Tangible Schizophrenia


Alliance Prequel: Preference

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17. Uh. Clothes-sex, sort of. Call it a weird kind of bondage.
Pairing: John/Balthazar, John/Dwight
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Notes: Inspired by dementedsiren.
Summary: n. A sentiment, or frame of mind, induced by the erroneous belief that one thing is better than another.
--The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce


To all appearances, it was an ordinary day. John got up a little past noon, blearily choked down some eggs and then gave Chas a call. Two exorcisms and a bruised side later where a little ten-year-old had snapped a nasty kick, he was heading down towards Midnite’s back-door to unload a couple relics that had been fucking around with his milk. If he’d had anywhere else besides his fridge to store them, he would’ve waited for the full moon when the prices went up, but there was only so much greenish scum he could take.

Chas was staring openmouthed at the door and the bouncer planted in front of it. “That’s—that’s Papa Midnite’s place?”

“Yeah. Now get.” John gave the top of the car a slap before stepping onto the sidewalk. Fall was in the air and though it was only a little past six in the afternoon, it was already getting dark fast. The clientele was starting to wander in, and John wanted to get his business done before too many eyes showed up. “Early to bed, early to rise gives the man the right lies to get into there.”

The kid was too busy being awed to hear him. Sighing, John banged on the car harder; Chas jumped, then took off like a bat out of…well, there. By the time John had gotten a cigarette lighted, Chas was a tail-light whipping around the corner. Good. He was a nice kid, so hopefully he’d never end up walking into that crack called an alley that separated Midnite’s place from the building next to it.

It looked about six inches wide on the outside, but inside it was a good yard across. Though that still never helped John’s claustrophobia, so he walked down it as quickly as he could. The damn alley zigged, zagged, took him straight through a pile of bones covered in flies and smelling like shit…one would think with the kind of income Midnite had, he could at least afford some decent cleaning service.

John turned the last hairpin corner and promptly blundered into someone. Once he’d stepped back enough to see who it was, he wished he’d had the time to throw more of his weight into it. “Balthazar. Surprise, surprise—you do come out during the day.”

“I’m not a vampire, Johnny. Perhaps you should brush up on your lessons in Supernatural 101,” Balthazar sneered back. He jerked his lapels straight, paused, and then slid around John with more than ordinary haste.

That was weird. For a second, John had felt a little tingle all over. He put it away for now, since only an idiot went into a bargaining session with Midnite with less than total focus, but made a note to check up on Balthazar later. Maybe something major was going down, in which case he needed to be there. It just might be the last one he needed to strike a deal with that ultimate bargainer, God.

“John. And what do you have today?” Midnite was standing in the doorway, carelessly toying with a skull-headed cane. His eyes were on Balthazar’s back, but not out of concern or anything like that. Probably just making sure that the bastard got out without shitting on the grounds.

“Invite me in and we’ll discuss it,” John said, putting on his best smile. Of course, the effort was wasted on Midnite, but at least the man stepped out of the way.

* * *

Five hours later saw John standing in a phone-booth, mopping at his temple and thinking that maybe he’d hit Midnite’s again and see if Ellie was available. He needed some relaxation. “Dwight, come on.”

*You’re lucky I’m not trying to kill you just for finding this phone number. Now I have to change it, and since it’s not on the books anyway, it’s going to cost even more.*

Now, McCarthy and his city definitely were interesting players, but God, were they temperamental. All John had wanted to do was remind the man that they had some unfinished business, and suddenly Dwight thought he’d been sold out to Lou. Which John hadn’t been and wasn’t planning to do for a long time. Not till he’d gotten to the bottom of the strange raw magic Dwight seemed to have at his command. “You owe me one—actually, two cups of coffee.”

*It’s been six days.* There was an edge to Dwight’s voice that could’ve cut angel wings. *You don’t panic-call until a full week has gone by without any sign of a third date.*

“So we’re dating now?” John was kidding, but he still got hung up on. He swore and slammed the phone back on the hook. A moment dawdling on the corner, and then he took off for Midnite’s.

What information he had on Dwight McCarthy was scanty and most contradictory, but one thing that was clear was that the man spent too time much around women. The two times they’d met up, he even seemed to think like them.

Basin City. Way out in the desert, only city of any size for a hundred miles around. It survived because it could tap right off the dammed river that fed L. A., and it was famous for bringing sex and violence to new levels of astonishing gratuitousness. In particular it was famous for its legalized prostitution, which took place mostly in a section called Old Town, and the bloody turf wars that periodically cropped up. Too periodically: a day spent in the L. A. library’s newspaper archives showed John that they happened so regularly a shaman could set his spells by them. Asking around on the street, even to someone like Ellie, hadn’t gotten John anything except that even Lucifer wasn’t too fond of that place. Half-breeds didn’t go there to ply their trade; something much older and much more primitive clawed close to the surface of Sin City, and they left it strictly alone. And of course that piqued John’s interest, as did anything that seemed to stand outside the eternal war between Heaven and Hell.

