Colm had taken a window seat, and he waited, his fingers in his ears, until after almost every other passenger had gotten off the plane, except for an auld fella who used a wheelchair, and was waiting for the cabin crew to get his chair out at the ramp where the door opened before they brought him out on the aisle chair.
He felt sick to his stomach, so overwhelmed with other people’s feelings that he felt as though he were drowning in it – on the way out, he’d swallowed a few sleeping pills and knocked himself out for the flight, but he must have lost the bottle while he was in Berlin or moving through security in the airport, because he hadn’t been able to find it for the life of him.
He’d endured the whole flight, crammed into the plane with all these people, no escape from them, so many of them anxious or excited or angry or whatever else, all those powerful emotions, and absolutely no peace.
He wasn’t quite ready for the move through the airport just yet, but he still pulled himself out of the chair and pulled his jacket back on.
“You look pale as bird shite,” said the auld fella when Colm got to his feet.
“I don’t like flying,” said Colm.
“We’ve landed now,” said the old man, and Colm gave him a thin smile, reaching up into the overheard compartment and tugging out his own satchel, then grabbing the old man’s holdall as well. “Thanks.”
“No trouble,” said Colm, leaning back against the chair. “I don’t normally fly – I normally get the ferry if I can.”
“Emergency?” asked the old man,
“My daughter,” said Colm. “She’s in a bad family situation.”
“Shit,” said the old man, and Colm felt the genuine empathy that came off him, felt impressions of a difficult childhood, an angry father, an aunt with a belt in hand— He felt a little sick, and he took a swig of his water. He’d drunk a little whiskey on the flight, but drinking didn’t really help numb any of the feelings, not when it was hundreds at once. “You can’t get her out?”
“I can,” Colm said. “She’s gonna spend Christmas with them, but they want to put her in a home in the new year and she’s, uh, she’s really upset, you know, but they can’t be fucked looking after her, so I’m gonna bring her home with me.”
The old man was surprised at that, and there was a vague jealousy, a bitterness, underneath it. But then, he said, “You got time for that?”
“She’s my daughter,” said Colm. “What else is my time for?”
The old man nodded his head, and Colm picked up his bag for him as the cabin girls helped him into the aisle chair – it was too wide for the aisle – and once they transferred him into his big electric chair on the aisle, Colm said, “On the back or in your lap?”
“In my lap,” said the old man, and Colm handed it over, settling it down on the old man’s knees. “You scared of driving, too?”
Colm laughed. “Nah, my brother’ll pick me up, and it’ll be all good. Go dté tú slán.”
“Slán,” said the old man with a small smile, and Colm tried to concentrate on the warmth that came off him, the surprise, and carry it as a focus as he went over to the passport checks.
He always tried to do that, after a bad flight, tried to focus on one person’s feelings and hook himself into those to block out all the rest, but he was fucking exhausted, and it was a small solace.
He did laugh, though, when someone obviously made a stupid comment about the guy’s wheelchair, and a kind of mute, painful surprise mixed with black humour at how stupid someone was.
Just as he exited the airport, Asmodeus pulled up in his car, and none of the fucking airport cops had time to come up and complain: Colm was already in the car, and even as Asmodeus started off again he reached out and put his hand on De’s shoulder, felt the impossible, cold emptiness that came off of him.
“Fuck,” he mumbled, squeezing De’s shoulder, his eyes tight shut. It was a relief beyond fucking measure.
“It’s alright,” said Asmodeus softly. “Take your time. You couldn’t sleep on the plane?”
“Lost my fucking pills,” said Colm.
“Oh,” Asmodeus said quietly, and did something he almost never did, as obsessive as he was about his form while driving: he took his left hand off the wheel and rested it on Colm’s chest.
Colm grabbed his hand with both hands, hugging it against himself, and he closed his eyes, willing the headache to go away, the raw sensitivity all over his skin, inside his skin.
“Jean’s first aid kit has painkillers,” Asmodeus said. “It’s in the glovebox.”
“I’m okay,” Colm muttered, and concentrated on the cold, empty core of Asmodeus, that well of blissful unfeeling.
The traffic wasn’t too bad – it was late in the evening – and after ten minutes or so Colm didn’t feel quite so bad. He knew once he went home, ate something, and slept, he’d sleep for a fucking day, but he was too tired to sleep just yet, even if Asmodeus would carry him out of the car.
“How is she?” Asmodeus asked.
Colm inhaled, and thought of the way Heidemarie had burst into tears as soon as she’d clapped eyes on him – she almost never cried, and it had torn out his fucking heart to see her. He’d been gentle about pulling her up to sit with him, her head rested on his chest, and once she’d finished crying, she’d thanked him for coming, and then said, of all things, that he didn’t have to.
