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...
"What have you two been up to, or shouldn't I ask?" Aramis said with a smirk when Athos and Porthos finally reappeared, hauling the basket of logs between them. His grin faded as Athos sank down thankfully into a chair and he took in his pale face and the state of his clothes. "Did you boys go for a roll in the hay, or a round in the ring?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Athos muttered, rubbing at his hands and trying to brush off the lingering traces of the woodshed.
Aramis and d'Artagnan exchanged a look.
"You're talking to two people who were nearly drowned in a bathtub by an invisible squid," Aramis pointed out. "I suspect we might."
Porthos banked up the fire and then sat on the arm of Athos' chair, putting an arm round his shoulders reassuringly. "Tell them," he said. "I mean - I saw it too." He frowned. "Sort of."
Athos sighed, and related the events as best he could. He shuddered to recollect the feeling of the tiny claws on him, of the teeth meeting in his skin, but Porthos' touch was warm and real and unwavering, and he drew strength from it.
"That's horrible," d'Artagnan said when he'd finished, drawing his knees up protectively and wriggling closer to Aramis.
"I'd have said we were all hallucinating somehow," said Athos, "but this rather suggests otherwise." He plucked at the ragged tears in his shirt.
"But they weren't real, right?" d'Artagnan said rather pleadingly.
"Oh, ghost rats are somehow better?" Porthos retorted. "This place is infested. First snakes, now rats."
"Snakes?" Aramis exclaimed in surprise.
Porthos shrugged. "At the time I thought I'd imagined it," he said, exchanging a look with Athos.
"And I thought it was just an excuse not to sleep alone," Athos admitted.
"Cheek." Porthos squeezed his hand and smiled at him. "There was a snake in my bed," he told Aramis. "At least - I thought there was. A couple of nights ago."
Athos was frowning. "Snakes, rats, sea-serpents. What does that all remind you of?"
They all stared at him. "What are you saying, they're coming out of that book?" said d'Artagnan finally, sounding simultaneously scornful and horrified. "How is that even possible?"
"How is any of this possible?" Athos snapped back. He stood up, arms wrapped around himself defensively. "Look, I'm not saying anything, it's just - this all seems to have started since we found the bloody thing. Aramis, you were here on your own for a while before we arrived, did you notice anything untoward?"
Aramis shook his head. "I even used that bath a couple of times. Nothing." He shuddered, and then looked at d'Artagnan. "Remember the lake?"
"What about it?" Porthos asked.
"We thought something had crawled out of it," d’Artagnan said darkly. "Maybe that was what came up out of the bath."
Athos was visibly shivering, despite standing in front of the fire. "We should leave. All of us. Now. Before it's too late."
"And how do you suggest we do that?" Aramis demanded. "Look at it out there. We wouldn't get half a mile in snow that deep. And it'll be dark soon."
"That's what worries me," Athos muttered.
Porthos got to his feet and wrapped his arms around Athos from behind. "We'll be okay," he said, more confidently than he felt. "We just all have to stick together."
"Porthos is right," said Aramis. "And I mean literally, I don't think anyone should be alone for any length of time until we figure out what's going on here and how to stop it."
"I'm with Athos, I think we should leave," d'Artagnan said. "If not now, then at first light. We'll make it to the village somehow, it's not that far."
"And then what?" asked Aramis. "We just abandon the place? What happens to the next person that comes along?"
Athos sighed. "Much as I hate to say it, Aramis is right. We can't just run away. I'm not sure that would even help, who knows if all this would just follow us?"
"I thought you said it was the book?" d'Artagnan persisted. "Surely if we left it behind we'd be fine. Or - look, can't we stick it back in the hole or something? Seal it back up?"
Athos looked dubious. "I suppose it's worth a try."
"Come on then," d'Artagnan urged, and throwing back his blanket he marched out of the room.
The rest of them looked at each other.
"Did I mention he was impetuous?" Athos sighed.
Aramis clapped him on the back. "Maybe that's just what we need."
They followed d'Artagnan down to the library, where he was hesitating over the book, clearly unwilling to touch it.
"It's just a book." Athos opened the cover and everyone flinched.
