“Do you think you’d ever believe in any chance in the world left,” said the man who called himself Athos as the early-morn sun approached its crowning, “for me?”
“In your estimation.”
“Theoretically, you mean,” said the man who called himself Aramis with a quizzical arch to his brow over his book, from which he had not looked up, “or in all pragmatism?”
“I mean, for me, my dear pretentious fellow. Pardieu, one wonders how anyone asks you a question at all. ”
The man -- or, perhaps more accurately, the bishop of Vannes, for that was what he was -- smiled to himself in reply, but took a moment to consider a response, as his silence just as often signified genuine consideration and reflection as it did secrecy for the sake of secrecy. René d’Aramis de Vannes was a sincere man, after his own fashion. Truthfulness and sincerity were, after all, not always entirely the same, although one did tend to inform the other more than Aramis tended to like to admit. But though he had grown more patient and more sly in his older age and ambition, he had not been fundamentally changed; so although he was tempted indeed to look at his old friend and say something flip out of something resembling bitterness, he looked at his friend and felt an uneasier emotion. So he considered.
“Of course we do. Man was not predestined to fail, by any means; our Lord and Savior did not die on the cross to legitimize your cynicism. If we fall ten times we are permitted to rise eleven. In the end of things the gates of Kingdom of Heaven are open to all who ask to enter. As a people we trip and fall many a time, but all in all the city of God will not be built for its streets to be empty, my friend.”
Athos snorted. “Poetic. I mean you and me, you evasive bastard.”
“Oh.” Aramis frowned, his arms crossed over his soutane. “You don’t mean to say --”
The answer the Bishop of Vannes gave to this question is, regrettably, not given in the Memoirs of Monsieur D’Artagnan, nor is provided the context to this elusive conversation. Between the Memoirs at large and a selection of letters preserved penned by the mysterious Bishop of Vannes, alias d’Aramis, alias René d’Herblay, I have been unsuccessful in determining a context to this mysterious conversation as related by the famous M. D’Artagnan, who doubtlessly could not have been present for such an event but which certainly has not prevented him from relating similar events from other perspectives. This exchange was found in one of the appendices to D’Artagnan’s Memoirs and thus cannot be reliably accorded a timestamp, save the implications of the attained rank of the Bishop of Vannes -- nor can it be reliably accorded an explanation, for historical record has indicated that the breadth and depth of the friendship between the three musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis cannot be overstated or bounded by D’Artagnan’s narrative alone. Nevertheless, the exchange of the Comte de la Fère and the Bishop of Vannes remains a minor puzzle of literary interest, and the mind of the latter man may remain as great a mystery to the historical record as his answer to the former’s question for the foreseeable remainder of scholarship to come.
“Bénissez-moi, mon père. It has been -- seven years. Since my last confession.”
The père behind the lattice was a stranger. His indrawn breath was soft in the shadows of the confessional but he said nothing. For a trifling moment the penitent was tempted to stand up and walk away from the Sacrament of Penance before he’d even begun, straight out of the great doors of Notre Dame de Paris, but he tightened his grip on his cane along with his resolve and did not budge. He had not come all this way, he told himself, to run from Reconciliation.
He closed his eyes. Not after all this. It was a very long way he had come.
“Seven years?” the priest echoed, mild and Breton and cracked with age.
“That is the truth, Father,” said the penitent, “by any true reckoning.”
The priest took brief pause. “Confess, my son. You have gone a long and weary time without laying down your burdens.”
“I am not here to lay down my burdens.”
The vesper bells were ringing over the snowy city and young René d’Aramis closed his eyes to hear, in his mind, the vespers spoken at Notre Dame de Paris. Deus, in adiutorium meum intende. It was a routine. It brought peace to his mind -- not, in the usual course of events, that his mind was accustomed to being far from peaceful -- when the day was done and the time for making war was, or should have been, over.
