It’s raining in L. A. It has to rain sometime no matter what place on earth is under discussion, even in the Rub’al Khali in the Arabian desert, but there are times, seasons for rain. It’s rarely ever a constant. Yet that’s what it’s been since Thursday.
People are still rationalizing it as El Niño or whatever weather trend is in fashion this year, huddling in corners beneath their snazzy black umbrellas. When John walks by, soaked like he’s carrying his own personal storm with him, they barely glance at him the second time because they’re so busy moaning about the weather. This is possibly the first near-apocalypse that he’s seen make people happier: destroyed buildings and wrecked roads make the manslaughter rates jump for days afterward, botched exorcisms can put a chill on the whole neighborhood, but rain? Everyone loves bitching about the weather.
He’s just surprised no one’s gotten into the Deluge metaphors yet, not even the firebrand preachers working out of L. A.’s millions of beaten-down garages. But if they’re going to sleep through the end of the world, well…he’s not going to wake them. It’s not often he gets to choose his company for one of those events.
He doesn’t just have to knock on Midnite’s door these days, but also has to go through a system of identity-checks more rigorous than the bullshit they put people through at airports. It doesn’t quite get to strip-searching, but it’s about as close as Midnite’s nails cutting through the wet tissue that John’s shirt-sleeve has become. “It’s me, all right? You know anyone else that’d show up looking like this?”
“These are unusual times,” Midnite portentously intones. The way he drags John inside is somewhat more suitable to the circumstances: like hellhounds are on John’s trail.
There was an old black musician warbling that on the corner, umbrella rigged up to shade his guitar and not the paper-skinned hands moving over it. That’s the only reason John happens to be thinking along those lines. The blues aren’t really his style, though they lately seem to be gaining ground. Maybe the storm’s raining bluesmen as well as buckets and buckets of water.
“Yeah, and you know what’s at the bottom of them, so knock it off. I only have so many shirts.” Once they’re inside, John takes off his coat. It swings limp as a weighted noose from his hand, so much water in it that it’s draining—not dripping—all the way to Midnite’s office.
It isn’t much drier indoors. Maybe the roof stops the rain, but it can’t stop the cold dampness that seems to pervade everything, everywhere. Midnite hands John a shotglass of liquid fire and it fizzles weakly instead of searing in John’s mouth. Nevertheless he cups his hands over his mouth, hoarding the warm fumes, and for a moment he can pretend things are changing.
They aren’t, of course—and they are. Angels don’t fall without leaving behind craters and aftershocks, demons don’t cross Lucifer without leaving behind disasters. There’d been a lull, long enough to get Chas buried and to see Angela home one last time, and then John had woken up to see a demon ripping out his building’s front door, in broad daylight.
They’d chalked that one up to drug abuse. Some new rat-poison-laced shit was hitting the streets, screamed the newspaper headlines. Mexico was fed up with its overbearing neighbor and was hitting back, one druggie at a time. The first casualty was Beeman’s bowling alley, so wrecked by the fight that the whole building had been condemned and John had been left homeless.
“Did you find anything?” Midnite asks.
John snaps out of his reverie and shakes his head. He pulls out a plastic bag from his pocket; the contents squish revoltingly in his fingers and he looks away as he tosses it to Midnite. “Just the usual bullshit. You want any more demon organs? I saved you a couple lungs.”
Midnite takes the bag and drops it absently on his desk. Once upon a time, he might have sold his bar to John for its contents, but that was before demons could walk up from hell during their coffee-breaks and make buying coffee a three-act dramatic production. “It can’t go on like this, John,” he says.
“Yeah, you’re telling me.” Except what, exactly, does Midnite expect him to do about it? It’s not even noon and already as John flops onto Midnite’s couch, his body is aching and creaking like a broken dummy. He hasn’t slept in thirty-six hours, hasn’t eaten in fifteen, hasn’t showered in…well, it doesn’t really matter when he showers or how much. The dirt beneath his fingernails never quite rinses away, and he never dries out in between.
The look Midnite wings his way carries a message of blame, and it’s right and wrong to do so. If John had never been born, then they would not be living like this, under siege from both above and below with demons striking out on cathedral steps and angels bleeding into gutters. But if John had never been born, then the balance still would have been broken. All he’s done is make sure it broke a little more messily.
