When Asmodeus said they’d booked out the whole of the ice rink, Aimé hadn’t really been certain what to expect.
It was a large building, high-ceilinged with a glass roof that showed the bright, wan light from outdoors, and the ice rink was very large with stone walls around its edges. It was still early, and the rink was mostly empty, one or two people skating around the edge. To one end of the room was an open bar, as well as a large table full of plates set up for a buffet, and there were tables all around with people dotted around them, benches of others sitting, and there were even more people milling around, speaking, helping one another get their skates on.
Aimé could see a few of them with their wings out, talking together, and it was interesting watching people move back and forth, the way some angels would reach out and correct each other’s plumage, tug out a bent feather, in the same casual way you’d pull a piece of lint off of someone’s shirt, but that wasn’t the only sort of angel he could see.
Not every angel had wings like Jean-Pierre and George’s – while most of the wings he saw were body-sized, sprouting out from the shoulders, one or two had wings sprouting from other parts of their bodies, like from their heads or the backs of their ankles.
He saw two angels together, one of them bald with flames licking at the top and sides of her face, their glow showing from her eyes, too; the angel beside her was covered in a fine layer of frost, her pale skin blue with it, and when they leaned into each other, steam rose from where they were touching.
Other angels shone brightly with scales like Aimé had seen on the feet of Bedelia and Pádraic’s chickens, pushing up through the skin in places and flaking away in golds or silvers or bronze shines; one angel was covered over in what looked like shifting ink, symbols making and then reforming themselves on their skin, too fast to read or make sense of.
“You gonna put your wings out?” asked Aimé.
“Nah,” said Benedictine. “How about you?”
Aimé laughed, shoving her in the side, and Asmodeus leaned over them from behind, putting his hands on both of their shoulders and leaning to kiss Bene on the top of her head before leaning a good deal further down to kiss Aimé.
“Please don’t start any fights,” he said in an undertone.
“Would I ever?” asked Benedictine, tone honeyed, and Asmodeus squeezed both of their upper arms before walking away.
Not everyone here was an angel, Aimé didn’t think – there were children, for one, and as Asmodeus walked away, two of them, a boy and a girl that Aimé didn’t think were older than five and six, rushed toward Asmodeus at a sprint, and Asmodeus crouched to meet them.
“Look how you’ve grown!” he said brightly, pulling both of them against his breast, and when he stood he supported the both of them to lean their weights against his shoulders, the two of them laughing as he spun.
Even that, he did like a ballerina, the movements of his ankles and his feet picture-perfect.
“Look how everyone looks at him,” said Benedictine softly, and Aimé glanced around without moving his head, watching everyone turn to stare at Asmodeus, smiles showing on people’s faces. “They’ve all been waiting, but he greets the children first. He always greets children first.”
“He likes kids,” said Aimé.
“Yeah,” said Benedictine. “Yeah, he’d have a hundred of his own, if he could.”
“Why can’t he?”
Benedictine patted the centre of Aimé’s back. “You wanna try and skate while the rink’s still clear? Something tells me you’re going to freak out if you brush someone’s wings by accident.”
Aimé opened his mouth to disagree, then tried to imagine what he’d say if he brushed someone’s wings or worse, crashed into one of the winged angels while he was skating. He closed it. “Good call,” he said, and walked with Bene over to the rink. “Thanks. For bringing me along. You sure no one’s gonna find it weird?”
“Lots of people bring their families,” said Benedictine, pulling out skates for herself from the open rack and waiting as Aimé looked for ones in his own size. “They bring their kids, their partners.”
“You know Doros?”
“The Greek? Sure.”
“De said he’d come. Will he bring his boyfriend?”
“Aetos Talaria? No,” said Benedictine, dropping onto her arse beside him on a cushioned bench and showing him how to put on the skates. He copied her as she pulled the tongue of the boot in, putting across the clip-like fastenings instead of laces. “You know he’s a god, right?”
“Hermes,” said Aimé, and he remembered Aetos Talaria’s surprisingly bland features, remembered the fascination on his face as he’d watched Jean-Pierre pull a hissy fit at Aimé getting attention from somebody – he remembered the obscene heat of Aetos Talaria’s skin as he’d loosened Jean-Pierre’s tight grip around his throat, remembered how he kept encouraging Aimé to try the food, try the wine, try the weed. “He seemed nice for what he is.”
“Guy’s a fucking rapist a thousand times over,” said Benedictine, shaking her head. “I don’t know if nice fucking cuts it. Doros is his consort now, but Talaria bought him out of a cage, already half-ripped to shreds, ‘cause Polymetis had been using his feathers to fletch arrows, and had been fucking him, too. Talaria only bought him because Doros recited some poem or prayer he liked – and because the only other person interested in him at the auction was Loki, and those two fight like street cats.”
Aimé imagined Doros, the proud, haughty Doros he’d met at the party, with his plump lips, his dark curls, his beautiful wings, in a cage, his wings bald in places, bruised, abused.
It made him feel abruptly sick, and he focused on tightening the fastenings on his skates.
“How do you know?”
