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Table of Contents

Chapter One: An Angel Falls Chapter Two: A New Nest Chapter Three: Twisted Feathers Chapter Four: Sunday Mass Chapter Five: The Artist in the Park Chapter Six: Family Dinners Chapter Seven: Talk Between Angels Chapter Eight: When In Rome Chapter Nine: Intimate Introductions Chapter Ten: A Heavy Splash Chapter Eleven: A Sanctified Tongue Chapter Twelve: Conditioned Response Chapter Thirteen: No Smoking Chapter Fourteen: Nicotine Cravings Chapter Fifteen: Discussing Murder Chapter Sixteen: Old Wine Chapter Seventeen: Fraternity Chapter Eighteen: To Spar Chapter Nineteen: Violent Dreams Chapter Twenty: Bloody Chapter Twenty-One: Bright Lights Chapter Twenty-Two: Carving Pumpkins Chapter Twenty-Three: Powder Chapter Twenty-Four: Being Held Chapter Twenty-Five: The Gallery Chapter Twenty-Six: Good For Him Chapter Twenty-Seven: Mémé Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Eye of the Storm Chapter Twenty-Nine: Homecoming Chapter Thirty: Resumed Service Chapter Thirty-One: New Belonging Chapter Thirty-Two: Christmas Presents Chapter Thirty-Three: Familial Conflict Chapter Thirty-Four: Pixie Lights Chapter Thirty-Five: A New Family Chapter Thirty-Six: The Coming New Year Chapter Thirty-Seven: DMC Chapter Thirty-Eight: To Be Frank Chapter Thirty-Nine: Tetanus Shot Chapter Forty: Introspection Chapter Forty-One: Angel Politics Chapter Forty-Two: Hot Steam Chapter Forty-Three: Powder and Feathers Chapter Forty-Four: Ambassadorship Chapter Forty-Five: Aftermath Chapter Forty-Six: Christmas Chapter Forty-Seven: The Nature of Liberty Chapter Forty-Eight: Love and Captivity Chapter Forty-Nine: Party Favour Chapter Fifty: Old Fears Cast of Characters

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Chapter Thirty-Two: Christmas Presents

1971 1 0

When Jean-Pierre came home, it was with a great many books packed under his arms, letting them rest against his chest to keep them from falling down to the floor as he walked along the uneven cobblestones and climbing over the gate into the yard. It was very small, a modest, walled-in space with scarcely anywhere to plant vegetables, but that hadn’t stopped Jules from trying.

“Hello, Jean-Pierre,” Marguerite said as he stepped inside, and Jean-Pierre beamed at her, leaned down to kiss her on each cheek. Anicroche, a tired dog now with grey about her muzzle and whitening her dark brows, was standing with her body leaned against Marguerite’s leg, and when Jean-Pierre reached down to stroke her fur, she leaned her cheek against his palm.

Marguerite had a great many friends in Paris, had made a great many in a few short years – she took pieces of sewing to do, piecework that she did each day, and some evenings, Jean-Pierre would sit with her and join her in her needlework. It would help him, he knew, when he needed to perform surgery.

His fingers could never be so nimble as hers, nor so quick at embroidery, but it was pleasant indeed to sit together of an evening beside the fire, the two of them working in the quiet with Anicroche laid across Jean-Pierre’s feet.

“Did you have a good day?” Jean-Pierre asked quietly.

“I did,” Marguerite said quietly, with a small nod of her head. “Anicroche and I are going to walk to visit my friend Bernice. Jules is in bed – he isn’t well.”

“I feel it,” Jean-Pierre said softly. “It is a headache, a cold – he would not let you tend him?”

“He doesn’t like to be a bother,” Marguerite murmured. “You know this.”

She patted the side of Jean-Pierre’s cheek, and Jean felt the emotion that radiated from her, a sense of quiet pride, of warmth, of gentle affection. When first they had come to Paris, she had not known what to expect, had spent every moment wondering if the rug would be pulled out from under them at any moment, but she had confidence in Jean-Pierre now, in his degree, and in his commitment to Jules.

“Take care of him,” Marguerite said softly.

“Always,” Jean-Pierre promised, as he ever did, and as Marguerite stepped out with Anicroche beside her on a small rope – once upon a time, Anicroche would rush about their feet as they walked in the city, but linger close by, and these days she needed a small rope just to ensure they saw when she got tired and needed to linger a moment on the path – Jean-Pierre moved further into their apartment, and into his and Jules’ bedroom.

Jules was lying on his side under a few blankets, although the day was mild, and although he was quietly miserable, exhausted and irritable, struggling with the weight of his cold. It was not due to its severity, but merely its constancy – he had been a little under the weather last night, but evidently he had some sort of cold, because he had not been able to pass the day without taking an easy breath through his blocked nose, and his head was aching.

