He didn’t know why, but he didn’t much want to be alone, after his lectures were finished each day his first week back in college. They were introductory in tone, each of them welcomes back to the hardship and toil of academia, and only a few of them had anything interesting going on.
He didn’t take notes in any of them – he rarely took notes in any lectures, just sat to the back of the room, slouched in his seat. Lecturers sometimes commented on it when they saw him, and he never replied to them.
In his time at Trinity, he’d never attended anybody’s office hours, never attended a society event twice in a row, never gone out of his way to talk to a lecturer in person. Sometimes, they talked to him – sometimes, they talked to him about his essays.
That should have felt good, he supposed, should have been flattering.
It never felt real – it felt more like it would be a trick, somehow, like it was just a ploy to get into his head, or force him into going to counselling, or something else. He didn’t like to linger on it.
He felt more… tender, than usual. More vulnerable. Felt like Jean-Pierre had stripped his skin off and left the flesh underneath on display, easy for anybody to get at.
It only made sense – and it was the biggest irony – that he sought out Jean-Pierre’s company.
On Monday evening, he slunk, like a stray cat, after Jean-Pierre into his anatomy lecture, and sat quietly, reading his book, as Jean-Pierre’s lecturer talked about the different elements that contributed to a living being, the processes that went on within a mammal’s body.
Jean-Pierre was listening, it seemed to Aimé, but he barely ever looked at the lecturer or her screen: he gazed, his pretty blue eyes defocused, into the middle distance, and doodled detailed diagrams of bones and cross-sections of organs instead of making notes. They were sat to the right-hand side of the room, and Jean-Pierre sketched with his left hand – he and Aimé had that in common – his left ear tilted toward the doctor, as though it would help him hear her better.
It was funny, looking at the way he drew. Jean-Pierre’s cross-hatching was old-fashioned, exactly what Aimé would have expected of a man three-hundred years old. He wondered how many anatomy sketches in antique textbooks today were Delacroix originals, and the idea made his lip twitch.
After the lecture was over, Jean-Pierre loosely curled his fingers into Aimé’s, apparently understanding without being told that Aimé wasn’t much in a mood to talk, and walked with him – half-led him – to his locker. Of course he was the sort of prick to actually get a locker.
“What’s that?” Aimé asked as he exchanged his book bag for a sleek, wooden case.
“A fiddle,” Jean-Pierre said.
Jean-Pierre gave him a moue of displeasure. “A fiddle,” he corrected.
Aimé huffed out a low laugh, and shook his head when Jean-Pierre gestured to the locker, offering for him to drop his own light bag – containing, apart from the book he was reading, two blank notebooks, a handful of pens, half of them empty of ink, and a bottle of merlot – inside. They walked together, Aimé with his hands in his pockets, Jean-Pierre padding confidently forward, his fiddle case in his hand.
He didn’t know if he was surprised or not, when Jean-Pierre led him through the streets of Dublin, and into a dank, crowded pub basement that smelt of a hastily hidden poitín still, and was full to the brim with people. The ones with instruments were gathered on top of a thrown-together shelf of wood not grand enough to be called a stage, and Aimé separated from Jean-Pierre and walked toward the bar as he took a seat beside Colm, who had a set of uillean pipes in his lap.
Asmodeus didn’t have an instrument, but he sat in-between his two brothers, sipping at a class of red wine.
When Aimé looked at him, Asmodeus met his eye, and tapped the side of the glass. In the dim gloom, he read on Asmodeus’ lips: Order on my tab. Aimé started to shake his head, to wave one hand, but Asmodeus gave him a sort of dismissive gesture. It’s nothing, he mouthed silently. Drink wine with me. Be a hipster.
Aimé snorted, and turned to the barman. “Uh, can I order on—”
“You’re with Craddock’s brother, right?” asked the barman, his hands on his hips.
Craddock. Christ. “Uh, yeah.”
“I’ll put you on his tab,” said the barman. “He English?”
“I think so,” Aimé.
