A/N: Bonjour, mes amis! Here with another chapter fic. This one weighs in at 9 chapters and is way more heavy on the angst and whump than my previous two. Shout-out to Aini NuFire for always being a patient and helpful beta, even when she has to wait so long for the comfort and healing!
So you know what terrifies me? Insanity. I mean, true legit insanity in all its forms. But most especially in the presence of an intelligent mind. Basically, psychopaths! Psychopathy wasn't coined as a term until 1888, long after our musketeers, so no one would have had a name for a psychopath wandering around. But that doesn't mean they weren't there.
Probably the scariest thing about psychopaths is that because they have normal intelligence, they can see how they're "supposed" to act and feel, even if they're incapable of true emotion. With practice, they can fake every socially acceptable response. So you might chat with a psychopath every day and never, ever know. But let's be fair, not every psychopath is a killer, or even dangerous.
Some will go their whole lives blending in, living harmlessly among their peers.
This isn't one of those times.
Athos woke to a pounding headache and throbbing skull, far worse than his usual hangovers. He groaned softly without opening his eyes, fighting back nausea—also unusual. What in heaven's name had he been drinking the night before? Athos barely recalled that he had left the tavern under Aramis's watchful eye. Beyond that, Athos had no memory of reaching his apartments at all.
Embarrassing. Athos rarely, if ever, truly blacked out from his drink. Were that not the case, he could be persuaded to go easier on the bottle.
With another groan, Athos tried to raise his hands to his head to soothe the ache, but found himself quite unable to move. Blearily, the musketeer blinked his eyes open, squinting against the torchlight scant inches from his face. Why was there a torch in his room?
And why couldn't he move his arms?
Athos pulled again with more urgency to no avail. His right arm was extended out to the side, wrist completely immobile and wrapped by something coarse and irritating. His left had little movement, held not by rope, but by someone else's hand.
This realization brought full wakefulness faster than a bucket of ice water. Athos's eyes widened and he scrabbled against the stone floor he was seated on; the metal grate he was lashed to prevented him from pulling away.
How and why he was bound were questions that would need answering, but only once he'd identified whoever was holding him. Athos's bleary eyes adjusted quickly to the torch light, revealing a man with a hat pulled low over his face. But Athos would know that hat anywhere.
"Aramis!" he gasped. "Thank heaven. What's happened? You're not harmed, are you?"
His compatriot didn't respond. Athos looked around in search of Porthos or d'Artagnan; Porthos had left before them and d'Artagnan had been on night duty, but that didn't mean they hadn't gotten caught up in whatever this was. But the room was pitch-black save for the small area immediately surrounding himself, Aramis, and the torch.
Dazed as he was from what he now suspected had been a blow to the head and not an aftereffect of the wine at all, it took Athos a precious minute to realize that Aramis hadn't moved on to free his other hand.
On the contrary, more rope had found its way around Athos's left wrist now as well, looping tightly.
Athos frowned at his friend in confusion. "Aramis… cut me loose. We have to get out of here."
Still, Aramis didn't reply. With deft motions, he wound the rope through the grate at Athos's back, securing him to it. Athos's mouth went dry.
"What are you doing?" he demanded, pulling now against the bonds; there was no give.
And still he got no response, leaving Athos all the more bewildered. What reason could Aramis possibly have for tying him up without a word of explanation? He might have suspected this was merely a nightmare he was trapped in, but the pounding of his head was too visceral for dreams and the rope scratched at his wrists with terrifying realness. And while Aramis might be a prankster at times, nothing like this was in his repertoire.
Taking a deep breath, Athos forced himself to calm down, preparing to ask again what had happened while he was unconscious to lead them here, but Aramis moved before he could. The sharpshooter picked the torch up off the stone floor and walked around behind the metal lattice in the center of what felt like an empty wine cellar. Athos was left in an inky pool of darkness barely relieved by the feeble flames now at his back. Someone, either Aramis or another unseen attacker, had taken his doublet, and his shirt wasn't enough to ward off the chill in his heart.
"Answer me, Aramis," Athos all but begged, more concerned with every passing second at his friend's silence, as well as his actions. He could hear Aramis just behind him, rustling movements the only response in the darkness.
Then more rope wound about his throat and Athos instinctively lurched.