When he saw Jean-Pierre, a sort of sweet relief emanated from him, and even though he was exhausted, he looked up at Jean-Pierre and smiled. When Jean-Pierre came to him, Jules leaned forward and rested his forehead on Jean-Pierre’s hip. He gently curled his hand in Jules’ hair, which was slightly damp with sweat, and massaged his scalp for a few moments before he pulled away, wetting a cloth and concentrating very hard on one of the interesting symbols that Asmodeus had taught him, making it cool, and laying it on Jules’ brow.

He wasn’t extremely hot – were he feverish, Jean-Pierre would undoubtedly take his illness more seriously – but he was overheated enough that the cloth made him let out a sigh of relief, and Jean-Pierre then rifled through the remedies he had been learning recently, took a peppermint balm and came back, spreading a little of it on Jules’ chest.

Jules took his first breath through his nostrils in the course of the day, and Jean-Pierre smiled slightly at the way his eyes widened and watered, at the desperate surprise and relief writ on his features.

Mon ange,” he said lovingly. “Mon medécin.”

“All yours,” Jean-Pierre said, climbing onto the bed with Jules and sitting cross-legged, leaning back against Jules’ middle and taking his book into his lap. “Would you like me to read to you?”

“About?” asked Jules.

“It’s in French,” said Jean-Pierre, because this was not always the case – often, the books he brought home to read would be in Latin or Spanish or even English, and when Asmodeus came through Paris, which he did now and then, he would bring Jean-Pierre even more advanced books written in Arabic.

“And it’s about…” pressed Jules.

“Diseases of a woman with child,” said Jean-Pierre.

Jules laughed. He coughed a little as he did, but Jean-Pierre could hear that the cough came from high up in his throat, and lacked any significant phlegmy depth to it – most of his congestion was in his nose, and as unpleasant as this was, its mildness was a comfort to Jean-Pierre.

“No, thank you,” Jules murmured, and reached for Jean-Pierre’s wrist, slowly pulling his hand to curl in Jules’ hair again. He closed his eyes as Jean-Pierre curled his fingers through it. “Hey, Jean-Pierre.”

“Yes, Jules?”

“You mustn’t grieve me forever when I die, you know. You must find another happiness.”

It felt as though the pit had abruptly fallen out of Jean-Pierre’s stomach, and he looked down at Jules, feeling his mouth fall open. “Jules—” he protested sharply, but Jules hushed him softly, turning his head to brush his lips against Jean’s wrist. “You are not dying, Jules. You have a cold, that is all.”

“I’m not dying now,” Jules agreed. “I won’t be dying soon, I don’t think – I hope not. But Maman and I will die, Jean, and you won’t. You need to prepare yourself for that. You need to remember.”

“Asmodeus says some angels die,” Jean-Pierre said. “Maybe I will.”

“He was here today,” Jules murmured. “He left some books for you, and a pair of boots he thought you would like.”

“He told you to say this,” Jean-Pierre said sharply, feeling the anger rise in his belly, sudden and sharp and blinding, but before he could get fully to his feet, Jules caught him by his belt and tugged him down again. “This was wrong of him, putting such ideas in your head as—”

“I always knew I’d die, my love – I’m human. You’re not. It’s okay.”

“It’s not,” Jean-Pierre hissed sharply. “It’s not, it is not, and you—”

“I’ll die,” Jules repeated again, and he clutched Jean-Pierre’s hand tighter this time, pulling it against his cheek, squeezing his fingers and kissing his palm. “And you will grieve, but your life will not end just because mine does, Jean-Pierre. My love will go with you.”

“Why must you talk like this?” Jean-Pierre demanded, overwhelmed by the sudden feeling that burst in him like a gutter overflowing, feeling as though he would soon burst into tears or perhaps break apart at his seams, but Jules kissed him once again, so gently, though his lips were dry for lying in bed the day through and scarce drinking at all.

“Because I love you,” Jules murmured. “Because I don’t want it to take you by surprise when it comes.”

“My brother—”

“Your brother made me tea, and said he was glad you had me to look after you,” said Jules quietly, adjusting the compress over his brow. “He didn’t bring up me dying, Jean-Pierre. I’ve just been thinking about it.”

“No,” Jean-Pierre said, and tried to stand again, but Jules tugged him close and this time wrapped one arm around his waist, sending Jean-Pierre’s book tumbling to the ground as he pulled Jean to lie beside him. Jean-Pierre pressed his body against Jules’, although the peppermint balm was overpowering in its scent, and made him light-headed with its severity.

