When the phone rang around midnight, Angela was already awake, blinking at the ceiling and wondering why.
"Dodson," she said into the receiver.
"Angie," he said, and she could cheerfully have cursed herself for the breath he took with that simple diminutive of her name.
"What do you want, John?" she demanded.
"I--" he stopped, but even in that he wasn't uncertain, just being careful. "I don't even know what time it is."
"Twenty past midnight."
"Sorry." It was a single-use sorry; she couldn't make it cover anything else.
She sighed. "I was awake. What do you want, John?"
"I'm, ah..." He took a deep breath. "I'm somewhere out in the desert. Not entirely sure where. The guy at the gas station says just south of Ehrenberg."
She hadn't even heard from him in five days. Silence stretched.
"Forget it," he said.
"I'll come and get you," Angela said, and hung up.
She had a map, and a vague idea, and her instincts. She got there fine, with only one stop to turn the map upside down, get out, kick a rock, damn him to hell, and stare at the desert-high sky, asking herself why the fuck she was doing this. When she pulled into the gas station, John was there, leaning in the doorway, a hand sunk deep in his pocket. He should have been smoking to complete the image; he wasn't. He slouched out to meet her.
"Hold your horses, buster," she said as he opened the passenger door. "Before we go I need--"
He held out a steaming takeaway cup. The scent of cheap, slightly burnt coffee filled the cabin. "One sugar, no cream, right?"
Angela watched him, just as steady as him watching back. "Right." She took the cup and he climbed into the car. Taking a sip (he'd bought it just long enough ago for it not to scald) she wondered if this was as close as she'd ever get him to thanks and apologies both.
He closed the door, and she restarted the engine. Over the coffee, she couldn't tell if he smelled of sulphur or just the desert at night. Maybe that was why he'd bought it.
She didn't bother hiding her scrutiny. It was the least she was owed. And John looked... dead on his feet seemed to go beyond the cliché with him, but she couldn't think of anything more appropriate. He was paler than she'd seen him since the Mammon business. His mouth was etched, his eyes sunken, his hair full of dust she had to stop herself reaching over to brush out.
That faint frown twisted his eyebrows. "Were you really awake when I called?" he asked.
"Thank Christ. For a moment I thought you were being polite."
Angela couldn't stop the smile, the ghost of a laugh that hissed out. "Yeah, well. I took pity on you because I know your license has been revoked."
"Checking up on me?"
"You wish," she shot back, pulling out onto the empty road.
John lapsed into silence, and she kept her questions behind her teeth. (She wanted to ask him what he was doing out here. She wanted to ask him what he'd been doing since he stalked out of her apartment last. She wanted to ask what he'd been thinking... but she didn't.) There was no one else out, not at this hour, not on the roads she was using. It was intensely quiet. It took her back, the lights of the dash and the stillness of the world. Years and years, to driving through the night to make it back to Isabel, in trouble again. Resenting her even as she ran to her, unable to stay away, increasingly unable to reach her through everything that came between.
Angela sighed, dragged a hand through her hair. In the corner of her eye, John had slumped in the seat, fidgeting fingers finally still on his knee. When she paused at a turn, she glanced over.
He was rumpled, sleeve rucked, collar half up. He was bent, limbs lying where they fell in the bucket seat. His watch had stopped somewhere around a quarter to ten. His eyes were closed, his face turned away from Angela so that all she got was the most oblique profile, just the line of his cheek and the burnt fringe of eyelashes against it.
What she had thought was shadows and dirt on the side of his neck she could now see was dried blood.
It was a sudden thought - he's so still - and it froze her, idling at the intersection in silence, hands curled around the wheel, until she saw the tremour of a pulse at his neck, until he huffed a little.
Isabel's funeral had been about as anticipated: a nightmare, and to boot it was one populated by all the figures Angela had least expected to be there.
Her mother, for starters. Angela had told her, of course. Of course. Not even all the years, the thousand small deaths, the one significant one, could mean that Mrs Dodson didn't deserve to know the time and location of her eldest daughter's funeral. Angela had left a message on the machine, feeling flustered as always by speaking after the cool precision of her mother's voice.
