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always a catch

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The sight of Angela in John’s apartment without some kind of supernatural crisis is strange enough, but to have both Angela and Gabriel sitting at his stained kitchen table, watching her run her fingers over the runes carved into its surface, as Gabriel trains every errant eye on her--it’s downright weird. John feels unbalanced. He feels like maybe he should be playing host.

Angela begins to say something to Gabriel, and at the same time John stands up suddenly. Awkwardly. “Does anyone want tea.”

Angela looks at him and raises an eyebrow. “Sure, John.” Gabriel waves a hand and rumbles “If there’s coffee left…”

John circles the table and puts on the kettle and pulls chipped, kitschy mugs down from the cabinet. Angela resumes asking Gabriel her questions behind him.

He hears her shuffle around and tap her fingers on his table. “So, you really just run around in like...a human flesh suit, but only when you’re following the rules?”

Gabriel chuckles, a sound made far creepier by the echoes of their various voices. “In a sense. Think of it like a snake’s skin. It’s a part of us until we start--oh, behaving erratically, shall we say. Then when we get closer in size to our base form it stretches and starts rotting from the inside out, and then just kind of...falls off.”

John turns around, feeling a kind of distant, abject disgust. Angela is leaning forward on the kitchen table, her face alight with fascination. Gabriel looks like they might be smirking, if their stone-carved face was given more to true human expression instead of the rough imitation of it.

He clears his throat. “Are you allowed to be telling us all this stuff?”

Angela snorts. “What can they do to them now? They’ve already been cast out of Heaven.”

Gabriel shifts, and their voices take on a discordant baritone harmony. “There’s more than one way to skin that sort of cat, mortal. Casting an angel out of Heaven is no small punishment, but it is far from the worst thing that can be done to a celestial being.”

John stills for a moment, feeling a flash of memory snap at the edge of his consciousness. In the relative quiet of the apartment the kettle begins to whistle, breaking the tenseness between Angela and Gabriel. He swears he can hear the cogs turning in Angela’s head, as he takes the kettle off the stove and pours tea for himself and Angela, and warms up coffee for Gabriel.

He brings all three mugs to the table and sits down. Angela takes hers and fiddles with the tag on the teabag. “So if you’d been plotting against...God and Heaven, the whole time while John and I were running around Los Angeles, why didn’t your glamour fall off then?”

Gabriel stirs their coffee with a fingertip. John notes absently that he’d warmed the coffee almost to boiling, before handing the mug over. “Oh, it did. It started to, anyway. But there are ways to slow the rotting of a soul, if you know who to ask. Who to sacrifice.”

---

John pulls up to an oft-visited flickering diner, glowing neon in the desert night. Neon stripes the cars which ring the diner, dusty like they’d grown from the desert ground. Trucks loom behind the diner, their engines thrumming in the cooling air.

Chas clutches his backpack in the passenger seat, looking distinctly un-relaxed. John kills the engine and pulls his Silk Cuts out of his breast pocket, lighting one as he steps down out of the truck. He smacks the wheel well affectionately. “Piece of shit.”

Chas rounds the front of the truck, shouldering his bag and shifting restlessly on his feet as John draws deeply on the cigarette between his teeth, and blows out the smoke into the neon light. He looks askance at Chas watching him. “Want a smoke, kid?”

Chas’ eyes flicker. “No, si--John. No thanks. Old man used to smoke. Not good memories.”

John shrugs, and finishes his cigarette with a few hard pulls.

The sounds of Brook Benton drift from the chrome doors as Chas and John walk up to the diner. John holds the door for Chas, and the kid ducks inside, standing and taking a deep inhale of the smell of coffee and frying food. John steps around Chas and leads him to a corner booth, sliding into a booth with his back to the window so he can see the doors.

Chas sits across, taking a menu from the tired-looking waitress with a little smile and a nod. John follows her with his eyes, sitting light in the cracked vinyl booth until he’s sure that her eyes slide over him without a flicker of malicious recognition. Her pupils are constricted to pinpoints, unusually small even in the silver light of the diner’s fluorescence.

Chas glances at John watching the waitress. He clears his throat. “Are you expecting trouble?”

John picks up his menu, skimming it and already knowing what he’ll order. “No, no trouble here yet. I’ve been caught a few times in places like this, though. Too easy to let your guard down when you’re thinking of food.”

Chas nods very seriously. John suppresses a snort at the absurdity of this kid, not much younger than him, so obviously taking his words to heart. He feels a weight, somewhere under his ribs and across his shoulders, settle like a cloak.

