Title: Contractual Obligations
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.
Summary: Baby girl was round about four when John number two made his appearance: Johnny Blaze, all leather jacket and attitude. 4100 words.
Spoilers: Drive Angry (2011); Ghost Rider (2007)
Notes: Ah, sorry? Nicolas Cage is my crack now, for serious. This made for a good mental break after that SGA/LOTR fic, and slotted right into place after "A Lifetime of Waiting" in the family-tree 'verse. Movie canon only.
Piper was more dismayed than surprised by her first sight of the second of John Milton's lookalikes. Their uncle Bal had been right, she decided soon after; the crazy men in his family really could all pass for brothers, and they really were trouble, every last one. At least the three she had seen- and she had no doubt the same went for the others. She hadn't asked to meet them. Suzy was still young enough she didn't want to confuse her.
Baby girl was round about four when John number two made his appearance: Johnny Blaze, all leather jacket and attitude on one mother of a motorbike. She didn't mistake him for her John the way she had Bal at first, though. This one had thicker hair- dark as ink, not dirty blond- and hadn't gone all stubbly and worn around the jaw line yet. He looked younger, too- as much as that meant anything when Bal was some kind of immortal and John was twenty years dead and still walking- and his eyes were a different color. He had the same long stare, though; the one that told her he'd seen a thousand miles of bad road.
He pulled up in front of the house that evening just as she unbuckled Suzy from the car seat in Webster's truck. He watched as she settled her girl on her hip and reached back in for a bag of groceries, poised with one boot in the gravel and the other on his bike, then turned off the engine and kicked down the stand. "Piper Webster?" he said, more statement than question in his voice.
He had a more familiar accent than John, too; more rural Southern than his cousin's, though both of them were much closer to her part of the country than wherever Balthazar was from.
She nodded, eyeing him over her shoulder as she walked slowly toward the front of the house. "Won't ask how you found me. I'm guessin' you're one of Milton's cousins?"
"Oh, hey, let me get that for you." He dismounted the bike in a hurry, all earnest features and deep, dark blue eyes, and reached out to take the keys from her so she wouldn't have to set either Suzy or the groceries down to open the door.
"Milton?" he continued, flipping through each key on the ring until he found the one that fit the lock. "Sorry, I'm Johnny Blaze; I don't know any Miltons. Unless you mean John Milton, the seventeenth century poet and polemecist? Although, huh. Paradise Lost? I guess you could say that's got something to do with why I'm here."
Piper raised her eyebrows at him; after Balthazar, she'd kind of assumed any other family members that showed would be there about John, too. Why else would they be looking for her, or for Suzy? She waited for Blaze to swing the door open, then shook her head and stepped through, leaving him to follow in her wake. Bal had kept his promise to return on a regular basis to check up on his new niece and the wards he'd set on the house; she'd know soon enough if the newcomer meant any harm.
"No, I'm thinkin' of someone a little more recent than that," she said, dryly. "Sure you ain't met him? He was on his way to the flip side of Paradise, last I saw him."
He still looked perplexed, one eyebrow popped like a question mark. "Not that I know of," he said, frowning. "Look- I know this is probably a difficult subject for you, but I'm actually here about a group of cultists you ran into a few years ago, the ones you adopted your daughter from."
Piper stiffened at that. "Shush, not where she can hear," she said, gesturing sharply at him, then set her bag of groceries down on the counter and shooed Suzy into the living room in front of the TV. Her girl had been watching the new person who looked like her Unca Bal with a fascinated stare, but the lure of animated princesses fortunately proved stronger; Piper slotted the latest update of Rapunzel into the DVD player and retrieved Suzy's favorite stuffed animal from the bedroom, then left her girl to it and dragged the motorcyclist over into the kitchen.