"Warn us, would you!" Porthos grumbled, and Athos' lips hitched in a half smile.
"If it is the book at fault, I'd say the damage has already been done." He paged through it slowly, unable to suppress a shiver of revulsion at the image of the rats.
"Oh, fuck." D'Artagnan blushed as everyone turned to look at him with varying degrees of amusement and irritation.
"D'Artagnan, really," Athos muttered.
"Sorry. It's just - the owls." He pointed at the page open on the table.
"What about them?"
D'Artagnan looked at Aramis. "I had one in my room the other night."
"Well, if you will insist on sleeping with the window open," Aramis teased. D'Artagnan looked at him soberly.
"I didn't. It was closed when I went to bed, I'd swear to it."
"You didn't mention that at the time," said Aramis, looking startled.
"I was embarrassed enough already," d'Artagnan muttered. "You'd have thought I was crazy."
"Never," promised Aramis, patting d'Artagnan's shoulder. "Actually I thought it was rather a hoot."
Everyone groaned, and he smirked. "Come on, what are we going to do about this? Put it back in the hole?"
"Everything's always sex with you, isn't it?" Athos murmured, and felt a certain quiet satisfaction at the appalled laughter that ensued.
His amusement faded though as he turned to the final leaf with its accusingly vacant border. "Diabolus ad ianuam," Athos read, tracing the Latin text with his finger. "Devil's - door? Gate?"
"Did the missing page ever turn up?" Aramis asked curiously.
Athos glanced at Porthos, and they shared a look of grim consensus.
"I don't think it ever was," said Athos quietly. "I think the only thing missing is the imp itself."
"What are you talking about?" demanded d'Artagnan uncomfortably.
"It was here." Athos tapped the empty page. "I'm sure of it. There were no blank pages when we first looked."
"Well where's it gone?" D'Artagnan looked over his shoulder nervously as if it might be behind him. Porthos made a scrabbling motion on his back and d'Artagnan jumped violently, punching him on the arm. "Don't!"
"None of the other creatures have moved," Aramis pointed out. "And they're the ones we've been - experiencing."
"Maybe - oh, I don't know," Athos sighed. "It all seems so outlandish."
"Go on," pressed Aramis. "What were you going to say?"
"Maybe it's the imp that's making it all happen. Using the illustrations as - what, inspiration? Fuel? There's no image of a noose, or anything like that in here. What if it's taking ideas from our heads? Using them against us?"
"You mean if we'd not looked at the pictures, we'd not have been attacked by the things inside?" d’Artagnan asked.
"I think perhaps it would have used other things against us," said Athos. He gave a faint smile. "Maybe you'd have been haunted by the ghost of a fail mark."
"You think this is funny?"
"No." Athos sighed. "No, believe me, I don't."
Porthos laid a hand on his shoulder, and he patted it gratefully, looking up at Aramis. "Maybe by opening the book - or just unsealing it, I don't know - maybe we let something out. Something your uncle had bound, down there."
"But hang on." Porthos frowned at him. "I mean - my father managed to open it without any problems, didn't he?"
"Did he?" Athos said gently. "What happened to him?"
"Well, I - I don't - " Porthos wrapped his arms around himself, looking stricken. "What are you saying?"
"You said it yourself, you had nightmares. That you kept seeing snakes. What if they weren't nightmares?" Athos stood up and faced him, apologetic but determined. "He disappeared Porthos, and your mother died. What if those events weren't unconnected? What if Francois managed to bind it again, but not until it was too late?"
Porthos looked near to tears, and Aramis slapped Athos hard on the arm. "Stop it. You're upsetting him and this isn't serving any purpose."
"I'm sorry," Athos told Porthos, with a contrite smile. "But you're wrong Aramis, I do have a point. What I'm saying is, it suggests this thing can be stopped. All we need to do is figure out how."
"Oh, is that all," said d'Artagnan gloomily, after a beat. "Well that should be a piece of cake. Do we know any vicars?"
"Aramis read theology," Athos said. "If that helps."
"I thought you were a doctor?" said d’Artagnan, looking at Aramis in surprise.
"Surgeon, please," said Aramis, with a smile. "And I am. I decided the Church wasn't for me after all."
