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Thawing Hell

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It was a dark and stormy night. Which instantly told John that something was up since he lived in L. A., not on the Scottish coast. He went home early, rolled up his sleeves and spent his new free time reinforcing the protective wards on his apartment.

He was just sitting down to rest when someone knocked at the door. John closed his eyes, let his tired ass sink into the broken-springed cushions, and ignored it. If they were knocking, it probably wasn’t anyone he knew.

The knocking kept on going. Well into minute two, it suddenly stopped and the room flashed full of white light so bright that he saw a negative of the furniture on the backs of his eyelids. He put one hand over his eyes, sighed, and then got up. It still wasn’t likely that he knew them, but if they had enough power for that, they weren’t about to just fuck off. At least not without John’s boot encouraging their ass.

The second sign something was fucked up with the fabric of the world stood on his doorstep, dripping wet except for a newly-scorched hand that Balthazar was irritably flapping around. At least, John thought it was Balthazar. He took in the messy wet curls plastered all over the pale face, the black leather jacket and the black jeans so beaten-up they qualified as Hell-washed. “Okay. You were so desperate to come back that you joined Hell’s Angels?”

“Cut the puerile humor, Johnny.” Balthazar smacked his hair out of his face so droplets whipped off the strands onto John's cheek. “I walked out. These clothes just happen to be the only ones I could get, since I thought I’d be considerate and not show up naked.”

“Yeah, sure. And Lou plays the oboe in a pick-up café band,” John drawled. He started digging around in his pockets for a rosary, a St. George’s medal, whatever. Something more holy than the shit taking up space in his doorway.

“Piano,” Balthazar corrected. He glanced up a beat later and a smug smile spread over his face. “What, haven’t you heard? He’s abdicated. Stepped down. Traded in the damnation for a little nightclub and a player piano. And he just happened to unlock the gates on his way out.”

John stared for a few seconds. Then he stepped back and slammed the door shut. After another shell-shocked moment, he walked over to the kitchen and dug up a pack of cigarettes. Fuck quitting--if Heaven and Hell were going to do that to him, he needed the nicotine to cope. Anyway, if what Balthazar was saying was true, he had a lot less to fear about the availability of third or later chances to start over.

“Johnny! John!” The knocking started up again.

The cigarette tasted good. It burned John’s throat dry and left a bitter aftertaste in his mouth, but within seconds the smoky curl of it had passed into his body and smoothed out everything. For the first time in weeks, he felt like his skin fit right again.

“John! Damn it!”

With a sigh, John opened the door again. “You said Lucifer abdicated?”

Balthazar stared at him through dripping tangles of hair. Then the son of a bitch sniffed and fussily stroked his hair out of his face with both hands. “Are you going to make me stand out here?”

“I don’t remember ever giving you welcome inside. What, did downhome week make you forget exactly why I kicked your ass down there in the first place?” John snorted. He leaned his shoulder against the doorframe and poked the cigarette over to dangle from the corner of his mouth, just in case he needed to chant anything. “Okay, Lou’s up and quit. Why do I care?”

“Firstly, you didn’t deport me—Gabriel did. Secondly…weren’t you supposed to have had an epiphany? Turned into an actual human being? Gotten your soul straightened out?” Desperation was beginning to audibly underpin Balthazar’s sarcasm, and they both knew it.

Of course, Balthazar tried to brazen his way through anyway and crowded forward as far as the door sigils would permit him. The water dripping off of him had formed a big enough pool that it had crossed the lintel…which was peculiar, since water passing over a demon normally had a similar but opposing effect as water passed over a blessed object. John glanced down, then back up fast enough to catch Balthazar…shivering.

“Well. I’ll be damned,” John slowly said. He grinned nastily at the defensive look Balthazar took on. “Since you’re not so much now. So that’s what happens when a demon falls up.”

“Johnny.” Balthazar yanked at the sides of his coat, almost like he was going to wrap it around himself. He leaned forward and tilted his head to whisper in the direction of John’s ear. “Lucifer walked out. Without any notice to anyone.”

Whatever point he was trying to make was getting lost in his ridiculous attempts to be dramatic. Honestly, how many near-disasters and apocalypse-starters had he personally tossed John’s way? “What the fuck’s the matter, and why do I care enough not to kill you now that you’re actually killable, Balthazar. Those are the important questions.”

“Oh, for—” It momentarily looked like Balthazar was going to turn his back to John out of sheer irritation, but no such luck. Instead Balthazar swung around and thudded hard against the outside of the doorframe so he was inches from John’s face. His skin was washed-out in a sickly way and a little bit of mucus was beading beneath his nostrils, which pretty much completed the rock-bottom look. “There’s no one ruling Hell now, you idiot. And you don’t think I’m the only one out, do you?”

Shit. Of course it’d be something that bad, and so much for John’s hope for a changed and better world.

Heat abruptly singed his lips and he yanked the cigarette from his lips to look disappointingly at it—didn’t last half as long as he remembered; could these things go bad?—before he stabbed it out on one of the shiny buttons on Balthazar’s coat. He jerked back from Balthazar’s little hiss-and-swipe routine, then pitched the butt down the hall. “Okay.”

John turned around and got about two steps before Balthazar’s sputtering resolved into comprehensible words. “Okay? Okay, what? Can I come in?”

“No, asshole. I need to get my coat,” John snapped over his shoulder. He grabbed said item off the kitchen table, then swiped the cigarette pack from the counter as well. Oh, and he needed an umbrella…which turned up beneath the sofa. “I like this apartment. You think I’m going to let you in and make it ground zero for some fucked-up succession war, you’re even stupider than I remember.”

