Jean-Pierre went back and forth between the house and Aimé’s flat, but they didn’t spend time together every night. Two nights a week, usually, Jean-Pierre would spend his evening home with Colm or Asmodeus, because Aimé would be painting. His paintings, Colm thought, were genuinely good, not that he knew that much about that sort of thing, but Asmodeus said he was good, and that normally meant quite a lot.
Jean thought he was good, but Jean didn’t have any more of a head for art than Colm did – but he did talk about Aimé’s art, sometimes, quietly, in a distant sort of way, like in his head he was still wrapped up in Aimé’s canvas and oils.
Except for Aimé and his classes, though, it didn’t seem to Colm that Jean had made many of his own connections in Dublin just yet. He tagged along a few times when Asmodeus went to the places he liked, dark, hipstery coffee shops that sold forbidden books, or high-class wine bars where Jean couldn’t drink a goddamn thing on the menu but water; or he came with Colm, came to the pubs that Colm had decided were good, tagged along with him to the same food banks, the same church and community meetings.
It wasn’t that Colm minded at all – he loved having Jean along when it came to going out for music (although it did mean Colm couldn’t slope off to smoke any weed without Jean kicking up a fuss about the smell when he came back), and he worked just as hard as Colm did as a volunteer. He just didn’t like it much, when Jean didn’t put himself out there like he did when he didn’t have a new boyfriend. He would, Colm supposed, when Aimé either saw sense and ran, or when Jean settled in with him, but in the meantime, he’d focus on latching into other people’s interests, and not do a damn thing on his own except study.
George and Colm spent half the week hanging out, and George often came along where Colm went to volunteer. He couldn’t carry a note or remember more than four words to a song, but he liked music, and people liked him where Colm volunteered, thought he was cute.
“How did you build this?” he’d asked when he’d been at the house last, looking at the greenhouse thoughtfully, and Colm had smiled slightly, put his hand out for George’s notebook – now a staple always stuck to his hip, although learning to draw was a challenge for him – and sketched out the sections of the greenhouse, showed how the glass fit into the frames, how the frames were adhered to one another and fastened to the ground, how the sloped roof gave everything else additional support, and how the tight chain lattice across the roof allowed for more hanging baskets and additional stability.
He’d be an engineer, Colm thought, or an architect, or something. He could see it in George’s eyes whenever he looked at the way things fit together, and Colm had seen him with Pádraic, too, asking how furniture in Pádraic’s house had been made, or how tools fit together.
George had gotten to his knees in the kitchen a few weeks ago, distracted by the drawer on its rollers while putting forks away, and Colm had watched Asmodeus turn off the water, dry his hands, and ease one of the drawers out of the unit. He’d helped Asmodeus pull the wooden utensil trays out, set them on the counter, so that Asmodeus could turn the drawer over and show the wheels, show the staggered slats between the drawer and the unit.
Colm had taken George upstairs, then, had muscled into Jean’s bedroom while Jean was braiding his hair to pull out the drawer of one of his antique dressers and shown how the same thing was done without wheels.
George had been fascinated the whole time, and when Jean-Pierre had stood from his bed and pulled a few puzzle boxes from the back of his wardrobe – they’d been Bui’s – and said quietly that George was welcome to play with them so long as he was careful, George had beamed like sunshine.
He spent some evenings with Pádraic, learned ISL which he’d then teach to Colm, and he read… Christ.
It seemed to Colm that George read ten books a week.
“When are you leaving?” Colm asked.
It was past midday, and the sun was shining down through the window glass in the greenhouse as Asmodeus stood with a spray bottle in his hand, misting Colm’s tomato plants with water. He’d rolled the sleeves of his shirt up to the elbow, and he looked comfortable with the plants, as comfortable as Colm looked himself, most days. His skin shone in the mild light, although Colm was fairly certain that – like Jean – he was missing the sun in Texas.
“Soon,” Asmodeus said quietly. “Before the end of the month.”
“Where to next?”