"Did I mention he gets bored quickly?" Athos declared, and Aramis aimed a kick at him.
"Shut up and think of a way to solve this."
Athos shrugged. "Bell, book and candle? I believe that's the traditional requirement for an exorcism, but don't ask me what you're supposed to do with them."
"Well we can do the book part." Porthos went over to the far wall and pulled out a fat black family bible, blowing the dust off as he carried it back over. "Noticed it when we were searching before."
"Plenty of candles in the decorations we put up," said d'Artagnan.
"Shouldn't it be a church candle?" Aramis frowned. "I mean, blessed, and all that?"
"Beggars can't be choosers," declared Athos, leading them back into the great hall. "Come on. I don't know what we'll do for a bell though."
"Wooden spoon in a saucepan?" suggested d’Artagnan. "The farmers used to go wassailing on Christmas Eve when I was little. Banging round the orchards with pots and pans and shotguns, to drive out the evil spirits."
"Now that sounds a bit more like it," said Porthos with renewed enthusiasm, looking at the two shotguns mounted over the fireplace. "Can't we just shoot this thing?"
"We've got to find it first," Athos reminded him. "And the way it's been messing with our heads I wouldn't trust it not to end up making us shoot each other. I vote no guns."
"I'm not sure there's any cartridges anyway," said Aramis. "I suppose we could always just hit the thing with them."
It felt odd to be discussing such a nebulous threat so matter-of-factly, but the bravado made all them feel better. Athos collected a couple of the red candles from the table decorations and came over to see what Aramis was looking at.
He was peering at a framed etching hanging to the side of the fireplace, that proved to be a picture of the house.
"I've never really looked at this before," Aramis muttered. "That must be your attic room." He rested his finger on a tiny window above the one to Porthos' bedroom. Then he frowned, and moved his hand across to the eastern range, where a second tiny casement mirrored the first.
"Another room?" Athos asked.
"That must be above my bedroom," Aramis said with surprise. "But there's no door to it?"
"The other one was well hidden," Athos told him. "Set in the panelling, with a concealed catch."
"But you found nothing of interest inside? Apart from - well, the, er, the noose?"
"Just empty luggage and a bad feeling," said Porthos darkly, coming up behind them. "If you're thinking of going up there, we should all go together."
Accordingly, they all trooped up the stairs past the door to the parlour and stopped on the landing leading to Aramis and d'Artagnan's bedrooms and the second small bathroom, which held only a lavatory and basin.
With night falling rapidly it was by now quite dark and Athos lit one of the candles.
"Any ideas?" Aramis sighed, tapping vaguely at the panelling.
"Not really." Athos handed the candle to d'Artagnan and joined him, running his fingers along the joints and corners. "Where it sounds hollow I guess?"
"Well how did you find the first one?"
Athos looked embarrassed. "You'll think I'm barking."
"I already think you're barking. I once witnessed you drink two bottles of port and challenge the undergrad boxing champion to a fist fight."
"What happened?" d'Artagnan asked immediately.
"Athos threw up on the other guy's shoes before anyone could land a punch," Aramis grinned. "It was beautiful."
"You promised me we would never speak of that again," Athos complained, suffering d'Artagnan's delighted laughter with a sigh.
"I lied," Aramis grinned. "Anyway, go on, you were saying how you found the other door."
Athos hesitated, with a glance at Porthos. "There was a draught blowing from behind it. Even though there was nowhere it could have been coming from. This is going to sound silly, but - well, I wondered if maybe - it was your uncle. Helping. Pointing the way."
Aramis stared at him. "My uncle. My - dead - uncle?" he said flatly.
"I told you you'd think I was insane," Athos muttered, going back to his search. "It's just - if it hadn't been for that, I'd never have found my way in, in time to - in time."
"Why would he help?" Porthos muttered. "Could just as easily have been him that closed the door behind me. If it is him that's been haunting that staircase I get the distinct impression he doesn't want me here."
"Well, given that he apparently hid the manuscript in the first place, he's probably just narked that you came after it," Athos said carelessly. "I mean, if you hadn't, none of this would be happening, would it?"
