|Alliance I: Hostility
Author: Guede Mazaka
Dwight’s apartment was filled with women. Daisy in the kitchen cooing over the freaked-out kid who’d been driving, Gail and another girl hefting a long, canvas-wrapped thing out of his bathroom. Miho perched on the edge of his kitchen sink, rinsing the last of the blood out of her hair. Brassy and beautiful and brutal, all of them.
He went back into the hall and had a fast cigarette. Gail and the other girl—Amy?—wrestled their burden past him and down to the window at the end of the corridor. They had some trouble fitting its broader end through, but after a couple kicks with a six-inch stiletto heel, the bundle finally dropped out into the alley. A tad too quickly, Gail snapped down the window and turned around. “Thanks, Amy. You can run home now. Take today off.”
“Thanks. I’ll take off the morning, definitely, but need to pay the electric bill.” Amy nervously brushed her hair out of her face, nodding to both of them. “See you tonight. Dwight, Gail.”
She went down the hall and disappeared into the stairwell, the clack of her heels soon swallowed up by the growling of a passing car. The smoke trailing from Dwight’s cigarette spun in lazy fat circles, then suddenly snapped straight as a ruler. Over by the window, Gail jumped at the vague rustle-crunch sounds from below in the alley; most people would’ve assumed it was just some bum rummaging in the trash, and hell, even Dwight would’ve thought so if it’d been only six months ago. But now he went over to the window and peeked out, accidentally flicking ash onto the back of his hand. “Ow. The body’s gone.”
Down in the alley were piles of refuse, a few whining mutts in the very back, and a stretch of clear concrete that was just big enough for a man to lie on. It had a long, deep crack running across it like the jagged rotten edges of a corpse’s mouth and any moment now Dwight almost expected a red tongue to lick slowly over them.
“Ick. Handy, but ick,” Gail muttered. She hooked her arm through Dwight’s, her long red nails tapping restlessly on his sleeve. One snagged and he bent over to unhook it only to be caught in a sideways kiss that sucked his last drag right out of his mouth. When he leaned back, Gail was grinning sharp and white as a shark. “Watch that you aren’t setting my hair on fire.”
“Right. I’m not even supposed to be smoking these.” He stabbed out the butt and opened the window just enough to toss it out. “I’m sorry—”
She jabbed him hard in the ribs, and then again when he swore at her. Dwight finally gave up on talking and just watched her arch against him, slowly stretching back into her usual self. “You just wiped out the last two months of favors you’ve done for us and then some. I don’t understand why I keep you around with all the trouble you bring. Don’t be sorry—be thinking about how you’re going to fix this, you damn fool.”
“Working on it.” And Dwight was. He’d been thinking himself in circles and ellipses and finally knots ever since he’d figured out exactly who was going to show up on his doorstep. Trying to get Constantine sorted away while asking for the least amount of help possible from Gail and the girls. But Dwight was still exhausted from the week, and Constantine…John didn’t look well. The less said about Balthazar’s state, the better. From an aesthetic perspective, anyway—Balthazar would heal.
Dwight got off the windowsill and escorted Gail to his door, whereupon she unhooked herself and gave him a slow, soft press of mouth on cheek that was too damned sensual to be good for either of them. Behind her Daisy was wheedling the kid—Chas, that was his name—down the stairs; Dwight nodded towards the pair and shot Gail a stern look.
“He’s legal,” she cooed, pulling teasingly at his collar. Then the elegant lines of her face smoothed and hardened, and her nails curled into sharp claws on his arm. She pulled him down close so to a bystander, it might almost look affectionate. “We’ll see him safely out of town. The other two are on your head.”
She swept down the stairs behind Daisy, head high and stance proud. Every single damn time, it hurt deep in Dwight’s chest to see her back.
He took a breath, turned around and went back into his apartment. Miho was sitting on the kitchen counter, rubbing her hair dry with his dishtowel. She didn’t bother to look at him when he asked whether she wanted something to eat, so he supposed that meant she’d stay and see to herself. A quick check in the fridge told him he should’ve gone grocery-shopping a couple days ago; Dwight sighed and took what was there: a left-over ham sandwich, a couple bottles of beer, and a jar of dried seaweed.
He went into the bathroom and dropped everything on the counter. John was slumped on the toilet, pale as death and with his head back so Dwight could notice again how sluggishly his pulse beat in his neck. A cigarette dangled from one hand. From somewhere came the faint, sweetish scent of decay—the bathtub was filled nearly to overflowing with blood, and more blood plus spit and bodily fluids were splattered on the floor, but they weren’t the source.
Plenty of stuff with which to work. Dwight swirled his fingers in the air, watched how the red splashes around his feet likewise swirled.
John twitched. “You could ask, you know.”
“If I was going to ask anything, it’d be why are you so stupid, and you’re not going to answer that one.” So…lung cancer. On top of everything else, here John was in Dwight’s bathroom, his lungs withering into black tarry lumps while he took a long, blasé drag on his cigarette. The bastard even blew it towards Dwight. “The sandwich is for you, if you want.”
Fucking, fucking, fucking stupid man. He—never mind. No time to rail at him now for that. Lung cancer, but John wasn’t going to die right now and Dwight should be worrying about other matters, and not about how he might be feeling about that piece of news.
He roughly took up the jar of seaweed and made his way over to the bathtub. Business had been good from one perspective—fewer creeps than usual needing a permanent lesson—but bad in the sense that Dwight had had less corpses to bleed. In the end they’d squeezed out what they could from two and filled the tub the rest of the way with water, so now the mixture was thin and semi-translucent. Clear enough for Dwight to be able to see more than a shadow beneath the clumped herbs and powders floating on the surface.
“How long does he have to be in that?” John asked. “He’s the only one that’s got any idea about what’s going on, so I’ve got a couple questions to ask.”
“Another hour before his human skin comes back.” Dwight knelt down, unscrewing the cap of the jar. He rested it on the edge of the tub and stuck a strip of seaweed in his mouth. Chewed on it till it was the consistency of toothpaste before spitting it into the tub. “He’ll look okay on the outside, but the inside will take longer. Not a good idea for him to move for at least a few days.”
Tired as John was, he still managed to smile nastily. “Oh. Good. That’ll make it easier.”