Well, all right, and Dwight was a damned good fuck, even if he had a bad habit of shoving sharp edges up against John’s cock and balls. He didn’t seem to have any ambitions other than to protect his girlfriend and her fellow whores, but that was an interesting kind of pragmatism. Not the usual selfish concern for his and his own and to hell with everyone else.

And he also had an uncanny way of knowing what was in John’s head, which bothered John. Not many people could predict him that well: Ellie occasionally got it, Midnite always did but he was neutral so John didn’t worry too much about him. There was also—

“Johnny…you’ve spruced up some since this morning,” sidled a whisper up to his ear. He turned around in the opposite direction to catch a faint flicker of disappointment on Balthazar’s face. But that was quickly covered up, and in no time at all Balthazar was invading his private space with martini in hand. “Showered since you went rooting in the garbage for relics to sell?”

One fast snap and Balthazar’s nose would be pulped, but there was Midnite in the corner, so no go. John rolled his eyes and stepped back so he could lean against the wall, shake out a cigarette. He whipped his lighter in between them so Balthazar couldn’t follow quite so close. “Why so interested? Lose something?”

“Hardly. I only gain.” Balthazar sipped daintily at his drink, his tongue flicking the salt off the edges. “What happened to that friend of yours? He already dead?”

“Nah. Check your mail tomorrow—he’s sending you a postcard from the Bahamas.” It figured that Balthazar would be interested. Not that John was under any obligation to satisfy him, so no guilty pangs accompanied John’s sudden twist past Balthazar.

His attempted twist, anyway. Something snagged and yanked him back by the arm. He thought his sleeve had just gotten caught on the bar-rail, but when he jerked on it, what did he get but Balthazar spilling vodka and God knew what else down his front. It was cold. “Christ!”

“Watch your clumsy mortal—” But when Balthazar tried to free himself, nothing happened. Their sleeve-cuffs were still stuck together, and no amount of furious snarling from Balthazar seemed to persuade them loose.

“What the…” John pulled up their arms to see what the problem was and fabric squirmed against his forearm. He jumped back only to have Balthazar fall right into him, nearly sending them both to the ground. “Get the hell off of me! What are you doing?”

“What am I doing? What are you doing, you incompetent excuse for a magus?” Balthazar swore and twisted, but he wasn’t getting any farther from John’s chest. Actually…if John hadn’t somehow lost his mind, they were only getting more firmly stuck together. It was like their clothes had been coated with Superglue. “This suit costs more than your life!”

They were starting to attract attention. The bartender had stopped pouring to stare at them, and out of the corner of John’s eye, he could see Midnite rapidly making his way over. He swore and grabbed Balthazar, making a run for the bathrooms. Like hell was he going to let Midnite work on him; he’d gotten the better of the man during the deal earlier and Midnite wasn’t going to be inclined to be gentle.

“Have you lost your mind?” Balthazar roared, shoving John back. Idiot. They both went crashing into the nearest stall, and John was pleased to see that the wildly-swinging door came back to smack Balthazar on the ass. Right up until the blow went through to him and smashed him into the wall.

The toilet slammed into the backs of John’s knees, sending fire in streaks up his legs and nearly sitting him down hard. His right arm was still free, so at the last moment he got hold of the top of the stall and kept upright. “Knock that—stop that, goddamn it! You’re making it worse!”

Fuming, Balthazar did. He looked like he wanted to rip out John’s throat, but he was thinking enough to realize that might leave him attached to a corpse and didn’t. “What are you doing?”

“This isn’t me. You think I want closer contact with you?” John took a deep breath and assessed the situation. His and Balthazar’s clothes were sticking them together, his left arm and Balthazar’ right angled across Balthazar’s side so their hands were on the hip. Balthazar had been a moron and had grabbed John by a fistful, so now his other hand was stuck over John’s chest. Their fronts from shoulders to hips were pretty well glued together, and closely enough for John to know that Balthazar put his left foot in first when dressing.

“This isn’t my doing, either,” Balthazar muttered, looking around as much as he could. He was so obviously annoyed that John believed him. “I don’t have all night to play—”

Whatever he said next was swallowed up the sudden, blinding burst of light in between them. John let go of the stall to throw his free arm over his eyes and consequently got a toilet in the back. He bit back his swearing and jammed himself in between the toilet and the wall so that wouldn’t happen again. Then he waited for the dancing lights to go away. “That didn’t get us free.”

“I noticed,” Balthazar snapped. He sounded more than unhappy—he was starting to sound nervous as well.

Well, that meant it wasn’t magic with which he was familiar, because as much of a bastard as Balthazar was, he did know his spellwork. That wasn’t good, since what John knew largely overlapped with Balthazar; he’d learned because he needed it to fight, and hadn’t had time to make a systemic study of various subjects. And speaking of, if this was some kind of trap, then what kind of jackass was pulling it? This wasn’t malicious so much as just plain fucking unfunny—so far, anyway. Neither demons nor angels weren’t known for their subtle wit, but John still couldn’t begin to guess who would try to pull something like this. There weren’t many people who hated both him and Balthazar.