Porthos stared at him in mortification, but Athos was too busy examining the wood panelling to notice. Wordlessly, Porthos turned and went back down the steps, and finally Athos realised there was an awkward silence.
He looked round to discover Aramis and d'Artagnan glaring at him.
"You might want to run that last sentence through your head again," said Aramis dryly.
Athos frowned, then looked horrified. "Oh. Oh no. I didn’t mean - "
Aramis held up a hand, forestalling him. "Not me you need to be telling."
Athos turned and dashed back down the stairs.
Left alone on the landing, Aramis and d'Artagnan looked at each other and Aramis rolled his eyes. "Which part of 'let's not split up' did I not make clear?" he sighed. "Look, bring the candle over here to the wall, see if there's any breeze that affects the flame."
As d'Artagnan complied, Aramis looked upwards with a self-conscious laugh. "You know uncle, if you are here, now would be a good time to lend a hand."
The candle promptly blew out, plunging them into darkness and they both yelped in fright.
D'Artagnan hastily rekindled the flame and they stared at each other in a combination of alarm and embarrassment, each hoping the other would make no mention of their inadvertent moment of fear.
The candle was guttering in a definite draught, and d'Artagnan moved it back and forth across the wall until he found the joint that seemed most likely to be the edge of a door. He fumbled about on the panels, wishing he'd got Athos to describe the catch in more detail, then got lucky when he pressed down on a knot in the wood.
There was a muffled click, and part of the wall swung forward under his hand.
"Right. Well." They peered up the dark steps beyond, and looked at each other.
"Wait here, I'll get another lamp," said Aramis, and disappeared before d'Artagnan could protest.
"Great. Doesn't even take his own advice." D'Artagnan eyed the stairway uneasily, wishing Aramis or the others would come back. It wasn't that he minded being alone, so much as the sneaking suspicion he might not be.
He swung round as the shadows seemed to dip and loom, but it was only Aramis, returning with the oil lamp from his bedroom.
Aramis must have seen something in his face, because he frowned in concern. "Is everything alright?"
"Yeah," breathed d'Artagnan, then figured to hell with it. "Just - don't leave me alone again, okay?"
Aramis' face softened in understanding. "Sorry." He leaned in and brushed a kiss to his lips. "Shall I go first?" he offered.
D'Artagnan scowled, already regretting his moment of weakness. "No." He took a deep breath and moved forwards onto the steps, ducking under the cobwebs that hung down from the doorway.
When Athos came out onto the steps leading down to the ground floor, Porthos was already at the bottom, making his way across the hall.
"Porthos. Porthos, wait!" When Porthos gave no indication he'd heard, Athos groaned. "Porthos, don't! None of us should go off alone right now, please!"
To his relief Porthos stopped, but he didn't come back, instead waited grudgingly for Athos to catch up. When he reached him, he saw Porthos' expression was one of guarded anger, badly masking obvious hurt.
"I'm sorry," Athos said immediately. "What I said - I didn’t mean it to sound like an accusation. I don’t want you to think I blame you, for any of this. I don't. None of us could have known."
Porthos' expression eased slightly, but he still looked deeply unhappy.
"It doesn’t matter, does it," he said slowly. "Whether you blame me or not. It's true. It's all my fault. If I hadn’t come here for the damn book, none of this would be happening."
"You don’t know that," Athos countered softly. "Who’s to say if you hadn't come d'Artagnan wouldn’t still have dropped the crystal? That Aramis wouldn't still have pulled up the floorboards? That I wouldn’t still have opened the book," he persisted. "The only thing that would have been different if you weren’t here, is there'd have been no-one to save me from the rats."
Porthos looked startled, and Athos came a little closer. "Actually, bugger the rats. If you hadn't come after the stupid book I'd never have met you, and that would be the worst thing of all."
Porthos looked at him, shaken. "Do you mean that?" he asked. "I wasn’t sure you even really liked me."
In answer Athos kissed him, softly and firmly, and for a while they clung together in the deepening shadows of the hall.
Eventually, reluctantly, Athos pulled away. "We should go back," he said. "If ever there were two people who shouldn’t be left unsupervised, it's probably those two."
Porthos laughed quietly and took his hand. "They're probably saying the same about us."