After spitting out a last wad of seaweed, Dwight got back up. He hooked one of the beers from by the sink and stalked back into the main room. Or he began to, but then remembered about the bloody floor and stopped to take off his shoes.
Dwight didn’t turn around, but instead jerked harder at his laces. His fingers were clumsy tonight. “Why’d you come here?”
Footsteps scuffled over to stand beside him. When he looked up, John was leaning against the frame with all the care of a magazine model. And still smoking. “Because you drew pretty curlicues on my windowsill. Didn’t anyone tell you not to fuck with another man’s wards?”
“Then why do I have the feeling that that saved your life?” Shoes finally unlaced, Dwight stood up so their noses were only six inches apart. He stepped out of one shoe and then the other, which put them two inches apart.
John jerked back his head, defensive expression quickly sliding to injured pride. He blew more smoke into Dwight’s face. That was getting annoying.
So Dwight yanked that cigarette out and tossed it in the sink where it noisily fizzled in a puddle of blood. His head was beginning to swell with a migraine and the sour taste of rage was rising in the back of his throat. “Don’t play me, John.”
“Because you know. You know. You already know,” John hissed, his finger stabbing each word into Dwight’s chest. On the last one, he corkscrewed his finger so it caught Dwight’s shirt-button. Small trigger, but suddenly John was up in Dwight’s face, eyes bloodshot and mouth twisting ferociously. “You knew we’d have to show up sometime, you knew when Gabriel set off that goddamned ward you set on my windowsill, you fucking opened the door with two bodies already draining into the goddamned tub. You knew! Except you didn’t. Don’t. You don’t know why Balthazar’s a chunk of charcoal, you didn’t know I have cancer--”
Right then a fit of coughing took John hard in the gut. He tried to stifle it, but only managed to make his cough explode downwards. His body doubled over and nearly writhed out of Dwight’s arms, his head banged on Dwight’s shoulder. At first he tried to shove Dwight off, but then a succession of hacking spat something wet and sticky against Dwight’s neck; John’s fingers convulsively snapped around Dwight’s arm and he just went limp, coughing and coughing and coughing.
Miho’s shadow danced up against the wall just as John finally stopped. It paused, then withdrew to leave Dwight barely hanging on to John. Holding John up was like holding a dead bird, needing less effort than it looked like it would because of the hollow body. Dwight’s stomach lurched.
“You can’t deal with this through ordinary channels, can you?” he said into John’s hair.
“Nope.” John didn’t breathe for a long time, but he couldn’t hold it forever. When he finally did, he took in air as if he thought he might break his bones by doing it. “Can you…”
“I’m about to fall over. Miho’s staying—she usually takes the couch. You can have the bed,” Dwight quickly, quietly put in.
He wasn’t sure that John would buy it. And when John disengaged himself to look at Dwight, his face was shuttered in derision so Dwight knew John wasn’t buying it. But John turned and slowly walked out of the bathroom anyway. Dwight took his spot on the toilet and rubbed at his temples, waiting for Balthazar to surface. He wiped the bloody spit off his neck and slowly worked it between his fingers till he didn’t feel anything more than a faint stickiness.
* * *
Cool. Cooling. Wet all over. Floating…and cold again, but a different kind. Air. Balthazar stared up at the blurry red world and slowly let his hand drag through the substance in which he was submerged.
He was on his side in what felt like a bathtub. His fingers touched the porcelain and followed its curve upward to the surface, breaking it in the middle of a clump of powder. The sodden particles stung, then turned icy and soothing as he swished his hand. He opened his mouth and let some of the fluid wash out the awful ashy taste, replacing it with blood and the tang of half-dissolved herbs. Human blood, he realized with sudden relish. He was about to take a long draft when something seized him by the neck and dragged him into the air.
Pain. His bones burned as if they’d been filled with molten lead, his muscles sang tautly with the slightest movement. Even blinking the blood out of his eyes was a torment.
“Don’t drink too much of that.” A blurry face slowly resolved into Dwight McCarthy, sleeves rolled up over red-stained arms and hands full of rags and crucifix. He followed Balthazar’s gaze towards the latter and shrugged, layering amusement over more caution than John probably indulged in during a whole year. “Last time I did this, I got bitten.”
Balthazar absentmindedly reached up to push hair out of his face and froze, staring at the pale perfect skin that covered his hand. His eyebrow rose by reflex, covering up his shock in arch irony. “And why none of my colleagues have ever mentioned you, I’ll be sure to know. So you make a habit of helping demons?”
“It doesn’t just work on demons. And no. Just when I need the demon in question in good enough shape for me to get a couple answers out of him.” Dwight scooted sideways, still holding the crucifix before him, and dug around in the watery blood till something gave a soft, sucking pop. The water level started to sink fast.
He didn’t look away, and Balthazar didn’t bother with being modest. As the blood sluiced lower and lower down his body, Balthazar resettled himself in a sitting position and began to slowly wring the blood out of his hair. He had to grit his teeth against the searing pain that shot through his fingers; the next time he saw Gabriel, he was going to repay her triply in kind for this. “Where’s Johnny?”
Instead of answering, Dwight threw the rag at Balthazar. It smelled of cold sweats and a nasty death, and when Balthazar unwadded it, he found it to be a man’s shirt. Not the right size for Dwight, but then, he doubted it was Dwight’s blood in the water. Definitely a very interesting man. Bloodmages were rare, and not only because their magic wasn’t supported by very many places on earth—if the earth itself didn’t try to swallow them up during a working, then the insanity to which they were prone usually got them early in life.
That, however, didn’t seem to be a problem here unless Dwight had lucked out with the ultra-rational kind of madness. He moved quietly around the bathroom, mopping up while keeping an eye on Balthazar. Nothing but efficient practicality: using more dead men’s clothes to wipe up the blood, squeezing them out into the tub before rinsing that down when he blasted Balthazar with the showerhead. And he always had the crucifix within ready reach, which was a little more than Balthazar could say for John sometimes. He looked over Balthazar thoroughly, but only met Balthazar’s inquiring gaze with a cool regard.
“Clothes?” Balthazar asked.