“You don’t have to worry about it today, sweetheart,” Jules said quietly, kissing Jean-Pierre’s knuckles. “I’ll be here for a long time, yet, and Maman too.”

“I don’t want you to,” Jean-Pierre whispered. “I forbid it.”

“I’ll try not to,” Jules said quietly.

Jean-Pierre squeezed his hand more tightly – for a long time, they lay there together, and Jean-Pierre ignored his studies entirely. When Marguerite returned and Anicroche climbed onto the bed with them, she squirreled herself between their tangled legs.

*     *     *

JEAN-PIERRE

“Give me your hands, Aimé,” Jean-Pierre said softly. It was Saturday morning, and he was straddling Aimé’s waist. Aimé, last night, had said he had fucked a girl a few times in his teens who was interested in tantric sex, and he had teased Jean-Pierre for quite some time, not letting him come even as he laughed against his mouth about the weight-lifter, Gavin, in Jean-Pierre’s choral society.

“You don’t want to try it properly, do you?” Aimé asked as he obediently put his hands up, and Jean-Pierre delivered a kiss to the palm of Aimé’s left hand before turning to his right, beginning to untie the bandage around his palm. “The tantric thing?”

“It was frustrating,” Jean-Pierre muttered.

Aimé laughed at him, leaning his head back on the pillow. “’Cause you didn’t listen when I was trying to fucking tell you about it, Jean – it’s not about frustrating you, it’s about not trying to come.”

“What is the point in sex if I don’t come?” Jean-Pierre demanded, and Aimé laughed again, obediently tilting his hand so that Jean-Pierre could stroke his finger over the now-healed cut in the centre of his palm, where the scab had already come away. It was a light pink, and it wasn’t a thick line – especially on Aimé’s palm, he doubted it would last as a scar, as it really hadn’t been so deep.

“It’s about… I don’t know, a lot of fucking philosophical shit, about connectedness, but it’s not about getting to the end, it’s about making it last. It’s about being in the moment, sweetheart – it’s not about just delaying gratification, but taking it out as a goal.”

Jean-Pierre wrinkled his nose. “Teasing.”

No,” Aimé said, and he looked up at Jean-Pierre with affection plain in his lopsided features, and despite his mild irritation, Jean-Pierre felt soaked with love. He pressed a kiss to the healed cut on Aimé’s palm and then held Aimé’s hands, both of them, by their fingers, that he might brush his lips across both sets of his knuckles. “How’s it healed up, Doc?”

“Well,” Jean-Pierre murmured, squeezing Aimé’s hands. “It did not cut very deeply. You must be gentle with your hands, Aimé: how will you hold me without them?”

“With my legs,” Aimé said, pushing his knees up and nudging Jean-Pierre’s arse, making him giggle.

“You took this tantric sex seriously?” Jean-Pierre asked.

“No,” Aimé said. “Not really. It was a thing we tried a few times – I don’t find it that easy either, going slow, but patience can be a good thing, Jean.”

“Patience is a card game for old women,” said Jean-Pierre, and Aimé laughed very hard at that, shoving Jean-Pierre harder in the lower back this time so that he fell down onto Aimé’s chest, that Aimé might kiss him on the mouth.

“Okay, baby,” Aimé murmured against his mouth, tone condescending. “No patience. I’ll make sure to bring you everything you want like that.” Aimé snapped his fingers, and Jean-Pierre chuckled, leaning and nipping the side of Aimé’s jaw. “That what you want, for me to cater to your every whim?”

“You promise?” Jean-Pierre asked.

“What do you want to do today?” Aimé asked, stroking his fingers gently up and down Jean-Pierre’s sides. “I want to stay at mine tonight, paint for a while, but we can go do something today, if you want. Or do you have essays?”

“I’m on top of my studies,” Jean-Pierre said, putting his hands on Aimé’s chest and squeezing each side of his breast under his fingers, making Aimé chuckle and playfully smack one of his forearms. “If we get Christmas presents, can we keep them at yours?”

Aimé blinked up at Jean-Pierre for a moment, as though surprised to be asked, his eyebrows raising, and he looked wildly around, but then he nodded his head. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, of course. Uh, I don’t know about Colm, but they have these enchanter’s paint sets in the craft place in the witches’ market, I was thinking I’d pick one up for him. They come with these wood cases – decent quality, but not nearly as good as the brushes and paints. I was thinking I’d pick up a carrying pouch from a leatherworker’s at the same time, something he’d like to carry around.”

Jean-Pierre stared down at Aimé, his lips parted. It was a delightful surprise, one he did not wholly expect – Farhad had thought of Colm and Asmodeus at Christmas, would always comb through the thrift stores he could for cheap romance novels to pack into a little sack for Asmodeus, and would likewise collect nuts and bolts and bits of scrap for Colm.

