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...
D'Artagnan, having relieved himself, was waiting for the water in the tap to run warm to wash his hands, whilst staring idly at the creeping frost patterns on the window.
It gradually dawned on him that while the water trickling over his fingers had increased in temperature, it had also thickened in consistency, and he looked down to find the tap running red with blood over his outstretched hand.
He jerked backwards with a yell, flapping his hand in revulsion, but when he looked again his hand was clean, and the water pouring into the basin was running clear.
Growling imprecations, he made himself return to the sink and washed his hands quickly, glaring sternly at the innocent looking water.
"Just you try it," he muttered. He was drying himself on the towel and wondering why Aramis hadn't reacted to his shout of alarm, when he heard the noise. It came from outside the door, a low, dangerous rumble, half-growl and half-purr, that made his skin prickle with fear.
He stood by the door, hand hovering uncertainly over the bolt. "Aramis?" he called. There was no reply, but a scent of animal musk wafted up to him and something large and powerful gave a sudden angry hiss, close to his face on the other side of the door.
Filled with a primordial sense of terror, d'Artagnan backed away, glad there was a stout door between him and whatever it was. A panther? A tiger? Whatever it was, it wasn't about to curl up in his lap.
"Aramis!" he shouted, worried now what had happened to him, and sure that Aramis wouldn't have abandoned him voluntarily. The only response was something heavy flinging itself against the door, making it rattle in its frame.
D’Artagnan looked around in fear for a weapon, wishing he still had the breadknife. Set out on the shelf was his razor, and he picked it up with a sense of relief.
There were claws raking at the wood now, and he wondered fearfully how long it would hold. Phantasm or not, his experience in the bath had proved to him how all too real and dangerous the creatures troubling them could be.
Looking round for another means of escape, he pushed the window open and looked down. On the second floor he was too high up to jump, but the wall was covered with the winter-bare woody latticework of a creeper that looked like it might be sturdy enough to take his weight.
D'Artagnan turned back. He'd prefer not to trust his life to brittle and icy branches if at all possible. What if the creature at the door was trying to urge him into something exactly that deadly?
He edged back to the door. "Shoo," he muttered. "Good kitty."
The quiet voice from the other side of the door made him jump, but his first reaction was one of hope and relief.
"You really are useless, aren't you?" came the response after a second, and d'Artagnan frowned, confused and hurt. He was used to Athos ribbing him about his academic shortcomings, but it had only ever been in good part. Athos had never spoken to him so coldly before, or with such disdain.
"What - what are you talking about?" d'Artagnan stammered, his hand hovering over the latch. His relief at finding the big cat gone and his friends apparently returned was overshadowed by the unexpected cruelty in Athos' voice, and suddenly he didn't want to see the matching coldness in his eyes.
"Little d'Artagnan, so full of his own importance and yet so lacking in anything approaching ability." His voice was mocking, and dripping with venom. "You'll never amount to anything. You do realise that? I assume you do, or you wouldn't waste so much time hanging on to my apron strings, hoping to ingratiate yourself enough to get a passable grade."
"Athos, no." It was half a sob, d'Artagnan hardly able to process the words being thrown at him.
"Oh, please. I just can't shake you can I, you even followed me here. Do you really think I welcomed your company?" The laugh that followed was one of disgust. "Don't imagine I didn't know what you wanted. Did you seriously think for one minute I would be interested in you?"
D’Artagnan slid down the door until he was hunched on the floor, eyes brimming with unshed tears. "No," he mumbled. "No, this isn't you. Why are you saying this?"
"About time someone did. If ever someone needed taking down a peg, it's you."
"You don't mean that!"
"Oh, don't I? Nobody likes you d'Artagnan. It's about time you accepted that."
"Aramis - "
"Aramis is using you. You're just a cheap fuck to him, do you really think you could ever be more?"
D'Artagnan was gasping for breath, trying to shut out the words, but the voice from beyond the door was relentless.
"You know what would be the best thing for everyone? If you just did away with yourself right now. It's not like there's anyone that's going to miss you."
D'Artagnan looked down at the razor in his hands. The blade gleamed in the lamplight, and he thought vaguely that he didn't remember opening it. He remembered the feeling of the blood running over his hands in the basin, and stifled a sob. Was this the answer? Had this always been meant to happen?
He screwed his eyes shut, bracing the edge of the razor against his wrist. His heart felt like it had been lacerated already, but he summoned the memory of happier times, determined that if he was going to die, it wouldn't be listening to this cold, poisonous thing that Athos had become.
They'd laughed together once. There had been happy times. He knew there had. Athos had been his rock, his inspiration, his hope. Athos had told him, time and time again to believe in himself when he was on the brink of giving up.
D'Artagnan opened his eyes. "No."
There was a pause, and a sensation of coiling, feline movement behind the door. "Do it."