He’s seen a soul escape Hell, a demon turn his back on Lucifer, an angel fall from grace. For anyone else, these would have been the portents of the End of Days, but for him and Midnite, they merely mark the beginning of a long, gray struggle to stay out of everyone else’s way. It’s not death by Revelations, it’s death by residual casualty due to others’ brawling. Death by drowning. Death by water.
“The angels fucked up downtown again,” John says. He slumps down till his head is cradled by the back of the couch, idly tapping on the arm. Right now he misses his cigarettes less for the chemical pull and more for that spark of heat.
“Fix this.” There’s some in Midnite’s voice. A surprising amount, which makes John look up, but all he sees is Midnite’s retreating back.
He puts his head back down and closes his eyes. It’d be funny how Midnite seems to be finally kindling something beneath that cool deadpan of his in the middle of a modern-day Flood. It would, except funny requires some warmth and John’s got none to spare. He’s washed through, up and out.
* * *
Midnite’s couch is what John calls rest now. Not home, because he feels neither affectionate towards or protected by it; maybe he grins sourly at the damp patch of mold he finds on it where he lays his head, but that’s about it. Not sleep, because he doesn’t. He’s an exorcist, and business is good. Too good. Business wants to kill him, though he’s always known that. He’s just never gotten to this level of not giving a damn about it.
He doesn’t go looking for it anymore, doesn’t go prying and poking and sneering till something hits him. What he does is lie on the always-sodden cushions and feel his body revert just that much more to the primeval fluid, and wait for it to ring him on the phone on the floor. Nowadays it even makes appointments, though in scared, shaky, screaming voices.
“Yeah. How many? When did…okay. Right. No, that won’t help. No, yelling at me won’t help. I’m not there yet. Give me an address…right. See you in ten minutes.” The phone dribbles out of John’s hand, cord snagging his fingers, then drops back onto the cradle. For a moment, he lies with his head over the edge of the couch, nearly asleep and wondering if he let go, would he finally turn into a drop of water?
The door opens. It’s Midnite, and John can tell because of the silent seething irritation that wafts from that direction.
“Another demon general trying to pull his army through. He’s not even gotten a gateway set up yet—wake me in another five minutes, okay?” John stares at the black plastic of the phone, watching how the water he sprinkles onto it runs off in all directions.
“No.” Midnite kicks the door shut so hard that it bangs off the frame and creaks back. He treasures his possessions, seeing meaning and power in each one. He doesn’t abuse them or value them only according to how much momentary gain they can give him, like John does.
He takes the end of the couch and tips it to drop John to the floor, then lets it fall so the floorboards rattle John’s limp body. It hurts, a little, but John’s muscles are so slack that they accept the impact as inevitable. John groans because he doesn’t have the energy to clear his throat, rolls over because he doesn’t have the energy to climb back up. “What?”
“Go take care of it. I do not want another legion assaulting this place, and if they break through they will come directly for you,” Midnite snaps. He waits only a second before his toe drives hard into John’s side.
The blow forces air from John’s chest, and the memory of choking helplessness temporarily revives him. It’s enough to make him look up, try to take the blur out of his eyes. “It’s so nice to be popular.”
“John.” Apparently when it comes to the world or Midnite’s patience, only one can be Biblical at a given time, because he drags John up. His hands slap at John’s cheeks till some sluggish heat moves into them, but it’s still more like aftershocks than any real ignition. “I will throw you out on the street if I have to.”
“Oh, I’m sure you will.” It’s a threat John has heard before, and if it amused him before, he finds it bleakly boring now. He’s tired and cold, and he’d like to go back to sleep. The idea of simply curling up and ignoring everything has an appeal that comes with sweet-baited hooks.
Midnite’s breath blows hard at his face, drives off some of the dampness chilling John. “If you keep on like this, you’re going to die.”
“Yeah, I know. But at least I’ll go to Heaven. Who gives a damn about here—it’s only there and Hell that matter,” John rasps. If his voice were slightly less monotone, it would have been a chuckle, but variation takes energy. Better to let everything just settle to the level, flow around resistance.
He lets Midnite push him back on his feet, lets the momentum of that swing him into movement. Hopefully there aren’t too many doors between here and where John has to go, because the effort it takes to start again after stopping to open one is draining.
“Stop taking things so lightly,” Midnite calls after him. The man sounds angry again, as if John’s spoiled his soup for him. Except that already happened a while ago, so it’s a mystery why Midnite’s mad about it now.
“Sure,” John mutters. “Whatever you say.”