“This is ridiculous.” Balthazar absently began to squeeze at John’s chest. Claws out.

“Hey!” John bucked, and that was a stupid move because when they’d settled down again, Balthazar’s face was shoved up against his neck. “Okay, I feel one nibble and I’ll—just don’t. I’m going to try something.”

While he did, he had to listen to Balthazar’s bitching, but John had long since learned to tune that out. More distracting was how Balthazar’s breath was tickling his neck, but he shoved that out of his mind as well. He carefully lifted his right arm; he’d been able to fling it over his eyes and take it off without it sticking to him, so this spell was limited to contact with each other. The way Balthazar had landed, he was mostly on John’s left side, so the right hem of John’s coat was hanging free. He curled his fingers around till he could pull on his cuff, and then he started trying to wriggle out of his sleeve. There wasn’t enough room.

“Balthazar, move. I’m trying to take off my coat,” John hissed. He got a glare in return for his tone, but Balthazar cooperated in quickstepping it back into the middle of the stall.

As soon as he could, John got that sleeve off. He twisted so the rest of the coat would fall off of his shoulder. The next part was to see if he could get his left arm out and so have it free, but John couldn’t reach around Balthazar without grazing him, so he couldn’t pull at the coat. In the end he dragged them over to the wall; his coat hung low enough for him to step on part of it and pull that way.

No give. “Shit.”

“Well, so much for your idea.” Something wet and slimy flicked against John’s neck. He flinched and Balthazar softly laughed. “Perhaps the idea is to tear off our clothes.”

“And you really want to do that in Midnite’s goddamn restroom?” John snarled just as the outside door opened.

Speak of the devil—not quite. “John? Balthazar? You both know the—”

“—house rules. Yeah, we’re not twelve-year-olds. I’m not, anyway.” John ignored Balthazar’s snippy remark about mental age versus chronological age and concentrated on keeping his neck as far from Balthazar’s tongue as possible. “We’re not doing this.”

“…no, you aren’t.” Midnite actually sounded shocked. It was too bad the stall door was in the way, or else John would’ve gotten the sight of a lifetime. Not even apocalypses could blow Midnite’s cool. “I don’t recognize this. At all. No—wait. I do.”

Something about the way he said that made John pause for a moment. He’d been so busy trying to figure out how to break the spell, trying to find a crack in it, that he’d mostly ignored the larger picture. And now that he was taking in the whole scope of it…“Not him.”

“But very like. You might want to give your friend a call. In the meantime, you two can wait in one of the private rooms. You’re blocking the restrooms.” It was always funny how Midnite could swing from eerie wise-man to down-home practical bar-owner.

Shame that John wasn’t in a better position to enjoy it. He hoped Dwight hadn’t gotten around to changing his number just yet.

* * *

At first, John was afraid that they’d have to keep standing, but after some experimenting, they figured out that some movement was possible. As long as the same or more area remained stuck together, they could slide against each other and rearrange themselves. Of course, that ended up with him in an over-stuffed lounge chair with Balthazar sprawled on top of him, so there were drawbacks. For example, Balthazar seemed to have gotten over his fear of Constantine-cooties and was unconcernedly lazing on John’s chest. Occasionally he’d shift his face against John’s neck or rub his knee along John’s leg, and John never could help twitching even though he knew that’d only encourage the bastard.

*Yes?* crackled the phone against John’s ear.

Balthazar tilted his head and John immediately inched the phone away. If Dwight had stayed around for, say, breakfast, they could have figured out whether they had any foreign languages in common, but Dwight had to be skittish. “Constantine. You remember that shit of a half-breed that tried to chat you up in Midnite’s? He’s stuck to me, so he can hear what we’re saying.”

“You’re such a charmer, Johnny. No wonder he skipped town.” Every word was a little flickering dampness against John’s throat.

*The one you called Balthazar? John, I. Don’t. Live. In. L. A. I don’t want to be involved in your messes.* Dwight was breathing heavily and his voice had the kind of edge that only a long brutal brawl brought out. Things were clattering in the background. *Wait. Did you say ‘stuck’?*

John frowned. “Yeah. Our clothes—we brush up against each other and we’re stuck.”

*How much did Balthazar dig into my background? As much as you did?* Someone called out to Dwight and he called back. Too muffled for John to make out the words, but he sounded pissed off.

“I already knew his phone number,” Balthazar said.

*Fuck,* was Dwight’s heartfelt reply. *I’ll be down in three hours. Where are you?*

That sounded worrying. From what John had seen of him, not much in the world could rattle Dwight, and that was what the man sounded like. “Midnite’s. What’s going on?”