It had been very sweet, very endearing – the year he had not been fit to comb about for them, Jean-Pierre had done it for him, and helped him back the sacks even as his hands had shook, and he had struggled to tie their bows.

Jules had always insisted, of course, on having small gifts put aside for Asmodeus on Saint Nicholas’ day – a sweet or a jar of good honey or a nice pen, or from time to time, a handsome piece of cloth or a scarf. He had led such things for Asmodeus, at the time – and when he had died, Asmodeus had come, and said such nice things of Jules, that Jules always thought of him.

“You went quiet, ange,” Aimé said gently.

“He does not enchant so much,” Jean-Pierre said quietly. “You think he needs an enchantment set?”

“He doesn’t have one,” Aimé said. “He has an enchanter’s hammer and a carving knife, but he doesn’t have a portable paint set, right? I helped him pack his trunk, I didn’t see one.”

“I love you, Aimé,” said Jean-Pierre.

Aimé huffed out a low, amused sound. “Does that mean he has one, or doesn’t he?”

“I don’t think he does,” Jean-Pierre said, reaching to cup Aimé’s handsome cheeks, his palms sliding over his stubble, because he nearly had his proper beard back again, now. “It pleases me that you think so of my brother. What of Colm?”

“Colm, I don’t know,” Aimé said.

“We are ships in the night then, passing one another in different directions,” Jean-Pierre said. “I had no idea what I might get for Asmodeus – for Colm, a gift set for his car. Seat covers, I will make them, with the tricolour for the headrests, and wrapped in the seat covers, small things – a few CDs, perhaps one of those quizzes for long journeys.”

“You can make car seat covers?” Aimé asked, tilting his head back further so that he could look up at Jean-Pierre’s face.

“Of course,” Jean-Pierre said, with a small nod of his head. “I will have to work by machine – they need to be made of some sort of nylon, something strengthened, but he never remembers to buy seat covers for himself, though he prefers to have them than not. He has the important things – a tool kit, a first aid kit, a cool bag for groceries when he needs, but not seat covers, and even when he sees them, he does not buy them if they will not fit exactly. That is the benefit in a brother who can tailor these things for him.”

Aimé bit his lip a moment, sliding his palm over Jean-Pierre’s belly under his pyjama top, pressing on his skin. His expression was thoughtful and focused, and he asked, “You think those two are, uh, I don’t know. Equivalent?”

“My brothers are not equivalent,” Jean-Pierre said. “They have different needs and desires.”

“I always have to make sure whatever I get my dad is worth the same or less as what I get for my mother,” Aimé said quietly, clucking his tongue. “I gave her a painting once, recreated a photo she’d put up of her and her friends on her profile and my dad told me later she’d had a whole meltdown about it, got upset at how I’d fobbed her off with something I’d made instead of something worth having.”

“Your mother is a cunt, Aimé,” said Jean-Pierre.

Aimé coughed suddenly, choking on his own spit as he laughed, and Jean-Pierre leaned back from him, passing him the water at their bedside as Aimé pulled himself together, swallowing.

“Asmodeus would love one of your paintings,” Jean-Pierre said. “He likes art – he likes your art. The ones you have done of dancers, you did nutcrackers in their uniforms – he would like that. Asmodeus loves Tchaikovsky.”

“Nah,” Aimé murmured. “Nah, I, uh. I don’t want to do that. I know he likes the Nutcracker – he said he likes Tchaikovsky’s ballets when we went to see Ondine, that his favourite was Sleeping Beauty. But I wouldn’t want to give him a painting – even if I did, he wouldn’t have anywhere to put it.”

“He would be pleased,” Jean-Pierre said again. “Flattered.”

“No, Jean, not this year.” Aimé said firmly, and Jean-Pierre pouted his lips, but made no further fuss of it, loosely biting at the back of his lip. “You want to sign gifts from both of us?”

“Please,” Jean-Pierre said. “I don’t know what to get Asmodeus, and your idea is far better than any of mine – and I wanted to split my gift for George with you anyway.”

“Why, what do you want to get George?”

“I want to get him some nice clothes,” Jean-Pierre said. “All of his are horrible, except for the ones Pádraic makes him.”

“Well,” Aimé said, with his wonderful smile, “you can’t decide how other people dress, Jean. If George likes—”

“But he doesn’t choose clothes he likes,” Jean-Pierre interrupted. “He gets the ones with fastenings he can do – the cardigans Pádraic has made for him have large toggles, like on a duffel coat, so that they’re easy for his fingers, but all of the trousers he gets are horrible and loose-fitting and so high-waisted, more than I think he likes. He wants to match Bedelia and the way she dresses, but everything made with easy fastenings is loose and dull in colour – I thought we could pick out some handsome things for him, things he would like, and I can strip the buttons and zips and replace them with magnet fastenings or Velcro, whichever is more appropriate.”