* * *
And it’s the same answer after John’s come back, blood staining the one side of his shirt that is not hanging in shreds. Most of it isn’t his blood, but enough is for him to be swaying because he has to and not because he doesn’t care enough to make himself stop. Not that the lightheadedness is an unwelcome feeling. Not that it’s a welcome one, either. John has no opinion whatsoever because he’s wet and exhausted and even more sleepy.
Though Midnite does. Midnite drags him in and throws him against the wall and takes bandages and salve to him like others would knives. The man’s fingers probe and jab, forcing out the last remnants of John’s emotions as little dagger hisses. They twist harder as each one slips out, as if they think they can dig out something more if they go deep enough.
“You need to stop this,” Midnite says, smoothing down the bandages. The cotton is already turning wet against John’s skin, cooling fast. “John. Do you understand what you’re doing? Do you care?”
“You know, it occurred to me that the best way to get through this is to not care. You don’t care, you’re neutral. You’re background noise. Everyone starts out with a default ticket to heaven, right? So you don’t attract attention, you’ll never get tempted.” John isn’t looking at Midnite. His eyes are closed and he’s staring at the insides of his eyelids, which should be red but instead are a dull dark shade, unidentifiable because it’s so…dull. “No highs, no lows. Everything’s just nice and smooth and unchanging. That’s what balance really is about, isn’t it?”
Fingers clamp down on John’s jaw and jerk it so his eyes reflexively open. “You’re as big a fool as you ever were,” Midnite hisses. “You never understand what you break.”
“Sure. Whatever you say.” Because frankly, Midnite can say whatever he wants, and John has long since stopped believing it meant anything. Up until a while ago, it used to matter what Midnite did, but that’s not so important now either. John’s alive, fine, but for what? He never was a soldier in the damn war; he was a man trying to fix a problem. So the problem’s fixed, and now they want him to take up the cause pro bono, after kicking him down and down and down. No, thanks—they can do whatever they want, but they can leave him out of it.
Midnite can do whatever he wants. Midnite can shove his hands down beneath John’s waistband that’s gotten a bit large, following the curve of John’s hips, and he can shove his mouth over John’s throat, heating it in long swipes. His palms can press and rub till they start to scrape off John’s skin, leaving behind burning patches of rawness.
But they’re starting to move John’s blood, make it go again and John has a different take on that than Midnite. He sighs and pushes at the other man, but Midnite doesn’t stop. Midnite slams John back again, hard enough to make hot blood start beneath the bandages, and sinks his teeth deep into the join of John’s shoulder and neck. Someone snarls and John’s faintly shocked to realize it’s him.
He’s warming up, water vaporizing off of him as they snap and strike and slide against each other. He is and he’s starting to feel again, and the first emotion that comes back is anger. Makes him twist them to the ground, maul Midnite’s shirt open with his teeth so the little red marks he leaves look exactly like how Midnite’s fingers on his hips feel. They roll so sometimes John is up and sometimes he’s down, the old familiar bite. He wants it to go away again, but Midnite won’t let it: the man keeps pushing and pushing and pushing, and finally John…
…lets it go. He’s warm, fine. But he’s not hot, he’s not moving except how Midnite is making him, so let Midnite make him. Let the other man wrench at their clothes and their bodies till suddenly he is deep-seated in John, white teeth flashing like lightning set in the wolf’s snarl that is Midnite’s face. He moves in John and around him, but really it’s John moving around Midnite. John’s flowing.
The highs blur, the lows bleed together, and slowly everything reaches the same level of slack, damp exhaustion. The ceiling is gray to John, as is the rest of the world, and he’s perfectly fine with that.
He’s aware, a little, of a form hovering above him that seems to be swearing at him. The heat in its voice is so far removed that it might as well be a Martian to John.
“Don’t do this,” Midnite says, and for once the edge of his voice is not turned towards John. His fingers are on John’s shoulder, exerting enough pressure to cut off circulation—if there’d been any. “Damn you, you are not the only one in this. Don’t pretend you aren’t.”
“I’m sorry.” The words feel alien on John’s tongue, leftovers of what seems like a different life. Something should follow them, he thinks. “I didn’t hear you. What did you say?”
Midnite slaps him.
* * *
John is dimly conscious that he is still up and moving. He eats and showers and so forth. Occasionally he kills something. It’s a transient, amused perturbation in his pleasant state of plateau to realize that he doesn’t actually have to be very there to take care of a demon or an angel.
