There can be a certain beauty to death, the process of decomposition in once-breathing organisms as they go through the stages of shifting colours and shapes until the carcass is all that remains, bare-boned and sparse; the wilting of a flower as the brown, dry hand of death encroaches from the tip of a velvety petal to its centre, until it is curled up in itself, delicate and brittle; the white face of a careworn woman, younger, more peaceful in death than she was in life. The Bordeaux-red fount of blood springing from a stabbed man’s chest when he falls slain honourably by an opponent’s hand in combat. The corals around a high-born lady’s neck.
There was no beauty to the death of the musketeers who were murdered in their sleep and left for the crows to tear at their flesh and pick out their eyes. Their mouths a deep indigo black, obscene slashes across their faces: those eyeless faces that were turned upwards as though attempting to warm themselves under the insipid winter sun.
There was no beauty to them and there is no beauty to him: him who escaped from the fate that had been written for him. When he tore himself from the maws of death, it was only to stagger headlong into the gorge of despair, leaving sanity behind, leaving all behind that was good and noble and honourable about him, in his desire to get away from the woods that had become the graveyard of his brothers. Sometimes when he has occasion to glance into a mirror, he sees a dead face staring back at him, black holes in the place where his eyes should be.
Meeting Aramis again after all those years sparks something within him back to life. He feels his features change, muscles and skin reanimating that he long believed dead, and there is a rush of blood to his head and heart, unleashed by Aramis’ fist as it smashes into his face and then his stomach.
He feels more alive than he has in five years. Perversely, the realisation of being alive hauls the wish to die in its wake. For five years he has walked the Earth as a spectre, a void filling the space in his heart where human emotions should have been, driven only by the body’s instinct to survive and his withered soul’s desire for revenge.
Seeing Aramis again is a punch to the gut. Aramis, who at this very moment is the embodiment of life. He’s strong and he’s smart and he’s resourceful and he’s loved, and all this becomes evident within the first five minutes of their encounter. Aramis, who lived when Marsac died. Who should by right be the one who’s broken: younger, less robust, more sentimental than Marsac has ever been. But Aramis survived and something stirs within Marsac’s withered soul, a hunched, slavering something that wishes to rip Aramis open and lay bare his ghosts.
“You are the only one who understands,” he gasps at his brother, because they are brothers still, the years gaping between them meaningless. And from the look in Aramis’ eyes he knows that he’s right.
“I can’t let you go free, friend,” Aramis says, the tone of his voice business-like, but it’s the simple ‘friend’ that bodes well. Marsac smiles and feels it reaching his eyes – those accursed eyes, the eyes that should by right have been devoured by crows – as long forsaken muscles spring into action. He is proud of Aramis, who was his brother and his cadet, back in the days when he was the strong one, the smart one. He taught Aramis a lot. He taught him to always hit his target.
“I know,” he says. “I wouldn’t expect anything less of you. They are your brothers-in-arms now.”
Aramis hesitates, a mere stiffening of the shoulders, almost imperceptible, but Marsac has not forgotten how to read his body, he saw it in action many times. There are tension lines in that body now that did not use to be there when Aramis first joined the musketeers, a callow youth fresh from the seminary, loose-limbed and coltish, yet determined. Always determined.
He hides that determination well, Marsac knows, under the exterior of the polished chevalier and consummate libertine. But Marsac never forgot that the reason why Aramis joined the musketeers all those years ago was that a man had fallen dead from his hand in a duel, the first duel Aramis has ever fought.
There is something to be said of being in company of a born predator, a hunter who gets his prey despite himself. There is a darkness behind Aramis’ laughing eyes that sucks him in. Sometimes, he wonders if it was his act of kindness towards Aramis that caused his downfall. If, when he dragged his injured brother-in-arms to safety, the darkness within Aramis did not turn upon him and consumed him, if all that was good and noble and honourable did not get sucked out from the one’s soul into the other’s.
(Marsac is too good a Catholic to not believe in Evil.)
There is a beauty to darkness as there is to death. The darkening of Aramis’ eyes as he looks at Marsac, the bone-deep conviction that, regardless of the consequences, it is that dark urge that will drive him to act, more so perhaps than his honour and his soldier’s sense of duty. The knowledge that even though he grew older, stronger, wiser and deadlier, Aramis has not changed enough to have slipped entirely out of Marsac’s reach.
(And so is Aramis.)
“I will not ask you to let me go,” he says, quite honestly. “I understand that it’s a matter of honour to you – as much as it is a matter of honour to me to prove to you I’m right.”
