He was in a sore mood in the morning, feeling a mix of guilty and indignant and just plain irritable, and he was glad to find that despite rising very early, as he always did, that Asmodeus was not home to greet him when he came downstairs, like he usually was.
Jean-Pierre and Aimé were still in bed, Peadar dozing between their necks and purring up a storm, and Colm was undisturbed as he went down to the kitchen, ate a sandwich, and threw on his coat to go out to the allotment.
It had been impossible not to take it in, last night, not to listen, not to feel, as Jean-Pierre and Aimé talked about fucking cards and Myrddin and… And him.
Even as exhausted as he was, he hadn’t been able to sleep, knowing that Jean-Pierre was all but telling Aimé Colm abused him because he didn’t let him scream until his throat bled, or hurt himself, or hurt anybody else, and there Aimé was, fucking believing him, and taking it all to heart.
He smoked as he walked the boundary of the rest of the allotment, the land he hadn’t used much yet, and had let grow over with meadow to encourage in butterflies and bees to help the rest of the crop at the other end. There was more than enough space for a small bungalow – it didn’t need to be big, just needed a bedroom, a kitchen, a bath, and he could have a second little room with a kitchenette, if she needed live-in help, in the end.
She wouldn’t be here long, after all, even if Jean-Pierre sorted out the arthritis. She was old.
He was all but building her a crypt.
The weed mellowed him out slightly, took the hard edge off his hard mood, and he kept smoking until he felt himself even out, until the grief didn’t feel quite as keen, and the indignation had faded to a more distant concern, and the rage bubbling underneath his skin had been soothed from a boil down to a gentle simmer.
It was easier out here, at least, slap bang in the middle of almost nowhere, where the closest emotions he could feel came from birds and cows in the next pasture over.
He breathed slowly in, felt the bitter cold of the December air sting at his teeth and his throat and his lungs, and he thought of having Heidi here, seeing her every day, and he felt himself smile. It had been easier, in recent years – he didn’t mean to infantalise her, but it was easier in the way it had been when she was a little girl, because she couldn’t walk away from him anymore, couldn’t leave when she knew he was coming.
He knew exactly how selfish that thought was, and he ached for himself and his daughter both.
He drove home in a slow daze, dimly aware of the world moving a great deal more slowly, but it was just before seven, and the roads still hadn’t had time to get busy when he came back into the house.
Peadar miaowed plaintively as he walked into the living room, winding his way around Colm’s legs, and Colm leaned down to pick him up, holding the big animal in his arms as he walked into the kitchen, where Aimé was brewing coffee.
“Nothing for our boy here?” Colm asked.
“Certainly there is,” was Aimé’s dry response. “When he realised it was cat food on offer, he seemed to lose interest.”
Peadar wriggled in Colm’s arms, and Colm laughed at the feeling that came off him, the hunger, the dissatisfaction – he knew damn well that the food in the dish on the table was exactly the same as what he’d get at home, and negated the point of coming over to the angels’ for food in the first place.
“Poor lad,” said Colm mildly, and dropped him on the floor, setting the dish beside him.
Peadar sniffed it, then took another glance up at Colm, who was looking down at him expectantly, and to Aimé, who was resoundingly ignoring him as he poured coffee into a mug.
Through the pleasant haze, which was already fading – he’d smoked before he’d started work, and it had been a few hours since then, feeling the cold, slightly hard texture of the soil under his hands, moist when he reached past through the freezing dew, the smell of it, of the plants in their polytunnel too, and then, the heat and the brightness of the lights when he went underground, and worked on the cannabis plants – he was aware of Aimé’s slight edge of anxiety, the stiffness in his body as he waited for Colm to be angry with him.
He had a half-crate of different cactus fruits in the car, and some more mushrooms, too, but he’d get to them in a few minutes.
Aimé was in loose jeans and a paint-covered jumper, and Colm reached out, pulling a down feather out of his hair.
“De still out?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Aimé. “Maybe he didn’t sleep, I don’t know. If he did, he went to bed after I did.”
“He never sleeps much,” said Colm. “Help me take the crop out of the car?”
“Sure,” said Aimé.
For a while, the two of them worked in relative silence, once they’d brought in the boxes and set them aside, and then made their way out into the yard to start work.
“So?” asked Aimé.
“So?” replied Colm.
“You want me to act like I don’t know you heard?”
