The cottage is cupped in the palms of earth and sky, backdropped by mountains in the distance, and banked on either side by orchards and fields as far as the eye can see. High above them, an eagle soars, a semi-colon marking midday and the only other visible sign of life in the vicinity.
“Coming?” Neil asks, red-haired and glass-eyed once more but not Nathaniel, never Nathaniel again. He’s wearing Jean’s leather jacket despite the heat, but as far as heat goes, a muggy summer’s day has got nothing on Hell.
Jean removes the key from the ignition and the silence it leaves behind is immediately filled by the whispers of leaves trading secrets Jean once knew and the sound of a brook, chuckling close by. Boots, Neil’s massive hellhound, wanders off ahead of them, an untethered shadow. (“Boots is a cat’s name,” Jean had pointed out once, and Neil—then Nathaniel—had shrugged. “She has boots, though,” he’d replied simply, indicating the charming patches of stark-white fur on all of Boots’ paws.)
“She’s as much yours as she’s mine,” Neil likes to point out, because the usually wary dog had taken to Jean like greed on humanity from the moment they met. “It’s because you’re alike,” Neil likes to say, and Jean privately agrees.
Jean feels Neil’s eyes on him, as sharp and cool as a blade against his sun-warm skin.
“What do you think?” Neil asks.
“If I didn’t know any better,” Jean replies, turning to hold Neil’s gaze. “I’d think you were sentimental.”
Neil smiles and it takes Jean’s breath away even though Neil smiles more these days, is less self-conscious about it, now that Nathan is gone. “Good thing you know better.”
Jean can’t help but smile. Neil lies as easy as breathing, but he’s honest with Jean, especially in the things he doesn’t say.
The first time they met was in a cottage in the middle of nowhere—just a fallen angel and a half-demon, searching for answers in places as condemned as they were.
Granted, this cottage is much nicer than the one all those years ago. As it should be; they are supposed to be on “vacation” after all.
(“If we survive this,” Jean said, “I need a vacation.”
“Where would you want to go?” Neil asked around bloody teeth, wearing his father’s smile because his mouth always did get him in trouble.
Jean held his gaze and replied, “Anywhere.”)
With you, he hadn’t said then, not out loud anyway, but he knows Neil heard it. Neil’s good at reading between the lines, too. Birds of a feather and all that. Or, well. Birds without feathers, wings, et cetera.
The door creaks on its hinges when Jean opens it. Everything inside is covered in a fine layer of dust, and there’s a pigeon roosting above the kitchen cabinets.
“Quaint,” Jean says, but there’s no bite to it.
Neil huffs a laugh. “Don’t be a snob.”
“Where did you find this place?”
“The internet is a fascinating place-”
Anything else Neil might’ve said is cut off by a crash, followed by the scampering of little feet.
Jean glances up the stairs, then at the ceiling above them, tracking the movement, before turning back to Neil.
“Only you would manage to pick a place with an imp infestation.”
“They’re harmless,” Neil says. A drawer of silverware hurled at his feet punctuates his sentence, sending forks and spoons skidding across the floorboards. They glance at the kitchen just in time to see a tiny red tail disappear behind the island.
Jean raises his eyebrows.
“I’ll take care of it,” Neil says.
“We’re supposed to be on holiday,” Jean reminds him.
Neil’s smile is wry. “No rest for the wicked. Give me two minutes.”
In the end, it only takes half a minute for the imps to realize who they’re dealing with. Then, they start trailing Neil around like enamoured followers.
Jean excuses himself, fighting a smile the whole time, as he leaves Neil to deal with that while he unpacks.
They don’t have much to unpack, neither of them having grown out of the habit of fitting their lives in a duffle, but there’s something about finding Neil’s shirts mixed in with his own that feels frighteningly right. Jean wants to protect this feeling.
Neil enters a few minutes later, just as Jean is considering going down to rescue him, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
“They’re cleaning up the mess they made, but they’ll leave after. They actually live below the orchard, but came when they saw us. Apparently they’ve been bored.”
“When aren’t demons bored?” Jean says, instead of asking Neil if he’s alright. ‘I’m fine,’ is Neil’s favorite lie, and Jean knows he isn’t anyway. Leadership suits Neil, but Neil fears turning into his father. He sees it as a fine line, but Jean sees them as parallel lines; Neil will never be his father, and Jean could tell him as many times as Neil will let him, but words are empty to people like them. Time, on the other hand, is honest and they have all of it in the world, now.
Neil grins, canines peeking past his lips. “Speaking of, there’s a creek just past the orchard. Perfect weather for a swim. That’s what people do on vacations, right?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Jean says.
Neil rolls his eyes. His hands are a different kind of warm on Jean’s skin, fingers rough with scar tissue. Each point of contact between them makes Jean think of the universes he’s seen, the countless suns, and he wonders how humans deal with this constantly. Perhaps they’re stronger than the angels give them credit for—humans are so fragile, lives a mere wrinkle in the folds of time, and still they find the courage to wrestle out of gravity’s hold and tether themselves to a person instead, to dare to hold their world in their hands and try not to fuck everything up.