He could hear only his own breathing and the creak of the uneven chair not four paces away from him as its occupant rocked idly back and forth in it. Well, it was on his shoulders to keep his head -- it always was -- so he decided to pray aloud now, to calm his restless mind. He called it his restless mind: it was really his aching shoulders and the chill he felt, the shudder that threatened to steal its way down his back. But Aramis was in no mood to have a decided and candid conversation with the Lord about his own hypocrisy at the moment, so he fastened his hands together and offered his spirit up to the Lord. He tried to ignore his present company. Perhaps it would spiritually enrich them both.
“Deus, in adiutorium meum intende,” he began: quietly and precisely, as one ought to pray. “Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina.”
Perhaps the Pied Piper would appear and lead all the cockroaches away from Paris, too.
He was sitting on the mattress that belonged to Olivier d’Athos de la Fère in the room that belonged to Olivier d’Athos de la Fère. It stank of wine. That much Aramis had already concluded about Athos’s residence in the time that he had spent there: everything smelled like liquor and there was always a draft. He was always doing his grand best not to wrinkle his nose; so far he would like to think he’d made a saintly effort. The sheets stank of wine. Athos shifted in his chair -- that stank of wine too. Everything here stank of wine. But nothing, Aramis reflected, so much as the Comte de la Fère himself.
Athos creaked back in his chair again. Aramis expected him to say something characteristic, that is, sardonic and unproductive, but instead he said, “What does that mean?”
Aramis was surprised. Maybe he had expected more of the nobility’s liturgical education, but then again, this was Athos -- he could have paid no mind, or forgotten, or be playing ignorant for one reason or another. He was still surprised into plain speaking. “Did you never learn Latin?”
“That seems an unlikely translation.”
Aramis drew a deeper breath. “O God, come to my assistance,” he translated for him, feeling the uncomfortable prickle of the rough bedsheet and Athos’s unfocused eyes. “O Lord, make haste to help me.”
His friend was silent. Sometimes he would drum the tips of his rough calloused fingers on the scratched tabletop and sometimes he would gulp down an ungentlemanly swig of his drink, but he managed to be still this time while he thought. Eventually: “Do you think he does?”
“The faithful are all given succor,” was Aramis’s answer, “in one way or another.”
The chill was drying the sweat cold on Aramis’s body. There was a decided draft, so he pulled the cheap bedsheet up like a blanket over his bare shoulders and opened his eyes long enough to see how far the sun had set. Notre Dame was still outlined in the window and Athos was still staring at him, but he glanced away. By now he wasn’t sure he could quite look either of them in the eye any more.
To every thing there was a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. To every thing but Olivier d’Athos there was a season -- but for Olivier d’Athos, God’s season of kindness seemed always yet to come. He was always in the cold. That was what Aramis remembered about him from the beginning. “The handsome one,” replied one of his friends in the Black Guard when asked, “with the lofty bearing? Yes, I know him. d’Athos, he calls himself -- though the last time a mountain sired a son, I cannot say. I hear he is always drunk. Or cross. That is who you mean? The angry one?”
“The unhappy one,” said René, glancing across the room.
“I suppose that’s a way to put it,” said his friend Beauclerc, raising an eyebrow. “The unhappy one. Be careful of him, d’Aramis, he is not a lost lamb. He is a fine musketeer and I have only ever seen him prevail.”
“We are all of us lost lambs,” observed René.
“That’s very Christian of you. And very stupid.”
“It’s not my place to judge the behavior of a stranger.”
“Suit yourself.” Beauclerc drank. “You will be the end of you, I’m sure of it.”
“I suppose that’s your opinion,” said the once- René d’Herblay, who was very young, as he drank as well.
He had come to know Athos the musketeer when he joined the Musketeers of the Guard, but it was not until 3 mars 1623 that Athos the musketeer came to know him.
It started -- differently. Not innocently. Nothing ever started innocently with Athos -- not Athos, some seven years all of their senior and possessed with a burning fire somewhere within him that lit him up and warmed him on the inside when everything outside for him was dull and cold. There was no better term to put to it; the man presented himself like he was all steel and self-possession, but he was kept alive by furnace. ‘Inner light’ was too pious. God had nothing to do with it.