“You don’t believe me?” asked Benedictine.
“No reason not to. Just— You seem to know about it, Jean-Pierre and Colm didn’t.”
“I fuck his wife,” said Benedictine.
“Polymetis’,” said Bene. “Whenever she comes around my way.”
“Who’s Polymetis’ wife?”
“Tymborychos,” said Benedictine, and when Aimé looked at her blankly, she said, “Aphrodite. Polymetis, Hephaestus.”
“What the fuck was wrong with the names they had?”
Benedictine laughed, getting to her feet, and she gave him her arm, letting him lean against her shoulder as they came toward the rink’s side. She was remarkably steady on the skates, but he was drawing heavily on the one or two rollerblading trips he’d gone on as a kid, and could see his knees wobbling, mind assailed with visions of him hitting the cold rink floor.
“Most of them go by different names in different spheres – Aetos Talaria goes by Aetos with other immortals, but the other gods might call him different names. Curse words and slurs, mostly. He’s only Hermes in the temple, or in stories. Tymbor says it’s like… You know, it’s degrees of separation, between their lives, their facets, the selves they’re putting on. Like how you’re Aimé here with me, but you might be Mr Deverell to someone else – it’s not just a change in name and title, ah? It’s Aimé who can’t stay upright on ice-skates versus Aimé who can paint a masterpiece.”
“I’m upright,” said Aimé weakly, huffing out a chuckle.
“Watch me,” said Bene, and Aimé did, trying to copy the careful sway of Benedictine’s movements, pushing forward with his right foot, then doing the same with his left. “Too wide, bring it in a little.”
For five or ten minutes, the two of them skated slowly around the far edge of the rink, long enough for Aimé to manage to balance himself. He was unsteady, couldn’t move as smoothly as Benedictine did, but so long as he stayed close to the edge and didn’t go too fast, he could skate without Bene holding him up.
“Ice-skating big in Haiti?” asked Aimé.
“There was a show in Port-au-Prince a few years ago,” she said, skating beside him: she was keeping pace with him, but she did it with her hands at the small of her back, her body perfectly upright as Aimé teetered every few seconds. “But I skate on wheels, sometimes, when I’m in the right place – at Christmas, normally, when I’m wherever the boys are. It’s not a lack of facilities that stops me skating at home – I don’t have time.”
“They say you work too hard,” said Aimé. “Same as Jean, when he’s not at school.”
“You don’t believe that either?”
“You’re a lawyer and he’s a doctor,” said Aimé, cursing when his arse went out from under him, but he managed to bend his knees and spread his centre of balance out so he didn’t hit the ice, and Benedictine let out an approving sound, clapping her hands together before helping him up again. “Definition of long hours and high-powered jobs, right? Even without the political intrigue on the side. And you’re both fucking insane.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” said Benedictine softly, her lips quirked into a small, easy smile. “What about you?”
It occurred to Aimé that Benedictine was changing the subject, that she hadn’t said that much about Haiti itself, about Port-au-Prince, that she kept the conversation on jobs, and now turned it on Aimé instead of herself and Jean-Pierre. He wondered if he’d have noticed that, a year ago – he wondered if he’d noticed it a week ago, if Jean-Pierre hadn’t pointed it out.
He wondered if he’d have cared before – a year ago, if he had noticed, would he have needled at it? Would he have just taken the opportunity to press her buttons, if he and Benedictine had talked at all?
“What about me?” he asked.
“You just gonna be an artist now?”
“I don’t know,” said Aimé. “Asmodeus has been looking at, uh, at numbers with me. How much money I’d need to make to rent a studio and an apartment, and it’s not as much as I thought. If I was painting full time, doing portraits, custom pieces, along with selling out the stuff I have to galleries… It’s doable. And I’ve been thinking of, uh, of enrolling in an enchantment course later on.”
“Enchantment?” Bene repeated, tilting her head to the side, and Aimé tried not to be offended by the fact that she was smoothly skating backwards and keeping pace with him as easily as she had been skating forward. “Jean-Pierre can’t teach you?”
“Well, no, it’s actually, uh… It’s animation enchantment. Not, not spirits, it’s not about imbuing paintings, but repeated motions, whether it’s waterfalls or people talking, or creating magical depth. I’m not saying I’d definitely go all the way in that direction, but if I wanted to sell myself as a magical painter with real classical skills, I could learn take courses in dimensional expansion, too. I can already offer to tie a painting into a home security set-up, but if I learned to do some dimensional expansion, I could make a painting you could reach right into, to use it as a safe…”
Benedictine was staring at his face, her gaze focused, her parted lips quirked into a small smile, so he could see the gap in her front teeth. She wasn’t laughing, but he felt nervous, and he reached up, rubbing the back of his neck and managing not to tip himself over in the process.
“You think that’s stupid?” asked Aimé.
“Nah,” said Bene quietly. “I think it’s ambitious, and I know De too well to think he’d put innovation in your head. That means the ambition is yours.”
“It’s not innovation,” said Aimé. “People have been making magical safes like that for centuries.”
“Yeah?” asked Benedictine. “How many people are making them right now?”