“He has good fuckin’ Irish,” muttered the barman. “The Frenchman’s drinking water with lemon. What about you?”
“Did you, um… Did you open the bottle for De? The wine?”
“Shiraz,” he said, with undisguised disapproval, but the glass he took down had a big bowl, and Aimé didn’t think it would be the work of a wise man – least of all a wise alcoholic – to turn down a free drink of choice.
The shiraz was heavy, dry, and smelled thickly of blackberries. It had a pleasant, tangy aftertaste, and he rolled it thoughtfully on his tongue as he stepped forward, putting Jean-Pierre’s water at his foot as he rosined his bow.
“Go raibh maith agat,” Jean-Pierre said sweetly. The French-accented Munster Irish sounded deeply weird, but there was no hesitation in the syllables, and they sounded correct enough to Aimé, as much as his own Irish was poor.
He took a stool toward the edge of the back of the room, and it was too dark to read without straining his eyes, so he didn’t try. He leaned back against the cool stone of the wall, his wine glass rested on one of his spread thighs, and he watched the musicians talk to one another.
They all knew Colm and Jean-Pierre.
Ancient old men clapped them both on the shoulder as they walked past or took their place on the stage; a pretty, freckled girl clutching an accordion to her breast stopped to talk to Jean-Pierre, and they spoke at length, the two of them gesturing with their instruments, unable to use their hands; a fat, middle-aged man with red cheeks and a bodhran hanging from his clubbed fingers stopped to speak with Jean-Pierre, as Gaeilge, and Aimé heard the word “diabetes” pass between them, saw the way the man laughed when Jean-Pierre scolded him lightly for something, a smile on his face.
The diabetic called him Doctor.
Aimé had never been all that one for trad, and that didn’t change, sitting in a crowded pub, smelling other people’s cigarette smoke when he itched to go have one himself, listening to all these musicians go into rounds and jigs and all the rest. His father had wanted him to learn an instrument, but he’d never been able to stick at it beyond playing Baa Baa Black Sheep with two fingers on the piano: he felt like he should feel guilty, listening to all these people play dozens of songs by heart in symphony with one another, but he didn’t, not really.
The music washed over him, and he watched the camaraderie of it all from the side lines, watched people tap their feet, rap their knuckles on the table, nod their heads.
When people started nominating songs, a few of them started to be vocal, not just instrumental.
When Colm started singing, it was a song Aimé didn’t really know, something about a goat, he thought, but Jean-Pierre started singing in harmony with his brother like they were one voice split into two. Colm’s singing voice was plain but carried well in the room, and it was lower than his speaking voice; Jean-Pierre’s voice went the other way, was higher than when he spoke, but there was a strange resonance in it, that made Aimé feel he’d shatter like glass.
He liked that feeling.
Colm and Jean-Pierre walked ahead of them, Jean-Pierre with his fiddle case hanging loosely at his side, Colm with his pipes slung over his shoulder, and his other arm wrapped loosely around Jean-Pierre letting him lean into Colm’s chest as they walked.
Asmodeus and Aimé walked behind them, and passed the merlot from Aimé’s bag back and forth, both of them sipping directly from the neck of the bottle.
“Close,” Aimé said. “Chilean.”
“They don’t have that pest there. The thing that blights wine. Do they?”
Aimé shook his head, pressing his lips loosely together, wondering if he should be impressed or not. Asmodeus didn’t seem at all drunk, didn’t slur his words or stumble, but he was smiling, distantly, and he’d never heard the angel speak so vaguely without being mysterious. It was getting easier to look at his face, but not less uncomfortable. He was just getting used to the glare Asmodeus gave off, the way you got used to a too-hot bath.
“Phylloxera lice. No, they don’t. Most of us have to graft resistant plants into our crop to escape the Blight, but the Chileans go pretty much free of it.”
“Us,” Asmodeus repeated, emphasising the sibilant sound, and Aimé looked away.
“Yeah,” he muttered, and covered the bitter taste in his mouth with more wine. “Can I… De?”