“Are you never asleep?” Athos lolled his head back hard enough against the doorframe that it hit the wood with a loud knock, one that would’ve made a lesser man flinch from the blow, or a soberer one, at any rate. Athos was one of the few men in Paris, thought Aramis with a measure of pained amusement, who could look deeply disappointed to find the very thing for which he had been looking. He was sitting on Aramis’s floor, foregoing a chair, and still wore his boots and greatcoat, and under it, most likely, his sword.
Are you never sober? came sarcastic Aramis’s reply, but sarcastic Aramis was not invited to supper, and besides, Athos was no sot and quite admittedly more often sober than Aramis was asleep. “You might have sent Grimaud,” he pointed out with folded arms, thinking of his friend’s silent manservant. “Perhaps with a note. ‘Monsieur apologizes for the hour,” (at the word ‘apologizes’ he received a snort as commentary), “but would like to ask permission to visit with his friend all the same.”
“That doesn’t sound like me at all,” said Athos, tugging his overcoat closed again.
“No,” said Aramis, reflectively, “I suppose it doesn’t. Care for --” the words a drink died on his lips after he deemed it a decidedly poor idea, “-- some food? Or water? There’s clean well-water not far from here, I buy it from a miller.”
Somewhere the indomitable Porthos was sleeping, or not sleeping, or sleeping in euphemism, at any rate, and not having anything to do with all of this. It was all just as well; Aramis liked Porthos greatly and enjoyed his company, but were he lonely and in his cups, he did not much suppose he would enjoy it quite as much. Then again, for that matter he did not much suppose he would enjoy his own. That brought him back to the unquestionable puzzle of what Athos was even doing here, but it was not in the realm of Christian charity to demand answers out of one’s friends before they were ready to unburden their own souls. He stood by habit to go and fetch something for his guest, though what ‘something’ he did not entirely know and by all accounts his friend sitting on the floor was only a guest in the barest minimal of senses.
“Well-water,” reflected Athos from the lower half of the doorway. “Do you have any vices?”
Aramis unwrapped the rest of a loaf of brown bread and picked out a bread knife, and chose not to answer.
“That is,” said Athos with a low laugh colored in darkly, “apart from the one.”
He ignored that too. Time spent in his frustrating Porthos’s company had accustomed him well enough to smoothly bypassing that to which he had no graceful answer. There was no good butter in the house; there was always the prospect of sending Bazin to get some, but Bazin had retired for the night and Aramis had his reservations about waking him. Manservants were intended to be deafmutes when their masters entertained guests, but all men were born with tongues, and moreover, ears. Aramis thought he knew Bazin, but he knew Man better. He broke his own bread and cheese this time.
“Bazin should be doing that for you,” Athos remarked as if he knew where his thoughts had rested.
“Bazin is abed. Would you like sausage as well?”
Athos made a sharp gesture with his gloved right hand as though to cut through the many laces of something he found tiresome. “Does all your conversation descend to this quality at this time of night?”
Aramis was one-and-twenty and thought he was incapable of losing heart over anything. It turned out that he thought a great many things when he was one-and-twenty. “I’ll take that for assent. You should eat something. Spirits are no good for a man’s peace of mind -- Athos, is something the matter?”
There was something strange about the way the older man was huddling in his greatcoat. Aramis frowned but chose not to comment as he crossed the doorway again to look for a cloth to lay on the floor upon which they could break bread.
Athos caught his sleeve. “Sit,” he said.
“In a --”
“Sit,” he repeated and tugged forcefully enough on Aramis’s sleeve that Aramis was compelled to sit down or fall, and he preferred to sit. He crossed his legs and leaned back on the doorframe in the other half of the doorway, sitting up straight.
The stink of wine was sour and unmistakeable. Athos was his friend of -- about a year now, Aramis wanted to say, uncertain of the precise time. He had no idea what to make of him now, or of the smell.
Athos fell back into his half-sit, half-sprawl and in doing so nudged open his burgundy greatcoat; in witnessing this Aramis could not help but see the flash of his doublet and a swathe of darker burgundy still which had sunk into the fabric. Wine did not stain so thickly. “Athos,” Aramis said in alarm, moving to examine him immediately, “is this blood? By God, are you wounded?”
