Pairings: Athos/Porthos, Aramis/d'Artagnan, past Athos/Aramis
Rating: NC17 (overall)
Summary: Ghost story AU set (vaguely) in the 1920's. When literature professor Athos de la Fère is invited to spend Christmas with an old friend and one of his students insists on tagging along, he's not expecting it to be overly eventful. But then a mysterious stranger arrives at the door in search of an old manuscript and all hell may be very literally about to break loose...
A/N: Content warning for supernaturally influenced suicidal thoughts/situation.
When Athos opened his eyes the next morning, he was rather taken aback to discover his head was resting on a man's broad chest in lieu of a pillow.
He made to sit up, but an arm around his shoulders encouraged him firmly back into his previous position. He submitted, in so far as he stayed where he was, but he turned in place to look up at Porthos a little warily.
"Morning," Porthos smiled. He'd been awake for a while, and had been watching Athos sleep with both a fondness and a slight apprehension as to what his reaction would be when he woke up.
To his relief, after a second Athos smiled back, although he looked flustered at finding himself in such a compromising position.
"Good morning," Athos murmured, and jumped a little as Porthos started stroking his hair. To Porthos' satisfaction, after a short internal battle Athos laid back down with his head on Porthos' chest again, allowing the quiet petting to continue.
Both found it peaceful and comforting after the emotional turmoil of the night before, and it was consequently some time before they finally climbed out of bed, drawn by the call of nature and lure of breakfast.
Opening the door, Porthos frowned as a shaft of light from the window caught a set of marks on the bottom of the door he'd never noticed before.
"Were they always there?"
Athos came over and bent to examine them. "I don't think so. Although it is quite dark out here on the stairs." He crouched lower, setting his fingers against the fresh looking gouges in the wood.
"It looks almost like claw marks," Porthos observed.
"Do you know, I thought I heard scratching the other night," Athos said, frowning. "Is it rats, do you think? Too large for mice, surely?"
"Bloody big rats for that matter," said Porthos, making a face. "Aramis doesn't have a cat does he?"
"Not that I know of. I've not seen one about, anyway."
Shrugging, they went down to breakfast, and were relieved to find they weren't the latest to emerge that morning.
With the hall being newly decorated and festive looking, Aramis had set their places at the large dining table, and immediately pressed Porthos into service to help him bring the rest of the food out. Athos settled at the table, and after a minute or so d'Artagnan finally appeared, moving rather carefully. He sat down opposite Athos, wincing as he did so.
"You alright?" Athos asked solicitously, pouring him coffee from the silver pot.
"Just a bit sore," said d'Artagnan without thinking, and then froze. He risked a look up, face flaming.
Athos cleared his throat and glanced away, although d’Artagnan was relieved to note he seemed amused rather than angry at the obvious implications.
"A warm bath would help with that," Athos muttered after a second, eyes firmly fixed on the piece of toast he was buttering. While he might disapprove of Aramis' actions in the matter, he bore d'Artagnan no ill will for following his heart, nor was so hypocritical that he would seek to excuse his own behaviour while condemning theirs.
"You think so?"
"Mmmn. Maybe a drop or two of bath oil in the water." Athos looked up with a fleeting smile. "In fact, you'd probably do well to hang onto the oil."
D'Artagnan promptly choked on his coffee.
They were joined by Aramis and Porthos at this point, bearing plates of eggs and more toast, and conversation turned to safer topics.
When they'd eaten, Athos helped Aramis clear away and wash up. Porthos followed them into the kitchen after a while and settled in a chair with the last of the coffee, having been assured that there was nothing more constructive he was expected to be doing.
"Where's d'Artagnan got to?" Aramis asked after a while. He knew d'Artagnan had been in some discomfort and was feeling faintly guilty about it, although d'Artagnan's ardent kisses upon waking had assured him he felt no regrets.
"I think he was going to have a bath," said Athos offhandedly.
Aramis went pale. "In the bathroom?"
"Well I assume so, unless he preferred to go and roll around in the snow," Athos retorted, then frowned at Aramis' look of alarm. "What's wrong?"