“She’s, uh, she’s okay,” Colm said. “She’s tired, the arthritis is, um, is not great. I think maybe she needs different meds, but when I asked, she said she hasn’t been to the doctor in fucking—” He sighed hard. “I’m gonna bring her back here. I’m gonna, uh, I’m gonna take the rest of the land off the allotment and build her a house of her own – bungalow, you know, something good, accessible.”
He was fidgeting, he was aware, in his place, his knees bouncing, his fingers drumming hard against the top of his thighs, just at the fucking memory of the pain she’d been in, and he’d almost blown his fucking gasket talking to Angela and her prick husband, the way they’d kept saying they just didn’t have time, that they were so busy, all the while thinking about the fucking money…
They’d thought about it, even, hiring a fucking carer for her, but they wanted to rent out the damned fucking bungalow instead.
“I’ll go out every day,” he said, “and Bedelia’ll help too, and maybe I’ll hire somebody live-in if Heidi wants? We talked about it, and she’d like to try living on her own again first. I want Jean or, or another doctor to have a look at her, consult for new meds, maybe acupuncture or some shit, too, ‘cause I know I’m not an expert but I feel like it’s more advanced than it should be. She’s scared to exercise, because she doesn’t want to hurt herself, but she’s had no other support, so how the fuck can she? But she can’t fucking go to the doctor unless someone takes her, so.”
Asmodeus turned his hand, keeping the back of it pressed against Colm’s sternum, and squeezed his hand.
“I’ll help you build,” said Asmodeus. “I’m here until February.”
“Fuck,” Colm said, feeling relief rush through him, and he looked at Asmodeus’ face, the glint of the streetlamps off his glasses, as they kept driving. “Really?”
“Really,” said Asmodeus, and met his eyes for a second with one of his small smiles.
Colm grinned, for all the fatigue. “Fuck,” he said. “I forgot about Aimé’s paintings and shit.”
“We delivered them yesterday,” Asmodeus said. “And Aimé’s been doing all the work on your allotment, in the garden. You want to hear something very funny?”
“You recall that you told the O’Malleys you’d help them get their decorations down from their attic, what with Mr O’Malley’s bad back, and Mrs O’Malley being frightened of heights?”
“Fuck,” said Colm. “Shit, I forgot—”
“No need to panic,” said Asmodeus. “Aimé got their decorations down for them this morning, and Aimé and Jean have spent the day helping them put them up. Peadar was particularly pleased, having his two favourite families under one roof and dancing about with him whilst singing along to Christmas music.”
Colm stared at De’s face, and then he laughed, really, genuinely laughed, and felt a little of the fatigue and stress ease from where it was tightly packed in his chest.
“Aimé did that?”
“He was worried something was Peadar when he answered the door, and Mr O’Malley tried three times to tell him he needn’t, that it was no bother, but Aimé insisted. He fixed their sink as well.”
“Really?” Colm asked.
“No,” said Asmodeus. “I did. But he did come to get me when Mr O’Malley mentioned it and he had no idea what to do.”
Colm laughed harder this time, leaning back in his chair. “You show him what to do?”
“It was a leak, the washer needed replacing. But I told him you’d teach him, if he asked.”
“Yeah,” said Colm softly, surprised by how much affection that made him feel. “Yeah, I will.”
* * *
“Why do you keep tightening your stance like that?” Jean-Pierre asked as they came apart again, and Aimé released a vague grumbling sound from low in his throat, waving one wrapped hand.
“I’m trying not to,” he said.
“It makes you very easy to unbalance,” Jean-Pierre said, looking baffled.
“Yeah,” Aimé said, rolling his shoulders and widening his stance a little more, his knees bent. “I know. Colm says it’s because I keep thinking I’m boxing.”
“We’re not boxing.”
“I know, Jean, I’m not doing it on purpose.”
Jean-Pierre was smiling slightly, and Aimé rolled his eyes, beckoning the angel forward. “Come on, sweetheart, let’s go again.”
They had the sofas pushed up against the sides of the room, and they had been sparring since they’d walked back across the road from the O’Malleys. Peadar had walked home with them, initially, but he’d lost interest once he realised they weren’t going to eat anything, and become quite offended when they’d started wrestling instead of sitting down calmly where he could sleep next to them.
Jean-Pierre lunged, and Aimé caught him at an angle, grabbing the inside of his thigh at the same time he shoved him to one side.