Some even succeed.
Jean looks at Neil’s fingers around his wrist, earthtones upon earthtones, and wants to try, too.
Boots is by the creek when they get there, having a stare off with a particularly baleful looking toad.
Neil snorts and lets go of Jean’s hand. He shucks off the leather jacket and his jeans are next to go, landing in an unceremonious heap in the shade of a tree. He leaves his shirt on, the sleeves long enough to cover the scars Jean knows are there, and then he’s off, racing Boots into the water.
Jean watches them, watches the ease that’s settled into Neil’s frame, at least here, at least when he’s alone with Jean.
Neil is the most honest when he doesn’t try to be.
Sunlight pours over the creek, like liquid gold, and Jean has seen Heaven but he’d swear nothing is as heartrendingly beautiful as Neil, curls that awkward state between dry and drenched flopping over his forehead and his shirt ballooning out around him, laughing like he doesn’t have a care in the world.
Neil catches his gaze, raises a brow in challenge and well.
This whole time, Jean has been surviving. Maybe it’s time he learned how to live.
He kicks off his pants, but leaves his shirt on, too.
Their days pass, mornings of milky sunlight and nights spent on a starlit porch, as they toe the line of domesticity.
Neil wakes before the sun rises each day and goes for a run, always bringing an apple back for Jean, smile a cliff’s edge on his face and Jean feels himself slipping on the precipice, falling falling falling.
The apple is crisp, grainy sweetness on his tongue. Jean thinks of Eve and wonders if the apples Neil brings him every day are symbolic of something—Neil likes to think he’s funny that way.
Jean hides his smile in another bite and swallows it down.
Noon finds them following Boots on her walk through the overgrown field, watching as she makes a game of bounding into the weeds and turning her black coat into a summer night’s sky, speckled with burrs and tiny wildflowers.
Neil flops onto his back, hair a shock of red in all the greens and yellows, an open wound in the dirt. A bee bumbles over, lingers over Neil’s curls, and then buzzes away with purpose. Neil pats the ground beside him and Jean sinks down, his knee brushing Neil’s arm.
The grass is wilting under the heat, tickling the soles of Jean’s bare feet, but the weeds thrive, snagging on his toes.
“How long can we stay here?” Jean asks.
“As long as we like,” Neil says.
“Sure.” Neil sits up and nudges Jean. Jean shifts obligingly, giving Neil his back. Neil combs through his hair; it’s grown out now, just past his shoulders, and Jean doesn’t have any plans to cut it anytime soon.
The sky yawns above them, a vast, uninterrupted blue. Jean feels like he could fall right up into it had it not been for Neil’s clever fingers in his hair tethering him like the weeds between his toes, growing roots right into Jean’s person.
As usual, Jean feels the coming storm between his shoulder blades. His fingers clench around the book he’s reading and Boots is by his side in a second, nosing his arm in concern.
“I’m fine,” he assures her, trying to distract himself by running his hands through her fur.
“That’s my line,” Neil says. His hair is damp from a shower and he’s wearing one of Jean’s sweaters, the long sleeves bunched up around his elbows.
Jean snorts but it’s weak.
“Can I touch you?” Neil asks.
“I trust you,” Jean says.
“I know.” Neil says. “Can I?”
Neil comes up behind him and the bed dips under his weight. His palms are cool against Jean’s overheated skin when they slide under Jean’s shirt. He doesn’t touch Jean’s scars, two thick, raised lines between his shoulders where his wings used to be. Instead, he applies a gentle, steady pressure around them, fingers kneading the tension out of Jean’s back.
Jean sighs, leans into his touch.
“Mhmm.” Jean shuts his eyes. “Thank you.” Boots shifts and rests her head in Jean’s lap. “And thank you, too,” he adds, scratching behind her ears.
Later, as the storm continues to patter against the roof, tapping beseechingly at the windows, and Jean and Neil are tucked into the couch with mugs of tea, Boots draped over their thighs like a throw, Jean’s phone begins to ring.
“Kevin,” Jean says, glancing at the caller ID.
Neil makes a face. “Tell him we’re on vacation.”
“You tell him,” Jean says as he answers and puts it on speaker.
“I have a case-”
Neil rests his cheek against Jean’s arm. “Hello to you, Kevin.”
“Oh good I was hoping you’d be there, too. Listen-”
“We’re on vacation. Ask Dan.”
“What’s the scale?”
Kevin heaves a put upon sigh. “Two out of ten. Maybe three at worst.”
Neil smiles. “Good, it can wait then.”
“Kevin. We’ll see you in a week.” Neil takes the phone out of Jean’s hands and ends the call.
“How long do you think before he shows up at our door?” Jean asks.
“He has to find us first.”
“So four days?”
Jean allows himself to smile. “We better make the most of it, then.”
He feels Neil’s smile against his arm, sharp as a knife and twice as dangerous. “Sounds like a plan.”