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...
It was dark and raining as Athos and d'Artagnan made their way up the cobbled street from the station. They were counting off house numbers, Athos clutching a steadily disintegrating piece of paper with an address scrawled on it.
"Here," D'Artagnan called out, flicking wet hair out of his eyes. "Is it this one?"
Athos came across and nodded. "Yes. Thank God for that. Five minute walk Aramis said, I'll kick him..." he let the thought tail off as d'Artagnan giggled, and they looked at each other, both bracing themselves to ring the bell.
It was the end of January. Aramis had invited them both down to his flat in the capital for the weekend, promising a reunion of sorts, and now they were here they were both realising how stupidly nervous they were.
Athos reached out and tugged the bell-pull, listening to a jangling somewhere deep in the house.
After a mercifully brief wait, they heard footsteps thumping down what sounded like a flight of stairs, and the door was pulled open to reveal not the expected housekeeper or valet but Aramis himself.
"You made it!" he cried, and then frowned. "But you're soaked. Come in, quickly." He waved them inside and closed the door firmly on the awful night.
"Come upstairs," Aramis urged. "There's a fire, and dinner's ready. My landlady's out for the evening, so we're quite private," he added, leading the way up the stairs at a run.
Athos and d'Artagnan exchanged a look, and followed him up.
"Here, let me take your wet things." Aramis had turned to meet them at the top, and extricated them from their soaking overcoats, hanging them from a hatstand taking up most of the landing.
"I'm so glad you could come." He gave Athos a hearty embrace, then looked at d'Artagnan. "Hello."
"Hello." D'Artagnan stared back at him, then laughed and threw himself forwards. Aramis hugged him hard, laughing too now, and Athos stepped back out of the way, smiling faintly.
"Hello Athos." The quiet voice behind him made Athos catch his breath and turn. Porthos was standing in the doorway, looking as nervous as Athos felt.
"Porthos." Athos suddenly felt like his heart was racing. "I didn't know if - "
He'd hoped, desperately, that Porthos would be here, but he hadn't known for sure. Porthos hadn't answered his letter. Hadn't answered any of his letters, in fact.
Porthos ducked his head, looking embarrassed. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I should have written back, I just - I never knew what to say."
"A simple yes, would have sufficed," Athos murmured. He'd offered to come down and meet him, at whatever time suited Porthos, but after the third letter had remained unanswered, had come to the sad conclusion that Porthos didn’t want to see him. But the fact that he was here, now, tonight - he had to have known Athos would be here. Didn’t he?
"Is everything alright?" Aramis was looking at them in slight concern, and Athos realised they'd just been staring at each other for some time without moving.
"Yes. Yes, of course. Sorry." Athos cleared his throat and Porthos retreated into the sitting room, and they all followed him in.
True to Aramis' promise there was a welcome fire blazing in the grate and a table laden with food.
"Don't stand on ceremony, help yourselves to whatever you want," Aramis said, pouring them some wine. "How was the trip down?"
"Long, tedious and uncomfortable," said Athos. "And that was just the stretch between here and the station. Seriously, five minutes?"
Aramis shrugged. "Five, ten, I've never really timed it to be honest." He handed Athos a glass and grinned. "Sorry."
Athos rolled his eyes and took a deep swallow of wine. He was feeling hot and cold all over and didn’t know where to put his eyes. If Porthos hadn’t been here he'd have taken it as at least final evidence that the man no longer wanted anything to do with him. But he was, he was here, and Athos could feel Porthos watching him. He wished he knew what to do, or say, but he didn't. He took another mouthful of wine instead, and realised his hand was shaking.
"You're nearly empty."
Athos started, as he discovered the hand holding out the decanter belonged to Porthos.
"Th-thank you," he managed, as Porthos refilled his glass and set the decanter back on the table.
"I didn't know what to say," Porthos blurted suddenly. "I got home, and looked around at my life, and - and I didn't know how I could ever have anything to offer you."
Athos finally met his eyes, startled. "I never asked you for anything?" he breathed. "All I ever wanted was you."
Porthos stared miserably at him, wishing he could explain how he'd felt, how the cold hard reality of his everyday life after the days at the manor had brought him back to earth with a harsh bump. How he had to stuff old newspaper into the gaps in his windows to keep out the draught, how the suit he'd worn to the manor for his attempted scam had been borrowed, how the casual abundance of food and drink that Aramis had showered on his guests for simple snacks had often been more lavish than anything he'd even had on special occasions. He'd looked around, and he'd been too ashamed to show any of it to Athos.