“Yes?” Asmodeus didn’t look at Aimé: he kept his gaze forward. He walked in a way that was uncomfortably perfect, every step the same, every movement of his arm and shoulder the same as he moved forward, retaining the same rhythm. Asmodeus walked, moved, like he’d been rendered in some complicated computer program.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“You can always ask me questions,” Asmodeus said softly, and glanced at him. The evening had drawn dark, and most of the light came from the streetlamps. They made Asmodeus’ eyes shine incredibly green, like a phosphorous flash. “I cannot promise, Aimé, that I will always answer them.”
Aimé opened his mouth. Closed it. Blurted out, “Do you sing?”
“Yes,” Asmodeus answered cleanly. “I used to record music, in the twenties through to the forties. I still do, from time to time.”
“No, that’s their thing.” He gestured toward Jean-Pierre and Colm ahead of them, but he didn’t seem bothered by it, as much as Asmodeus seemed bothered by anything. “I sing cabaret, and jazz. I know a range of genres, but those are my favourite.” Aimé didn’t know how to imagine that, how to imagine Asmodeus as part of a cabaret act. He was too big, too quiet, too subtle – wasn’t cabaret meant to be big, a statement after a statement, with feathers and cymbal crashes?
“I don’t know if I know what that sounds like,” he said honestly.
Asmodeus shrugged his shoulders. “Jean has some of my records, if it interests you. I was never a chart topper in the mundane community, Aimé.”
“That mean you were in the magical one?”
“I have my fans.”
“That why you have so much money to throw around?”
Asmodeus looked at him, his eyes half-lidded, his lips curved into a sly, easy smirk. “Is that the question you wanted to ask?”
Aimé pressed his lips tightly together, and then inhaled sharply through his nose. There was a pleasant, drunken buzz in his head, but there was something holding him back from really enjoying it, a distant anxiety. He wanted a cigarette. He couldn’t have a cigarette.
He was… fairly certain he hadn’t become spontaneously allergic to them.
“De,” he started, and ahead of them, Jean-Pierre turned in Colm’s arms, wrapped around his brother’s chest, his cheek pressed tightly to the curve of one of Colm’s pecs.
“We should turn off here, Aimé, no?” he asked. “To sleep in your flat?”
“Uh— Yeah,” Aimé said. “Yeah, Jean, just up ahead.”
“Jean-Pierre,” was the response, and Aimé huffed out a laugh, closed his eyes for a moment, as Jean-Pierre passed his fiddle to Colm and gave his brother a hug. Aimé felt himself smile, almost without thinking, as Jean-Pierre wound their fingers together, and he watched the way the angel stuck out his neck, raising his chin high in the air, until Asmodeus obediently leaned and kissed him on the cheek.
“You want one too?” Asmodeus asked darkly when Aimé laughed.
“On the cheek?” Aimé asked, and Asmodeus cuffed him upside the head. It was a quick motion, and he didn’t actually make enough contact with Aimé’s flesh to really hurt him, but it shocked a surprised noise out of his mouth, and he still grabbed the back of his head reflexively.
Laughing, he let Jean-Pierre tug him the other way up the path, and listened to Colm – who was half-drunk, and had been using Jean-Pierre to keep himself from staggering – start belting out the Auld Triangle for the benefit of passers-by, shoving Asmodeus and demanding he keep rhythm.
“Do you like him?” Jean-Pierre asked, after Colm’s song began to fade off into the evening air.
“Uh, yeah,” Aimé said quietly. “Yeah, I think so. Shouldn’t I?”
“I love him very much,” Jean-Pierre said softly, swinging Aimé’s hand in his own. “He likes you, I think. He does not usually like my boyfriends – it seems to me he does not usually notice them. It pleases me very much, that he likes you. It never occurred to me until now how much his disinterest in my lovers bothered me.”
Something about that caught in Aimé’s throat, in his chest. He didn’t know what about it, exactly, just that it did. “You, uh… You have a lot of boyfriends?”
