By Evil's Sidekick
When a young and vigorous man fights with an adversary who is wounded and weakened-if conquered, he doubles the triumph of his antagonist; if a conqueror, he is accused of foul play and want of courage.
-Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
part the first
Somewhere in the middle of dragging you from living room floor to bedroom by your ankles, Porthos grunts at you, "You've too much time in your hands. Go make yourself useful somewhere."
Letting your head drag along the uneven floorboards, skull fracturing and the world moving like liquid gold around you, you contemplate this. By the time Porthos has shoved you bodily upon your bed, feet knocking against the headboard and head hanging over the edge, you have decided that the man throwing swears your way and leaving the room is a genius.
So you fling yourself upon the next cause that comes your way, which just happens to involve repairing Buckingham's warship. You steal the entire supply of candles in the house, parchments bundles in your arms, and you lock yourself in your room.
You spend a week locked up, examining endless diagrams of surfaces, scrawling down plausible links between velocity and density and inviscid flows until your vision blurs.
Athos knocks on the door at the end of the week, calling "are you still alive?" and refuses to leave until you've let him in.
So you do, leaning against the wall for support after he enters, slightly stunned because the numbers that float around your vision dissolve and you see in color once more, and what you see is Athos.
He examines you, quick practiced rove of his eyes and you flush irrationally. "So the new plan is to starve and exhaust yourself to death?" he asks casually. He spots a plate of what used to be bread and cheese and grimaces after examination. "Or is there some ulterior motive I haven't grasped yet?"
Look at me, you want to scream at him. I've never been like this before, so deserted from humanity. Once more, your mind snaps treacherously to that single moment of eternity, from a few months ago, far from Paris and its glimpses of cardinals with a whore's makeup smeared on the sides of their faces, the ragged blue-eyed boys that offer to sell you overpriced oranges and pick pocketing your money. The place with only green and blue and more green, and d'Artagnan walking along a fence along the horizon, his arms spread wide and face taut with concentration, mumbling a rhyme to himself under his breath unconsciously.
You'd never seen anything more beautiful. You don't know what you've done to deserve this.
Your body spasms with shock and well-worn guilt; your mind has been stuck to that memory for so long it's as elemental as who you are, what you're doing, and how you became this way.
Athos looks at you, a corner of his lips curved in a smile with an edge to it. "Does it concern the missing prodigal, by any chance, this affliction of yours?"
You freeze, your spine going rigid as you stare at him, wide-eyed, panic clawing at your throat. "No,not. Not really," you stammer.
He regards you skeptically, and you shove your hands behind your back to conceal how badly they're shaking. Your heart beats like a frenzied bird, struggling against its confines.
You thought you'd never felt like this before and maybe that's not a complete truth. You can remember a string of summer days, running through the streets, bottle of wine in hand and Athos beside you. Catching his eye across rooms, crowds melting away to reveal him like something wished for for a lifetime. You remember those days when you were young and immortal and hopelessly, recklessly in love with Athos.
But that was a long time ago. You remember being unable to breathe when he was in the same room, the apocalyptic wrench of your heart every time you looked at Athos after he remarked to you one morning, "I'm in love with Milady, I think I'll marry her."
The world split open that day, as you swore it never would again. It nearly swallowed you whole, but soldier that you are, you survived.
You won't survive again. Not this curse laid by the boy with a flashing sword and smile none less sharper, brilliant as the sun.
You have never believed anything with more faith: you will not survive d'Artagnan.
Weeks later, you wake up one morning with your skull feeling dented, the memories of the past night blurred hopelessly. Your eyes feel too big for your face, your skin stretched to breaking point. Your fingers covertly massage your temples in a pseudo-thoughtful pose, and it feels as if you are holding your mind together. There's a bruise under your eye shaped like a clover that you've no idea where you got from.
Athos is pouring you tea, a specific angle to his wrist, steam rising from the cup like judgment. You muse that tea was never part of the household until you all nearly died in England. You've nearly died all across Europe in this cursed existence of yours except for the loathed offshore island, and now you've done that as well.