And then the invitation from Aramis had arrived. Porthos had slept with it under his pillow, and tried hard not to cry with the sheer pain and unfairness of it all. But he hadn't replied.
Which as it turned out had been a mistake, because not having heard back in a couple of days and worrying he'd got the address wrong, Aramis had turned up at his door.
He'd said nothing about the state of Porthos' lodgings, although Porthos had felt his eyes taking everything in. But Aramis had delivered his invitation verbally and cheerfully refused to take no for an answer, and somehow, in another borrowed suit, here he was.
Aramis and d'Artagnan had retreated to one of the sofas and were talking together in excitedly hushed voices, the awkwardness of a month's separation gone in an instant.
"It wasn't that I didn't want to see you," Porthos offered finally, lamely. "I hope you never thought that."
"What was I supposed to think?" Athos whispered. Porthos looked at him and saw the pain and the tension in his eyes, and felt sick knowing that that he'd caused it.
"I'm a fool," Porthos admitted quietly. "A damn fool, and you deserve better."
Athos swallowed and turned away, and Porthos' face crumpled with hopeless self-recrimination, but Athos was merely fetching something from his bag. He turned back to Porthos, holding out a folded sheet of paper that was damp round the edges from where the rain had got in, and shaking slightly in Athos' hand.
"What's this?" Porthos asked, taking it from him in confusion but not opening it. He wondered if it was another letter, one that Athos had never sent.
Athos, having downed the second glass of claret had finally mastered himself, and it was with a steady and emotionless voice that he answered.
"It's not my faculty, but I am not without influence at the university," he said managing to make it sound like he was merely stating a fact where others would have sounded prideful. "There is a place for you on next year's law degree, should you wish to accept it."
"For - me?" Porthos stared at him. "But they know nothing about me."
"They have accepted you on my recommendation."
Porthos gaped at him speechlessly. "But - Athos, this - you - Jesus." He sat down hard on one of the dining chairs and finally unfolded the sheet of paper. It was indeed a letter confirming the offer of a place to read law in the next academic year.
He put it down slowly, looking shaken. "Athos. You didn’t have to do this."
"No. I didn't. And yet, here we are." Athos poured himself a third glass with hands that were now coldly steady. "You needn't worry, the law faculty is some distance from my own, your place there is in no way dependent upon whether you wish any further contact with me or not."
Porthos' head snapped up. "Athos - " It hadn't, truly, sunk in before, how his behaviour must have seemed to Athos. Athos, who'd trusted him, opened up to him, lain with him. Athos, who must have been feeling abandoned and betrayed, and yet had still done this for him.
He did the only thing he could think of, he surged to his feet, seized Athos' face in his hands and kissed him, hard.
Athos staggered back a step, the colour rising in his pale face, but to Porthos' relief there was no anger there, just flustered surprise.
Aramis and d'Artagnan had stopped talking and were watching them in some confusion, Athos having confided in neither of them of Porthos' silence.
"Thank you would have done," Athos murmured, hardly knowing where to look, but Porthos took hold of his hands and stared into his face until Athos met his eyes.
"That wasn't for the offer," Porthos told him. "That was for you, you daft pillock."
"Oh." Athos blinked at him, and Porthos kissed him again, more softly, until he felt Athos untense the tiniest fraction.
"It was never, ever that I didn't want to see you," Porthos breathed. "I've thought about nothing else but you all month."
"Then why didn't you -?" Athos broke off helplessly. Porthos must have had his reasons, he thought. And now there was the tiny worm of hope in his chest, that maybe they could sort all this out.
Porthos though, was looking sombre again as he faced an insurmountable fact.
"Athos - this offer is amazing, you're amazing for arranging it. But I can't accept the place."
"Whyever not?" Athos protested.
Porthos shook his head sadly. "Because I'd never be able to afford it. Fees, dues, books, lodgings. I can barely make rent month to month as it is. And I imagine the price of living is rather higher at a first rate university."
"Actually, I think you'll find that you can," said Aramis, walking over to them.
"What? How?" Porthos looked confused. "I can't, I don’t have anything. I don’t even have anything I could sell."
"I do," said Aramis. "I promised you half the proceeds of that book, didn’t I?"