* * *

Since John hadn’t yet found a replacement for Chas, they had to walk to Midnite’s. It would’ve been all right if Balthazar hadn’t started sniffling and sneezing and shaking like a poster child for UNICEF. John was half-certain that the bastard was faking it—maybe Balthazar wasn’t used to being human yet, but it wasn’t like he’d come back in a famine victim’s body. He looked pretty healthy, albeit wet.

He was getting them a lot of frowns and stares from passersby, even though he’d bent his neck enough to hold the umbrella over both their heads. “Jesus Christ, it’s warm enough even if it is the Flood again. Take off that damned coat and wring out your hair, or something.”

“I’m not sure I should be taking advice from you about caring for myself, given your track record,” Balthazar muttered. But after another block, he did take off his coat and give it a good shaking. He smiled maliciously as John cursed and dodged the water. “How’s the girl, Johnny? Did you two settle down and have little psychic brats?”

The bastard had seen enough of John’s apartment to know the answer to that. John elbowed him hard and shoved him so he wasn’t running John off the sidewalk, then swerved around a homeless guy huddled on the curb. “She transferred to New York City. Look, Balthazar—”

“Across the country. My, my, doesn’t that say something.”

“—Balthazar, if you don’t want me to break your fucking neck—God, you’re an asshole.” They rounded the corner and John scanned ahead, trying to gauge the length of the line in front of Midnite’s. He also tried to spot anyone he might be on the outs with…or who might have quibbles with a resurrected Balthazar, come to think of it. “If things are so bad downstairs, then how come I haven’t gotten more demons trying to come back up? The weather’s been shitty, but that’s been about it for unusual events lately.”

It wasn’t that John was beginning to doubt Balthazar’s basic story, because he wasn’t. That part was crazy and depressing enough to ring true, though being the puffed-up slimebag that he was, Balthazar probably was elaborating his part. But in John’s experience, the one thing all demons had in common was a desire to get out of Hell and work on the earthly plane. They didn’t like it much more than the souls damned to the place, so there should’ve been a fucking flood upward if it was really as simple—relatively speaking—as Balthazar was making it sound.

Balthazar put his coat back on, then discreetly sneezed into his hand. He shook his fingers with a disgusted look before sticking his hand out in the rain. He looked a tiny bit embarrassed there. “Hell’s not just any place in the universe, Johnny. It’s got unique qualities that make it a very valuable piece of real estate. Perhaps Lucifer didn’t exploit them how he should have, but he’s not around anymore.”

Now, hadn’t that been an interesting little nugget of self-commentary hidden in there? Much as Balthazar had played the perfect demonic flunky, since the whole Spear of Destiny business John had wondered what had really been going on in the bastard’s brain. Lots of demons hated Lou, but the ones actually willing to do something about it could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

John was revolted to admit it, but he actually had to respect Balthazar a little for that. “Are we talking about Mammon again? God, I hate that kid. Lou’s got crap style, but at least he has some. Mammon’s just a fuck-up.”

“I suppose you’d know,” Balthazar drawled. He shivered and sneezed again. “Heaven’s still in operation. You know the rules: no direct interference. So full demons can’t come over as they are, but only if they’ve got a human skin, and that takes power and…you should know this. Why do I have to explain this?”

“I’m just double-checking. Just because there are rules doesn’t mean you idiots are smart enough to follow them. Then again, that keeps me in work.” The damp was getting to John’s cigarette, soaking into the paper and making the tip smolder instead of properly burn. He flicked at the ash several times, but it didn’t do anything for the unpleasant moldy taste the smoke had acquired. “So most of them are still down by the gates, fighting over who gets the throne once somebody picks the lock?”

At the last moment, John decided he’d rather try the backdoor instead of dealing with the bouncer and whoever else was on the sidewalk. He ducked into a side-alley, then walked straight into a brick wall. It wasn’t actually there; it was just one of Midnite’s test-of-faith spells. If one believed, or was at least willing to suspend rational thought for a second, then one passed through into the kind of dank, high-walled passage that really belonged in gothic Europe.

“When I left, the major parties were aligned with either Mammon or Satan. At least, as far as demons were concerned,” Balthazar finally said. He didn’t have time to explain his odd addendum before they were knocking at the door.

Midnite himself opened it. He blinked once, staring straight at John. “You’re late.”

“I see demons and angels, I don’t predict the future. That’s your shit,” John sighed. He dropped his current cigarette into a nearby puddle, then stuck a new one in his mouth as he walked inside.

A fluffy thing waved past him and he half-turned just in time to see Balthazar grabbing the towel, which was big and white, from a zombie. He scrubbed at his face while casually walking around the various dead animals and broken sculptures and miscellaneous junk that littered the hallway.

Maybe he was now the equivalent of an incubus’ offspring? John idly wondered. “Okay, Midnite, how much do I have to fill you in?”

“He had a towel ready for me,” Balthazar huffily said.

“Come into my office. And no fighting,” Midnite answered, using the sepulchral tones of an angry abbess. His hat was still cocked loftily on his head, but his sleeves were rolled up and as he passed by, John spotted dark stains on the undersides of his fingers.

Midnite didn’t do a lot of the messier hands-on work nowadays, preferring instead to act as a consultant or a matchmaker between clients and a host of lesser houngans and mambos. Careful to let Balthazar come up even with him first, John slowly turned to follow. He sniffed the air a few times and decided the prevailing scents were angelica and myrrh and frankincense. That was a bit Old World for Midnite, too.

Once they’d gotten into the office, Balthazar immediately took up the couch along the wall with fastidiously drying himself. John warily opted for the chair opposite him, while Midnite leaned against the front of his desk, arms folded over his chest. They made a nice antagonistic triangle.

“Hell cannot remain without a ruler. It upsets the balance,” Midnite began.

Sometimes John wondered if Midnite secretly practiced that deep, solemn voice in front of a mirror. James Earl Jones wasn’t dead yet, otherwise John would’ve suspected Midnite of channeling the guy. “Can we skip the dramatic intro? What do you want me to do, what do I get out of it and when does it have to be done by?”