“Haruru.” Asmodeus reached out, taking a turning leaf from one of the cucumber plants and tugging it off the vine, crumpling it into nothing in his palm. “I will be back.”
“Yeah, I know.” Colm shook some of the potting soil off his hands and put the basil plant, now repotted, onto the table, then reached up and gently swung one of the strawberry baskets hanging from the chain. “We just miss you when you’re gone.”
Asmodeus turned to glance at him, and he smiled slightly, his lips curving up. The blankness of emotion in him was as disconcerting as ever. “I miss you too,” he said quietly. “But the house will hardly be empty. George is in and out, and you have Bedelia and Pádraic to visit, of course – and Benedictine will be here come December.”
“What about you?”
Asmodeus looked at Colm, his expression unchanging, and then he tilted his head slightly to the side. “What about me?”
“Will you be back in December? Will you actually be with us at Christmas, or are you gonna spend it with your boyfriend again?”
“Hamish MacKinnon is not my boyfriend, Colm,” Asmodeus said quietly. The smile stuck on his face, but it was static, frozen, and Colm wished he could take that as a real sign he’d struck a nerve.
“He’s not a priest, and he’s not an angel,” Colm said. “And I know for a fact you haven’t told our priest about him. Boyfriend is the only word that seems to fit the bill.”
“I won’t be spending Christmas with him,” Asmodeus said quietly. “I might spend a few days in Nottingham either before I come home to Dublin, or before I go back to work, but I won’t spend Christmas with him. He has other plans.”
“Change your tone,” Asmodeus recommended, enough resonance in his voice that Colm shuddered, and that the panes of glass around them shuddered in their frames, “or change the subject.”
“What about Aimé?” Colm asked hurriedly.
The glass stilled, and Colm rubbed at his chest, trying to shake off the uncomfortable sensation that Asmodeus’ voice had left behind. Asmodeus said, more mildly this time, “From what I can gather, he doesn’t get on well with his family. He will likely spend his Christmas with us.”
This was what Colm had thought. Aimé spent no time at all with his parents, from what he had gleaned – Jean-Pierre had mentioned a few times that they were rather harsh on him, and Aimé never mentioned them. Colm wondered if he’d come to Mass with them on Christmas day to keep stuck to Jean’s side, or if he’d hover around somewhere else.
Like with De.
“You like him,” Colm said. “Right?”
“I do,” Asmodeus said, without shame or hesitation. “You don’t, I take it.”
“He doesn’t believe in anything,” Colm said. “No faith in God, no faith in humanity, no faith in tomorrow’s sunshine. He’d rather be dead than alive – the only reason he isn’t dead is because he can’t muster the effort needed to fucking end it all.”
“That bothers you,” Asmodeus said.
“Yeah,” Colm said, “it fucking bothers me. Jean is gonna send him over the edge.”
Asmodeus chuckled, and shook his head. “No,” he said softly. “No, I think Jean will do precisely the opposite. You think our brother would bait a lover to suicide? What would he gain out of that?”
“Not saying he’ll do it on purpose,” Colm said. “But with the fucking mind games he plays with his guys, he drives half of them crazy. This one can’t take it. Is that why you like him? Because he’s suicidal? Because we might watch Jean kill another lover?”
“I find his nihilism refreshing,” was the easy response as Asmodeus set the spray bottle down, and moved to sit down on the small bench over Colm’s toolbox. “You might not see it yet, but I think Aimé will be good for Jean.”
“Good for Jean? What is he, a fucking sacrifice?”
“Jean is a hot flame, Colm,” Asmodeus said. “He burns us all. But Aimé can survive it.”
“And how badly will he be get burned in the process?”
Asmodeus smiled, showing the white glitter of his teeth as he stood once more to his feet. “Would you like a cup of tea, Colm?”
“Yeah,” Colm muttered. “Sure.”
* * *
Jean-Pierre and Colm were at Mass, and somehow, Aimé had gone from lying on the couch, rereading Plato’s Republic with a glass of Bordeaux in his hand, to helping Asmodeus pack his trunk.
