They slept for a few hours before Aimé woke to the sound of screaming and yelling downstairs, and to his surprise, he was on his feet and rushing down the stairs even faster than Jean-Pierre was.
When did he become the kind of person who got up and ran to wherever the noise was, instead of being the man who laid in bed and waited impatiently for it to stop? When did he become a man who wanted to fix things, who jumped to fix things before he even realised that was what he was doing, before he even knew if he could or not?
Benedictine was struggling in her blankets as though she was fitting, and Brigid was going mental, barking and jumping around.
“Shh, shh, Brigid,” said Aimé, pushing past her and leaning to put his hand on Bene’s arms—
And then Benedictine was wide awake, eyes wild, and she had a knife against the side of Aimé’s throat.
“Hey,” said Aimé. “Hey, hey, Bene, it’s just me, it’s just me—”
She wasn’t looking at Aimé the way that Jean-Pierre did, the nights when he suddenly woke up in a rage or a rush of pain or confusion, when the mania took hold; Bene looked like a cornered animal, utterly terrified and half-baring her teeth.
The knife was pressing harder against his skin, and it hurt, but he knew better than to pull away from her.
“Jean?” asked Aimé, trying to look behind him without moving his head.
Benedictine wasn’t fully awake, Aimé didn’t think, because she didn’t look around the room for who he was talking to, didn’t seem to see or acknowledge Jean-Pierre. She was breathing heavy, her lips not just wet with spit but bitten bloody where she’d either chewed on her lips or caught her tongue as she’d gnashed her teeth while having her nightmares, and the blood shone dark and glossy on her chin.
“Benedictine,” rumbled Asmodeus. He must have already been to his dance practice and come back, because he was just wearing a set of joggers and a vest top that his muscled body threatened to burst out of. As gently and easily and gracefully as anything, he insinuated himself between Aimé and Benedictine, taking the knife and dropping it aside.
“Sorry,” Jean-Pierre whispered, leaning to wind a lead around Brigid’s neck, tugging her toward the door. “I would have been worse than you – with my Paris accent, my blue eyes, how pale I am.”
“You’re her brother.”
“Ouais,” agreed Jean-Pierre. “I am her brother, I love her, she loves me. But everyone who’s ever tortured her has looked like I do.”
He said it so fucking casually, like it wasn’t anything, like it didn’t mean anything, and Aimé felt sick as he looked back to Benedictine, who was sobbing so loud and hard and ragged that Aimé almost couldn’t believe it. He’d never imagined that Benedictine could break down like this, could look so fucking small, and Asmodeus was speaking to her quietly in the Haitian Creole that Aimé couldn’t keep up with, wrapping Benedictine up in his arms, holding her up to his chest.
“I’m going to take Brigid,” said Jean-Pierre, wearing Aimé’s joggers and Colm’s jumper and Asmodeus’ coat, and Aimé didn’t stop him, just stood back and let Jean-Pierre go out of the door and let Asmodeus, Benedictine in his arms, go up the stairs.
“Come,” Asmodeus told him, and Aimé obeyed, going upstairs and following the orders Asmodeus gave him, turning the taps on the bath, pouring bath salts and bubble bath in it.
He turned his head away when Benedictine stripped off the boxers and shirt she’d been sleeping in, not looking at her until she was in the water with the hot water against her skin, the bubbles obscuring her body.
She was shaking, her tears streaking her cheeks and blood and snot congealing on her chin, but she washed all that away quickly. Asmodeus first attended Aimé, healing the little cut under his jaw with a movement of two of his fingers and a quick burst of energy, and then he kneeled at the side of the bath.
Aimé hovered, uncertain, not knowing what to do, what he could do, but Asmodeus caught him by the knee before he could go, and said, “Pass me the bodywash. The blue-green bottle.”
Aimé did, but before he could pass it over Benedictine had launched forward and had wrapped her arms bodily around Asmodeus, was squeezing him tightly with her face pressed against his shoulder. Water sloshed over the edge of the bath and was soaking his vest and his joggers, but Asmodeus didn’t seem to notice.
Aimé felt like a voyeur, knew that he was, that this was a family thing, not something he was meant to see, but after he put down the bodywash, Benedictine grabbed him by the wrist, and looked up at him from where she was still hugging tightly to Asmodeus.
“Sorry,” she said, staring down at his knees.
“The fuck are you sorry for?” asked Aimé. “I’m the one who didn’t think and tried to wake you up – I’m sorry, Bene. Shit.”