"And it was rescued, not adopted. She was never theirs," she said fiercely, once out of her daughter's earshot. "They killed her birth momma and stole her. You got some kind of a badge? Because if you're here about the ones who got killed-"
Blaze lifted his hands abruptly, palms out in a placating gesture. "I'm not here to accuse you of anything," he said, earnestly. "I do enough of that in my night job. No; I'm just here to check on what happened to Jonah King's contract. Did you ever see a piece of paper near him with a bunch of signatures on it? It was supposed to come due that day; him and all his followers signed it. Only, I could never find King; it wasn't 'til the article that ran last week that I heard there'd been any survivors of that mess when he disappeared."
"That damn article," Piper swore, slamming her open palm down on the counter. The contact stung like a son of a bitch, and her visitor flinched at the sound; she shook the pins and needles feeling out and turned away from him, taking deep breaths in an effort to calm herself so she didn't attract her baby girl's notice.
Only one cultist had survived John's slaughter, and Piper's efforts to back him up with the godkiller: the woman who'd spent most of the running firefight curled around Suzy to protect her. She'd been one of Jonah King's most dedicated acolytes- until he'd asked her to slit Suzy's throat, and she'd been unable to bring herself to obey him. John had let the woman live because of that hesitation- and in return she hadn't said nothing to the cops about the kidnapped baby when they'd finally arrived that night.
It had taken four years, but some cold case crusader had finally gone back questioned her again, and this time the woman had dropped a description of the folks who'd stopped the ritual. It was a lucky thing Webster had long since had some of his other old friends clear up her paperwork- making like Piper had known Suzy's mother, planting a will so's it looked she and her husband left Suzy in her care, and erasing that report about the shooting deaths of the two cops the Accountant had brainwashed. Otherwise, Piper might have been in real trouble when the lady detective finally connected the dots and found her.
As it was, there had already been a bunch of 'happy ending' stories in the local news. One long introspective into 'the last days of Jonah King's insanity' had even mentioned Suzy's new last name. As soon as they could afford it, Piper planned to pull up stakes and find somewhere more anonymous- and therefore safer- to live.
"What the hell do you want with a contract, anyway?" she asked, frowning a little as she puzzled through this specific intruder's appearance. "If they're all dead, what the hell good is it to you?"
That question-mark eyebrow made an appearance again, and Blaze narrowed his eyes a little, all shifty. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you," he drawled.
She snorted, unimpressed, and crossed her arms. "I believe my daughter's granddaddy broke out of the actual Hell to come save her," she said, offering a sliver of her truth in hopes of coaxing him into offering his truth in return. "I don't think there's anything you can tell me that could match what I saw four years ago."
That was the problem with living a life filled with things most people didn't believe in, she'd found since her experiences with John. Even when you found the ones who could believe, they were very nearly as wary as she was- or else totally out of their gourd. Neither possibility made for easy conversation.
"Hell?" That got to Blaze; his eyes flew wide and he looked down at his fingers, flexing them slowly. The he frowned, expression darkening toward anger for the first time since she'd met him.
"Milton, now Hell; that's cute," he added sharply, taking a deliberate step toward her. "Who are you, really? How do you know what I am? Where's that contract- and why do you still have the girl? Is there something special about her?"
Piper swallowed. She didn't like the turn things had taken; never mind she still didn't know what the hell he was talking about, she didn't think he was going to believe her, not now. Not the way the wards had started twanging, a quiet warning nudge brushing up against her thoughts.
"Yeah, there is," she said, firmly. Then she raised her voice. "Suzy, honey. You remember when we talked about what was the right time to call your Papaw? Could you do that for Momma now?"
Blaze swore, and turned, taking a step toward where the phone sat on the end of the kitchen counter; and the fact that he even knew where it was bothered her at least as much as his attitude, because it meant he'd been taking note of her escape and contact routes since he'd entered. But Suzy wasn't going for any phone. She'd taken only a few steps toward the kitchen at Piper's call, then froze in the middle of the floor and started working herself up for a good scream. It was taking her a minute- she'd been pretty happy before- but she was putting all her effort into it, making angry little faces and clenching her fists in her blanket as she whimpered. Piper had taught her well.