"Aramis!" he cried out, unable to pull away, outstretched hands and awkward seated position allowing him no leverage. For a moment, he thought with panic that he was to be strangled, but this was Aramis and the rope pulled no tighter. The coarse hemp seemed to have been merely passed through the grating and fastened behind it. Not choking, but forcing Athos to sit upright, flush with the metal behind him.
Why, though. The unanswered question consumed the musketeer, why his closest friend was doing this to him. A dozen possibilities flitted through his mind: Aramis had been drugged. He was being blackmailed. He had taken a head injury and had no idea who he or Athos was. Athos had even heard tell of soldiers who had survived some traumatic event later losing themselves in re-imaginings of it, believing themselves back in some other place. Savoy was certainly such a trauma, but it had been ages ago and none of this scenario fit with that terrible night.
One thing was certain, something had happened, something dire for Aramis to be acting thus. Athos watched warily as his friend moved back around to the front again, face still hidden. Aramis dropped the torch on the ground and held up a rag.
Athos swallowed. "No, Aramis, don't," he said softly. "Don't-" The rest was cut off as the rag was pushed into his mouth and tied at the back of his head. Athos took several more deep breaths, silently pleading for Aramis to catch his eye so maybe he could find some clue of what was going on.
But Aramis only jerked on each rope end to make sure they were secure, then retrieved the torch once more, holding it down at his side so Athos could only see his shins standing in front of him. For a moment, the marksman didn't move or speak. With no way of knowing what was going on or what might be coming next, this was even worse. Athos didn't care to be stood over like this without being able to defend himself if necessary.
Though he was braced for the possibility of worse treatment if Aramis did indeed mistakenly take him for a threat, nothing more was done to him. Instead, Aramis's hoarse voice suddenly asked,
"Do you hate me?"
The question left Athos more bewildered than before. What was the point and purpose of all this? Why gag him and then start asking questions, having answered none of his own? And why would he even ask that, when surely he knew the answer?
Athos stared at Aramis without comprehension, but slowly shook his head.
No clarification was forthcoming. Aramis turned on his heel without another word, taking the torch with him. The air grew cold in the absence of the small flame and Athos felt a chill as darkness descended again. He tried to call out to his friend through the gag without success.
Somewhere at the other end of the room, a door swung shut with an echoing slam, leaving Athos immobile and silenced, alone in the dark.
Aramis clutched the torch in a white-knuckled grip, struggling to control the trembling of his hand. His baleful glower caught the man standing behind the door he'd just closed.
The man held a gloved finger up to his lips, piercing eyes watching him with discomfiting intensity. Aramis wanted to lunge at the man and unleash the fury trying to burst free, but didn't dare. All he could do was glower and helplessly start moving down the passageway indicated to him. Aramis walked slowly, hands slightly raised as he allowed the other man to pluck the torch away. A pistol pressed itself against his lower back and Aramis had to force himself not to jolt.
"Well done, Aramis," the man murmured. "You followed my instructions to the letter."
"As though I had a choice," Aramis snapped.
"But you do. Of course you do."
As they ascended the stairs to the main level of the estate, though, Aramis's eyes lit on another figure bound to one of the columnar supports in the open hall. Porthos looked as furious as Aramis felt. The servant holding a pistol to the seated musketeer's head was a direct contradiction to their captor's notion of Aramis having a choice in the matter.
"So," the other man said louder now that they were far enough away from the cellar that Athos wouldn't hear anything. "His answer?"
"He said no," Aramis snapped back though it was accompanied by a reassuring look towards Porthos; not that either of them could believe Athos would so easily lose faith in their brotherhood.
"Why are you doing this?" Aramis demanded as he turned to put his own back against the second column. With Porthos still at risk, he suffered their captor to bind his hands behind it.
"We've been through this already."
"I've just left my friend tied up in a cellar, thinking I turned on him," Aramis shouted as his feet were likewise lashed together. "Humor me with a better explanation as to why."
Porthos rumbled something into the cloth between his teeth, though it earned no more than a prod against his temple from the gun clutched in the servant's hand. Their captor eyed him, then Aramis. Calmly, the man drew a nearby chair forward and seated himself in front of Aramis.
"You might as well sit," he pointed out. "I don't believe I shall send you in again until morning. We have some hours yet ahead of us."
