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Musketeers fic: Forbidden Fruits (2/3)

November 30th, 2017 (08:31 pm)
peaceful

feeling: peaceful

Continued from Part One.



God didn’t show up, but the musketeers did.

That was what friends do.

And that was how God worked.

Miracles, even for sinners.

Especially for them.

-o-

Friends, you see, they take the risk. Friends put their lives on the line. Friends give up what they want, even what they need, to make sure others are okay.

That is why his friends saved him.

This is also why Aramis had to walk away.

It was the only gift he knew to give back, the only thing that marginally atoned for all he’d done to them. He hadn’t earned their trust, not yet, maybe not ever. And with his child still in Paris, he was nothing more than a liability, especially on the battlefield.

No, he could not give them his service. He could not longer offer them his steady hand or his roguish charm. All he could give was all he had left: himself.

More importantly, his absence.

-o-

To join the church seemed prudent. After all, if he wanted to repent, he needed to seek out God’s word. Besides, ever since his father had forbidden him the church, he’d wanted to explore this path.

This was his chance, on both counts.

Possibly, his very last chance.

-o-

He sought out a quiet retreat, one in the countryside where the people are simple and the life is uncomplicated. He liked that this one was in the woods, and that the man in charge smiled warmly at him when he knocked at the gate.

It had the promise of what Aramis thought he wanted.

And, he hoped, what he needed, too.

-o-

“You are a man of action, it seems,” the father told him after listening to Aramis’ story. “This life will be quiet. Probably too quiet for the likes of you.”

Aramis inclined his head humbly. “It will be a shift, I understand,” he said politely. “But I have much to learn.”

The father smiled gently. “We all do,” he said with a fond nod. He paused, brow crinkling just slightly. “But…”

Aramis tried not to look anxious. “But?”

“But you’re a soldier,” the father said. “France is a country at war. You have your duties, do you not?”

It took some self control, and still he could not fully suppress his scoff of surprise. “I thought my devotion was to God first.”

“It is, it is,” the father said. “But you cannot neglect the purpose he has given you. He has given you particular gifts for a reason. They may very well be your calling.”

“I made a mess as a soldier,” Aramis reminded him. “It’s hard to imagine that is God’s will.”

The father tsked his tongue softly. “You cannot confuse your calling with your sin.”

“And is that not why I need to spend some time dedicated to God?” Aramis asked.

“Yes, yes, of course,” the man said, waving his hand distractedly. “You must come and stay for a while. Learn to be wrong.”

Aramis made a face. “I think I have proven that I know how to be wrong quite well. Too well.”

The father was already shaking his head. “You misunderstand me.”

Aramis sighed in exasperation. “I’m trying to serve my penance.”

“And that is the difference, yes?” the father asked. “Because you can be wrong a thousand times, and if you never change, then you will be wrong a thousand more. Tell me, my son. Do you make the same mistakes? Are your follies as tried and true as your fortunes?”

At this, Aramis frowned thoughtfully. “Well…”

The man reached forward, clasping Aramis’ hands. “Exactly,” he said warmly. His smile was kind. “It’s time to learn not how to be wrong. But how to be wrong.”

Aramis gave him a quizzical look.

Releasing Aramis’ hands, the man sat back. “I will pray for my son, more than the rest,” he said, reaching for a spare pair of robes to hand to Aramis. “You will need it.”

-o-

Aramis needed more than a prayer, however.

Aramis needed a miracle.

For he was a man who had just gotten exactly what he’d sought.

Which meant he was also the man who didn’t want it at all anymore.

-o-

Nonetheless, Aramis was resolved. For the sake of his friends; for the sake of his lover; for the sake of his son.

This time, he would be steady.

This time, he would stay on solid ground.

This time, no matter what he faced, he would not waver.

-o-

During his time at the abbey, Aramis prayed to hear God’s voice.

Instead, he heard whispers of the world outside. He heard rumors about the war and the toll it was taking. He heard stories about the loss of life, how the king’s soldiers were laid bare by the Spanish and left to rot on French countryside.