"Well, yes, but the book was destroyed," Porthos said.
"Yes. But let's just say my dream of moving to the countryside has palled a little after the events of Christmas," Aramis declared. "So I've decided, I'm selling the house and all its contents. Oh, don’t worry, you can have first pick of the books," he said to Athos, who looked as startled as everyone else. "But everything else is going. It should fetch quite enough for me to sponsor you through university, don't you think?"
Porthos looked poleaxed, until d'Artagnan punched him on the arm and grinned at him with the equanimity of someone quite at home with being given presents. "That's great, right?"
Porthos shook himself. "I - I can't accept that," he said hoarsely. "That would be a huge amount of money."
"Nonsense, of course you can," said Aramis, who having seen the conditions Porthos was currently living in was quietly determined not to take no for an answer. "Can't he Athos?"
Athos looked at Porthos and smiled. "Yes." But he could see the conflict and embarrassment and angry pride in Porthos' face too, and squeezed his hand. "You could always pay it back," he suggested. "If you felt it was too much to accept as a gift. Once you have your degree, you would soon be earning enough to easily pay a little back each month."
"He doesn't have to," Aramis insisted, but Athos frowned at him.
"No, he doesn't have to. But he may want to. And maybe we should give him a chance to answer for himself," Athos conceded, suddenly conscious that for the last five minutes everyone in the room had been trying to run Porthos' life for him, regardless of what he wanted.
Porthos flinched as everyone abruptly turned to look at him, and stared round at them all nervously, feeling like he had that first day when the three of them had opened the door of the manor to him. Curious, demanding looks of enquiry, friendly but overwhelming. And in the middle, Athos, looking every inch as devastating as he had that night, and Porthos was lost all over again.
Before he could speak though, it was Athos who had taken charge once more.
"Give the poor man time to think it through," he scolded, waving Aramis and d'Artagnan back to their settee. "And you, have you eaten yet? No?" Athos started piling up a plate and handed it to Porthos. "No important decisions should be made on an empty stomach." Finding that he was feeling quite hungry himself, and that the gnawing emptiness of the past few weeks had suddenly lifted.
"You think I should say yes," Porthos murmured. "To everything."
"Yes, I do," Athos said quietly. "But only if it's what you want. And you should know that if you turn it down, you will still have to put up with me turning up on you every chance I get."
He smiled, a little self-consciously. "Clearly, asking you for an invitation is no use, so I shall have to take matters into my own hands. And while I am prepared to let you throw away your opportunities to a certain extent, there are limits." To Porthos' surprise Athos leaned forward and kissed him then, just once but firmly, before picking up his own plate and retreating to join the others around the fire.
After a moment Porthos followed him, and having received a nod of invitation, settled next to Athos on the other couch.
For a time conversation drifted between different topics, before inevitably coming back to the events at the manor. After seeing Porthos safely off on a train, the others had remained at the inn another day before the snows had lifted enough to go back out to the house. No one would drive them, but Aramis had somehow convinced the stationmaster to lend him his car, promising faithfully they would return it unscathed.
The return trip had been something of an anti-climax in the end. Keyed up and nervous, the house in daylight had felt simply empty and harmless, and they had collected their belongings, disposed of the perishable food and locked up behind them with a sense of relief.
Aramis had wondered if he would feel his uncle's presence, but even he appeared to have departed, perhaps with the book gone no longer having a reason to stick around.
Athos had described most of this in his first letter, but Porthos was eager to hear it again first hand, and was sorry he hadn't been there to accompany them. He looked a little down as he said this, and Athos let his hand slide sideways to cover Porthos' where it lay on the cushion.
Porthos smiled at him, and turned his hand over to hold Athos' properly.
"Have you made a decision yet?" Aramis asked quietly.
Porthos took a deep breath. "Yes. And - yes. I accept. Thank you, both of you. I have no way of ever showing you how much this means. And Aramis, I will pay you back, every penny."
"No rush." Aramis smiled at him, and raised his glass. "Besides, it might come in handy to know a lawyer one day, you never know."
"Do try not to get yourself arrested, there's a good chap," murmured Athos.
D'Artagnan grinned at Porthos in delight. "I can't offer you anything on the scale these two have, but when you come up I'd be glad to show you round all the best pubs," he offered.