“Haven’t we gotten direct. Finally made your peace with selling out to the highest bidder?” Balthazar laid the towel, soaking wet but precisely folded, over the sofa arm. Then he reached down and began pulling off his shoes and socks.

John rolled his eyes and gave him the finger without bothering to look over. He just watched Midnite, and after a moment, Midnite flicked out a slip of paper. “Lucifer has taken up residence in the city at this address. Someone needs to go speak to him and convince him to name a successor.”

Out of the corner of his eye, John glimpsed Balthazar going strangely quiet. The look on Balthazar’s face wasn’t quite blank; it was…yeah, he knew something he wasn’t mentioning. He looked like he was trying not to be amused, and also trying to pretend very hard that he wasn’t scared shitless.

“Are you hoping he still likes me?” John asked.

Midnite shrugged. “It makes no difference if he does or not—what does matter is that he always paid attention to you in the past. He could defend himself, but he’s no threat to you now that you couldn’t handle.”

“I’m so flattered, and yet I can’t help thinking of the sacrificial lamb.” After memorizing the address, John held the scrap to the tip of his cigarette and let it burn. He tossed the blackening remnant into Midnite’s wastebasket, then looked up and belatedly saw the other man’s warning look.

A second later, a green flame suddenly exploded a foot out of the trashcan. It danced a slow samba back on, grumbling and crackling. John snickered a little, slouching down in the chair, and then outright laughed.

“I’m glad you can still find amusement in the situation,” Midnite curtly said.

“Aw, Midnite…I’m just trying to keep a level head here. We’ve all got our own forms of stress relief,” John snorted.

He was echoed by the demonic gallery, which dampened John’s humor a little. Putting Balthazar in a good mood definitely wasn’t high up there on John’s list of priorities.

“All right, I’ll go in the morning. Crack of dawn.” Next time, John thought, he was just going to fucking phone. Thirteen blocks of sharing an umbrella with Balthazar definitely wasn’t worth this pathetic amount of information. He wasn’t Midnite’s goddamn dog, running up for a stick or a treat, and it was about time Midnite got a reminder of that.

He started to get up, but Midnite put out a hand. Then he pointed to the side, right at Balthazar. “There’s him to discuss.”

“Not really. He showed up at my place, now he’s here, have fun and see you later, kids,” John drawled. Though he was already sitting back down, since even he could see Midnite meant business. And even if Midnite needed lessons in Constantine-appreciation, he still never was going to be John’s dog, either. Not that John would’ve wanted that: too much care involved. “What? Are you going to make me take him along? Can’t we just shove him back down once Hell’s running properly again?”

“I am not a babysitter, John,” Midnite said. Like John had brought Balthazar for the express purpose of irritating him.

Balthazar coughed. “I don’t suppose I can have a say in my fate?”

“No, you fucking little shit. You show up in this—this rocker-slut outfit, and you’re all ‘I know something you don’t know’ and you don’t even apologize for killing my friends or fucking with my life, and now you want me to give you sanctuary? Oh, I’ll give you sanctuary. I’ll give you sanctuary in a fucking six-foot hole, you—”

John.” Midnite didn’t like fights in his precious, precious office. Well, Midnite could take that up his tightwad ass.

John threw himself back in the chair and dragged hard on his cigarette. “Well, what? He’s not my responsibility either, so what am I supposed to do with him?”

Nothing about Midnite’s expression or body language even remotely suggested that he might’ve gone mad in the past few seconds. “Sleep with him.”

Balthazar choked. Hard. Repeatedly.

As for John, he wasn’t doing too great either. Goddamn it, he depended on Midnite to not lose his shit over every little potential supernatural war-starter out there. “What?”

“I’m being sarcastic, John,” Midnite sighed. He unfolded his arms as he walked around the desk, signaling that he was done with this interview and ready for the next. His stupid cold-blooded businessman routine didn’t get on John’s nerves some of the time; it got on John’s nerves all of the time. “But the fact remains that things are currently very fragile and any upset, such as might result from Balthazar running into an old acquaintance while in his transitional state, might be the last straw on the camel’s back.”

“You know, if you’re going to start cracking jokes now, you could have the decency to warn people.” For one moment, John was back to his usual mix of relief liberally dosed with irritation. Then for some reason he started thinking more closely about Midnite’s words. Maybe it was his newfound readiness to look for the really, really unorthodox solution. “Well, fine. But the least you could do is get us a ride back. It’s still raining like the goddamn Deluge out there.”

Balthazar started choking again, which made John think that this unpleasant little gamble might pay off as well as the one he’d taken over Angela’s sister. At any rate, he really liked seeing the annoying asshole that discomfited.

“Fine,” Midnite brusquely said.

* * *

“Fuck with anything at all, even just mess with the thermostat, and I’ll take great pleasure in kicking your ass through one of the windows,” John told Balthazar.

Who sighed as he closed the bathroom door. “You’ve said that five times in as many minutes, Johnny. Your deteriorating mind might need the reminder, but I don’t.”

John ignored that and wandered over to one of said windows. The back of his neck and the palms of his hands were itching, and when he muttered a scanning charm beneath his breath, the windowsill three from the end flared white.

He went over and waited a moment, then pushed up the sash. A couple seconds later, there was the rustle of feathers. The grill of the fire escape rattled slightly as Sariel stepped out onto it. “John Constantine. We need to talk.”

“Good thing I stocked up on the way back,” John muttered, lighting up.

Sariel blew air out through her nose so her nostrils flared. She was a little more practical than Gabriel had been, but not so good with the emotionless bit. “The matter with Lucifer. I understand you and he have a speaking relationship.”