His friend shoved him away bodily. The question answered itself, of course, when any man in the Musketeer Guard could recognize the sticky smell.
“No,” said Athos, shaking his head with such force that it gave Aramis cause to draw back. “No.”
“Look again, my friend.” Athos laughed. Or perhaps he coughed. It was hard to say. “The blood, it’s not mine, don’t you see?”
But he spoke true. There was too much on his shirt for him to be walking, or speaking. His face was ruddy, not white, and he breathed freely. Again the proof of another man’s death was on Aramis’s sticky fingers. He was staring at his hand now. I was going to take holy orders, he thought nonsensically. I was going to be a priest.
He had only once seen a man killed. He knew his swords, most certainly. He had seen men wounded in skirmish, carried off likely to die; there was nothing to disturb him here, he reasoned, lest he render himself a hypocrite. The Musketeers of the Guard were a bloody business. It was bloody business that took him there in the first place. He had no reason to be disturbed.
“He was the Cardinal’s man,” Athos was saying, “and he called me -- a prickless, drunken sot. By La Sorbonne, in front of all there. So I called him out, and do you know what he said? He told me that I was beneath his time and that dueling him would be -- beneath -- his -- bootheels. I told him to learn his manners. Do you know what he said? Do you know what it was, boy?”
“Eat,” said Aramis. “You are cold.”
“I’m not hungry, you condescending Jesuit.” The question of what Athos was in fact doing here in the first place had not failed to cross Aramis’s mind, and it was crossing it again, and at twice the pace. “You’ve known me all of a year. Tell me, d’Aramis,” said Athos, “have you ever seen a man killed?”
“I highly doubt that was what he said.”
The other man seemed temporarily deflated that his ominous snarl hadn’t fazed him, but he was back at his heels like a snapping dog in a moment, lurching forward a little. He looked as though he would seize him by the lapels. “He spat on my challenge,” he said, “so I ran him straight through. And I cut his throat, for mercy. And then he had to go and collapse on me, so here is my shirt and here I am. Did they warn you about me, d’Aramis?”
Aramis made another slice of bread and paired it with cheese. He liked something to occupy his hands when matters were not going well. The more matters that weren’t going well, the more things he preferred to occupy. “If you eat, you will not have the headache so badly in the morning,” he commented.
“René. That is your Christian name? René?”
“You will not want to have the headache.” This was true, by definition. Aramis had rarely met a man who wanted to have the headache. “My windows easily admit the sun in the mornings and I am afraid no part of this city is particularly quiet.”
“You don’t use it much, do you?” Athos ran a hand through his hair, which only sufficed to muss it further. “The boy I killed had a name. Pierre. His friends called him that. He was younger than you, ha. Then Pierre went and ruined my shirt. He insulted me, I don’t care. I did not claim to be honorable.”
“You should eat,” advised Aramis instead of observing that every man in Paris claimed to be honorable at some point or other, and pushed the bread at him.
“Did they --”
“I don’t care about your duel, or your not-duel, or whatever it was you just had. Now silence yourself,” said Aramis with more exasperation than he had first intended, “and eat this, and please go and vomit in my bed, the sheets are easier to wash than the rug here.”
In the time between the night and the following day it came out that the crowd had perhaps been more of a factor than first related, that Athos did perhaps care, and that Aramis had seen a man killed before. Athos did eat and did vomit on the bedsheets. Aramis forgave him. And so, there, it began.
“In thought, word, and deed, Aramis,” said Athos. He was thirty-one and he traced patterns on Aramis’s back with his fingertip like a schoolboy doodling idly in a lecture. Sometimes Aramis wondered if he was writing; it felt like it at times, though concentrating on the sensation made him shiver and gave Athos too much satisfaction, so he had to ignore it. “You know I haven’t told you everything.”