“Not so many.” Jean-Pierre’s expression was pensive, his lips parted. He looked beautiful like this. He always looked beautiful, of course, but he looked beautiful like this, illuminated from several sides by the glows of different streetlights, where the different streaks of bright colour made him look like he’d been painted in oils, made his skin glow and his eyes shine. “Before you, I was with a man named Farhad. He was Persian – he died in ’89.” He paused a moment, and then added, as if it needed adding – which, Aimé supposed, it did – “1989.”
“How’d he die?”
“He, ah. He was HIV positive when I met him in ’86. He was not my patient, I was working in a different hospital at the time, but Colm and I both volunteered on every ward we could, during the crisis. It was very… It was not good. Farhad also volunteered, which I found to be very admirable – a lot of young men in his position did their best to pretend such things were not coming for them, tried to distract themselves with other things, but not him. His family stopped speaking to him when he told them he was gay, you see – he knew what it was, to be alone.”
Jean-Pierre’s voice was very quiet, pitched low. He sounded sad, obviously, but quietly nostalgic, too. There was a slight curve to his lips, a sort of absentminded smile, distant, fond.
“His condition worsened two years or so into our relationship. The AZT made him lose a lot of weight, and at the same time, he became increasingly immunocompromised, until he got ill, and it became pneumonia, and…” Jean-Pierre squeezed Aimé’s hand in his own, very tightly. “It is different now, you know. HIV is no longer a death sentence – even after testing positive, most people can live normal, healthy lives. He would like that.”
“How old was he?” Aimé asked, dry-mouthed, feeling like he should say something. “When he died?”
“All your boyfriends die young?” Aimé asked.
“Some of them,” Jean-Pierre said. “Not you.”
“What, you’re banning me?”
“Yes,” Jean-Pierre said. “You are to grow old with me, or not to age at all, but those are the only options I shall allow you. You are not permitted to die for at least several decades.” It was said airily, but there was tension in Jean-Pierre’s shoulders and in the column of his throat, and his voice sounded like it would shatter under pressure.
Aimé wanted to point out that he, an ugly ex-boxer with an alcohol problem, didn’t exactly measure up to some Persian angel who spent his free time taking care of AIDs victims who died tragically young. He figured – he hoped – that Jean-Pierre knew this, but it still felt like it might be worth saying.
But there was a kind of weird fragility in Jean-Pierre’s voice. His eyes looked a little wet, and he was looking at the street instead of at Aimé himself, and Aimé felt sick to his stomach with the understanding that he didn’t deserve to have an angel holding his hand, that as soon as Jean-Pierre realised how fucking defective he was, he’d drop him and go somewhere else, and he didn’t want him to, he didn’t, but…
“It’s okay,” Aimé heard himself say, woodenly. “I’ll make sure you sign my permission slip before I go die anywhere.”
Jean-Pierre smiled at him. It was a shy smile, one that made him look young, vulnerable, innocent. It made Aimé feel like his heart had dropped out of his chest.
“So, were all the exes sob stories, or?”
Jean-Pierre laughed, looking forward. “No,” he murmured. “Farhad was an architect. Before him, ah… Bui was a schoolteacher. Rupert was a lawyer. Benoit and Manolis were both soldiers, but Benoit trained in law too, when he was older. Bui died of tuberculosis, he was forty-five; Manolis and Benoit both died in their fifties. Rupert was twenty-six. My first lover, Jules, he was in his sixties.”
“Sounds like I have a lot of dead guys to compete with,” Aimé muttered. “Were they all saints, like Farhad?” His voice sounded too sharp, and too defensive, and he didn’t know how to stop. He felt like throwing himself in the fucking Liffey, but Jean-Pierre would only drag him out.
“Not at all,” Jean-Pierre said quietly. “Manolis was feral, a street cat. He never had fewer than four blades on him, and often had a grenade ready to throw. Bui could be very cold – he had a sort of quiet, sensible brutality to him. His expectations were very high: woe betide he who did not bow before them. And Jules, Jules was a hedonist.”