And he heard intrigue about the unrest in Paris. He heard speculation about the king’s growing frustrations and the queen’s difficult position. He heard mention of how the boy was growing, but that there was no guarantee that there’d be a French throne for him to occupy when he finally did come of age.

These stories, these rumors, they made him curious. Made him eager. To know more, to do more.

When the need became too strong, he retired early to the chapel and fell to his knees in the most fervently.

It might have made a difference, he knew, if it was not the queen’s crucifix he kissed.

For above all the whispers, the sound of that desire roared.

-o-

Then, came the doubt.

Was this privilege to hide away in an abbey while his friends were slaughtered? Was it cowardice to leave Paris when the king needed him the most? Was he offering self indulgent prayers to a God who was losing patience?

Every day he spent in service to God felt like another failure.

Failure, at least, was something Aramis was accustomed to by now.

-o-

He had borrowed the quill and parchment with a blessing from the father. He thought it might help Aramis to solidify his purpose if he wrote his friends.

He started one to Athos first, but threw it out after the salutation. With Porthos, he started to ask how he was faring before he decided he couldn’t be so obtuse. He made it further with D’Artagnan, but when he asked how Constance was, his resolve faltered.

Out of sheer desperation, he started a letter to the queen.

Then, he wrote one to his son.

With the parchment used up, Aramis dropped his quill to the table. Looking over his efforts, they seemed too paltry to count. He’d known that these were letters he could send. There was no way he could acknowledge any of this, not if he intended to remain in his promise to God.

Dutifully, he dropped the letters in the fire, watching them burn one by one.

He stayed up late that night, watching the fire as it burned down to embers. In the morning, when they were still warm in his hand, he scooped them up to take them outside. He could feel them, hot to the touch but not quite burning, and it took all he had to release them to the wind.

-o-

At morning, Aramis tended the gardens. At night, he scrubbed the floors of the kitchen and shooed out the rats. He helped people and gave to the poor. He watched the orphans and worked the ground. He was the epitome of a servant, everything he’d set out to be.

It wasn’t enough, though.

For Aramis, it seemed like nothing ever was.

-o-

The nights in the abbey were often cold during the winter, and the blankets were scarce and woefully insufficient. He shivered his way through them, wishing he felt as cold as he should. But, in his heart, he could still feel the flutter when he thought of the queen’s smile.

And the wind was nothing to him, nothing at all when he remembered the way his son had smiled.

It was a sin, probably.

But it was one that Aramis was not sure he was ready to repent of.

-o-

“It’s not as uncommon as you seem to think,” the father advised him. “Your vices are the same of Eve in the garden.”

“I am working on it,” Aramis offered back.

“That makes it worse,” the father said. “The more you are denied, the more you want. Though you have been given much, you crave only that thing you lack.”

“I crave peace,” Aramis said. “My soul is in turmoil and no amount of prayer or fasting has helped.”

“Of course it hasn’t,” the father said. “You look the part of penitence, Aramis, and I know you mean well. But complacency isn’t the opposite of contentment.”

Pulling back his emotions, Aramis refused to let his impulses get the better of him. “If I listen to you, then nothing I do will ever be enough. I am destined to a life of misery, then.”

The father sighed, shaking his head. “So dramatic,” he muttered. “And unnecessary.”

“I don’t understand,” Aramis insisted.

The father gestured. “Eve didn’t love the fruit because it was the best fruit in the garden,” he explained. “She wanted it because it was the thing she wasn’t allowed to have. It was forbidden to her, and that was the only thing that made it more attractive than all the rest.”

“I know this--”

The father cut him off. “You know it, but you don’t understand it still,” he said. “You have to face your own forbidden fruit. You cannot deny it any longer. If you can bring it to the light, you will no longer crave the darkness that has a hold on your soul.”

To this, Aramis expressed surprise. “But she is a married woman.”

The father rolled his eyes. “I did not say indulge. I said face,” he clarified. “You have to admit that you love her and accept that you cannot have her. You have to do it today, now. You have to do it every day until the fruit no longer tempts you.”