They went back up the stairs, and exchanged a tense look at finding the door to the attic steps standing open. Athos lit the second candle, and they cautiously made their way up.
Emerging into the room above, they were surprised to find it furnished much more comfortably that the first one, with a writing desk under the window, a worn but inviting looking armchair, and several bookshelves.
Aramis was seated at the desk with d'Artagnan leaning over his shoulder, and they both looked round with a sigh of relief when Athos and Porthos came up the stairs.
"I think this must have been my uncle's study," said Aramis, having satisfied himself that all seemed reasonably well between them. "I guess the room I'm using was his bedroom too, and this is right above it, so it makes sense."
"No nasty surprises?" asked Porthos, casting a wary look at the open beams above them.
"Not so far." Aramis tapped a stack of books on the desk. "We've found some of his diaries though."
"Anything on exorcisms or demon laying?" Athos asked dryly.
Aramis snorted. "Not so far. Mostly tedious daily life as a parish priest, and then even more tedium once he retired."
"Go back further," Athos suggested. "Porthos, how old are you?"
"Twenty eight, why?"
"And you said you were what, five? Go back twenty three years, if they run that far," Athos said to Aramis. "Maybe he mentions the damn thing."
Aramis muttered something that sounded suspiciously like 'clutching at straws', but he got up and started searching the shelves for earlier volumes.
Athos leaned over the desk and peered out of the window. It was full dark outside now with a three-quarters moon overhead, while below the snow lay all around the house, as perfect and unbroken as a frozen sea.
Somewhere an owl hooted, and d'Artagnan shivered. "Can't we go back down by the fire? I'm cold."
Athos nodded. "Soon. Don't worry, there's no reason we shouldn't be safe if we stay together. So far this thing's only been able to attack us when we were vulnerable."
"In daylight, yes."
They all turned to look at Porthos.
"What do you mean?" Athos asked him.
Porthos shrugged uncomfortably. "Daylight - well, sunlight, specifically - it was what got rid of the noose, and the rats. I'm just saying - what if it's stronger at night?"
"Did you have to?" d'Artagnan complained. "I mean really? Like we weren't all nervous enough already?"
"Who's nervous?" Aramis said cheerfully, but his smile was brittle, and nobody answered him.
Into the quiet pause came a prolonged creaking noise from somewhere below, and they all looked at each other.
"What was that?" d'Artagnan whispered.
"Just the door," said Athos, shaking his head. "That's all. Must be a draught."
They found they were all listening for it to come again, but the creaking had stopped. Everyone was about to relax, when another noise echoed up the staircase.
"Was that - ?" d'Artagnan started, but was waved into silence by Aramis.
Another footstep followed the first, and another. Heavy and slow, but getting inexorably closer.
Eyes fixed on the top of the stairs, Athos reached out and picked up a letter opener from the desk. He wasn't entirely sure what he was going to do with it against whatever might be coming, but even just a few inches of sharp steel in his hand made him feel a little better.
Porthos picked up the lamp and held it high, staring tensely at the stairs.
The footsteps kept coming with deliberate, agonising slowness, one tread at a time.
D'Artagnan felt his hands clenching into involuntary fists, and Aramis was clutching the crucifix around his neck hard enough to make his fingers hurt.
Another step, and another. Whoever - whatever - it was must be nearly at the top.
A creak of the banister, a last heavy tread - and then silence.
Porthos was the first to move, striding deliberately across with the lamp to look down the steps.
"Alright, out with you," he demanded, then broke off, staring dumbly down an empty staircase.
"Porthos?" Aramis called.
"There's nothing here."
They all crowded round him then, not doubting him, but needing to see for themselves.
"It's toying with us," said Athos in disgust. "Getting under our skin." He looked up and around, addressing any unseen listeners. "Smoke and mirrors!" he spat. "You think a few spooky noises will be enough to unhinge us?"
A massive bang and a fluttering against the glass made everybody jump and spin round to look at the window. The perfect ghostly imprint of an owl was emblazoned across the panes.
Aramis slapped Athos round the back of the head. "Could you maybe not provoke the creepy forces of evil?" he suggested. "Just an idea."