Aimé didn’t say anything, and Benedictine let out a low hum of amused, satisfied sound. “Can I ask you a question?”
“You don’t have to answer.”
“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want. That’s liberty.”
“What was Benoit like?” Benedictine’s inhalation wasn’t sharp or sudden, but it was audible, and Aimé said, “Like I said, you don’t—”
“Shh, I’m not offended, shit,” said Benedictine, and as Aimé got up the courage to speed up slightly, managing to do so without skidding, she looked thoughtful beside him, spinning on her feet like it was an afterthought, the skates making a smooth, cutting sound on the ice. “I’m not angry that you’re not him – none of Jean’s boyfriends have been Benoit. You know that?”
“Sure,” said Aimé. “I get jealous, sometimes, I guess, but that’s not why I’m asking.”
“A little. Mostly Jules, and Farhad.”
“Farhad,” scoffed Benedictine, but she looked more pained than derisive, and when Aimé looked at her askance, she shook her head and gave a wave of her hand.
“Benoit,” she said, her lips smiling as she apparently put Farhad out of her head. “He was my brother. How to tell you what he meant to me, what he was to me before I introduced him to Jean-Pierre? I came down in the middle of the forest, a little away from the closest plantations. It was Maroons who found me – you know Maroons?”
“Revolutionaries,” said Aimé.
“Not then,” said Benedictine. “Not yet. The people who found me were ex-slaves or the descendants of them – they thought I was soft in the head, that I had been raped or beaten in some way to make my mind go blank to all of it. This is how they treated me, as an amnesiac, and I let them. Not everyone believed it – I knew and understood too many languages, was suspicious sometimes in my lacking knowledge, but I could kill, and did without hesitation. They did not need to see or know my wings to know I could easily fall upon our targets with a speed and grace and silence that they could not. Why are you looking at the ice instead of my face?”
Aimé stared down at his own skates on the ice, trying to ignore the roiling nausea making itself known in his gut. Jean-Pierre had been poor, but he never came off as though where he’d Fallen to had been horrible, in the beginning: he’d Fallen to poverty, with little food to eat, but it wasn’t as though anyone would actively kill him, hurt him. The same for Colm – Aimé knew he’d Fallen to a fishing village, that the people there had been poor, and even if Colm didn’t much talk about it, Colm looked Irish, and people over the centuries would have treated him based off that, but—
It wasn’t the same as Benedictine, wasn’t the same as Haiti, pre-revolution.
“It’s nothing,” said Aimé. “Sorry.”
“Don’t lie to me,” said Benedictine. “It insults both of us.”
Aimé inhaled, meeting her gaze, her expectant expression, her raised eyebrows. “Colm and Jean-Pierre. They didn’t have to… to do that. I mean, I know they did, I know they were both poor, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t the sa—”
“You’re scared to look at my face because mine is black and my brothers’ are white?”
“No,” said Aimé. “Just— it’s not fair, and—”
“Nothing’s fair,” said Benedictine. “Colm and Jean-Pierre have paid much back for their occasional eases in life – you haven’t, not yet, but I’m not interested in talking to you about my life, and you taking it as a history lesson to whip yourself for. We’re friends talking as friends, aren’t we?”
“Oh, fuck off,” said Aimé. “That’s not it, I’m not guilty.”
“Why not? You should be, it was your people who ruined mine.”
Aimé laughed disbelievingly. “The fuck do you want from me then?”
“For you to listen to me,” said Benedictine, patting him roughly on the cheek, and when he grabbed her by the hand, she pulled him with her, making him skate faster. When he faltered, she stabilised her other hand on the front of his chest, splaying across his sternum, and before he knew to be scared or nauseous, he was laughing. Skating as fast as they were, Benedictine nudging his legs to keep them the right distance apart, the air was rushing past his face, stirring through his hair, and with the steadfast grip she had on him, he didn’t feel like it was possible to fall.
“I am listening,” he said.
“Good,” she said. “This story is about me, ouais?”
“You listen to stories from Jean-Pierre about being poor in the fields without making them about you? Hm? Without fussing over how you are rich and he was poor? How you have a cock and he has a cunt, and all that this changes between you? You listen to his stories and still meet his gaze, because you listen to him before you think of your own shame?”
Aimé blustered for a second, trying to think of a way to argue with her, to refute what she was saying, but even as they sped forward, she was looking at him solidly, and he couldn’t find the words. “I didn’t mean to make it about me,” said Aimé. “Sorry.”
“Apology accepted,” said Bene, but she was grinning. “Look me in the face when I talk to you.”
“Yes, sir,” said Aimé, and she slapped him upside the head at the same time as she let him go. “Fuck!”
“You can do it,” she called after him, and he twisted clumsily, leaning away from his momentum to brake. It couldn’t be called graceful by any measure of the word, and the sound of the ice under his skates was painful, but he did it without hitting the floor or straining his muscles, and as he shuffled back to the side again, she laughed. “Good,” she said.
“So,” he said, trying to catch his breath, leaning against the bannister and looking back at her, “you were with the Maroons?”