“Like me. Some might say I learned from the best. But like you, too – he was grounded in a way I was not, took pleasure from life in ways I did not expect, and inspired me with it.”
Aimé was quiet for a second, and then started, “How—”
“Aimé,” Jean-Pierre said, his voice cracking slightly as he spoke, and when he met Aimé’s gaze, there was something pleading in his eyes. “Could we… I am very sorry. Could we discuss something else?”
“Yeah,” Aimé said. “Yeah, we don’t have to talk about that. Sorry.”
“What of you?” Jean-Pierre asked. “You have no lovers in your past I ought know about?”
“No,” Aimé said, feeling his free hand twitch at his side. “No, I’ve never really, uh… No.”
It wasn’t like he hadn’t slept with people. With girls, mostly, but with guys, too. He’d never really felt any fierce bisexual pride about it – it was Aimé’s quietly held awareness that people would assume a guy as ugly as he was might be bi for the sake of opportunity, and maybe they weren’t entirely wrong.
He liked sex. Sex in other people’s beds, especially, was ideal, where he could leave afterward without anyone sticking around in his space, where he could fuck off, bike home, and then paint in peace.
“All those people in the pub,” Aimé said. “They knew you.”
“Yes,” Jean-Pierre agreed. “We go to that trad night regularly. You don’t like it?”
“I liked it,” Aimé said. “I wouldn’t seek it out. Not if you weren’t there.”
“Hm,” Jean-Pierre hummed, and brushed his lips over the back of Aimé’s knuckles.
* * *
On Tuesday, Jean-Pierre led Aimé through the city to a food bank in a community centre. Aimé had never been in one before, and he hung back as Jean-Pierre rolled his sleeves up to his elbows and stood beside Colm.
People bustled around, shouting to one another, laughing. Everyone here knew one another, and he didn’t belong.
He knew he didn’t belong.
After fifteen minutes, Jean-Pierre said, “Aimé, be useful. Come here.”
On Wednesday, he had no lectures, and he spent the whole day painting – which is to say, he spent the whole day drinking.
When Jean-Pierre came home, it was past eleven, and he smelt like his brother’s greenhouse. He clambered into Aimé’s lap where Aimé lay on the sofa, curled his fingers in Aimé’s hair, massaged his scalp.
“You do not like beer?” he asked softly. Since Jean-Pierre had arranged to have his flat cleaned, he hadn’t let bottles or cans pile up as usual, but he hadn’t drunk beer at home recently, either. There were two bottles of a particularly dry South African white on the table, one entirely drunk, the other with barely half a glass left inside it.
“Beer’s fine,” Aimé said. The world was spinning, very slowly and clumsily, and Jean-Pierre was its axis: as Aimé looked up at him, he was a static point, the lamp making a glow of golden light behind his head, and the room spun. “But I like wine. I worked on a vineyard, before I went to university. My grandmother’s.”
“Hm,” Jean-Pierre said, and Aimé sighed as his hands pulled out of where they were curled in Aimé’s hair, and instead picked up his hands, examining them, turning them over. “These hands… You tell me they are the hands of a labourer?”
“Not anymore,” Aimé said.
Jean-Pierre tilted his head to one side, his lips parting in a loose-lipped moue. His expression was curious, but perplexed, and his thumbs delicately traced the curves of Aimé’s knuckles. He turned Aimé’s hands over, then, so his fists were tilted toward the ceiling.
The scarred lines at Aimé’s wrists, vertical cuts that adjoined the base of his hand on each side, shone in the light. Each was dark pink, raised, and he flattered himself that they were symmetrical. His father might have approved of that, if he’d actually died.
Jean-Pierre examined them with a sort of impassive curiosity, an expression that Aimé didn’t know how to read in detail.
“You did not receive these wounds while boxing,” he said thoughtfully.
“No,” Aimé said. “I didn’t receive them anywhere – they were a gift to myself.”
“A gift returned, I take it.”