Flattered as John was, he really wondered where people kept getting this idea. Fine, Lou had a thing for him, but it wasn’t the kind of preference upon which inter-plane peace accords were built. “Well, I heard about his new gig and was thinking of going down to give him a housewarming punch in the face, if that’s what you mean.”

“It is imperative that Hell have a ruler who will understand its role,” Sariel went on. She peered down her long, aquiline nose at John, who wondered if maybe he should warm up on her. It’d been a while since he’d gotten into a good fistfight. “The balance was sorely tested by the Mammon debacle—”

“Don’t look at me like that was my fault. You’re the ones who needed a better human resources department.” The shower went off in the background. John didn’t turn around, but after a moment’s consideration, he did switch to lean against the other side of the windowsill so he would block Sariel’s view of the bathroom door.

“—and even if it hadn’t been, there still would be difficulties. The bet was made with Lucifer, not with the ruler of Hell. Currently it appears that the denizens of that place are engaged in internal strife, but sooner or later they will turn their attentions on the earthly plane.” Sariel’s voice dropped, but its echoes widened to rumble against windowpanes and metal railings all through the alley. It was all a bunch of show-off bullshit, but behind that she seemed genuinely disturbed. “Do you really wish to know what the world would be like if Hell was allowed to obtain souls any way possible?”

Of course not, but the state of things under Lucifer hadn’t exactly been ideal, either. Philosophy wasn’t one of John’s strong points—it was one of Midnite’s, or at least he was fond of quoting old dusty points of view, and one of them was that everything happened for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Like hell: this wasn’t the best possible world by a long shot.

“Don’t you mean do I want to find out what it’d be like if Heaven and Hell were allowed to fight over us like a pair of starving dogs with a bone? Because believe me, I never forget that there are two sides to the story,” John slowly said. He blew his last drag out through his nose, letting it stream dangerously close to Sariel’s face.

The skin around her eyes and jaw tightened, and for a moment it looked like she was ready to get her immaculate linen suit dirty. But then she took a deep breath and suddenly crouched down with the creepy silent grace of the so-called holy. The shadows on the wall of the building opposite her flew outwards on either side, like wings. “I don’t lie, John,” Sariel murmured, leaning so close he could count the tiny wrinkles in her pearly pale lips. “There are those in Heaven who would welcome a return to open hostilities. They would turn the world into a horror of blood in their efforts to defeat the Adversary, whomever he is.”

“And you’re not all for that?” John skeptically asked. “I mean, it’s an open secret that you angels only give a damn about people because the Lord Almighty told you to.”

“That may or may not be true.” Sariel stiffened up, apparently not eager to stray that far from the partyline. Then she cocked her head, moving close enough so that John could smell all that rose and sandalwood. Most people found it breathlessly exhilarating, but to him, it’d always smelled just as rotten as the sulfur stink of demons. “But no, John, I am not in favor. I see enough suffering as it is and I have no desire to increase it.”

John opened his mouth to say something appropriately wise-ass, then thought differently of it and slouched back. Gabriel had brought up the whole suffering bit too, though if he hadn’t been standing on John’s windpipe at the time, John would’ve told him to stuff it: all that suffering that had bothered the bastard could’ve been alleviated with a little more effort on his part.

“I have no message for Lucifer, and I won’t presume to know what kinds of arguments—” Sariel’s lip curled; nice to see her getting back to normal “—would sway the First of the Fallen. But I urge you to keep in mind what’s at stake. Lucifer’s role must be filled.”

For a couple moments, John just looked at her. The ash of his cigarette had hit the filter, but he let it burn on for another drag before he put it out. It tasted awful and he grimaced as he flicked away the butt. “You have anyone in mind for Lucifer’s job? Any of your colleagues you’ve been itching to watch get the boot?”

Sariel’s eyes widened slightly in ill-restrained rage. Then she abruptly pulled back, turned and stood in the same contemptuously fluid motion. “You are a vulgar example of humanity, John Constantine.”

“I do my best,” John called to her back.

Her shoulders hitched irritably beneath her suit as she stepped off the fire escape. A breeze fluttered sharply against John’s face, making him squint as he stood back to shut the window.

“What was that about?” said a predictably arch voice from behind John.

Balthazar was buttoning up John’s shirt while leaning in the bathroom doorway. John had a weird moment of déjà vu where he almost thought he’d slid into a parallel universe where Balthazar and Ellie had switched places. Then he snorted to himself and got over it: if that had been true, that universe’s him would’ve had a much shorter life. “The usual. You’re sleeping on the couch. If I wake up tomorrow and anything’s out of place, I’m boning you out for an ajna ritual.”

“I thought the usual was going down on your knees to beg before Heaven, not having them come slumming to your window.” The bathroom light went out by itself behind Balthazar. He flipped his hands to settle the shirt-cuffs properly, then buttoned them up as he came into the room. “Do they have a counterproposal for Lucifer?”

“Oh, am I working with you now? I thought I was generously protecting your ass from the nasty elements out there,” John snorted. He swerved wide and stalked into his bedroom, slamming the door as he went. He’d tolerate the bastard for now, but after this was over, Midnite had better take Balthazar or else John would kill him.

Once upon a time—upon a very, very long time ago, John might’ve had enough scruples left that he’d walk away from hurting an obviously weak opponent out of pity. But Gabriel had been the last favor of that kind he was ever going to do.

What had lung cancer really taught John, once he’d gotten over the giddy first flush of redemption? Well…that there wasn’t actually any redemption, just extended leases on life. He still had the same rat-scrabbling life, the same chronic lack of longterm human companionship, the same fucking hypocritical fights sucking him back into Heaven and Hell’s orbits. He was maybe a little more thoughtful about what it’d take to survive, given what he’d already given up. And he was definitely a lot more knowledgeable about what he would give up in order to survive, about what he could live with losing.