“Jean-Pierre never saw Robespierre, his political hero, executed, but I wonder what it would have done to him, if he had. It’s not quite the same, Robespierre deserved it, for one thing, and Jean-Pierre more than fucking hated him by the end,” said Benedictine, and Aimé laughed breathlessly. “Me, I saw Mackandal burned alive in ’58. He was a houngan, you know what that is?”
Aimé shook his head.
“You know who Mackandal was?”
“He was a Haitian hero,” said Aimé. “A revolutionary – he’s on some of your money. Jean-Pierre has a t-shirt, and Mackandal is the one with the machete and the neckerchief billowing in the wind.”
Benedictine laughed softly, and she nodded her head. “A houngan is a priest of vodou. Some people say when Mackandal was burned and the spirit was about to leave his body, instead of dying, he was transformed into some feathered creature that flew to safety.”
“Is that true?” asked Aimé.
Benedictine was quiet for a few seconds, and he wondered if he should change the subject, but she shook her head. “I couldn’t look,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“I’m sorry,” said Aimé.
“It was a long time ago,” said Benedictine. “But some wounds, they linger. It is… I don’t how I can describe to you what it does to someone, seeing their brother-in-arms perish. Any soldier might tell you they know the feeling, but this was not war, and in ’58 it wasn’t revolution, not yet, only uprising punished soundly and with prejudice. It calcified something in me, something that is not soon to soften again. That is the Benedictine that met Benoit, later on. He was born the year after, ’59 – I met him two decades later, when he was just nineteen. I kept him under my wing from then on, the both of us gaining scars, putting kills under our belts. We shared everything – ammunition, lodgings, beds. Women, if they were pretty enough for him and handsome enough for me.”
“He knew you were an angel?”
“Ouais,” said Benedictine, and offered Aimé her hand, helping him out onto the ice again. They moved in parallel for a while, him doing his best to match the easy strokes of her feet, her slowing down to make it easier for him. “His mother was a mambo – like a houngan, but a woman – and she was an active magic user, a witch. He noticed things mundies did not.”
“Jean-Pierre said he was autistic. Like Asmodeus.”
Benedictine shrugged her shoulders. “I guess, I don’t know. You take the book of mental disorders and you can go through all my friends and family to tick off every box. I don’t know if Benoit was autistic – I know he was quiet, ordered, that he liked things to be as they ought be. That he was unflappable even in the face of cruelty, enemy fire, flame, injustice. It used to infuriate me, the way we two would talk, me pacing and shouting, climbing the walls, him… Calm. Still angry, still furious, actually, but he had a sort of cold, simmering rage that he kept very private, like he thought it was impolite.”
“Impolite?” asked Aimé, and Benedictine smiled to herself, eyes cloudy with memory.
“I would say his mother drilled it into him, that she wanted him to be dignified, to set a good example, but it was deeper than that, I think. She said he was like that since he was a little boy. He was confident with people, with small groups, but not with crowds – or, not with performance, I suppose. I think he could have addressed thousands, if only he were speaking with them on a level, but as soon as he was stood on a wood crate, let alone a stage, he became nervous, quiet. Shy, even.”
“Why did you take him in?” asked Aimé.
“He saved my life – or, saved me from torture, anyway. One of those French cunts, a little officer by the name of Contois, shot me right out of the sky as I was diving – the bullet went through the upper curve of my wing and came through my hip. When I landed, it was Benoit who found me, carried me to his mother, helped her dress my wounds. They hid me, when the plantation officers went searching, secreted me beneath their floorboards like contraband.”
“Which you were,” said Aimé, and she laughed.
“Ouais, I was. Copy me.”
She turned on one foot, spinning one knee around with her, and he tried to copy her before he could think too much about it and psych himself out: he lost his balance as he lifted his knee and shifted his weight, and when he landed on the ice on his arse, he skidded.
“Fuck,” he grunted, and she chuckled, knees spread apart to stabilise herself as she offered her hand and hauled him up. “Let me try again?”
“Good,” said Benedictine, and she stood back as he skated away from her, trying again to pivot on one foot and spin around. He spun too far, the foot he’d lifted landing heavily back on the ice with a quiet screech of sound, and Benedictine laughed, catching him by the back of his jacket before he could hit the floor again.
They started to skate again, Benedictine going a little faster this time, and Aimé found that he could keep up alright, a little slower than her, but not so slow he couldn’t almost keep pace.
“Anyway, me and Jean-Pierre began to write to one another. It was slow, letters from Haiti to France were not rare but not fast. Benoit started writing him too.”
“Why?” asked Aimé.
“I don’t know – because he could, because Jean-Pierre wrote back. Because Jean-Pierre never stopped talking about how beautiful he was, and Benoit thought with his cock, like any man does.”
Aimé sniggered, shaking his head.
“No,” said Benedictine softly, voice rich with a fond warmth. “They exchanged ideas, talked about revolution, about liberty. About grief, I think. Benoit lost his mother around the time he and Jean-Pierre started to talk – and Jean had lost Jules years before. He knew both of us by the time he came in ’93.”