Colm looked at Aimé as he dug his trowel into the earth, twisting around the roots of a dandelion in a quick, calculated way and pulling it free, roots and all, to toss onto the compost heap. When his lopsided, mismatched eyes met Colm’s, Colm almost felt in a vague way that they looked very much like Jean’s, even though they didn’t – he was very aware, this morning, of the interconnectedness of everything, but it didn’t really make him feel better.
“You want to believe him,” said Colm, forcing a shrug, “believe him.”
“He always lies. It’s what he does.”
“You never do what he said?” asked Aimé, in a sort of snide and easy way. He talked like Asmodeus sometimes, in a way that Colm didn’t like – Aimé could be distanced about things, curious about them, and even though Colm could feel that he wasn’t blank like Asmodeus was, it still pissed him off, somehow. Aimé didn’t feel snide, or smug – he felt curious, sad, a little angry and defensive on Jean’s behalf, but concerned for Colm as well. That pissed Colm off, too. “Pull his feelings out of him even when he tells you not to?”
“You know, there’s a point with people who aren’t rational where their consent is less important,” Colm replied. “Where you’re thinking about protecting them from themselves, or protecting other people from them. If you tried to slit your wrists again, and I dragged you out of the bath, you’d tell me not to, but I’d still set you down and tourniquet your arms.”
To his frustration, this blow didn’t land the way he wanted to, and he couldn’t tell if it was something he ordinarily would have misjudged or if it was just that he was still half-high.
Aimé gave him a condescending smile, like Colm was a kid who’d spoken out of turn, and said, “Except if you pulled me out of a bath it would be to stop me killing myself. How much of it with Jean is wanting to calm him down, and wanting to make it stop?”
“Calming him down is making it stop.”
“For him or you?”
“Funny,” Colm said. “Didn’t take you long to become an expert on all of us, did it?”
“Not saying I understand,” said Aimé, shrugging his shoulders. “But for all he cares about controlling other people, Jean goes to a lot of effort to make sure he doesn’t peek in other people’s heads.”
“Only because he can’t control his own fucking feelings, and acting like other people’s are real is too much for him,” Colm muttered irritably. “He’s never had a boyfriend wrapped around his fingers the way you are.”
“Not surprised,” said Aimé. “He doesn’t usually like to top.”
“Jesus,” Colm said disgustedly, but he was surprised by how he laughed, too, and Aimé smiled at him.
Colm wanted to keep being pissed at him, wanted to be angry, but he couldn’t really manage it even though he tried, couldn’t quite pull himself in that direction even though he wanted to. The anger simmered in him, instead, with no real direction to be aimed in.
“It’s not like I fucking wanted to listen,” Colm said in a low voice. “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t turn it off the way that he does, and I don’t want to. It’s like… Sometimes, you know, he’ll go months where he keeps his wings folded up in his back, because he’s too busy working himself to the bone or getting too into something to groom them. When he finally sets them free, each digit is tangled up, his feathers are a mess, and he’s always covered in blood where the quills have torn and cut at him. It pisses us off, when he does it, but I know why he does it, because sometimes, it’s too much for him, and it’s me and De that set him right. Turning off the empathy is like that, too. Cramming something deep inside him, and when he finally lets it out again, he finds it’s too much.”
“It’s not like that,” Aimé said. “That’s like saying that De is repressing something when he wears his glasses, or that I’m repressing something because I’m not drinking all hours of the day anymore—”
“My empathy isn’t a fucking mental deficiency, Aimé—”
“I’m not saying it is,” retorted Aimé, “for you. But for Jean, it’s obviously—”
“Jean-Pierre has no fucking idea what’s best for him.”
“That’s exactly the problem,” Aimé said quietly, all serious, all of a sudden. “You thinking you know what’s best.”
“And who does?” asked Colm. “You? You’ve barely been here five fucking minutes, and De disappears for months out of the goddamn year—”
“Like you never disappear,” Aimé retorted. “You two argue – I know you two argue. You can’t fucking tell me you don’t, that you don’t go months, years without talking sometimes—”
“Only when he’s being so fucking crazy I can’t—”
“Don’t call him that.”
“What? Crazy? He fucking is, Aimé. It’s not the action of a sane man to whore himself out to a whole bar because his boyfriend got shot and he’s fucking sad about it. It’s not the action of a sane man to go fucking postal on his fucking fiancé in the middle of that fiancé’s coronation. I tell you what’s really not sane, to open his legs to a guy after trying to kill him at a party, and then going back twice, and the third time letting himself get fucking captured for however long, and then telling me I’m the bad guy like he didn’t go out asking for—”
“Don’t make me punch you, Colm,” said Aimé.
