A/N: The last chapter. Many thanks to VleRoux, RedTigress, and Isilarma for their betaing prowess! :)
Comes the Darkness
The Third Day
"She was once the Comtesse de la Fere," he says tonelessly, putting every last ounce of control he can muster into keeping his voice steady. "My wife."
Porthos and Aramis look at each other in surprise. Athos cannot bring himself to meet their eyes. Aramis has set the bottle at his right hand, well out of Athos' reach unless he stands. Somehow a shade of numbness has returned and Athos cannot bring himself to try.
"I thought your wife was dead," Aramis says cautiously. He tips more wine into Athos' cup unbidden and pours some for himself and Porthos.
"As did I," Athos replies. "These past five years. I thought she was dead." He stares blankly into his cup. His reflection stares back at him, dark and distorted in the tangy red liquid. "I thought she was dead," he repeats, voice almost a whisper. Somewhere, a rope creaks and a branch groans under a heavy load-
A hand brushes his knee and startles Athos back to himself. Porthos' eyes crinkle with concern. "Sounds like you should start at the beginning," he says, and his deep voice is surprisingly gentle.
Athos takes a shuddering breath. His head hangs in shame, and he cannot bring himself to raise it. "I never thought I would marry," he starts slowly. "I was expected to, of course. But when our father died and I came into my inheritance, I was yet unmarried. I have never had your ease with words, Aramis, nor your charm. The game of courtship did not come easily to me. My brother, Thomas," he pauses, smiling a little painfully at the memory, "Used to tease that I would die an old maid. I had been presented with many suitable matches and rejected them all. Too young, too interested in my money, or my title. Or my more handsome, more charming little brother."
He swirls his wine in his cup a few times and looks up. "In truth, I found the whole business distasteful," he says, a little wryly. Aramis grins outright at that, and Athos really cannot blame him. "The scheming and the bargaining that go into a noblemarriage. It all seemed so…base. I was head of the family, and as there was no one to force the issue, I was content to remain a bachelor."
Porthos chuckles. "Until you met her?"
The corner of Athos' mouth twitches upward, tugging the tender skin around the cut on his cheek. "Until I met her," he confirms. "I knew she was not of noble birth, but she was beautiful, and so very sad. I was curious; drawn to her in a way I could not explain." He struggles, his words failing as he tries to express that magnetic, utterly inescapable pull he had felt towards her. But Aramis and Porthos exchange knowing smiles, and to his relief, he realizes they understand. "Thomas laughed that I was a romantic, that she was out of my sphere and I out of hers, but it did not stop me speaking to her. Would that I had listened to him."
It had been her fine green eyes, sad and lovely, that first drew his interest, but it was her wit that kept it. Athos had been caught completely off-guard by her words, which were as sharp as any rapier when her temper was aroused. The difference between her and the demure girls of the village was almost intoxicating.
"She called herself Anne de Breuil. Her father was a successful merchant, but he had since ruined the family through speculation. She was living on the charity of her brother, who was a village priest outside Marseilles." Athos pauses to take a swallow of wine, although his physical discomfort is rapidly being forgotten as he is drawn into his tale. A smirk plays at the corner of Aramis' mouth; always the romantic, he has guessed where Athos' tale leads, even if he has not guessed how it ends. "At least, that was what she told me."
"I had never met a woman quite so charming or so clever. Anne was the antithesis of the girls who had been paraded before me by their fathers. She always spoke her mind. She was proud, too, prouder than I, if you can believe it," Athos says, smiling inwardly at a half-memory of her haughty frown and her fan tapping martially in her hand at some ill-mannered remark. The residual fondness is both sweet and a stab of ice into his heart. "Before long, I was infatuated. She was exquisite and fascinating, and as wholly devoted to me as I was to her. Thomas cautioned me again, but I refused to listen. I was determined to marry her despite the scandal, to raise her out of her poverty and for us to begin a new life together." He takes another swallow of wine and shrugs a little. "So I did."
"You married for love," Aramis says with surprise and a touch of new respect.
"Didn't see that coming," Porthos teases gently. He and Aramis look at each other and chuckle, and to Athos' surprise, a little tension bleeds out of his stomach. He manages to find a wan imitation of a smile.
"Of course, it was a tremendous scandal," Athos continues. He runs his thumb over the surface of her locket, remembering that long first year of stony disapproval and rescinded invitations. The social isolation had not particularly bothered him, but it had been hard on garrulous Thomas. "My brother never forgave me. I hoped he would come around with time, but he never warmed to her. For her part, she treated him with grace and dignity. She was soon not only a comtesse in name, but in bearing. For a few years, we were happy." He smiles at them a little shyly. "She was…worth the scandal."
"What happened to her?" Aramis asks curiously.