Aramis wondered if the gooseflesh on the back of his neck would ever stop pricking at this. He was not a boy any more. There was no reason to be so easily influenced. But then again, he always was. “It’s difficult for anyone to tell their father confessor everything. I am not your father confessor, either, so I don’t expect you to give me a full account. Such is the nature of a man’s life.”
“Sometimes you’re just full of shit,” Athos observed with a derisive snort but also a fond ruffle of Aramis’s hair, leaning down to kiss him on the crown of his head. “I do sin more than you know. I have sinned more than you know. And more than you think about, as well. I knew she was going to die, my wife.”
That much Aramis knew was a lie, but he knew even better not to challenge it. He put his head down on the pillow and thought about other things, not really believing the rosary appropriate to this occasion.
“The boy,” said Athos, “D’Artagnan. I did intend to kill him when I called him out for running into me.”
“So did I,” said Aramis mildly.
Aramis smiled into the pillow. “I’m only being truthful. I don’t agree to a duel unless I intend to carry it out.”
“You are the worst kind of liar,” Athos murmured into his hair, “and hush you, I am not finished unburdening my soul.” But he did not get around to finishing at the moment regardless. He still did finish. He always visited at Aramis’s house, after all, so that he might leave lighter than he came. It was self-delusion to pretend otherwise.
St. Paul had many things to say to the Corinthians on the subject of caritas. Sometimes when Aramis was miserable Athos was the worst thing in the world for his misery, so he avoided him at all costs -- but other times, much later in their time together, in dark moments that came every so often in the years, he sought him out, in their taverns and alleys and the bloody cobblestones after one of their skirmishes. When the nighttime streets were slippery with red Aramis was frozen in despair of what they were doing, and, for once, of what he was doing, and the road that had led him here from the abbey; so he sheathed his sword and cleaned his gloves with his handkerchief and said, “You are too bloodthirsty.”
“Thank you for your advisement,” said Athos sardonically.
“I mean it. You murdered some of those men.”
Athos did not call him out, but walked him home until they were in the narrow shadow of two buildings and then shoved him against the wall so the brick was digging into his back. He always gave Aramis what he wanted, one way or another.
“Are you so worried for my soul?”
Aramis did not have to answer him.
“Do you pray for me?” Athos demanded, his breath hot at his ear, and Aramis closed his eyes, feeling himself stir in fear and excitement, “Are you still trying to save me? By God. Well, then, pray for me. Pray for me, I demand it.”
The stone was hard and rough under his clothing, which felt very thin. It felt soft compared to Athos’s body right now -- softer, and very cold. Athos was always very hot, very, very hot. Even when he was half dead he was hot. He spoke true in that way, thought Aramis; he was a taste of what he had to offer his immortal soul, sooner or later. “Say a prayer for me,” said Athos.
“Pray,” said Athos in half a whisper, half a growl, “or everyone will know what and who you are.” To illustrate, his teeth were on Aramis’s neck leaving a love-bite bruise too high for a collar to cover. Pain could not stir Aramis to whimper, but embarrassment unfailingly might. He flushed.
“Ave Maria,” he said, offering it up truthfully, though not for Athos, “gratia plena --”
Athos did not kiss him this time, but buried his fist in his hair and pushed their faces together so their noses were touching. His other arm was around his waist. It was after dark. Paris had seen worse sins. God only knew that Aramis had seen worse sins. “Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus --”
Athos had not even pressed their mouths together, and already he had shoved his rough hand down the front of Aramis’s clothing, causing him to choke on his breath. “Faster.”
“Et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Oh, God. Sancta Maria, Mater -- Mater Dei -- ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc in hora mortis nostrae. Amen. Ave Maria, gratia plena -- Dominus tecum -- benedicta tu in mulieribus --”
“Faster,” said Athos again but when he was halfway through his next Hail Mary Athos took him roughly by the shoulders and turned him over roughly. He had dropped to mumbling his way through it; “Again,” said Athos, and pinched him when he cried out over having his hair pulled, “Faster. Undo it for us. Faster and I won’t hurt you.”
He said it faster. Athos did not keep his promise, so Athos had to cram his fingers into Aramis’s mouth. He said the Hail Mary around them anyway, though probably not enough to undo what they were doing; by the time Athos was done he had scraped Aramis’s forehead and neck red and raw on the brick.
