June and July were the terrible months with Athos.
"I choose to believe," Aramis says, the first year, "that you do not in any way suffer from melancholia."
Athos lifts his glass in an ironic toast.
"Yes, of course you recognise that the alternatives lead to far more unflattering descriptions of your behaviour, correct?"
Aramis is a small man, and a precise man, and a horrendously insightful man when he chooses to demonstrate that ability, and he is not in any way the man Athos wants to be near him when he is thinking of what will never be undone.
Insane rage mingled with real grief is not something that should be shared, even with someone who treats all discussion as though it were within the formal setting of a confessional.
Athos knows that he could turn to Aramis and say —
"I was married."
He could say —
"She was beautiful, and I loved her."
He could say —
"I think I killed her because she did not love me. Because I felt betrayed."
He could say —
"It wasn't the brand that was the betrayal. It wasn't the brand which was the lie."
And all of that and none of that would be true; all of that and none of that, Aramis would listen to and would understand.
Athos knows this, and yet he cannot say any of it, because that would be a lie in the clever disguise of a truth-telling, and he knows too much about lying to feel able to try and find his way through the morass of deceptive words.
He falls back on silence and into the depths of wine, and he never says any of it.
He never says that he knows what it is to love, to love so deeply and so intensely that it remakes who a man is into an entirely new-born life.
He says —
He can say that, because Aramis knows he does not, and never will, mean forever.
Because Aramis will always come back.
He will come back because he is a good man, despite his love of politics; because he is a friend, despite his vagaries; because he might not have experienced (might not ever experience, Athos suspects) how the world can by remade by a simple emotion that is at once a life entire and yet so very complex as to contain more worlds than one within it, not simple at all; he will come back because he has never once doubted that others feel this, have felt it, will continue to feel it, and while he might not know for certain that this is where Athos's despair comes from, and will not admit he knows it until the day he is told —
maybe, someday, never, soon —
he still recognises what he sees.
Athos knows what good fortune is, when he meets it.
He might not want its benison, he might choose not to relish it or avail himself of the consolation it offers and which he does not deserve, but he knows it as well as Aramis knows what he is reliving, in the summer months.
He allows himself to dream, sometimes, but only in the summer, only in the months of silence he is never sure are imposed upon him or have been unwittingly self-imposed or are merely chosen as his own way of mourning.
He dreams of what was real, for he has long since killed imagination or wishful, wistful thoughts of might have been.
He dreams of meeting her, that first day, of realising he was looking at all that he had ever wanted.
He dreams of the days in which he got to know her, days hot and heady with flower-scents and dust, when he came to believe she was more than the sum of his desire; that she was a mind and a spirit to match his.
He dreams of the days in which he was young, and she was young, and she was innocent because he believed her so, and he was honourable because he was remade into what he believed she saw in him.
He dreams of the days in which they were both happy, and knows he dreams of a lie and the truth both together, because part of him, stifled for the rest of the year, knows that liar and thief and adulteress though she had been, she had been happy too.
He had made her happy, because of —
He will never be sure.
He killed her, after all, and the dead hold no answers, and retrospective contemplation is twisted by longing and sometimes by hatred and often by a desire not to have been a fool.
He will never know.
He will never be sure that his love was not returned.
He will never stop wondering if perhaps it was.
(He knows, he does know, and that is the bitterest secret of them all, the secret he usually hides even from himself — the part of him that knows he was not, altogether, a fool.)
"Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly," he says to Aramis in the third year. He assumes Aramis will understand the English, even if his attempts at speaking it himself are still woefully broken.
(Years later, Aramis will say very dryly that he can understand and make himself understood in the language, and no-one else listening will know the world of patience and unhappiness that lies behind the quiet remark.)
But now, Aramis is young, and Athos is drunk, and it is July, and the world is a frightful place born of nightmares, and Athos wants it to hurt and sink into weary despair along with him.
Unkind, unfair, says the voice of the young Comte, the honourable man who died as the body of his wife hung from a tree.
"You're actually unbearable when you spout rubbish," Aramis says grimly, and he is not talking about the fact Athos has chosen to convey his thoughts in another language.
Athos does not have to say "Get out," that year.
Aramis leaves, and avoids him until the end of August. Athos is beyond even missing simple courtesies, and does not acknowledge his lack of them.