Jean-Pierre let out a yelp as Aimé dragged him off the floor and threw him down, landing hard on his back. He looked so surprised that Aimé couldn’t help but start laughing, and Jean-Pierre took a second before he giggled.
“What the fuck was that?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Aimé said. “Channelling the wrestling.”
“Very good if you can do it for other people,” Jean-Pierre said. “But I’m a lot lighter than most men – you would strain your back, trying that with Colm.”
Aimé laughed, leaned in and brushed his lips against Jean’s, stroked his fingers gently through Jean-Pierre’s hair. It had been a good day, had been a good few days – last night had been a pretty nice family dinner, and decorating stuff with the O’Malleys had actually been pretty fun, especially because both the old man and the old lady had gotten hammered with sherry that Aimé had found in their attic, and they’d been in the mood to dance and sing.
“Hey, Jean,” Aimé said.
“You remember what you said, about my dad?”
Jean-Pierre leaned back on the carpet, his pretty eyes narrowing slightly. “I haven’t done anything to your father,” he said, as though Aimé were accusing him of something, and Aimé wrapped his hand around Jean-Pierre’s side, squeezing slightly.
“I didn’t think you had.”
Aimé felt a kind of anxiety twisting inside him – he hadn’t talked to Jean-Pierre, just yet, about moving his stuff out of the other apartment, about the business plan Asmodeus was helping him iron out, but he had to wonder how much Asmodeus was right, if Jean-Pierre would really be completely okay with it if he had no job at all, if he just stuck around and helped out and did… nothing.
He thought De was probably right. Not just because De was right about pretty much everything, but because he felt he had a good enough handle on Jean-Pierre and Colm both by now, knew that they’d probably be alright with it.
That wasn’t what made him anxious.
“Uh,” Aimé said, “De said that if my dad had people watching me, you’d probably know.”
Jean-Pierre’s offended expression softened somewhat, and he reached up to cup Aimé’s cheeks, brushing his fingers gently through Aimé’s beard and wrapping his legs loosely around Aimé’s waist so that Aimé was pinned on top of him. Aimé wished it was a good sign that he looked serious and solemn instead of teasing and smug.
“Please tell me you look that grim ‘cause my dad spying on me makes you so horny you want to roleplay something weird,” Aimé said.
“Your father has been retaining an awareness of you, of your movements,” said Jean-Pierre quietly. “For what I hear on the grapevine—”
“In your network of highly online interconnected weirdoes.”
“On the grapevine,” said Jean-Pierre, a little more loudly, “he finds himself played into a corner. He dislikes your association with me, of course. If it is at all comforting I think his concern that I will harm you is to some extent genuine.”
“It’s not comforting,” Aimé said. “If he was a dairy farmer he’d be genuinely concerned about harm to his prize cow, but that’s not the same as care.”
Jean-Pierre stroked his fingers down the side of Aimé’s neck.
“He would evict you from that apartment,” Jean-Pierre says. “He likes that he should control you by keeping you under a roof he owns, but he knows that is limited once your degree is done. Do you want to go back to university?”
“After my BA? No.”
“We would pay for it,” said Jean-Pierre. He was looking at Aimé’s chin, his chest, instead of at Aimé’s eyes. “Asmodeus and I. If you wanted a master’s, a doctorate. I have money enough if it would please you.”
Aimé exhaled, and he took Jean-Pierre by the hair, tugging him up into a kiss.
“No, sweetheart, I don’t want to go back to college once my degree’s done,” he said. “But that’s— that’s cute.”
“He frightens you? Your father?”
“Yeah,” Aimé said. “Yeah, I guess. My family’s not that weird about bloodlines – I don’t think he’s gonna kidnap me, use me as a sperm donor, and make himself a grandchild. I do think that if I walk out it’d be too bad for business to legally disown me. It’s not like it’s gonna be his first choice, but he would try to kill me, I think. Maybe my mother first, I don’t know.”
“I would not let him kill you,” said Jean-Pierre, with an abruptly frightening intensity that went right to Aimé’s cock. “I would raze his bloodline to the ground in the other direction, if he tried to kill you.”
“Very hot, surprisingly comforting,” Aimé said, “but still not an ideal solution.”
“Just let me kill him then,” said Jean.
“Convincing,” said Aimé. “Answer’s still no.”
“I could help you do it yourself,” said Jean-Pierre, pouting out his lips, fluttering his eyelashes. “It would be like Asmodeus showing you how to fix that sink.”
“Killing my father?”
Aimé laughed, powerlessly, and leaned in, brushing their noses together.
