It was raining outside, but the air was summery and thick with heat. Aimé had been hearing thunder on and off, and he wondered if the lights would switch off at some point, if they’d get a little power cut like they would if he was still at school, but he knew it was unlikely. They had generators of their own, he was pretty sure, and the ward structure protected against sudden shocks.
He’d been reading all afternoon, and he was feeling restless, frustrated: at twelve years old, his house felt like a prison in a way boarding school didn’t, and he couldn’t help but wonder if everyone else was feeling the same, at home for the Christmas holidays.
Most of his fellow students hadn’t let it sink in that the vast majority of them were at boarding schools for the same reason – because their parents didn’t want them anywhere nearby, because it was convenient.
Aimé had advised a few other students of this fact of life in the past few months, and had received two black eyes and assorted other bruises for his trouble.
He’d been wandering the house at random, hadn’t really thought about where he was going, particularly, but he was outside of his father’s office now, and the door was slightly ajar.
“… and rotate the wardstone at a forty degree angle – Petersen will understand what I mean. It’s a simple adjustment in line with the wardstone’s angled design. You should see an immediate improvement.”
Aimé understood this, distantly, could already envision the diagrams of magical flow, the different wardstone shapes for different broader enchantment frameworks. He didn’t know it in detail, but he knew a tiny bit, and there was a sort of raw hunger burning in his belly, a desperate, almost-desire to knock on his father’s door and ask—
“And the deaths will be instantaneous?” asked the voice on the phone, sounding slightly distant and far away.
The raw want turned to something sickly and nauseous when his father laughed. Aimé didn’t hear his father laugh very often, and found he didn’t like the sound.
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “Instantaneous is no deterrent for your other prisoners, is it? The ward structure begins with ten to fifteen seconds of increasing pain, and after that, the death is rather like an electrocution. Your prison’s new ward structure will be like an electric fence in that, but with far less mess.”
“You really do think of everything,” said the voice, sounding as good-natured and cheerful as Luc Deverell did.
“What can I say?” asked his father. “I love what I do. If ten seconds isn’t enough, by the way, we can lengthen that out – ten is a good deterrent and a deniability factor. After that, they’re bringing it on themselves attempting escape, but I can up that if you’re worried about the press.”
Aimé kept walking down the corridor, and went downstairs, out of the front door, and for a long time, stood under the falling rain. Thunder rolled over his head, lightning flashing close by, and he stood there, soaked to his skin in his pyjama bottoms, until the housekeeper saw him and dragged him inside.
* * *
Asmodeus had gotten him to rinse his mouth out twice with water, but he’d been smooth and quick about making their excuses to go. Pádraic was driving, Asmodeus in the passenger seat, and Jean-Pierre was sitting beside Aimé in the back, one arm loosely leant on his shoulders, fingers playing through his hair.
“I’m impressed,” Asmodeus was saying to Paddy. “Letting Colm and Bene take them out.”
Pádraic clucked his tongue, looking vaguely disapproving, but didn’t take his hands off the wheel to sign, and Asmodeus laughed. It was a low, rich sound, full of affection.
“He’s like you, you know,” he said. “Hides everything under the surface, pretends to be simpler than he is. Like he’s Fallen with the Irish instinct for emotional repression.”
Pádraic laughed at that, a low chuckle.
“Colm is repressed?” asked Jean-Pierre.
“I’m talking about George,” said Asmodeus.
None of them had been talking to Aimé since they’d gotten back into the van. Asmodeus had said something to Jean, Aimé thought, because when he’d come out to the door with their coats he’d leaned to kiss Aimé on the top of his head and cup his cheeks, but hadn’t tried to get him to talk, which Aimé was grateful for.
Asmodeus met his gaze in the car mirror, slightly raising one eyebrow in silent question, and Aimé nodded his head in reply, watching the way De relaxed in his seat after.
Aimé felt Jean-Pierre shift beside him, leaning forward. Jean-Pierre’s tone was mildly concerned as he asked, “You think he’s repressed?”
“Not necessarily,” said Asmodeus. “He’s private about his emotions, that’s all – I don’t know if Colm’s mentioned it to you, but Paddy’s noticed it, that he caps his feelings before either of them can skim what he’s feeling sometimes.”