Aramis stared, somewhat dumbstruck. “That is a hard order,” he confessed finally.

“Grace often is more complicated than people think,” the father said with a nod of commiseration. “But I still pray for you, son. I pray you get the sign you want to bring you contentment at last.”

“But how will I know it?” Aramis said. “All these years I’ve been here, how will I know God’s voice?”

“It cuts like a knife, my son,” the father advised. “Once you see the blood, you will know.”

-o-

The old man never claimed to be a prophet, but when Aramis found the patrol in the woods, he had to wonder.

Then, when the father was cut down in front of him, Aramis saw the blood flow thick and red and fast.

And he knew.

God help him, Aramis finally knew.

-o-

Four years, he’d been away.

Four years, he’d spent in service to his God.

Four years, and he finally felt like he was doing the right thing.

-o-

“Not that I’m not glad in some way,” Athos told him just outside of Paris. “But are you sure about this?”

Aramis shrugged, watching as Porthos and D’Artagnan started ahead of them. “You were the one who said I’d be back, if I recall.”

“Still,” Athos said, more serious now. “We cannot afford any more second guesses now.”

Aramis looked him in the eye with a steadfastness he’d never felt before. “I’ve indulged all my wants and whims,” he said. “Most of those passions, they faded over the last four years.”

“And this? The musketeers?” Athos asked.

“They remain so strong that I cannot deny it any longer,” he said. “This is who I’m meant to be.”

Athos nodded, sufficiently convinced. Except for this: “And the queen and dauphin?”

Aramis drew a breath, shakier now. He looked down, smiling as his cheeks flushed red. “We’ll see how it goes.”

-o-

Four years was a long time, but honestly, it was like Aramis had never left. Sure, things were different. Athos was the captain now, and the garrison was full of fresh recruits who had yet to see action. The pressures of war were telling, and all of Paris had an edge Aramis had not quite recalled in the past.

Even still, the things that mattered -- those were as true as ever.

“I can’t even imagine,” Porthos joked at him over a round of drinks from the garrison’s stash. “How did you survive four years in an abbey?”

“I should be asking you!” Aramis returned. “How did you survive four years at war?”

Porthos let out a defiant guffaw. “War’s nothing,” he said. “You, though, without women?”

D’Artagnan laughed alongside him. “It did give us all pause to think about.”

“True,” Athos chimed in. “For all that we were on the front, I think we worried more about your well being. Did you even see a woman over the age of consent?”

“I did,” Aramis replied lightly. “Though most of them were exceptionally poor and begging for food. And we occasionally did host nuns on their travels.”

“And that didn’t bother you?” Porthos asked, brow furrowed in genuine concern. “I mean, come on. You? Celibate?”

“Me,” Aramis said with a cheerful tilt of his head. “But I’d called it penitence.”

“Then we all have God to thank,” D’Artagnan said, tipping his glass up to them in salute. “For bringing the musketeers back together again.”

“I don’t put much credence in divine providence,” Athos said. “But, these days, I’ll drink to just about anything.”

Porthos let out a resounding belch. “All for one!”

Aramis raised his own glass last, grinning broadly now. “And one for all.”

-o-

In this, Aramis settled back into his life quickly. He found his quarters comfortable, and he enjoyed his duties -- even the less exciting bits. When help was needed with the new recruits, he was more than happy to assist. He took it upon himself to tidy up a bit more than he had previously, and he found himself whistling contentedly around the garrison.

“Goodness,” Constance observed one afternoon. “If I had known life in an abbey would be so gratifying, I might have tried it instead of marriage.”

“It does teach one a certain perspective,” Aramis agreed.

“About what God wants in our lives?” she asked.

He winked at her. “About how good life is on the outside.”


-o-

To think, he’d spent four years in remorse, trying to figure out what God really wanted for him.

And it had been right here, all along.

He could have spared himself much trouble and his friends much loss.

This was what Aramis believed.

Until he was summoned to the palace.