*You’re a nosy bastard,* Dwight spat with sudden savagery. And with that, he hung up on John again.

Well, that was…John froze in the act of putting the phone back on its holder. Balthazar’s knee had just jerked up his leg, and from the half-shocked, half-irritated look on Balthazar’s face, that hadn’t been deliberate. It should have been easy to slide the knee back, but when Balthazar tried, nothing happened. A harder yank only resulted in a short sharp ripping sound and the sudden feel of cool air on John’s leg.

Since he’d prefer not to be naked in Midnite’s place, he twisted around to put Balthazar beneath him where the bastard couldn’t do as much. They ended up hanging half over the edge, but it wasn’t like John cared how much blood rushed to Balthazar’s—shit. Something had jerked John’s arm and hand down Balthazar’s front; he stopped it just short of Balthazar’s waistband only by gritting his teeth and pulling back till he’d nearly dislocated his shoulder.

“Why, Johnny, I’m flattered. But really, now?” The sarcasm was less effective than it should have been, mostly because Balthazar seemed to have a problem with his own hands.

Two fingers slid over John’s nipple and he hissed, arching away only to have his ass thoroughly groped. “What—the--fuck--”

Wrong thing to say. Suddenly it was all squirming cotton and slippery silk, their own clothes turning against them to…to…no time to think about that. Balthazar’s tie had taken on a life of its own and was snaking around and around John’s neck. Which wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary except that it was only choking him whenever he tried to dodge Balthazar’s mouth, not just on general principles. He finally whipped around and tried to bite the thing, only to lose his grip a second later when a knee clumsily rubbed against his prick.

“That was Japanese silk!” Balthazar hissed, tongue madly flicking between his lips. Then he abruptly shut up, head snapping back as John’s pants jerked their hips together. His mouth closed so fast that he actually caught the tip of his tongue: blood splashed up on John’s cheek. The silk slithering around John’s neck slipped up to rub over it, like a cat purring against somebody’s leg.

“Jesus, even your clothes are bloodsuckers.” John was desperately trying not to let his hand get any lower, but his sleeve was slowly inching it over Balthazar’s belt and down towards the bulge rising into John’s stomach. Not good, but what was worse in John’s opinion was the goddamned bulge he was beginning to shove into Balthazar’s thigh. Shit. “Maybe if we stand up, they won’t—”

And maybe someone was listening, too, because John’s tie shot out to take Balthazar by the throat; Balthazar was a little faster and ripped off a piece with his teeth, but they were yanked inwards so quickly that John’s skull rattled from banging into Balthazar’s forehead and his nose came pretty damned close to getting knocked off-kilter. He barely avoided that, but couldn’t at all Balthazar’s lips. His mouth landed more or less on them, still swearing, and got a bunch of silk stuffed into it into the bargain. From behind the silk gagging him, Balthazar felt like he was saying something along the lines of John’s tie being as low in the gutter as John himself.

All in all, it wasn’t a great kiss. Dwight had better hurry the fuck up, because at this rate John was going to need something to wipe this memory out of his head as well. Balthazar’s hand was still being dragged unwillingly over John’s ass and John’s hand had firmly planted itself over Balthazar’s crotch. Fly already open, of course, and shit, there went John’s zipper. He pushed down with his teeth and twisted his head till his mouth had slid off so they were cheek-to-cheek. Nearly twisted them off the chair—his free hand went out, dragged them back on and then idiotically grazed the side of Balthazar’s head. His cuff immediately clutched at Balthazar’s ear. “Shit.”

Little wet scraps of fabric blew past John’s ear, tickling it so he jerked away and tried to shake off the damn things. Balthazar fucking bit him on the jaw. “Brilliant, Johnny-boy.”

“Shut up. It’s not like you can do that to the rest of my clothes.” John’s mangled tie had temporarily retreated, but as he was talking it shot out again to worm into Balthazar’s ear. He had a great view of how it stroked and wriggled, and a great feeling for every single twitch Balthazar made in response. “Weak spot?”

“What, like this?” A nail scraped across John’s nipple, pain stinging him into slamming Balthazar back into the lounge-chair. It rattled and Balthazar laughed, albeit with a touch of nervy wildness.

More importantly, it shocked his knees into sliding along the outside of John’s legs, and even if that put their groins in damning intimacy, it also proved one point to John. He grinned as Balthazar struggled more and more—ineffectually—to get his knee back between them. “Well, nice to know who they think is on top.”

“Spare me the…” John’s hand was finally dragged into Balthazar’s pants and of course he didn’t do underwear “…ah! juvenile boasting.”

“I would, but your clothes are pretty damned insistent.” Case in point, Balthazar’s tie kept hauling John back whenever he got too far from Balthazar’s mouth. He dug his teeth into Balthazar’s cheek only to end up raking him over when the tie pulled.