"Have you forgotten that I was attacked in there last night?"
Athos' frown deepened. "I thought we'd established you'd fallen asleep in the bath and had a nightmare?"
"No, you accused me of imagining things, which isn't the same at all," Aramis snapped, and ran out of the room.
Athos and Porthos exchanged a look of startled surprise and followed him.
"D'Artagnan? D'Artagnan!" Aramis knocked loudly on the bathroom door, then when there was no reply pushed it open quickly, d'Artagnan having broken the lock the previous day.
Athos and Porthos piled in behind him, and the three stared in horror to find d'Artagnan lying beneath the surface, hair fanned around his face, and eyes wide and unblinking.
They hauled him frantically out of the water and laid him on the floor, where Athos and Porthos could only look on helplessly at Aramis' increasingly urgent efforts to revive him.
Abruptly d'Artagnan twitched and choked, curling over and coughing up water onto the tiles. Aramis sagged to the floor beside him, weak with relief.
Struggling to sit up, d'Artagnan was at first confused and distressed to find himself sprawled naked on the bathroom floor in front of everyone, and then he remembered what had happened and clung to Aramis in sudden alarm.
"It's okay. Shh, it's okay. You're safe now." Aramis hugged d'Artagnan's wet and shaking body to him tightly, as Porthos tucked a warm towel around him.
"What happened?" Aramis prompted when d'Artagnan had stopped shivering convulsively.
"Something grabbed me," he said with a raw sounding throat. "Pulled me under. I couldn't see it, but - " he shuddered. "I thought I was going to die."
Aramis hugged him close, staring up at Athos with a grim expression.
"I'm sorry we didn't believe you," Athos said quietly. "It just seemed so - fantastic."
"What the hell's going on here?" Porthos demanded, not expecting an answer.
"I don't know," Aramis sighed. "But I'd suggest no-one uses this bathroom again. At least not alone," he added, and d'Artagnan gave a muffled laugh against his shoulder.
"So." Aramis threw Athos a speculative glance. "You and Porthos, huh?"
It was half an hour later. D'Artagnan had been put to bed, and Porthos had volunteered to go and empty the bath on the grounds whatever it was seemed to be coming from the water, and then nail up the door, just in case.
Aramis and Athos were in the parlour, trying to come up with a rational explanation for what had happened and failing miserably. Aramis had been too preoccupied to notice at the time, but thinking back to the scene in the bathroom it had just occurred to him that Porthos had definitely had his arm around Athos at one point. Knowing Athos' disinclination to tolerate casual affection of any sort, this seemed highly suggestive.
Athos stared out at the snow instead of meeting his gaze, but sensed it was futile to deny it. "Yes."
"Good for you." Aramis joined him at the window, and nudged him with his shoulder. "About time you had some fun."
Athos sighed. "And where can it go? It's all very well while we're all snowed in like this, and like-minded degenerates the lot of us. But out there? What happens when we leave?"
"You mean because he's just a clerk, and you're a professor?" Aramis teased.
"Well, setting aside the risk of imprisonment and disgrace, I was thinking more about the fact we don't even live in the same city," Athos retorted gloomily. "But since you mention it. However much we might like each other, would I even fit into his world? Would he fit into mine? It would be a disaster from start to finish."
There was a noise behind them and both men turned, Athos finding with an appalled sense of horror that Porthos was standing in the doorway. For a second they stared at each other, then Porthos tuned and fled.
"Oh God." Athos leaned against the windowsill for support. "Did he hear me? How long was he standing there?"
"Well go after him then!" Aramis urged, giving Athos a shove to get him moving.
Athos stumbled out of the room in time to see Porthos disappearing across the hall into the staircase leading up to their bedrooms. He hurried down the steps from the parlour in pursuit.
At overhearing Athos' summation of their prospects, Porthos had felt hurt and humiliated and his overriding instinct was to flee. Climbing the stairs he hesitated at the open door to Athos' bedroom but it wasn't his room to hide in and he kept going. He was almost at the top when he heard Athos enter the staircase below him, calling his name.