Athos rested his forehead against the wall. “I don’t know why you put up with me,” he said.
There was a tear and some dark spotting on Athos’s sleeve. Aramis was still slumped against the wall, but he could see it. “You’ve been cut,” he said.
“I don’t jest. I really have no idea.”
“You should see a physician,” said Aramis, closing his eyes.
The second step, after the drunkenness and the midnight, came later. Olivier d’Athos was his friend, but Porthos was also his friend, and it was not the same thing. Porthos was honest by nature so he was confident he knew him. Athos was a puzzle by nature, intended to be fit together piece by piece, though Aramis was fairly certain that he did not want to be fit together at all; whenever this was remarked upon, though, Athos would brush it off (or, in his cups, observe that this was fine talk from someone “closed up tighter than the legs of a Mother Superior” and snort if this provoked any sort of blush). It was a lazy sort of puzzle though, one to be poked at when Aramis’s mind wasn’t occupied by larger things -- keeping himself in shape, for example, or attending to his spiritual life, or managing all the relationships he could never seem to say no to opening up. He did not expect it to amount to much.
Of course, he always had the worst of luck. He was walking with a friend of his named Desiree not far from the Avenue des Champs-Élysées gardens when Desiree grinned at him and said, “let’s not play further games, m’sieur,” and pulled her arms around his neck; and Aramis, who liked attention nearly as much as he liked not to give things up, picked her up under the arms and was engrossed in kissing by a wall when approaching footsteps interrupted him.
Being interrupted while kissing a woman was not the worst thing in the world. He’d been interrupted under more malevolent circumstances. Being interrupted by a company of one’s fellow musketeers was a bit more concerning and the two of them snapped almost immediately into a chaster arrangement, but the damage was done.
“What ho!” Porthos never lost an opportunity to chortle. “I believe Aramis has failed to mention his sister.”
Athos did not comment.
Later, though, it was fuel for what eventually snapped. What eventually snapped was after a street skirmish, an ambush against the musketeers, while the Cardinal’s men were hauling away their wounded and dead -- the former of which Aramis had been responsible for more than a few, the latter of which Athos had brought about no less than many -- and Aramis was nursing a wound, an ugly rising bruise over his eye and half his face where a man had bashed him with the pommel of his sword in a close struggle. Athos examined him.
“Beauty was never my finest asset,” Aramis made light of the matter, shrugging it off and smiling at him. In truth it wasn’t, either, but he was not looking forward to going around with half his field of vision.
Athos touched it anyway. “You weren’t intending to fight today,” he observed for some reason.
“Does anyone really go into a day,” said Aramis without thinking, “intending to fight?”
Athos didn’t answer him, so Aramis had some idea of what that meant for his rhetorical question.
Later, though, Aramis was nursing his now rather ugly face when Athos turned up, not in the middle of the night but rather in the late, late evening. Bazin turned up at Aramis’s bedroom door with the announcement and Aramis went to let him in.
“I’ve come to apologize,” said Athos, who looked sober but very tired, hollowed out around the eyes. He was staring and seemed almost not to blink.
“There is nothing for which to apologize.” Aramis was weary and, he had to admit, none too happy about the bruise; he intended to avoid the company of Desiree and anyone else who might care until it healed, nursing his own pride and vanity. “We were attacked. You had no way of knowing.”
“That’s not true,” Athos said.
“I said that isn’t true,” said Athos a bit irritably, like he always did when he was uncomfortable; “I lied to you. I knew which way we were walking, I knew who we were likely to encounter. I led you knowingly into danger. I’ve come to apologize. And for my penitence. I want you to accept it.”
“I cannot accept penitence,” Aramis pointed out a little ruefully, but he was genuinely confused at this point; “And I do not particularly care that you hid something from me. It’s really quite --”
“I came here to make a confession to you, God damn you. How is it you spoil everything?”
“There is only one place a man can make a confession, brother, and I am afraid that it is not here and with me.”
