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...
"Is it safe to come out?" d'Artagnan asked warily. All Porthos could see were two sets of fingers gripping the edge of the table.
"Yeah," he said, hurling the now quiescent gun away from him and watching it slide across the floor. "Yeah, it's empty."
"What the hell's going on down there?"
Porthos looked up to find Aramis hurrying down the stairs towards them.
"I think Hell might just be the answer to that," he said grimly, holding out a hand and pulling d'Artagnan to his feet. "Sorry," he muttered, and d'Artagnan gave a shaky laugh and clapped him on the shoulder.
"No problem. I'm just glad you're not a crack shot."
Aramis hurried over to join them. "Where's Athos?"
"In the library." Porthos nodded towards the closed door. "It's shut him in there. And was doing its best to stop me following."
"We'll see about that," d'Artagnan said hotly, then looked uncertain. "Do we have a plan?"
Aramis shrugged. "Find what's doing this and hit it repeatedly until it stops?"
"I like it." Porthos grinned, and there was more anger in it than amusement.
D'Artagnan went over to the fireplace and picked up a large iron poker, brandishing it triumphantly. Then he had another idea. There was a bundle of kindling to the side of the grate in a metal bucket, and he tipped it out and picked up the bucket, rattling the poker in it loudly. "Bell," he explained, seeing the others' questioning looks.
Aramis selected a decorative candle from the table and held it up. Next to d'Artagnan's poker it seemed somehow lacking, and he snorted. "Suddenly I feel rather inadequate."
Porthos strode across to the fireplace and picked out a huge piece of wood that was more branch than log. He tipped the oil from one of the lamps over the end and lit it, turning back to the others with a satisfied nod. "Candle."
"Hardly," d'Artagnan said dubiously.
"It's the thought that counts."
Aramis nodded. "He's right, actually. Intention counts for more than props." He looked at Porthos' flaming brand and smiled slightly. "Although now I kind've wish I had a pitchfork."
Athos faced the furious imp with a wary, horrified anger. It was between him and the door, and was making every effort to shake itself loose from the burning touch of the steel through its hand. He looked round, wondering if there was anything else he could use as a weapon and briefly wishing Aramis' uncle had been into collecting something useful like swords rather than ethnographic artefacts.
He was just wondering whether he could hurl the crystal ball at it, when the door burst open and Aramis, Porthos and d'Artagnan piled into the room. They drew up short in surprise at finding the imp so physically present, but recovered quickly and fanned out, surrounding the creature just as it finally wrenched itself free.
In a snarling frenzy it lunged towards the window, only to be driven back by Porthos delivering a vicious blow with the burning brand. D'Artagnan clattered his bucket at it with deafening vigour, then gave a triumphant laugh as it flinched away from the poker.
"Don't like that, do you!"
"It's the iron," Athos called. "I think it hurts it."
D'Artagnan immediately took another swipe and the imp fled towards the door. "Don't let it get away!" Athos shouted, but it had hurled itself with inhuman speed between Porthos and Aramis before they could react.
They span round, shouting with frustration, but in the doorway the imp had come up against an unexpected obstacle. A shadowy figure barred its way, just a fleeting impression of a broad black hat and a long black garment that might have been a coat or might have been a cassock.
With a scream of rage, the imp turned at bay and was preparing to lunge back into the room when Aramis hit it square in the face with the bible.
There followed a confused second where everyone stared at each other in alarm, then Porthos pointed at the Bestiary lying open on the table. "Look!"
The imp was back on the page, tongue protruding and tail raised in anger, but fixed once more in inks and paint.
Athos was the first to gather himself and darted forward, slamming the book shut. "Aramis - here." Athos grabbed the heavy bible from him and dropped it on top. "D'Artagnan, give me the poker." He added the iron rod to the pile, and stepped back, panting. "That should hold it."
They all stared tensely at the book, but as the seconds ticked past and nothing happened, everyone relaxed a little.
"Is it over?" d'Artagnan asked. "Have we beaten it?"
"Trapped it, would be closer to the truth I suspect," said Athos.
"We should burn it," said Aramis resolutely. "Just to be sure."
As everyone gradually accepted that the danger might be past, they sagged in relief. Porthos dropped the still smouldering branch into the library fireplace, and turned to Athos. "You alright?"
Athos nodded tightly. He looked pale and drawn, but unharmed, and Porthos moved to stand next to him, comforting with his presence.
