They walked in silence, and Colm felt the energy of the city wash over him, felt the emotion of the people passing them by, the fleeting thoughts that radiated off them as they went about their days, their lives full to the brim with the complexities of humanity.
Dublin had changed a lot, since last he’d been in the city – in a century, so many buildings had disappeared, and yet so many more had sprung up in their place, the cityscape showing all manner of glass-fronted high-rises, shining in the light.
With the Friday afternoon, there was a relaxed energy in the air, people winding down after the hectic natures of their work weeks, getting ready to go out for the evening, or readying their plans for the weekend to come. The streets weren’t quite so busy with people as they would be once three o’clock came and went, and Colm idly wondered if he might go into the city centre around that time, bask in the presence of all those people—
But he was tired, and while there were nights when a crowd would give him all the energy he needed, after nearly three weeks on the move, all he wanted now was to settle to something quiet and peaceful.
The drive from College Station to New York had taken five days, because neither Colm or Jean liked to be stuck in the truck for too many hours at a time, and they’d taken frequent breaks to go for walks or just socialise with people in towns along the way, and that had been all well and good, but the actual ship?
Two weeks was a pretty good turnaround, he supposed, compared to how they used to be. He’d won a bet against Jean, which was why they were sailing at all instead of flying all their stuff over, and he’d regretted that two days in – and he’d told Jean, told him he should just go ahead without them and fly the rest of the way, but Jean honoured his bets.
Colm felt somewhat less regretful now, seeing Jean-Pierre held in Asmodeus’ arms like a toddler, completely asleep, and Asmodeus, of course, wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed, didn’t even seem to notice the people that looked his way, or seemed curious.
“Did you enjoy the cruise?” Asmodeus asked in his mild, inoffensive way: his voice was deep but too smooth to be called gravelly, and not for the first time, Colm wished he didn’t choose to speak English with such a clipped accent. It was bad enough that people looked between Colm, with his thick Kerryman’s brogue, and Jean-Pierre, with his soft-spoken Parisian lilt, and didn’t understand that they were brothers – Asmodeus, sounding for all the world like an Englishman, no matter that he existed long before that particular plague was unleashed upon the world, didn’t seem as though he should be related to anybody.
Of all the angels across the world, each Fallen from what had once been the Host, Asmodeus was different to everybody: there wasn’t an angel alive, after all, that felt so blank and empty as Asmodeus did to Colm, no matter how much angels like Colm and Jean-Pierre reached out to him.
It wasn’t that he didn’t feel.
Asmodeus had explained that before, that he did feel, that he had emotions – it was just that he didn’t project them like most did, just that they were shielded, and distant even from himself.
“Colm,” Asmodeus said, and Colm glanced at him, remembering all at once that he’d asked a question.
“I did,” Colm said. “I didn’t realise— he told me boats made him sick, but I didn’t realise he meant that sick.”
He should have known. He and Jean-Pierre had known each other two centuries now, had spent those two hundred years often living in each other’s pockets, when they weren’t pursuing respective jobs – he should have known.
“Jean-Pierre isn’t a seabird,” Asmodeus said, and then smiled to himself as though it was a joke. Colm pressed his lips together, trying to push down the guilt still tangled in his belly. “You know for next time.”
“Yeah,” Colm muttered.
“Here,” said Asmodeus, and Colm followed the gesture of his hand, and his mouth fell open.
It was a semi-detached house at the end of a terrace, and because of the awkward shape of the road, it had been given almost twice the size of garden that the other houses in the row had, and it had no driveway. Coming to the front gate, Colm hesitated for a second, his suitcase in one hand and Jean-Pierre’s in the other, and he looked at the hugely overgrown meadow of a garden, the grass and flowers a higher than Colm’s waist, at the battered old shed that was rotting almost to pieces, down the alley between the side of the house and the fence that led down to the back garden, which looked to be even bigger than the front.
There were blackberry brambles growing on the shared fence with next door, and a few trees dotted around messily – a pear tree, a plum tree, and in the back garden, Colm could feel the familiar weight of a huge apple tree, one that had been here even before this particular estate had gone up, and a gooseberry bush, too.