There are blips. Midnite comes in and out of focus. Usually the picture sharpens when his face is smashed against John’s, his hands trying to gouge chunks out of John’s body as if he could make the heat come if he makes John bleed enough. It might work if Midnite ever managed to follow that to its inevitable conclusion, but Midnite always pulls back. He shouts often at John, all his composure completely unraveled.
No, John didn’t know what he was breaking. He didn’t know Midnite depended on him to stay with it, like he was some kind of touchstone. Too bad for Midnite.
Once the water recedes and John is scorched into seeing Midnite astride him, head thrown back, wide open so if John wanted, he could put his hands in Midnite’s strings and make them work. Typical that Midnite would finally choose to do that when John has absolutely no desire to get tangled. But it wakes John up for a little longer, long enough to remember afterward when Midnite curled close and mumbled that he can’t hold by himself. Balance takes two—three. Two ends and a pivot.
But that’s a lever. They tilt.
John always slides back into the cool distance, ultimately unconcerned. It’s peaceful where he is, even if it’s nothing.
* * *
Eventually he slides too far. He’s been thinking that nothing goes on and on, and he’s lost the habit of paying attention. That’s how he stays as he is, after all. Only he doesn’t stay and every time Midnite pulls, it takes more effort to bring John out of it and so when he goes back in, he goes farther. He hits a boundary, crosses it without realizing and suddenly he has company.
He has heat slipping up beside him. It’s blackened and parts of it crumble off so wetness soaks him, but it’s burning metallic-smelling wetness. It burns and shivers and it clamps onto him so clouds of vapor sizzle off of them. It noses into his throat and mumbles about cold and water and needing more water.
Back again. Midnite is talking about a gateway that needs to be shut when he suddenly stops to brush off John’s shirt. Cinders fall to the puddles that always seem to surround John’s feet, where they send up plumes of smoke. “Where have you been?” Midnite asks.
“Out. I’d like to go back,” John replies.
“Not now. Not for a little while. You can wait a half-hour.” For Midnite, it sounds almost pleading. His hands keep moving over John and they’re hot as well, but it’s different from the other heat.
The difference hurts. It stings when Midnite touches where the other had touched and it makes John jump, hiss. His vision momentarily includes color before it goes back to gray. He thinks vaguely that color is prettier than he remembers. “Fine. Is it still raining?”
The last John sees of Midnite is the other man chewing hard on his lip, with eyes like knives turned inward. “I should have made sure you did it right. Next time I’ll go with you.”
After a moment, John understands that Midnite is referring to Angela and Mammon and all that, but he lets the thought slip away. That’s all gone, anyway. Gone and he’s gone, drifting backwards while Midnite tugs his body through the rainy streets.
* * *
“Water,” mouths the thing into John’s neck. It shifts, stretches so it sucks the ice away from John’s jaw and leaves a blistered trail behind. Its arms wind ever tighter around John so he sometimes twists, faint dislike of being trapped resurfacing. But then it slides its hands down, frantically recoils itself so he’ll stay.
And he does, because he doesn’t particularly want to go back and so far he’s been given no reason to leave. He picks idly at the charred spots on the thing’s back, flicking bits away while it hisses and moans and writhes. Mostly he uncovers bloody muscle and white bone. Once in a while he reveals new pinkish skin.
“Water. There wasn’t any.” It rubs its head against him, trying to soak up as much as it can, but it never seems to get enough. John can run his fingers through his hair, then watch drops fall from his fingertips and soak into the thing before he blinks. It’s always dry, and he’s always wet.
He thinks. He lifts his arm up so he can feel his sleeve and it seems drier, though still damp. An uncertain flicker goes through him and he pulls away, turns to put his hand out. Then he stops because he is crawling and if he is moving then he has direction, and if he has direction, he has to go.
“No. Wait. Wait,” says the thing, scrambling after him. It claws itself over him, twines around him with increasing urgency as John’s confused agitation grows. “No.”
Its hands slide down over his chest, its body presses hard against his back and he has to twist around in order to get any space between them. But then it merely molds to what it can reach and uses that as a guide to move back against him; he parts his lips to protest and it latches on, sandpaper tongue hungrily scooping the moisture out of his mouth. He snarls and rolls it over, slams it down and—
--“John?” Midnite looks up, startled but shifting rapidly to hopeful. He squats on the floor, half-chalked design before him.