“In a mo—” Dwight turned around even though Balthazar hadn’t heard anything, and there was that damned Japanese girl with a stack of clothing. She handed it to Dwight, who passed it to Balthazar, and then leaned against the doorway to watch. A grin slid across Dwight’s face. “She’ll try not to slice you up if you try not to do anything stupid. Like flirt with me.”
Again, not Dwight’s own clothing: dark loose sweat-pants, dark t-shirt, crumpled white button-down, all of mediocre quality. They rasped painfully against Balthazar’s skin, which while whole seemed as fragile and thin as tissue-paper. “Why on earth would I do that?”
“To piss off ‘Johnny,’ for one. To distract me, for two.” Dwight sat down on the toilet with knees wide and finished up by rubbing down his arms. He tossed the stained rag into one end of the tub with the rest when he was done, then leaned back to eye Balthazar. “You’re only guaranteed help here till this is completed, because I don’t feel like having your ghost or whatever you call a dead demon’s spirit stuck here. After that, you’re fair game. And I’ve already had a couple bad experiences with your kind so I’m not likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. Got that?”
“Clear as a bell,” Balthazar dryly said. He finished doing up his buttons and eased onto the edge of the tub. That went well, but when he swung his leg over the side, he misjudged the distance to the floor and put his foot down rather heavily. It took a moment for the hurt to seep out of his breath. “Did Constantine tell you anything about what’s going on? No? I’m not surprised.”
Miho rolled her eyes. Silver glinted in her hand; she raised it to show Balthazar the sharp-edged star she was flipping over the backs of her fingers. Very cute mockery, girl.
“I take it I can skip the introductory history.” How much to tell Dwight was a tricky decision to make. Too much and Balthazar might as well sign his own death warrant, too little and Dwight was likely to lose his temper, and Balthazar had only heard about bloodworkers so he didn’t know a good deal about dealing with them. The man might also let John have a go at Balthazar, and Balthazar’s pride had already taken enough from that corner after actually having to ask Johnny for help. “The angel power in this region is Gabriel. He had some idea about unleashing Mammon and asked me to help. I thought it over, decided the offer was too good to be true, and turned him down.”
“Take it you did it in person instead of over the phone.” So far, Dwight seemed to be buying it. Given his apparent lifestyle, he wouldn’t have been so calm if he knew exactly what Gabriel had asked Balthazar to do and how Balthazar had double-crossed Gabriel.
Then again, Balthazar hadn’t mentioned that to John, so that could safely be left to the side. “I didn’t think he’d dare violate the balance, which prohibits us from attacking each other as well as directly contacting you humans. Anyway, the salient points are that Gabriel needs the Spear of Destiny and a powerful psychic in order to make this work. He has the one; he’s still looking for the other.”
He didn’t have to explain further for Dwight and Miho to understand. The girl tensed, though so imperceptibly that human eyes couldn’t have seen it, while Dwight made an aborted glance towards one of the walls. That way lay wherever John was sleeping, Balthazar guessed.
The crucifix swung rapidly from Dwight’s hand. He looked down, from side to side, and finally straight ahead while he hunched and lowered his shoulders. “Why not John? Or someone else—I’m sure L. A. doesn’t lack for psychics.”
“Constantine’s dying from lung cancer—you probably noticed he’s a little bit more crazy than usual because he’s so desperate. You need a healthy medium for something like this.” No sign of surprise from Dwight. Balthazar went on, “And the caliber of psychic necessary is extraordinarily rare. Mammon’s the son of Lucifer: he’d tear apart most before he managed to cross halfway.”
“And Gabriel found out about me through John. I see.” Dwight’s lips thinned. People were so good at jumping to conclusions on their own that most of the time, direct influence would have been over-the-top anyway. It wasn’t something Balthazar knew for certain, but it was a logical guess if anyone knew Johnny, and it suited Balthazar for Dwight to believe so.
The man sat thinking a moment longer, then stood up. His fingers twisted and suddenly Balthazar’s skin was boiling; the pain was so awful that Balthazar nearly fell back into the bathtub.
“I’m not lying!” Balthazar hissed, slamming up what he could. His nerves were still frayed by his inability to block Gabriel, and this magic was unlike anything that he’d experienced before, so he didn’t manage to do much. In the end he was reduced to mere instinct, forgetting everything he knew about finesse and trying brute strength.
The pain gave, a little bit, but before he could determine what he’d done and how to do it better, Dwight’s hand snapped about and it ended. Balthazar slid a foot to the side and pressed his shoulder to the cold tile wall, rubbing at his arms to lessen the aftershocks. At least he could stop it. There was an opening, so all he had to do was figure out how to make it big enough for him to fit through it.
“I guess not,” Dwight said, tucking his hands in his pockets. He leaned a shoulder against the wall and stared down at Balthazar. “So were you planning to sleep in the bathtub?”
Certainly not, and if John was in the bedroom like Balthazar suspected, this should be all the more interesting. If Balthazar could stand up…which he discovered was a dubious proposition. He wrapped his hand around a nearby towel bar and leaned harder against the wall so he could drag himself up it. The first few inches weren’t too bad, but the higher he went, the more it felt as if his knees were rubbing raw nerves against each other. He knew Miho was laughing behind her damned stone-face and he wanted to claw out her eyes for that, but he had to admit he’d probably collapse before he ever got a foot towards her. Balthazar gritted his teeth and skidded up the last three inches. There he had to stop because all his joints were on fire.
Dwight scuffed his foot on the floor. His face was too expressionless. “Want some help?”
“I can see why John likes you so much.” It was a small bathroom, but even its few yards were going to be too much for Balthazar to negotiate. His breathing was already ragged and the drops falling from his hair were sweat, not left-over rinse-water.
A sigh slithered about the room. “God save me from the tough guys,” Dwight muttered, coming forward to take Balthazar beneath the elbows.
“You’ll not have much help from that corner, in my experience.” Balthazar stiffened when Dwight touched him. Not out of any conscious intention, but once he’d started, he let himself continue. Relaxing too quickly would have given away his shaky state, so better to let Dwight think he was too proud.
“The crucifix is in my pocket, so as long as you don’t go groping, you won’t get burned.” Just as Balthazar had expected, Dwight thought he was too embarrassed and dealt with that by simply applying enough physical force to make Balthazar fold into his arms. He didn’t ask any more questions. “And by the way, you’ve still got enough blood traces on you for me to not need it to fuck you up. Though I don’t want to if I can help it.”