Athos' smile fades. He cannot avoid it, not now, not any longer. His insides writhe with shame and hatred, most of it for himself. His knuckles go white on his cup. He has been dreading this moment since he first let Porthos and Aramis into his life. Surely, it would be the moment they left it. "She died," he says slowly. "By my orders, if not directly by my hand."
The smile slides from Aramis' lips. Porthos lets out an incredulous growl.
"What?" Aramis snaps and Athos cringes at the disgust in his voice. "By your what?"
What is left of his resolve shatters at his friend's horror. He is not proud, cool, aloof Athos, or even Athos numbed by wine into aloofness. He is the desperate penitent Athos who begged on his knees for the life of Ninon de Larroque and begs for himself now. "She was a criminal!" Athos pleads, looking between them frantically. They have to understand; he has to make them understand. He cannot bear for them to hate him, too. "It was justice. I swear, Aramis, it was justice!"
Chair legs scrape harshly against the floor as Aramis begins to rise, but Porthos throws out an arm to stop him. "Aramis," Porthos says sharply, before Aramis can protest. His expression is hard, frozen, inscrutable, but his voice is adamant. "Let him finish."
Aramis drops back into his seat with a huff of displeasure. He slams his hat down on the table, making the cups and bottle rattle. Athos flinches. Aramis' eyes have gone hard. "Indeed," he says coldly, his lip curling a little with contempt. "Let us hear what crime was so foul that our friend saw fit to condemn his wife to death. Adultery, perhaps?"
"Aramis!" Porthos interjects warningly, but Aramis ignores him.
"Was that it, then? She lay with another man and besmirched your precious honor? Or perhaps-"
His words stab at Athos like knives, shredding through his guilty soul and piercing deep into his heart. He deserves it; he deserves every ounce of scorn Aramis or any other man heaps upon him. The false accusation is too much, however. If he is to be scorned, let it be for the sins he actually committed.
"She murdered my brother!" Athos cries. Sudden tears sting his eyes, and his chest heaves with the effort to keep from breaking down. He will not, he will not allow himself to do so, not even in front of them. Still, his voice breaks. "The very last of my family! She killed him."
At last, he has told them the naked truth. He stares boldly at them, panting, his hands balled into desperate fists. Aramis freezes; his eyes growing wide with horror. His throat works awkwardly but no words come out. Porthos' stony expression softens and he looks uncomfortably at Aramis.
"Why?" Aramis asks, finally finding his voice. He sounds shaken. "In God's name, why?"
"He discovered who she was," Athos replies dully. The passion has gone out of him as quickly as it arose, leaving him slumped and bereft. He closes his eyes briefly against the tears he will not let fall. "I-I am not even certain her name was Anne."
Porthos' brow furrows with questions, and Aramis eyes Athos warily. The beginnings of compassion war with the disgust and horror plain on his face.
Athos drains the remainder of his wine and sets the cup aside with trembling fingers. It is all going to come out now, all of his secrets, and he has lost any will or desire to stop it. The guilty weight of the locket around his neck drags his face down into his hands. "One morning, Thomas rode up as I was leaving for Rouen on urgent business," he begins, his voice devoid of any intonation. "He begged me to wait; he said he had information about Anne, how she was not who she said she was. He was insistent, but I did not listen. He had never liked her and I had no reason to suspect my wife. I told him that we would speak of it when I returned."
The familiar old guilt wells thickly into his chest, squeezing the breath from his lungs. He has regretted that decision every day for five years. Somehow, Athos manages to lift his head but he cannot raise his eyes from the floor. "When I arrived home that night, the surgeon's horse and the priest's carriage were outside. The house was in an uproar. My wife was weeping openly at the door, her dress covered with blood. She told me my brother was dead."
The emptiness, the utter desolation, he had felt when he realized Thomas was gone is still so fresh it takes his breath away. Athos chokes to a halt. Porthos' hand touches his knee again comfortingly. His sympathy pains Athos nearly as much as Aramis' scorn.
Athos has to breathe deeply before he can continue. "From what I could gather from my wife, Thomas' pistol had gone off while he was cleaning it and killed him instantly, before her eyes." His voice cracks and he swallows hard. "There was nothing to do but bury him."
"An unlucky accident," Aramis murmurs, and there is a modicum of sympathy in his voice. Something scrapes on the table and he hears a soft gurgle of liquid as Porthos refills their cups with wine.
"It was no accident," Athos says miserably. Porthos presses a full cup into his hand and he accepts it without thought. His grief is rapidly being replaced by anger. "Three days after my brother's funeral, I caught Anne in his rooms without explanation. His papers were askew, and she was attempting to conceal something in her hand. It was a letter from priest in Paris. In it were detailed the crimes of the so-called Anne de Breuil: lying, theft, seduction, and murder."
He hears Porthos growl a curse under his breath, and Aramis winces.