Outside, he felt his knees go weak, and his resolve faltered worse than it had four years ago.

For Aramis had not left to flee the war. He had not truly left to absolve himself.

No, his primary impetus has been far more simple: to avoid his same, tried and familiar sin.

Four years he’d had to put it behind him.

And all that prayer, all that fasting, all that confession.

He was right back where he started.

Swallowing hard, he urged his horse forward through the gates beside his friends.

This time, he would do it better.

This time, he would do it right.

So help him God.

-o-

He kept himself stiff as they entered, and he did his best not to twitch anxiously every time someone entered the room. At his side, the others flanked him, and he could not decide if their presence made him stronger or weaker.

It mattered not, for the door opened again, and this time, the whole assembly came to order. He saw the king first, behind his entourage, and the man looked older, more worn. Treville was by his side, and he nodded once at Aramis before the crowd parted once more.

And there she was.

The queen was as lovely as Aramis remembered; more so. She was ever more radiant with age, and the ornate styling of her dress could not hide the fact that her beauty was the purist Aramis had ever known. Whereas the king’s years of experienced seemed to weigh him down, the Queen’s only seemed to make her more vibrant.

As she passed, her eyes met his.

In that glance, a thousand memories surfaced and a thousand more emotions threatened to overwhelm his carefully constructed facade. Part of him wanted to cry; part of him wanted to embrace her.

Yet, his common sense -- for once -- prevailed.

He ducked his head dutifully, bowing to her formally as one might a foreign dignitary. A professional, generic respect, that said nothing of what they’d shared and what Aramis craved.

And crave it, he did.

Four years, after all, had not changed him as much as he might have hoped.

Maintaining his distance, even while in her presence; keeping his control, even when tempted so vehemently. It physically hurt Aramis, building like pressure in his chest and causing his hears to ring so loudly that he scarcely made any sense of the meeting.

When it was done, he walked out with a customary nod. The queen smiled demurely, and Aramis turned away. He did not allow himself a glance backward, not even when they were well outside the palace walls.

Four years he’d spent for penance.

And none of it compared to the sacrifices he knew he still had to make.

-o-

He knew, when the king asked for him by name.

He knew.

A smarter man probably would have run, but Aramis had spent enough time running.

It was time to accept his past.

Otherwise, he’d never be able to embrace the future.

-o-

The king asked for the truth.

In the end, Aramis knew he had already taken much from the king. He’d taken his wife and his son, two things that he could never pay back.

The truth, Aramis had to reason, was a mere token in return.

-o-

He paused, though, when he thought of her.

His own redemption could not be at her expense. The truth could not threaten his son.

But God had asked Abraham to lay his own son on the altar.

Aramis needed to have faith, not in himself this time, not even in his friends.

But in the divine providence that had gotten him this far.

He would confess, even if it killed him.

For the forbidden fruit would no longer have power over him.

-o-

God spared him.

Yes, it was the king who spoke the words and offered him a pardon he did not deserve, but Aramis knew who to thank.

He clutched his crucifix and closed his eyes.

He knew.

-o-

This could have been the end of the story.

But one’s ending--

Is merely another’s beginning.

-o-

The king’s death was a shock to all. The kingdom mourned in staggering culmination, and unrest grew in the streets of Paris, spreading throughout the country and into other governments as well. It was a grand funeral, one truly befitting of a king, and no expense, no limits -- nothing was spared. The dauphin, young as he was, bore it with sufficient grace, though he bore the deportment of a little boy who did not fully grasp that he had just inherited the crown of the nation.

In all of the tumult, no one mourned more grievously than the queen herself. She still stiff and erect, clothed in black lace in an attempt to cover her face. But the extent of her grief was palpable. One did not have to see it.

You could feel it, just being near her.

Aramis adapted the proper attitude as best he could, for he did not wish ill upon the king and he knew it would leave the country in inevitable turmoil. But, as he stood to pay his respects, his eyes were drawn still to the queen.

For, surrounded by people, she was well and truly alone.