But it was a surprise to actually see her there, muted suit and tasteful pearls, a little hat with a veil that would look ridiculous on anyone else. Angela came face to face with her in turning around, hit by her presence like the most elegant explosion in the world.
"Mother." The stiffness in her voice was acceptable in the circumstances, surely. She tilted forward, lifted a hand that didn't quite touch her mother's shoulder, submitted to the cheek-kissing, a brief envelopment in her mother's perfume.
"Angela darling, you look --" She stopped, and Angela felt the overwhelming weight of her full regard. She resisted the temptation to shuffle her feet. A genteel frown creased Mrs Dodson's forehead. "You look very well. Healthy. Are you seeing someone?"
"Mother!" A single arched brow - Mrs Dodson was never the one whose behaviour was out of line. Angela pushed down the familiar seething press of frustration. "No, not really."
She sighed. "Not really. What does that mean? Modern girls." Angela felt her teeth start to grind, but then Mrs Dodson reached up, dusted a finger across Angela's cheek, where her kiss hadn't quite touched. And when Angela looked, really looked, her mother's (their mother's) eyes were bright with tears. Angela took her hand, and the press of slim, ringed fingers stiffened her, gave her resolve. Stopped her feeling so alone.
The second surprise was Father Garrett. He had a plain coat tempering his collar, but still she couldn't stop her pang of bitterness. "Here to bless us with your presence?"
She'd regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth, but no amount of repentance could pull them back. "Sorry, David." She knew he felt the raging tragedy of the situation as much as she did. Knowing what she knew, how could she hold anything against him?
What she knew then. The third surprise had been John.
She'd told him as well, the night before, an afterthought, not really an intention. After all, he hadn't even met Isabel until after she'd died. But when Angela had been leaving the diner where they'd shared some truly mediocre coffee, the words had just slipped out like the coins of the tip through her fingers.
"OK," he'd said, and she'd babbled, saying that he didn't have to come, and he'd said, "OK," again, precisely the same.
Angela hadn't expected to see him. It was getting so that she never expected to see him. But when the service had finished (or what passed for a service when the benevolent umbrella of the church had been withdrawn from the deceased), she turned around and there he was, loitering at the back.
She had to work her way through everyone else - not so many as all that, poor Issy - before she got to him, but he hadn't moved at all. "Thanks for coming," she said, and then grimaced, because she'd said that to everybody, and it sounded hollow.
John didn't seem to notice. "There's something I should tell you," he said, like one who'd been practising it all the way there.
So she'd let him get it out. "Oh?"
He looked down, shifted his shoulder against the wall. His true stillness had been thrown out with his last pack of cigarettes. "Isabel," he said, looked up again, face blank. "She's not in hell."
"What?" Angela actually felt herself reel. Her first thought was on this plane, but no, she'd know, wouldn't she? Which left... She uncurled one finger, pointed it towards the ceiling. His cheek twitched. She curled her fist again. "How?"
John shook his head with a look she knew. Like the clank and rattle of steel shutters coming down. It wasn't the first time she'd asked him what had happened that night, what filled the gaps hysteria and unconsciousness had left in her. It wasn't the first time he'd refused to tell her.
It was the first time she'd wanted to shake it out of him. The first time she'd wanted to say no, this belongs to me as well.
She woke up, inexplicably yet again, and the clock blithey read two thirty-eight. It clicked over to two thirty-nine, and the phone didn't ring. Angela lay a moment longer, then threw back the covers and got up. Picking up her robe off the floor, she shrugged it on over her nightgown, not bothering with lights as she padded across the apartment to the front door.
The locks on the door rattled in the unfastening, and when she pulled the door open, he was looking up at her. "Hi," she said.
John was sitting on the floor, back against the wall opposite her door, legs stretched out across the corridor. "Hi," he replied.
Angela leaned against the doorframe. "I got the card. Thanks." He'd sent it to her at work, so she'd left it there, tucked in the corner of the pinboard above her desk, a dawn view over the desert that was incongruous amidst case references and phone messages and Chinese takeout menus. (Weiss had looked over her shoulder as she read the back - just "Thanks -- Constantine" in practically illegible scrawl - and said, "What, that guy again? You seeing him or something?" and she'd told him he could be her mother, with questions like that.)