Porthos laughed, and Athos groaned, and Aramis hooked an arm around d'Artagnan's neck and hugged him.
"I should possibly point out at this juncture that I only have two bedrooms here," Aramis declared. "I'd rather assumed no one would mind sharing as before, but - perhaps that was thoughtless of me?" he added, realising there'd clearly been some rift between Athos and Porthos he'd been unaware of.
They looked at each other.
"I don't mind if you don't?" said Porthos quietly. Athos gave him a small smile, the colour rising in his cheeks again as he nodded at Aramis.
Aramis looked pleased, and then glanced at d'Artagnan. "You don't get a choice," he smirked. "I've missed you in my bed for four weeks, it's been dreadful."
D'Artagnan flushed redder than Athos had at the blatantness of it, but nudged Aramis with his shoulder and laughed. "Fine. As long as no one else has been keeping it warm for you in the meantime."
"Not a soul," said Aramis mournfully. "I've probably forgotten how it all works."
"I doubt that somehow," D'Artagnan laughed, and let Aramis kiss him.
The remainder of the evening was passed in considerably higher spirits, and it was late when they all finally retired to bed.
Aramis wound his arms round d'Artagnan when he was still half undressed and pulled him down to the bed, kissing his neck and making him laugh. "You're incorrigible."
"Desperate more like."
"Oh, that's flattering!" D’Artagnan hit him with a pillow and escaped his clutches to continue removing his trousers and socks. Aramis lounged on the bed watching him, shirt open and bow tie hanging undone.
"You're beautiful," said Aramis, when d'Artagnan was down to his underwear. "Don't bother with a nightshirt, I'll only take it off you again,."
D'Artagnan sat next to him, laughing. "Desperate, huh?"
"I didn't mean it like that." Aramis kissed him, and d'Artagnan set about removing Aramis' clothes as well.
"Are you sure?" he asked idly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Aramis blinked at him, but d'Artagnan was concentrating on pulling his trousers off.
"Just that - from what you said - " and from what Athos had said too, he thought - "you seem like the type of man to have a lot of lovers," d'Artagnan murmured. "And I'll be at university for another year and a half yet. I can hardly afford to come down here every week."
"What are you saying?" Aramis sat up and folded d'Artagnan into his arms. "I've been good," he said a little plaintively. "And I can come and see you too. I promise there's no one else."
D'Artagnan looked at him and smiled. "No, but one day there might be. You said that yourself. I suppose what I'm saying - I don't mind."
Aramis looked confused. "You don't mind - if there are others?" he said carefully, sure he must have got it wrong.
"As long as you tell me," d'Artagnan said, and took his hand. "Don't lie to me Aramis, I suppose that's what I'm saying. I'd like to think - one day we can be together. But that won't be for a while, and in the meantime - " he flushed a little. "There's no reason why we shouldn't have fun."
Aramis cocked his head. "Are you saying you have someone else?"
"No!" D'Artagnan looked indignant, and Aramis raised his hands in surrender, laughing.
"Alright. Free reign, then, both of us. On terms of full disclosure. I rather like it."
D'Artagnan relaxed in relief and Aramis kissed him, thinking that to have found someone capable of presenting a more scandalous solution than he might have come up with himself, was clearly some kind of sign it was meant to be.
He'd been determined to turn over a new leaf and be faithful, but a wandering eye was in his nature, and he knew deep down it wouldn't have ended well, particularly with them living so far apart.
"Does Athos know about your little proposal?" Aramis asked a short while later, when they were both completely naked and tucked together under the covers.
"God no. We might be close, but I hardly discuss that kind of thing with him."
Aramis hummed noncommittally. "I was just thinking - it might be better to forewarn him. Or he'll end up thinking we're cheating on each other."
"That's true." D’Artagnan rolled over and slid his hand between Aramis' legs, finding to his satisfaction that he was already hard. "I have to say, right now I have no inclination to be with anyone else though."
"Me neither." Aramis grinned. "They do say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or was it the cock grow harder? I forget."
D'Artagnan buried his face in Aramis' chest, giggling.
"I love how easy it is to make you blush," Aramis smirked. "An unfortunate thing, when someone's got a mind as filthy as you have."
"I have not!" D'Artagnan wriggled sideways until he was lying on top of Aramis. "I'm just easily swayed by unscrupulous older men," he grinned. "I was pure and innocent before I met you."