Porthos places his tankard with the royal coat of arms engraved upon it next to the china cup and the effect is incongruous. You focus on the details of the paradox with the intensity of lunatics and geniuses. You watch them even as he says, "the boy seems to grow scarcer by the day."
It's more question than statement. You are able to flinch only minutely, but flinch you do. "Indeed," you say stiffly. The pattern on the china cup grows more complicated and it makes your head thrum more painfully. You cover your eye with a fist and try to let your mind drain of thought, but that doesn't work, never has except for when your sword was in your hand.
Athos sits in his regular chair near the window, bleak sunlight spilling on his shoulders. "I saw him yesterday," he comments, offhand. You feel his eyes on you, two burning points on your face eve as you stare at the deep brown of the tea. "At Minimes."
You tense involuntarily. Your visions of soaring above the clouds dissipate in the watery sunlight and you're left completely and inarguably human. "Dueling?" you ask, not looking at Athos because that mean he's not quite won.
Athos snorts entirely without humor. "Winning."
The streets of Paris are deserted, no longer a hideous explosion of sight and sound you never quite became accustomed to. You crash into a clergyman and he calls you son, asks you whether you're quite alright and you feel like crying.
Drunk, like you always seem to be since recently, the gin seeping out of your skin and getting washed away by the torrential rain the heavens have yielded. The air smells of sodden fruit and horses, like layers of human civilization getting washed away by the biblical rain.
You move sideways, letting a carriage pass and it sprays mud at you and you barely notice. Something hooks into your mind and sticks- some image, a premonition.
And then the carriage passes and d'Artagnan stands there.
You gave up the refuge of superstition a long time ago –roughly around the time Athos broke your heart on a perfect summer's day- but the vision of d'Artagnan just when you might collapse from his absence seems nothing short of divine intervention.
He just stands there, swaying slightly like he's drunk himself, his eyes focused directly on you. Your heart rolls over in your heart, painful and ecstatic, some unidentified narcotic shooting through your veins. You're far enough away from him to see the pale luminescence of his face, thrown into relief by his dark hair plastered to his face, yet close enough to track the path of the miniscule scar that runs under his left eyes, from where he hit himself on the edge of a table going down.
You move forward, unseen forces pulling you towards him as if his heart were a magnet and yours had lead in it.
There are dark circles under his eyes, making him look younger than he is when he looks at you through lowered eyelashes. He's shaking, you notice, an intensity to his too-big eyes that makes him look fevered. His eyes look like the bullet wounds your weapon leaved behind, perfect and round and dark.
You flinch back when his hand rises to wrap around your arm, but he doesn't falter. Your eyes grow huge when he smiles, tired and careworn bur d'Artagnan, undeniable, perfect.
The words sticks to your mind because it seems strangely appropriate, in this strange savage world of yours. You've met no one quite fitting for the description, not the way it fits d'Artagnan, like a glove, like something tailor-made at birth: you are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.
He pitches towards you slightly, his gaze fixed firmly on your mouth. His hand around your wrist, fingertips raising blisters.
"Aramis," he says, your name softer than it usually is, rounder at the edges. Then, he repeats, like it's the only word he remembers, Aramis, and you are wrecked, beyond saving, beyond everything.
Your hand rises to his face against your will, your thumb stroking his cheekbone. The skin under his eyes is delicate, fragile. His eyes flutter closed and a noise escapes him, part whimper and part moan.
So you lean down, slant your mouth over his, and kiss him.
part the second
D'Artagnan wakes up as the sun reaches the highest point of the sky, washed-out light creeping tentatively in like thieves in the middle of the night. His dreams of islands in the middle of oceans of flame, unarmed without his friends beside and the vicious saber-like teeth of the dragon, dissipate slowly as he blinks. His entire body feels like he set himself on fire; pain blossoming in his temples, his cheek, his limbs.
He opens his mouth, tasting copper and regret and something he cannot quite place, not with the cold biting at his exposed feet. "Am I dead?"
A chuckle from beside his bed, and he freezes, body taut like a drawn bow. His hands clench convulsively on the sheets, soft from over-washing.