She was not his, to be sure.

But, for the first time ever, he entertained the possibility that she could be.

-o-

The problem was that forbidden was such a funny word.

The queen was a widow; there was nothing that prevented him from pursuing her in the eyes of God and the law.

Except that he was a commoner and a sinner, and he had pledged his fidelity to God and God alone.

Something did not have to be forbidden to be a very, very bad idea.

Such distinctions had never meant that much to Aramis, sadly.

For this, Aramis did pray most ardently. He counted his rosary beads and kneeled in the church every day, lighting a candle for the king before he left each time. Some nights he did not even sleep, offering his whole mind and body to meditation instead. He would stay in the church all night, watching until the candle burned itself out in the morning.

Aramis left the church hungry for more, and he tried not to taste the savory juices of the forbidden fruit as he sought out breakfast instead.

-o-

After such a sleepless night, not the first in the week following the king’s death, Athos confronted him as only Athos was wont to do.

“You are being quite devoted these days,” he observed.

Aramis sighed, too tired for pretenses as he rubbed a hand over his face wearily. “Death makes one evaluate life,” he muttered. “The comparison is not always kind.”

Athos shrugged, diffident. “Death is a constant threat for men like us; we have both experienced it far more than any man should.”

“Yet, it still hits hard,” Aramis said, shaking his head.

“Because it was the king?” Athos pressed.

Aramis smiled wryly, but there was no emotion behind it. “I have many faults, but a lack of loyalty has never been one of them.”

“This is not about loyalty,” Athos said.

Aramis made a face. “What?”

“This is about the fact that the king is dead,” Athos said, plainer still. “And the queen is now a widow.”

The statement was not so plain, however. It carried with it an implicit accusation and a tacit understanding of who Aramis was. It did not surprise him; not now. Too much had happened to try to deny it now, especially where Athos was concerned.

“I have fought for my penance and made sacrifices for my restoration,” he said. “I know my place, Athos.”

Athos lifted his eyebrows momentarily. “That would make things easier, in some ways,” he said, but he sounded dubious.

Aramis indulged his exhaustion for the moment. “And in others?”

Athos tilted his head, looking vaguely curious. “You tell me.”

To that, Aramis had no reply.

-o-

Rumors started in Paris; tales of unrest came in from the surrounding countryside. The throne belonged to a child, and not just any child. If the country would not embrace the dauphin as their own, it mattered not. Aramis would protect the boy as his own until the rest of the country fell in line.

Or until he died trying.

-o-

The nonstop demands took their toll, to be sure. Sometimes Aramis forgot that things were difficult for his friends, just as much as him.

Reporting for duty one morning, he saw D’Artagnan steal a moment with Constance before Athos herded him into getting his gear ready. Standing next to the younger man, Aramis smiled politely as he pulled on his gloves. “She must make it hard to leave.”

D’Artagnan, despite himself, grinned like a child. “But she makes it so worthwhile to come home.”


Aramis chuckled. “Being settled suits you, then.”

“Are you kidding?” D’Artagnan said, lacing up his shirt. “I love everything about being married to her. I can’t imagine my life without her. Looking back, I have no idea how I survived being near her without being with her.”

Aramis smiled, but found himself sad. “The longing can be such a lonely thing.”

D’Artagnan sobered, back to himself. “You’ll find it, too,” he said, reassuring as possible. “I mean, if you want to settle down, that is.”

“Ah,” Aramis said with a dismissive nod of his head. “I wanted it once, I think. But I was young and stupid; I doubt I even knew what I really wanted. In any case, I think it’s passed me now.”

To this, D’Artagnan appeared concerned. He stopped, halfway through tying his boot, to look Aramis in the eye. “I don’t believe that,” he said. “I don’t think you do, either.”

It was true, but it was also too hard to admit. Too hard to give name to; too hard to entertain. He had worked hard to push it back, harder still to pretend like he didn’t need it as much as he wanted it.

His penance was a precarious thing; his salvation was even more tenuous.