It had been harder getting her to stop doing it, actually, after their first lessons. When Piper had realized the year before that Suzy felt the tingles Piper thought of as "Milton watching" as well as she did, she'd decided it was the perfect way to make sure her baby was always safe. The tingles still sometimes came at other moments, but most often whenever Suzy was upset- and she knew what John Milton had been willing to do for his granddaughter's safety when she'd been just an infant. So she'd taught Suzy how to call her Papaw deliberately. The problem was, Suzy liked his attention- and Piper had been worried it would turn into a case of 'little girl cried wolf' by the time she actually needed him there in person. Fortunately, they'd worked through that phase.
Piper cupped her hands over her ears as her little girl's volume finally reached painful levels.
Blaze flinched again at the sound, confusion in every line of his posture as he stepped out of the direct line between mother and daughter. "Hey now," he said, holding his hands up again. "Calm down! I'm not going to hurt you!"
Suzy paused long enough to take a deep breath, cheeks going rosy with exertion, then screamed again, a deafening wordless shriek that pierced Piper to the quick. It hurt her heart, hearing Suzy going on like that. But finally, that old familiar tingle began to climb the back of Piper's neck, and Suzy's yelling tapered off into a hiccuping giggle.
"Papaw's watching!" the girl said, and ran over to bury her face against her mother's upper thighs.
"Yes, he is," Piper said, smiling proudly at Blaze's disturbed expression as she stroked her fingers through Suzy's soft hair. "Good girl; Momma's proud of you."
"What did you do?" Blaze said, voice tight with alarm- seemed like he felt it too, and knew it didn't bode well.
"Called in a little backup," she said, smugly. "I wasn't lying. Her granddaddy's name really is John Milton, and if you harm us there's nowhere on this Earth- or after- you can go to escape him."
He snorted. "Lady, harming you was the last thing on my mind when I came here. You're the one who brought up Hell."
"Yes, yes she was," a familiar dry voice came from the doorway, and Piper smiled in wary welcome as a long-dead instrument of vengeance stepped through her front doorway. "But that doesn't mean she has anything to do with your secret. Impulsive reactions like that could ruin your life one day." Features identical to Blaze's- if a little rougher- curved up in a slight, malevolent smile. "More than they have already, I mean."
"Milton," Piper greeted him with a nod, her stomach churning a little at her first sight of him since he'd collapsed in that bloody yard and the Accountant had disappeared with him. She might've been tempted to run to him like she had Balthazar a few years back- except she still had Suzy, and she was a little worried about the speed of his appearance. "You got here quicker than I expected."
"Well, hello to you too," he said, grin widening a little, catching at her with that same reckless charm that had snared her around the edges of his driving purpose back when they'd first met. "I had a little help this time, actually. I had a visitor when Suzy called me."
He came on into the living room, then stepped to one side- and hard on his heels, as aloofly amused as ever in his crisply pressed suit, Hell's own Accountant followed him through.
"Hello, Piper," the smooth son of a bitch said mildly.
But before she could reply, Blaze interrupted. "You!" he said, pointing at the guy- making one straight line from shoulder to index finger.
The Accountant chuckled. "Me," he agreed. "I couldn't resist the opportunity when I saw you on John's screens; I simply had to come and thank you in person."
"Thank me?" Blaze blurted, lowering his arm as he recoiled from the Accountant's greeting.
"Oh, yes," the demonic tally counter said, smiling at him. "Since you started cherry-picking your jobs, someone else has had to take up the slack- and that someone is me. It's given me many more opportunities to visit the outside world these last few years. Hell gets monotonous after awhile, you know; especially since Blackheart came back from his break-out catatonic, and Mephistopheles got in a fight with the Boss trying to take the Godslayer to revoke your contract by force. Everyone's been keeping their heads down since he got knocked a few rungs down the ladder."
Blaze paled a little at that calm, pleased recitation of facts, Adam's apple bobbing before he replied. "He never said anything about that, just kept sending me after other contracts. Not that I planned on giving him this one. What do you mean by Godslayer?"