"Naturally, I confronted her. She admitted to killing Thomas, but she claimed it was to…defend her honor," he tells them. Athos hears the creak of the chair as Aramis stiffens in his seat and he looks up at him desperately. "Later she told me it was to save our love. I know not what passed between them, truly, I do not. The only thing I knew for certain was that she was a liar."
He allows himself to drain his cup, trying to ground himself against the tendrils of darkness licking around his ankles. "She had lied about her past crimes, and somehow, Thomas had found out. His was not the first blood to stain her hands, and she had all but admitted to killing him to hide herself." It all floods back, the sickening shock that accompanied her confession, the incandescent rage and agony he had felt when he realized the depth of her betrayal. Athos cannot bear it. His hands clench into fists and his voice rises to a near shout. "She who shed tears at his funeral, she who held me while I mourned, had murdered my brother in cold blood when he discovered what she was!"
"I had to act. A crime had been committed on my land, in my house. It was my duty to uphold the law. I was the Comte; there was no one else." Athos cries. "But the law called for her death. My wife, the woman I loved more than life itself. How could I condemn her?"
Aramis makes a strangled noise, but Athos cannot let him interrupt, not now.
"My brother's blood cried for vengeance and the law cried out for justice," he chokes. "Over my own heart, in the name of the King, I had my wife taken from the house and hanged from the branch of a tree."
Athos is there again, bathed in hopeful sunlight and surrounded by the green of summer, signaling his ascent for his wife's execution. Cart wheels turn. The branch groans and the rope creaks. He looks away, torn between deepest grief and that prickle of fierce pleasure in the darkest depths of his soul that his brother's murder is avenged-
And he is back in his stuffy garret, shuddering with sudden nausea, his fingers wrapped white-knuckled around an empty cup. Aramis has one gloved hand pressed to his mouth, looking sick. Beside him, Porthos wears a pained expression.
"Now you know," Athos says in a low voice. He feels drained; somehow empty now that his tale is told. He stands to retrieve the bottle of wine from the table. It's nearly empty, but he is beyond caring. Any wine is better than none.
"How?" Porthos demands, seizing Athos' wrist and forcing it down to the table before he can lift the bottle. Athos scowls but he is powerless in Porthos' grasp. "How'd she survive?"
"The hangman," Athos tells him, the drained quality of his voice making him sound coldly matter-of-fact. "A man from the village. She seduced him." His head droops again in shame and another pang of guilt, this time for poor murdered Remy, lances through his heart. "Coward that I am, I rode away before it was done. He cut her down when I was out of sight." Porthos releases his wrist and Athos raises the bottle to his lips. The wine sours on his tongue. "She gambled that I could not bear to watch her die, and she won."
Porthos looks at the floor. Athos can feel Aramis' eyes boring into him, frozen in mute horror. Suddenly Athos is furious with him for gawking at his pain, for forcing him to face his secrets in the light and without the blur of wine. "Is my tale not romantic enough for you, Aramis?" he says cruelly as he lowers the bottle. "I married for love. Look what it brought me."
Aramis' mouth snaps shut and his face darkens angrily, clearly stung by Athos's words. He scrambles to his feet and crams his hat on his head in a single violent motion. Porthos jumps up after him, ready to intervene if need be. "Be at the garrison tomorrow," Aramis snarls, stabbing a finger at Athos. "I'm tired of lying for you."
He turns on his heel and storms out, the door swinging on its hinges behind him. Athos slumps a little, already regretting his harsh words. He glances up at Porthos, but finds only well-deserved disapproval in his friend's face.
"Do I not disgust you as well?" he asks bitterly.
The disapproval in Porthos' eyes softens to sadness, and his expression becomes pensive. "I wondered why you'd give up all…that, for this," he says, gesturing around the room, as if to contrast it with the faded splendor he'd seen at La Fere. "If I had to- well, you know. I get it now, is all."
A lump swells into Athos' throat and his eyes fall to his scraped knuckles. Porthos is nothing if not practical, but he had not expected understanding of any sort. He does not expect Aramis will be so forgiving.
Porthos studies him for a moment and sighs. "You know how Aramis is; sees things as he wants them to be, not as they are," he says in a low voice, guessing Athos' thoughts. "He'll come 'round."
He thumps Athos on the shoulder and goes after Aramis. At last, Athos is alone. The thought is not comforting. He drags himself to his feet and crosses the room to bolt the door. Aramis' sickened expression seems seared into his mind's eye, to compliment the suffocating flood of memory he and Porthos dredged up. Without the need to hold himself together in front of them or the distracting pain of relating his past sorrows, he quickly becomes aware of the caustic churn of wine-sickness roiling in his stomach. Briefly, he considers searching for more wine to try to numb himself back into oblivion even though the thought alone makes bile rise in his throat, but the sour tang on his tongue and the sudden rush of water into his mouth tell him there is no use now. So much for his day of rest and quiet. Athos crumples to his knees and allows himself to be sick.