“Is that bad?” asked Aimé. His mouth tasted stale for all he’d washed it out with water, and his throat was slightly hoarse. He was still drunk, but all the euphoria that had come with it had burned away, and he just felt hollow and slow.
Paddy shook his head.
He took one hand off the wheel when they got to the red light and spelled the word. It took Aimé a few seconds, trying to understand with his hand when the signs were backwards and he couldn’t see Pádraic’s face. “Bond…?”
“Boundaries,” said Asmodeus. “It bothers Colm.”
“When people set boundaries?” asked Jean-Pierre sharply, and Aimé reached to squeeze his knee, surprised by how much it made him smile, even though he still felt low, still felt like shit, wanted to just go home and climb into bed.
“Pot, babe,” said Aimé. “Kettle.”
Paddy laughed, and Aimé knew without looking that Jean-Pierre was pouting, because he tugged on Aimé’s hair and made a fussy little noise.
Jean-Pierre started chattering away about some gossip he’d picked up at the party then, and Aimé enjoyed the way Paddy listened to him, the way he kept tilting his head and nodding, the way Aimé could see his smile in the mirror, the way Asmodeus would occasionally insert one dry comment or another.
He wondered vaguely if this was what Bedelia grew up with, sitting in the minivan with her friends, telling Pádraic about her day, what she’d learned, what she wanted to do next. Was it what she was used to now, on the days he picked her up from the university instead of her driving her bike home, or when she, George, and Pádraic went places together? When Paddy drove the van on school trips for kids at the school?
He looked up when Pádraic snapped his fingers twice to get Aimé’s attention, because they were coming into the estate, and Pádraic undid his seatbelt and turned around to look at him when he pulled over.
His expression was grave when he signed: “Feel better. Sad suits your face, but that’s no excuse.”
The laugh was punched out of him, took him completely by surprise, and Pádraic smiled at him, looking ridiculous with his wig still on and his thick, white beard tugged down around his chin.
“You use that line on your students?” asked Aimé.
“It works,” was Paddy’s easy reply, and Aimé reached forward to pat him on the shoulder, smiling when Pádraic’s hand clasped his for a second, before letting him pull away and follow Jean-Pierre into the house.
“Want to sit down here, or go to bed?” asked Jean-Pierre.
“Bed,” muttered Aimé. “Not to sleep, just…”
“You two go up,” said Asmodeus as he hung up his coat, and then he turned, patting Aimé’s cheek as he cupped Jean-Pierre’s, the two of them stood side by side. “I’ll bring you up something to eat.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Aimé.
“Don’t eat what I bring you, then,” De replied, and dipped into the living room.
Aimé stared after him, opened his mouth, closed it. Jean-Pierre giggled softly, a close-mouthed little laugh as he loosely took Aimé’s hand and walked up the stairs ahead of him.
“He’s such a dick,” said Aimé, and Jean-Pierre’s smile opened slightly, teeth showing.
“He loves us,” said Jean-Pierre, so confidently and so cleanly that Aimé felt like bursting into tears. It was a hollow feeling, one that echoed in his chest but that he couldn’t actually feel in his eyes. The contradiction in it just made him feel more sick, and he lifted Jean-Pierre’s hand, cool from the December air and the car – Pádraic had barely run the heater – up to his brow.
Jean-Pierre stripped off his clothes as Aimé stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers, and Aimé wondered if he’d put on clothes for Asmodeus’ sake before remembering who he was dealing with, and just climbed into Jean-Pierre’s nest of gathered blankets with him.
Wings out, Jean-Pierre pulled Aimé to lie between his legs, bringing Aimé to rest his cheek on the flat heat of Jean-Pierre’s scarred belly. Jean-Pierre started to comb through his hair with his fingers – he did this sometimes, and every time it reminded Aimé of the way his wings had to be groomed, the motion not like anything that he’d thought of doing to hair before.
“Your father has never killed anybody with his own hands,” he said.
Aimé couldn’t tell if it was a question or not, and didn’t say anything, just laid there and felt Jean-Pierre’s fingers gently untangle his hair, tugging and pulling at each of the strands.
“Is that a criticism,” asked Aimé, “or are you being comforting?”