Slowly, as a trapped animal might, he turns his head.
Aramis is sitting on the hard wooden chair beside his bed, flipping through the copy of the Holy Bible d'Artagnan's father gave him, his fingers long and translucent on the spine of the book. He's paler than d'Artagnan remembers, hair the color of a raven's wing, eyes a dark dark blue. There are fine circles of charcoal-black around his eyes, making him look poetic, beyond words.
D'Artagnan swallows past a thick obstruction in his throat, the ridiculous symphony in his head drowning out all other thoughts: drowning, I'm drowning.
"Hardly," Aramis shuts the book with a muffled snap and replaces it on the table next to a half-empty bottle of gin. D'Artagnan's eyes fix magnetically on the curve of his neck exposed by his white shirt, the perfect curves and valleys of the older man's face. "Just a severe case of recklessness."
D'Artagnan blinks stupidly. "Is there a cure?"
A cryptic twist of Aramis' mouth, his perfect perfect mouth, and d'Artagnan's staring again. "Time, and a few days of uninterrupted sleep should do the trick. Nothing your age cannot overcome. Where have you been?" he adds the question as an afterthought.
D'Artagnan shakes his head, helplessly in thrall of the endless blue of Aramis' eyes. "I have no idea."
Aramis hesitates, his fingers fluttering like birds on his legs. He stands up abruptly and d'Artagnan adjusts his position to observe him better, ignoring the pain that shoots through his head at the motion, blinding him temporarily.
Aramis moves across the room and examines the fine penciled drawing of d'Artagnan's mother nailed to the wall.
"And what of… last night?" Aramis asks, faltering on the last words. D'Artagnan is struck by how much he wants to see Aramis' face right then, because this makes no sense with no clues to read. "What do you remember?"
D'Artagnan strains against the binds around his mind; they shiver and creak but hold strong, yielding no more than a few glimpses, sights and sounds and sensations, half-stifled as if seen through a veil.
"I remember," he says, concentration stretching his voice, "rain."
Yes, rain. Some boy his age with a polite curve of his mouth, an uncanny way of looking at d'Artagnan through lowered eyelashes. He remembers being enraged with the boy beyond rationality, and the elemental clash of sword against sword.
There is a sour taste in his mouth. "I dueled, didn't I?"
Aramis hasn't turned, yet he sees the dip of the neck and d'Artagnan bites his lip savagely. "The boy?"
"Alive. A bit worse for wear, but alive."
Memories stirring like savage creatures awaking from a long winter, and d'Artagnan's head is getting closer to imploding by the second. He remembers more details now; the fine gold watch the unnamed adversary had pulled out of a velvet jacket, the way he kept glancing at it before the duel began. Nobleman, then.
He doesn't bother to ask what the result was; it would seem arrogant, because he so rarely did anything but win. Instead he ventures, "Were you there?"
Aramis shakes his head, his back still turned. His hands clasp, and d'Artagnan imagines him as he was before they met, a young idealistic man with a wicked blade and other-worldly gleam to his eyes, set on redemption. It seems the perfect crime.
"But I recall…" and then d'Artagnan falters, stops.
Aramis wheels around finally, his eyes wide and panicked. D'Artagnan's mouth falls open as he regards the older man.
Memories like lightning from the heavens, falling into Aramis, his cheek against the musketeer's coat, rough and warm. Aramis' eyes darkening as d'Artagnan leaned forward, slanted his mouth over his own. Aramis' hair in his eyes, stilled expression of perfect shock as d'Artagnan slid onto his knees, rested his head against his thigh, the sudden sharp pain of kneecap against cobbled street and skin in between.
Aramis, Aramis, Aramis.
D'Artagnan shakes his head in pure wonder, something suspiciously akin to melted joy shooting through his veins.
"Whatever you remember, it must be subjective," Aramis begins, but d'Artagnan cuts him off with, "I remember."
Aramis' shoulders cave, his eyes a flawlessly destroyed blue. For a second, his expression is one of total despair, the world crashing on his shoulders. A heartbeat later, his face is schooled into utmost blankness, leaving no trace.