Aimé stared at up at him.

Jean-Pierre wasn’t quite sure of his expression, what to make of it, of the way his lips were parted, his eyes focused directly on Jean-Pierre’s face, the way he slowly blinked, his eyelashes showing as he blinked.

Jean-Pierre thought of the symbols painted invisibly on his skin, the ones that dampened his natural empathy, that he maintained with the same everyday attention as he did his fingernails or his hair, a part of his usual ablutions, and considered for the thousandth time washing them away, that he might truly comprehend Aimé, feel his emotions as easily as he did his own.

But—

But it wasn’t only Aimé he would feel. He would feel everyone, feel people’s grief, their frustration, their fatigue, feel the petty injustices that cut everyone he met laid heavy upon their backs, and as much as he ached for further insight into Aimé, he did not want the pain of everyone else in the process.

“He’s young,” said Jean-Pierre slowly, to explain himself. “It is not right to me, that he should dress himself as an old man when he wants to match his girlfriend, only because his hands are uncoordinated. The small buttons cut at him, and he gets himself caught in zippers even after he spends such time wrestling with them.”

“How come you’re such a cruel bitch half the time, and then you say thoughtful shit like that that makes me want to start crying?” Aimé asked, but his smile was so indulgent and so full of warmth Jean-Pierre felt he could bathe in it, and it was such a relief that Jean-Pierre felt himself sigh.

“They come from the same skill set,” he said smugly, and Aimé laughed, wrapping his arms around Jean-Pierre’s middle, dragging him up Aimé’s torso until Jean-Pierre was straddling his chest. “Are you going to start crying?”

“Uh uh,” Aimé said. “Why, you want me to?”

“Not yet,” Jean-Pierre said, smiling as he slid his hands slowly around Aimé’s neck, squeezing delicately and enjoying the way Aimé pressed his throat into Jean’s hands, his eyelids falling closed.

“Bedelia?”

“Shoes,” said Jean-Pierre. “She likes the basketball shoes, with the painted designs. They have ones with easy-cleaning enchantments.”

“We can get a pair each for her and George, matching ones,” Aimé murmured. “Complementary colours – I had enchanted shoes when I was a kid that tied my laces for me, until I learned. I can do that enchantment for George, if you want to take the clothes. What about your sister, about Benedictine?”

“Oh, I got her gift already,” Jean-Pierre said. “A new handgun with exchangeable chambers, so she can choose from different calibres depending on what she is using it for – it takes a basic nine millimetre Luger, of course, for the everyday, but she can load it with heavier cartridges as she needs.” Aimé blinked, and Jean-Pierre added, “But I can sign it from you too.”

“You don’t have to sign it from me,” Aimé said, and he looked a little off-balance now, some colour in his cheeks, his heart beating a little faster and his pulse speeding, so that Jean-Pierre could feel his throat under his palms – he wasn’t used yet to talk of weaponry and firearms, and guns frightened him a little, it seemed to Jean-Pierre.

He thought about it, the idea of Aimé with a rifle braced against him, or feeling the recoil of a pistol in his hands. The very thought thrilled him, delighted him, but he did not want to push at it right away, not if it would lead to Aimé resisting.

“I can get her a bath bomb or something.”

Jean-Pierre beamed. “She would like that,” he said, and Aimé smiled at him. He reached up, loosely gripping at Jean-Pierre’s wrists and pulling Jean-Pierre to squeeze his neck more tightly. “What would you do if I killed you?” Jean-Pierre asked, and Aimé’s pulse sped slightly faster, but his eyes narrowed instead of widening, and his lips shifted into a small smile.

Jean-Pierre felt light-headed and fluttery.

“Well,” Aimé said, “I’d die. But first, I’d be very disappointed.”

Jean-Pierre felt himself laugh, the sound coming breathless from his mouth, “I want to fuck you,” he said, loosening his grip. He didn’t usually like to, preferred to ride Aimé than to fiddle with the harness and a toy, but Aimé was obscenely sensitive, and there was a true wonder in the way that Aimé came apart when he was fucked, the way his eyes teared up and he couldn’t keep back his sobs. It was messy and overwhelming and it was so very easy to turn Aimé’s pleasure onto that hot-white edge of pleasure-pain—

Aimé wet his lips with his tongue. His cheeks darkened.