"Yes. Sorry." Athos rubbed his head and gave a rueful smile, and Porthos nudged him with his shoulder and briefly pressed a hand to the small of his back as he passed.
Having located a shelf with likely looking journals of vaguely corresponding date - Porthos being unsure of the exact month or even year that he'd first seen the book - they gathered up as many as they could carry and descended with relief to the parlour, where they built up the fire and closed the curtains firmly against the night.
With Aramis and Porthos starting to leaf through the journals, Athos and d'Artagnan volunteered to go down to the kitchen and make them all some supper.
Loading a couple of trays with bread and cheese and cold ham, they added two bottles of wine and a pot of tea, plus good-sized slices of gingerbread, being heartily grateful that Aramis' woman from the village had seen fit to well stock the larder before the snows set in.
When they went back upstairs, Athos noticed d'Artagnan had kept hold of the bread knife. He said nothing, conscious that the letter opener was still stuck through the loop of his own belt. They were all on edge, waiting for something to happen without knowing what, and it was reaching the point where Athos would almost have welcomed some crisis, if only because it would break this awful tension.
They were welcomed back with a relief that was only partly down to the arrival of food.
"You were ages," Porthos murmured, reaching out to squeeze Athos' hand as he settled next to him.
"Had to wait for the tea kettle to boil," Athos smiled. "Did you think we'd been eaten by the scullery monster?"
"Not funny," Porthos grumbled, and leaned across to kiss him.
"Listen to this," Aramis interrupted, waving a dog-eared journal in one hand and a piece of bread and cheese in the other. "It's from the year before the one we were first looking at though, Porthos are you sure you were five?"
Porthos shrugged. "I don't have any records of my birth," he said quietly. He looked sad, and Athos reached over and took hold of his hand.
"Are you saying this whole thing has put years on you?" he teased, and Porthos smiled at him, grateful for the attempt at cheering him up.
"Go on," Athos added, looking up at Aramis.
Aramis nodded. "December 20th," he read. "Imperative I recover the manuscript before tomorrow's solstice. D.V. has - DV?"
"Du Vallon?" suggested Porthos, through a mouthful of cake.
"Oh, yes, I see." Aramis pursed his lips, squinting at his uncle's crabbed handwriting. "D.V. has refused once more to listen to reason, and I am left with no other option than to resort to the same measures that were employed against me to such ill effect."
"He's going to nick it back, in other words," said Porthos, and Aramis gave a non-committal shrug, glad Porthos had said it rather than him.
Athos had a nasty thought. "What was so significant about the solstice?" he asked.
Aramis shook his head, scanning the text. "He doesn't mention it again, why?"
"Because it was the twenty first when we found the damn thing. If opening it on the solstice makes it worse somehow - " he let the thought tail off.
"Then, at the risk of sounding like a student, we fucked up," Aramis finished for him, with a smirk at d'Artagnan. He went back to the diary. "Next entry is Christmas Eve, and he seems to be back here at the house. The handwriting's shakier too, like he's tired, or ill."
"Tell me he gives a step-by-step guide in how to stop this," Athos drawled, without much hope.
"Sadly not." Aramis frowned, and read out the entry. "December 24th. Book of Familiars recovered, but at great cost. Child spared but I fear the mother will not see out the year," he hesitated and looked over at Porthos who was tight-lipped but nodded grimly for him to continue.
"I have blessed and bound the book, and placed it where I pray it will remain for the rest of time. The legions of Malphas will find no gateway here so long as I draw breath, and God willing they never will."
"No wonder he's cross," Athos remarked under his breath, uncorking one of the bottles of wine.
"The Legions of Malphas?" d'Artagnan echoed. "I don't like the sound of that."
"Who's Malphas when he's at home?" Aramis asked.
"How should I know? But that's the trouble isn't it, he seems to be at home. Yours."
"Familiars," Athos mused. "Spirit guides and psychopomps to the discerning sorcerer." He caught d'Artagnan's baffled look at smiled. "Magical animals, for those in need of the condensed version. Maybe what we've been encountering." He drained his glass and refilled it, standing up.
"Where are you going?" Porthos demanded.
"Back to the attic. Francois had some interesting looking books up there."