It was an old-fashioned thing, straight out of a fantasy novel, made out of a heavy wood but light when you picked it up. Asmodeus’ room was thick with a complicated web of enchantment that Aimé wasn’t familiar with, but he guessed from the characters that it was very, very old. His chest thrummed with the same symbols, but it wasn’t a threatening energy, just different to what Aimé was used to.
“These,” Asmodeus said, placing a pile of three neatly folded jumpers into Aimé’s hands, and Aimé carried them over to the chest, neatly packing them in on top of Asmodeus’ silk pyjamas. He had a few sets of them in different colours, and they were impossibly soft when Aimé’s fingers brushed them. If Asmodeus had any qualms about Aimé seeing his nightclothes or his underwear, or anything else, he didn’t show it.
“Won’t Jean miss some of your wardrobe?” Aimé asked, fingering over the cream-coloured wool of the jumper on top of the pile Asmodeus had handed him, one that he knew Jean-Pierre wore from time to time, because he’d stripped him out of it at least twice.
“I’m sure he’ll rifle through for whatever I leave behind,” Asmodeus replied, handing Aimé a shoebox containing a pair of brown leather Oxfords. “And if he finds nothing satisfactory in my wardrobe, I’m sure he’ll pick something from Colm’s. Or yours.”
“No,” Aimé said, sliding the box into the chest, alongside the books Asmodeus had already had him pack, a variety of what looked to be steamy romances in a variety of languages. Asmodeus liked the same sort of books as Aimé’s mother. “He already looked through my clothes. Says none of it’s fit to wear out because it’s all paint-stained.”
“That won’t last,” Asmodeus said. “He wouldn’t wear something stained for Mass, Aimé, but Jean wears other people’s clothes for the comfort of it, not the aesthetic. It comforts him to wear the second skin of someone who loves him.”
Aimé didn’t know what to think of that, and so he said nothing. Jean-Pierre’s own wardrobe was a mix of the things that had been tailored to himself, and the clothes that were once, Aimé realised, other people’s, which Jean-Pierre admitted when pressed: one of his scarves had once belonged to Manolis, the Greek revolutionary; a favourite cardigan of his had been Bui’s favourite, and still had the patches he had sewn into the elbows from when he’d taught school in it; half of Jean’s t-shirts, as few of them as he had, had been Farhad’s. Aimé barely knew anything about these men, of course, except that they were dead, and that Jean-Pierre had loved them once.
He wondered if Jean-Pierre would mention him, in a hundred years’ time, in the same way.
“You don’t go to Mass,” Aimé said. “You don’t believe in God?”
“I don’t believe in Catholicism,” Asmodeus said cleanly, passing Aimé two rolled-up scarves. They were fashionable things, made of silk, not made to keep off the heat. “You could say I believe in God, but I don’t worship the concept. Do you?”
“I was never into it,” Aimé said. “And my parents aren’t devout, so I never really had to go. I did a few times when I was in France, and I liked that better than here, but the actual service wasn’t all that different. I think the congregation was just nicer. Can I ask you a question?”
Aimé took the box, and then asked, “How old are you?”
Asmodeus smiled at him, and then began bending over his chest of drawers again. “Next question,” he said.
“And you don’t eat meat?”
“Not usually,” Asmodeus said, beginning to count out pairs of socks and perfectly folded underwear. Jean-Pierre’s room was neat, but neat in the way of a normal person – Asmodeus’ was neat in the way of a man slightly obsessed with neatness, where it looked like everything was put in place with a ruler and a protractor, and even his boxer briefs were folded into impossibly tight little rolls, and stacked in symmetrical rows.
Aimé wanted to ask questions about Jean-Pierre, really, but there were so many questions about Jean he didn’t know where to start, and it felt easier, somehow, to ask about Asmodeus instead.
“But you do sometimes?”
“So it isn’t a moral issue?”
“An interesting question,” Asmodeus mused, picking up a flat box filled with underwear – he kept his drawers separated with wooden boxes, and the shoebox he’d picked up earlier had been wooden too – and brought it over to the trunk. “I would not take another life in order to feed myself – it wouldn’t strike me as necessary. But I have no particular compunction over partaking in meat or fish if it has died anyway.”