Once Dwight started dragging him, Balthazar didn’t see any point in further resistance and allowed all his weight to fall on Dwight. The man grunted but took it effortlessly, arms sliding around Balthazar’s waist. Lovely body, a good bit broader than Johnny, but still lean enough to say something about how Dwight probably spent most nights. And beneath the scents of sweat and soap, he smelled like the deaths of plenty of people, which was one plus Johnny didn’t have. As many ghosts as Constantine had hanging around him, he generally hadn’t around for or hadn’t been the direct cause of their deaths, like it seemed Dwight had been.
Balthazar pressed up against Dwight to see over Dwight’s shoulder—ah, Johnny, sleeping like an angel—and casually neglected to move back afterwards. He tilted his head so when Dwight turned to stare at him, their cheeks grazed each other. “Are you sure you’d rather not? I can imagine that it’d be…interesting if you did it,” he murmured in Dwight’s ear.
Dwight went still. When he answered, it was in a rasp flavored with a darker humor than before. “You’re full of it.”
“Not quite yet—” It was Balthazar’s turn to freeze, for something cold and thin and sharp was sliding up the inside back of his left leg. He suddenly remembered he hadn’t seen Miho in the past few minutes and looked over his shoulder to see, only to have his head yanked around by a fist in his hair. The flare of pain was so intense that his knees buckled, but nevertheless he met Dwight’s gaze without flinching. Even added a smile. “So that’s how you like it?”
Dwight’s face twisted in a snarl. “You fucking—”
Miho couldn’t chop Balthazar yet. She could hurt him, but not so much that he couldn’t take it given how close he and Dwight were standing. He lunged and caught Dwight’s mouth just as two voices swore from opposite sides of the apartment.
Vicious, messy, and even if Dwight never admitted it to himself, he was fighting for it rather than against it by the time he ripped Balthazar off. There was another clue to why Johnny was so interested—if Balthazar had known, he might’ve tried purposely slipping into Johnny’s bed before Ellie had gotten to him and had inadvertently immunized him to that particular weakness, thoughtless bitch that she was. But this was almost as good.
The sword blade skittered across the backs of Balthazar’s legs, slicing cloth but narrowly avoiding skin as Dwight flung him backward. He hit the wall so hard he bounced off and then hit it again; the first hit didn’t hurt, but the second one rattled his vision into fuzzy black for a second. He came to sprawled on the floor by the wall, biting into his lip till blood rose to keep from whimpering. This time he doubted he could get himself to his feet.
But the sight certainly was worth it. Miho had circled around so her sword-tip was equidistant from Dwight and Balthazar, her eyes on Gail, who stood in the front doorway. That woman held two lidded Styrofoam cups of coffee that were in grave danger of being crushed into brown crinkly wads. One was already leaking from where her thumbnail had punctured it, and from the look on her face, she wished that nail was stabbing something else.
Johnny was standing by the bed, lips drawn back in the near-mindless rage of the wolf starved of any reason to live except to kill. His eyes shifted between Dwight and Balthazar so quickly that it was a wonder he wasn’t collapsing from dizziness. But no, his gaze was eerily lucid.
Dwight stood perfectly still, hands down at his sides with fingers open to show he meant no harm. A pointless gesture at this point, but somehow he made the other two believe it by sheer force of stare. He was a remarkably good actor, laying the genuine remorse so thickly over his raised hackles that probably only Balthazar and Miho noticed how badly he was taking John’s and Gail’s reactions.
“I heard that son of a bitch mouthing off and thought I’d offer to put a fist in it,” John finally said, his posture subtly changing. Shoulders twisted towards Dwight, fists towards Balthazar, eyes tense and legs relaxed. He shook out a cigarette as if he was holding a pack of throwing knives.
“There’s something you need to look at, babe.” Gail gave the endearment a challenging bent that was aimed straight at John.
Miho jerked her chin, as if saying she’d seen all this stupidity before, and sheathed her sword in an abrupt but seamless motion. Almost at the same time, she turned on her heel and padded into the other room.
“She’ll stay and help keep watch,” Dwight muttered towards John. His eyes flicked to the cigarette Johnny was lighting.
John made a face and pointedly blew his first drag at Dwight. “Yeah?”
The lines of Dwight’s face hardened with distance. A moment later, Johnny was feeling regretful and put out a hand, but Dwight stepped back without softening. “Yeah.” Then his cold expression cracked a little bit. “The sandwich is still in the bathroom. I’ll…we’ll talk when I get back.”
“Sure. Honey.” The twinkle in Johnny’s eye was nasty and meant for Gail, but any fool could see Dwight ended up catching the worst of it.
“Watch how you’re buzzing around my man or you’ll get stung,” Gail savagely snapped.
Dwight suddenly yanked his coat from a chair and whipped it around so it made a loud cracking noise. Both Johnny and Gail jumped; Dwight just stalked straight out the door, catching Gail by the arm as he went and swinging her beside him so she had to rush to keep on her feet.
Balthazar couldn’t help laughing, even though he knew it’d earn him a kick from John. He doubled over, gasping, but even with the added pain, he felt much better. Perhaps Gabriel had gotten the better of him, but he wasn’t out of the game yet.
* * *
Of all the goddamn stupid ways Dwight had seen people act…he roughly shook himself and dropped Gail’s arm, stepping sideways so they stormed down the sidewalk with a foot between them.
“I wondered what your type was,” Gail was saying, fast and hard with her lips twisted back in a sneer. Her teeth flashed brilliantly as knives. “Ava, me, that dumb waitress, and then Constantine—you just like whoever’s going to get you killed fast, don’t you? Dwight, you dumb fuck.”
“Shut up.” He grabbed his coffee from her. Promptly dropped it because she’d dented the cheap cup till it was leaking, and the stuff was goddamned scalding. He cursed, frantically shaking the coffee off his hand. Stupid stupid stupid.
It was a fucking bad night and it was still an hour till dawn so that was plenty of time for it to get worse. Some renegade angel was after him for the king of all demonic possessions, Wallenquist was probably gearing up for a major offensive, and Sin City itself was getting antsy for blood. The last thing Dwight needed was a distraction, so of course he’d end up with the bastard child of a three-ring circus and a soap opera for a personal life.