“Go on,” said Asmodeus behind him, and Colm looked back to see the smile on his face. Normally, Asmodeus’ smiles were a little bit cold, the feeling not quite reaching his eyes, but now his smile was warm, and Colm could see the affection in it.
He always picked houses for Colm and Jean-Pierre, no matter that Asmodeus would always be there with them. Colm wondered, sometimes, what a house would look like, if Asmodeus picked it for himself.
Leaving the suitcases on the doorstep, which was covered over by a wooden awning that looked viable to snap off in a sudden wind, unless perhaps it was being held in place by the ivy that grew thick up the house’s outer wall, he unlocked the door with the keys he’d taken out of Asmodeus’ proffered pocket, and moved inside.
The house was narrowly built, obviously selected for its garden more than anything else, and Colm moved down the narrow corridor into the combined sitting room and kitchen, which was dominated by a huge fireplace, where turf was merrily burning on the flame.
“You cut turf?” he called up the stairs as he heard Asmodeus ascend them, creaking under his and Jean-Pierre’s weight.
“I bought turf,” was the retort, and Colm laughed softly as he stepped through the kitchen, pushing open the door that led into the narrow corridor. Under the stairs was a decent pantry space, and then there was a porch where one wall was made of some awful plexiglass shite, and mould was already growing on thin wall underneath it, no matter that the smell of bleach was pungent in the little room.
Upstairs was a better affair – Asmodeus had given himself the larger of the bedrooms up the first flight, and Jean-Pierre the smaller, because when Jean-Pierre was in too large a room he complained it got cold too easily, and another set of stairs built over the bathroom led up to the attic.
“I gave you the attic bedroom,” Asmodeus said, coming from his own bedroom, and not from Jean-Pierre’s – Asmodeus had got their names engraved on brass plates some time in the late 1800s, and installing them was the first thing he ever did upon getting them a new house – and Colm frowned.
“Did you just put him in your bed?”
“He didn’t send sheets for his,” Asmodeus said. “When he sent the furniture ahead.”
“Well, that’s his fucking fault, if he just used his head for once, he’d—”
“Colm,” Asmodeus said, and Colm clenched his jaw as he shut his mouth, watching the other man tug the door closed behind him with a quiet click. “You like the house?”
“Yeah, it’s grand,” Colm murmured. “Needs some work.”
“I’d never pick a house for you that didn’t,” Asmodeus said softly, and Colm wanted to be pleased, but he felt tired and ill-at-ease, and perhaps it showed in his face, because Asmodeus reached for him. The first time Asmodeus had come across him, Colm had thought he was something from the infernal dimensions, such a black hole of feeling as he seemed, but when Asmodeus had first touched him, Colm had realised him for the home he was, had recalled all at once that he had felt that little, once, and been that empty, that distant.
Before he Fell.
Colm leaned into Asmodeus as the other angel hugged him tightly, felt the weight of Asmodeus’ sculpted chin on top of his head, felt the heat of Asmodeus’ body in stark opposition to the cold weight of what could not be called his soul.
“He’s alright,” Asmodeus murmured against the top of Colm’s hair. “And he isn’t angry with you. He just needs to sleep – you do too, I’d wager.”
“I’m going to start on the yard there.”
“It’s to your liking?”
“Yeah,” Colm murmured. “Yeah, it’s good. Space for a veg patch, a good-sized greenhouse… It’s good.”
“It’s the hardest thing to find in a city,” Asmodeus said softly. “A garden big enough for your and Jean-Pierre’s tastes.”
Colm leaned back from Asmodeus, looking up at his face. “We could have lived in a village,” he pointed out, and he watched Asmodeus’ unchanging expression, not revealing anything.
“You’re happier in the city,” Asmodeus murmured. “You and Jean-Pierre both.”
Asmodeus shrugged his shoulders. “I’m happy anywhere,” he said, and Colm wished he knew enough to disagree with him, or to agree with him – he wished he knew what Asmodeus really did like, when it came to the mundane. Jean-Pierre asked him questions all the time, but Asmodeus always said he had no particular preference in any direction when it was a decision that would be shared by Colm and Jean, and Colm wished he could tell when he was lying and when he wasn’t, like he could with anybody else alive.