"I see," Aramis says tonelessly, his eyes on the world outside d'Artagnan's window. "I…I did not mean for that to happen. My sincere apologies. We must set a date, of course."
"For what?" and it's possible d'Artagnan is delirious, unable to comprehend the downwards curve of Aramis' mouth, the brief second of pure agony that flashed through his face.
Days, weeks, of not being able to fight the clutch of his heart as he looked over at Aramis, of duels with a succession of men who looked like Aramis to get rid of the ragged edge of tension on his skin, and…this. D'Artagnan wants to run through the streets of Paris with Aramis by his side, shouting nonsense, maybe there's hope for us yet.
"For the duel," Aramis raises two weary eyes to his, and d'Artagnan blinks.
Aramis is beginning to look uncharacteristically frustrated, with reason, because d'Artagnan is being uncharacteristically dense. He can't help it; can't do anything, really, except be overwhelmed by the mindless elation that engulfs his heart, the sensation of falling and falling. His eyes glued on Aramis' face, wondrous, breathless.
"I have dishonored you, however unwillingly," Aramis said, the words quiet in the thick air. "You have every cause to cast me out. I…I am unworthy to stand here, in your presence."
D'Artagnan feels his face crumple in confusion, before understanding shoots through his consciousness.
He grins, uncontrolled and brilliant, all of nineteen years old. "Dishonor?" he snickers.
Aramis' gaze snaps to him, sharp, driving under d'Artagnan's skin. He waits, as the defeated wait for the killing blow.
D'Artagnan struggles onto his feet, noting that his shoes have been removed and placed fastidiously in a corner. His bare feet hit the floorboards with a thunk and Aramis regards him with that expression in his eyes that fogs all else.
"Dishonored," d'Artagnan manages, once he's close enough to make a point, "is the very last thing I am."
Panic flows into Aramis' eyes, darkening them and d'Artagnan gets a flash of memory, Aramis' fingers curled around his neck, Aramis looking down at him with eyes of molten sapphire, fear and guilt and there it is, lust.
D'Artagnan looks at him in awe. "It really happened," he says, his hand rising tentatively to the buttons of Aramis' shirt. The older man holds perfectly still.
He leans upwards slowly, covering the few inches of height Aramis has over him.
And he kisses him.
Later, when he has reduced Aramis to a litany of his name, Aramis' shirt hanging open and pupils blown wide, d'Artagnan looks up from the place where Aramis' leg meets his body. He smirks slightly. "You mentioned a duel, I believe."
Aramis' eyes widen, then roll. "Shut up and come here," he commands.
D'Artagnan obeys, crawling over the length of Aramis' body, his flushed skin. Aramis pulls him in for a long, slow, dizzying kiss and d'Artagnan's knees give, falling on top of Aramis.
The older man makes an 'oomph' noise, mostly exaggerated, and d'Artagnan smiles against Aramis' chest. The glow in his stomach coils lazily upward, spreading through his limbs like vines tying him to Aramis.
Aramis kisses the top of his head and d'Artagnan's smile grows wider, thinking deliriously that this was exactly where he's meant to be.
What Athos remembers most is one morning, exactly five years, two months ago.
It was another part of that endless summer, the heat dulling the lines between what is and what should be. He sat at his chair, feet kicked out and watching Aramis sleep, the curve of his body appearing like hidden grace from under the sheets.
Aramis talked eloquently and mutedly in his sleep, as if the pillow actively disagreed with him. He tossed in his sleep, reaching for Athos in the dark of two o'clock and his fingers found Athos' hair, a smile appearing on his lips as he petted through them. He looked at Athos like he'd been starved of air for years upon years and kissed like Athos was the one way to get air into his lungs, his hands reaching under Athos' shirt.
D'Artagnan appears in the hallway, hair mussed and shirt hopelessly rumpled, and Athos knows without checking that he's coming from the wrong side of the corridor. D'Artagnan looks dazed, his eyes heavy like he'd fallen off a cliff.