"Thank you," Athos said quietly. "All of you." He gave a slight smile. "I appreciate your timing."
"How did you get it to manifest in the first place?" Aramis asked. "It was all reflections and disembodied voices with me."
Porthos and d'Artagnan exchanged a look, each thinking that their own experiences clearly hadn't been unique and wondering what the others had heard.
Athos shook his head. "I'm not sure that I did anything. Maybe it just sensed - I don't know." He looked away. "Weakness, perhaps."
"You're not weak," Porthos objected. "You caught the bloody thing, didn't you?"
Athos nodded silently. He seemed withdrawn rather than triumphant, but didn't pull away when Porthos put an arm round him.
"So now what?" asked d'Artagnan. "Do we torch it?"
"I'd feel more comfortable doing it in daylight," said Aramis. "I'd guess it's safe for now. Maybe even safe until the next solstice?" he suggested, looking at Athos.
"Who knows? Let's not take any chances. And I don't think we should leave it unguarded, or leave anyone alone for that matter. Not yet."
"Suits me." Porthos hugged him closer, and Athos gave him a wan smile.
While Athos and Porthos kept watch in the library, Aramis and d'Artagnan went to fetch blankets and coffee, and the four of them settled into chairs, prepared to sit up for the rest of the long night.
D'Artagnan woke with a start, blinking into the shaft of sunlight pouring into his face. His last memory was of leaning against Aramis' shoulder and yawning, but now he seemed to be curled on the sofa alone, with a blanket tucked around him.
He sat up in guilty haste, embarrassed at having fallen asleep when they were all supposed to be on guard.
Blue eyes met his from across the room, coolly amused. "It's alright," said Athos. "You haven't missed anything."
"Where are the others?" D'Artagnan pulled the blanket closer round him. The fire had gone out, and the room was cold.
"Making some tea. And - finding something that'll burn."
D'Artagnan nodded. "You should have woken me," he muttered.
Athos just raised an eyebrow. "Who's to say it's not better that at least one of us is rested?" He smiled. "No-one thinks less of you for it," he added quietly, as the door opened to admit Aramis and Porthos with a tray of tea and toast, and a bottle of brandy.
"I like your idea of breakfast," Athos said, as Porthos set it on the table.
Porthos grinned at him. "It's for the book."
"Are we burning it, or toasting it?"
Aramis snorted. "I think we all deserve a drink after what we've been through," he said, eyeing the book warily. They were all instinctively keeping their distance from it, he realised.
"Last night," he said slowly, shooing d'Artagnan's feet off the settee so he could sit down. "Just before it went back into the book. Did anyone else see - in the doorway?"
"I'm not sure what I saw," said Athos. "But yes, there was something there. Something that stopped it escaping."
"Something? Or someone?"
"You think it was Francois?"
Aramis sighed. "It makes sense, as much as any of this does." He gave a tired laugh. "Not sure I like the idea of him wandering about the place watching what we get up to though."
Porthos smirked. "He's probably had more important things to worry about than who his nephew's been cavorting with. Being dead, and all."
Aramis made a face and drained his teacup. "Are we doing this then?"
They gathered around the table solemnly. "The one thing that worries me is why Francois didn't burn it in the first place," said d'Artagnan. "I suppose we don't risk freeing it again by this do we?"
Aramis shrugged. "He was a collector after all. Maybe he couldn't bring himself to destroy it. He thought it would never be found, I imagine."
"It is a rare volume," Athos mused.
"A priceless rare volume," Porthos added meaningfully.
"And an heirloom," said Aramis.
D'Artagnan glared round at them all. "I don't believe this. Don't tell me you're having seconds thoughts about burning it?"
He caught Aramis trying to hide a smirk and glowered with sudden relief and indignance. "You're not are you?" he sighed. "You're winding me up. I hate all of you."
"It's just so easy," Athos apologised with a smile and a shake of the head, and Porthos gave a cackle of laughter and thumped d'Artagnan on the back cheerfully.
"I say we do it," Aramis declared, laying his hand on top of the pile comprising book, bible and poker. "Do you agree?"
"Yes." D'Artagnan slapped his own hand down on top of Aramis', and Athos and Porthos followed suit.
With a certain amount of trepidation they carried the book outside, holding it firmly shut. After the storms and blizzards of the preceding days, the sun was now shining out of a clear blue sky and everyone felt their spirits lift.