“You have blood on your neck from where I cut you,” muttered Bene.
“Not much,” said Aimé, shrugging. “Most of it’s on the inside, where it belongs. Jean’s worse to me than you are, you know that.”
Bene let go of his wrist, and very carefully, Aimé sat down on the toilet, pushing down the lid. He did it slowly, not sure if this was the right thing to do, but something in Bene’s tight, upset face relaxed. She was still breathing heavily, and Aimé could feel the ghost of her tight grip around his wrist, where he’d been able to feel the quick, hard pound of her heart through her palm.
“You’re alright,” said Asmodeus softly, gently stroking hair back from Benedictine’s face with his thumb. “You’re always safe here, mm?”
Benedictine was trembling, leaving the surface of the water shifting and bubbling a little, and she didn’t reply as Asmodeus took a sponge and ran it over her body, over her strong shoulders, her neck, her breasts, the back of her arse. His clothes were soaked through and there was bubble bath clinging to his body, his hair a little damp from splashed water.
Colm had a few tattoos on his body – a handful of them were newer, but a lot of them were wrapped in flesh that had burned and almost melted over top of it, all of it from old burn scars that he said he’d gotten from different petrol and gas bombs. Benedictine didn’t have tattoos, only had a handful of scars over her thighs and her sides, one or two on her shoulders and upper arms.
“Pass me the rat tail comb,” said Asmodeus, and Aimé stared at the array of combs and brushes sticking out of a cup, and he picked one at random. “No.”
“Give me a clue, De.”
“The one with the long metal handle,” said Bene, laughing at him, and as Aimé picked the right comb out of the cup she reached up and undid the wrap she wore around her hair to sleep in, leaning forward so that Asmodeus could begin to undo her braids, using the sharp metal end of the comb to undo the tangles. At least when De asked him to hand him a “wide-tooth comb”, that was an easier instruction to follow.
He was quicker at the process than Aimé imagined anyone else might be, but it still took time, and for a while the three of them sat in the quiet as he worked until Asmodeus started washing Benedictine’s hair for her and started asking for Aimé to hand him specific bottles – thankfully, by describing what colour and shape they were.
“You have people to do this for you at home?” asked Aimé. “Attend to you in your bath?”
Bene laughed. “Yeah,” she said. “Pretty girls, not like you two.”
“I’ll have you know there are men who would jump at the chance to have me attend me in their bathwater,” murmured Asmodeus, gently scrubbing the back of Benedictine’s neck before he went back to lathering her hair. “How are you feeling now?”
“Better,” mumbled Bene.
“Would you go lay the fire downstairs?” Asmodeus asked him, and Aimé nodded his head, slipping out of the bathroom and heading downstairs.
Jean-Pierre was just inside, towelling some of the dampness off of Brigid’s legs and her paws, and he gave Aimé a small smile as Aimé went past, building a fire in the hearth and setting it aflame. He put on the coffee machine, and he watched as Jean-Pierre took Benedictine’s blankets up, bundling them into the washing machine because they were soaked with sweat.
“She’s okay,” Aimé said when he realised Jean had been looking at him for a few minutes. “She was pretty shaken up, but she’s calmer now. How was she?” He nodded toward Brigid, who was sprawling out on the rug beside the fire and yawning.
“She’s fine now,” said Jean-Pierre quietly. “She was just overexcited at all the noise, that’s all. She’ll learn to get used to nightmares, living in this house.”
Jean-Pierre put a blanket over the fireguard, so that when Benedictine came downstairs a few minutes later in one of Asmodeus’ t-shirts, it was warm for her. As Aimé poured coffee for De and Bene and threw together a platter of fruits and nuts and ham for Bene, Asmodeus put a chair on the rug and sat down on it, Benedictine sitting cross-legged between his knees with the fire-warmed blanket around her shoulders, and as he started to comb through her hair again, drying it as he went, Jean-Pierre knelt in front of her and started buffing her nails.
They were working in tandem with one another, he realised as he dipped into the gap between De and Jean to set coffee down, and it made him smile, made him feel weirdly warm as he sat down on the rug beside Benedictine and leaned bodily into her side.
“Fuck off,” she said, elbowing him with her free hand, and put his chin on her shoulder as he put a mug of coffee in her hand. “Hm,” she said.
“Hm, she says,” said Aimé. “Thinking that fuck off comment through again now, aren’t ya?”