“Asmodeus says there are some feelings we must feel to their completion before we can be comforted,” said Jean-Pierre. “And for you, I think this may be one of them. It is a critique, I suppose. If he killed you through an agent, I would think less of him for it, which would be impressive, because my opinion of him is already unfathomably low.”
Aimé laughed very quietly.
“I’m not pissed he showed up,” he murmured. “I’m pissed he saw me at a fucking… party, singing a song and having fun, and acted like it was fucking disgusting. And thought that… That taking away my fucking apartment would make me give a shit. I’m pissed off that he sees me halfway happy and thinks it’s the end of the fucking world.”
De had already helped him go through listings, and he’d narrowed it down to a few – all of them had aa storefront with an apartment attached, either on the next floor or in the back, all of them with a well-ventilated space he could paint in, all places he could enchant himself.
He was already going to move, he was already leaving, had already decided—
“It made Colm very happy, seeing you sing,” said Jean-Pierre. “It made me happy, too, made my love for you quite overwhelming. Paddy likes you very much, and so does Bedelia, Benedictine, George; Sushmita, the Agarwals. The O’Malleys. Asmodeus, of course. Doros liked you, and other angels will like you too, I think. But that’s our family, our friends – you have your own, too. You forget this? The way people responded to at the museum, how pleased they were that you remembered their names, asked them questions, that you knew their taste in art.”
“That’s new for me,” said Aimé, surprised by the self-loathing that bubbled inside him. “It’s not like any of them liked me that much before.”
“What does that matter?” replied Jean-Pierre. “Every day is a new one.”
“Now who’s the philosopher?” asked Aimé dryly, and Jean-Pierre’s wings quivered with his next delighted little laugh: he wriggled, too, hugging Aimé’s shoulders with his thighs, and pulled a little harder at his hair.
Asmodeus’ knock on the door was crisp and neat, and when he came inside, it was backwards, having opened the door with his elbow. The bowl in his left hand he passed straight to Jean-Pierre, leaning back and nodding for Aimé to sit up: as he shifted the bowls balanced on his right arm so he was holding one in each hand, they lit up with flame.
Aimé stared, fascinated, as Asmodeus lowered both bowls: resting as an island in a sea of melting ice cream and caramel, there were roasted peaches, and as he watched the fruit was changing in colour as the alcohol they were doused in burned away.
“You didn’t set mine on fire,” complained Jean-Pierre, mock pouting.
“Pass it back, I will,” said Asmodeus immediately, holding out his hand after handing Aimé his bowl, and Jean-Pierre fiercely shook his head, holding his bowl of roasted peaches and caramel, and instead of cream or alcohol, Asmodeus had dropped in some nuts and what looked like carob chips.
“Still not hungry?” Asmodeus asked Aimé as he scooped his spoon through the soft, yielding flesh of the fruit, the cream, the caramel that was probably freshly made, because Asmodeus was perfect and of course it was.
“Can’t a man eat?” asked Aimé, and put his spoon in his mouth. The different tastes combined on his tongue, the creaminess, the sweetness from the caramel and the fruit, the acidity, and fuck, the brandy— He had to hold back an actual groan, but he hummed low in his throat, and Asmodeus’ smile was infuriatingly self-satisfied. The lingering staleness was not just cleared away but completely forgotten, and he realised he was a little hungry, albeit not for much – this would probably be perfect, portion-wise. “Going to tell me you’re an award-winning chef, too?”
“I just like to eat,” said Asmodeus, sitting on the edge of the bed and eating from his own bowl as he leaned his cheek into the curve of Jean-Pierre’s wing.
“Do you have wings?” asked Aimé.
“Not like Jean or Paddy or George’s, no,” said Asmodeus. “I hope you had a good time at the party, before your father arrived.”
“I did,” said Aimé. “I was surprised, but I did. I’ve never really been to church events before – but any church my family went to probably wouldn’t be like yours anyway.”
“No Indians, queers, or atheists, you mean?” asked Asmodeus, and Aimé’s exhaled laugh was muffled by his mouthful of peaches, but he nodded his head.
“Father O’Flaherty was in his element,” said Jean-Pierre, muttering the words with a mild distaste to them. “He didn’t speak to you, did he?”