Running up the final few steps Porthos was ready to hurl himself into his own room and slam the door, but reaching the top he was surprised to find a door that he'd never noticed before standing open, with further steps going up beyond.
They were lower and narrower than the main flight, and ducking his head he walked up them more slowly, not hearing the door click quietly shut again behind him.
Reaching the top he emerged into an attic room, with open rafters and a boarded floor. There were various dusty trunks and boxes stacked about the space, a small window in the gable end - and something that drew Porthos' attention like a cold hand around his throat.
Thrown over one of the rafters and tied into place, was a noose.
It swung slightly as he walked towards it, gripped with a dreadful fascination. Had someone died here? No-one had suggested to him that Aramis' uncle had died of anything other than natural causes.
There was a crate on the floor beneath it, as if ready for someone to step up and put their head through the loop. It felt suddenly like it was waiting for him and Porthos swayed, as an overwhelming sense of despair swept through him.
For what seemed now like a fleeting moment that morning he'd been happy; he'd thought he and Athos might have something that they could build on together, that he might have prospects brighter than spending the rest of his life at a cramped desk for a pittance in reward.
Now though, he saw it was all built on nothing. He was a criminal, a man who'd attempted theft and fraud. He'd all but assaulted Athos the night before, and he had the temerity to think they might have had a life together? Athos could surely only despise him. How had he ever thought he could fit in, with these people and their grand houses?
Porthos took a step forward, and another. Somehow now he was standing on the crate, and didn't remember climbing up onto it.
The rope was rough in his hand, and he was blinking back tears. It was the best thing. For everyone.
Athos stuck his head into his bedroom as he went past, ascertained it was empty and ran panting up the final flight. "Porthos." he knocked on the door to his room. "Porthos, please, I'm sorry."
There was no answer and he tried the handle. To his surprise it turned easily, but that was nothing as to his surprise at finding the room beyond empty.
"Porthos?" Athos frowned. He'd seen him come up here, he was certain he had. Was he hiding? Feeling faintly ridiculous, Athos ducked to look under the bed, but it was empty. He walked back out onto the stairs, wondering if Porthos had perhaps been in his own room after all, maybe hiding behind the door.
There was nowhere else he could have gone. But people didn’t just vanish into thin air. Athos leaned against the panelling, getting his breath back from the hurried climb and feeling baffled.
Gradually he became aware that there was a draught issuing from somewhere, and turned his head, trying to locate it. It seemed to be coming from a crack between the panels, and he ran his hand along it. Now Athos knew what to look for he could make out the outline of a door, and ran his fingers along the line of it, pushing experimentally.
Eventually he was rewarded with a click, and the hidden door swung open towards him. Athos dashed up the stairs beyond, and froze in alarm at the sight that met his eyes.
In the middle of the room, Porthos was standing balanced precariously on a crate, holding a noose up as if about to slip it over his head.
"Porthos! What the hell?" Athos yelled, and Porthos jumped, staring at him in surprise as if coming out of a trance and not knowing where he was or what he was doing. Just then the crate crumbled beneath his feet and Porthos dropped with a yell, while it felt horribly like the rope squirmed in his hand, trying to get a purchase around his neck. But Porthos thrust it away from him with instinctive revulsion and Athos dashed forwards to catch him before he crashed to the ground.
Sprawled on the floor they clung to each other in alarm and horror, and Porthos' black despair of a moment earlier dissipated like mist as Athos held him tightly.
"My God, what were you thinking?" Athos breathed, shocked beyond belief that his words might have driven Porthos to such inconceivable ends.
"I don't really know," Porthos muttered. "Suddenly it just felt - like there was no hope, no point in carrying on. All there was, was despair. That - thing, wanted me. And it was the only thing that did."
Athos hugged him protectively. "I'm so sorry," he said quietly. "You were never meant to hear what I said, I was only thinking aloud. We'll make this work, we'll figure something out, I promise."