Brigid, who’d rushed out of the way and looked at the dining chair very suspiciously when it had been put on the rug, now came over and leaned into Benedictine’s other side, shoving her big fluffy head under the blanket and then her elbow, and Aimé laughed.
“He’s the same as the dog,” Bene complained, leaning back as Asmodeus worked her hair, looking up at her brother’s gaze. “He’s proud of being the same as the dog.”
“Aren’t you warm?” asked Asmodeus, his lips shifted into a smile, and Aimé felt the tension go out of Bene’s body, the way she leaned back against Asmodeus’ legs and also into Aimé, leaning her cheek into his shoulder even though she’d been complaining a second ago.
“You gonna go back to sleep?” he asked in a stage whisper. “We should be able to get you dressed, too.”
“Yeah, get me dressed,” mumbled Benedictine against his shoulder, her eyes closed. “Just don’t let the princess do my makeup.”
“Which one of you is the princess?” Aimé asked, and they all laughed, although Bene did it through a yawn.
* * *
After Colm had come home and, observing the four of them pressed around Benedictine, picked his way between them all and deposited himself heavily in Benedictine’s lap, Jean-Pierre and Aimé went out.
They went to the gym first, sparring for a while, and then they sat together at a sushi restaurant, Jean-Pierre with a plate of sashimi in front of him and Aimé eating from a large bowl of ramen, from which Jean-Pierre had picked some of his egg yolk and a little seaweed.
“I booked our flights for Berlin,” said Jean-Pierre. “Colm and I’s.”
“How are you feeling about it?” asked Aimé, and Jean-Pierre pressed his lips together, not answering the question right away.
How did he feel about it?
Uncomfortable, to say the least.
He wondered what it might be like to meet Heidemarie, with all the details he’d learned about her over the years – that she was mercurial and prone to fits of temper, that she did acrobatics but was not as impassioned about them as she was other things, that she could be distant, difficult, or agonisingly affectionate.
Would meeting Heidemarie be like, as he had imagined it might be over these years, meeting his image in a mirror?
Or would she be so much like Colm – focused upon emotion and people’s feelings, her feelings, a natural engineer, knowing how objects functioned and fit together, how each process worked?
“I think that if we clash with one another,” said Jean-Pierre quietly, “which I feel is a potential given all that Colm has likely told her about me, it will only prove Colm right for keeping us separate all these years.”
“You think you’re gonna clash?” asked Aimé, and Jean-Pierre shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what she is like. I have no way of knowing. Asmodeus never talks about her with me, and what I overhear between Colm and Asmodeus, between Colm and other people, she can be very obnoxious, very cruel, she curses, she aims for the most vulnerable points she can in conversation – this has not changed since she has become more disabled and more reliant on other people. I am a doctor before I am her uncle – I have cared for many disabled patients, the elderly among them, and I have never been deterred by verbal abuse; and unlike Colm, I am not going to be distracted by someone’s real emotion, that which they do not wish to share with me.”
Aimé looked thoughtful as he ate some of his noodles, chewing. He’d been good this morning, with Benedictine, and it had made Jean-Pierre happy, that Aimé had fallen into teasing her in the way that the rest of them did even as he gave her comfort – and he hadn’t shied away from comforting her either, no matter that she was taller or stronger or bigger than him, no matter that she did not often present herself as someone frequently in need or desire of comforting.
Aimé saw past what appearance she projected of herself, and yet at the same time he saw past it, the way he saw past what Jean-Pierre projected, what Colm did – he even saw, it seemed to Jean-Pierre, parts of Asmodeus that the rest of them didn’t see.
“You never clashed with a patient?” asked Aimé.
Jean-Pierre considered the question, tilting his head to one side. Obviously, he had – one did not complete so much as a week’s rotation without having a few quarrels here and there with patients; those who were uncomfortable receiving medical care; those who wanted a different doctor, one who was older, more masculine, less gay. In other situations, there had been those who knew precisely who and what Jean-Pierre was and rejected his care.
“On battlefields most of all,” said Jean-Pierre. “Battlefields or other scenes of violence where I was contracted as medic, an emergency where no or few other doctors were available, and they were forced to take their care from me, whom they find in various ways odious and objectionable. But yes, as a doctor, in many hospitals, I have been met with resistance – I enjoy very much to work as a surgeon, in part because I spend little time with the patients, or at least, little time where they are conscious and aware.
“But I am most proficient in emergency medical care, and I tend to seek out accident and emergency departments. Some patients, yes, are so insensible or hurried in their conditions that they have no time or energy to really protest their care – but equally, at times of greatest stress, some patients are at their most resistant and objectionable.”