He said it calmly, his voice dull and quiet, but Colm could feel the rage burning off him, could feel that hot, hot cloud and it made his fingers twitch at his sides, made him want to fucking fight, because that’d get Aimé away from him and maybe get him to fucking quit this.
“You can’t handle that your boyfriend’s a slut?” Colm asked.
“It’s the 21st century, you know,” said Aimé. “I don’t give a shit what year you fell, he’s not a fucking slut because he got raped.”
“He knows what he’s asking for,” said Colm. “How do you not understand that by now? How do you not understand that he knows what he’s doing – he’s not stupid, Aimé, you fucking know that. He gets himself into these situations, gets himself in too deep, and then afterwards he says it’s too much for him and—”
“Is this why you think it doesn’t matter when he tells you no?” Aimé asked, and Colm knew he couldn’t punch him, knew that this was Aimé, that he couldn’t just lash out and break his nose for the umpteenth time because it wouldn’t heal like Jean-Pierre’s did, knew—
“In ainm Chroim,” Colm spat. “You’re calling me a fucking rapist because I don’t let my brother tantrum until he hurts himself?”
“They’re not fucking tantrums, Colm, he’s mentally fucking ill!”
Colm scoffed, crossed his hands over his chest, thought of Jean-Pierre wrapped in a straitjacket in a sanatorium somewhere and felt fucking sick with it, even as Aimé stood there with all his anger and his indignation, like he understood a fucking thing about it.
“Look,” said Colm, trying his best to stay calm, to stay collected, “I love Jean, Aimé, and I know you love him too, but he knows exactly what he’s doing most of the time. He’s never learned to control himself because he doesn’t want to fucking learn, he just doesn’t try, and why should he, when he keeps getting new idiot boyfriends who tell him he’s right about everything until they die off like fucking flies?”
He regretted that, and he was glad that it didn’t land as cuttingly as it could have: Aimé laughed, and it was a bitter sound as he leaned back on his heels, shaking his head.
“Well, fucking sorry, Colm,” he said dryly. “I’ll try my best to get out of your hair and die as soon as. God forbid someone other than De take his side between you two.”
“It’s not about sides,” said Colm. “You’ve never seen him really throw himself out, fly off the handle, because you don’t get it.”
“Well, I’m gonna have to learn to, aren’t I?” asked Aimé. “I like you, Colm. I like you a lot. But I’m not just gonna roll over and agree with you when you act like Jean-Pierre’s the fucking devil.”
“And who is he in your eyes?” Colm retorted. “One of the heavenly saints, never done a thing wrong?”
“He does things wrong all the time,” said Aimé. “I’m not a fucking priest, Colm, I’m not even a Catholic – I’m not trying to absolve him of shit.”
“Not going to church doesn’t mean you’re not a Catholic,” said Colm, and Aimé swore.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered.
“Case in point,” Colm replied, and Aimé huffed out a helpless, irritable laugh, shaking his head. It didn’t make Colm smile this time – it just made the irritation coiling in him like a fucking spring coil tighter, and he spat on the floor as Jean-Pierre came out of the house, wrapped in Asmodeus’ dressing gown and a set of Aimé’s pyjamas.
“You look terrible,” he said to Colm, and there was no real intention in it, because he was still half asleep, thinking of the bags under Colm’s eyes and how pale he was – and his eyes weren’t just shadowed but a little red, too.
Colm shouldn’t have snapped, but Aimé was ready for it, and he caught Colm’s arm before it could go anywhere close to Jean-Pierre, but instead of making a scene about it, he leapt forward and shoved Colm down into the dirt.
Colm was surprised to find Aimé didn’t feel angry, or at least, not as angry as Colm did. There was anger there, sure, there was indignation, a desire to protect, but there was more than that. Frustration, the sort of simmering frustration he felt before a fight, and Aimé didn’t go to punch him, either.
“The fuck are you doing?” Colm asked, and Aimé kneed him in the side, making him wheeze: Colm shoved up against his throat, kicking Aimé in the hip and rolling them over, but Aimé grabbed him by the hair and rolled them right back.
He wasn’t as good at wrestling as he was at boxing, but he was far better than he had been at the beginning, and shoving at one another on the cold, damp earth was different to fighting in the ring.
“Your stamina’s better,” he said when they broke apart.
Jean-Pierre had gotten bored after a few minutes and gone inside, now curled up beside the fire with Peadar in his lap, and Colm felt better now, his heart beating faster in his chest, breathing a little heavier, a few new bruises already healing – Aimé was learning to hit harder, learning to fight harder, too.