"No." D'Artagnan said it again, more firmly, and wiped his eyes. "Athos would never do this. He can be harsh, but he's never unfair. I don't know who you are but you're not him. And I'm not doing it."
The door shook under the weight of a furious, snarling body, and an overwhelming scent of hot, panting animal made him crawl hurriedly away, choking.
D'Artagnan pulled himself up and thrust the small window as far as it would open, feeling better already as the cold, fresh air hit his face. He recalled now the way Porthos had described feeling so overwhelmingly miserable and helpless in the attic, and shuddered at the knowledge he'd come so close to falling prey to the same influence.
He took a last look back at the door and climbed up on the basin, squeezing his way out of the tiny window. He had to find the others, and he had to assume that they were in just as much trouble.
Clinging to the windowsill, d'Artagnan felt gingerly around with his boot for a foothold that would take his weight. Shreds of creeper peeled away as frozen roots came unstuck from the stonework, but eventually he felt secure enough to start his descent.
It was slow and painstaking, and more than once he came close to falling off. His fingers were numb with cold and his feet repeatedly slipped on the icy stems, but his mind was now clear and his heart was determined, and he inched his way lower.
Looking down in the hope he was near the ground, d'Artagnan discovered he was still at least twice his own height away from reaching it. He considered jumping, trusting that the snow would break his fall, but he wasn't sure how deep it was and couldn't picture what was beneath it. He didn't want to get this far only to break his ankle landing on gravel, or end up impaling himself on ornamental ironwork. He had a sudden mental image of himself bleeding out on the virgin snow because nobody knew he was there, and shivered.
A section of creeper abruptly tore out beneath his hand and he slithered down another foot before he could catch himself, heart thumping wildly. There was a dull ache spreading out from his palm, and he suspected he was bleeding.
Taking a deep breath, d'Artagnan felt around for the next foothold. The nearest likely branch was a fair stretch and when his foot was more or less firmly planted he had to let go his current handhold and lunge across to grasp the main trunk.
For a second he thought he'd made it. Then what turned out to be old, dead wood crumbled beneath his foot and he fell backwards into space.
Aramis looked over his shoulder, wondering if d'Artagnan had finally emerged from the bathroom, but the doorway was empty. Hesitating, he turned back to the mirror and again caught that flash of movement. He moved closer, both curious and apprehensive, fingers tightening upon the hilt of the knife as he searched the reflection.
The glass showed merely the empty room behind him, but when his gaze automatically drifted to his own face, he cried out in alarm. His eyes, staring back at him in the mirror, were jet black.
Aramis looked hurriedly away, blinking rapidly and shaking his head. When he looked back, his eyes had returned to normal and he gave a shaky laugh, wondering if it had been a trick of the light or his imagination. But as he watched, another transformation stole over his reflection.
It was a subtle change at first, that left him wondering with a perturbed surprise when he'd started going grey. Then, as he watched the few isolated grey hairs became streaks, his hair and beard fading more and more rapidly into first grey and then white, thinning too now, and he couldn't help raising a hand to his head to reassure himself that what he was seeing wasn't actually happening in real time.
To his relief, his hair felt as thick and neat under his hand as he pictured it to be, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from the transformation in the glass, as his hair lengthened and faded and thinned and his face aged before his eyes, the skin now saggy and wrinkled, the eyes sunken and bloodshot.
To a man who'd always taken pride in his appearance and gloried in his physicality it was a sobering sight. The vision didn't stop with the devastation of extreme old age, but continued to deteriorate, the face becoming waxy in death and decaying in front of him, until nothing was left but a grinning skull covered in paper-thin skin and cobwebs.
Despite its obvious deadness it was still looking at him, following his gestures and the direction of his gaze until it finally screamed at him in triumph, a hideous shrill echo in his head. Just as suddenly, it was his own face looking back at him again.
Aramis cleared his throat. "Am I supposed to be scared by that?" he said aloud. "Death comes to all of us."
"You'll die alone. Does that not scare you?"
The voice was d'Artagnan's, and Aramis looked round in puzzlement at finding the room still empty.
"Don't we all?" he muttered. "It's generally considered bad manners to try and take anyone with you."
"You try and find meaning in the arms of endless lovers, but you're empty inside," continued the voice, ignoring him. "It's why you never let any of them stick around long enough to get close to you. Because you know they'll inevitably be disappointed with what they find."
"Well you didn't seem overly disappointed," Aramis said dryly, although he suspected that whatever he was talking to, it wasn't d'Artagnan.
"And that's the crowning achievement of your year, is it? Seducing a student too naive to say no?"
Aramis shifted uncomfortably. He tried very hard not to have regrets in life, but this was too close to what Athos had already accused him of to sit well. "I haven't hurt anyone. And I don't have to defend my actions to whatever the hell you are."