The waitress comes back, and Chas looks at John with his green-glass eyes. John nods at him with the barest hint of a grin. “Get whatever you want. It’s on me.”

Chas’ face lights up. When the food arrives, he attacks it like a man starved. Stands to reason, John thinks, thinking of the road inside him which so resembled Chas’.

John picks at his eggs and waffles with far less enthusiasm. The taste of smoke lingers in his mouth under the stickiness of maple-flavored corn syrup. Chas slows after the jukebox has turned a few songs over and looks up at John, finally. John can feel the awkward silence creeping in, and internally decides not to break it first. They stare at each other, gold-flecked brown eyes to green-glass.

Chas holds John’s laconic, half-lidded gaze for far longer than he expects, before dropping his eyes and fiddling with a french fry. He clears his throat and shifts on the teal vinyl booth seat. John waits.

He finally looks up again. “Sir--John, I mean. What is it you, like...do? Like for a job? How are you paying for--” He gestures to their picked-at plates, the now-cold coffee, french fries.

John raises an eyebrow, and considers saying some dumb shit to fuck with Chas’ head, but almost immediately feels a pang of guilt. Kid’s been lied to and abused enough. I don’t want to be that kinda way to him, too.

“I sell artisanal pottery.”

Chas’ eyes widen slightly. “Excuse me?”

John laughs, a short and almost mirthless bark. “No, what the hell do you think? I hunt demons, and sometimes people are kind enough to throw me a few thousand, for exorcising their kid or whatever. You’d be surprised at the money that’s in this job, sometimes. When real people ask I tell them I freelance. What is it you do?”

Chas fidgets and looks away again. John quirks an eyebrow. “Kid, I’m not gonna judge you. Can’t tell you the amount of fucked up shit I did when I first came to this city.”

He meets John’s eye again, and a small, rueful smile plays around his mouth. “Well, you’re not gonna like it, Mister Constantine, cause I sold drugs to kids. Since I was fourteen.”

John keeps his face carefully--so carefully--neutral at this news. His fingers itch for a cigarette even as he swallows against the urge to cough. He settles for picking at the cuffs of his shirt, pushing them up to his elbows. His arms are pale compared to Chas’ deep, California-desert tan, crisscrossed with raised white lines like railroad ties.

Chas’ arms bear a similar pattern, albeit fresher and pinker than John’s, half-concealed by the multitude of ratty bracelets he wears on both wrists.

“Do you use?” The question leaves John’s mouth suddenly, before he can think about it. Internally he kicks himself. Chas just looks unsurprised.

“Not anymore. It started feeling, uh, a little too easy to overdose, some days. Some guys loaded up the needle a bit too full, washed down sleeping pills with booze. Some days I really wanted to die. But y’know, deep down, I knew I wasn’t ready yet.”

John leans forward, not bothering to conceal his interest in what Chas is saying. “Not ready to die. What does that mean?”

Chas fidgets, looks uncomfortable. “I...don’t know, really. Just a feeling. It wasn’t my time. I had to get out of my dad’s house and do some good in the world before kickin’ it. Had to make up for all the fucked up shit I did. Yeah.”

And oh, how John’s heart hurts for Chas. It’s far too easy to see himself, seven years ago, itching inside his skin and searching desperately for anything to quench the raging, fiery thirst of the beast inside that crawled towards anything that made the static of his miswired brain quiet. Far too easy to see the martyr complex that crouches on Chas’ shoulders with all the weight of a literal demon, one that he feels would be leering at a demon of the same make on his own shoulder. Both beasts stirred.

But first, a more serious consideration. “Well, you can’t do that shit anymore. I don’t need adolescent junkies knocking down my door, there’ll be enough of that with the two of us in my house already.”

Chas sits up very straight at this, eyes wide. “Yes sir--John. Absolutely.” And he sticks out his hand to shake, for some reason. John suppresses a snort, but humors the kid and takes his hand. Again. Chas’ bracelet of saints jingles as he shakes once, firmly, seriously.

The ancient jukebox attached to their table whirrs and the fuzzy croon of an old country song falls from the speakers. Chas looks around at the new sound with a grin. “My days of sin are behind me, John! It’s a new day and I owe it to you.”

John does laugh at this, a laugh that quickly slides into a harsh cough. He leans back and wipes a tear from his eye. “Oh, kid. You crack me up. We’re headed straight for the motherlode of sin. More sin that you’ve ever dreamed of. You stick with me and you’ll never get into heaven.”