Balthazar let out a stifled moan and his prick jumped eagerly against John’s hand. For a moment, he was writhing along with the clothes instead of against them. Then John got his fingers in Balthazar’s hair and tried to yank back his head, which both got them nearly strangled and snapped Balthazar out of it. He scratched and twisted at the hand he had on John’s ass, but mostly succeeded in getting tangled up in John’s belt. Which came off with a tug; Balthazar was a quick bastard and swung it so burning pain cracked across John’s buttock.

“You fucking—” John had refrained from actually closing his fingers around Balthazar’s cock, but now he did and with a vengeance. Squeezed till Balthazar was still as the dead against him, except for that slight tense shivering that frankly, John enjoyed. “The hell was that?”

“Try thinking with the head on your neck, Johnny. Whatever kind of working this is, it’s well-made and seems to have an intention. You fulfill the intention, you probably end the spell.” And then Balthazar’s hips rode up a little bit. Just enough to get the attention of John’s prick, still throbbing behind his boxers. “Or you set off a consequence.”

It made sense, but that didn’t mean John had to like it, or thank Balthazar for pulling together the pieces. He thumped Balthazar again and shoved them down, trying to pin everything in place so he could think. But his goddamned shirt kept bunching up and smoothing over his back and his pants pulled tight over his ass and thighs so they had to keep grinding up against each other. He muttered a little bit of Latin against Balthazar’s neck that scalded Balthazar, made him hiss and twist, but that didn’t produce any concrete results. “I’m guessing consequence here. And also consequence if we refuse. You can’t use your powers any more than I can right now, can you?”

With that kind of question, silence was the most telling answer. John craned around till he could check the clock: two hours, forty minutes. Shit.

Ow. He’d only stopped for a moment, but in that moment, Balthazar’s tie had coiled so tight around John’s throat that he nearly blacked out. He fumbled his way to Balthazar’s mouth and kissed past his choking—Balthazar probably liked that—till the tie released him. Balthazar’s hand squirmed over John’s chest, twisting buttons out of their holes, and he was definitely thrusting his prick into John’s hand now.

Soon as John had shifted his mouth to Balthazar’s neck, Balthazar couldn’t help getting a dig in. “Got over your inhibitions quickly, didn’t you? Very sweet, Johnny—though I’m concerned about whether your stamina will be sufficient…”

“You better hope it is, or you’ll get blasted by the same fucking thing.” John jerked Balthazar’s head back and bit hard at the curved throat. Sank his teeth deeper when Balthazar bucked, slid his hand off Balthazar’s prick and ran his nails down the sensitive skin that led up to Balthazar’s twitching, hungry little hole. It was pretty stupid since the idea was to keep status quo till Dwight got in town, but damn, was it satisfying to see Balthazar reduced to a groaning mess. “You want me to fuck you. Aw, closet bottom. Just what I wanted for Christmas.”

“To schedule an earlier trip to Hell? I’m always happy to oblige you there, Johnny.” Eyes half-closed, Balthazar was shamelessly rocking up into the two fingers John was teasing into him. His hands slid around till they had gotten beneath John’s clothes and were slowly etching nails over his back, sides. They left slow-burning tracks that ate through skin to muscle and bone.

Two fingers, nothing to ease the way. Down to the knuckles so Balthazar’s knees were a sudden crushing grip on John, but half-breeds were built to take it so John wasn’t feeling any guilt. Definitely not when Balthazar was…was actually whimpering. Whimpering and flushing a little, eyes full of impotent anger because every time he tried to stop himself, John added another bite to the chain of marks he was laying down from just beneath Balthazar’s ear to the base of his throat. “Honestly, now. You’d miss me if I were in Hell.”

“Sometimes--I’m amazed—that your ego—ever lets you out,” Balthazar rasped. His fingers were teasing at John’s belt, undoing and then redoing the buckle. Something dangled from his wrist to slither at John’s hip, making him flinch and squirm.

Balthazar’s belt. And then leather was coiling hard around John so he panicked, writhing around. Yanking out his fingers and skidding his hands up Balthazar’s front in a futile effort to push himself off because that was panic—forgetting all the important things. What the hell had he been thinking? He’d started to lose himself in this shit, as if it were an ordinary fling with the sharp side of destruction, and…and he’d really, desperately wanted Balthazar for a moment.

“Constantine! Stop—you idiot! Stop!” Something hard snapped into John’s head. A second later, when he’d blinked away the hurtful sparks, he saw Balthazar staring up at him, a nice new bruise on the bastard’s forehead.

John hissed breath between his teeth and experimentally wiggled: Balthazar’s hands appeared to have gotten themselves lashed behind John’s back, and John’s wrists were all knotted up in their ties, snug to either side of Balthazar’s neck. And their clothes were keeping them firmly pressed to each other, inching John’s cock along the underside of Balthazar’s ass. The fabric clutched so tightly at John’s limbs that he was beginning to lose feeling in them, and that alone almost made him lose it again. He couldn’t control his own goddamned body; he was no better than a puppet.