"Do you mean that?" Porthos asked him wonderingly, and Athos nodded.
"Yes. I do. I'm not such a fool as all that, to throw away a chance like this."
They stared at each other in tentative hope, and then came together in a gentle kiss, just a press of lips, but enough to seal their words.
"It's strange," Athos mused. "You talking about despair. Last night - at first - I'd never felt so low in all my life. I'd hate you to think I make a habit of bursting into tears," he added with a rueful smile. "In a way I was giving up as much as you were just now. I'd have let you do anything to me, and I didn't care about the consequences."
He raised a hand to Porthos' cheek, stroking a thumb across the skin. Porthos looked stricken at his words, and Athos shook his head before he could interrupt.
"All I expected was to be used and discarded," Athos whispered. "But - " He faltered, and Porthos took his hand firmly, making him smile. "But you offered me so much more. Pleasure. Comfort."
"Love," Porthos added softly, and when Athos looked up he kissed him.
They sat there a while longer, neither feeling strong enough to move yet.
"Why the hell's Aramis got a noose in his damn attic anyway?" Porthos grumbled, leaning back in Athos' arms.
"I doubt he knows it's here," said Athos.
"Bit hard to miss, don't you think?"
"No, I meant the whole room. The door was very well hidden." Athos frowned. "How did you find it?"
"Door was standing open when I came up the stairs," Porthos said, looking surprised.
"It was tight shut when I followed you up," said Athos. "Did you close it?"
Porthos shook his head. He'd been so surprised at finding the hidden stair he'd forgotten for a second he was running away from Athos.
"Like something didn't want you to find me," said Porthos grimly, looking up at the swinging noose with a shudder. He started to add something, then broke off with a cry of surprise. Outside, the sun had broken through the snow clouds, and in the sudden shaft of sunlight the noose had vanished.
"Tell me you saw that?" Porthos said rather shakily, and to his relief Athos nodded.
"What the hell is going on in this place?" Athos said in a low urgent voice. "First something tries to drown Aramis and d'Artagnan and now this."
"Well," said Porthos. "At least we know it can be overcome. By sunlight, for one." He smiled, and kissed Athos on the mouth. "Or love. Thank you. For coming after me."
Athos blushed and stood up looking awkward, but to Porthos' satisfaction didn't contradict him.
As they made their way back down the stairs Athos showed Porthos the way the door blended in so tightly with the panelling, and the trick to opening it again.
"If it hadn't been for the draught I would never have found you in time," said Athos with a shudder.
"Coming through the gap." Athos held his hand up to the crack. "That's odd. It's stopped. I definitely felt a chill coming through here."
"There were no windows open." Porthos couldn't prevent a shiver, and was thankful when they descended to the hall. As soon as they stepped out of the stairwell a half-sensed prickling sensation lifted, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Call me crazy, but I always feel like I'm being watched on that staircase," Porthos said.
As they passed the portrait of Aramis' uncle, Athos looked up at it and thought back to the mysterious draught. "Maybe someone wanted me to find you after all," he murmured.
They found d'Artagnan had joined Aramis in the parlour and was sitting wrapped in a blanket on the settee. He'd woken from a disturbed sleep and been too uneasy to remain alone so had sought out Aramis, who was lighting the fire.
As they came in, d'Artagnan and Aramis took one look at them and knew something had happened.
"Now what?" Aramis said heavily.
They explained about the noose, and by the time they'd finished everyone looked severely shaken.
"I don't think anyone should sleep alone tonight," Athos said, mindful of the way he and Porthos both seemed to have been susceptible to emotionally compromising influences.
"I don't think anyone was planning on it," Aramis said, and laughed at the various degrees of scandalised embarrassment around him. "Oh, come now. What's the point in being coy about it, between these four walls at least. We're all doing the same thing, after all." He was by now sitting next to d'Artagnan on the couch, and deliberately wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
After a second's hesitation, d'Artagnan leaned in to him, grateful for the contact and comfort after his ordeal.