“I do not attend confession, brother, so I’m afraid this will have to do. Take it,” said Athos. “I didn’t offer you another option.”
He didn’t, at that.
Servants always knew things first. They knew of what was transpiring between Monsieur d’Athos and Monsieur d’Aramis before, in fact, Monsieur d’Athos and Monsieur d’Aramis did; they had some idea that they had begun an affair perhaps before an affair itself had officially begun. Aramis was aware of this, though he rather hoped Athos was not as he was sure it would only make the other man more cross. But he did not know for sure until they properly went to bed the first time.
Athos was capable of being gentle, which heightened the agony and the ecstasy when he was not. He was gentle enough the first time that gentleness was required -- not like a man with a woman, but like a friend with a friend, making faces when he dropped things, laughing when fumbling happened and murmuring a reassurance when a reassurance was needed and not asked for. That was not the most troubling thing that happened, and truthfully, was not the peak of Aramis’s memory of that day, either. The peak of his memory was when Athos stood up to wash up in the other room and he watched him go with a faint smile, having just made clear a moment ago that he was not his lover and did not consider himself so -- a distinction borne of Aramis’s knowledge that evasiveness was his last and greatest defense -- and admired the way his hair looked when it was more en deshabille than he usually allowed it to become, especially in the sunlight.
Then he wrapped his own body in a sheet and got up to look out the window. He had some notion that this was a good idea, or didn’t care. He was young.
When he glanced back over his shoulder Grimaud was staring at him.
He had a moment’s panic, but realized that Athos wouldn’t let Grimaud around if he didn’t trust him, even under these circumstances. So he smiled at the grim manservant and endeavored not to be overly self-conscious. It had a moderate effect.
Grimaud shook his head and walked away. Aramis frowned; he had been prepared for judgment, but if he had to put a word to Grimaud’s reaction, it was more of the tsk of an old man to a young one, or a wise one to a fool.
Athos soon returned and Aramis decided not to mention. “You look well,” he said as though Athos had been gone a long time, smiling.
“You look sated,” said Athos, grinning; “Or perhaps I project.”
“Perhaps you do,” said Aramis with a mock eyebrow of appraisal. Still he considered Grimaud’s stare when he closed his eyes, and the way he shook his head. Grimaud could look so very intent when he looked at you. Surely it was an illusion. He was only a manservant, after all, and he did not even speak.
Some friends and affairs could denote the line that was crossed between ‘friendship’ and ‘affair’ very closely, and Aramis had experienced this himself; sometimes you would be reading with someone and he or she would lean over to kiss you, or you would lean over to kiss them, on whim in either case, and nothing before had precisely led to that but everything after stemmed from it. That was the way of whirlwind love affairs, or so it was said -- Aramis to this point could not truthfully say he had ever been in a love affair. With d’Athos it was not quite the same. Starting from the time he’d met him, he was aware that something of the way he studied the older man was strange and inappropriate. It was not half so strange and inappropriate as Athos turning up at his doorstep covered in blood. So when it all came to a head at Aramis’s kitchen table, when they were tipsy, Aramis could not honestly say that he was surprised -- certainly not surprised enough that he couldn’t have drawn back when he realized what Athos was going to do.
Athos smelled like wine, but not nearly enough like wine to have lost his senses. Otherwise he smelled like sweat and blood and leather -- like Athos, like a swordsman. He had fastened his hand in Aramis’s hair. “Aramis,” he said under his breath. “Bless me.”
Aramis genuinely stared at him.
“I have sinned,” he said, “and I ask for your blessing.”
“I am not a priest of the cloth ordained,” Aramis pointed out needlessly, aware that this proclamation had less gravity while he was making saucer eyes. “I cannot grant blessings. And you are very drunk.”
“I am not,” Athos objected -- “I am slightly drunk. And you can grant all the blessings I’d like, damn you. I have sinned.”
“Have you?” Aramis stalled for time, not out of any real concrete fear but general nervousness in the situation that he wanted to disguise. He went on lightly, “I’m not sure I believe you. Perhaps you should go to bed. What are these terrible sins?”
