He had trouble talking at first. When he lets himself think about it, he supposes that skeletons don't have much in the way of vocal cords. It's become easier with time. Maybe because he's stronger. Maybe because he has more control. Maybe because he doesn't think about it as much anymore.
Whatever the reason, it's second nature now to fling the demon off of his shoulder and yell across the room at his scrapping partner, "I don't know why I let you drag me into places like this!"
The demon splinters against the floor, shards of darkness that scatter, slow, and start to scuttle back together. He hates that about demons. If they're not going to die, he thinks they should have the common decency to stay intact so he can wale on them. Strangely, they never seem to feel the same way.
"This is the least evil bar in the city!" The too-high voice makes the guy on the other side of the room sound about twelve years old. "Don't blame me because you're a walking demon magnet!"
He can't, of course. The devil is sending the demons. Ghost Rider works for him or no one, and there's a reason his predecessor spent the last years of his life on hallowed ground that stretched for miles in every direction. But Johnny Blaze won't live in fear. And if that means destroying every dark servant on the planet a hundred times, then that's what it means.
What he can blame his current companion for is the public nature of this very private battle. His demons are his problem. But every time he tries to ride off into the desert at night he ends up in the heart of the city instead, surrounded by humans, drinking jelly beans and watching the Discovery channel. Dragged back into the light by a petty criminal who stole a security tape on a whim and has never seemed as scared of hellfire as he should be.
"If I'm a magnet for evil," he growled, yanking the chain free and lighting it up, "what does that make you?"
The black splinters aren't reforming into one demon. They're coalescing into three separate shapes, and that just pisses him off. Throw one away, get three back. Real nice.
"You know exactly what it--"
A crash and the sound of wood cracking makes Johnny spin, fire in his eyes and the insane urge to torch this entire place when he sees a navy blue baseball cap lying on the floor. Its owner is bent backward over the counter, pinned down by the goddamned bartender. Like they didn't have enough trouble fighting the minions of hell.
The bartender's eyes are wild, but he knows what he's doing because he's got his hands on Ricky but he's staring at the ghost rider. Johnny swings without looking, chain wrapping the three demons into one burning mass of darkness even as they swarm him, and he roars over the sound of their screams at the human who chose the wrong side. He doesn't have many weaknesses these days, but one of them wears a grey sweatshirt and a navy ball cap and he'll destroy the entire building before he lets it be exploited like this.
"Get out of here!" the bartender screams back at him. "Take your hellspawn and your trannie girlfriend and get out!"
He whips the chain forward, making sure it slices through the bar before the demons go up in flames and there's only one person in the entire room who doesn't cower from the howling that ensues. Feet planted on the bartender's chest, Ricky launches himself backwards, knocking the other man into the wall in the process. The sound of shattering glass is a tiny tinkle beneath the crackle of fire and demon death.
Johnny sees the flash of a blade, lit by orange fire, as that grey sweatshirt rears up out of the debris and hurls an entirely typical epithet back at the bartender. "That's mister trannie to you!"
Then the shadows are coming to life and the knife is thrown, followed immediately by another, and another, and finally he feels a solid weight slam up against his back as Ricky crashes into the space where the fire will protect him and sticks there. He limits the ghost rider's range but Johnny doesn't care, throwing hellfire with reckless abandon now that the bartender has proven this business isn't worth saving. He's protecting the guilty at the expense of the potentially innocent. It's not the first time, and for as long as he has the option it won't be the last.
The night Ghost Rider broke out of jail, the security video from his cell was passed all around the precinct before it mysteriously went missing. By the time the police realized it wasn't a deliberate coverup but a genuine mistake, the suspect they'd brought in on petty theft charges was long gone, released for lack of evidence with five fewer knives and one more videotape than he'd come in with. Johnny had found the tape buried in with his books when he broke into his apartment later--the irony of the police locking a lift he'd always left open was not lost on him--along with a note that said simply, Thought you might want this. R.
It had taken him weeks to realize that "R" wasn't "Roxanne." She had been helping him drain accounts, transfer funds, and set up a new identity as John Barton now that Johnny Blaze is irrevocably linked to Ghost Rider in the eyes of law enforcement. But she wasn't at the station that night, and she didn't know anyone who was.