For this reason, he forced himself to smile, pulling the crucifix out just to tuck it back in amongst his clothes. “No matter,” he said. “For I suppose it is in God’s hands now.”

-o-

It was expected for Athos to see what he was thinking, even when he struggled to admit it to himself. It was also expected for D’Artagnan to be young and naive and hopeful.

What happened with Porthos, however.

That was not expected in the least.

Over drinks, Porthos sighed heavily. “I get it.”

Aramis took a sip of his own ale. “You get what?”

“Your thing,” Porthos announced, as though it should have been entirely obvious. “With the queen.”

A flippant remarked died on Aramis down. With effort, he swallowed it back down with a swig of tepid beer. “What?” he managed to finally say, his throat still half closed.

“I know what it’s like, is all,” Porthos continued. “To feel something you can’t explain. Something your mind tells you is all wrong, but your heart tells you is all right. I get what it is, when you act without even thinking twice.”

Gobsmacked, Aramis reeled for a long moment. Licking his lips, he tried to bring his thoughts back into some kind of order. “Are you talking about Elodie?”

Porthos gave him a small glare. “Of course I’m talking about Elodie,” he said with a brief toss of his head. “I have no reason to think of her, no ties, no promises, nothing. But that doesn’t seem to matter to how much I want her.”

“You know, Elodie is yours for the taking,” Aramis explained carefully. “She is a widow, and I daresay, your attraction is reciprocated.”

“I know,” Porthos said, somewhat indignant. “That’s what I’m saying. I know how it feels, and I know that I’m going to do something about it.”

“Well,” Aramis said. “That’s very good for you.”

“And you,” Porthos interjected, a bit stern this time. He shook his head. “I mean, what you said about Elodie. I could say it about the queen, too.”

Aramis hesitated, but he managed to keep his surprise in check this time. “The situations are hardly the same.”

“But are they really so different?” Porthos asked. “I mean, sure, you have to wait the proper time, because she does have to mourn, but I mean, I don’t know. Is it such a bad thing to go after what you want?”

“That’s not what anyone said the first time I slept with the queen,” Aramis pointed out.

Porthos narrowed his gaze. “Because she was married to the king of France that time.”

“She’s still the queen,” Aramis stressed.

“And a widow,” Porthos insisted.

Aramis scoffed. “That’s hardly a distinction worth making!”

“I think the church and society would disagree,” Porthos said.

Aramis’ mouth dropped open, and for a long moment, he could find no words. “Why are you doing this to me? Now? When I’ve worked so hard to put it behind me?”

“Because it’s not behind you,” Porthos said, reaching for a new drink from the barkeeper. “The things we do, this life we lead -- that’s not all there is, Aramis. And, when this war is over, when this mourning has passed, we deserve to be happy, don’t we? When it’s over?”

“It may never be over,” Aramis said, lifting his drink to his lips with a morose air. “And it’s certainly not over yet.”

Taking a drink of his own, Porthos looked quizzical. “It doesn’t feel like that, though,” he mused. “It feels like something’s going to end.”

“No!” Aramis said, more resolutely now. “Not when I just came back! It’s only started.”

Porthos shrugged, conjuring less confidence than Aramis had hoped. “If you say so.”

-o-

Aramis was wrong.

You would think, given his ample experiences in this regard, that he would be used to it.

He wasn’t.

Not by a long shot.

-o-

By the time Aramis arrived, there was nothing to be done.

Treville was lying on his back in the field, the blood spreading out from his body and staining the grass red. It no longer mattered, not really, why this had happened. All the intrigue, all the political pandering, none of it meant as much as everyone had thought it did.

And to be sure, this was not the first blood to be shed in the name of France. Nor would it be the last.

But this was Treville. His captain, his First Minister, his would-be father when his own had given up on him. Treville had given Aramis his commission; he had made sure he recovered after Savoy. He’d endured all of Aramis’ missteps with as much detached grace as one could ask for.

It was not often that Aramis questioned God.

But seeing Treville die that day, knowing there was nothing, nothing, nothing to do.