“You wouldn’t kill to survive?” Aimé asked, and Asmodeus turned to look at him, one eyebrow gracefully arching.
“Would you?” he asked.
“I don’t feel bad about eating meat,” Aimé said. “I guess I think, you know, we’re the dominant species. We eat meat because we’re smart enough to farm other animals, use tools, whatever. People bring up that people wouldn’t eat meat if they had to kill the animals themselves, but there’s plenty of things I wouldn’t eat if I had to do the effort myself – I probably wouldn’t bother with corn on the cob if I had to shuck it myself, or eat cashew nuts, or anything else.”
“I see,” Asmodeus said. “You think that the taking of a life is no different to any other complex labour?”
“I don’t think it’s murder to kill a cow,” Aimé said. “They’re bred to be killed, to be eaten. Sure, maybe it’s taxing to kill them, but I don’t think it’s specially taxing.”
“You believe in murder?”
“What kind of question is that?”
Asmodeus chuckled, sitting down on the edge of his bed, and he gestured for Aimé to sit down in the office chair before Asmodeus’ desk, which Aimé did. It was a ridiculously big chair, but the brown leather was soft and welcoming underneath him, and Aimé sank back into it.
“You’re a philosopher, aren’t you?” Asmodeus asked, looking at Aimé thoughtfully. “You consider the taking of an animal’s life to be acceptable because humans are the dominant species – you have earned your right to kill. But what of one man’s right over another?”
“Well, I don’t think we should hunt the poor for blood sport, no matter what Fine Gael might go in for,” Aimé said. “I dunno, I think… I think murder’s wrong, when it’s just killing someone out of rage. But there are times when taking someone’s life is justified, I guess.”
“I think so, yeah. If it’s kill or be killed, or if someone is threatening violence… Yeah.”
“Sure. I mean, think of all the money that goes into keeping prisoners in prison forever, if they’re murderers or paedophiles or whatever else. If they’re more of a danger to society than a contributor, they should be killed. If you take more than you could ever give back, maybe it’s better if you’re dead.”
“What about the disabled?” Asmodeus asked.
Aimé blinked. “Uh… I don’t… What do you mean?”
“The disabled might be considered to take more from society than they give back,” Asmodeus said. “You think we should kill everybody who uses a wheelchair? Everybody who is deaf or blind or mute?” There was something tight and severe in Asmodeus’ tone, and Aimé hesitated, studying his face for any clue as to what the right answer was, but as ever with Asmodeus, no right answer revealed itself.
“I feel like somewhere in this conversation,” Aimé said slowly, “I pissed you off.”
“Merely intellectual exercise, Aimé,” Asmodeus said. His shoulders relaxed, however marginally, and his lips shifted into the smallest of smiles. “But I would not deny a personal investment. So many people would cite value to society when they mean contribution to the economy.”
“You sound like Jean.”
“Sometimes,” Asmodeus allows. “I think what you will learn about Jean, Colm, and I over time, Aimé, is that much as it seems as if the opposite must be true, I am in many ways more radical than my brothers – but in some ways, they are far more extreme than I.”
A lot of the time, when Jean-Pierre talked, he talked bollocks – he didn’t usually quote in conversation, but talking to him, you were aware that he’d read (and written) a lot on one subject or another, whether it was morality, society, or freedom and liberty. He believed in it, and he knew it inside out – he could quote it if he wanted, but he knew how to make things accessible to other people, and Aimé expected he was good at giving speeches.
Asmodeus talked more quietly, more precisely, like he chose every single word to perfectly fit the situation. Aimé couldn’t imagine him giving a speech, but he knew that his words were probably still worth analysing if you wanted to know what he was on about. “What does radical mean, in this context? Violent?”