At least not until she met Ricky, whom Johnny finally caught when he went to inquire about renting space in the building. He said then, and he still maintains, that the decision to snatch the tape was pure whim. To see if I could, he says. When pressed he adds, And because it was a really cool tape.
A yell warns him that one of the shadows has snuck in while the rest were obligingly disintegrating into the floor and he wheels, jacket studs raking across vulnerable skin as he shoves the human back. Another knife embeds in the mass of black before it all explodes in fire and light and that's the end of the devil's most recent effort to obliterate his free will. He's on a roll, a tear, a burn, and he swings around ready to pass judgement on the entire room--
To see someone bending down to pick up a navy blue baseball cap, blood on his arms and enough crime in his past to make judgement a lose-lose scenario. The chain snaps taut between his hands, keeping him from pointing while he grapples with the fire inside of him. He forces it down ruthlessly, pushing it back, pushing it away.
See no evil, he chants silently, hear no evil...
"Hey," Ricky says, oblivious to the internal struggle. He's holding out his arm with an expectant look on his face. "Ow, by the way!"
It's just the one arm, he realizes distantly. Blood on his sleeve where metal pierced his skin and he's acting like it's nothing but a minor annoyance. The ghost rider glares at the injuries, trying to make them all he's aware of as he wraps a bony hand around the outstretched arm and burns it clean, the skin new and whole again in the wake of the flames that obscure his gaze.
The word echoes through his head and he jerks away, shoving the fire back like it has the power to burn him after all. It's gone with a suddenness that leaves him reeling. His face, his hands, his jacket--all normal again, all human, very much the man who walked into this bar not half an hour ago.
Which might not have been his best idea ever, given that despite the chaos they aren't actually alone here, but Ricky is frowning down at his sleeve like it's the only important thing in the room. "What," he says, "you couldn't have done my shirt, too?"
He rolls his eyes, because this is the problem now? "It'll just revert in the morning," he points out. Like his own jacket. Like his bike. Like his body.
"I don't," Ricky says reasonably.
Yeah, and Johnny still doesn't know why. It's a fair point: he can control his own form with his thoughts, and he can alter anything he comes in contact with as long as he can get it to burn. But things tend to go back to the way they were when he lets go of them, or, failing that, the moment they're touched by the sun.
Except Ricky. He can't explain it, but he can heal the guy almost as easily as he can restore his own form. And he can expect him to stay healed. It doesn't make any sense, but whenever he catches himself thinking that he always scoffs and starts looking around for a glass of jelly beans. Because any of this makes sense.
Purely for the sake of experimentation, he grabs Ricky's arm and lets the fire come roaring back. The sleeve is repaired in less time than it would have taken to breathe, but he catches a curious glance before he can banish the rider entirely and he grits his teeth. "Don't look at my eyes," he says harshly. His voice returns to normal as his human side takes over, but it's still plenty intimidating.
Well, he thinks it is. This is clearly not a shared opinion. Ricky actually rolls his eyes before he turns away. "Your penance stare won't damn me for all eternity," he says over his shoulder. "I'm not that guilty."
He feels a little sick just thinking about it. That's possibly true. But it's a chance he can't and won't take. "Guilty enough," he says evasively.
A snort is his only reply. He doesn't delude himself into thinking that Ricky takes offense, because he should be so lucky. He tried everything he could think of to get rid of the guy back when Roxie first got the idea of putting the apartment in his name. Turns out some people are born into the world with zero survival instinct and a sense of masochism to rival his own.
Then there are the bar flies who don't know when to run. They're coming out of the woodwork now, picking each other up and dusting themselves off and staring in awe at the massive destruction he always seems to leave behind. They're lucky to be alive. As usual, though, he'll take the blame instead of the credit and he knows enough to make himself scarce before they turn on him.
"Jelly bean?" The voice that calls from the door is laced with that same knowledge. Ricky holds up the bag he knows was in his pocket earlier, shaking it like a treat for a dog, and the unspoken taunt is clear. Come and get it.
He growls to himself, but there's a reason the guy isn't gone yet. "Ride?" he counters, patting his pockets pointedly. At least stealing from the devil's bounty hunter can't bring a person any closer to hell than they already are.
A jingle makes him look up. Maybe there isn't a reason after all, because the thief is grinning at him from the door: candy in one hand, keys in the other.
If you can't beat 'em, he thinks with a sigh.