Thank you, Angela, John sourly thought. She’d been a great reaffirmation in his beliefs about the human race.

* * *

John only really woke up when the flesh clutched in his hand started spasming. He shook himself, which was helped along by a blow to the side of his stomach. It didn’t double him over, but it did encourage his muzzy decision to flop over on top of the struggling body beside him and try to smother it with superior weight.

Whoever it was abruptly stopped, and after a moment, John felt awake enough to let go of their throat. They immediately started to wheeze; he frowned, then snorted as he rubbed his eyes clears. “Jesus, Balthazar. If you’re going to whore yourself out to me, do it when I’m awake. I don’t like night attacks.”

“Perish the thought, Johnny. Especially since it’s mostly the product of your over-presumptuous ego.” Balthazar’s shape was slowly beginning to emerge from the darkness. He rolled half-over, then drew himself up on his elbows and rubbed gingerly at his neck. “I needed to speak with you and you overreacted. As usual.”

It was on the tip of John’s tongue to point out all the various Balthazar-instigated incidents over the past few years that might give him such reflexes, but he refrained at the last moment. The decision paid off, as he could see Balthazar shift uneasily, waiting for an opening that wasn’t going to come. John pushed himself up against the headboard, and after he remembered he’d gone to sleep fully dressed, he tossed off the blankets so he could pull up his knees and rest his arms on them.

“Lucifer didn’t leave without thinking a little about what would happen in his absence,” Balthazar finally said. He pulled his knees close in to himself in a reptilian curl. What little starlight that made it through the clouds and the windows slid in bars over his cheek, striping it with a dull pale gleam. “He gave the gate keys to Morpheus, and told him to choose a successor.”

“The Sandman? I didn’t realize Lou liked the guy so much.” John didn’t know that particular Endless that well, his major contacts with him being one favor done for the guy and one favor by Dream done for him so he’d always be able to sleep free of nightmares, but what he did know meant…this was interesting. At least in this aspect, taking Balthazar home had been somewhat worth it.

Balthazar shrugged. “He doesn’t.”

A short, raspy laugh got away from John. “Oh, okay. Well, so why didn’t you mention this before?”

“I wasn’t sure if it’d be worth it. You’ve been close to being a real power several times, Johnny-boy, but at the last moment you invariably fuck it up,” Balthazar commented in a slow, surprisingly non-judgmental tone. Then again, he wasn’t saying anything John wouldn’t cheerfully admit to in public; that basically had been the thin edge of the wedge between John and Midnite. “But Lucifer abdicates and Midnite sends for you. Sariel comes to your window.”

“You show up on my doorstep,” John added. “And of all the demons out there, you make it back up with this piece of information. Should I be expecting Morpheus in a couple minutes?”

After a moment, Balthazar laughed. His head was angled so the light glinted off his teeth, showing their slightly unnatural sharpness. “The Sandman, of all people, has more on his mind than you. His court is filled with petitioners for Hell.”

“Then why’d he help you get back?” One beat, and then John continued, letting his voice drawl with thick sarcasm. “Come on, Balthazar. Fucking Mammon couldn’t just walk his way up, and besides, as far as I can tell, you’ve been turned part-human. There aren’t a hell of a lot of people who can do that. At least, without the rest of the world noticing the aftershocks.”

Balthazar cocked his head, though he probably wasn’t nearly as nonchalant as he was trying to seem. His nails were digging into the sheets, making little ripping noises. “Because frankly, I don’t care who he gives the keys to, and I don’t want Lucifer to come back. I want him to stay on this plane. When you go to talk to him--”

“—here we go,” John muttered, slouching back.

Instead, there went a long stretch of silence as they stared at each other. John’s night vision was above-average and now he could make out most of the features of Balthazar’s face, though he was still having difficulty reading nuances of expression. He slowly pushed down one knee so his leg slid behind Balthazar, who began to glance at it, but stopped.

“I don’t want to go back to Hell,” Balthazar finally whispered. “Lucifer’s the First of the Fallen. He creates precedents. If he can reject his role and make a new one here, then that’s a loophole. Laugh all you want, Johnny, but don’t ask me stupid questions about my motivations now.”

“You’re not going to be a bigwig demon anymore, or whatever Mammon said you were going to be.” John reached out to the side-table without looking and fumbled around for a few seconds before his fingers came across his cigarette pack and lighter. He shook out one and stuck it between his lips, then fired up the lighter.

The flame cast a strange red-orange glow across the bed. It made Balthazar’s eyes glitter green for a second before he deliberately turned his head. He stayed like that till John had snapped the lid back on the lighter. “In case you didn’t notice, neither of those outcomes were very good for me.”

“Aw, you’re so cute when you’re making yourself admit your life’s been shitty. It’s just something about how…how you sound like you’re tearing up inside,” John grinned. It was all on the outside, since inside he was thinking, and part of what he was thinking was that angels and demons were such whiners. They were always going on and on about how rough they had it to human beings, the people they tormented for a living. It was fucking ridiculous. “Okay. So what you want is for me to talk Lucifer into ignoring pressure to go back, so you can stay here and turn over a new leaf.”

“You’ll get plenty of compensation. I don’t care if you deport every other demon in the world—so much the better for me. I can tell you what you need in order to do that.” Balthazar sank down and stretched forward, his voice going low and smoky and seductive. He really was working this hard, wasn’t he.

He slid across the mattress, between John’s sprawled legs. John let him get within about eight inches, then abruptly swung his leg over Balthazar to seat himself on the edge of the bed. That put his back to Balthazar, but it wasn’t like he had to worry about backstabbing from that corner yet. “I’ll consider it.’

“Johnny—”

“Now would you get the fuck out of my bed so I can sleep? I can’t exactly talk anybody into anything if I’m nodding off,” John muttered. He sucked hard on his cigarette, then blew slowly out through his nose to see the patterns in the smoke, if there were any.