He glanced at the clock: two hours. “Son of a bitch.”

“I am going to flay whoever’s behind this and use their skin as a rug,” Balthazar said, low and ferocious and beneath that, a little bit frightened. It didn’t look like he was dealing with the idea that someone could just play with them like they were dolls any better than John was.

The tip of John’s cock grazed against Balthazar’s entrance and Balthazar suddenly tensed, hands jerking hard into the small of John’s back, nails ripping into John’s skin. He sucked in a breath, saw John watching and produced a sneer with a crack running right through the middle.

“Only if you get to them first.” John held back for as long as he could, but he couldn’t stop his prick from beginning to slide into Balthazar. “For what it’s worth, I’d never pull something like this. String your guts from my door, yeah, but not…”

“You’re such a good little boy,” Balthazar muttered. He closed his eyes, opened them, and visibly had to will himself to relax. He grimaced as John pushed farther into him, chewing on his lip, and slowly let himself lie back on the lounge. “Just try to have some lasting power, would you?”

John rolled his eyes as much as he could, given that nasty circumstances aside, Balthazar was amazingly tight and so hot that John could feel his muscles melting in spite of themselves. His hips were starting to move on their own, trying short stabbing thrusts. “Fuck you. Oh, wait, doing that.”

Hour and forty minutes. Shit.

* * *

“They are in…” Midnite walked in, stopped, and for the first time in five or six years, John got to see what Midnite looked like with bugged-out eyes. Of course the man recovered quickly, but that was still something.

Or would’ve been something if John wasn’t dripping with sweat and feeling as if that was all that made up his muscles. He couldn’t speak anymore because he was too busy dragging in ragged breath after ragged breath that did him no good. Not enough air in the whole world to chase away the searing pain in his chest, the exhausted shaking of his limbs as he strained to keep from climaxing. Balthazar had long since gone limp, lucky bastard, and the only sign of life from him was the occasional whispery moan that leaked out of his slack mouth.

Dwight took it all in with considerably more poise than Midnite had. He nodded to John and stepped aside for a third person to walk in. “I used to work for a private eye, taking photos of cheating husbands and so on.”

That explained the composure, but not the tiny bit of geisha that sauntered in, commanding and icy as a cat. She was carrying a pair of samurai swords that were nearly as long as she was tall.

“Miho,” Dwight introduced. He went back out in the hall and returned dragging a bound and gagged man who looked like he’d already been professionally worked over. Midnite and he stretched out the man while Miho restlessly paced around the edge, looking at and hearing things that no one else could. Balthazar let his head flop to the side and, after glancing over Dwight, tracked her with his eyes. She ignored him.

John hooked up a last bit of speech. “Hurry it up, would you?”

“We are. It’s not that easy to drive this far with a rapist in your trunk. Miho.” Dwight pinned the man’s shoulders with his knees and held out a hand to her; she dropped a long knife with a wicked serrated edge into it. Midnite calmly got out of the way as Miho and Dwight systematically began carving up the first screaming, then gurgling son of a bitch.

After the first few moments, John had to look away. Sick curiosity made him turn back, but he kept his eyes on Miho and Dwight and not what they were doing to the man—the sacrifice. The air was thick with blood and shit and something else that didn’t come from anything earthly, but sprang into being, pungent and strong and dizzying, whenever the old forces were invoked. Miho seemed to absorb it with pleasure, turning more and more kittenish as time went on. She would lightly tap the place where she was about to cut before slowly making a shallow incision, and then finally slicing hard and deep.

Dwight, on the other hand, occasionally had to sit back and cough into his sleeve. He definitely wasn’t enjoying it, but he had done this enough to not have any problems with it, either.

“John,” Balthazar suddenly said, twisting. Almost made John lose it, goddamn him, but John wrenched himself back from the edge.

Their clothes were beginning to loosen up. On the floor, John glimpsed a loop of entrails suddenly wrap itself in a knot. He hastily looked away and buried his face in Balthazar’s neck before he really understood what he was doing. “Dwight?”

“One more—all right, now you can.” A wet splash interrupted Dwight’s words.

Didn’t matter. All John needed to hear was now and he was driving into Balthazar for the last time, knees slipping on his own sweat, and Jesus Christ the relief alone knocked those out from under him.

* * *

“Thank you very much,” Dwight said just before punching John back onto the couch.

They’d moved to yet another of Midnite’s backrooms so the staff could get the first cleaned up. Midnite was nice enough to provide fresh clothing, and amused enough not to complain when both John and Balthazar thoroughly checked over it before changing. At the moment he was in the corner with Miho having a one-sided discussion—since she didn’t seem to talk—on ritual cutting.

“You shoved a switchblade against my balls. Why wouldn’t I try to find out who you were?” John asked. He ran a towel over his stinging jaw and neck, rubbing at the marks the ties had left. It felt like he would have to go around looking like a near-hanging victim again. Once he had the energy to just drag himself off this sofa, anyway. His body was about two steps from folding in on itself, and only the prospect of information was keeping him upright. “Of course, I can’t make the same excuse for Balthazar.”