(And perhaps this is where the flicker of hesitation stems from, born out of guilt and of the awareness of the dark impulses that steer his hand and heart when he’s not careful.)
(He can’t resist them.)
Aramis’ shoulders relax and he exhales as he drops down to his knees before Marsac, pulling out his main-gauche from its sheath. There is an intake of breath and the world stands still for the blink of an eye when Aramis slashes through the rope binding Marsac’s hands. One gloved hand comes to rest upon the side of his face, aligning with temple and jaw, fingertips alighting on the spot where Marsac’s pulse pounds under paper-thin skin.
(All that intelligence, all that refinement, and yet he is powerless in the face of his own most basic urges.)
“I do not wish to keep you prisoner,” Aramis says, and there is great sadness to all this, and Marsac feels like weeping. He reaches up and covers Aramis’ hand with his own. It is the first time in five years that he feels the warmth (the real warmth, the one that matters) of human touch.
Aramis pulls back his hand. Yet, its warmth lingers still, and Marsac feels his face throb yet another fraction further into life. He is thawing from the inside out, and this is not good, he’s losing his edge, the detachment that has kept him alert all those years. Instead, he feels himself smiling, wider and wider, and sees his own giddy mirth mirrored on Aramis’ face. They start laughing for no reason, simply because it feels good, and they fall into each other’s arms to stifle their laughter in each other’s shoulders.
“I’ve missed you,” Aramis says, just as Marsac says: “I’ve thought of you, often.”
“Your friends,” he continues, as they pull back and rearrange their features and their limbs, getting comfortable in the space in which they are confined together and in each other’s company. “Your friends, do you trust them?”
“Always.” There is neither hesitation nor defiance in Aramis’ voice. “With my life.”
“What about my life?”
At this, Aramis hesitates. “They won’t murder you,” he says, ever the diplomat. “They want justice, just as you do.”
His face has relearned quickly. He can tell that it is a melancholy smile that tugs at his mouth this time, that his eyes remain solemn and black. No, not black, never black, not black as those holes drilled into the faces of his brothers by the beaks of carrion birds.
“I should leave you alone,” Aramis says slowly. “You should rest.”
Silence falls between them as dusk falls outside the window. “Why are you still here, then?” Marsac asks, kindly and just a little bit curious.
Aramis shifts and runs his hand through his hair. The gesture, so boyish and so familiar from days of yore, makes Marsac smile again. He’s certain that his face will hurt tomorrow from so much exercise. “I don’t like the idea of having to tie you up again.”
“Then don’t,” Marsac breathes.
Aramis’ mouth quirks into an empty smile. “I have to. You know that.”
“You don’t trust me.”
In the dusk that has fallen around them, it is difficult to make out the other’s expression. Aramis leans in, a feline motion that carries him to within a few inches before Marsac. “Not anymore,” he says gazing into Marsac’s eyes. “Not yet.”
“You might again.”
Marsac nods, assessing the hand that he’s been dealt. “Thank you.” He sounds subdued. He’s not sure if he is. “What are you going to do, then?” he asks. His hands are very cold, he wishes for Aramis to take them in his, to pour something of that warmth that he carries around with him so effortlessly into him. It has been easier when he was still frozen; thawing renders him weak and vulnerable, and he fears that, should it continue, all that will be left by the next morning is a shuddering puddle of tears.
“I will get to the bottom of this, no matter what it takes,” Aramis says, slurring his words slightly, as though he were speaking through gritted teeth. There is a lot of fury that may yet come unleashed, once the façade surrounding the core of that passionate man has been broken down.
“No,” Marsac shooks his head. “I mean now. Tonight.”
Aramis buries his hand in his hair again, rubs his temple. “I will have to make sure you don’t leave,” he says.
“Why don’t you stay here?” He can’t help himself. The words stumble out of his mouth like new-born foals, ungainly and tripping over each other.
“In d’Artagnan’s room?” Aramis raises his eyebrows. “Where is he to sleep?”
“Was he supposed to share with me?”
“I don’t think we have thought that through that far,” Aramis admits. “d'Artagnan offered to hide you here, and it seemed like a good idea.”
They share a crooked smile. There’s a lot that they share, still. The bond between them has not been severed, even though the ties are frayed. Perhaps, perhaps… But no, he is too far gone, and Aramis has taken a path into the opposite direction from his. It would be kinder to cut those ties once and for all, but Marsac is worn-out and weak. He has the strength to fire a musket at the man who doomed him to this life, but he does not have the strength to let go of his only friend.
“I’m sure M. d’Artagnan will find the arms of Mme Bonacieux quite accommodating if he so wishes,” he says. Aramis hmms.