He wasn’t too surprised to find that there weren’t. Maybe that was the bug up Midnite’s ass—he relied so much on his divination so that if that had stopped working, or wasn’t reliable anymore, he’d be freaking out. It was details like that that made sure John never spent much time envying Midnite: he might be flying blind most of the time, but at least he wasn’t always living in fear of the future.

“You’d be an idiot to turn down my offer. I know you were barely keeping your head above water before, and if Lucifer remains here, then it’ll only get worse for you. Whoever’s replacing him will have to sort out all over again all the jealousies and grudges and secret pacts in the ranks.” The bed creaked and dipped as Balthazar sat up behind John. He drew in a low, whistling breath, then slowly exhaled so the head of it tickled the back of John’s neck.

“Now you’re arguing for why I should talk Lucifer into going back,” John snorted. His cigarette was running out; they really didn’t last as long as he remembered. Maybe it was time to switch brands and up the strength some. “Fuck off, Balthazar. I said I’ll think about it. That’s more than you should get, considering all the blood on your hands.”

Balthazar sighed. His voice receded, so at least he was sitting back. “I was doing my job, Johnny. Would you blame rats for spreading disease?”

“I don’t have to blame anything in order to feel good about killing you. Really, Balthazar—I thought you would’ve realized I don’t have any goddamn morals for you to appeal to.” John finally ground out his butt in the ashtray, then turned back around and laid down. Something was shoving into his arm and he shoved back.

He nearly got Balthazar falling on top of him, because the clumsy asshole could swan around and act all catty, but he couldn’t keep his balance after getting his knee shoved. To be honest, John was starting to lean towards helping Balthazar out for the sole reason that it’d be funny as fuck to see the bastard try to adapt. No matter how much experience with assimilation Balthazar thought he had, he didn’t have nearly enough.

“What the hell else?” John grunted, rolling away. He sat up long enough to shove Balthazar completely over to the other side of the bed, then flopped back down.

A passing car’s high-beams flashed across the windows and illuminated Balthazar in classic gargoyle silhouette, hunched over with his arms slightly raised, as if ready to rend and tear. But the light was too bright to reveal anything of his expression.

“I killed your friends. Arguably, you also killed your friends, and at any rate, you don’t have anyone now. It might be wise to not to abandon everything you know,” Balthazar said. Beneath his calm tone were deep ripples of fear and worry, and towards the end, a frantic sense of urgency had begun to creep into his voice as well.

But before John could answer, Balthazar had slipped off the bed and left the room. John roughly exhaled his wasted curse and turned over on his side. After a moment, he closed his eyes and mentally ran down the various uses of dragon bone in his head. He’d gotten to stimulants when his mind finally ran down and went to sleep.

* * *

John never slept for more than a few hours at a stretch, so he was up long before dawn. He wasn’t feeling particularly well-rested, but he’d gotten enough to get him moving and he’d long since become used to the incessant low ache in the back of his eyes and the sour taste on his tongue. He just adjusted his coffee a little stronger.

Balthazar had taken the couch. He’d curled up in one corner much as he had on the bed, limbs easily settled into what should’ve been painful contortions, with the sole difference that here, he’d tucked his head as far beneath one arm as it’d go. If he’d had a tail, it would’ve been wrapped across his face.

He still seemed deep asleep; John carefully bent over for a closer look and noted the slight puffiness of the flesh beneath Balthazar’s eyes, and the depth of the grooves running from the bottom of his nose to either corner of his mouth. Apparently it hadn’t been an easy time back.

Well, that worked out well. John straightened up and soundlessly exited the apartment.

He stopped at a corner drugstore to pick through the imports, finally settling on a Russian brand that the counter guy swore was strong enough to raise the dead. It wasn’t, but its harsh top note and sweetish curling hook of an aftertaste worked well enough for John. It set up a nice buzz in the front of his mind and helped cover the stink of the gutters he walked past.

Gabriel had been on the street for several weeks, but in the end, Heaven had decided that it wasn’t in their best interests to have a fallen angel that visible and that badly off. Privately, John thought the bastards upstairs had been hoping someone would off Gabriel, but had had to give up when he proved too tenacious at survival. Now he had a berth at one of the lesser churches, working as the cemetery groundskeeper. John had nearly choked on his chow mein with laughing when he’d first heard.

He found Gabriel sitting in the shade of an especially large gravestone carved all over with lilies. A shovel with fresh dirt on the blade leaned against a nearby stone. John warily swung wide of it and took a seat on a broad family tombstone. “How’s it going, Gabriel?”

“I was wondering when you were going to turn up. Do you have the guts to finish what you started now?” Gabriel said in a mournful voice. His hair was stringy and the bones of his wrist jutted out every time he moved his hands.

“Suicidal. And I had more faith in you. But forget it, Gabriel—I didn’t come here to gloat. I had a question,” John replied. He studied the other…the other man for a moment, then shook out two cigarettes. After lighting them both, he leaned over to drop the second one on the stone rim of Gabriel’s grave monument.

Gabriel stared at it, then gave a little strained laugh and picked it up. He held it awkwardly between his index finger and thumb, but he sucked at it naturally enough. “Is that how it is now? You can’t ever stop using people.”

“You’re welcome.” John shoved his cigarette deep between his lips, then stood up. As he dusted off his pants, he accidentally kicked a rock at Gabriel.

The other man instantly ducked so it flew harmlessly overhead and chipped off the grave marker. Then Gabriel scooted back up, twisting to look at the spot. He frowned and slapped at the dent, momentarily looking like he really cared. He was practically glowering at the stone, and he still was when he turned to face John. “Well, what’s your question?”