Athos clears his throat, and d'Artagnan starts almost comically, whipping around to meet Athos' eyes.
Athos raises his eyebrows.
D'Artagnan flushes brilliantly, "I needed to burrow rice paper, I need it for my sword," he stammers.
Athos bites back a laugh, and it tastes bitter. His feet bare, d'Artagnan looks overheated in the winter and Athos remembers what that's like.
"Did Aramis have it?"
Years ago, Aramis stood in the salon of the tiny villa they lived in those days and grinned at Athos, his hair hanging crookedly in his eyes, sunlight shattering the windows from behind. Aramis framed with light like something remembered for a million years, unchanging. Aramis hooked an arm around Athos' neck and said, "Best if you cancel any appointments today that do not concern me and a steady bed," and Athos had managed to state that he'd do his best to oblige.
D'Artagnan's shoulders rise defensively, narrow shoulders that haven't even filled out yet, and Athos experiences a brief flood of anger; he's no more than a child.
The Aramis that hasn't deserted Athos' mind says quietly, I was no more than a child. But I grew up.
Squashing that thought, Athos turns his attention back to the tea he's brewing, feigning disinterest and hoping the boy's own discomfort will hide how badly his hands are shaking on the strainer. He takes the dregs of the tea leaves and hurls it out the window with a practiced flick of the wrist.
When he turns back, d'Artagnan's still there, chewing on his lower lip.
"I apologize for my absence," he says seriously.
For some reason, Athos' eyes fix on the spot that d'Artagnan has buttoned his shirt wrong. Then, the world tips sideways violently when the realization strikes him; the shirt belongs to Aramis.
Cold rage fills Athos' head, mindless rage that makes his fingers itch for the handle of his blade. He stares at d'Artagnan, his hands clenched around the wood of the table, hears the definitive crack as the wood splinters.
D'Artagnan hasn't noticed- it will take him another year, at least, to notice- so Athos smiles humorlessly at him. "It's not as if you were sorely missed."
D'Artagnan's reaction isn't quite what Athos hoped for, not quite the direct stab he was aiming at. After the desired wide-eyed glance, d'Artagnan's eyes grow shrewd, and belatedly Athos remembers that in addition to being sinfully young, d'Artagnan is also a fighter, a strategist; he can sense a bad line of attack.
He opens his mouth, but doesn't get to reply because Aramis appears behind him. D'Artagnan turns his head to face him, and Athos turns away, unable to look at the blind adoration on Aramis' face.
In some parts of France, he knows, a new blade has been developed to penetrate chain mail. It's laughably short, a dagger in name only and it's meant to be driven up a person's ribcage. It wouldn't kill him, merely wound him, but the damage shall be done.
Aramis looks Athos straight in the eye, his hand lingering on d'Artagnan's shoulder in a way that seems painfully intimate. "Good morning."
Athos nods. "So it would seem," he comments, his heart beating off-rhythm suddenly.
"You left your shoes behind," Aramis tells d'Artagnan, and Athos' heart stops beating entirely. He thinks, helplessly, he never cared who knew, never.
D'Artagnan's face brightens, reverent at the corners of his eyes, looking like any lovesick boy. Aramis' fingers slip under his collar and Athos feels punched in the chest suddenly.
"Better go get them, then," d'Artagnan says, almost too low to hear. Athos examines the pot of tea on the table in front of him, the chipped ceramic of the spout and pattern of fleur-de-lyses like a testament from above.
D'Artagnan slips back to Aramis' room, leaving the door ajar and a single bar of light falls through. Athos forces himself to look at his friend, the kitchen table feeling more and more like a fortress. He thinks, prays, that Aramis will follow d'Artagnan back, but then his voice shakes the vicious quiet of the air, but just barely.
"He's unlike anyone else I've ever known," Aramis says, his eyes bluer than broken promises. "Which makes him like you."
Athos tenses, his breath caught in his chest. Aramis smiles sadly at him, and follows d'Artagnan, leaving Athos alone in the kitchen. Outside, the sun sets on another day.