“He tried not to even before I took one of his priests,” said Asmodeus, studying his heaped spoon of pink and cream and gold. “I don’t believe he thinks better of me now.”
“Have you talked to him?” asked Aimé.
“James?” asked Asmodeus. “Yes, he sent me a Christmas card, and I wrote him back. He has adopted a parrot called Paradise to help him with his anxiety. The parrot has anxiety too.”
“What does a parrot with anxiety look like?” asked Aimé.
“Slightly bald, apparently,” said Asmodeus. “She plucks out some of her own feathers, but she’s improving, with a kind owner, patience, a little love. So’s he.”
Aimé didn’t know how to phrase the question he wanted to ask next, could only think of Asmodeus and Benedictine’s irritable looks when he was being insensitive, asking questions that pissed them off.
“Is that—” Aimé started, and stopped, stirring his bowl. Asmodeus was looking at him expectantly, but Aimé didn’t know how to ask it, didn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of Asmodeus’ cold looks.
“Did you pick him,” asked Jean-Pierre for him, “with the goal that he should leave the priesthood?” He didn’t look approving, but Aimé was grateful that he asked the question so that he didn’t have to. He wondered if Jean-Pierre would normally have done it for him.
“I’ve met men like him before,” said Asmodeus. “He was raised in the church, had nothing of his own, no family, no possessions, no respect, no independence. The priesthood offered structure, independence, a semblance of autonomy – and his only other option was to face the world alone. There was no choice in that. All I did was create choices for him – or at least, highlighted choices that he could see.”
“You aren’t going to say he wouldn’t have had anything it wasn’t for the home?” asked Aimé, too tired to be properly provocative, and maybe Jean-Pierre was feeling the same, because he didn’t take the bait.
“If it wasn’t for the church,” said Jean-Pierre in a very quiet voice, “he wouldn’t have been in a mother and baby home in the first place.” He was still in a good mood, Aimé thought, or he wouldn’t be quite so calm, quite so collected. Aimé was glad he hadn’t taken it personally, even though he’d half-expected him to, half-wanted him to. “I don’t pretend to know precisely what it is God has intended with every line of every Testament, every piece of scripture, but the squalor and the cruelty and the coldness of those homes is not, I believe, what was intended. I feel the way I do about the church that I do about France, at times. I love it fiercely for it has made its mark on me, made me in its image, made me proud and caring and strong, and yet on others that mark has been a brand – of ownership, of oppression. I am not so much of a patriot, nor so much of a Catholic, that I am blind to this.”
“It’s difficult for an abuse victim to extricate themselves from a pattern of existence they’ve known for their entire lives,” said Asmodeus. “It is difficult for the same reason it is difficult to imagine a world where the skies are green and the grass is blue – when a thing is accepted as a part of our existence, a fundamental aspect of the universe itself, to imagine our existence without seems not only futile and strange, but sometimes, frightening.”
There was a weight in his tone, his eyes far away like they got sometimes, and Aimé couldn’t help but wonder if it was meant to be about Byrne’s life or Aimé’s.
“It’s the same reason for which social change is so difficult to bring about,” said Jean-Pierre. “When your life has been defined only by pain and subjugation, it is difficult to believe that attempts to cast off these shackles of oppression will be met with anything but more – and worse – of the same.”
“You’re both speech-makers,” said Aimé. “Break that turn of phrase out in France, Jean?”
“France,” said Jean-Pierre, a small smile that didn’t look exactly happy pulling at his pretty lips. “Haiti, Vietnam, Greece. Texas, Ireland. All these places where we’ve lived, took our places to wreak what changes are to come – and what comes of it? France has laid waste to the world, has in the name of fraternity and liberty decimated much of the continent of Africa, and still leeches from its natives today, no matter that they were cast from Haiti – and Haiti itself…” Jean-Pierre laughed a bitter little laugh, and met Aimé’s eyes. Aimé felt like this was a new Jean-Pierre he was seeing too, a Jean-Pierre without any of the bubbly idealism he was used to: Jean-Pierre was calm, collected, and logical, and something about it made Aimé go cold. “You know Bene doesn’t much speak of Haiti, hm? She doesn’t rest: she works tirelessly, always, throughout the year, keeps herself away from everyone, the queen on her chessboard, that no one should make some intimate connection with her but other angels, all of them kept at arms’ length. She comes to us at Christmas, and rests, truly rests, for her three weeks of a year, and then returns to her ordinary – she protects all she can in the face of a world who would see every Haitian fall, for no reason but remembered bigotry, and a natural disdain for the poor.”