He has to pull the brim of his hat very low indeed to combat the piercing sun as he limps to the garrison on the morrow, his limbs trembling with hunger and his head pounding mercilessly with every step. All of Athos' muscles ache after a night of violently emptying his stomach as his body exacted a fearsome vengeance for his abuse. He cannot recall the last time he ate, and the idea of food is at once attractive and unspeakably revolting.
Any other day, Athos would have stayed abed and risked Captain Treville's displeasure. It is his cowardly fear of what Aramis might say or do that drives him out despite his misery. Aramis did not make idle threats, and when his blood was roused, he might say or do anything.
When he reaches the garrison, Athos is dismayed to find Aramis in his usual place atop one of the tables, cleaning his pistol. He had hoped to find Porthos first and use his influence to temper Aramis' wrath. Aramis looks up at the click of Athos' spurs against cobblestones and Athos freezes as their eyes meet. His expression is inscrutable. Athos swallows, his heart pounding nervously against his ribs.
"You're looking better," Aramis says loudly, his voice carrying throughout the courtyard. Heads turn at his voice. Athos can see Captain Treville looking down from his balcony out of the corner of his eye and he cringes inwardly at the attention. "I dare say the grippe is a most annoying ailment. All those days of misery."
He lifts his eyebrows at Athos' puzzled expression, the gesture hidden from their observers by his hat. Athos hastily fakes a coughing fit. His head feels as if it might split in two. "I agree," he croaks, approaching the table and pouring a cup of water.
Treville retreats into his office, and Athos relaxes a little. His absence was noted, but Aramis' excuse is better than he could have dared hope. No one would question his sickly pallor or his trembling limbs now; not after a bout of the grippe. Athos takes a seat on the bench near Aramis, aware that it will draw attention if avoids the other musketeer. He breaks off the end of a loaf of bread and chews cautiously. Mercifully, his stomach does not rebel.
Across the courtyard, Porthos and d'Artagnan are grappling. He idly watches d'Artagnan try to throw the much heavier Porthos into a pile of straw. Porthos' booming laugh at his efforts echoes across stone. He straightens up and begins to explain something with several animated gestures while d'Artagnan listens intently, his arms akimbo. Athos cannot hear his instruction, but Porthos' gestures allow him to get the gist of it.
He can feel Aramis' eyes on him, and Athos glances at him a little warily. He has been dreading facing Porthos and Aramis since his confession, passionate Aramis in particular. How could they possibly see him in the same light now?
"How much does the boy know?" Aramis asks in an undertone. He selects a soft cloth from the table beside him and methodically pushes it down into the barrel of the pistol with a stick.
"Everything," Athos murmurs through stiff lips.
Diplomatically, Aramis does not mention how he and Porthos were apparently the last to hear Athos' tale. "I've heard it said," he says in the same hushed tone, "that God does not burden a man with more than he can carry." He looks up at Athos from under his hat, his expression still unreadable. "And you carry a heavy load."
His words are as indecipherable as his features, neither comfort nor condemnation. Athos looks away. His insides twist and he hastily puts aside his bread. For a moment, he wishes Aramis would just get on with it, shout at him, embrace him, do something, anything.
Aramis extracts the cloth from the barrel of his pistol and sets it aside. He places the clean pistol neatly on top of it. "I would be remiss as a friend were I to add to it."
Athos glances up in surprise. Aramis' dark eyes look back at him, serious and a little sad, but without outright disgust or hatred. A little bud of hope rises in Athos' chest.
"I cannot condone your actions," Aramis continues, shrugging a little, "but neither can I imagine being in the position to have to take them. You did what you thought right."
Shouts and laughter break out across the courtyard as d'Artagnan tires of his lesson and takes a flying leap at Porthos while his back is turned. Porthos absorbs the blow as if it is nothing and tips the boy head over heels into the straw, laughing all the while. Athos turns to watch them, suddenly unable to look at his other friend. Aramis does not hate him. His shoulders sag with relief, and wetness stings his eyes. He blinks furiously before anyone can see.
"What more can any of us do?" Aramis asks rhetorically, after a moment of silence. He lays a hand on Athos' shoulder and squeezes gently.
Athos has to swallow hard against the swell of emotion in his throat. He reaches up to remove his hat with trembling fingers and runs his hand through his damp hair, ducking a little to hide his face. The darkness is still there, deep in his soul, and he knows it is only a matter of time before it emerges again. The shameful secret he carries is none the lighter for sharing it, but strangely, he feels almost free now that it is out in the open. He glances back across the courtyard at Porthos and d'Artagnan. The idea that he will no longer have to hide from them when his darkness returns is almost…liberating.
"Indeed," Athos agrees, finally finding his voice. He runs his thumb over the surface of her locket. "What more can we do?"
Thanks for reading! :)