“Okay,” he said, in a forced casual tone, but Jean-Pierre could see his anticipation, his excitement, even as his hands slid to grasp at Jean-Pierre’s arse, squeezing his buttocks. “Well. Get your toy chest out, then.”

As Jean-Pierre stood to his feet and began rifling through the lower drawer, he listened to Aimé in the bathroom, the sound of the sink running, heard Aimé’s sigh.

“What do you want for Christmas?” Jean-Pierre asked.

“Other than your cock?” was the dry response.

“This isn’t for Christmas. But I could get a bigger one.”

“If you got a bigger one, it’d kill me.”

“You are enticing me or discouraging me?”

Aimé’s laugh echoed off the bathroom ceiling. “I don’t want anything, Jean,” he said mildly. “I’m pretty happy.”

Jean-Pierre spent a moment on his knees, his fingers loosely entangled in the strap of his harness, basking in it. Did Aimé know what it meant to him, when he said such things as these?

“D’accord, Aimé,” Jean-Pierre said, and put the harness on.

*     *     *

Jean-Pierre didn’t move when the door opened, instead remaining on the ground beside the unlit fire, his arms wrapped around his knees, his feet rested against the ground. It was cold, but he didn’t want to go get more wood.

He didn’t want to move.

He didn’t want to do anything.

“I’m sorry, Jean-Pierre,” said Asmodeus, and Jean-Pierre looked up at him as he gently closed the door shut behind him.

Across the room, Jules was laid in his bed, still under the covers. He was lying on his side, his cheek resting on the pillow, and he looked as though he were sleeping, for all the world. He looked better, now, than he had in the past few weeks – his skin was not so blotchy as it had been, and he wasn’t coughing, wasn’t covered in a sheen of sweat.

He had been cold when Jean-Pierre had woke up beside him. Cold, and not yet stiff.

“You got my letter,” Jean-Pierre whispered.

“I came as soon as I could, I’m sorry,” Asmodeus said softly as he stepped closer. “I wanted to get here sooner.”

He pushed Jean-Pierre away from the wall, and Jean-Pierre went stiff, resisting where the other angel might force him to stand up, but he didn’t do that: he sank into the gap between Jean-Pierre and the wall and held Jean-Pierre between his thighs – he had large thighs, and Jean-Pierre and Jules had gone to see him dance ballet some years ago – and gathered Jean-Pierre gently up against his chest, his arms wrapping around Jean-Pierre, his chin resting on Jean’s head.

Jean-Pierre was too tall for it, really, or he should have been, but grief and exhaustion had made him very small, and he nestled himself back against his brother’s chest, touching his arms and squeezing at his flesh.

Asmodeus felt strange, to touch, inexhaustibly and incredibly empty, or full with something Jean-Pierre didn’t and couldn’t understand – he was blank, where every other feeling was utterly overwhelming, and Jean-Pierre tethered himself to it as though it were his anchor.

He had almost felt alright, burying Anicroche. She had been so at peace, when she’d passed away beside the fire in Jean-Pierre’s lap, and he had thought that if this was what grief was like, perhaps he could withstand it, because he had loved her so very much, and he had thought…

But Marguerite, when she had died, had destroyed his notion that grief might be alright. He had wept for weeks, felt the weight of both Jules’ grief and his own in constant, painful rhythm inside him, and he had felt as though the world were ending without Marguerite to lead them by, without Marguerite to sit with and to sew with and to listen to, and he had felt the ripples behind her she had left, of everyone she had known and loved in Paris, who ached, too, for her passing.

Jules…

Jules was everything.

And now he, too, all these years later, was dead beneath their bed covers, and Jean-Pierre was alone.

“Can you bring him back?” Jean-Pierre asked, in a very small voice.

He knew that Asmodeus had power he did not that, that very few people had. He knew this, although Asmodeus did not like to say it, and did not, indeed, like to show it, but he knew that it was true – he had seen Asmodeus do complicated magic in subtle, hidden ways, not wishing to draw attention to it, but Jean-Pierre had seen him.

Asmodeus, cold and unyielding and the centre of Jean-Pierre’s world, now that everyone he had ever loved was dead, held him in his big, warm arms, and leaned his chin more against the side of Jean-Pierre’s head, his breath misting through Jean-Pierre’s hair.

“It is possible,” he said quietly, in his deep, smooth voice. “Necromancy is a complicated magic for which a high price must be paid, but it is possible.”

“Do it,” Jean-Pierre said. “Do it, please, Asmodeus, please—”

“You would have to kill someone else,” Asmodeus said. “And channel the power of their life as a focus, break the boundary between life and death and tear what is left of Jules from the afterlife, if you would like to call it an afterlife, and bind it to some spirit here, give it consciousness again, instead of only soul. That is two lives for a renewal of Jules – and when you returned him to the corpse, it would remain a corpse. He would be cold, and stiff, and you could keep him from rotting, but only for a time. He would be in stupendous pain. I can teach you how if you ask me.”