“The fireplace wasn’t here when I bought the house,” Asmodeus said as he led the way down the stairs. “I brought it from some old ruin of a cottage, rebuilt it brick by brick. I like a real fireplace.”
Colm smiled slightly to himself, wondering not for the first time if Asmodeus could read his thoughts no matter that Colm couldn’t read his, and followed the other man into the kitchen, watching as he put the kettle on.
“House needs work,” Colm said. “The back porch I’ll strip out and rebuild entirely. It’s shitework, as is, more damp than brick. Put in a proper porch at the front as well, instead of that awning – need to reinsulate the place before Jean-Pierre puts down the warding.
“The guttering I’ll strip out and use for something else, fix in new pipework to collect – that roof is good and has a shallow angle, I like that. I’ll reinforce it, of course, but I’ll put in some solar panelling, and that little balcony attached to the attic bedroom, I’ll widen that space and put a ladder in for Jean. You attached to the ivy?”
“Not particularly,” Asmodeus said, taking down some mugs. He’d moved all the furniture in while Jean and Colm had been driving up from Texas, and come back to meet them for the cruise. Colm had thought he would try to convince Jean-Pierre out of it, but he hadn’t – Asmodeus was like that. Very rarely tried to convince anybody one way or the other, except on certain issues. Colm almost hated it. “You want a trellis?”
“Yeah, for honeysuckle. I like that, in summer, and Jean puts the flowers in his tea. I’ll start on that meadow first, then start turning the soil. The earth any good?”
“I don’t really know,” Asmodeus murmured. “Not really my area of expertise. Is it important if it’s not?”
“No, I can make it good,” Colm said, and hesitated, his voice catching thick in his throat, before he said, “Thanks, Asmodeus. You always put a lot of thought into houses for us – it does mean a lot. Just wish sometimes you’d think about what you wanted too.”
“I’m going to take a lie down,” Asmodeus said softly, passing Colm the second mug of tea. “And all I really want is for you two to be happy.”
Colm, lacking the energy to argue, stepped out of the house, and began introducing himself to the neighbours.
* * *
Jean-Pierre turned over in bed, groaning into the pillows underneath him as the noise from outside sailed through the window. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep for, but evidently, he’d been asleep for long enough that Colm had had the chance to borrow from one of their neighbours some sort of lawn strimmer, and Jean-Pierre could hear the loud rotor of its engine as he worked.
He had been dreaming of a jail cell, dark stone surrounding him on every side, and in the cell he had been alone. He was trembling with the mere recollection, and he shifted on the bed, blinking to try to wake himself.
Groggily, he raised his head, and he looked around the room, at the finely-made, mahogany furniture, each wooden surface beautifully carved with complicated but lovingly appointed Arabic poetry, at the frosted mirrors hanging in a dazzling array against one wall, at the black silk sheets he was lying on.
This was not Jean-Pierre’s bedroom.
Asmodeus rejected almost all forms of technology if he could have work with enchanted objects instead, and subsequently, his room didn’t even have any electrical sockets in it, but instead had lamps made of a firestone Jean-Pierre didn’t remember the name of, and every space against the walls that wasn’t filled by furniture was filled by books piled on top of one another. They’d probably create quite a good sound insulation on their own, were it not for the fact that the windows had cheap single glazing – Jean-Pierre knew that Colm had already written that on his to-do list – and didn’t close properly, meaning that the sound from outside sailed right in.
He waited for a few minutes, futilely hoping that Colm would stop, but the rumble and clatter of the strimmer went on and on and on, making Jean-Pierre’s skull feel like it was liable to crumple inward under the pressure of it, and Jean-Pierre made a sound of irritation, pulling himself to his feet.
Asmodeus had pulled off his trainers but left him in the rest of his clothes, and Jean-Pierre fisted a hand in Asmodeus’ silk top sheet before remembering how horrible and thin Asmodeus’ sheets were, then stumbling, rubbing at his eyes, across the unfamiliar corridor, dragging a quilted blanket off of the seat of the chair in his bedroom before stumbling down the stairs.