“I’ve deceived you,” said Athos a bit self-importantly. “Olivier d’Athos is not my name.”
“You’re going to say everyone knows that, aren’t you,” Athos observed rather needlessly, and when Aramis laughed he also said rather needlessly, “Oh, shut up,” but then he put an end to the laughing by taking a handful of Aramis’s hair and shoving their mouths together. That was not the first sin they committed together, but it was the first down a particular road. It put an end to the laughter, certainly. They didn’t do anything else that night, nothing other than the kiss, which allowed Aramis to entertain the notion that he could stop at any time; all else that happened was Athos’s hands in his hair and at some point his pulling back with his whisper, “Forgive me,” and at the time Aramis let himself take it for part of his flirtatious conceit.
“What is the matter with you?” snapped Aramis when they were in the middle of a feud, the sort of feud that rendered Bazin terrified and always in another room and Athos inevitably breaking something. “What in God’s name could I possibly say to pacify you? Is there anything or anyone that walks this earth that could possibly make you happy?””
“Is that what this is about? Pacifying me? Making me happy?”
“I am your friend,” said Aramis, knowingly a bit cruelly; “You’re always wretchedly miserable. Of course I’d want to make you happy. God only knows that Porthos tries.”
“Oh, Porthos --”
“He does. You give him too little credit.”
“Porthos is a wretched fool.” Athos was an ugly man when he was truly livid. Not in form, but in spirit. Nothing could really make him ugly in form; God only knew that tested Aramis’s will more often than he liked. “He amuses me. He does pacify me, in fact. At least he has the humility to know that’s what we do for one another -- you -- you high-and-mighty bastard, do you really think that you’re going to be my salvation? There’s no point in trying to be your friend; you’re a goddamned bride of Christ already, you’re married to God, you’re married to your own righteousness. Do you think I could ever get through to that?”
“I don’t remotely understand what you’re talking about,” Aramis lied, burning.
“The Hell you do,” said Athos, “and the Hell if I care.” He sounded like he meant it.
They were not always miserable. Sometimes when Athos prevailed in a fight he was brilliant and bright and lusty, and had nothing but kindness to give him, no spot of the unhappiness that underscored his soul; but other times when Aramis himself was unhappy, missing the abbey and the life that he had thought he could lead, he would sit down with him and a drink and put his arm around him and say, “You clever bastard. Someday you will outrank me, I know it, and then what will I do? You’ll be able to order me around and it will be sanctioned.”
“I am never going to outrank you,” said Aramis with a tentative smile. “You’re the best swordsman I know.”
“What would you know about swordsmen?” Athos elbowed him. Aramis made a face, but he was smiling under it.
They were not always miserable.
Sometimes in the latest hour of the night that was really the morning, Aramis sat up on one elbow and watched his friend sleep. ‘Friend’ was a silly word, but it was the best one he knew, and it didn’t presume too much. He didn’t much like to presume too much in matters of the heart. He did not consider himself much more than a journeyman in matters of the heart. That was contrary to a Christian’s way of life, but it was the truth, which he was occasionally capable of entertaining in his house for short periods of time if not inviting in for a longer stay.
“You’re going to leave me,” he murmured. “The boy has a brighter heart than I have, and you’re going to see that sooner or later, and you’re going to leave me.”
He wasn’t sure whether he thought that saying it aloud would make it true or untrue, but he did know that his friend Athos needed to unburden his soul, and there was a weight beyond which Aramis’s did not have the capacity to carry it.
“I am here to lay down the burdens of my brother,” said Olivier d’Athos, closing his eyes, “upon whose shoulders I have laid my own.”
“You cannot ask for the absolution of your brother,” murmured the père behind the lattice. He was not as young as Aramis, Athos thought. His voice was halting where Aramis’s was clear. But unlike Aramis, he had volunteered to hear the weight of Athos’s sins. “Only your brother may confess and receive the sacrament of reconciliation for himself. It is between him and Him to find his penance and his forgiveness.”
“Be that as it may,” said Athos, “I wish to confess.”