Porthos looked sideways at Athos, who was staring awkwardly away from any of them, holding himself stiffly and aloof. Porthos reached over and laid a hand gently over Athos' where it rested on the arm of his chair.
Athos looked round at him in surprise. Porthos was resigned to Athos pulling his hand away, but he didn't. Porthos offered him a tentative, hopeful smile, and after a second Athos untensed and actually threaded their fingers together. Porthos squeezed his hand and smiled warmly at him. Athos blushed, but still didn't pull away.
They made a pot of tea, and watched the weather worsening outside the window, everyone taking unspoken comfort in the quiet company of the others. Aramis banked up the fire, then frowned. "We're going to need some more logs."
"You couldn't have mentioned that before it started snowing again?" Porthos grinned.
"There's plenty already split in the woodshed," Aramis told him, burrowing his feet back under the edge of d'Artagnan's blanket and hoping nobody would require him to be the one to fetch them.
"I'll go," Athos offered, getting to his feet and working the kinks out of his shoulders. He picked up the log basket and went out, hurrying down the staircase into the hall. It was cold outside the parlour and he shivered as he pulled his boots on. The snow was banked up against the back door and he had to lean all his weight against it to shove it open.
The woodshed was fortunately no great distance away and he hurried across the cobbled yard with his head down against the snow. The door had a heavy wooden latch on the outside and it took both hands to unhitch it.
The inside of the shed was dark, and smelt sweetly of applewood and oak logs. Athos set the basket on the ground and started filling it quickly, wishing he'd thought to bring gloves as his fingers were soon covered in moss and powdered bark.
A new smell wafted up from somewhere and he wrinkled his nose. It wasn't nearly so pleasant as the fresh-cut wood, it was foetid and animal, and made him want to cough. Must be something dead in here he thought, hoping he didn't put his hand on a decomposing rat in the dark.
As soon as he'd had the thought, something scurried behind him and he jumped. Not just dead ones in here, obviously.
Judging the basket to be as full as he could comfortably manage to haul back up the stairs without being too light that the others would be likely to mock him for it, Athos was about to pick it up when the wind got up and a sudden violent gust slammed the door shut.
Plunged into almost total darkness, Athos sighed irritably and edged his way unsteadily across to the door. Feeling around the frame and where according to any earthly logic of architecture the handle should be, he finally came to the inescapable conclusion that once shut, there was no way to lift the latch from the inside.
"Oh, for - " he bit off the expletive and thumped the door frustratedly. There was no way anyone was going to hear him yelling from here, which meant he'd have to wait until someone came looking. It was unlikely to be long enough for him to freeze to death, but it could be a long cold wait, and he wished he'd stopped to put his coat on.
Fighting down the instinctive urge to panic at being shut in a cramped dark space in below-freezing temperatures, he forced himself to feel around the walls for something he could use. If there was anything thin like a saw or a shovel blade that he could work through the gap in the door, he might be able to use it to lever the latch up - or even just break his way out.
His movements prompted another flurry of scampering feet, and Athos shuddered. Ordinarily he wasn't too bothered about rats, but being shut in with them wasn't a nice feeling and in the dark they seemed to be getting bolder.
Something ran over his foot and this time he did swear.
"Hey. Hey!" He gave in to the urge and banged on the door, shouting loudly for help. As he suspected no-one came running, and he felt a little ashamed of himself. It wasn't as if he was in any danger, and one of them would come down and let him out eventually. Except it might not be until the last logs burned down, and that could be an hour or more away.
Athos looked around, his eyes adjusting to the gloom slightly. There were dim chinks of light between the planks of the walls and around the door, and he could make out the vague shapes of the log piles.
Something glinted in the darkest corner, tiny points of reflected light. Wondering if it was a metal tool he could use, Athos leaned forward then jerked back in sudden horror as they moved and he realised what it was.
Eyes. Eyes in the dark, looking at him.
He swung round and somehow everywhere he looked there were more of them. Tiny, gleaming rat eyes, staring accusingly from the log piles at this invasion of their home.