"This is hardly the time to indulge your inner librarian," Aramis said sarcastically.
Athos looked at him, unperturbed. "Demonologies. Heretical gospels. Alchemical tracts. Grimoires." He smiled. "Hardly things your average self-respecting vicar could have on show in his library. But things that might help us find out what we're dealing with."
"If you go, we all go," said Porthos firmly, getting to his feet.
"I'd be glad of the company," Athos conceded with a smile.
They all marched back up the steps and inspected the shelves of arcane looking books. Athos selected a couple of likely tomes and appropriated the armchair, losing himself quickly in their pages.
"I have no idea what I'm looking for," Aramis complained. "Why couldn't he have been more helpful?"
"If he'd been too specific he probably thought he ran the risk of someone undoing his work," said d'Artagnan, fidgeting restlessly.
"Whereas blind ignorance on our part helped immensely," Aramis sighed. "D'Artagnan what is the matter, you're making me tired. Can't you stand still for a second?"
D'Artagnan blushed. "I need the lav," he explained in an undertone. "I think it's all that tea."
Aramis snorted. "I draw the line at watching you piss." He relented. "I'll wait outside though, if you want?" D'Artagnan nodded gratefully, and they headed towards the stairs.
"Where are you going?" Porthos asked in surprise from his seat at the desk.
"Just to the bathroom," Aramis said. "Won't be long." Porthos grunted and returned to his book as they clattered down the steps.
"I've found it," said Athos, looking up and blinking in surprise to find he was alone with Porthos. "Malphas, Prince of Hell. Giver of familiars. Builder of strongholds and houses, knower and manipulator of thoughts and desires. Bringer of life to inanimate objects."
"Bet he's fun at parties," Porthos growled, thinking of the way the noose had squirmed in his hand. "Jesus Christ Athos, Prince of Hell?"
Athos shook his head. "Says here he's commander of many legions of demons. Francois didn't say it was him specifically after all, just that the book could be used as a gateway for them."
"So the thing in the book. Not him?"
"I'd guess just one of his creatures. Spreading his influence, doing his bidding. Paving the way."
They stared at each other.
"Does it say how to stop this?" Porthos asked finally. Athos sighed.
"So, all very interesting, but ultimately useless?"
Athos glared at him, stung. "No information is useless." He rubbed his arms uncomfortably. "Manipulator of thoughts and desires," he read again, quietly. "That part sounds horribly familiar, don't you think?"
Porthos wanted to go to him, to pull Athos into his arms comfortingly, protectively, but there was a tension and a remove to his expression that stopped him. He wondered if Athos believed what they'd felt for each other was the result of outside interference, and felt sick.
"Athos - "
"Come on. We should find the others, tell them what we've learned." Athos made to brush past him and Porthos caught his arm.
"What is it?" Athos demanded, brusque and impatient, but not meeting his eyes.
"I wanted you from the moment I set eyes on you," Porthos whispered.
"What?" This time Athos did look up, startled and confused.
"When you opened the door to me out there in the snow. When you helped me search the library. When you first let me share your bed. Hell, even when you were unmasking me as a fraud. I wanted you Athos, I thought you were incredible. And all of that was before we ever set eyes on the bloody book."
Porthos took a shaking breath. "I can't speak for you, but I promise what I feel for you has nothing to do with any - demons, or occult nonsense or what have you." He stammered to a halt, conscious Athos hadn't said a word, was just standing there staring at him. "I just - wanted you to know that. Just - you know. In case. You were wondering."
"Well." Athos gave him the ghost of a smile. "That's - that's good to know," he said quietly. And just when Porthos was beginning to think he'd made the biggest fool of himself ever, Athos leaned over and kissed him on the mouth.
"Can we go now?"
Porthos rolled his eyes and flapped at him, gesturing for Athos to precede him down the steps. But as he followed on behind, Porthos was smiling.
They found Aramis waiting on the landing, but before they could say anything the house shook to a series of echoing crashes.
"What the hell was that?" Porthos asked in alarm.
Athos and Aramis looked at each other. "Front door?" Athos hazarded, and Aramis nodded.
"Although who it could be, at this time of night - " Aramis held up his hands in a half-shrug. "You don't think it's - well, our visitor, do you?"