"Yeah," he said, not really saying anything. He had, she noticed, a packet of cigarettes open in his lap. But no lighter. No smoke on the air.
"Right," she said, and stepped back inside, letting the door click shut behind her.
He looked even more surprised when she opened the door the second time. This time when it snibbed shut she was outside with him, a bottle of bourbon in one hand, two glasses in the other. She sat down on her side of the corridor, nudging his foot aside so she could lean on her door. "What's this?" he demanded, but he moved.
"Hall party," Angela said, setting down the glasses between them and rattling the lid off the bottle. She poured three fingers for both of them, passed him his. He was waiting for her to ask, so she didn't. Clinked their glasses instead, and said, "To the absent dead."
His mouth twisted, some trace of sardonic amusement. "Sure, why not."
They drank, the liquor cutting down inside Angela like a line of fire. She grimaced a little, but poured again.
John watched her, gaze dark and steady. "What are you doing out here?"
"What are you doing out here?" His stare remained the same, and silent as the grave, and she smiled. "Well then."
They drank again. He poured this time.
They sat in silence for a moment, slow drinking. Angela tilted her head back against the door, John rested his wrist on a raised knee, glass dangling with the nonchalance of familiarity from his fingers. Finally, he said, "You can get yourself in as much trouble as you like, Angela. But I'm not going to help get you deeper."
Angela felt her eyebrows lift. "Oh, my hero," she stated. "Nobility really isn't your colour, you know."
He gave her a sliding glance, pointed, but she refused to let him make her feel childish, taking the bottle from his hand to fill his glass, top hers up. "For a sensible woman you can be incredibly stupid." That got her attention, but before she could say anything he just continued, implacable and unavoidable as sin. "You wouldn't go into a firefight without protection, would you, Detective?"
She could feel the stubbornness forming, like an extra layer over her skin. "I have faith, which is more than some."
He ignored the jibe, pointing with the hand holding the glass as though she'd made his point. "Your faith is bullshit. Cuts both ways. Ever wonder why they tend to choose Catholics? Your faith makes you strong; it also makes you vulnerable."
She considered asking him how the hell he'd know anything about it. But instead she said, "So teach me."
He snorted. "I don't need another apprentice."
"I don't want to be your apprentice. Treating me like Chas didn't work so well, remember?"
"If you'd stayed in the fucking car--"
"Whatever." She didn't want to argue with him. Not here. Not now. "I'll teach myself, then," she decided. "You can't stop me, John."
"Be my guest," he responded, and drained off the rest of his glass. He poured for them both again, and the liquor sloshed about in the bottle. Had they drunk so much? He shook the little he'd spilt off his fingers, and Angela wondered how late it was. Too late to go back inside and try to sleep.
Why do you keep waking me up in the middle of the night? she wanted to ask, but what she asked instead was, "What were you doing in the desert that night?"
John swigged from his glass. "You don't want to know."
"You're right," she agreed, the sarcasm tasting right with the bourbon swilled across her tongue. "I just asked because I like the sound of my voice."
"I wonder sometimes."
"Fuck you." No fire in it. She held out her glass again. Held it up to the light afterwards, measured it up. Not so much. A gulp and a half. Here's to the absent dead, and how long it's going to take to make it up to them.
She swallowed the lot, with a grimace, tipping her head back against the door.
"You know the problem with heaven?" John said, and Angela flinched at the sound of that word on his lips. Swung her eyes back down to him, but he hadn't seemed to notice, attention all on the glass lolling in his grip. "The more you want it, the less you can have it."
He shifted, and the cigarettes fell from his lap, spilling out of the packet across the floor. His gaze was dark and steady and on her. She remembered him kissing her as though he'd only just stopped.
When Angela reached for the bottle, it was empty.
In Absentia by dee
All stories are works of fan-fiction by Dee. "Fan-fiction" means that she does not own any of the core creative concepts and characters, but she does heap adulation, appreciation and awe upon those people who do hold the intellectual property rights to those concepts and characters. Further, any instances of real people are fictional, and the author does not wish to suggest any truth should be attached to the actions, emotions and words attributed to them in these fictional stories.