Aimé leaned forward, eating a slice of meat from the top of his ramen.
“And with old people? Don’t you feel bad, I don’t know, strong-arming it?”
“I don’t think so,” said Jean-Pierre quietly. “I don’t know that I do strong-arm it – I have cared for patients who are very elderly, quite disabled, or whose conditions are chronic or terminal. I believe in liberty before I believe in medicine – if a patient is aware and cognizant of what is happening, and tells me they do not want my care, I find it natural that I should listen when they advocate for themselves. I have rarely found it to be the case, however, that a patient resists a course of action out of a desire for suicide or further suffering – more often, it is that they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, that they hate to be interfered with and at the mercy of doctors, that they’re frightened or in too much pain to process what is happening to them.”
Aimé was laughing, and Jean-Pierre watched the lines move in his wonderfully ugly face, his lopsided grin, his crooked teeth, his mismatched eyes. He was still wearing his hat inside, dark curls coming out from the edges of the woollen hat.
“You find me funny?”
“I find you hilarious, ange,” said Aimé. “But I’m not laughing at you, exactly – I’m laughing at you saying you believe in liberty before you believe in medicine.”
“Do you believe in liberty before you believe in art?” asked Jean-Pierre, arching an eyebrow.
“That’s different,” said Aimé. “Art is the essence of liberty.” His tone was very sardonic, but Jean-Pierre grinned at the invitation to play, seeing it for precisely what it was even before his gaze lingered once more on the crooked curve of Aimé’s lower lip.
“So is medicine,” argued Jean-Pierre. “If a man is made vulnerable by injury or illness, what hope does he have of liberty? Is it not so that a man ill or injured is more vulnerable to abuse by those who believe themselves to be his superiors?”
“Depends on who gets access to the medicine,” said Aimé.
“One could say the same of art,” retorted Jean, and Aimé made a dismissive “pah” sound, and Jean-Pierre heard himself giggle before he could even think about it, relaxing in his seat.
“The nature,” said Aimé, “of the medical profession as it stands—”
“What do I have to do with how it stands?”
“You’re a doctor!”
“I’m a medical student!”
“Oh, for the eleventh time.”
Jean-Pierre’s foot slid against Aimé’s under the table, their ankles against one another, and he felt a sort of warmth in his cheeks. Distantly, he remembered arguments like this over dinner with Manolis or with Bui, and he felt very much at home.
“Will Colm be better with you if you’re good with her, or if you two argue?” asked Aimé.
“I expect he’ll hate it either way,” said Jean-Pierre. “He finds it very easy to hate me when he’s of a mind to.”
Aimé’s foot curled against Jean-Pierre’s, gently tapping the toe of his boot before tugging playfully at the buckle with his own foot. Jean-Pierre reached over and swiped another piece of egg, and Aimé smiled at him, but he didn’t swipe anything from Jean-Pierre’s own plate – he liked sashimi, but he knew that Jean hated it when Aimé got broth on his fish.
“And you’re really gonna bring her back?”
“Colm’s put in an order for building materials,” said Jean-Pierre. “Assuming she’s fit enough to travel once we’ve attended her, I expect he will make good on his promise – and I think it’s only right that he does. Her family, from what I can grasp, strongly dislike her, and treat her accordingly. No matter the many negative traits we’ll find in her personality, we’ll treat her kindly here – Colm and I, Asmodeus, Pádraic, Bedelia, George.”
“Me,” said Aimé, and Jean-Pierre smiled, letting himself sigh.
“You,” he murmured. “You’d best not fall in love with her.”
“I can’t promise that, babe,” said Aimé. “You know I’m only fucking you ‘cause I haven’t been able to woo any ninety-year-old German women. Once there’s one available, obviously she’ll be my entire life.” When Jean-Pierre smiled, Aimé looked at him seriously, and asked, “You feeling better than you were?”
“You still thinking about Myrddin?”
“You want to talk about it?”
“Later, maybe. And you, your… You know even with Colm and I abroad in Germany, Asmodeus will care for you, protect you. From your father. You cannot be under any danger when Asmodeus watches over you, you know.”
“I know,” said Aimé, and he smiled slightly. This time, before Jean-Pierre could reach for it, Aimé took the last piece of his egg and set it on Jean-Pierre’s side plate for him, making him grin.
Something hummed under his skin, thinking of Myrddin.
They’d discuss it later.