He slammed around and kicked out. The coffee cup went soaring from his splattered shoe in a high, beautiful arc that fittingly ended in a violent splat against the alley wall.
For a moment, he and Gail merely stood there. Then Gail snapped a flame to her cigarette and sighed, head down and arms pulled in close to her. She looked unsure and fragile like Dwight saw her maybe once in three blue moons.
He closed his eyes and swallowed till the bitterness in his mouth was at a level he could take. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”
A grating hiss signaled Gail grinding out her butt. Then cool nails grazed across Dwight’s neck as her fingers wrapped around his collar, and he opened his eyes just as she was pressing their lips together. Soft as sin at first, but soon it was hard as them, hard as the city had made them. They were animals, grabbing and clutching and taking without any regard to cost because while something was there it was there, and when it was gone, there was no getting it back. Gail’s back hit the wall; she was wearing her leather jacket today but her legs were bare and Dwight knew he was scraping them up badly, he could smell and feel and slick the blood up her skin in a two-faced caress that finally brought him back to his senses.
“Christ! No, Gail…” he hissed, stumbling backward. He didn’t catch his balance till he’d hit the far wall, and even then he almost did it by falling on his face. His stomach was one big cold knot, and it only tightened when he looked up at her because she didn’t look angry so much as resigned.
Gail slowly wiped the back of her hand over her mouth, not breaking gazes with him. Then she sighed, slow and deep like an old woman. She tried to smile. “Well, nuts.”
Dwight bit at his lip and got the hell out of that alley before he could do anything. He waited for the sound of her heels to catch up. “So what am I going to look at?”
“Collapsed building. Abandoned townhouse—some of the girls took it over and were fixing it up. Kadie was helping out and she knows her way around a toolbox, so when she says it wasn’t natural for that to happen, I believe her.” Another cigarette found its way to Gail’s mouth, and soon she was moving easy and graceful and bold as she always had. Not a sign of anything gone wrong. “So what’s with the grabby house guests?”
“New player in town.” It took Dwight a couple yards of walking to think through how to word it for Gail to understand; she knew the basics about the other seamy underworld, but she didn’t like it and every time Dwight tried to explain in greater depth, she just pushed him away and told him to deal with it since it was his specialty. She had no gift—curse, talent, whatever—and so she was helpless in the face of that kind of affair. Which irritated her. “Gabriel. He’s…high-ranking. Much more powerful than me, or anyone we know. He needs to kill me to get in with one of the nasty Powers That Be. He’ll get even more power that way.”
Gail snorted two long streams of wavering smoke. “And would we be calling Constantine the road sign to you?”
“I don’t know. But I think Gabriel chased him and Balthazar—the other one—here and sooner or later Gabriel will probably run into Wallenquist, and Wallenquist has suddenly gotten a taste for fooling around with magic,” Dwight said. His skin was beginning to crawl, and he was thinking it wasn’t because of the chilly breeze. His molars were suddenly aching so he had to lock them together to press out the sensation.
“Bet they’d get along like one of us and a sugar daddy with a sausage-sized bankroll.” Maybe she didn’t have any power aside from her body and her wits, but Gail was pretty good at picking up whenever Dwight’s nerves were twinging. She shot him a concerned look, but didn’t mention it. She did tuck herself into his side, warming him up so he could relax a little. He gave her a grateful squeeze and she smiled, coy like a girl and not coy like a whore. “Don’t know much about what you’ve gotten yourself into, but something tells me the one that was sucking on your face back there is going to need the least watching.”
Dwight arched a puzzled eyebrow at her.
“He’s just like Ava, and you killed her. Constantine’s different,” Gail said simply, expression turning sober. She tugged them around the corner and stopped in front of a ruin. “Here.”
Clear as day. Not even a walk into the mess needed for Dwight to know. “Fuck.”
“Goddamn it.” She punctuated every syllable with a stab of her heel at the sidewalk. The ash from her cigarette dropped in jagged patterns that Dwight tried his level best to ignore. “Why? Why now? It wasn’t this bad a year ago—hell, you couldn’t do nearly as much shit a year ago that you can do now. And I liked it better that way. You liked it better that way. Didn’t you?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I did.” Less complicated, Dwight thought. Less death, less blood in his life. He stooped and ran his finger along a splintered beam, coming away with a rusty trace that made him bow his head. “Connie?”
Gail snarled. “Just saw the doc to her door. She might make it.”
“Then it’s still hungry. And it’s getting hungrier, and goddamn it, I can’t feed this goddamned city by myself—that’s why I can do more now. More I kill, stronger I get, but farther I end up from who I was.” There had to be a solution. Another one, Dwight amended, because there was already a solution creeping closer and closer every day, and that was to start killing innocents. But he already had the blood of one innocent man on his hands, and that was already almost too much.
“Do…do you think John might know something?” The suggestion was so tentative that Dwight almost didn’t recognize it as Gail’s voice. “You said he was good—he knew how to do things—”
Dwight pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. “He does. And he’s got terminal lung cancer, and I could—I don’t know if it’ll work, but if it does I could trade on that…”
If John hadn’t purposely brought Gabriel here. If John wasn’t in the process of selling out Dwight as Balthazar’s every mannerism and look had implied. If John could just keep a bargain. If Dwight could figure out whether he was nervy around John because he needed him out of his life for good—because Constantine certainly wasn’t going to let go first—or because, God help them all, Dwight was ready to have another sword of Damocles hanging over his head.
Gail stood straight, eyes narrowed till they were dark razors, jaw like steel. “Do what you have to,” she said, and her words had no waver this time. They cut like one of Miho’s blades.
He just never learned.
* * *
“You goddamn bastard.” Kick.
Balthazar laughed through his wheezing. John reached down, seized him by the collar, jerked him up and punched him onto the bed. He collapsed limp as a rag, jerking in his arms and legs with a grimace that almost made John feel sorry for him. Yeah, right. Like John would waste the energy.
He stood back to catch his breath and saw Miho’s head poking from around the corner. “What? You want a go at him?” John said.