“I really am not very violent,” Asmodeus said softly. “People sometimes think it of me, to look at me, but even on the rare occasion I kill, Aimé, I do so very quickly, and with mercy. I am of the opinion that loss of life should be avoided at all costs, unless there is no other solution. There is a part of me that grieves for every living thing that dies.”
“That’s a lot of grief when you’re as old as time,” Aimé said.
He meant it as a joke, but Asmodeus didn’t laugh. He looked at Aimé a moment, displaying a kind of bland surprise, and then said, “It is,” in all seriousness. “You like my brother, Aimé?”
“Like him?” Aimé repeated. “Uh, yeah. Pretty sure I do.”
“His flaws don’t distress you?”
Again, another question that didn’t have any obvious answer. Aimé was quiet, leaning back in the big chair, swinging slightly in his place in it. “Not… distress me. He weirds me out sometimes. He’s intense about stuff I don’t expect. He seems to believe very strongly in everything he does.”
“And you?” Asmodeus asked. “What do you believe in?”
“I don’t believe in anything,” Aimé muttered. He thought of Jean-Pierre last night, half-asleep, sprawled out in Aimé’s bed with his hair spread out on Aimé’s pillow. Aimé had laid there, drunk and unable not to smile, as Jean-Pierre had sleepily recited every line of la Déclaration, as easily as if it was a bedtime story. “I believe in him, maybe. He seems like the sort of thing you could believe in.”
Asmodeus chuckled. “You wouldn’t be the first to say so,” he said softly.
“He said you’d scold him, last night.”
“He was quoting la Déclaration. Said if you were there, for every line he quoted of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, you’d respond with a line of, uh… I can’t remember—”
“On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship,” Asmodeus supplied, looking fond. “Condorcet’s answer to the National Assembly.”
“What, you think Jean’s a misogynist?”
“I don’t,” Asmodeus said. “Jean is, in every aspect, an idealist. Idealism makes one single-minded, that’s all.”
“You’re not an idealist?”
“I am an optimist,” Asmodeus said. “We don’t make such keen visionaries as idealists.” Loosely steepling his fingers in his hands, he glanced to the window, which was spattered with falling rain. “You know, Aimé, it is a fact of life that we are, each of us, forged by the times into which we are born. Neither Jean nor Colm were born, but they were made, and shaped, by the times they fell into. Jean and Colm first came into this world, each of them, to impoverished areas with a strong sense of community. They knew what it was to go hungry, and to see loved ones go hungry – and that has made them very emphatic about their beliefs. You have never been hungry. You do not feel so keenly what they do. The stakes are real for them – for you, they remain bound in the realm of theory.”
Aimé pressed his lips together, and he crossed his arms very loosely over his chest, squeezing them for a moment and huddling in the fabric of his shirt. “They don’t live in poverty now, though. And besides, there’s no sense in bringing personal feeling into every debate. You can’t have a logical discussion with somebody if all they can cite is personal experience instead of actual fact.”
“Logic has never been Jean’s favourite weapon,” Asmodeus murmured.
“I get that you three are fucking communists,” Aimé said. “But it’s different for you three than it is for humans. Mundie or magical, we haven’t got unlimited money to throw around, and we can’t just hand out free money to anybody who looks sad. And even if we did, it wouldn’t fix everything.”
Asmodeus inhaled, and then he stood to his feet. Aimé watched him as he unbuttoned his cardigan, hanging it very neatly on the hook on the back of the door, and then laid back on the bed, setting his hands over his belly and laying his head on the pillow, like some male, Middle Eastern parody of Morticia Addams – and, admittedly, just as hot.
“May I ask you a question?” Asmodeus asked. He had closed his eyes, and Aimé hesitated for a second, wondering where this was going – surely, the guy wasn’t going to just fall asleep?
“What makes a murder, in your eyes?”
“No,” Asmodeus said. “If you thought murder should be wrong only as a result of its legality, you would not distinguish between murder, execution, and euthanasia. What makes it wrong, to take the life of another human being?”
“It… It’s just wrong,” Aimé said. “If we let people kill each other for no reason, society would crumble.”
“In an anarchist state, you would kill someone, then?”