As he clumsily dragged the blanket around his shoulders, he came into the main room downstairs, which – to Asmodeus’ credit – was warm and cosy, the walls painted a creamy, cheerful yellow, and the sofas made of a plush red fabric that looked soft indeed to the touch.
Asmodeus was reading on one of them, and he didn’t say a word to Jean, wordlessly raising one arm and letting Jean-Pierre fall and crumple against his side.
“Make him stop,” Jean-Pierre groaned. “He’s making too much noise.”
“Mm,” Asmodeus agreed, his gaze focused on the book in his hand, his reading glasses carefully pushed up the hard bridge of his nose – near-sightedness, it seemed to Jean, was Asmodeus’ only physical flaw. “And if he didn’t make any noise, you would only complain about the state of the yard when you woke up.”
As Asmodeus’ arm settled back around his shoulders, pulling Jean-Pierre a little closer, it made an uncomfortable pressure on his back, and Jean-Pierre let out a sharp gasp of pain.
Immediately, Asmodeus turned away from his book, looking down at Jean-Pierre over the crescent shapes of his spectacle lenses, his lips curled in a concerned frown. Jean-Pierre tried to ignore it, looking into the fire as he rolled his shoulders, attempting to work some of the painful stiffness out of them, and Asmodeus pressed his thumb between his shoulder blades, hard: it was at once a relief and a new pain, and Jean-Pierre let out another sound of pain, wincing.
“Jean-Pierre,” Asmodeus said softly. “When did you last—”
“Shut up,” Jean-Pierre snapped, and wrapped the blanket more tightly around himself, pushing a pillow against Asmodeus’ thigh and laying his head on it. Asmodeus hesitated for a second before he stroked through Jean-Pierre’s hair, the touch gentle and featherlight.
“Tonight,” he said softly, and Jean-Pierre gritted his teeth, trying to push back the pain even as humiliation made itself known, but didn’t argue.
“Asmodeus, please, I can’t sleep with all that sound.”
Asmodeus’ hand curled more solidly in Jean-Pierre’s hair, and Jean felt the soothing weight seep out from his fingers and curl under his skin, dissipating inside him like the warm thrill of a strong drink – or, at least, Jean-Pierre assumed so. He couldn’t digest alcohol, himself.
Sleep settled over him properly now, warm and wonderful, and it was the good, deep sleep that sank right into your bones, made you feel like you were being bathed in blackness.
* * *
“You need to eat something,” Marguerite said, and Jean-Pierre looked at the small bowl set before it, pressed into its hands. Guilt tangled in its belly, and it thought of Famine, thought of…
“You need this,” it said. “I take food from your mouths.”
Marguerite sighed, putting her hands upon her hips and looking at it very sternly indeed. “We shall make do,” she insisted.
Stubborn as an ass, Jean-Pierre’s mind repeated, and it looked down to the bowl. It took up the spoon, and it brought a spoonful of the dark brown stew to its mouth, tasting it hesitantly. It was warm, but not too hot, and it tasted of salt, and sweetness. Marguerite handed it a slice of bread, and it took it, using it to soak up some of the stew, as it had watched Marguerite do herself. It tasted pleasant, good. It knew the orders of vegetables, pulses, fruits, beans. It was not as Eden was, once, but there were greater varieties now, so many to keep track of.
It drew up another spoonful, tasted the tastes individually: cabbage, aubergine, lentil, salt, thyme…
Marguerite watched it until it finished the bowl, and it handed it back to her, but it did not stand. There was some strange emotion new to it, and it lingered on the air between them, similar to shame, and it took it in, digested it, attempted to categorise it. It was uncomfortable. It was… embarrassed.
“I… embarrass you?” it asked, the words unfamiliar on its tongue.
She turned to look at it, her skirts shifting as she moved. Her hair was tied up and away from her shoulders, in some sort of complicated bun, and it reached up, touching its own hair, which came down about its shoulders, tickling the bare skin.