A cough caught him on the last word and he started to put up his hand to his mouth, only another hit him like someone had taken a two-by-four to his chest. He crashed to one knee, clawing at his mouth; his sleeve flapped down his arm from where he’d rolled it up. It was annoying, but he was too busy hacking up coppery-tasting spit and being terrified that this was it. He was toppling onto the floor and he wasn’t even feeling it because he was coughing so hard. His chest felt like it was caving in, and with all the power John could wield, with all the dodges he knew, he couldn’t make it stop.
He was going to die in Dwight’s apartment and Dwight was out thinking John was just a jealous jackass and whatever else Balthazar had been hissing at him, and goddamn it, not now. Not now. Not.
Now. The coughing slowed, fitfully at first and then fast until it’d completely disappeared. John laid still for a while afterward, afraid that it was only a trick to lull him into a false sense of security. Then he realized that it was in fact a fucking trick and he couldn’t do anything about it, and sat up. Spat out a last mouthful.
Miho had gotten all the way into the room. God knew what she’d been planning to do, but by the time John noticed her, she was already leaving. “You’re a real sweet girl, aren’t you?”
Balthazar snickered again. “Now, now, Johnny-boy. Don’t want to mess up the boyfriend’s apartment, do we?”
“Oh, you really are one to talk. And talk, and murmur, and whisper dirty little lies. You goddamn son of a bitch.” John pushed himself over to the bedside table and got himself a handful of tissues. He cleaned off his face and hands, then winged the wad into the wastebasket so hard that it nearly knocked over the can. “What’d you tell Dwight?”
No answer. The bastard just watched John hook his arms over the edge of the bed and drag himself onto it. At least his breathing sounded about as rough as John’s was. If Balthazar didn’t start talking, then it was going to sound a lot worse, and no one was ever going to convince John that that was a sin.
He elbowed himself over the mattress and lifted up Balthazar’s head by a fistful of hair. “What. Is. Going. On?” John rasped, adding a little jerk at the end of each word.
“Gabriel’s lost his mind. He wants to unleash Mammon as some way of scourging humans into being better people. He needs a psychic to act as the transporting vessel and the Spear of Destiny to disembowel the unlucky fellow.” Somehow Balthazar managed to say all of that as if he were talking about how to mail a package overseas.
Son of a bitch pretty much described the whole situation. John tossed Balthazar aside and rolled over to stare at the ceiling, the knots in his gut tying bigger knots around themselves. It wasn’t hard to guess who Gabriel was considering for the position.
He rolled back over and pinned down Balthazar’s wrists, then yanked Balthazar up by the jaw. “And you told him about Dwight. Give me a reason why I shouldn’t gut you right now.”
“Because—I didn’t tell him. You did,” Balthazar choked out. He thrashed and twisted like a fish landed on the sand, but he wasn’t getting loose. Gabriel had done John a favor there by seriously weakening Balthazar, who right now couldn’t even keep John from slamming him back on the bed with extra pressure on his throat. The skin around his lips turned white and his eyes rolled with the effort of squeezing air past John’s grip. “You did, you stupid bastard.”
“Don’t feed me that bullshit. Something like this takes decades, centuries of planning, and those wards shocked the hell out of Gabriel. He didn’t know about Dwight—you weren’t even conscious when that happ--” Shit.
John hastily reviewed his own words, but no matter how he looked at it, there wasn’t any way Balthazar could have told Gabriel. He’d just cleared the bastard himself. Son of a bitch.
For that matter, Balthazar looked a little surprised to hear it, too. “Wards?”
“You…oh, I should deport you right now. You’ve been playing me, pulling at straws on a wild guess. You weren’t even sure—you just thought Gabriel might’ve followed us and as soon as he got near Dwight, he’d know…” Just a little more pressure and the bones in Balthazar’s neck would snap. Hell, John was already bruising Balthazar’s throat black anyway, so he might as well…except he couldn’t and that realization utterly disgusted him. Because for once, this wasn’t actually Balthazar’s fault.
He abruptly let go and sat back, chewing down his anger till he could think properly. He was going about this in a completely half-assed way.
“Wards? Dwight left wards on your apartment? And Gabriel ran into them?” As soon as he was released, Balthazar pushed back a few inches, but he didn’t sit up. Instead he flopped onto his side and rubbed at his throat, a million nasty calculations running through his eyes. “Well. You really did give Dwight away. I’m impressed, Johnny.”
To which John flipped the finger. “Only because you collapsed on my goddamn fire escape. What were you doing there, anyway? Don’t tell me you were trying to stop Gabriel.”
“As a matter of fact, he asked me to help him,” Balthazar said. He met John’s surprised look with cool contempt. “I told you he’d lost his mind.”
“So what? You fucked up, got blasted and went running to me for help?” Now there was an interesting detail. Balthazar had come to John. Not Lou, not one of his half-breed colleagues, not even Midnite who offered sanctuary as part of his business, but to John.
With a shrug, Balthazar turned onto his stomach. He lifted himself on his elbows, then crossed his forearms like they were a couple of girls having a nice little sleepover. “Gabriel had these two women—twins—picked out at first and wanted me to prepare them. I looked at the offer, decided it would never work, and turned him down. The women were too weak and both died before the ritual could take place.”
He was lying, but he was doing it cleverly for some parts of that sounded true. John wondered whether Midnite might be willing to do some fact-checking for him…no, Midnite wasn’t going to get off his ass unless somebody violated the balance right in front of him. Maybe Chas and Hennessey, if John could get hold of them. He’d have to find a payphone, since he didn’t want to piss off Dwight any more before he figured out where the two of them stood.
“Okay, I can buy that. I was always surprised that somebody hadn’t gotten you sooner just for sheer tactlessness. But why me?” An idea as to why was beginning to form in John’s head, and frustration made him just reckless enough to follow up on it. He leaned over Balthazar and smiled like a skeleton would, all teeth ready to snap in and drag the other down with him.
Apparently he didn’t do that nearly enough, because Balthazar was visibly unnerved. He started to push himself over, but John slapped down Balthazar’s wrist and pushed in till they were breathing in each other’s faces. Balthazar’s pupils went wide, then narrowed as he composed himself. “Maybe because I knew how much it’d ruin your night, Johnny.”