“Don’t leave me,” Marsac whispers, even though he doesn’t want to.
“You left me.” Three words. Three lashes with the cat o’nine tails. Three boulders of Sisyphean dimensions dropped into the pit of his stomach.
“Forgive me,” Aramis says a breathless eternity later. “That was tactless.” He falls silent, his fingers performing a jittery ballet on the barrel of his pistol. “Very well,” he says suddenly, raising himself from the floor so swiftly as to unbalance Marsac, in spirit if not in body. He unbuckles his belt, and Marsac’s throat goes dry, unbuttons his doublet, and Marsac’s hands turn to ice, and then he stands there in his shirtsleeves and looks young and vulnerable and very much like the man Marsac remembers from the forest of the dead. He even thinks he can make out the wound that mars Aramis’ temple and disappears under his hair.
But that is nonsense. Marsac shakes his heads to dislodge that vision. He sees wounds and scars in faces all the time, in his own and in those of others. He rubs his eyes, willing them to stop playing tricks on him. With his eyes closed, he senses the shift of air as Aramis moves around pulling off his boots, feels Aramis brush against him as he climbs onto the bed, and shivers uncontrollably at the sensation of warmth that has just come within his reach. He doesn’t dare open his eyes, afraid that all this is but a mirage conjured up by a brain that has been in the grasp of fever for five years.
“Marsac?” Aramis says softly somewhere behind him. “You should get some rest.”
He doesn’t want to open his eyes now for fear of seeing Aramis lying there, Aramis clad only in his shirt and breeches, spread out on his back, arms thrown wide open, and in his white face two black holes where his eyes should be.
“Marsac?” This time, the sound of his name is accompanied by a touch to his back, cradling the curve of his ribs just below his shoulder blade. Marsac is very aware of where the touch is placed, because it is the first time in too many moons since another person’s hand rested on his body in that gentle manner. He has shared the bed with a fellow man-at-arms during more nights than he cares to remember, but this is Aramis, and Aramis counts.
The hand on his back tugs lightly on his shirt, and Marsac hears himself whimper as he lets himself fall backward into the darkness, his eyes still firmly closed, trapping Aramis’ arm under his body. “Ouch!” Aramis wriggles awkwardly, but Marsac doesn’t budge. He lies there heavy and limp; playing dead, his mind supplies in a sudden flash of humour. Aramis goes still eventually, having pushed his arm deeper under Marsac rather that pulled away, holding him in a clumsy half-embrace.
“You’re cold,” he mutters after a while. Marsac is shivering with a cold that has nothing to do with the temperature in the room. It is the cold that seeped into his bones five years ago and is now being released into his blood in stabbing bursts.
“Forgive me,” he says into the darkness. No answer is forthcoming, only the arm around him tightens. Marsac falls silent as well, his muscles, his mind quieting down bit by bit. Aramis provides solid warmth along the entire length of his body, from where his cheek rests against Aramis’ shoulder to where he slung his lower leg over Aramis’. His other side is still freezing, though, and the clashing sensations make him shiver. Aramis, whose even breathing and relaxed muscles indicate that he was on the brink of falling asleep, shifts and turns his head towards Marsac. Words, barely more than a vibration of the air, float against Marsac’s skin.
“You’re still cold.” He rolls onto his side until he half-covers Marsac’s body with his own. Marsac is sure his skin blisters at the contact, the heat wave flooding his frozen limbs and torso almost unbearable. He groans with pain and Aramis pulls him closer. “I felt it too,” Aramis says into his hair. “That cold. I carried it around with me for many months. It comes back, sometimes.”
“What happened?” Marsac gives up trying to control his trembling arms, his fluttering ribs, and presses his face into Aramis’ chest instead. “How did you overcome it?”
Aramis shakes his head. “I don’t know. I got better and better, gradually. There was that one night when Athos had won quite a bit of money on cards and he bought us all, himself and Porthos and me, a magnificent dinner. Good wine, too, Athos knows about wines.” Marsac can feel him smile, and the green-eyed serpent of envy uncoils in the pit of his stomach and slithers up his throat. His body stiffens, but Aramis either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, because he continues in the same level tone. “We’d been friends before, but that night… we just drank and talked and it felt like we grew into a true family. Into brothers. I think that was when the cold spells stopped.” He pauses, laughs and says: “The beginning of summer may have had something to do with it as well.”
“It’s summer now,” Marsac says, sounding like a petulant child to his own ears.
Aramis merely hums, but he pulls him closer still and whispers against the indentation of his temple, where his skull is thinnest and most vulnerable, where his pulse throbs the strongest. “Sometimes that’s not enough.”
