Title: The World Behind The World
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.
Spoilers: Constantine (2005) x Max Payne (2008)
Summary: Before he'd had reason to believe in Heaven, Max had believed mostly in pain, fear, and death. But why should he have expected any of that to change? 3000 words.
Notes: I've wanted to write this fic for five years, but I had to be in just the right mood for the words to come. Both characters taken from movieverse; no intentional graphic novel or game canon.
"Max Payne - he's been hunting [...] looking for something that God wants to stay hidden.
And that's what makes him even more dangerous."
Max looked up at the sign above the aging bowling alley with a perturbed frown. He hoped his colleague had known what he was doing, sending him there.
It wasn't that the building looked like it had seen hard times- on its own, that wouldn't have given him pause. He'd been more at home in the rougher streets of New York than white picket fenceville over the last few years. It was the scent of brimstone that was making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. It brought back shaky memories of shadowed wings and embers falling mixed with snow, vivid hallucinations that might have been more than hallucinations from the second worst night of his life.
But if he didn't go in, he would have wasted the cost of the plane ticket to LA, not to mention the best lead he had on what was going on with him that didn't involve a psych ward. He'd made it out of the slaughter in the Aesir building without having to do time, thanks to Bravura over in IA and a little background help from the Russian assassin who'd accompanied him on his crusade, but he was still on a desk, and he'd lose even that in a heartbeat if any of his superiors found out he'd been seeing things.
Max huffed a breath, then sucked it up and went inside.
The prickling along his nerves actually grew worse as he made his way up to the next floor... but curiously, the odor changed as he moved, losing the sulfurous overtones and shifting to a subtle blend of exotic spices. Something like those aromatherapy candles Michelle used to love. The sense of eyes on him didn't lift, but the quality of the feeling changed; still wary, but somehow less hostile. Maybe McClane had known what he was talking about after all? Well, that's what he was there to find out.
He knocked on the door to the second floor apartment, eyeing the symbols carved all along the lintel, then dropped his hand to his belt- just a few inches from his holster- as he waited for it to open.
The man who obliged a few seconds later was dressed more formally than Max, in a white dress shirt, dark tie, and black suit pants, as though he'd just been to a funeral and shed his jacket after he returned. He was pale, with ruffled black hair and brows drawn together in a suspicious expression, and had maybe four or five skinny but solid inches on Max; definitely the guy McClane had described.
"Yeah?" he asked intently, eyeing Max in obvious evaluation.
"You John Constantine?" Max asked, tone equally flat, just to get the formalities clear.
"Depends on who's asking," the guy replied with a faint smirk.
Max nodded. "Max Payne," he said. "Friend of- well, a friend of a friend."
He didn't know how John McClane knew Angela Dodson, given that their terms of service in the LAPD hadn't exactly overlapped, but given McClane's fame, checkered career, and general unflappability, there were any number of ways they could've connected. All that mattered to Max was that Detective Dodson had passed the word that on supernatural matters, John Constantine could be trusted. And if there really was more to the things Max saw than aftereffects from the double dose of Valkyr he'd taken the night he'd avenged his wife, supernatural was definitely the best way to describe them.
"Does this friend of a friend of a friend have a name?" Constantine asked, dryly.
Max shook his head. "His name doesn't matter. The friend in that chain that's your friend, though, is Detective Dodson- I'm a detective with the NYPD. Call it the old boy's network."
"Detective Max Payne?" Constantine repeated, his eyebrows slowly climbing up his forehead, and his mouth twitched; for a second, Max thought he was about to make the obvious joke about the appropriateness of his name. But he held down to a simple, "Interesting," then stepped back and opened the door further.
"You could put it that way," Max agreed, then proceeded into the living room. It was plainly though solidly furnished, painted a peeling green with a solid wall of windows slatted to let in the light, and smelled of stale cigarette smoke; he waited there in the entryway, taking it all in, while Constantine shut the door and ushered him to a seat at the heavy wooden table that dominated the space.
"So," Constantine said. "What brings a detective to my parlor?"
"What usually brings a detective to your parlor?" Max shrugged, fishing for a little more information.
Constantine shrugged. "If you know who I am, then you know my profession doesn't exactly lend itself to regular police work," he said, eyeing Max a little more thoroughly. "So what personal business brings a New York cop all the way across the country to meet me?"
Well, that told him something about the nature of Dodson's connection to the man, if nothing else. Max had never grown used to telling his own story; it never seemed to get any less painful with time, though at least he finally had some closure on it. Three years he'd hunted his wife's killers, only to find that her employers- in the person of their chief of security, who was also his father's old partner and a man he'd always thought of as an uncle- had been right there, plying him with false sympathy and reaping a profit off her death the whole time. But he could share the broad details without getting too far off script, and see how Constantine reacted before diving in further.
