a cotton wrap around his arm. Then he pulled his shirt on and laid down about a foot from John. Only a minute later, he’d somehow managed to migrate to within two inches: John was warm, and smelled faintly of incense and blood beneath the sterile whiff of soap that still lingered on him from the shower.

Chuckling, John turned over. His amusement died off as he looked critically at Balthazar. “You’re sleeping too much.” And with that non sequitur, he scooted up to sit against the headboard. “No, actually I was just there so Midnite could buy the book. And I’m going to be there again this Friday because Midnite wants to buy another book.”

“Curious that you’re there, then. Midnite’s used Corso before. I don’t see what he’d need your judgment for, unless it’s to know what not to do.” The blankets John had just left contained traces of warmth that Balthazar greedily soaked up. He heard John snort disbelievingly above him, but ignored it. He wasn’t freezing, but he was always a little chilled and that could be worse because that wore incessantly at him. Not that John listened long enough to understand the difference. “What books?”

“Well, today it was the Disquisitionum Magicarum. Friday I hear it’s something even bigger.” John flicked fingers at the top of Balthazar’s head. “You still sure that Corso deals on the shallow?”

Balthazar slapped away John’s hand, then lifted his head to look at the other man. “I was dead for six months. I imagine things can change.”

“Want to go see how much?” John asked. The light played over him in such a way so that his hair cast a pointed shadow down the center of his face, splitting it into wicked-looking halves. Teeth glinted as the corner of his mouth quirked up.

“Not particularly.” Unless John was suddenly ready to let Balthazar kill Midnite, because that would be about the only thing that’d make a trip back there, where he’d been so humiliatingly resurrected, palatable. If John thought—damnation, he’d better not be thinking that. “Corso knows what I look like. And anyway that doesn’t matter because I can’t go out then.”

John tipped his head to the side and looked considering.

No,” Balthazar said. “Not that. Deal with him yourself.”

The mattress shifted as John suddenly twisted himself around to lie on his belly, head and shoulders crouched over Balthazar. He put a hand on Balthazar’s injured shoulder before Balthazar could move away. “Listen, if he has moved deeper into the game—”

“I will be bleeding and so I’ll be locked in the bathroom with as many painkillers in me as my liver can stand,” Balthazar hissed. Low in his abdomen, just in front of his kidneys, throbbed in agreement. “You can change before you have it and skip yours, but I can’t and mine are crippling.”

“And if Corso’s not on the level then I might be fucked and in case you don’t remember, you need that to not happen nowadays,” John snapped back. His fingers briefly tightened, then released Balthazar’s shoulder. He pushed back with a disgusted sigh. “You just have to show up. You don’t have to be a Barbie doll. Hell, it might be funnier that way. God knows Midnite’s getting more and more on my nerves…it’s like he thinks he’ll catch it from me.”

More like Midnite had been somewhat attracted to John before and was even more attracted to John’s female form. The man didn’t deal well when he had a weakness of his exposed, and even worse when it was one he hadn’t known about before.

But he still should be capable of thinking, so it was interesting that he’d call in John for a second consultation on Corso. And it was interesting that John would be worried enough to actually want a second opinion of his own. “What do you think he’s up to?” Balthazar asked.

John shrugged and leaned down again, hand landing a little short of Balthazar’s jaw. He stretched his fingers the rest of the way, tracing the line back to Balthazar’s throat. His fingertips were warm and soothing on the scrapes and bruises and that was deliberate, but it didn’t stop his touches from making Balthazar’s eyelashes flutter. “Something. I don’t like how he handled his books. And everyone in this town’s so busy fighting for Gabriel’s and your old spots that the place is wide open.”

“Like a raddled whore,” Balthazar snorted. “You would have empathy for it.”

“Oh, shut up. You’re coming.” John said it as a statement. He had both hands cradling Balthazar’s head, massaging along the hairline, and he was laughing again. “Yeah. This makes it tolerable. This is why you do it.”

Goddamn him for being right, Balthazar tiredly thought. He tried to rouse anger, or even a shred of self-respect, but being human meant susceptibility to fatigue and pain and thus greater sensitivity to relief from those two things. A little soothing, a little drowsiness and his reason quietly slipped away.

* * *

Midnite was mixing his own drinks behind the bar. He was in the middle of floating one colored layer over another, bottle held high, when they came in. His fingers tightened on the bottle and his eyes briefly widened before he regained control of himself. “You brought hi-he-Balthazar.”