“And thanks. That’ll be all,” John said. He smiled at the confusion on Gabriel’s face, but held in the laughter till he’d reached the gates. It was a small graveyard; Gabriel still would’ve heard him, but was now too far away to react.

* * *

Lucifer’s piano bar was a pretty classy joint, all art-deco and chiaroscuro. Way better taste than John would’ve expected, given that Lucifer’s favorite appearance for him was hillbilly pimp gone Hollywood.

The bartender was decorative too, in a chillingly eerie, half-masked kind of way. It took a moment for John to dredge up a name. “Mazikeen?”

She nodded. She’d been polishing a glass, but had instantly frozen when he’d come in and now stood like a salt statue, flat eyes boring deep into him. The rest of her face hadn’t moved, though whether that was from good emotional control or crappy second-skin creation wasn’t clear to John.

John took a seat at the bar, keeping his hands on top where she could see them. The gesture seemed to get through to her, since she put down the glass and rag. “Is Lou in? I heard he was in town and wanted to have a little chat with him.”

Mazikeen cocked her head. Her hands stayed below John’s view a fraction too long, so he slipped off the stool and backed up a few steps. He shoved his hands in his own pockets while he scanned around.

“Believe me, it’d be better for him to talk to me than to some of the others who’ve gotten interested,” John said.

“Oh, really? And who might those be, Johnny?” Lucifer’s voice was a strange mix of the lascivious twang John was used to and a smoother, more sensual baritone, and it was coming from right behind John. “I should’ve known you wouldn’t come on your own, despite all our—”

He’d lost a little by exchanging Hell for earth; when John spun on his heel and brought up his fist, he hadn’t actually been expecting to make contact. The smash of his fist into Lucifer’s jaw was almost as much of a surprise to him as it was to Lou, who stumbled back a few feet, eyes wide. Behind him, Mazikeen somehow managed to convey pure fury through her blank, beautiful face. The lights above her began to dim, but then Lucifer put up a hand.

“No, dear.” He was still half-bent at the waist, rubbing at his jaw. A slow, considering smile spread over his face. “I think he’s gotten it out of his system now. Haven’t you, Johnny-boy?”

John flexed his fingers a few times, then shrugged. “Yeah. You serve any decent drinks here, or is it all song and dance?”

Lucifer acknowledged the slam with a little bow and waved towards the bar. “We don’t officially open for another two hours, but if you’re that eager to start ruining your day, I suppose I can come up with something.”

* * *

Once they’d settled in with their drinks—some bright teal thing for Lou, a beer whose cap John popped off himself for him—Lucifer cut straight to the point. Apparently he’d finally gotten tired of all that side-stepping and word-gaming, too. “Who sent you here, John?”

“Technically? Midnite asked me. But you could say I’ve been forced to have more unpleasant conversations than usual, thanks to your nervous breakdown,” John said. He balanced the beer cap on its edge between his two fingers, then set it spinning across the table. “How’s the bar business been? You get any nasty drunks yet? Midnite runs a pretty good rate on zombie bouncers, and I’m betting he’d calm down if you made him a business offer.”

“You’re so cute,” Lucifer drawled. He leaned back in classic dilettante pose, one arm draped across his lap while the other held his glass high, one leg balanced atop the other knee. “And what are these unpleasant messages that various entities have tasked you to bring me?”

John propped his elbows up on the table and folded his hands to make an arch over the bottle. He dropped his head a little to sneak a drag from his cigarette, then straightened up. “You can probably guess: you’re an irresponsible piece of shit who’s screwed up things for everyone else, and you need to fix it.”

“And did they suggest how they wanted me to fix it?” Lucifer tipped his head back to flash the bottom of his chin at John. He looked too pretty for John’s tastes like this, all butter and silk. His hair kept shifting from red to gold to back again, and either way it looked like something out of a shampoo commercial.

“I think I liked you better as a bald letch. At least then your outsides fit your insides,” John finally said. He felt something hot sting past his fingertips and looked down just in time to see a fleck of ash fall into his beer.

Well, drinking it probably wouldn’t have been a great idea, anyway. He discreetly slid the bottle aside a few inches, then put his arm up again.

In the background, Mazikeen was working over a large book with a calculator. After glancing at her, Lucifer turned back to John and smiled slightly, as if he were holding all the cards and had just gotten a peek at John’s. That was from the old him: infuriating, but a comforting in a grim way, too.

“In all your life, I’ve never known you to say anything but what was your opinion. Now, usually that was to your detriment, but I have to admit that it was admirable in its way. True consistency’s rare in you fickle clods of dirt,” Lucifer remarked, sipping at his drink. His eyes flicked up to meet John’s over the rim. “So why are you here, Johnny? Not just to punch me in the nose, is it?”

John smiled thinly and shifted back so his head was resting against the top of the old-fashioned, high-backed chair. He watched Lucifer’s shape distort and flow through the clouds of smoke. “No. I came to wish you good luck, and good riddance.”

Lucifer flickered, narrow and wide, tall and short. He seemed a bit startled.

“Of course, that’s probably just wishful thinking, especially the second part. After all, we’re the ones who got free will to begin with, we know how it works. How much do you guys change anyway? Really? Deep down?” The ash-tray on the table was expensive fluted crystal. When John stubbed out his butt, the dull gray smears looked like its kind of blood, like he’d stabbed some kind of alien animal. “I went to see Gabriel—you remember him, right?”

A tight nod from Lucifer, whose hooded eyes didn’t quite hide his uncertainty as to where John was going with this.

“He’s about two steps up from gutter-trash now. Unbelievably pathetic—he minds graves for the Almighty at St. Jude’s. I guess it’s supposed to be his penance, or something. It kind of misses the point, since he still thinks he’s king of his small domain. I chipped one of the tombstones and he looked like I’d chipped him.” John snorted to himself. He slid one hand into his pocket, fingering but not pulling out a new cigarette. “And like it was the stone’s fault for not being stronger. There’s Balthazar, too—he wants to do something new by copying you. Like he wanted to get free by changing his allegiance to Gabriel and Mammon.”