Athos tried to breathe slowly and calmly, arguing there was no reason for them to attack him if he offered no threat, but the smell he'd noticed earlier was suddenly stronger, thick on his tongue, and he choked.
The noise caused a stirring in the mass of rats, and he felt another one run over his foot. He kicked out instinctively and stumbled backwards, knocking into the wall. Something landed on his head, dislodged from a rafter above, claws tangling in his hair and scratching at his cheek.
In a fit of revulsion Athos batted it away and it disappeared into what now seemed to be a seething mass of rats, far too many for the small space, more than should naturally have been living here.
"Go away. Leave me alone." Athos made shooing motions, but the rats were bolder now, and getting closer. They were between him and the door, he realised, had been herding him slowly away from it. Surely that couldn't be deliberate?
He screwed up his courage and tried to step across them. One ran up his leg and he shook it off but now there were two more, sharp claws pricking his leg through his trousers as they climbed him.
Athos hit out instinctively and his hand met warm, squirming fur. Teeth like needles sank into his fingers and he yelled in shock as much as pain, kicking out and trying to brush off the increasing weight of creatures now clinging to him.
They were all over him, on his shoulders, in his hair, hanging off his arms. Whip-like tails lashed across his face and he fought down the urge to cry out again, clamping his mouth shut in the sudden horror that any of those wriggling tails should work their way inside it.
They were biting him in earnest now, hideous wet jaws clamped onto every inch of exposed skin they could find, tearing through his clothing, clambering over each other to get to him, in a wave of rippling fur and scaly tails.
Athos fell to his knees, knowing it made him more vulnerable but trying in vain to protect his face, his throat, his eyes. They were pouring all over him now and he could feel blood dripping off his skin, sending the rats into a new frenzy. He couldn't think any more, couldn't move under the weight of them, and knew with a deadened sense of horror that it was only a matter of time before they chewed out his throat.
Dimly, as if from miles away, he thought he heard a voice call out his name but he couldn't answer, was too far gone with terror.
Outside, Porthos looked around the yard in surprise. He'd become impatient waiting for Athos to return and come in search of him, but the woodshed was barred from the outside and there was no sign.
"Athos?" Porthos rattled the door experimentally but it was shut fast. Surely Athos couldn't be inside?
Porthos was about to turn away when he thought he heard something, a thin cry of pain and despair that made him shiver to his core. He swung back and stared at the door to the shed. Had it come from in there?
Making his mind up he lifted the latch and hauled the door open. The sight that met his eyes made him freeze in disbelief, but even as he looked the scene seemed to shift and melt before his eyes.
His first impression had been of Athos crouching in a ball on the ground, covered in twisting, chittering rats. Then as the pale winter sunlight poured through the door from a break in the clouds the rats became instead a dark amorphous cloud, that then faded away completely.
What was undeniable was that Athos was still crumpled in a heap on the ground, and Porthos rushed forward. He'd thought at first Athos was unconscious but he flinched at Porthos' touch.
"Hey. It's alright. Athos, you're alright, you're safe." He soothed him with gentle hands, and Athos finally raised a pale, terrified face to him. His hands were shaking, spread protectively against his neck, and it was a good few minutes before he could speak.
Porthos sat on the ground and held him. Gradually Athos uncurled from his defensive ball and stared wonderingly at his hands.
"What is it?" Porthos murmured, taking Athos' cold hands in his and chafing them softly.
Athos looked up at him then and swallowed a few times before he could speak. "Did - did you see - ?"
Porthos frowned. "I don't know what I saw. For a second it looked like rats, hundreds of them, then - then they were gone. Is that what you saw?"
Athos nodded, starting to shiver. "They were all over me," he said, voice tight with horror. "They were biting me, my hands, my - my face."
Porthos stroked Athos' hair back and examined him closely. He shook his head. "Not a mark on you," he said gently. Athos fell against him then and Porthos held him tightly while he shook bodily with reaction.
It was only when Athos felt strong enough to stand and Porthos helped him to his feet, that they realised Athos' shirt had been shredded as if by hundreds of tiny claws.