It was less comfort to Balthazar than it was to John, who was barely resisting a loud bark of laughter, to hear the usually unflappable Midnite stammer. Balthazar irritably sat down on a barstool and brushed down his skirt. His shoulder twinged; all of the stitches had been able to come out, but the new skin was very fragile. “Midnite. I hope your hospitality’s better this time than last time.”

“Hey, he did lend you a bra till you could buy some.” John leaned over the bar and poured himself a glass of water. “By the way, try to avoid using his name,” he told Midnite. “I was trying to think of some alternate ones, but Balthazar refuses to answer to any of them, so…well, yeah. Where’s Corso?”

“Not due to be here for another fifteen minutes,” Midnite said. He looked down at the drink he’d been constructing; his shaky hand had led to two of the layers mixing. With a disgusted sigh, he dumped out the glass and began again. “Does Balthazar’s presence mean you discovered something about him?”

John paused in the act of lifting his glass to his lips. “Well, you could ask Balthazar…and what the hell is this?”

He pulled something small and squirming out of his glass, then flung it at Midnite, who impaled it with the spoon he’d been using. The salamander twitched a few times before going limp. Midnite shook it off the spoon somewhere behind the bar and resumed pouring.

After a moment, John shoved his hands in his pockets and smiled. He took the seat next to Balthazar as if it’d been reserved expressly for him. “Very funny. I’m not going to stop coming here for drinks, so you can stop trying.”

“I’m surprised he hasn’t tried poisoning yet,” Balthazar muttered. The painkillers he’d taken had finally kicked in ten minutes ago, but they didn’t actually make the pain vanish so much as deaden it. Every time he moved, his gut wrenched; the hurt wasn’t there but the sense of forcible dislocation remained and it was still…irritating. It made him want to put his head down and go to sleep, but this was one of the last places he’d risk that. Midnite was fortunate— right now this lassitude was the only thing keeping Balthazar from coming at the man.

“Hey, he likes me—” The abrupt cut-off was very slight, almost unnoticeable. To most people it would’ve sounded as if John had just finished his sentence, and certainly the sudden end didn’t seem to have occurred because John was about to say something he shouldn’t. That generally covered everything he said without a hint of restraint.

He’d been reaching into his coat and his hand had hesitated as well before bringing out his pack of cigarettes. He glanced at Balthazar, winced, and then looked over his shoulder at Midnite, who had turned to stare off into the distance and who hadn’t seen.

“Corso’s early,” Midnite observed.

“No shit.” John’s voice was flat, without his usual insolence. He finished getting himself a cigarette.

Balthazar reached out and plucked one from the pack before John could put it away. He held it out for John to light, but John insisted on staring amusedly at him first. “Won’t that give Corso the wrong impression about you? And you know, lung cancer’s as bad as hepatitis or herpes.”

That brought Midnite’s head back around—Balthazar had always thought the man had a secret taste for the sordid—but the man didn’t say anything. Good, because Balthazar was having a very hard time keeping himself under control. “Light. The. Cigarette.”

The side of John’s mouth jerked up, but he did as Balthazar said. Then he lit up his own and was in the process of blowing a smoke ring within a ring when Corso stepped into the room.

Dean hadn’t changed much as far as appearance went—the streak of gray at his temple was a touch broader, but the vulpine gleam in his eye hadn’t dimmed and his wolf-lean body hadn’t put on any weight. All the better for quick running. What was different was something intangible, something that lurked at the edges of Balthazar’s senses and made him wish once again that he’d retained a few more demonic traits. Right now was like trying to smell a rose through a foot of cotton wadding.

“Mr. Midnite, Mr. Constantine.” Corso nodded respectfully to each of them before turning to Balthazar. His eyes lingered appreciatively.

Balthazar inwardly rolled his eyes. He brushed a hand over his unwrinkled skirt, sliding it up a half-inch, and sucked on his cigarette. Hopefully fantasizing about his hollowed cheeks would distract Dean from noticing the way Balthazar was studying him. “I just came with John. Don’t let me interrupt.”

“Yeah…” Surprisingly enough, John was watching the whole proceeding with a suspicious expression. He waved Dean to a chair rather abruptly. And presumptuously, considering that this wasn’t his bar or his business deal. “So—”

Midnite cleared his throat as he came from around the bar. “What do you have for me?” he asked Corso, throwing a sharp look back at John.

Who tipped his head down to smile sarcastically at the floor. He put his elbows back on the bar, then straightened out his arms so one trailed behind Balthazar.

Corso took a very large, bulky package of brown wrapping paper out of his leather satchel and handed it to Midnite, who delicately undid the bindings. Sensible, since even to Balthazar’s dulled senses, it screamed of power. But there still was something wrong…something Balthazar should recognize. Something he would recognize, if he weren’t relying on flesh that was decaying just as they sat here.

