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always a catch

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John slouches into his apartment, running his fingers over the familiar sigils carved into the doorframe as he pulled the old, green-stained door closed behind him. Good . It was comforting to be reminded that the markers of his life before--before Angela--had remained as they were. He winced as he pulled off his black jacket, shaking it out a bit before laying it gently on a chair to dry. Yellow light thrown through the black bars of his window shades bounces off the huge jugs of holy water and illuminates the red-stained dripping from the jacket that slowly begins to spot his peeling linoleum floor. He collapses into a chair adjacent, and his body aches, a thousand bone-deep pains that radiate unpleasant heat. It feels like Lu’s blackened hands are still inside of him, rummaging around for the slimy, cancerous coals of past sins. His fingers twitch, and ache moreso than his body for the weight of a glass full of liquor or the tense, airy comfort of a cigarette. He doesn’t reach for either of these things.

Or maybe--no, he’s just hungry. Eggs sounded good right now. Or, mmm, waffles. Even better. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply through his nose. Damn. The bathroom’s probably still flooded, too.

Later , his sleep-deprived brain whispers to him. The whisper sounds suspiciously like Chas, and John’s heart pulls in his chest. Later, John.

Later it would be, then. He heaves himself up out of the chair, shoes squeaking against the wet linoleum, and makes his way gracelessly to the bed shoved into the far corner of the apartment. His clothes fall to the floor with wet slaps, and the warm scratch of the rough wool blanket feels almost soothing against his clammy skin. He curls up, in the cold humidity of the apartment, in the yellow light on the green walls, in the damp blackness. The raucous midnight song of Los Angeles drifts through a cracked window, and John breathes along to it, and shuts his eyes tightly, and doesn’t think of anything at all.

When the Californian morning comes - pale, watery, gentle in its way - and with it, the new cacophony of a world utterly unconcerned with the struggles of angels or demons, John floats for a moment in ignorant lassitude. He can feel, behind closed eyes, the memories of the last few days snapping like dogs at the edge of his consciousness, and makes the decision to roll over and bury his face in a misshapen pillow instead. Maybe if I lie here long enough , he thinks, I can suffocate myself and sneak into heaven instead of getting up today.

Yeah, like that was a good idea. Funny how a man’s priorities could be rearranged when death was less of an escape and more of an inevitable obligation.

John unfolds his long body and sits, legs folded, at the edge of his bed. The gentle light streaming through his blinds falls in stripes against him, shining off of countless scars and the smoky bloom of bruises. He shoves his hands into a patch of sunlight and examines his wrists, feeling a complicated knot of feeling take up residence in his throat. There, among the whitened nicks and scrapes that litter his arms like fragments of ash, are twin raised lines the color of roses. He turns his wrists over in the light. One is a little longer, a little more jagged - his right, the one Lu said he’d cut the tendons of. The shadows of Lu’s fingers wrap around that one like ribbons, and the sore pull of his attempt to drag him down into hell tingles up through John’s arm. He counts himself lucky that Lu hadn’t accidentally dislocated his shoulder straining against heaven’s intervention.

Now for the next question. Lowering his hands, John experimentally takes a careful, deep breath, deeper than he’s dared in years now. This time, there is no catch deep in his lungs, no burn in his throat. He breathes deeper, and the damp, slightly musty smell of his apartment has never been so sweet. Les’ disapproving face flashes in his mind’s eye, and he gives a sharp and spiteful “Ha!”

The noise echoes off the bare, flaking wood in his green-drenched apartment, and the sounds of the morning rush in again to fill the space like water. John stands up properly now and throws on a worn bathrobe, flicking on the bare bulb lights and padding through to his kitchen. The countertop is strewn with odds and ends--dirty knives of various sizes and functions, waxy pearls of candle drippings, bits of sea salt, food scraps, a tin of stale cookies and some takeout containers from last week--most of which John disposes of. The milk’s gone off, and so have the eggs, probably…

John putters around the kitchen, and resolutely does not let himself think about the night before until he’s run out of things to do and he’s sat at his stained and ugly excuse for a kitchen table with his hands around a chipped mug of Earl Grey. The mug’s faded design reads some nonsense about wine and motherhood, doubtless something Chas picked up as a joke while waiting for John to get back from a supernatural errand. John’s heart prickles with regret, then with loneliness, then with anger, and eventually settles on deep melancholy. The anger and regret linger, though, like the last breath of a Silk Cut deep in John’s chest.

John’s not a sentimental sort of person, as a rule. As the years went on he’d become used to the special kind of light some people got in their eyes, looking at him, when he pushes through the glittery din and clamor of Midnite’s bar on errands. That kinda light didn’t hold love for him so much as it held--expectation. A golden film of hero-worship, laid over John like a veil he can never take off. That light had been in Chas’ eyes, for a time, but even from the beginning it was always underscored with something deeper and darker. Not predatory--Chas never had a malicious bone in his body, for all the good it did him--but more like he’s seen something in John that he can’t help but see, too, in himself.