“Teach me,” Jean-Pierre said again, although he heard his voice waver. “I want him back. I want him back, Asmodeus, I need him back, I need—"

“He would be different,” Asmodeus whispered. “In constant agony, and distant – he would lose memories in the process, and feeling, too. He would lose stability, and he would know that he was incomplete, that he was wrong. He would loathe his state of being, and might not even remember that he loved you.”

“I don’t care,” Jean-Pierre said, and this time his voice did not only waver, but cracked – his eyes were very nearly wet. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I want him, bring him back, Asmodeus, I—"

“Do you want me to?” Asmodeus asked softly. “You had a priest read him his rites, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” Jean-Pierre whispered.

“You are a Catholic? You believe in those teachings?”

Yes,” Jean-Pierre whispered again, more sharply, this time, because Asmodeus had poked at the church before, but this was not the time—

“Then Jules, as we speak, is being welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven, to the waiting arms of his mother. Would you tear him from that, and bring him to a Hell on Earth, instead?”

Jean-Pierre began to sob, and he turned in Asmodeus’ arms, crying desperately against his chest and holding onto him as tightly as he dared. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t lend voice to his ailing throat and his dry tongue, so he merely shook his head and cried and let his brother hold him tighter.

“I know, Jean-Pierre,” Asmodeus whispered against his hair, holding him very tightly. “I know it hurts, I know it’s unfair, but you’re not alone. I have you – I’ll always have you, Jean. The pain will not be this strong forever.”

“It will,” Jean-Pierre said. “It’ll never go away.”

“It will never go away,” Asmodeus agreed, and he cupped Jean-Pierre’s cheeks, pulling Jean to look up at his eyes, which were so deeply green, such an emerald colour. “Your grief will be carried with you for so long as you live – but it will not be all you carry, Jean. I promise.”

Asmodeus held him until Jean-Pierre felt fit to be let go.

*     *     *

JEAN-PIERRE

“Tell me about Jules,” said Aimé. The two of them were sitting on the sofa, a platter of fruit and cheese between them, and twice, Aimé had called Jean-Pierre a bird because Jean had reached between for Aimé’s plate to take a small piece of his breadcrust.

“He was a farmer,” Jean-Pierre said softly, turning a piece of kiwi inside-out and sliding his finger over its furry skin, watching the way the fruit gleamed in the soft light as it was stretched and pressed on. “He was a farmer even at fifty years old, when he had worked in a cobbler’s shop for near thirty years. He would hold a piece of leather in his hands and bemoan that it was not wheat. He said even the ore or smelted metal itself could not be so precious a gold as that, and made fun of me that I could eat so little of it.”

Aimé was watching him, his legs spread out and resting on a footrest, and Jean-Pierre sat with his own limbs tangled up beneath him.

All of the gifts they had bought, which Aimé had insisted on paying for, rested on the bed upstairs, awaiting adjustment and then wrapping – they had bought nice things indeed for George, and when Aimé had asked if they should be buying more things for the others, he had taken a moment and sort of sat in shock when Jean-Pierre had reminded him that it was George’s first Christmas, and that spoiling him would raise no eyebrows at all.

“He played an instrument that was like a guitar or a lute – it had been his father’s, and they had made it themselves, with the strings made of catgut cured in the village, and when I learned to play the violin, later on, when Asmodeus insisted that it would be good for my surgeon’s ability, to learn to play. I hated it, at first, for so long, I hated it – the instrument was loud, and difficult to play, and I would cry with frustration when I pursued my practice, and tried to avoid the lessons that Asmodeus had organised for me. Jules would always make me go, and he would sit with me while I practiced – he would withhold kisses from me, if I said I had not done the practice I ought. He always made me take the education I was too lazy and stubborn and stupid to appreciate, when first it was offered me, and when I walked past people in the street who begged me help, he would take me by the hand and lead me back, and remind me that they were no different to us.”

Jean-Pierre gently set the kiwi back on the plate, and idly licked his fingers of the tangy juice that stuck to his skin, pressing his knees together.

“Children would follow him when they saw him pass,” he whispered. “They knew him, where we lived, in our… We didn’t have arondissements then, not yet, but in our neighbourhood, they would recognise him, and they knew he carried little sweets in his apron and they would chase after him and tell him they had been pursuing their work and had been helping their mothers and fathers, and he would reward them, and he would ask for them to make deliveries for him, so that people would receive their shoes from the dirtiest little gamins with sweet, gap-toothed smiles and clean hands, for he would wipe their hands before he handed them the parcel.”