Marsac isn’t sure if Aramis’ words are an implication or a suggestion or if he is merely being his own generous, affectionate self. He can’t read him at all, the signals of his body are as lost to him as the meaning of his words. Marsac’s own body is thrown into a fever that matches that of his brain, rendering him helpless and weak. To think that, only this evening, he planned to undo Aramis, to make him fall apart, to make him hurt. To impart a share of that pain and guilt on him that Marsac has been carrying with him for five years. He hasn’t even noticed the feint Aramis has used to disarm him and push him off-balance. To wrench his weapon out of his grip and use it against him, like he did in combat. No, Aramis has grown too strong for him, like a lion cub that, one minute playful, will maim its handler in the blink of an eye.
There is a certain liberty to all this: to succumbing to weakness, to putting one’s fate into the hands of another. Marsac relaxes now, truly relaxes, ignoring the burn of weary skin and muscles, focusing solely on the closeness of another human body, the warmth, the expensive scent that clings to Aramis’ skin and hair. Aramis’ fingers, rarely calm, tap out an erratic rhythm on his upper arm. They are wrapped around each other like brothers-in-arms, like lovers, and Marsac’s body responds to this unexpected gift of tenderness with a surge of lust that renders him dizzy. It startles him, and it startles Aramis, who shifts the thigh that he had thrown over Marsac’s legs, moving it down a fraction, away from the evidence of arousal that had suddenly appeared, hard and heavy, in Marsac’s groin. But Aramis does not pull away, does not push away, does not utter a noise of disgust, does not punch Marsac. His arms remain wrapped around him, his breath steady against his temple, and, emboldened, Marsac shifts into Aramis. His lungs are bursting, but he doesn’t exhale, he cannot, because Aramis slides against him in the darkness and the hand that lies on his arm moves up to his neck, fingertips brushing against his jaw. The lust that has descended upon him is a discrete entity, it’s got its own needs and its own will that he cannot control. He can feel it envelop him, soak into his flesh and bones, counteract the cold that tries to escape from within. Marsac’s brain and body have been taken over by one single desire, and he doesn’t care about anything else when he moves his own hand to his groin and cups himself through the fabric of his breeches. Aramis’ breath at his temple hitches, but he remains quite still, only his fingertips at Marsac’s jaw tremble.
The weight of his hand on his hard cock is both familiar and comforting. He has spent many nights palming himself off under the shelter of darkness, or listened to other men doing the same. There is no modesty among men who live, sleep and breathe in the same space day in, day out. But he has not sought the assistance of another man’s hand, not since he left boyhood behind. Had never thought of Aramis as anything but a brother-in-arms. Not until in the here and now his body has burst aflame and Aramis was the tinder that’s set it alight.
Marsac doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that Aramis thinks him a deserter and a coward already, he doesn’t care that Aramis will think him weak in flesh as well as in mind. He shoves his hand into his breeches where his cock is damp and heavy and very hard. He groans when its scorching heat makes contact with his cold hand. Aramis’ breath has quickened, and Marsac wriggles into his embrace in a naïve attempt to crawl into him, to bury himself in that warmth. Aramis bites out a strangled sound that could be a gasp or could be a growl, and he grabs Marsac by the shoulders, twists him around and slams him backwards against his chest. They both cry out as their bodies crash into each other. Aramis’ breath is harsh and moist now, his arousal, though not as complete as Marsac’s, spiralling fast. Marsac is proud at having succeeded in reducing that man, a notorious connoisseur of the female sex, to a panting, humping bundle of instincts, one that grinds itself against the arse of another man.
He pushes back against Aramis, rubbing himself inside his breeches, his hand sliding up and down, up and down, and it’s good, but not good enough. When he pulls out his hand, the smell of his sex rises to his nostrils, and he knows that Aramis can smell it too. Marsac brings his hand to his mouth and spits into his palm, and then he takes himself in hand once again, and it’s so much better, the smooth, easy slide all the way down the length of his cock and back up again with a filthy moist sound, like the slapping of flesh against flesh.
Aramis’ closes his fingers around Marsac’s hipbone in a crushing grip that will leave marks. He’s panting in time with Marsac’s strokes, his cock a hot weight against Marsac’s arse even through several layers of fabric. “Fuck!” he grits out as Marsac’s hips buck and slam back against him.
“Touch yourself,” Marsac pants, lightheaded with heat and lack of air.
The fingers around his hipbone tighten. “No.” All Aramis offers is harsh panting and the eloquence of sharp teeth on his bare neck.