 

---

 

The first time John and Chas had met was under either the most ideal of circumstances, or the least. John still hasn’t decided. Reckless, greenhorn Chas had been attempting to exorcise not just a person, but a whole bloody house, stained with murders and suicides and God knows what else, and John had broken in with crucifix gun blazing and pulled Chas out of a maelstrom of malevolent hellfire. The kid’s protests had fallen on deaf ears, and when they’d fought their way outside he grabbed the kid by the scruff and sat him down and cussed him out for a good ten minutes (“Of all the dumb-ass shit I’ve seen in my thrice-damned life, what would your mother say if she’d seen you three verses deep in that mispronounced incantation …”) At first the kid had tried to stare back defiantly, arms crosses and shoulders hunched, but as John’s anger had started to bleed into gruff concern Chas had become more and more distressed.

John’s litany concluded with a firm “Never pull bullshit like that again, ya stupid kid.” The words had hit Chas like a slap, and John had stopped short, putting together bits of the puzzle in his head. “Why are you out here on your own, anyway?”

Chas’ face shifted through a deluge of complicated emotions, clearly caught a little off guard by the question. “Why do you care? You don’t even know me. I can handle myself just fine.” At this point the kid had tugged his backpack away from where John had dropped it and clutched it protectively to his chest. “I’ve been reading from Blackmoor, and he says if you cast your circle during the demon’s manifestation process instead of after you can offset any transdimensional energetic creep and successfully contain it to an area smaller than six feet by six feet…”

John had scoffed, a short, sharp bark of laughter that echoed off the side of the stupid house. Chas closed his mouth midsentence with an almost-audible click. “That’s from the first edition, kid. Third edition recommends eight-by-eight or twelve-by-twelve. Six-by-six only works if you have pickling salt or pure sea salt instead of…” John cast a look of aspersion at the bright blue bag, slightly visible, poking up out of the kid’s backpack “Rock salt.” His eyes had narrowed. “How old are you, kid?”

And there it was, the golden light of awe in his eyes. “I’m...I’m eighteen, sir.”

“Where are you from, where are your parents? Don’t tell me you’re a fuckin’, boxcar kid or something.” Chas’ face twisted into something almost resembling amusement at that.

“Home sucked, parents sucked, I got tired of being my old man’s punching bag and left as soon as I could. And I’m not stupid.”

John had given Chas a searching look, noting jeans that hadn’t been washed in over a week, the dark hollows around his gold-shining eyes, the hard slash of a mouth in a face too young for the heavinesses it seemed to carry. Now that he’s looking closer he sees the thinness in Chas’ round face, the bloom of poppy-red around a green iris. Fuck.

“Ah, sprang fully formed from the mouth of suburban California, I see. And what, you’d been seeing things?  Things you couldn’t get out of your head?” A noise of contempt escaped John’s lips. “And you couldn’t leave well enough alone after that. Books aren’t always gonna save you, kid.”

And Chas had looked up at him, in the sweet California sunset, stained with the sun’s afterthoughts of desert heat, with those huge green-glass eyes, and John’s heart had broken for him just enough. The irony of what he’d just said was not lost on him in that moment, and he sighed deeply and pulls out a cigarette, feeling an unfamiliar roughness in his chest as he struggled not to cough. It went without saying that looking at the kid felt like looking back at the long road inside of him that led up to here, a road that started in the dusty middle of a home that kept breaking in ways he couldn’t fix.  

There’s the taste of a promise at the tip of John’s tongue when he’d come back to himself in that moment, with Chas’ big eyes still pinning him in place against the blooming sunset sky. He sighed again and looked askance at the kid. “You got a place to stay tonight?”

Chas’ face had clouded with suspicion, but was overlaid with a longing underscored by loneliness. “Are you offering? You’re not gonna murder me or anything, are you? Cause, I mean, y’did kinda just save me from demons, so that wouldn’t really make much sense--”

“I look like Ted fuckin’ Bundy to you? No, kid. I don’t want your death hangin’ over my head. And,” John sighs a third time, feeling both too old and too young for his twenty-six years. “Sure, I’m offering. I got an apartment at the edge of the city. Warded up real nice too, holy water, the works, so you don’t have to worry about anything followin’ us.”

The kid’s face brightened absurdly at the word apartment , and then his eyes narrowed at John’s drawled followin’ . “Anything...following us?”

John flicked ash off his cigarette and examined his nails, stained with blood and dirt and God knew what else. “I don’t know about you, but if some upstart delinquent tried to forcibly evict me from my place of repose I wouldn’t let him get away with it for long.”

The kid considered this. “Right on, I guess.”

John pulled at his cigarette one final time, still regarding Chas. Silence stretched between them, for a moment. The kid fidgeted briefly, scuffing his shoes in the dirt and taking a moment to put away his worn copy of Blackmoor and the rosary around his neck into a beat-up canvas backpack. He stilled when he noticed John looking him over, and his fingers drifted to fiddle with the bracelet of saints he wore--among other things--on his right wrist. His eyes met John’s, and his mouth started to form the shape of a question when John sniffed and turned towards the beaten-up truck he’d arrived in, flicking his cigarette away and crushing it with the heel of a boot.

“Get in the car, kid. You want some grub?”

Chas’ mouth had closed with an almost audible click and he nodded enthusiastically. “That’d be awesome, sir.”

John snorted. “ Sir ? The name’s John Constantine. I’m barely older than you.”

Thank you, Mister Constantine--”

“Please, for the love of all that is holy, call me John. I ain’t my father.”

Chas stopped next to John and stuck out his hand, back straight and shoulders squared. “I’m Chas Kramer!”

John looked at the proffered hand and its bracelet of saints and the thick pink scar underneath the tiny painted faces, and took it. “Good to meet you. Try not to die until we get to the diner.”