"It's a little bit of both, actually. See, there was this drug. I don't know much about the technical side of it, but it was originally part of a government experiment called Valkyr. It was supposed to turn ordinary soldiers into super soldiers."
Constantine leaned forward at that, resting his elbows on the table, losing a little of his air of disdainful disinterest. "Yeah, because that always goes well," he muttered.
Max snorted. "You're telling me," he said. He'd grown up in New York; he knew all its legends. "Valkyr apparently worked by making those who took it impervious to fear and pain. But it was insanely addictive, and ninety-nine percent of the test subjects had vivid hallucinations of angels and demons."
"That's a nasty combination," Constantine replied. "And the kind of coincidence that isn't- Valkyr; Valkyries; Warrior Angels. Somebody knew what they were doing. Where do you come into the story?"
"Three years ago, my wife ran across the project files for the drug, and someone at her office had her killed for it. Then they started running the drug on the streets, using the test subjects as dealers. People that crossed them tended to die in terrible ways, torn to pieces or jumping out of high windows, that kind of thing. Which is how I ended up putting the pieces together; my wallet was planted on another of the victims. I finally shut the operation down a few months back. But I nearly died a couple of times in the process, and ended up taking a double dose of the stuff to keep myself going."
"And saw a few things yourself," Constantine surmised, dark eyes narrowed. Then he leaned back in his chair again, rolling up the cuffs of his shirt with quick, practiced movements.
"You could say that," Max nodded, watching. "Hey, am I boring you?"
"Nah," Constantine shook his head, smirking again. "Just getting... comfortable. Go on."
Max eyed the lines of the tattoos that had been hidden under the other man's shirt sleeves, angular black lines that might meet up to form a triangular shape if he pressed his forearms together. Something else symbolic, like the lines on the doors, if he had to guess. And there was something about the gesture that reminded Max of a wary officer clearing a holster; he just had that air about him.
He swallowed, lacing his fingers together on the table. "What I saw that day, or-?"
"Just start there, and see how it goes."
Max stared at the man for a long minute, trying to get a read on him as he cast his thoughts back to that surreal evening. Between his crazy reputation, working class accommodations, and professional if wary attitude, Constantine had started to ping to Max's instincts like a jaded cop... and that was maybe the best sign he'd seen so far. No further point to holding back details, then; he might as well go all in.
"It was dark out, when I took it. Cold, snowing pretty hard, and there were shadows everywhere. But within seconds, I was seeing shadows where there shouldn't be shadows. Dark things with feathers and red eyes hovering overhead. The scent of sulfur. And sparks and ashes coming down with the snow. Once, after I went indoors, the ceiling even disappeared for a while; there were burning clouds spiraling overhead, and more of the creatures with wings, wheeling around me in a flock."
"Hell," Constantine said, his lip curling up.
"Sure seemed like it to me," Max nodded. "Though- it wasn't all bad. There was a little of the other, too. Right around the same time- maybe before, maybe after, the memories are a little jumbled- I saw a woman backlit all in white; her presence scared off some of the horrors. And... twice, I saw something like a false dawn break over the city: bright light shining around the towers instead of flames. I even heard my wife's voice, both times, calling to me." He swallowed at the poignancy of the memory.
"What did she say?" the occultist prompted him.
"...Not yet, Max," he breathed, bowing his head toward the table. "She told me- not yet." Then- he frowned, recognizing something he hadn't at the time. "Though I think the first time was actually before I took the drug? When I was in the river."
"Water's a universal conduit; a natural lubricant between the planes," Constantine replied, expression folding into perturbed lines. "Heaven, Hell, and our world. Between that, and whatever pathways this Valkyr drug opens up in the mind... the surprise isn't that you saw things, it was that you survived them sane. But if all you wanted was to find out if what you saw that night was real, you wouldn't have had to come this far. There were permanent side effects, weren't there?"
Max nodded, slowly, digesting what the man hadn't said: he really had been granted a glimpse of Heaven. He found angels easier to believe in than some mythical ultimate reward; but if anyone was worthy of Paradise, Michelle was. It was... unexpectedly freeing to know that particular vision had been real, worth the price of the visit even if nothing else he learned there helped.
"I assumed it was just residual chemicals working their way out of my system, at first. But after a while, it became obvious the effects weren't fading."
"Except it was less brimstone and shadows, and more people with glowing eyes. Some with grotesque faces and some with wings," Constantine picked up where he'd left off, tone grim and knowing.
"...And sometimes, just knowing things I really shouldn't have any way to know," Max added. Ordinarily, working the cold case desk was a miserable, monotonous slog; but since that night, it had become something of a minefield. Touching the wrong file might lead to nausea and nightmares- but on the other hand, it might also generate fresh clues to pass back to the originating precincts.