“I feel like you laughing is a tacit refusal,” said Jean-Pierre, and although Aimé had his eyes closed, he could see the moue on his face without actually seeing it. “Oh, the car, the car, Aimé—”
Aimé leaned back, letting Jean-Pierre extricate himself from under him, and he leaned up to look out of the window as Asmodeus and Colm got out of the car.
He saw the way Jean-Pierre leapt into the air and landed hard in Colm’s arms, wrapping his arms and legs around his brother, and he saw Colm laugh, saw him squeeze Jean tightly, kiss his cheeks. They didn’t try to kill each other, which Aimé was glad to see.
Colm threw Jean-Pierre over his shoulder and wrapped one arm around his thighs to keep him there as he walked up the path and into the house, giving Aimé a big grin. He looked like dogshit, pale and drawn with bags under his eyes, and Aimé realised he must have thought it too loud as soon as Colm looked at him and laughed.
“Fuck me, Aimé, what a welcome,” he said, and Aimé mumbled an apology even as Colm pulled him in for a hug, Jean giggling as he was crushed between them.
“Sorry,” Aimé replied. “I have to remember you’re gonna be sticking your hand in my brain.”
“Take your boy, would ya?” Colm asked, and turned Jean over in his arms, tossing him to Aimé, and Jean-Pierre went willingly, laughing as he leaned back in Aimé’s arms, bringing up a knee to nudge against his shoulder.
“She okay?” Aimé asked, and when Jean-Pierre scowled, Aimé wrapped both arms around his knees instead of supporting his back, holding him upside down. He wasn’t tall enough for it – Jean-Pierre put his hands on the ground and pulled away from him into a bridge – but it was enough to interrupt whatever fucking tantrum he was about to pull, because he went out to De instead.
“She’s okay,” Colm said, rubbing a hand over his mouth. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and there was stubble all over his jaw – it didn’t grow like Aimé’s, patchy and already greying in places, but strong and dark and thick, a little more red than the hair on the top of his head. “I’m not going to keep it,” Colm said. “I fucking hate having a beard.”
“You need a pill or something?” Aimé asked. “You look like you need to fucking sleep.”
“I get sick on aeroplanes,” said Colm. “Scared of flying, and, uh, a hundred other people crammed into a tube with me fucks me even more.”
“I was about to order a takeaway for me and De,” said Aimé. “You want a three-in-one?”
“See, that’s what I love about you, Aimé,” Colm said, putting his hands on Aimé’s cheeks and leaning into him, their foreheads touching against one another. “You see a man and you can tell by the cut of him he needs a fucking spicebag.”
“Go shave,” Aimé said. “This feels gross.”
Colm laughed, rubbing his knuckles through Aimé’s beard and making him grunt, leaning away.
Jean-Pierre held Colm’s bag out to him to take upstairs, and Colm smiled at him, patted his brother’s cheek. Aimé wondered if this was a temporary ceasefire, if Jean-Pierre was going to flip as soon as Colm talked about Heidemarie properly.
Colm gave him a meaningful look over his shoulder.
“I’ll order that takeaway,” said Aimé, and went to grab his laptop.
* * *
He knew there was something wrong.
He could feel it from the way Asmodeus hung back a little, the way he smiled distantly and offered to plait Jean-Pierre’s hair as Colm was getting changed, the way that Aimé kissed him a little too sweetly, and offered to give him the plum from his duck when he ordered it, the way that Colm kept his distance.
“Jean,” said Colm over the dinner table, when their meal was three quarters of the way through, and Jean-Pierre felt his gut wrench suddenly, felt anxiety burst in him like a balloon that had already been filled all the way.
It wasn’t fair, for Colm to go away and then come home and then immediately ruin it, not when Jean-Pierre and Aimé had had such a good day, not when Jean-Pierre is in a good mood from decorating with the O’Malleys and decorating their own tree, not when everything else has been so nice—
“Yes?” Jean-Pierre asks cautiously.
“I need you to be a fucking adult about this,” said Colm.
“I’m being a fucking adult,” was his immediate retort, and before he could get to his feet, Aimé had put a hand on his shoulder; on the other side of the table, Jean-Pierre saw Asmodeus put a hand on Colm’s shoulder to keep him sitting down as well.
Perhaps it should have made him angrier, but at least it felt almost like fairness as Aimé squeezed his shoulder, leaned across and slid his thumb over the back of Jean-Pierre’s neck.
“Don’t fucking start a fight until you’ve said what you want to say,” said Aimé, and Jean-Pierre felt a little flush of triumph, that Aimé should take his side, and he slid his hand around Aimé’s wrist.