Aramis remained on his feet. "Our captain will know we're missing by then," he snapped. "Our comrades will be looking for us. Release us now and you can still save yourself a great deal of trouble." They would have him arrested and hanged if Aramis had any say in it, but he wasn't about to mention this.
"Doubtless. In any case, either of you may leave this place whenever you choose."
Aramis and Porthos traded a skeptical look, and Aramis voiced the question for both of them: "…If?"
The man leaned forward, elbows on his knees with his chin resting on clasped hands. The piercing gaze lost none of its intensity, but there was something more in his eyes that sent a chill down Aramis's spine. Or perhaps it was not more, but less of what he saw. No emotion. No soul.
"You are all so fascinating," the man remarked. "This strange… connection that you share. You are very close with your compatriots, correct?"
Aramis narrowed his eyes. "Listen, Monsieur…?"
"You may call me Pierre."
"Listen, Pierre, I have no idea what you're looking for here. Yes, the musketeers are a brotherhood. Athos and Porthos are my closest friends, as you have made clear you already know, and now I want to know what our bond has to do with you?"
"I should very much like for you to kill Athos."
The words were delivered so simply, so without passion or feeling, that it took Aramis a moment for the request to fully register. When it did, he could do no more than gape at the man sitting before him, then release a bark of laughter.
"And I should very much like for you to go to hell."
"One day, doubtless." Pierre seemed untroubled, continuing to watch Aramis closely. "In any case, you asked what you must do to earn your freedom. You claim your bond to be so close. It is a strange thing that I do not understand, so I should enjoy examining this with greater care. What is this connection? What would it take for such a bond to be broken? I'm curious, Aramis, that is all. Athos awoke to find his closest friend restraining him alone in the dark, but does not hate you for it. Why ever not? What would he hate you for?"
"You had me ask if he hated me because you find our friendship… scientifically interesting?"
Nothing the man was saying made any sense, but every word left Aramis with a colder certainty that he was dealing with a madman, something dark and twisted in his mind. Such a man could never be reasoned with.
Pierre tilted his head. "I have little interest in science. It is personal curiosity, nothing more. The game ends when the bond is broken."
"By one of us killing him!"
"Or each other, if you prefer. Or by Athos's admission that you are nothing to him. Earn his hatred and earn your freedom."
A low rumble had been building in Porthos's chest, but now he shouted something into his gag, yanking at the ropes securing his arms behind him around the column. Pierre's eyes never left Aramis though he gestured in Porthos's direction. The servant slammed the butt of the gun across Porthos's cheek, snapping his head to the side.
"Touch him again and I'll kill you," Aramis snapped at the servant, who returned his gaze with bland indifference.
Pierre sighed. "A prime example of an illogical reaction. You would be in a better position without him. Porthos is nothing but a soldier I can use to ensure that you remain docile."
Aramis bristled at the idea that Porthos was in some way not worth his protection. Not to mention the infuriating description of being "docile", and the even more infuriating fact that he had been forced to follow every order given to him thus far.
"You know, Pierre, I don't think I'm interested in playing your game," he retorted. "We're not pawns to be manipulated to your whims or to satisfy your curiosity. I will never turn on either of them."
"And you believe they would feel the same?"
Aramis didn't have to look at Porthos first to know his answer, keeping Pierre's gaze as he firmly replied,
Pierre leaned forward again, nodding. "Then we shall have our game and put that to the test."
Another thought struck Aramis as he looked between the two men holding them captive. So far, they seemed to be the only ones involved with this scheme, and he hadn't seen a single other servant in the household.
"If I were to agree," he tried, "I'll need my pistol back. I'm a gunman, myself. Ask anyone in the garrison, it's my weapon of choice. That's the only way I'm going to play." With a loaded gun, he would only need one shot to eliminate Pierre, then he would at least stand a chance of taking the servant out by hand…
Pierre slowly rose to his feet, advancing on Aramis with the eyes of a predator. In spite of himself, Aramis was hard pressed to keep his face neutral, head held high as though unafraid. Pierre stopped with barely inches between himself and his captive, regarding him. Aramis felt as though they were locked in a contest in which the first man to blink was defeated. Another chill rippled across his skin at the lack of anything in Pierre's eyes.
After a long moment of stillness in the hall, Pierre's lip twitched. "You're trying to deceive me. I can see it."