"Damn," Constantine shook his head, a hint of sympathy creeping into his expression. "Welcome to my world. I hope you didn't expect me to tell you it was just your imagination."
"No, not really. But could you at least tell me what that world is? And what it is about my story that's pissing you off so much?" Sympathetic or not, Constantine was still visibly upset.
Constantine snorted. "Detective, right. It's like this, Max: can I call you Max? Some people are born psychic. They can see things no human should ever have to see- from day one. It drives most of us crazy." He gestured to himself for emphasis. "The lucky ones- or maybe that should be unlucky- survive to make their mark on the balance between Heaven and Hell. Most people never have any clue that the other planes, and their influence peddlers, are even there; that's the half-angels and half-demons you've been seeing lately. They're like sheep by comparison, and largely better off that way. But someone's gone and turned you into one of the wolves: untrained, unaccustomed, and unprepared." He curled his lip again. "You said you shut the distribution down? You damn well better hope you got the source, or whatever chaos you saw then is only going to get worse."
Psychic, Max thought, testing the word. Something in him rebelled instinctively at the term. He didn't find it any easier to swallow the off the cuff references to demons, either, despite the evidence of his eyes. Those words didn't fit with any of the roles he'd lived before: cop, husband, father, avenger. But denying an inconvenient truth wouldn't make it go away. He knew that all too well.
"Yeah, I shut it down," he nodded. "Though I can't swear I got all the people involved in the project."
Constantine huffed a breath. "Shit. Then you can guarantee there's some red-eyed bastard sitting around in an office somewhere, just waiting for a chance to try again.
"But I can guarantee something else, too: you didn't tell anyone else you took it, did you? Or he'd have you under lock and key somewhere, already."
Max shrugged. "I figured. To discredit me, right? BB's plan was for me to wash up somewhere as a suicide, with the doses in my pocket- but he and one other friend of his were the only ones that knew about it, and like hell I was going to tell anyone else and end up in the psych ward."
"Not locked up, to protect you: locked up, to make use of you," Constantine corrected him. "You don't get it yet. If you can see them, they can see you. And that makes you vulnerable. Especially since you don't even have the usual defenses. Most people take refuge in denial for years; it gives them something to fall back on. Bet you spent a lot of time screaming that first night, didn't you?"
Max was fast losing patience with the doom and gloom shtick. Like the man said, he hadn't just shown up looking for validation, nice though that was to have. "Look, I didn't come here to entertain you. Okay, so I'm a psychic. So what do I do about it?"
Constantine shook his head again, then got up and paced over to a nearby shelf, where he took down a hefty bottle with an unfamiliar label and a pair of plain glass tumblers. He returned to the table and poured a generous measure of amber liquid in each, then shoved one of the glasses Max's direction, skidding it down the table. "They used to have to wait for us to be born. To try and corrupt us, turn us into finger puppets. I don't even like to think what might happen if the whole community found out they could create more en masse. Just how crazy were the other test subjects?"
Max took a sip, feeling the alcohol burn its way down his throat. "Some were just junkies. Always after their next fix; kind of jumpy. But the ones who bought into it, who started talking about the wings?" He shook his head. "Definitely certifiable. I don't think any of them knew what was really going on, though. Not even Lupino- the guy in charge of the dealers. And he was a real whack job. He was the one behind most of the killings, trying to appease his 'warrior angels'."
Constantine blew out a breath. "Then whoever it is, probably doesn't know the drug left anyone stable. Good. That was probably what they were after in the first place- whack jobs might make good pawns, but they'll never be more than that. Psychics on command, though, corrupted before anyone can help them- Christ, this is going to get ugly. First things first, then."
He threw back the rest of his drink, then stood- and abruptly brought his forearms together in front of his chest, tattoo facing in Max's direction, and declared in ringing tones: "Into the light, I command thee!"
An almost visible wave of distortion went out through the air; a ripple that wasn't really either bright or dark, but did weird watery things to Max's eyes all the same. He threw up a hand between his face and the occultist as Constantine repeated himself:
"Into the light, I command thee!"
"What the fuck?" he blurted, blinking hard against non-existent afterimages.
Constantine frowned in his general direction a moment longer, then finally dropped the arms, looking satisfied. "Good; no invisible kibitzers, so at least this time the other side's not involved."
"Kibitzers- you mean-?" Max frowned.
"Lesson one, the angels aren't always the good guys," Constantine rolled his eyes.
Wait, what? "Whose side are they on, then? And by lessons, are you saying...?"
"You think I'm letting you go back out there wide open for influence?" Constantine snorted. "When you have Word From On High that you're not done down here yet? Yeah, that would be intelligent. So drink up, Max, because believe me- you're not going to like the rest any better."
Before he'd had reason to believe in Heaven, Max had believed mostly in pain, fear, and death. But why should he have expected any of that to change?
He tossed back his glass, and nodded. "Hit me with it."