“Yeah,” Aimé said. “Between you and Jean. De isn’t going to teach me to fight too?”
“De doesn’t fight,” said Colm. “He’d teach you to dance if you asked him, though.”
“I don’t think I could do the whole tiptoe thing.”
“Not all ballet is en pointe,” said Colm. “Jean can do some ballet, you know. Not like De can, he doesn’t have the, um, the discipline, I guess? Or— or the passion for it that De does. He likes the cabaret shit that he does, singing, the dancing, but he doesn’t love it the way he loves ballet. Thank you.”
“Stopping me hitting him.”
“I wound you up,” said Aimé. “Wasn’t about to let you go at him.”
“You were doing it on purpose?”
“No shit I was,” said Aimé. “You’re such a fucking hypocrite, acting like he’s the only one between you has a temper, and acting this whole fucking time like he lies all the time and you always tell the truth.”
“I tell the truth,” said Colm.
“Like fuck you do.”
“You think he does?”
“Sometimes, yeah,” said Aimé. “And last night he was all but fucking sobbing because he was so scared I wouldn’t believe him – and the whole time, worried he couldn’t say anything, because he can’t even keep a fucking secret while you’re around.”
“Yeah,” muttered Colm. “The way Jean-Pierre sees it, I invade his privacy just by fucking existing.”
“You’re such an idiot,” muttered Aimé.
“I told you, Aimé, I can’t turn it off—”
“But he can, you prick,” Aimé muttered, sitting up. “He painted symbols on his chest to dampen his own empathy – you seriously think it never occurred to him to paint some to keep yours out?”
Colm felt something catch in his chest, felt like he’d fallen a height and then got stuck on a cord. He looked across at Aimé, who was staring up at the sky, which was grey and cold, much like the ground underneath them, the two of them lying shoulder-to-shoulder on it.
“He told you that?” Colm asked.
“No,” Aimé said. “But you’re not an enchanter. You don’t think like he does.”
“Like you do?”
“I don’t think like him,” said Aimé. “But I don’t assume he thinks like me, either.”
“What, you’re a fucking psychiatrist now?”
“Nah,” Aimé muttered. “I’m a philosopher. Way bigger piece of shit.”
Colm sniggered, and then said softly, “I fucking love him, Aimé. He’s my brother, and I love him, but I can’t… I can’t just fucking pretend it’s okay.”
“I think you pretending it’s okay is kind of the problem,” said Aimé, and pulled himself up to sit. “I’m going to get breakfast with him – I’ll come back out and help you after. Okay?”
“Okay,” murmured Colm, and hesitated a second before he patted Aimé’s shoulder. “You’re, uh. I’ve never really been friends with one of his boyfriends before, you know. I liked some of them, but I was never, uh, never close. De was with Farhad, and with, uh, with Jules, but I never…”
“We close?” asked Aimé.
“I’m not going to let you suck my dick, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Aw, really?” asked Aimé, mock-disappointed. “Even if I say le do thoil arís?”
“You look that up?”
“Figured it’d come in useful. You feel better?”
“Yeah. Make sure he does too, would you?”
“Yeah,” said Aimé softly, and pulled himself to his feet.
* * *
Wrapped in a blanket with one of the outdoor heaters on beside him, Jean-Pierre sits with Snowman, the Agarwals’ pet cat, in his lap. She had hopped over the fence and sat beside the heater to devour the shrew she had captured somewhere else in the neighbourhood, and when Jean-Pierre patted his knees, she had considered him sceptically before hopping onto them and curling into a ball.
Her fur is a great deal sleeker than Peadar’s, and she doesn’t have nearly so many matts – he uploads a selfie into the neighbourhood group and tags Snowman’s owner, Sushmita, but kindly makes no mention of the rodent he’d watcher her eat.
Colm and Aimé had wrestled earlier, but to Jean-Pierre’s distant surprise, Colm seems to be in a far better mood than he ordinarily would be, and although he stank of cannabis smoke, he didn’t seem to actually be all that high.
He and Aimé were working closely together on the garden and in the greenhouse, and chattering vaguely about work Colm had used to do in someone’s greenhouses a century ago, talking about magical varieties of roses.
Jean-Pierre was scrolling through Gavin Swift’s social media, idly examining the various photographs up of himself at parties, at the beach on a holiday, a few photos of him at other society events. He was shirtless in the photos more often than not, and he had big shoulders, sculpted abs, hefty pectorals.