Lucifer slowly blinked, like a snake. “Oh. Really.”

“Oh, leave him alone,” John said. “Can’t blame him, really, considering he had you as a boss.”

That perked up Lucifer. “Do you want him?” he purred.

“Matchmaking’s not your strong point, Lou. Let’s just say I’ve got no problem with watching him fuck up that way. Just like I’ve got no problem with you walking off. Though it makes me laugh—do you really expect me to believe you’ve given up greed and pride and power-lust?” John laughed, shaking his head as he scooted back from the table. He held up one hand to forestall the response forming on Lucifer’s face. “Oh, yeah, I know. You are actually tired of dancing to God’s tune. Okay. But are you going to be happy settling quietly into his Creation? I don’t think so.”

“Do get to the point, John.” Lucifer made an elaborate production of checking his watch. “While I enjoy your rambles, I do have a business to run.”

“‘A business to run.’ Jesus. You’re not convincing anyone, you know. Look, Lou, just try to remember something: when you realize you’ve been fucking with yourself, and that this is just going to be a temporary gig and if you really want to change, you’ll have to give up a hell of a lot more, remember that I told you so,” John said. After kicking the chair back beneath the table, he straightened his coat and tie and threw a few bills down. “Good luck. Really.”

He actually got most of the way across the bar before Lucifer called back to him. “John? And who are you to speak of me of changing? Have you changed, even after I gave you back your life?”

“Lou, man, I’ll hate you forever. But today I’m walking away, and a year ago I would’ve kept punching you till I didn’t have anything left to punch, and maybe in three days I’ll be back to that. I just really don’t know. Now there’s your answer.” John flapped a wave over his shoulder. He didn’t look back, and he didn’t slow down, either.

He wasn’t stopped. Maybe Lucifer had gotten it, after all.

* * *

Balthazar wasn’t in John’s apartment when he got back that evening, nor was there any sign of him left. John shrugged and went to bed, and in the middle of the night he woke up to a hand working over his groin and a mouth sliding wetly up his neck to tongue the soft hollow behind his ear.

He grunted and half-rolled over, pushing away the sheets and whatever the hell Balthazar was wearing now till he could grip flesh. Teeth snapped at his ear and he snorted even as he shoved Balthazar down; the bastard was going to wake him up, then he could take the consequences. And anyway, seemed like Balthazar got into that, or at least had interesting responses to it, because soon John’s hands were working between his legs and Balthazar was raking his nails down John’s back, groaning as he pressed his mouth to John’s.

He raised one arm to brace himself against the headboard while John fucked him, hands slipping all over his narrow hips no matter how hard John dug in with his fingers. His teeth flashed more than once, and that long skinny tongue of his curled around John’s canines every chance it got, moving up and down like his hand on his prick because John was busy elsewhere and anyway, he’d better be able to take care of himself. He was a good fuck, knew how to squeeze his muscles together and ripple them around John’s cock, and his hips moved when they should’ve and stopped when they should’ve and a couple times when they shouldn’t have just so John would get pissed off. Which made it work better, anyway.

“Morpheus gave the key to Remiel and Duma,” Balthazar rasped into John’s ear afterward. He freed himself of John in one sinuous twist, then settled back into that crouch-curl of his. “God sent them down to take Lucifer’s place.”

John laughed. “Fucker wants to win his bet. It’s not a real victory if one side forfeits.”

“Lucifer’s still at his piano bar, and everyone’s beginning to believe he meant what he said. But there are already rumors…” Balthazar stared down at John. “Do you want to hear them now?”

“I guess you got your free pass, then?” John idly asked.

“Lucifer was asked for a list of all those who must return to Hell. Mazikeen’s name wasn’t on it, and neither was mine.” Not that Balthazar sounded grateful. More like shocked and disbelieving, like he couldn’t actually comprehend that John could and had pulled it off. “I know you. You’ll be claiming I owe you favors for the rest of your life.”

Yeah, probably, though it was only a matter of time before Balthazar did properly acclimate and realize that debts of honor didn’t bind humans in the same way as they did angels and demons. They weren’t so tangible, didn’t carry their own power. He’d always been an adaptable little shit, and he’d learn fast how to really lie and backstab and betray. And John would only have himself to blame for it.

If John had any kind of prescience, this was it. He could see it coming, and he still was going to sit down and smile in its face. It wasn’t here yet; when it was, then he’d figure out what to do about it. He’d take what he could get out of it for now.

“You do,” John said. His hip shifted and skidded into a clammy moist spot on the sheets. He reached down to pull it out of the way, then settled himself down to go back to sleep. “And the first one I want is for you to not fucking wake me when you don’t have to. I’m pretty sure the world’s not going to end till tomorrow morning.”

Balthazar just laid there for a moment, giving off palpable waves of incredulity. And when he finally did speak, he made John wake up again because it was so damn predictable and funny. “The couch again?”

“What the hell do you think?” John asked, half-thinking seriously about it.

After a while, Balthazar slowly started to move off the bed. Then he stopped on the edge, and then, moving decisively but unhurriedly, he came back and shoved around the sheets till he had his own damp-free area. He nestled in, curling his knees up and tucking his head down.

John was grudgingly impressed. It was going to take less time than he’d first thought. “It’s going to be fun watching you grow up.”

Balthazar snorted derisively and John turned over, putting his back to him. He felt sleep coming on without any problems, like always.

Still self-destructive, maybe, but John chose his Hell, and that was a pretty significant victory in this world, in his opinion. Everyone else he’d ever met just tried to run from Hell, which was missing the point.