She moved across the room, opening the bench upon which she had been sitting, and she removed a worn chemise, holding it out to it. It took the blouse, examining it, and at her expectant glance, it hesitated, uncertain.
“Put it on,” she said. When it peered up at her, perplexed, she added emphatically, “You’re naked.”
“Oh,” it said, and it looked down at its body, at white flesh marred all over with dark bruises, blooms of red and purple and blue beneath the skin. Adam and Eve, in the Garden, knew shame, and thus covered themselves…
It drew the blouse over its head, awkwardly and uncertainly, and it heard her let out a noise, coming forward and crouching beside it. She drew the blouse from its head once more, and guided its arms through the sleeves of the chemise, settling it neatly over its head, before she began to do up the lacing on the front. It looked down at her hands, so deft and fast, where its own were slow and clumsy, and felt a distant wonder.
“Breeches, too,” she said firmly. “We shall have to get you some shoes. This will do for now, but I’ll make for you a shirt of your own, that fits you.”
“It doesn’t fit me?” it asked.
“No,” she said, and demonstratively tugged at the end of one sleeve, which was too long for its arm, and was in line with its fingers. It bit its lip. It did not want to be more trouble, did not want to take away from a poor woman’s time, nor her money.
“I can roll it up,” it suggested, and made an attempt, but with its awkward, fumbling fingers, it succeeded only in trying to fold the cuff twice over before she put her hand on its wrist, steadying it.
“Breeches,” she repeated, and took out a pair of those, as well, which, once he had them on, left some space about its thin waist, and had to be rolled up at the ankle simply so it can walk. “I’ll make you your own of these, too,” she said.
“Your charity humbles me,” it said, and she looked at it with a frown on her face.
“Now,” said Marguerite softly, “where ever did you learn to speak like that?”
* * *
When Jean woke up on the sofa, another blanket had been gently tucked around his shoulders, and he could hear Colm and Asmodeus in the yard, could hear Colm telling Asmodeus what to pick up and what to do, and Asmodeus assenting as he obeyed.
Asmodeus did not tend to physical labour as Colm did, but he always did as Colm did when Colm asked him, and yet for all that, Jean-Pierre could feel the uncertainty radiate from Colm as he moved back and forth in the yard.
He was often like this, after they moved – pensive and uncertain, walking on eggshells around Asmodeus for no reason at all, and Jean-Pierre had never entirely been able to understand it.
His shoulders hurt.
He knew precisely why – it had been nearly two months since last he’d had the chance to really sit down and groom his wings, and once he’d left it for a few weeks, he’d begun procrastinating the task, knowing it would be painful.
It hadn’t mattered much crammed into that horrible little boat cabin – everything had hurt, not just his wings, but now, allowed to sleep and relax and lie on a comfortable bed (comfortable to somebody, at least, because in Jean-Pierre’s own eyes, the sofa was far more comfortable than Asmodeus’ hard-mattressed silken affair), he could feel the tangled agony gathered in his shoulders.
Colm was going to be angry with him for not mentioning it sooner, and Asmodeus would be angry, too, but Jean-Pierre couldn’t stomach the idea of grappling with them himself, not right now.
“Ah, you’re awake,” said Asmodeus as he stepped inside. “Ready?”
“Not really,” Jean-Pierre mumbled miserably, but began to unlace his blouse, and he heard the door close as Colm came inside.
“Jean, when did you last…?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Jean-Pierre muttered, and when he let his wings forth, it did not feel, as it should have, like the relief of unfolding cramped limbs. It felt like tearing something, like he himself was a tangled mess of wires dragged out from the box of Christmas decorations, and he groaned in pain at the ache of muscle, the stiff pain of dirt and awkward bone, the desperate tension.
“In ainm Dé, Jean,” he heard Colm whisper under his breath, and he buried his face in his hands.
“Are they really that bad?”
“You said you didn’t want to talk about it,” Asmodeus rumbled, but Jean could hear the disapproval in his voice, and he folded in on himself, hiding his face even as his brothers stepped slowly forward.
Bracing himself for some hours of agony to come, he stayed very still until they started their work.