"Damned useful gun," John commented dryly, watching the other two men with an amused expression. "Eradicates the soul you shoot entirely, rather than sending them off to their just rewards. Works no matter what kind of defenses you've got going. Which is why you'll never find Jonah King's contract, no matter how hard you look."
Suzy had let go Piper's legs and peered at the new visitors as John spoke; it was about that time she realized who'd come calling. "Papaw! You came," she said, happily, and abruptly let go to bolt toward the familiar presence.
Suzy might never have met him before in person, but she knew him, and it probably helped that he looked a lot like her Unca Bal, too. Piper let her go, watching to make sure neither Blaze nor the Accountant interfered as John greeted her baby girl. A much warmer expression softened his features as he knelt and murmured a reply.
"He shot him with something that destroys souls?" Blaze said, ignoring them, his expression caught between admiration and horror.
"Don't worry," the Accountant assured him. "It's been stored much more securely since John got his hands on it. You're safe for now, as long as you keep sending us so many scorched souls; they're much easier to store that way, and it conveniently puts them permanently out of reach of redemption. I couldn't care less whether you actually collect Mephistopheles' contracts for him or destroy them; but you won't be finding Jonah King's, no matter what methods you use." His tone hardened with that last, and he threw a deliberate glance toward Piper.
Blaze swallowed, following his gaze toward her. "I don't harm innocents, and I'd have known as much as soon as the sun went down, but I do apologize for upsetting you, ma'am. I just wanted to make sure there'd never be another San Venganza- King might not have had a thousand followers, but he had enough to make things downright unpleasant if anyone ever called in that contract."
"You're not talking about a legal document, are you?" Piper said, finally catching on to what Blaze was talking about, and shivered. "He sure thought he was calling up something big when we stopped him- I don't know why I'm surprised." Then her brow furrowed. "But what does sunset have to do with knowing whether or not I was innocent?"
Blaze glanced toward the west windows where a ruddy golden glow lit the curtains, then eyed her other guests. "Don't shoot me for showing her," he said, warningly. "It stings, and it's hell on the leather."
John wasn't paying him much attention; he was still down his knees with Suzy in his arms. He shifted, though, to make sure she wasn't looking in Blaze's direction, and the Accountant lifted his empty hands and replied, "Be my guest."
One minute, a fit young man all in black with a studded leather jacket stood staring at Piper; the next, flames seemed to erupt from him, the studs lengthened out into miniature spikes, a long chain wrapped several times around his chest, and his skin melted off him. A skeleton stood there, burning bare where Blaze had been.
Piper screamed, caught off guard by the display, and had to steel herself not to bolt. Even in the midst of all the Hell-on-Earth she'd seen before, the worst she'd ever seen had been John's poor face after King shot him, or the gory explosions that happened when someone was shot with the supernatural gun. This- this was downright unnatural, and made her stomach want to head for her boots; made her want to scoop up her daughter and run for cover. The wards' warning- audible only to her- had raised to a high-frequency shriek as well, urgent enough to make her wisdom teeth ache with it.
The skeletal apparition took a step toward her, raising his arm to point a finger in her direction. But then it stopped and tilted its skull to one side. "Innocent," it said, in a harsh, distorted voice- like Blaze's, if he'd gargled with gravel and razorblades.
Piper swallowed as her alarm drained away. Then stiffened again, icewater filling her veins as it turned those empty eyesockets toward John and Suzy.
The Accountant took a warning step forward at that, half-placing himself in front of the pair of them. "Their souls are not in your remit," he said, warningly. "John is my project."
The skull chuckled at that, a grating sound that set all the hairs on Piper's arms to standing on end. "Not for long," it said. "Because he's not guilty, either."
"He murdered literally dozens of people in cold blood," the Accountant replied sharply, "and committed any number of other, lesser sins. He's far from innocent. He's mine."