His friends, the ones he was room mates with, were each handsome as well, and while none of them met Gavin from for height and likely not for cock size either, they were each fairly big men, each of them gym fanatics in their own right.
“Whatcha looking at?” asked Aimé, reaching out and scratching Snowman’s ears, making her purr out a chirruping sound.
“The man in my choir,” said Jean-Pierre, and turned the phone around so that Aimé could examine a photograph of Gavin Swift drunk at a rave in Ibiza. For all the red eye in the photo and the glowsticks around his wrists and neck, his abs shone with sweat in the light, and his swimming shorts were soaked through so that you could see the bulge of his cock against his thigh.
“Nice,” Aimé said mildly. “We can go to that social you said about in January, work him over then.”
Jean-Pierre felt himself smile slightly, shifting in his seat. “Work him over?” he repeats, and he giggles at the way Aimé grins.
From the other side of the house, Jean-Pierre heard a loud, powerful voice call, “Onè!”
He grinned wider, looking to Colm as he dropped his tools and stands, and the two of them called back, “Respè!”
Snowman, full of distaste at all this unnecessary noise, hopped from his lap and rushed off, and Jean-Pierre tugged Aimé by the hand through the house and out to the front yard, where Benedictine was approaching the door.
He leapt into her arms and she caught him, laughing at she kissed his cheeks and then dropped him aside, moving to kiss Colm too. Aimé went to the car, pulling open the boot and taking Benedictine’s case out for her as Jean-Pierre and Colm turned to speak with her.
“How was the flight?” asked Colm.
“Okay,” Benedictine said, shrugging. She was wearing an old uniform that she often wore as a travel suit, and her hair was loosely tied up over her head in a messy bun, a headscarf keeping the thick curls out of her face. “You’re growing your hair out,” she said to Jean-Pierre, reaching out and tugging on a lock of it.
“Not so much,” Jean-Pierre said.
“You need a haircut,” she said disapprovingly, curling it around her fingers, and Jean-Pierre smiled at her. “De, you aren’t cutting it?”
“Hold him down, and I will,” said Asmodeus with a warm, honeyed affection, and Jean-Pierre scowled.
“And,” he said, taking Benedictine’s hand and gesturing, “this is Aimé.”
Aimé set Benedictine’s backpack and her suitcase down to offer a hand to shake, but before she took it, she examined him critically, looking him up and down. Jean-Pierre felt a sort of clench in his chest at the way Benedictine’s lip curled up as she took him in.
“We weren’t speaking French, idiot,” said Colm, switching to English. “It’s Creole.”
Aimé coloured. “I knew that,” he said loudly, and Jean-Pierre swallowed back his snigger as Benedictine took his hand, squeezing it hard as she shook it. “I’m Aimé Deverell. You’re Benedictine, you sent Jean the t-shirt.”
“T-shirt?” Benedictine repeated.
“The one with the Haitian flag,” said Aimé. “He doesn’t wear t-shirts often, but that one’s good.”
Jean-Pierre felt himself go pink as Benedictine looked at him sideways, and she laughed, dragging Aimé by his hand and pulling him into a hug. Aimé laughed, surprised, but he hugged her back, and he didn’t flinch away when she put her hand on the side of his face, ostensibly feeling his stubble but also touching the place where his jaw had been wired back into place, her fingers tracing the scars there.
“You don’t look like any of the others,” said Benedictine.
“I’m ugly, you mean,” said Aimé, and she laughed.
“You look strong,” she said. “Hardy. You can take a punch – can you take a bullet?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Aimé. “I’d like to put off testing if I can, though, if it’s okay with you.”
“Your dick big?”
“Bene!” Jean-Pierre protested, but Aimé didn’t back down, keeping his gaze on Benedictine’s, lips curled up into one of his lopsided smirks.
“Bigger than yours,” he said, and she grinned back.
“You take care of my brother?”
“You’re fucking right I do.”
Benedictine let go of his hand, and leaned slightly back. “You don’t have to be my bag boy.”
“Failté,” said Aimé, and Benedictine laughed, slapping his shoulder.
“I told you you’d like him,” said Asmodeus smoothly. “Let’s everyone inside, shall we?”
She approved, which Jean-Pierre liked, but he also knew damn well that she’d touch his boyfriends just to piss him off, and he made sure to slide between Aimé and Bene as they all walked inside.
“Food?” Aimé asked in Jean-Pierre’s ear as they moved inside, and Jean-Pierre nodded his head. “Okay,” he said, and kissed the back of his neck as he went to set Benedictine’s bags aside for her.