“That’s why he didn’t see Robespierre executed,” said Aimé, and she grinned.
“You know your dates,” she said. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“That wasn’t weird?” he asked as they started to come back toward the ramp. His thighs and his knees felt tired – not aching, and he knew he’d probably skate more today, but tired.
“It was weird,” said Benedictine, stepping up onto the ramp and offering Aimé her arm, letting him climb up after her. “But Jean-Pierre came to the port, all these fucking slavedrivers lapping around his feet. They worshiped him, obviously, beautiful thing that he was, a taste of home, a man they could fuck without thinking it was sodomy, but exotic enough to be more interesting than fucking a woman. He walked past all of them, made his excuses, came to us, kissed me on the cheeks and then went directly into our lodgings so that he could kiss Benoit somewhere else.”
The smile was still on Aimé’s face as they hobbled over to the benches. A lot more people were starting to go out onto the ice now, and Aimé could see some of them were winged angels, breathed a sigh of relief he wasn’t sure if he should feel guilty for holding.
“You jealous of Benoit now?” asked Benedictine, and Aimé shook his head, unfastening the boots of the skates.
“Thinking about Jean-Pierre and the plantation owners.”
“He loves that part,” said Benedictine softly. Aimé pulled a face, wrinkling his nose and shaking his head, and Benedictine chuckled, passing him his shoes as she unbuckled her own skates. “He does.”
“I don’t like it,” said Aimé lowly.
“Jean-Pierre believes he is beautiful for a reason,” said Benedictine, pulling her boots back on and lacing them very tightly with easy movements of strong, capable hands. “His beauty is a currency to him, and he spends it very freely – he uses it to sway others to his cause. He uses it to lull people into a false sense of security so that he can steal from them, or kill them.”
“I don’t mind that,” said Aimé. “I just wish he didn’t think that was all it was for. Sometimes, it’s like he thinks his face is worth more than his brain.”
“You think he thinks that?” replied Bene. “Or is he just very good at giving that impression?”
Aimé took her skates as well as his to put back, and said, “I don’t know. That’s what I don’t like – that I can’t tell. It didn’t bother Benoit?”
“Benoit and Jean-Pierre agreed that Jean-Pierre’s beauty was a useful currency,” said Benedictine, “but Benoit never tried to dictate how he used it. Jean-Pierre would have liked for Benoit to have done so, at times, I think. My brother has a complicated relationship with his own liberty – he values and craves it, insists on it for every man, and yet there is a part of him that believes you cannot be truly devoted to another person without, in some way, desiring to subjugate them.”
“Jules never did that,” said Aimé.
“Jules didn’t need to – he introduced Jean-Pierre to the world. By definition, he had power over Jean-Pierre.”
“Manolis would beat him up. Benoit would tell him what to do?” Benedictine nodded, and Aimé went on, “Bui?”
“Bui undercut him,” said Benedictine. “Humiliated him, ran rings around him. It was incredible to watch, the way Bui could leave my brother tongue-tied and flushed with anger. He had a command of language and debate, honed like a blade, that I have seen matched in no other.”
“Farhad doesn’t count.”
Aimé didn’t know enough about it to argue, and a part of him – a part of him he admittedly wasn’t proud of – was glad to find someone more on his side than Farhad’s.
That was a shit thing to think, he knew, lording a victory over a fucking AIDs victim who died thirty years ago.
Benedictine was silent, watching Aimé slot their skates back onto their shelves before she offered him her arm and he took it, walking with her toward the buffet table.
“You know,” said Benedictine, “I never met him, but I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that Jean-Pierre’s relationship with Rupert was as much about Myrddin as it was about Rupert himself. Jean-Pierre did not need to be subjugated, those years – he was already completely and utterly dominated by Myrddin. Rupert could not replace the yoke that was already there, and in fact, it was in Jean’s throwing off that yoke, I think, that he met his end.”
“You two have a balance,” said Benedictine. “Give and take, you might call it. Mutually assured destruction.”
“You think I subjugate him?” asked Aimé.
“I think you want to,” said Benedictine. “And I think he surges, when you do.”
“It’s fucked up,” said Aimé.
“I’m glad you see that,” said Benedictine. “It’s a good thing, to know what we are, and what we want for.”
Standing beside the buffet table, Aimé could see George, talking passionately to Bedelia and a few other angels, and Aimé couldn’t help but smile – Bedelia was in one of her usual dresses with a thick skirt and a leather jacket, but George was in some of the clothes they’d given him yesterday.
They fit perfectly, tight black jeans in his new painted shoes, matched to Bedelia’s, a cropped leather jacket, a tight t-shirt. He looked youthful, fashionable, in a way he hadn’t before, and he looked at home in the clothes, matched to Bedelia.
“Benedictine!” he said brightly, laying eyes on them. “And Aimé, too!”
Aimé wasn’t sure if George and Bedelia would introduce him as not being an angel, but they didn’t – they just called him by name, said he was a painter. They avoided, he noticed, saying Jean-Pierre’s name.
* * *
He didn’t know why, but he had thought, somehow, that most of the other angels would be haughty and serious – not unwelcoming, but just superior, and reserved in the way that Asmodeus could be, sometimes.