"Maybe I'm your conscience?" mocked the voice, suddenly up close in his ear, and Aramis jumped.
"I don't have one. So you're out of luck."
"Oh, I think you do. But pretend if it makes you feel better, by all means. You lie to everyone else, why not yourself as well?"
"I do not lie!" Aramis whirled around with the knife raised high, searching fruitlessly for something to take his growing rage out on.
"You pretend you're happy. You pretend you're not desperately searching for meaning in a life that has none. You pretend you're not afraid of what your life will be once your looks fade and the pretty young things no longer fall into your bed. You tell yourself you won't die alone in syphilitic, derided disgrace."
Aramis was facing the mirror once more, and now could make out a shadowy presence at his shoulder. It seemed to blur and distort, neither one thing nor another. Sometimes it seemed a grinning devil, sometimes d'Artagnan. Sometimes it looked like Aramis himself.
"You know the way to avoid all those years of misery waiting for you would be to die young..."
Aramis raised the knife, his knuckles white around the handle. The thing reflected in the mirror seemed to lean out of the glass, obscenely eager for him to plunge the blade into his own chest.
"Go to hell." Aramis drove the handle into the centre of the mirror, smashing the glass into splinters.
The reflection shattered, taking the thing with it and the room fell silent once more. Aramis shivered, although it felt as if a weight had been lifted. He hadn't realised quite how oppressive the atmosphere had been, until it had eased.
Remembering d'Artagnan, he was about to run back to the bathroom when from downstairs came the earsplitting noise of a shotgun blast.
"Well he couldn't wait to get away from you, could he?" said a conversational voice in Porthos' ear.
"What?" He struggled to untangle himself from the persistent coils of the rug, and stood up. "Aramis, is that you?" He looked over at where the door to the library had closed on Athos, and wondered anxiously why he hadn't come out again. "What are you on about?"
"I'm talking about Athos. Could hardly run fast enough to get away from you."
Porthos looked around in confusion. "Where are you?"
"Right here." The voice was behind him and he turned, scanning the empty hall uneasily.
"Aramis, this isn't funny."
"Oh, you think I'm joking? The only joke here is you. Thinking you're welcome here. Thinking Athos wants you. He told me how you forced yourself on him you know. Tell me, did you enjoy it? How did it feel, pinning him down, overpowering him like that? You must be proud, such selfish strength, such dominance."
"Shut up." Porthos was turning slow circles, trying to work out where the voice was coming from. He picked up the shotgun again, taking comfort from its weight in his hands. "That's not how it happened."
"Oh, don't tell me you're ashamed?"
Porthos shook his head violently, trying to clear it more than in a gesture of denial. "You're not Aramis, are you?" he said slowly.
"I'm touched. You think I could not be so cruel?"
"You probably could," said Porthos grimly. "But I don't believe for a second Athos would have told you the details. Which means you're just in my head."
"Oh, best blow it off then dearest. Do us all a favour."
Porthos grinned savagely. "You don't fool me twice. And you're not stopping me from helping Athos."
"You're too late. He's already dead."
"No." Porthos went cold. "I don't believe you." He looked over at the library door, still obstinately closed. Why hadn't Athos come out again once he'd found himself alone? Porthos swallowed. What if he wasn't alone. What if all this was just a means of delaying help until it was too late?
He took a step towards the door and then jerked back as the shotgun twisted in his hands. "Stop it!"
There was no answer forthcoming, but the gun continued to buck and writhe in his hands, seemingly trying to turn on him. Porthos wrestled frantically with it, realising that anything that could make it move of its own accord could just as easily pull the trigger on him.
A sudden crash behind him distracted Porthos for a second, and in that instant the gun wheeled around, dragging him with it. To his horror he found himself face to face with d'Artagnan, dishevelled and covered in snow, having apparently just come in through the front door.
"Woah!" D'Artagnan threw up his hands defensively, dodging sideways. "Porthos, it's me! It really is!" he yelled, causing Porthos to wonder if he'd been subject to the same treacherous whispers.
"I can't control it!" he shouted back. "It's got a mind of its own!"
The gun wrenched sideways in his arms, tracking d'Artagnan's movements, and Porthos had a belated moment of wishing he'd heeded Athos' advice and never touched the damn thing in the first place. He tried to drop it, but it was as if the gun was welded to his hands, and he felt his finger tightening on the trigger.
"Get down!" he bellowed, and a split second later the gun kicked in his hands, blasting both barrels towards the defenceless d’Artagnan.
Finding himself alone in the library, Athos skidded to a halt, spinning round in shock as the door slammed closed behind him. The screams he'd been hearing cut off as abruptly as they'd started, and he looked around warily, beginning to realise that he'd been fooled.
"D'Artagnan?" he called, then sighed when there was no answer. At least this hopefully meant d'Artagnan was still safe upstairs with Aramis. He gave a wary look at the book lying open on the desk, and started to move back towards the door, already regretting his folly in getting so far ahead of Porthos and hoping he was alright, as he hadn't followed him in.