"I don't think princes of hell bother with knocking," said Athos. "You wait for d'Artagnan, don't leave him alone up here." He pulled Porthos after him and they hurried on down.
"Prince of - what? Athos!" Aramis called after them, then sighed. He knocked gently on the door to the bathroom. "D'Artagnan? You okay in there?" Not that he had any wish to embarrass the boy, but he had been in there rather a long time.
There was no answer, and he frowned. "D'Artagnan?" He knocked more loudly and tried the handle, but the door was locked from the inside. "Is everything alright?"
With no response from within, in increasing concern Aramis tried to barge the door open with his shoulder, but it was old, heavy oak and he just bounced off it with a bruised arm.
Muttering curses he ran down the short passage to look down the stairs to the hall, but there was no sign of Athos or Porthos. He groaned, wondering what to do.
The door to the parlour was open, and his eye fell on the breadknife, lying on the table where d’Artagnan had left it. He quickly stepped inside and picked it up, wondering if he could slide it through the crack in the bathroom door and force the lock.
As Aramis straightened up again a movement in the mirror over the fireplace caught his eye, and he hesitated. He could have sworn something had flashed past behind him.
"D'Artagnan?" he called, turning round to look at the empty room. "Athos?"
As they ran across the hall the knocking came again, and Porthos veered to the side, wrenching down one of the shotguns from the wall.
"Porthos, no," Athos protested, as he cracked it open and found to his surprise it was already loaded.
"If it's corporeal enough to bang on doors, it's corporeal enough to get shot in the arse," Porthos declared, slamming the gun closed again.
"And if it's the local constabulary?" Athos murmured.
"I'm not taking any chances."
"Do you even know how to use one of those?" Athos asked in growing exasperation. Porthos had hardly been brought up as part of the hunting set, after all.
Porthos looked at him levelly. "I'll improvise."
They made their way to the front hallway, moving cautiously now, and Athos unbolted the door while Porthos covered him with the shotgun.
The door swung back slowly, to reveal nothing but the empty moonlit garden.
"It's messing with us again," said Athos disgustedly, lifting the knocker and letting it fall once, making Porthos jump.
"It was definitely that we heard," Porthos muttered, staring down at the undisturbed snow. "What manner of thing can lift a heavy doorknocker without leaving footprints?"
"Or pawprints," added Athos mischievously, and Porthos glared at him.
"You're enjoying this," he accused.
"Not really." Athos sighed, and closed the door again. "What worries me, is why it should bother with parlour tricks like this. What does it gain?"
"To upset us?" Porthos hazarded. "Scare us?"
Athos held his eyes, looking anxious. "Or to split us up. Aramis and d'Artagnan should have been here by now."
Together they moved back into the great hall, lighting more lamps and candles as they went, to stave off the looming shadows.
Porthos headed towards the stairs, but Athos pulled him back, frowning. "Did you hear that?"
Porthos listened intently, then shook his head. "No? What?"
"Listen!" Athos was looking round, as if trying to figure out where it was coming from. "It's d'Artagnan."
"Where? Athos, I can't hear anything?"
Athos' fingers suddenly sank painfully into his arm, and Athos stared at him with a look of horror. "Tell me you didn’t hear that?" he said hoarsely.
Helpless, Porthos shook his head. "I can't hear anything, what is it?"
Athos went pale. "Screaming," he breathed. "He's screaming." His head snapped round. "The library!" Athos took off at a run, and Porthos made a grab for him but missed.
"Athos!" He started after him but somehow the rug underfoot had become tangled around his ankle and Porthos fell headlong to the floor. Still clutching the shotgun he had to choose between saving himself and falling on it or throwing his arm out to a safe distance.
He chose the latter and hit the floor with his full weight. Lying there dazed and winded he watched Athos run in through the open door to the library with a sense of horror. He didn’t know what it was Athos had heard, but as he hadn't heard anything himself he was willing to bet it wasn't d’Artagnan.
Trying to scramble to his feet, every muscle in his body protesting, Porthos was still on his hands and knees when he saw the door to the library slam closed of its own accord, sealing Athos inside - with the book.