Who was forced to sit next to John since Dwight had claimed the only other chair in the room for dejected slumping. Balthazar shrugged and examined his nails. When he found a hang-nail, he began delicately nibbling it back into shape. “How is this relevant, by the way? Since we appear to be skipping introductions.”

“It’s relevant because the men I’m fighting against have been recruiting in L. A. I came down here last week to make certain that they’d have to stop, only it looks like they assumed I came to do some recruiting of my own.” Dwight shifted around in his seat, sharing a glance with Miho. He still had some blood drying on his cheek and he scratched at it, then flicked the specks onto the carpet. John wondered if Dwight had noticed how much Balthazar would have liked to lick that off. “Who the hell is he?” Dwight asked, flipping a finger at Balthazar.

Guess he had. If his disgust had been something solid, Balthazar would have been eating it up with a spoon. “More likely to get you killed than I am,” John answered. “So they think we’re allied?”

Balthazar snorted in disbelief. “They certainly don’t know L. A. very well.”

“They don’t have to. They know Sin City. And you’re going to now.” Dwight irritably swung himself out of the chair and got himself a cigarette. He smoked fast and hard, cupping one hand beneath it to catch all the ashes. “You’re marked. I couldn’t reverse all of what Wallenquist had done. You’re going to end up in Basin City sooner or later, and then you’ll have to settle up before you can leave.”

Wallenquist. It was a name Dwight had mentioned before, but all John had turned up was a mob lord—powerful, but a dime a dozen. He reminded himself to do a closer check this time round, because he certainly wasn’t going to get caught so easily again. Second round was going to be played his way, all the way. “Looks like you’ll be buying me that coffee after all.”

The snarl that burst from Dwight was echoed in the sudden reverberation of the walls, and particularly the one that faced the room they’d just left. Everything looked a little reddish anyway because of Midnite’s preferred lighting scheme, but the room was momentarily bloody. Wet scarlet so John felt phantom stickiness against his skin except for his forearms, where his tats were blazing white through his sleeves, and pulsing as if they’d somehow ended up inside a living heart. Balthazar had pressed himself back into the couch, hissing so John glanced his way; his eyes were wide and reddening, and his fingers were curled back as if to keep something away.

Midnite was a seething coil in the corner, but Miho had flicked up a blade to his throat, and suddenly John knew that that wasn’t ordinary steel she was holding.

“Johnny, could you please not annoy the bloodmage?” Balthazar said. A little flippant, a lot more worried.

At that, Dwight spun on his heel and everything collapsed in a whisper so soft it was a shocking contrast. He stalked to the end of the room, then whirled around to lean against the wall and rub at his face. “Gail’s going to kill me.”

Miho swished her sword back into her scabbard as if to agree, though she didn’t seem nearly as concerned about it as Dwight did. She gave Midnite a little shrug, to which he spread his hands: a pair of professionals acknowledging the necessary evils of their jobs. Then she went over to Dwight, and Midnite turned on John. He was so angry the whites of his eyes seemed to pop out of the sockets. “John. I will not have this in my house. You are banned until you’ve settled this dispute in Basin City.”

“Hey—hey!” Exasperation finally got John onto his feet. “Look, you heard Dwight. This is all Wallenquist’s fault—”

“—and I lay the same prohibitions on you, Balthazar,” Midnite went on, ignoring John. He spat at their feet, then raised his hands and began…an exorcism spell. Oh, this was rich. This was so incredibly hypocritical that John couldn’t begin to be disgusted by it.

“Johnny? You’re dead,” Balthazar said simply, dragging them towards the door.

* * *

“It’d be a bad idea to kill him because then you couldn’t complete the cycle,” Dwight said. He was using the cigarette ashes he’d saved to draw something on the ground.

Since Midnite had kicked them out like stray dogs, they’d retired to the roof-top of an abandoned building. John wasn’t about to take them to his place, Balthazar was equally determined, and Miho hadn’t been able to stop jumping up to slink along gutters, so that was the best compromise they’d come up with. Right now Balthazar was on his ass on the ground, his second suit of the night ripped up, and John was circling him with sore knuckles that should’ve been sorer. He twirled his holy knuckledusters around a finger as he watched Miho, who was calmly keeping between him and Balthazar.

“And then I’m stuck forever in the damned story, or curse, or whatever it is. This isn’t exactly new to me.” But that wasn’t any reason for John to forego trying to beat the shit out of Balthazar, and Balthazar hadn’t seemed to mind getting in a fight. This, however, wasn’t working; he gave the knuckledusters one last spin, then put them away. Got out a cigarette while he was at it and offered one to Miho, who flipped up her nose at it.

“She doesn’t smoke.” Dwight finished what he was doing and stood up, looking even more irritated. “Whoever laid this on you’s back in Basin City by now.”