“Your tactics are as transparent as Jean’s tantrums, Colm,” Asmodeus rumbled. “Best just be out with it.”
“Heidemarie’s gonna home, come to Dublin, in the new year. February or March time, maybe.”
“We don’t have space,” said Jean-Pierre immediately, feeling something pop in his chest. “Unless you want to—”
“Not here,” Colm said. “I’m gonna go out to the land I have for the allotment, I’m gonna build a cottage of her own, so that she can have her own space – but I’ll visit her every day, and she’ll probably come here. And I want you to come have a look at her.”
Jean-Pierre didn’t know what that meant, and it stopped him short for a second. For once, jealous was not the overwhelming emotion he felt, thinking of Heidemarie, and he hesitated, looking across the table at Colm, Colm who was stiff and breathing a little heavier than before, who still had Asmodeus’ hand on his shoulder and was looking at Jean-Pierre like he was a grenade the pin had been pulled out of but hadn’t yet gone off.
“Look at her?” Jean-Pierre repeated.
“Her, um,” Colm said, “her arthritis has been getting worse, the past few years, and, um, and her kids haven’t been taking her to the doctor as much, and I know, I know she hasn’t been exercising like she used to ‘cause she’s scared of falling, ‘cause they kinda— They kinda make her feel, um, make her feel guilty, for…”
Jean-Pierre didn’t like seeing Colm like this, anxious, tripping over his words, and his stomach felt heavy, thick with concrete. He put his hands on the kitchen table, squeezing its edge.
“I trust you,” said Colm. “And you always fucking refuse to come meet her, but this is different, Jean, I want to be able to have a doctor I know, that I trust, look at her, and help, and especially because— You know, when she lives here, I need you to be… I need you to be her uncle on this, Jean. She’s my little girl.”
Jean-Pierre stared at him.
“I’ve never refused to meet her,” he said quietly. “You always go off to look after her, and you never say for me to join.”
He remembered the first time he’d talked to Colm, after Heidemarie had grown up, the first time they’d spoken to one another. He’d been angry at the time, he remembered that, still bitter that Colm had let Jean-Pierre alone and hadn’t even bothered to look for him, but he remembered more keenly the way Colm had said after a phone call to where they were working, some time in the 60s, that he needed to go to her, and when Jean-Pierre had stood up he’d snapped he didn’t need anyone slitting her throat, and that it was best for Jean to stay put.
Jean watched Colm’s mouth open across the table, watched him lean back in his chair.
“I never fucking— I never meant that,” said Colm.
“I want to go for a walk,” Jean-Pierre said to Aimé.
“Okay,” Aimé said, sliding his hand up and into Jean-Pierre’s hair, and he got to his feet, moving into the other room for their coats.
“I never meant that,” said Colm again. “I know you wouldn’t— Shit, Jean, I was just…”
“You want to protect her from me,” said Jean-Pierre. “You thought of me as a danger to your—”
“No,” said Colm. “Fuck, just…”
Colm put his elbows on the table, ran a hand through his hair. He looked solemn, looked ashamed, and then he said, “You’re forgetting what came before me saying that. That she was one more Nazi like her parents, when she was a fucking baby.
“I don’t remember,” Jean-Pierre said quietly. He was ashamed too, couldn’t get over the sickening twist inside him, the way he always felt, thinking of… What did Asmodeus call them? Episodes? “I remember that I was angry, before – I remember I said things. I don’t remember what.”
Aimé wrapped Jean-Pierre’s coat around the back of his chair, and Jean-Pierre reached back to touch his hand.
“You’ll look at her?” asked Colm. “When she comes over?”
“I’ll go with you in the new year,” said Jean-Pierre quietly, tugging at the cuff of his sleeve. “Before university starts up again – a few months is too long to leave it, if you’re worried, if she’s worried. If her arthritis is worsening because of a trauma to the bone, it could be infection, it could be… She should go to a doctor now. If you’re worried.”
“She didn’t want to,” Colm said, leaning back in his chair. “She wanted to— I know I’m fucking angry about it, but her kids are sensitive about it. She just wants to enjoy Christmas with the grandkids, before, uh, before I interfere too obviously. But you’d come? In January?”
“Yes,” Jean-Pierre whispered. “Yes, of course I would.”
Colm looked surprised, but so did Asmodeus – it was that hollow, not quite there surprise that Colm couldn’t see sometimes, because he didn’t know how to read Asmodeus’ face.
Jean-Pierre felt sick and very unhappy, and he stood to his feet and put his coat on.
He and Aimé walked arm-in-arm in no particular direction, and when they finally walked home again, Aimé carried him up to bed.