Jean-Pierre ate a piece of peach, chewing it, and said, “You thought I was stupid when we met.”
“I thought you were an airhead,” said Aimé, not sure if Jean-Pierre was pissed or not.
“I didn’t understand what poverty was before we went to Paris,” said Jean-Pierre. “Before I first stepped inside a church. I had no frame of reference – we had what we had, but in my mind, we had what anyone had. The whole world was as I saw it. And then I saw the church trimmed in precious metals, fine red cushions, when we three of us and the dog slept on the same pallet – but this was a house of God, after all, perhaps it was different. And then I went to Paris, became a doctor, and saw that it wasn’t God that made it different. It was man. Benedictine and I were friends long before I ever saw Haiti, you know – Asmodeus connected us to one another, that we should write to one another. Fell on the same day, after all, the three of us triplets of a sort.”
“You wrote to Colm too?” asked Aimé, and Jean-Pierre scoffed.
“He didn’t reply, he couldn’t read them. He can’t even read now,” he said derisively.
“Jean,” said Asmodeus coolly, and Jean-Pierre shifted in his seat.
“The point I wish to make,” said Jean-Pierre, “is that although Benedictine told me of Haiti, and although Benoit told me the same, when we began our own correspondence, I couldn’t truly conceive of the magnitude of what they were describing to me. Even in Paris, I had little exposure to the practicalities of slavery, of racism. I knew what they were in concept, and abhorred them, but until I went to Haiti I did not understand. I still don’t understand, not as Benedictine does. People see her do anything and they wish to tear her to pieces; they see me and they would forgive me the world. Even today, magical people know me to be L’ange du mort, a king slayer and an assassin, a dangerous animal many of them think ought be put down as a rabid dog, but they see me, and they waver. How could a creature so beautiful, so pure in its appearance, with its glittering blue eyes and fine yellow hair, be precisely what it is?”
Jean-Pierre was looking directly at Aimé, and he didn’t feel scared exactly – he didn’t usually feel scared when Jean-Pierre was in his wordy moods like this one – but there was something about the way he was looking at Aimé that felt like a challenge.
“What, you want me to leave and break up with you?” asked Aimé. “That what your point is? You’re telling me to run?”
“If you ran I’d kill you,” said Jean-Pierre. He said it, unblinking, jaw squared, lips pressed together.
“No,” said Aimé slowly, staring right back and resisting the urge to look down even though he was pretty sure he’d just dripped ice cream onto his jumper. “You wouldn’t.”
Jean-Pierre’s smile was sly as it curved his pretty lips, but Aimé was glad to see it, even if it didn’t meet his eyes.
Asmodeus handed him a handkerchief to wipe off the cream.
“You must recognise if you stay,” started Jean-Pierre, and Aimé interrupted to say, “I am staying.”
“And if we come to blows with someone – one of your father’s assassins, another seeking revenge for some wrong done by Colm or I, what will you do, hm?” demanded Jean-Pierre, an urgency in his voice even though he didn’t raise his volume. “You wouldn’t even shoot Bene’s pistol today.”
“Well, you don’t shoot pistols either, sweetheart,” Aimé retorted. “Maybe if she’d handed me a rifle it would have been different.”
Asmodeus was smiling slightly as Aimé handed the handkerchief back, but it was nothing to Jean-Pierre’s, a kind of desperate, wanting smile, one that looked fragile on his face.
“What you hate your father for,” said Jean-Pierre, “you may find me guilty of.”
“Not loving me?” asked Aimé.
“No,” said l’ange, shaking his head. “Not that. Let me taste some of yours.”
“It’s full of cream and brandy.”
Jean-Pierre pouted. “It won’t kill me.”
Aimé looked to Asmodeus, who helplessly shrugged his shoulders, and then passed Jean his bowl.