Balthazar had also gotten to his feet and was now fastidiously tidying himself up. “Ah, good. Two birds with one stone.”

He took one step forward and then two or three fast ones back, hand coming up to cover his cheek. A little bit of blood leaked from between his fingers. Miho tossed her hair out of her face and flicked the blood off her sword.

“You little—” Balthazar started. His arm blurred, but Miho blurred with it, and when they’d settled back down, they were in the same stalemate. Well, except for the surprised way Balthazar was taking a second look at her.

John raised an eyebrow. “So…Dwight…your other girlfriend here is a…”

“She’s human, and she’s not my girlfriend,” Dwight irritably said. He was seconded by Miho, who spun gracefully to almost take off one of John’s fingers.

“Jesus!” Okay, back over to Dwight. She probably wouldn’t risk hitting him.

Apparently John’s thoughts were on his face, for Dwight gave him a sardonic grin. “She would kill me, if she thought she had to. Though she’s really a very nice girl. You just need to get to know her on her own ground—L. A. makes her touchy.”

“Well, I like to travel light anyway,” John suggested.

Dwight shook his head. He gazed thoughtfully at Balthazar, who was dividing his attention between trying to crisp Miho with a glare and looking appealingly towards Dwight. If John didn’t know Balthazar as well as he did, he would’ve called it an adorable act. “No, it doesn’t work like that. You’ll end up in Basin City when you end up in it. Till then, no point in coming early—all you’ll do is give Wallenquist more information about yourself.”

“And you’d rather I stayed the hell away. You know, I never was planning to spend much time there. I’ve got obligations here.” John sucked on his cigarette and gave Balthazar a meaningful look.

Which was wasted. “Like trying to buy a pass into Heaven? Johnny-boy, when are you going to realize that Gabriel isn’t going to make you a trade?” Balthazar called.

“Suicide,” John curtly said to Dwight’s questioning look.

“Murder victim,” Dwight matter-of-factly riposted. He loosened up enough to smile at John. “I fell in love with a succubus. She killed me for a few minutes, and then I killed her later. For good.”

They had an audience, but it was the best chance John was probably going to get. He took his cigarette out of his mouth, blew all the smoke through his nostrils, and then leaned over to press his lips to Dwight’s. Gave him a good, long, hard kiss once Dwight had opened his mouth—in welcome or to protest didn’t matter to John—before rocking back. “I really would have just come up to see you.”

“Me or what I can do?” Dwight asked, eyebrows up. But he took a moment longer than he should have to step back.

“So is this a third date?” John let him go. He’d done enough pushing for tonight, and seeing as he had a guaranteed pass to catch up with Dwight again, he didn’t have to worry about getting the hook in deep. Anyway, he still had Balthazar to see to.

Dwight rolled his eyes as he walked away, Miho silently turning into a shadow in the folds of his coat. “You don’t have sex with someone else on the third date. And don’t fucking phone my apartment again.”

“Catty,” Balthazar commented. He came up just as Dwight and Miho silently dropped off the rooftop, coin already dancing over the back of his hand. “And that’s your current obsession?”

“Seems to be something we have in common, much as I hate saying that.” The cigarette was down to the filter, so John flicked it down and ground it out with his heel. He waited for it.

And Balthazar didn’t disappoint, his teeth snapping together an inch from John’s nose as the rest of him pressed invasively against John. His eyes were half-closed and his hand slid insinuating down John’s chest. “Well, now. You can’t kill me. What on earth shall you do now?”

“What? One taste and you’re a—no, you’re not even a whore.” John had a feeling Balthazar expected him to punch his way out. That was what he usually did, but tonight he felt like being a surprise and instead grabbed Balthazar by the hair, yanking them closer. “Way too eager for it—more like a slut.”

“Speaking for yourself again? I wish I could claim to be the lowest you’ve stooped to ally with, but I certainly can’t,” Balthazar tauntingly murmured. The toe of his foot dragged along John’s instep.

The boots were thick, and Balthazar certainly wasn’t wearing cheap flimsy shoes so it was barely a touch, but it was enough to make John lose it. Whether ‘it’ was his temper or something else was something he’d have to sort out later, when he wasn’t being stupid enough to tongue-fuck Balthazar. He probably should think about why Balthazar was trying so hard to crawl inside his mouth as well, grabbing at John’s shoulders and feverishly groaning. This wasn’t…exactly…fighting…

They mutually ripped away from each other. John blinked, ran his tongue over his sore lower lip. “So one good fuck turns you soft?”

“You’re such a slave to your ego,” Balthazar said, a little breathless. He drew himself up and started to walk away, but something was missing from his strut. A sense of unshakeable certainty, maybe. “That’s why I like you so much.”

“Yeah,” John muttered. He backed up till he could sit down on the edge of the roof and wait till his head stopped spinning. Things were getting really messy really fast. “Yeah. Sure.”


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