“Oh, no, I don’t buy that. I can see it, you know…you mouthing off to Gabriel and getting fried. You must’ve been running on nothing but panic and instincts after that. Passed out the moment you got to my window, then passed out again after you’d gotten inside…” John was talking softly, almost in a coo, but the ends of his words whistled sharply through his teeth. His hand went out to brush along Balthazar’s jawline and was rewarded with a slight flinch, perceptible only because John had pressed his knuckles hard to the underside of Balthazar’s chin. “What’s the matter, Balthazar? Your subconscious trying to say something?”
“It likes how desperate yours is,” Balthazar hissed, tilting his head so their lips were almost brushing. He was coyly acidic, and he was so damned obvious about it that his weak spot was lying wide open. “You’ll do anything for a cure. Anything for anyone.”
John snorted without any humor. “Is that what you’ve been whispering to Dwight? Think you can get him to believe I’d sell him out for new lungs? Balthazar, really, if you’re going to be jealous you can at least have some class about it.”
The thing was, Dwight would believe him. And the thought had crossed John’s mind, though he’d immediately dismissed it as ridiculous. Besides, Dwight might be able to…and even while he was doing it, John hated himself for cashing in people he knew like he did. He liked Dwight. No, that wasn’t the fucking word and Balthazar knew it, damn him, and he was fucking around with it.
“Jealous? Me? Need a mirror, Johnny?” Balthazar said, all mock innocence.
The time for verbal sparring was over. The only answer Balthazar got was a tongue shoved down his throat and John’s hands ripping at his clothes. He lay still for a moment, apparently shocked, but then he was clawing back with equal feverishness, his mouth opening wide for John. And John didn’t waste the opportunity.
Nails raked down his back; he arched into their upstroke and shrugged his coat off his shoulders when Balthazar yanked at the collar. Nearly got his arms trapped in the sleeves and rolled over, but at the last moment John pulled free. He threw them back, slamming down with his tongue laving hard against the bruises on Balthazar’s throat and his hands deep beneath Balthazar’s waistband. Grazed the ball sac and felt it tense against his fingertips so John gave it a squeeze, swallowed up the moan that twisted out of Balthazar’s mouth. He wrapped his fingers around Balthazar’s cock and tweaked it till those goddamn nails stopped trying to rip the skin off his back.
Balthazar’s tongue swiped around the inside of John’s mouth, probing and searching. Took a moment for John to figure out why, and when he did, he tore himself away to sink his teeth into the underside of Balthazar’s jaw. “Looking for blood?”
“Well, you’re just so sweet when you’re dying,” Balthazar gasped. His hands kneaded their way down John’s back, over his buttocks and were reaching between John’s thighs when John shook him off. Pulled his wrists away and pinned them to the side again so Balthazar was twisted awkwardly at the waist.
Well, awkward for him, and convenient for John, who could slide his hand along Balthazar’s prick without having to dodge bites. He shoved his face in between Balthazar’s neck and collar, licking and sucking till his spit was sticking the fabric to Balthazar’s skin. Slowed down the strokes on Balthazar’s cock so he could spend more time playing the ball of his thumb over the tip; Balthazar was alternating between hissing at the strain on his injuries and humping himself up for more. “You know what I think is sweet?” John snarled. “You fucking whore. You act like you’re king of the world, walking around in your expensive suits, tossing souls into hell without a second thought—and all the time you’re just dying for this, aren’t you?”
He craned up and around to suck the breath out of Balthazar’s mouth before he could get a reply. Half the buttons on Balthazar’s shirt had popped off, letting it flap open so John could gnaw his way down Balthazar’s chest, wetting the thin cotton undershirt Balthazar was wearing with his tongue. He sucked in the fabric around Balthazar’s nipple, twisting it hard, and then bit down. The cotton kept him from chewing the whole damn thing off, but Balthazar still felt plenty—he let out a furious yowl and bucked so hard that John lost his grip on Balthazar’s prick.
“Whore, whore, whore,” John chanted. He was desperate, and enraged, but he was drunk on it, not crushed. He wanted to rip somebody open to make up for it and Balthazar was there, had been there at Midnite’s so they could get caught in that goddamned spell. Bastard had gone soft and yielding beneath John, whimpering and rocking his hips up just like he was now, sliding his cock right back into John’s hand so John didn’t even have to reach. “You want this and I can give it to you, and God, you must hate that.”
He savagely bit into the point of Balthazar’s shoulder, and that was it. Balthazar writhed himself to pieces, come splattering all over John’s hand, and in the last moment he pressed so close that John could feel their jagged edges snapping past each other. Then he fell back.
John slowly straightened up, withdrawing his hands. He wasn’t particularly surprised when Balthazar abruptly flung himself up against the headboard, glowering like he could gut John with eyes alone and unable to keep himself from shaking. “Just been dying for a follow-up to that time at Midnite’s, haven’t you?” John jeered.
“Or I think you’re the only one insane enough to take on Gabriel. Then again, perhaps you’re too insane.” Balthazar was trying to clean himself up, but his hands were trembling too much. “You’re doing Lucifer proud, you know. His little protégé.”
“You first,” John snapped. Or tried to, for a cough interrupted. He coughed again and then again so something seemed to rip in his chest. Suddenly terrified, he clutched at his mouth and chest and did his damnedest to keep from coughing a fourth time. He couldn’t stop himself from wheezing in air, but he crammed it all into the top of his throat and slowly, ever-so-slowly, let it out. A few drops of blood splattered on his palm, but they weren’t followed by a rib-cracking cough. He began to relax, taking his hand away from his mouth. “Lay off Dwight. If you want anything, whether that’s help or…or a fix…” Balthazar grimaced and John grinned “…then you’d better do that.”
“It might help if you had sex with him where I wouldn’t walk in on it,” said a dry voice from the door. Dwight looked blackly amused when they both jumped, but that soon passed. “I need to talk to you about something.”
John started to slide off the bed, but was stopped by a hand on his arm. “I want to hear. I’m as involved as you are,” Balthazar said. He tilted his head and looked pleasantly at John’s glare. “And if you’re so worried about what I might be doing behind your back, then perhaps you should stop turning around.”
He had a point. Of course, that meant he had a more important point that he didn’t want John to know about, but two could play at that game. “True. Dwight?”
Who was stepping into the bathroom, swiveling a cold shoulder to John. “Fine. I have to clean up in here, so I’ll just yell. Seems to be how you two communicate best anyway.”