That was not, Aimé discovered, even remotely the case.
Maybe all family reunions were like this, which he supposed would make sense, not that he had any big frame of reference, but it did remind him of what it used to be like, whenever he went to Montauban after a long time away – even on the outskirts, more than once different angels had come to talk to him, to ask his name, where he was from, what he did.
When he said he wasn’t an angel, they’d laugh and tell him they knew that – all of the angels, one way or another, seemed to know who was an angel and who wasn’t at a glance, including the flaming angel whose name was Conan, who turned out to be blind – and ask who he was with, and then when he said Asmodeus and Benedictine, or pointed out George and Bedelia, they’d nod and say he was welcome, and ask if he’d eaten yet.
He couldn’t remember all their names, but after a few hours, several of them were greeting him by his, and he didn’t know how to feel about it.
A part of him felt guilty, an imposter – would they treat him like this, if they knew he was Jean-Pierre’s? Would they be so friendly and warm, if it was Jean-Pierre he’d come with?
He kept wondering if he’d overhear something, if someone would tell him something about Jean-Pierre or say something about it in passing, but nothing like that happened.
Only one thing made him give pause, and it was a woman with a design shaved into her undercut who started talking to him when he went to get a glass of wine at just a little past two. She’d spent, he was fairly sure, almost all of the gathering so far out on the ice, and he’d noticed her teaching some of the kids how to skate, using her magic to help stabilise all of them at once with a golden band around each of their waists.
“Wine, huh?” she asked. “You don’t look the type?”
“I like wine,” said Aimé, giving her a small smile. “I, uh… I partly grew up on a vineyard. Tastes like home.”
She smiled at him, leaning her elbows back against the bar as she sipped at a glass of stout. “It’s nice to have a taste of home,” she said. “My name’s Mary.”
“Who’re you here with?”
“Can you— Everyone can tell I’m not an angel,” said Aimé, and she laughed, nodding her head.
“Yeah,” she said. “We can feel it, other angels. A sense of old connection. It’s not a big thing, it’s subtle, but it’s like… I don’t know, it’s like recognising a face you’ve half-forgotten. We recognise our own kind.”
Aimé nodded. “I’m here with Benedictine Etienne, and I know George and Bedelia. And De, of course, Asmodeus.”
Mary’s warm smile faded, going cold, and she looked from Aimé to Asmodeus, who was sitting in a group of different angels, bouncing one of the kids Mary had been teaching to skate on his knee. She couldn’t have been older than four or five, and she was sucking her thumb, leaning in against Asmodeus’ chest and the cradle of his arm, looking almost ready to doze.
“Right,” she said coolly. “Well, see you,” she said, and Aimé frowned after her.
Conan, who had come to the bar to get another drink – she used a big, heavy tankard that wouldn’t melt in her hand, and when she drank, you could see some of whatever she was swallowing steam away from her – said, “Don’t mind her, lad. She Fell in ’54.”
Before Aimé could ask what that meant, Agrippa – the ice angel Conan was always walking around with – came over, and he leaned against her shoulder to drink from the same mug.
It was a little before four when Aimé was sitting down alone, watching Benedictine and Asmodeus out on the ice. They were dancing together to the music on the overhead speakers, laughing as they went through the routines, and from what Aimé could tell, Bene was leading.
“Aimé,” said a voice across from him, and Aimé looked up to see Doros, who sank to sit on the opposite bench from him. His wings were out, their huge, dark gold shape a curving shape around his shoulders, and he was wearing a t-shirt tight enough to show the washboard sculpture of his abs, his jeans almost painted on.
Aimé realised he’d been expecting to see Doros in an ancient white robe, if not completely naked – he’d never seen him wear clothes before, and yet somehow, the clothes Doros was wearing were exactly what suited him and his plump, cherry lips, his high cheeks, his heavily-lidded eyes, his thick, dark curls.
He looked like a model, acted haughty like a model – and he dressed like one, too.
“Hey, Doros,” said Aimé, and Doros smiled at him.
“Doro,” he corrected. “Doros when you’re talking about me, Doro when you’re talking to me. The nominative versus the accusative case.”
“Oh,” said Aimé. “Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry,” said Doros, leaning back on the bench, his palms resting against the wood underneath him. “It’s not an insult, just a grammatical error. Are you having a good time?”
Aimé nodded his head, and Doros’ perfect, cherry lips curved into a small smile.
He was just as superior and self-important as he had seemed before, but looking at him, all Aimé could think about was Doros on his knees in a cage, maybe a chain around his neck or a manacle around his ankle, Doros’ feathers all ripped out of his beautiful, dark gold plumage, Doros bleeding, and reaching out of his cage to sing poetry at someone to buy him.
In the same instant, Aimé thought about Jean-Pierre held captive by Myrddin, Jean-Pierre shaking and quivering and plastered to Asmodeus’ side for years afterward, Jean-Pierre, like Doros, raped and held captive and—
“Penny for your thoughts?” asked Doros, and Aimé realised he’d been quiet.