His hand flies up and down and up and down its slippery path, and his pulse races, in his temple and in his neck and in his cock. “Touch me, then!” he throws down the gauntlet. Aramis gasps in a shaky breath, but he accepts the challenge. His hand scrambles into Marsac’s breeches, pushing them down awkwardly, and then those fingers are inside and around his balls, and Marsac’s entire body convulses. “Fuck!” that’s all his mouth, his brain are capable of. “Fuck, Aramis.” He forces himself to slow his hand down, to hover in this moment of bliss, to listen to Aramis panting open-mouthed into his neck, to feel sweat run down his flanks and stomach, soak his shirt, mingle with Aramis’. To feel the heat of their both arousal fill the room in a humid cloud.
And then, Aramis moves, scratches his fingertips over Marsac’s cock, his hand, threads his fingers through Marsac’s, slides their joined hands up and down, his touch light and confident. He quickens the pace, and Marsac doesn’t fight him, he lets himself rock back into the safe cradle, cushioned by Aramis’ arms, his chest and his thighs. He is glad of Aramis’ hand guiding him, because all sensation drains from his own hands and feet, pooling to his loins, the pit of his stomach, to his groin. His fingers stumble all of a sudden and his rhythm falters, but Aramis picks it up gracefully, and the pressure around his cock is just a little bit too much for a breathless moment or two. “Aramis!” he moans, half wantonly, half desperately. The only answer he gets in return is the drag of teeth along the line of his neck to his throat, as if Aramis wanted to feed on his blood. But he doesn’t bite him, the teeth don’t break the skin, Aramis has his predatory nature under control still.
“I’m here, Marsac,” he senses the words rather than hearing them. “I’ve got you.” Perhaps he only just imagines them, like he imagined Aramis’ face, white and lifeless and with black holes where his eyes should be, but Aramis is alive and he’s hot and dexterous, and Marsac looks down, looks at their joined hands wrapped around his cock, watches Aramis’ thumb slide across the tip, watches the thread of moisture cling to Aramis’ fingers, and his world narrows down to this, the sight and the smell and the spasms of his arousal, and the heat explodes within him like a barrel of gunpowder as he spills himself messily over Aramis’ hand, his own stomach and shirt. The world goes black with the force of his spending, and he panics, arms, legs twitching, but Aramis is there and holding him close. Aramis holds his hand, his cock in a loose grip until the tremors subside. Marsac almost sobs at the tenderness with which Aramis touches him then, helping him to rearrange his clothes, wiping his seed off his skin with the tails of Marsac’s shirt. They disentangle themselves from each other, but not entirely, and heat blossoms in the spots where they still touch.
“What about you, friend?” Marsac asks once his breathing has evened out. His exhausted body is crying out for sleep, but gratitude prevails, and he wants to make Aramis feel good. Wants to undo him, to watch him shudder in that most beautiful of all agonies. “Let me do the same for you.” His hand creeps up Aramis’ thigh where it is halted in its progress.
“There’s no need,” Aramis shakes his head. In the darkness, Marsac can make out the line of his cheekbone, the arch of his brow, the rest of his face is cast in shadows. “I can get my pleasure elsewhere.”
And just like that, Marsac comes undone. Something within his soul shatters, and another something, the hunched, slavering one, raises its head again, spilling guilt and self-loathing into his guts. He rolls on his side and pulls his legs in, laughter ringing inside his head. Oh, Aramis truly is a master marksman. The all-consuming charm and all-consuming darkness lethal to all those who dare cross his path. Marsac knows he’s being punished, and he knows he deserves the punishment. He craves it even, wishing he had the faith and the courage to use the discipline cord on himself. Aramis is right to punish him.
But there is something he can do towards his penance. If the men who sold them out, who threw them at the mercy of winter frost and carrion crows, if those men are made to pay for their deed, Marsac will be cleansed of the guilt that’s been preying at his soul for five years. Once at peace, he might even become worthy of Aramis’ friendship again.
Exhaustion overwhelms him at last, fogging his mind and weighing down his limbs. He’s suspended in the otherworld of dreamy shadows and swirling thoughts. Aramis’ hand rests on his back, like an anchor that keeps him grounded in reality. But the anchor is slipping away, he can barely feel it anymore, his body, overcharged on sensation, is barely his own. There are thoughts that are his own, but he can’t get a grip on them, not quite. There is beauty to revenge, to justice, spilling the blood of those who deserve it, wiping out memories of blood in the snow, of blood on Aramis’ face, of black birds like daemons from hell, of a half-life in shadows, of death, death, death, sweet oblivion, peaceful sleep, blessed rest, in aeternum, amen.