“There are less stupid ways to tell me you’d rather I stayed home at night,” John muttered. His eyes stayed on Corso instead of going to the book, which was old and rare enough to bring a faint trace of awe to Midnite’s face. “I’m not rescuing your sorry ass from a date gone wrong.”

“Not everything is about you, Johnny. And it’s called strategic bluffing.” Whatever was wrong didn’t originate with the book, though that was enough to make Balthazar wonder with whom Midnite was making his investments now to want to acquire something like that. It came from Corso—

--the stab of pain cut straight through the light drug haze, startling Balthazar into making an abortive grab at his abdomen. He barely dragged his hand back before anyone noticed, teeth gritted. Damned useless painkillers weren’t even lasting more than half an hour now—and there it went again. He dug his nails into the barstool cushion, his vision going slightly blurry at the edges.

Dean Corso changed.

Balthazar jerked back to attention and his vision cleared, showing only Corso’s smooth smile as he spoke to John. “Well, I suppose we must do the independent verification. This shouldn’t take too much of your time; I’d hate to detract time from your lovely companion,” Dean said.

He smiled at Balthazar. John snorted and Balthazar smiled back with the obligatory amount of dumbness, which helped cover up the genuine half-blank that rode the crest of the newest twist of pain. He breathed shallowly and let it crash so his vision would…not so much fade as slip back into an older kind of sight.

The outlines of Corso’s body shifted again, curving inwards in some places and outwards in others. The twinkle in his eyes went red and stared straight back at Balthazar.

“John does what he wants,” Balthazar replied, letting a touch of acid out. He blinked and looked closely at Corso, trying to determine whether the man had seen just as deeply as Balthazar just had. After a moment, he reached behind himself and stabbed out his cigarette, tilting his head coyly.

“That’s a shame.” Corso’s eyes were flat with mildness, not a hint of a ruffle in them. But the razor hidden in his smile didn’t flash, so Balthazar thought the man had missed it.

“Not really,” John said with mock-cheerfulness. He pushed the book at Corso’s stomach, then casually flicked his cigarette so the ash went flying at Dean, who gracefully managed to take the one and avoid the other. “It’s the real deal.”

Midnite nodded. “So we can move to the real business. You claim you have an authentic, complete copy of Solomon’s spells.”

Dean shook his head. “I have a contact to a copy. But I’m willing to discuss facilitating a closer link…”

“I think we’re done here,” John loudly announced. He got off the barstool, then facetiously offered his arm to Balthazar. A light touch might have knocked him over when Balthazar actually took it.

The idiot. If they had started playing that way, it’d be inconsistent if they didn’t continue and Corso had a good eye for that sort of thing. Fortunately, John recovered before Balthazar had to drag him out the door.

“So?” John scratched a match off the alley wall and lit a new cigarette, then passed it to Balthazar.

“Sometime in the last six months, Corso’s had a run-in with a succubus.” Balthazar glanced at John. “Not merely like that. More—he’s something like a half-breed now.”

John didn’t reply, which was sensible because that could mean many things and most of them involved some degree of involvement by Lucifer, who had no love for either of them. And it was convenient, because it let Balthazar think about the fact that apparently, some things were easier when he had his period. Small compensation, but interesting nonetheless.

“Do you know who?” John finally asked.

“Well, they’re quite popular so there’s a lot of them on this plane. Let me check my files…oh, except those are in my office that no longer belongs to me.” Now that they were away from Dean, the cramps were subsiding, but the more Balthazar walked, the more aware he was of how excruciatingly drained he felt. He was still leaning on John and his pride was debating whether doing that or falling on his face would be more damaging. “What?”

“Need to change your tampon or something?” The look on John’s face begged for a slap. He smiled around his cigarette and pulled Balthazar close—too close for Balthazar to effectively hit out at him. “Yeah, well, I need to go out anyway so I’ll just drop you off and you can seethe and bleed in the comfort of home. Think of a way to figure out who it was. That sound good to you, honey?”

Balthazar twisted free of John’s arm with a snarl, deciding that passing out at least bespoke some degree of independence. “Your broken body would be better, but it’ll suffice.”

He stalked the rest of the alley on his own, though he had to move more and more slowly to accommodate his fatigued body. Once he’d reached the end, he had to pause and catch his breath. Except his breath didn’t seem to want to be caught, damned traitor that it was.

John walked up and silently offered his arm again. He wasn’t looking in Balthazar’s direction, and Balthazar didn’t look at him as he took it, swallowing down the taste of ashes.


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