Athos' foot hit something on the floor that clinked and rolled, and he bent to pick it up. It was a tiny bottle, and he squinted at the label, wondering what he'd done with his reading glasses.
"Curare?" Athos frowned. It must have come from the poison arrow display case. He hoped d'Artagnan hadn't been fooling around with them.
"Just a scratch."
"What?" Athos turned, wondering who had spoken. It had sounded like Porthos, and he assumed he'd finally caught up, but the door remained closed and he appeared to be alone.
"A scratch. That's all it would take. Nothing but a little prick." The voice came again, sounding amused as it whispered in his ear, and Athos swung wildly round but he was still alone.
"Who is it? Porthos is that you? Stop mucking about."
"Oh, you like telling me what to do, don't you? Mr high-and-mighty Athos with all his precious qualifications and his professorship."
"What are you talking about? Where are you?"
"I'm right here." This time Athos felt the warm breath on his neck and whirled round, but the room remained stubbornly vacant.
Athos set the vial on the table and folded his arms stubbornly. "Well it makes a change from rats I suppose," he declared, more bravely than he felt. "What's next, a rabbit out of a hat?"
"You think you know who you're talking to," something taunted in Porthos' voice.
"I know you're not Porthos. Other than that I don't really care."
"Oh, but I am. At least, I'm what he's thinking. I know that which is in men's minds, did your research not tell you that? I think it did. I was there, remember?"
Athos licked his lips. "Why should I believe you?"
"Why shouldn't you?" The glass vial moved across the table top of its own accord, bumping against his hand, and he jumped.
"Oh, I don't know. Forces of evil, legions of hell? Doesn't generally pay to listen to them." Athos started towards the door, but suddenly the whole desk slid across the polished floor to bar his way, with an earsplitting squeal of wood against wood that seemed to drown out a distant bang from outside.
The voice was back in his ear, and it sounded so much like Porthos it made him shiver.
"Why should I lie when the truth can hurt you so much more?"
"You wouldn't know the truth if it shot you in the arse," Athos retorted, using Porthos' earlier words as a comforting defence. But even as the next thought entered his mind, the voice spoke it aloud.
"Where am I then? Why aren't I rushing to your rescue? The door's not locked."
"I - "
"I don't care, that's why. I couldn't care less what happens to you. Any of you. When you're dead I'll sell the book and anything else I can get my hands on, and I'll never spare you a thought again."
"You're lying," Athos breathed. He knew it wasn't Porthos, he knew it, but to hear such callous words in his voice cut him to the quick. He sank down into the chair, leaning his elbows on the desk and trying to block out the voice that was still whispering to him.
Athos knew he should get up, get out, but there was no strength in his legs or breath in his lungs. He felt sick, and dizzy, and desperately, bone-achingly sad.
"Even your own parents didn't want you, did they - Olivier?"
"No," Athos breathed, curling an arm protectively over his head as if he could shut out the words, his other arm cast helplessly across the table.
"They disowned you the day they found you in the barn, being buggered by the stable boy." The voice chuckled, pleased with the moan he gave. "You lied to everyone, told them your family was dead because you couldn't bear the shame. Even your best friend doesn't know the truth. How often have you lied to him? Aramis thinks he was your first, doesn't he?"
"You're not Porthos, you couldn't know all this," Athos choked. "You're taking this from my head, not his."
"Then I must be you, mustn't I?" The insidious voice changed smoothly to his own, and he blanched. "Who could hate you more than you do, after all? Do the world a favour and end it all Athos, nobody will miss you. Just one little cut, mixed with the poison. Put an end to all this pain."
He felt a hand come to rest on his where it was outstretched on the table, gentle and persuading.
Athos looked up through a haze of tears to see that the hand resting on his was covered in black hair, with long dirty yellow nails. He dragged his free hand through his hair, shaking with emotion, and let it fall to his lap in listless despair.
Then in one flashing movement he brought his clenched fist up from beneath the table and impaled the demonical hand with the letter-opener, pulled from his belt.
He hadn't cared if he'd stabbed his own hand in the process, but the blade sank between his fingers and he yanked his arm back, leaving the creature pinned to the tabletop.
"They may not want me, but I will not abandon them to the likes of you," Athos spat, rising to his feet.
"You think you could say anything to me that I've not heard a thousand times from myself? I've had a lifetime of practice in not giving in. Maybe you can kill me and maybe you can't, but I will not surrender to you."
The creature hissed and squealed at him, but it seemed firmly pinned to the table and Athos had a brief recollection of cold iron and steel being anathema to such creatures. Its face blurred and twisted, somewhere between human and animal and other, and Athos backed away, wondering what the fuck he was supposed to do now.