Jean-Pierre inhaled, closing his eyes for a moment, and he remembered the streets as they were then, dirty and crowded, the sound of shouting and laughing in the streets – there had been poverty, then, but it had gotten so much worse, as the years had passed by.

“He didn’t appreciate his mother,” said Jean-Pierre softly. “The work she did, at times – he would tear his clothes, and he would not think of the fact that it was Marguerite who would repair them for him, but when she was older, he was kinder with her. He treated her better. I do not think she ever held it against him, that he sometimes forgot her, or wanted to, but I did – I would scold him, and say that were she my mother, my world would revolve around her, and Marguerite once heard me and said, “But, Jean, I am your mother,” and I loved her more dearly in that moment than I ever had before.

“He never laid hands on another man, even in anger, and he would scold other men who professed to beat their children or their wives. He said that any man who would go to blows if he still had possession of his tongue was a fool who did not know the grace he was hiding in his mouth. He loved dogs, but he was frightened of birds – a sparrow once came into our apartment, and he was nearly in tears until Marguerite and I herded it out of doors. He loved to sing, but he could never remember the words, and he would substitute his own, and it made me laugh. He loved music, and well-fitting shoes, and beer, and bad jokes.”

“And you,” Aimé said.

Jean-Pierre laughed. “Yes,” he said softly. “Yes, he loved me. He said he had the right to love me as much as he pleased, because God had dropped me in the fields for him to harvest, a gift for His favourite child.”

Aimé laughed, and then tried to pull it back, tried to stop as though he oughtn’t laugh, but Jean-Pierre reached across to touch him, to touch his arms, his hands.

“Laugh,” Jean-Pierre said. “He would want to be remembered in joy.”

“He got sick, right?” Aimé asked.

“A cough or the flu,” Jean-Pierre murmured. “I’m not sure what it was that killed him – his fever had broken, and I thought that perhaps he would recover, but he was very weak and we did not have antibiotics at that time. He passed in his sleep, beside me. A peaceful death. Why do you ask?”

“Uh, what  you said, um, about George, earlier,” Aimé said quietly.

“That this is his first Christmas?”

“No, the other thing you said,” Aimé said, “when we were looking at uh, at clothes. You said that George has influences to choose from – Colm and Pádraic, me and you, Asmodeus, Bedelia. That, um. That you want to teach him now, all of you, that he doesn’t deserve not to have nice things or not to want nice things because he finds something hard that we all find easy. That this is the beginning of his life, that if you teach him this now, he’ll carry it with him centuries later.” Aimé spoke slowly, thoughtfully.

Jean-Pierre felt himself frown in concentration, peering at the other man. “I don’t think I said that much about it,” he said, and Aimé sniggered, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Well, I, uh. You said it kinda like throwaway, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since you said it,” Aimé murmured. “Asmodeus told me off a few months ago, said that I kept forgetting that you and Colm Fell into poverty, when you Fell. That you don’t forget stuff like that. I only really thought about it like… about money before, I didn’t think about it like, uh. I don’t know. About it affecting how you think.”

“It seems to me that would be obvious,” Jean-Pierre said.

“Yeah, well, you’re three hundred years old and learned theory while it was being written,” Aimé said. “You and I have different ideas of what’s obvious.”

Jean-Pierre hummed in amusement, picking up the kiwi he had set down and scraping the meat from the flesh with his teeth, chewing it thoughtfully.

“His mother was called Marguerite?”

“Yes,” Jean-Pierre said. “But his father was called Jacques, not Luc. You remind me of him, sometimes. He was patient with me, even when I did not deserve it – especially then. Thank you.”

“Thank you? The fuck are you thanking me for?”

“Asking,” said Jean.

Aimé shifted in his seat, as though uncomfortable. “Tell me about the beefcake in your choir soc.”

“He had dick pics on his phone,” said Jean-Pierre. “Short, but very thick. It looks like it would hurt.”

“That a big part of the appeal?”

“Mmm.”

“And is it hotter for you if you go up to him and offer yourself up, or if I meet him, mention that you’re my boyfriend, and tell him I’ll let him and his friends fuck you?”

Jean-Pierre went quiet for a second, and he turned to look at Aimé. Aimé looked amused, his eyebrows raising, and he grinned, watching Jean’s face.

“I like that colour,” Aimé murmured. “Very pink. You didn’t think about that, did you?”

Jean-Pierre shook his head, biting the inside of his lip. “No, but I am— I am not averse.”

“Good,” said Aimé. Taking the dragon fruit before Jean-Pierre could pick it up, he dodged away when Jean tried to snatch it back, laughing.

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