He was pissed off. And with good reason—John twisted his arm to seize Balthazar’s elbow and dragged him over the bed. He got a dark kick out of how Balthazar couldn’t help wincing; if he was going to get shit from Dwight, then he was damn well going to pass it on. “Stay where I can fucking see you.”
* * *
After she was certain that John and Balthazar weren’t about to kill each other, Miho slipped out a window and up onto the roof. They were attractive enough even if they were fools, but she wasn’t in the mood for that. She wanted news.
Gail and Dwight were coming up the sidewalk, so Miho made her way to the street and met them at the front door. Dwight was exhausted and grim while Gail was a little unstrung by the magnitude of events. She was talking fast and incessant, irritating Dwight with her comments about Constantine, Balthazar and even Shellie, but Dwight didn’t interrupt. He had sense, sometimes—it was better to let Gail talk herself out. Then she was distracted right up until she was too tired to do anything.
“Not good,” Dwight said as soon as he spotted Miho. He tossed her a bit of blood-stained wood. “And we just let it have two tonight. It’s getting hungrier.”
“Wish we could feed it Wallenquist. That damned bastard’s big enough to last for a while.” Gail stalked up and down in front of the door, her heels a machine-gun rattle on the concrete. She abruptly stopped by hooking her arm through Dwight’s and slinging herself around. Almost in the same moment, she was on the move again down the sidewalk, one hand raised in farewell. “Got to get some shut-eye. See you tonight.”
A bloody smudge of lipstick scarred the side of Dwight’s jaw. He took his time wiping it off, staring regretfully after her. “See you, Gail.”
Then he turned to Miho, who shrugged. She had made sure his guests weren’t killing each other and weren’t going to destroy the place, and now she was bored. If he didn’t have any suggestions, she was going to try and do something about Sin City’s appetite.
“Think it’d be worth trying to tail Wallenquist?” Dwight asked. He slowly spun on his heel to look at the sky; his gaze slowly drifted to the lighted square of his bedroom window. His eyes widened, froze in disbelief and enraged lust as he realized what was going on there, and then narrowed. “Jesus Christ. I can’t believe…what the hell, is it okay for everyone else to fuck like senseless bastards, but it isn’t for me?”
No, it wasn’t any better for them, but most people generally didn’t understand as well as Dwight the consequences of surrendering to foolishness. He’d lost the ability to shut his eyes and had to walk into everything knowing it for exactly what it was. Usually he did so in a way that made Miho grudgingly admire him, but occasionally he needed to rant. Miho leaned against the wall and picked up her foot to check that the lacings of her slippers hadn’t come loose; he’d stop soon.
Very soon. The next second, Dwight had run out of steam and was looking at her with half-dead eyes. “Wallenquist?”
She shook her head. The Mob had grown fat and sluggish in fields beyond Sin City and had never learned to defend against someone like her, but Wallenquist was intelligent and local. Slipping into his compound was something she could do, given adequate back-up, but not in time to hear anything of interest.
“Then Gabriel. When John showed up, he said he hadn’t been followed and so far I haven’t noticed anyone, but sooner or later Gabriel will have to show. He’s got to make sure they’re here,” Dwight suggested.
Miho thought it over. She knew a little bloodwork but didn’t have Dwight’s raw power to back the larger spells; her talents were in reading the air and the silence, living high on the roofs where weird things gossiped and gave away secrets. At night in Sin City, they were the strongest she had ever encountered, but during the day all the voices died away. It was only a little while till dawn, but she probably had time for one more round. She nodded.
“Thanks. I’ll leave the window open—going to buy groceries later, so I’ll have some of those mochi things you like.” Dwight put his hand on the door-handle and started to pull it, but then he stopped. He took a deep breath and stared inside the building. “You know, it’s not even that I care he’s fucking someone else. I love Gail, after all. But she knows the difference between fucking and loving. I’m not sure John even remembers what the word ‘difference’ means.”
Because Dwight had drawn lines that he couldn’t cross and still sleep at night, and Miho very much doubted that Constantine had any lines that he hadn’t scuffed over at some point. But he might still be capable of scratching in new ones and sticking to them. Right now he was hollow and rapidly scraping away at his insides so they grew thinner and thinner; he could still maintain his charismatic façade, but sooner or later he’d collapse. And then he would either adapt or he’d die. If the latter, then Miho would be sure to be there. Constantine was powerful enough to keep Basin City quiet for at least six months, possibly longer, and she loved the city. It was the only thing she could really talk to.
Though Dwight came close with his sharp eyes and steady, strong hands that never lingered longer than she wished them to. They talked differently together than Miho did with Sin City, in a way that required more effort, but she treasured it all the same. Perhaps more, since she knew he would never rise up against her, and she never could be sure of the city.
She looked at him and pointedly re-settled her swords in her sash. It wasn’t the kind of offer Gail would’ve made, but Dwight looked comforted all the same. Comforted and amused and a little bit nervous, which was about right. “Not yet. When I want them dead, you’ll be the first to know.”
If he said so. Miho was on the roof and stalking down the edge before the front door had shut behind him.
She traced out the streets, leaping lightly from roof to roof. Below her the girls were strutting boldly along the curbs, slumped dejectedly in the grungy little diners, turning up fake grimaces of ecstasy towards the sky as men rutted between their legs. One chased down a john who’d tried to fuck and run; Miho paused there until she saw the girl kneecap the idiot with a crowbar. She moved on just as the blood began to fly, chin lifted slightly so the wind blew news through the long strands of her hair. It said keep moving, keep walking, and so she did.
It was at the end of Old Town and the beginning of the projects, in a lot vacant of everything except a neat, huge mound of dirt and a rough tombstone set at one end of it. Marv’s grave, watching out for the borders even in death. A tall, slender figure with blond curls was standing by the grave marker. He made Miho’s skin crawl, and when he looked up, she snapped her swords an inch out of their scabbards without thinking.
Gabriel, she knew.
And he knew her, but he couldn’t come any closer. He did try, smiling gently, but some invisible barrier forced him to stay just behind Marv’s grave. She saw through his serenity to his boiling rage at the presumption.
She watched him calmly walk away, and then she left herself. The wind had turned cold and no longer accompanied her.