"Somehow, I find that hard to believe." Aramis rolled them over so he was on top, and smiled down at d'Artagnan sprawled in the pillows. "Can I fuck you?" he breathed, tracing d'Artagnan's cheek with his fingers.
"Would you - would you let me fuck you?" d'Artagnan asked, holding Aramis' gaze boldly, but feeling himself go scarlet.
Aramis looked surprised. "Well. Yes, I suppose so. If that's what you want?"
D'Artagnan felt a little breathless. "I - well, I wouldn't mind a turn. To be honest, I thought you'd say no."
"Did you?" Aramis rolled off him again and held his arms out until d'Artagnan was settled back on top of him. "Then I'm glad you still asked."
"You don't mind?"
"I don't mind." Aramis kissed him again, lingering and warm. "I am entirely at your disposal."
In the next room, Athos had just returned from the bathroom, and was in the process of unbuttoning his shirt. Halfway down his fingers faltered and he seemed to forget what he was doing, staring into space with a troubled expression.
Porthos got up from where he was sitting on the bed and came over, wrapping his arms around Athos from behind and holding him tightly.
"I'm sorry," he breathed against Athos' hair. "For everything, I'm so sorry."
After a second of standing tense and awkward in his arms, Athos turned and buried his face in Porthos' neck, clinging to him as hard as Porthos was holding him in turn.
His cheek was cold against Porthos' skin, and Porthos rocked him slightly in his arms. "If anyone else had hurt you like I have, I'd tear them limb from limb," Porthos said contritely.
Athos gave a muffled laugh. "I hardly think that will be necessary. If only for the sake of Aramis' carpets."
"I'm sorry," Porthos said again, stroking Athos' hair, feeling the wild beating of his heart against his chest. "I love you Athos. I was just - I suppose I was scared that it wasn't enough."
"We couldn't have talked about it?" Athos pulled away and looked up at him then, a certain anger rising now it felt safe to do so. "I thought maybe something had happened to you!"
"Forgive me." Porthos looked wretched. "Can you forgive me? Or have I broken this after all?"
"You're a bloody idiot," Athos told him, breath catching in his throat. "And I love you."
Porthos stared at him for a second, then pulled Athos into his arms with a choked laugh that was more than half sob.
For a long time they just held each other, tightly, fiercely, not even kissing but just shutting out the world and its problems.
Eventually their desperate grip on each other loosened a little, and they relaxed into an easier embrace. Kisses were exchanged, chaste at first, seeking comfort and reassurance rather than passion.
"Athos." Porthos murmured his name like a prayer, stroking warm hands down his back and still looking shaken. "How can I ever - "
"Shhh." Athos laid his fingers lightly on Porthos' lips. "I forgive you. Of course I do."
They hugged each other again, and the moment of peaceful reconciliation was only interrupted by a muffled cry from the other side of the wall, suggesting that d'Artagnan at least had got lucky tonight.
"Do you think he stubbed his toe?" asked Porthos after a few mildly awkward seconds had gone past and Athos dissolved into silent laughter, his shoulders heaving as he leaned against Porthos' chest.
Porthos grinned, suddenly thankful to d'Artagnan for inadvertently breaking the tension. "Come on," he said. "Let's go to bed."
Athos undressed the rest of the way and slid beneath the covers with Porthos, wriggling into the warmth of his arms without hesitation.
"Tomorrow," he murmured. "Will you show me where you live?"
Porthos sighed. "If I must."
"There's still seven months before your academic year starts," Athos reminded him. "I shall presumably be seeing a lot of it over that time, so I might as well start now."
"There's nothing quaint or romantic about it," Porthos warned him.
"Do I look like I need to be sheltered?"
Porthos smiled. "You're an academic. They don't come any more sheltered than that."
Athos took his hand, and kissed Porthos' knuckles. "Maybe I have been hiding from the world, to a certain extent," he conceded. "I've had my reasons."
"If I share my life with you, will you share those with me?" Porthos asked quietly.
Athos rolled over and looked down at him consideringly, before finally coming to a decision. "Yes. Alright. Tomorrow, though."
Porthos reached up and pulled Athos down for a kiss, smiling against his lips.
"And tonight?" Porthos enquired.
Athos smiled, and reached down to take firm hold of the considerable bulge in Porthos' nightshirt.
"Tonight, I am buggered if I'm going to let one of my students out-do me."