"But he never knowingly harmed or inflicted misery upon anyone who didn't deserve it," Blaze replied, as the flames dimmed away and flesh and blood reappeared over the skeletal form. "Maybe he was never what you'd call a good person- though really, I can't throw many stones on that score. But there's sin, and then there's evil. Hold on to him while you can." The transformation had left him in a much better mood, smiling openly at all the rest of them, and the wards faded to a quiet background jangle as they finally decided he wasn't actually a threat.
The phone would be ringing soon, though. Piper had no idea what she was going to tell Balthazar when he asked why they'd activated in the first place.
No, wait, she did: 'Since when is one of John's cousins some kind of Avatar of Judgment? Didn't you think I might need to know that?' And Webster- Lord, she hoped he waited a while longer to come home from work. Her heart was thundering like crazy; he'd know the minute he saw her something had happened, even if her visitors had left.
"I take it back, then," the Accountant said, his calm façade destroyed. "You deserve no thanks from me; your entire line really is cursed. You'd better hope Mephistopheles doesn't win his next argument with the Boss."
"I'll be ready when he does," Blaze replied with a smirk.
The Accountant turned his back on him then, tapping John on one shoulder. "Time to go."
John sighed, and shot him a dark look over Suzy's head. "Wait outside, would you? Give me a minute to say goodbye, here."
"No elaborate drawn-out scenes this time," his keeper snarled.
"No promises." John narrowed his eyes at him, and pointed toward the door.
The Accountant snorted and went; and then it was just Piper, her daughter, and the two Hell-bound cousins.
"I don't know whether to punch you or thank you," John said grudgingly as he stood, lifting a compliant, clinging Suzy with him.
"I'd prefer door number two," Blaze shrugged, "but I'd understand."
"Good," John nodded, then turned toward Piper, steps heavy on the carpet as he walked over to pass Suzy into her arms. "Sorry I gotta leave again so soon."
"I don't wan' you to go," Suzy mumbled as John pried her loose of him.
"I'll be back, baby girl," he said as Piper took her weight on her hip. Then he pressed a gentle kiss to her overheated cheek. "You be good for your momma, you hear?"
"Uh-huh," Suzy mumbled, hiding a teary face in Piper's shirt.
Piper swallowed thickly. "Thank you," she whispered, for both their sakes.
He chuckled, then pressed an unexpected kiss to her cheek, too. He smelled a little of brimstone, she noticed; but mostly of sweaty male and warm denim, and she resisted the urge to wrap her free arm around him and clutch him close, too.
Then he stepped away, turning back toward the other guest. "I know the Ghost Rider never stays in one place for very long, but the least you could do is stop back sometimes, check on how they're doing for me."
Blaze nodded. "No problem," he said, solemnly.
"You're gonna be okay?" Piper blurted, as John headed back to the front door.
"I'm the most entertainment Anubis has had in years," he snorted, tilting a sardonic smile at her over his shoulder. "I'm used to the fire; and there's not much else he can do to me, now there's so much less suffering to watch. Don't worry about me. Just keep taking care of yourself and Suzy."
She nodded wordlessly; and then the door shut behind him.
Two seconds later, the phone finally began to ring, the caller ID announcing the Arcana Cabana.
Piper blew out a breath, then turned a glare on her remaining intruder as sniffles and warm, wet tears soaked their way into the fabric of her shirt. "Answer that, would you? Tell your uncle what you done here while I get Suzy settled. Then you get your ass on out before my husband comes home. He won't like the fact you look so much like Milton, and I don't feel like explaining the whole thing again today."
Blaze swallowed at that, uncomfortably, then nodded and reached for the phone. "I never knew I had any family left," he said, slowly. "That's- unexpected. But I believe you. And- thank you, for that."
Family. Trouble. Interchangeable words- and ones Piper was pretty sure she'd never be free of, now.
Ah, well. She'd never take back the last few years with Suzy for anything, no matter what happened. She returned Blaze's nod, then walked out of the room as he lifted the phone off its cradle and answered.
"Piper Webster's place, Johnny Blaze speaking. Uh, no sir. She's fine. Yes, and Suzy, too. Actually, Piper seems to think I'm your nephew..."