“I need to get out,” John mutters, throwing himself off the couch. His clothes flap around him instead of clinging, and his skin is almost dry enough for him to feel the air. He leaves Midnite’s footsteps far behind as he makes for the roof where he flings open the door and—
--wet, rain, nothing washing him back and he’s biting open-mouthed at someone’s parched lips, eating their desperate groans while they gulp from him. Their knees bang against his sides, then press hard up to drain all the water from him so what’s left is a pair of seared streaks that hurt and prickle and feel. He plunges again and again into them, but instead of falling into the deep, he emerges into the—
--arms pulling him back indoors. Midnite’s wide eyes, whites nearly rolling with fear. “What are you doing?”
“I need—let go! I need to get back out there!” John shouts, pushing at Midnite. But Midnite doesn’t let go, and so they both stumble over the threshold.
The rain drives into him like bullets, soaking him to the skin in an instant, and beyond that in another instant. He feels that yank backwards, but Midnite fists a hand in his shirt and pulls him forward, covers his mouth and kisses him till John is dizzy. Dizzy and splitting.
* * *
Wet. Dry. Hot. Cold. Black. White. Two smooth-palmed hands on his waist add another on his shoulder and then it’s four before it goes back to two clutching his shoulders, rough-palmed from the crisped patches on them. He’s here, he’s there.
He’s being fucked by Midnite up against the brick, their pants down around their ankles and soaking in the roof filth. The rain’s battering them and John’s twisting creatively to shield himself from it, to curve around Midnite’s hands and prick. What he sucks off Midnite’s neck is lukewarm and not salty enough, sweat diluted down to make him thirsty, wanting more. He hikes himself up farther, clamps with his knees and pushes his arms down on Midnite’s shoulders, and Midnite’s fingers spear his buttocks as they push him higher so he can slam down on Midnite’s cock.
Except he’s doing the fucking, rolling them around in wherever the hell this is. They finally stop and his hands are forcing the knees away from his ribs, forcing them down till the last charred flakes come off and Balthazar’s face is crying out beneath him. He nearly breaks Balthazar that way, keeping him wide open so John can drive deeper into him, and Balthazar is cursing at him for going so slowly about it.
He’s filling/being filled, emptying/being emptied. He’s—he’s—
He falls over Balthazar and feels the crackling, painful dryness fade away to leave skin so smooth whispers slide off it.
He twists up against the scrape of the bricks, wringing the last drop out of himself, and as John’s head goes back, he sees the clouds part.
There’s no sun, but there’s some sky. It’s something, at least. Something he wants to see. Something he wouldn’t, after all, mind continuing to see. It’ll lead to pain eventually, and he’s of two minds about that, but now he’s figured out how to accommodate that. He thinks he can start yanking back when things are pulled from him. He thinks he’s done it once, and maybe he wants to try again.
John shakes his head so the water goes flying from his hair, and stretches up till he can take a breath.
* * *
“You have to be the only person who would will himself into Limbo,” Balthazar says. He’s spiffy as always, lounging against Midnite’s bar like he owns it. “Lucifer got bored with punishing me and tossed me there till later.”
“Like a meat freezer, huh.” John strips off his wet coat and hangs it over a heating vent. His hair’s already half-dry and it’s standing up in spikes that he tries to smooth down. “Though you weren’t all that fresh. More on the stale side.”
Balthazar starts to get up, but Midnite makes him sit back with a look. “Since the balance is back, this is neutral ground again,” Midnite says.
“Yeah, thanks to me, so you’d better watch it.” And how that happened, John has no idea, but it should be…interesting. Interesting enough to keep him around for a while longer, since he knows that in his case, the good really should even out the bad. “If I’m the one centering everything, then does that mean I’m immortal now?”
Both of them look at him, apparently debating whether or not to take a chance on that. The grin comes easy to John, needing almost no effort. He shakes out his cigarette and lights it in one smooth motion.
“It means that we have a vested interest in your well-being,” is what Midnite finally comes up with. Stiff delivery, ambiguous meaning, and it’s almost like the old days again.
“Nice to know you care, because I don’t.” Watching them twitch makes John smile again, though it’s true. He cares too much and too little, and as long as it averages out, things are fine. But either extreme is only a knife’s edge away, and even though he doesn’t like getting cut, he never can resist holding his finger over that.
John leans against the wall by the heater and lets himself dry out. It’s about time he came back in from the cold. He’ll see how long that lasts this time.