“Sorry,” he said. “I guess I’m surprised you’re here.”
“As surprised as I am to find you here?” Doros replied, and Aimé smiled sheepishly. “Asmodeus likes you very much.”
Aimé didn’t know what to make of Doros’ tone, because he didn’t sound like he disliked Asmodeus, but there was a strange tension there, a kind of loaded implication that Aimé didn’t know what to make of.
“Is that bad?” asked Aimé.
“No,” said Doros softly, and he turned to look at Asmodeus, inhaling and raising his head slightly, almost leaning in Asmodeus’ direction. “Asmodeus likes almost everyone – or at least, he tries to.”
“Does he?” asked Aimé, and Doros nodded his head.
“He is accepting of all faults,” said Doros softly, “except harm to others. And even then, he makes significant allowances. I know of few others with his sense of forgiveness.”
“You sound like you speak from experience,” said Aimé.
“If you want to ask a question, ask it,” said Doros. “Indirectness might be politeness, but I don’t know you to be especially polite.”
“I’m polite,” said Aimé, and Doros gave him an expectant look, arching one perfectly groomed eyebrow, and Aimé leaned back in his seat. “What if what I’m thinking about is really fucked up and you don’t want to talk about it?”
Doros blinked at him, and Aimé wondered if Doros’ eyelashes were longer, or Jean-Pierre’s – it was hard to tell, when Jean-Pierre’s eyelashes were so blond, and Doros’ so much darker.
“You’re worried you’ll offend me?” asked Doros. “Not through directness, but through impropriety?”
“I guess,” said Aimé, and Doros laughed, slowly shaking his head. “I keep hearing different stories about how you met Hermes. Aetos. Did you meet him before you met Asmodeus, or after? He meets all the angels, right? When they Fall?”
Doros’ haughty smile faltered, but it didn’t fade, it just changed in shift and tone, his head tilting slightly to the side. “Does it matter to you?” he asked.
“Uh, I guess not,” said Aimé. “It’s not my business, if that’s what you mean.”
“It isn’t,” said Doros. “Stop being polite, it’s irritating – I’m asking why you want to know.”
“Why does it matter? I’m just a mortal – you didn’t care about my feelings or my opinions before.”
“I asked you first,” retorted Doros, and Aimé snorted.
“I’m friends with Asmodeus,” said Aimé. “I guess I didn’t realise until recently how… important he is. Not just to angels, but to, you know. Everybody. I guess that includes gods. Includes Aetos Talaria.”
Doros watched Aimé’s face, seeming to study him. Again, he didn’t look angry, and Aimé didn’t know why he kept expecting him to be angry – maybe because he didn’t look sad or vulnerable either, and he expected to see one or the other.
“I Fell into a mineshaft,” said Doros. “Very unlucky – I hit the edges of the shaft, and skidded in such a way that I went down an offshoot. My wings were very badly broken and damaged, and I had other broken bones besides, and I landed in a pool of filthy water. I don’t have scales, like some of my brothers,” he gestured to some of the angels here and there, the ones with flakes or full scales on their skin, “but my blood is more like theirs than like Jean’s. When I bleed, I bleed gold. They were frightened to touch me, was certain that I was not for their use. Even as they carried me, they said they were sorry for the filth on their hands and their bodies, but they brought me to the temple to Hephaestus at the bottom of the mountain.”
“Why him?” asked Aimé.
“His shrine was closest,” said Doros simply. “They were scared, frightened of what would come to them, if they kept me – they had vague thoughts of reward, I think, but I can’t emphasise enough that it was not thought of reward that drove them, but fear of retribution. These were poor, dirty men doing hard, dirty work. That I Fell almost on top of them was like… A pearl necklace dropped into the lap of a beggar. They could see I was beautiful, and thought no god would ever believe they had come upon me by chance, so they hurried to pass me off again as soon as possible.”
Like every angel telling the story of their own Fall, Doros spoke passionately, and with the air of someone who’d told the story many times before. His beautiful eyes gleamed with focus.
“They sacrificed you?” asked Aimé, and Doros chuckled.
“Not exactly. They put me with his offerings, handed me to the priest, but it’s not the same as sacrifice. In any case, I lost consciousness around this point – I believe the priest dressed my wounds, washed them with salt water, and when he saw that my bones were healing, he set those that were broken back into place, and pushed those that protruded back into the flesh. I healed very wonderfully with his care, and have no scars today. When I woke, it was laid over a worktable in the forge, with Polymetis examining my body and its responses.”
“Hephaestus,” allowed Doros.
Aimé felt a little bit sick, uncertain, as he asked, “And when you say, he was— examining your… responses.”
“He was fucking me,” said Doros simply. He looked fascinated when Aimé flinched. “This bothers you?”
“You were unconscious,” said Aimé, “and woke up to him— doing that?”
“Yes,” said Doros. “I also woke to my injuries healed, my cock being played with, lips against my neck. It was quite pleasant, compared to all I’d experienced beforehand.”
“He was raping you.”
“Hardly. I had no womanhood for him to ravage, and he had not stolen nor kidnapped me – he had taken me as a gift proffered, which I was.”