There was an old cast iron water trough against the wall of the woodshed, and they pulled it out into the centre of the yard and placed the book inside, with the poker laid across the top. Nobody had felt entirely comfortable with burning the bible along with the bestiary, but this way it was surrounded by cold iron, and as secure as they could make it.
Aramis doused it liberally with the brandy and Athos dropped in a match. The book caught immediately, the old dry pages crackling and curling with a hungry ferocity. The leather cover blackened and blistered, and suddenly all of them were assailed by the most terrible stench of death and decay.
"God, what is that?" d'Artagnan coughed, turning his head away with his hand pressed to his nose.
"I've smelt it before," said Athos, looking revolted. "When the rats came."
Staring into the flames, determined to watch to the end just in case anything tried to escape from the fire, Aramis started muttering something under his breath. After a second the others realised it was the Lord's Prayer, and first Athos, then Porthos and d'Artagnan joined in until all four of them were reciting it loudly and boldly, taking comfort from the familiar words.
Gradually, the stench died away and a fresh breeze blew away the last of it, fanning the flames to greater height, and stirring clouds of ash into the air that faded into the sunshine like melting fog.
They stood there, the four of them, in silent witness until the last of the book was burned away, and the flames finally died out. When it was over, they blinked at each other as if coming out of a trance, stretching and moving cramped and cold limbs, they'd hardly been aware of.
The mood was sober and heavy, until Aramis gave a sudden laugh.
"Do you know what today is?"
The others looked at him blankly and he grinned. "Christmas eve."
"Is it?" Athos looked surprised. "I'd completely lost track."
"Time flies when you're being haunted," muttered d'Artagnan.
"So." Aramis clapped his hands together. "I vote we pack up our stuff, whatever we can carry, and get out of here. We'll go to the inn in the village, I'm sure they can put us up for Christmas. What do you say?"
The others nodded. "Let's do it," said d'Artagnan agreed eagerly. "Even if that thing is gone, I'm not sure I fancy spending another night here."
They each went their separate ways to hastily pack up an overnight bag, and although everyone found themselves staring into the shadows and listening nervously for voices, nothing happened to disturb them.
Porthos, bag over his shoulder, stopped off on his way down the stairs to see if Athos was ready. His door was open, and he looked up at Porthos' quiet knock and waved him in.
"Coming. I'm nearly ready." Athos put his shaving kit into his bag and zipped it up.
Porthos came over. Despite their apparent triumph over the forces arrayed against them, Athos had looked tense all morning and still did.
"Are you alright?" Porthos asked quietly, running a hand down Athos' arm.
"Yes. Yes, of course." Athos gave him a questioning smile, but it didn't quite meet his eyes and Porthos frowned.
"What did it say to you?" he murmured.
Athos immediately looked guarded. "What do you mean?"
"The thing from the book," Porthos said. "It told me things. Bad things. Lies. And from what Aramis and d'Artagnan have said, it spoke to them too. So I was just wondering. If it said anything to you?"
Athos hesitated, then nodded, just once. Porthos traced the back of his fingers down Athos' cheek. "It was all lies," he insisted quietly.
"Except where it was the truth," Athos said bleakly. "Come on, let's go." He turned away and picked up his bag, but Porthos caught him by the hand.
"As long as you know which was which," he said. For a second they stared into each other's eyes. Athos looked away first, but Porthos reached out and tilted his face back to look at him with a gentle finger, and kissed him lightly on the mouth.
"Tell me what it said?" Porthos coaxed, but Athos shook his head.
"Maybe one day," he said quietly.
Porthos nodded slowly, accepting he wasn't ready. "I'll hold you to that." Porthos hugged him then, suddenly and fiercely, and surprised a laugh out of him.
A little of the tension went out of Athos' shoulders, and this time his smile was more genuine. "Come on," he repeated softly, taking Porthos' hand. "Let's get out of here."
The walk down to the village was a surprisingly cheerful one. Everyone felt better to be away from the house and out in the fresh air, and despite having to labour through two miles of deep snow, they reached the village feeling more positive than they had for days.
The landlady of the inn welcomed them with considerable astonishment at realising they'd been snowed in for days, and ushered them inside with motherly concern.
"I've got two rooms free," she said, as they stamped the snow from their feet and eyed the roaring log fire with covetous pleasure. "If you boys don't mind sharing?"
Aramis took off his hat and beamed at her. "Do you know, Mrs Cartwright," he said. "I think you'll find we won't mind that at all."