“A gift snatched out of my hands, let’s say,” Aimé said. “My ashtray caught fire in the other room while I was in the bath, set off the fire alarm. The caretaker found me and called an ambulance. Fucker was an ex-army nurse. Great head for first aid – bound my wrists tighter than anything before he shoved his fingers down my throat and made me vomit out every paracetamol I’d taken.”
Jean-Pierre chuckled, tracing one finger down the scarred line on Aimé’s right wrist. It tickled.
“You see,” he said primly, “if you had quit smoking, you might not be here today.”
Aimé started laughing, closing his eyes and feeling the drink swell back and forth in him like a wave. When Jean-Pierre kissed him, it was slow and sweet, until he pulled back and sputtered.
“S’that wine?” he demanded. “It’s horrible.”
“It’s quite tart,” Aimé allowed. “It’s made of chenin blanc – Cabreton blanc. They’re a popular grape in South Africa.”
“All the best wines are French,” Jean-Pierre said.
“Do you even know any wines?”
“… Red,” Jean-Pierre said, and Aimé laughed again.
“You’re so fucking ignorant,” Aimé muttered, shaking his head.
“Tell me about your grandmother’s vineyard,” Jean-Pierre said softly.
“It was in Montauban.”
“It’s gone now. Pieced apart, sold off. She died a few years ago, and then my aunt Margot and her two sons, my cousins, they all died in a car crash, a few months after her funeral. My uncle couldn’t do it on his own.”
“And with you?” Jean-Pierre asked.
Aimé slid his hands forward, underneath the fabric of Jean-Pierre’s jumper, dragging his shirt out of his tight waistband. When his hands slid underneath it, sliding over the tender flesh of Jean-Pierre’s scarred belly, Jean wriggled in his lap, released a ticklish sound.
“You want to talk sad backstories, or do you want to have sex?” Aimé asked.
“You are certain you are sober enough to get it up?”
“Still have a tongue, don’t I?”
“Will you rinse your mouth out before you kiss me?”
“I do whatever you tell me to,” Aimé said. “You haven’t noticed that already?”
Jean-Pierre, for just a second, terrified him. There was a sort of coldness in his eyes, a chill set to his pretty lips. He looked like more than a statue, right now: he looked like a portrait, the sort of portrait you put in your hall to scare the shit out of your visitors.
“I have noticed,” Jean-Pierre said softly, cold as ice. “Aimé?”
It was a well-timed rebellion: Jean-Pierre’s smile gained savagery, but it didn’t fade away. If anything, his eyes glittered brighter. “Will you carry me to bed?”
“Not sure,” Aimé said. “Let’s see what happens.”
Thursday morning, Aimé sat, hungover, with scabbing scratches down his back keeping him awake in his metaphysics lecture. He had to sit forward instead of sinking back against his seat like he ordinarily would, and now and then he had to tug at his shirt to keep it from sticking to where the scabs had formed and reformed.
Jean-Pierre had put disinfectant on them before they’d gone to sleep, but he hadn’t apologised.
Aimé hadn’t much wanted him to.
“Uh, Aimé,” said Doc Mason as they left the lecture hall together. Doc Mason was a slow old man, always lumbered slow after his students, and Aimé liked to wait for the rush to pass by before he stepped out into the corridors.
“Doc?” Aimé asked.
“It’s a friend’s.”
“It’s, uh. It’s slipped.”
Aimé reached up, touched the bruised flesh on his neck. Jean-Pierre hadn’t been a little rough at first, but he hadn’t gotten nasty until Aimé had tried to pin him on his back. There’d been a wildness in Jean-Pierre’s pretty eyes, and a surprising strength in his arms, when he’d shoved Aimé back onto his shoulders and wrapped his hands around his throat.
He pulled the scarf by one loose tail, so that the loop hid the angel’s marks on his neck.
“You don’t seem all that scandalised, Doc,” Aimé said.
“I once knew a woman who could only get off on horseback,” the old man said thoughtfully. “Takes all sorts, Aimé.”
“Guess it does,” Aimé said, and reached into his pocket for his cigarettes before he remembered. “Fuck,” he muttered to himself, and loped off in the direction of the library.