“You didn’t consent, though,” said Aimé. “You didn’t— you didn’t say you wanted sex from him.”
“I had no idea what sex was,” said Doros. “How could I have?”
“You don’t see how that’s worse?”
“No,” said Doros bluntly. “In any case, he asked me questions – he knew of angels, but he knew of us as stories from acquaintances of acquaintances, had never laid eyes on a winged angel. He was interested, curious, to find that although my blood was gold and wings sprouted from my body, that my organs were not unlike a human’s – and that I had a cock, and an arse, as any man might.”
“And then he put you in a cage,” said Aimé.
“Yes,” said Doros. “He performed experiments with my blood, and found that my feathers made fine arrows – they channelled magic very well.”
“Didn’t it— hurt?”
Doros considered the question, brows furrowing. “Yes,” he said after a fashion. “But pain was new to me. At the time, it was remarkable in that it was sensation. Sensation was new to me – I had not experienced it before. I don’t know that pain deters me as it might you, Aimé. I do not experience corporeality as you do. I don’t remember, exactly, what it was to be something other, but I remember enough that it impacts my experience now.”
He put out his hand, and Aimé didn’t even hesitate, handing Doros his own glass of wine and watching Doros drink from it, his perfect neck shifting as he swallowed.
“This was when Asmodeus came for me,” said Doros. “He petitioned Hephaestus for my release, said he would be my sponsor – Hephaestus replied that he had already lost interest in me, and that Asmodeus could join the auction like anyone else.”
“No,” said Doros. “They wouldn’t let Asmodeus take part – he had neither worshipers nor priest nor aura of belief, and therefore was no god. I think he asked someone to bid on his behalf, but I wasn’t interested in anyone at the auction but Aetos.”
“You wanted Aetos to bid on you?”
“Yes,” said Doros. “Yes, of course. I had seen him in Polymetis’ workshop many times, ferrying deliveries and payment. I thought he was beautiful – I thought he was cunning, funny. He had never spoken to me, nor I to him, but I had seen him speak and heard him spoken of. If I was to be owned by anyone, I wanted it to be him.”
“Why did you have to be owned at all?”
“I had only been owned, at that point,” said Doros. “There was no liberty that I recall within the Host – why should it occur to me to want it, once I Fell to Earth?”
“Humans have it,” said Aimé.
“Is that what you tell yourself?” asked Doros, and Aimé pressed his lips together, drinking the last of his wine when Doros handed it back. “Perhaps they do,” said Doros. “But I was not human then, and I am not human now. And much as I find Jean-Pierre and Colm very quaint and dear to me, I think their obsession with personal freedom to be a little unnecessary.”
“He still owns you now,” said Aimé.
“Ownership,” said Doros, tapping his own knee. “If you like – he has a certificate of ownership on a very old tablet somewhere. More recently we got married in Las Vegas for a party, a few years ago – does that count?”
“Why not? It is a statement of his legal access to me.”
“You know it’s not the same,” said Aimé.
“I do,” said Doros. “Although I don’t believe I comprehend the why as viscerally as you seem to.”
“I don’t like the idea of someone suffering just because it’s how they existed before.”
“Because of my similarity to Jean-Pierre?” asked Doros, a sort of smooth, sneaky implication in his voice, and he was leaning forward now, his cherry lips pouted out. “It bothers you to think of me in pain, because in the way his beauty echoes mine, you feel my pain echoes his?”
“Maybe that’s why I think about it now,” said Aimé, “but no, it’d be fucked up if you didn’t look like anyone – if you were as ugly as I am. It’s a void argument to claim that it is morally neutral for a thing to go on feeling pain simply because pain is all it has known before – it’s an argument made to excuse inaction, and it’s fucking lazy.”
Doros blinked, and then smiled. “You are a philosopher,” he said, and chuckled. “I forgot that.”
“Sorry?” Aimé asked.
“Don’t be. It’s quaint,” said Doros. “Do you really think you’re ugly?”
“Of course,” said Aimé. “I was ugly before I became a boxer and had to get my jaw wired back on, my nose broken, you know. I’m not saying it because it hurts my feelings – it’s a fact.”
“It is,” said Doros approvingly. “It surprises me that you see that.”
Aimé didn’t know how to respond to that.
“Has something changed, since you talked to me last?” asked Aimé. “With how you look at me?”
“Because I speak to you? Because we conduct this conversation, the two of us equal participants?”
“You have a keenly honed insight, Aimé,” said Doros. “I am excited to see it honed further. You are satisfying my brother, I hope?”
“I’m doing my best,” said Aimé, and Doros smiled, nodding his head.
“Good,” he said. “Thank you. For an illuminating conversation – and for your insight.”
“Thanks for talking to me like a person,” said Aimé.
“Almost,” said Doros, patting his cheek, and Aimé sniggered, shaking his head. “Give Jean-Pierre my love, won’t you?”
“Sure,” said Aimé, and as Doros walked away, he went over to the edge of the rink to watch De and Bene finish up.
They got a takeaway on the way home.