“What if they were violent? Cruel? Selfish?” Asmodeus’ lips were not smiling, but his eyebrows were slightly raised. He sounded curious, interested, as though this was the sort of conversation people had all the time, as if he was doing nothing more innocuous than asking Aimé’s favourite colour.
“I… No. I don’t think so.” He thought about the question, pressing his fingers against his knees. “I’ve written essays on euthanasia for an ethics modules – in that case, I think it could be justified if the person has asked for it, if they can’t help themselves otherwise, or if they have a DNR and they’re in a coma, or… or whatever else. But to kill someone randomly, it’s, I don’t know. Life is something that, so far as we know it, is finite. It’s something inordinately and impossibly precious, and for humans – or fae, or angels, or anybody else – we live life as sapient, complex individuals. We love, we use tools, we cook, we philosophise. We’re separate from animals because of that – and because of that, too, to accept senseless loss of life would be opposed to the natural instinct of our species.”
He realised how long he’d been talking once he came to a stop, and he felt his cheeks flush slightly as he watched Asmodeus’ lips curved into a slight smile. His eyes opened, their green colour shining in the light, and looked at Aimé’s face.
“You are a student of philosophy,” Asmodeus said quietly.
“Yeah,” Aimé muttered. “Sorry. TL;DR, taking the life of a sentient being is wrong.”
“Curious words from a man who’s tried to kill himself – multiple times, if one argues for the inclusion of drugs, alcohol, and dangerous boxing practices.”
Aimé furrowed his brow slightly. “Jean tell you about that?”
“About the suicide attempt?”
“No, not that – you can see my wrists as well as anyone else can. The boxing thing.”
“The scars are visible on your face, Aimé, and you were never a professional boxer,” Asmodeus said quietly. “Even at that level, I can’t imagine an opponent would be permitted to do quite so much damage to your face.”
“I took a year out before university,” Aimé said quietly, drawing a circle on the leather of the armrest with his thumb, “and I worked on my grandmother’s vineyard. I wanted to stay, but my dad insisted I had to get a degree first, so I did a year in law, and couldn’t hack it, so I transferred, started a degree in finance. Got back into boxing then, but a lot of the clubs had rules against heavy drinking – and coke. So I started getting into some stuff in Belfast, and back here in Dublin, when I was home.”
“There’s something cathartic about getting the everloving shit kicked out of you, isn’t there?”
Aimé laughed. It sounded stupid, in Aimé’s posh, English accent, but he nodded his head, and Asmodeus smiled at him, then closed his eyes again.
“They’re home from Mass,” he said mildly. “Tell James he can come straight up.”
Aimé looked out of the window, and he watched Colm and Jean-Pierre both get out of the car. Jimmy, the priest, got out of the back of the car too, and Aimé felt a weird, twisted sensation in his belly when he saw him.
He had a small suitcase in his hand, and he was dressed not in a black shirt, but in a dark green one, and a blue jumper.
“He’s leaving the priesthood?” Aimé asked.
Asmodeus kept his eyes closed, and smiled, showing his teeth. “Would you like to know something about me, Aimé?”
“I hate the church,” Asmodeus said.
“That’s not news to me.”
“Perhaps not,” was the response. “But I like to say it from time to time.”
Aimé had a headache, and when he went downstairs, he bundled Jean-Pierre into his arms immediately, because the angel was in a foul mood, and it showed. He collapsed against Aimé’s chest, insisted on being carried into the living room, and when Aimé sank back onto the sofa, Jean curled up in his lap, and said nothing as Aimé picked up his Plato and his wine once again.
“Read to me,” Jean said.
“From where I was reading?”
“From the beginning.”
“You’re fucking spoilt, you know that?”
Jean-Pierre looked at him, his blue eyes shining. “Are you going to spoil me, or not?”
Aimé shifted the book in his hand, and Jean-Pierre watched, visibly satisfied, as he paged back to the beginning.
“Merci,” Jean-Pierre whispered, and Aimé felt the heat of the angel against his chest as he began to read.