"It's hardly unexpected. I am not angry. But I wonder, would your answer change if I were to tell you that you won't be using your weapon of choice, but mine?"
Anything with a long enough range might still be of some use. If given a sword, Aramis could probably at least incapacitate Pierre and reach Porthos before anything happened to him. "What would that be?" he asked.
Without moving back, Pierre reached into his pocket. He pulled out a length of wire and dangled it in front of Aramis's face.
"Not how I would kill a man," Aramis replied with a shrug.
"No? It's easier than you would think."
Without giving the marksman time to come up with an appropriate, witty rejoinder, Pierre slid his other gloved hand down the wire so that he had hold of both ends. He wrapped them several times around for better grip and smoothly reached up to touch the wire across Aramis's throat.
"Yes, I understand how it functions," Aramis tried, heart already fluttering with nerves, but any more was cut off as Pierre pressed his hands to the wide column on either side of Aramis's head. The wire dug in, not breaking skin or crippling his ability to breathe completely, but hard enough that he was left to draw in a ragged wheeze for air.
Aramis's eyes widened as he instinctively tried to pull away. The column at his back left him no room for retreat as Pierre leaned in closer.
"Guns," he murmured. "At such a distance, you would never see the life leave their body. But like this…"
Aramis was aware that there was almost no space between them, as he was aware that Porthos was starting to put up a fight again. This wasn't the first time he'd been threatened with death, but somehow this method was worse than those previous. The way he couldn't look away. The almost intimate closeness. The horrible knowledge that Pierre wanted him to struggle, and that he would do so by base instinct.
"Yes, you've made your point," Aramis managed to choke out.
Then Pierre's grip on the wire shifted just enough that the remainder of his airway was shut off.
Aramis's mouth fell open, automatically trying to gasp in precious oxygen. He struggled wildly, but his hands and feet were bound and Pierre's full weight was keeping the wire pressed across his throat.
"This is the best way to kill a man," Pierre whispered into Aramis's ear; the horror sliding through the musketeer's veins left him with goose-flesh, to be so close to his would-be killer, to know that if Pierre didn't release him then he would momentarily not only see but feel Aramis's life drain away.
Pierre leaned up again, shifting so that his and Aramis's gazes were locked together. "Do you not agree?" Pierre hummed, watching his victim even as stars began to burst in Aramis's vision. "You wouldn't really want to shoot Athos. It would be over so soon. But like this, you can watch every thought in his mind as it crosses his face, to the very moment that he realizes death is coming and he cannot stop it. Just as I can see it on yours."
Tears pricked in the corner of Aramis's eyes at the same time as the darkness began to creep in. He barely felt himself trying to fight free, aware of nothing but the lack of air and Pierre's proximity. And just when he was sure he was about to die, the pressure on his windpipe was released. Aramis gasped, hacking coughs bursting from his mouth as he was finally allowed to breathe.
When his vision cleared, Aramis found that Pierre hadn't moved, still leaning in towards him with the wire barely kissing the skin of his throat, still a looming threat. Aramis froze, wanting nothing but for Pierre to step back and take the evil wire with him. Somewhere in the background, Porthos sounded half out of his mind with anger, but Aramis couldn't tear his eyes away from Pierre long enough to offer his friend reassurance.
"Try to deceive me again," Pierre murmured, pressing in only enough on the wire to reinforce the threat, "and this is how Porthos will die. The game can still easily be played with only two."
"You- you're sick," Aramis gritted out between another rough fit of coughs.
"So I have been informed. Will you do as I ask?"
"I will not kill-" he coughed painfully, "-either of them."
"Hmm. Not yet." Pierre finally lowered his arms, taking the wire from Aramis's neck but not stepping back. "At any rate, I anticipate Athos will break first. But for now, the hour is late. We will continue in the morning."
He offered no other explanations, no other plans. With a sharp nod to the servant, who seated himself in the chair Pierre had vacated with a vigilant eye, the madman turned and disappeared down the hall.
Aramis slumped against the column, finally allowing himself to sink to the floor and extend his legs out in front of him. Porthos was trying to ask him something, urgent and upset, but Aramis could offer little more than a quick smile and a nod of confidence that he didn't feel. The marksman wanted to pretend he wasn't as shaken as he was by the close call.
And it sounded like Pierre was only just getting started.