Athos has too many trapped words caught behind his teeth to do more than greet him as though nothing has happened, when Aramis finally decides to seek out his company again.
Too many words, too many lies, too many dreams.
He remembers their wedding day, and the flowers in her hair and the lace fluttering over the tops of her breasts, moving with her rapid heartbeat as they said their vows.
He remembers the look in her large eyes, turned all to him, as though he were as much a sun to her flower as she was the moon pulling the tides of his heart and mind.
He remembers their wedding night, and the joy of it.
He cannot believe—
(he wants to believe)
—he refuses to believe, that it was only he who felt that joy.
He wonders how she concealed her brand from him for so long, for their bed was not some sheltered bower of courtly kisses and hidden bodies — and this, at least, he knows to be no lie, that she found as much pleasure in it as he.
He thinks he might hate her for that still.
He wonders if she ever came to hate him for giving her any such feeling at all.
(He will never know. Her ghost does not come to him, and the dead give up nothing but decay and bones and old forgotten rot. Even if he knew where her body now lies, there would be no true answer to be found in her corpse.)
Dream and memory are one and the same in the summer months, for the man who used to be the Comte de la Fère.
He remembers the feel of her skin, the touch of her hair against his face when she leant over him; the shocking intensity of her embrace.
He remembers the surprise in her voice, the first time she cried out beneath him.
He wishes that, any of that, had been a lie, but he wakes with the remembered truth of her scent filling his nose and mouth, choking him with longing, choking him with despair, strangling him with loathing and hatred of them both, and knows that it was not.
The story he tells D'Artagnan is as much a fable and a lie as he later claims, for it holds all and none of the truth in it.
He says —
"That has cured me of beautiful, poetical, and loving women."
He is lying.
He will never be cured, for he was never infected by women, only by one woman, and she, being dead, will never lose her power over him.
He says —
"My mania is to relate all the lugubrious stories which my foolish nurse inculcated into my brain."
He is lying.
There are no stories save this one, and he himself placed the words in his own brain.
And when there is nothing left to the story but all the terrible layers of truth and half-light that are being revealed, one by one, he knows that there will never be another story.
Not for him, not for his wife who lives still.
Their story is endless.
Their story is hate.
Their story is death.
And he will kill her again, he will kill her as many times as he must, to justify the first crime he ever committed; the crime that was not murder (though it was), but which took place long before that, in the days when he needed no wine to become intoxicated, but only her presence; needed but an hour of her company, a fragment of her speech.
He gave her his honour, and he gave her his love, and his crime was in thinking they were valued so low as to mean nothing in the face of her past.
The first death was not hers, but his, when he stepped away from all he had believed and trusted in, and turned justiciar.
His deeds can no more be obliterated than her brand.
His love can no more be eradicated than his hate.
He has been remade by her twice — once into the new husband, the lover, the murderer.
Once into Athos.
And Athos, as the world knows, does not love, and, not being capable of love, is not capable of hate, either.
It seems fitting, then, to let another man wield the axe.
Aramis has become silent too. He no longer waits for Athos to talk.
He still offers his friendship, but his youth, which made him intolerable, left him long since, and the bitter knowledge he has gained makes him a fit companion in a way that d'Artagnan, who still grieves for lost love and lost hope with the fervency of one who cannot quite imagine it has truly gone, and still clings to a fragmented thought that it might return in a new guise, cannot yet be.
They sit in silence in Athos's rooms, and Athos knows that now, now at last when his story is known, he can say the one thing that was always true, that tells of the why and the how and the years that lie between the two deaths with far more detail than any nightmarish recounting of an old dark tale could ever manage.
He says —
"I loved her."
He says —
"I love her still."
He says —
"I sicken myself."
And Aramis, Aramis who is and who can be all at once the priest, the killer, the politician, the friend; the man who is both d'Artagnan's invisible protector and the man who would have run Richelieu through in the moment of handing over a letter, who can be forced so far and no further and, like the grace of God, has no mercy in him, says only—
Truth for truth, Athos realises, the only absolution that is given freely, that which is born of comprehension. Not given from pity, nor from mercy, nor from kindness, and, for the first time since he bound his wife's hands, he takes a breath that feels like peace.