This time, Aramis had no prayers.

-o-

Burying Treville was hard, harder than walking away from the queen and his child. It was harder than leaving the musketeers in pursuit of forgiveness. Treville’s death was hard because it wasn’t a new start.

No, this was an ending, plain and simple.

He closed his eyes, wishing the crucifix on his neck could offer him comfort this time, but it just felt heavy.

Opening dry eyes, his stomach twisted itself into knots so hard that it hurt.

Dirt on the grave, shovelful by shovelful.

Aramis was far, far too good at saying goodbye.

-o-

At church, Aramis struggled to say his prayers. They felt wooden on his tongue, and his fingers shook when he lit a candle. He had to strike several matches before the flame took, but the flame flickered brighter than all the rest.

Normally, Aramis might have stayed and sought God’s will for his life once more.

Grimacing, he bowed politely to the Father minding the pews and made his way to the doors.

At this point, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

-o-

It changed everything, in the aftermath. The palace grew quieter; the garrison grew uneasy. A pall hung over them, like a dread of inevitability.

Of what, no one could say.

Rather, no one was willing to say.

He wasn’t the only one who wanted to avoid his problems.

Indeed, Aramis suspected sometimes, he wasn’t so different from the rest of them at all.

-o-

“I think we need to talk,” Athos announced to him one day while they were on the road together. Outside of Paris, things were green and full of life. It made it easier to forget.

And easier to remember.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and with all that has happened, I don’t see any way to put it off any longer,” Athos said.

Aramis sighed. “I’ve not even been alone with the queen,” he said preemptively. “I have been the epitome of self control.”

“What?” Athos asked.

The sheer surprise in his voice caught Aramis off guard. He looked at Athos. “What?”

Athos tilted his head, looking vaguely bemused. “It’s nice to know that your sense of self has not suffered for all your penance,” he said. “You still think it’s all about you.”

Aramis, despite himself, reddened. “Usually when you want to talk in such a manner, it’s about my shortcomings,” he said. “I mean, I have had my share.”

“As have we all,” Athos reminded him. Then, he shook his head. “But no matter. This is not about you.”

Aramis looked at Athos with renewed curiosity. “Oh?”

“It’s just Treville’s death,” Athos continued.

Aramis dropped his gaze. “Oh.”

“It’s not that,” Athos clarified. “It just made me think about what it is I really want; the life I’m meant to live.”

This time, when Aramis looked up, his gaze was quizzical. “I thought you were happy as a musketeer.”

“I am,” Athos said. “I think we all are, but there’s more to life than fighting. After I left my title behind all those years ago, the fighting made it easier to forget what I’d lost. And when that was not enough, the drink kept the memories at bay. But I’ve made my peace with it now; I know my regrets, but I also know that the appeal of my future can outweigh the burden of my past.”

“Athos,” Aramis said, genuinely surprised. “I’ve never heard you speak this way before.”

“Because I’ve never allowed myself to think this way,” he said. “I was a different man, once. I was a man with passions and desires, much like yourself.”

“I always fancied you to be more like Treville, to be honest,” Aramis said.

“And there is honor in giving your life, all of it, to your country,” Athos said. “But I can no longer say that is the only thing I want.”

Aramis understood quite suddenly. “Sylvie.”

Athos smiled, a small, controlled, real smile. “I love her,” he said. “I feel foolish for admitting, it’s true, but I can deny it no longer.”

Aramis found himself smiling in return. “I would never presume to lecture you on the foolishness of love.”

“It’s an impetus I understand, better than I let on,” Athos admitted. “I am the nobleman who married a common thief, after all.”

“Love can conquer many things,” Aramis said wistfully. “Just not...everything.”

Athos drew to a stop, pulling himself face to face with Aramis. “Sometimes, we make it harder than we should.”

“That’s not what you said when I slept with the Queen of France,” Aramis reminded him ruefully.

Athos tweaked his eyebrows suggestively. “But she’s not the Queen of France anymore,” he said. “Is she?”

Aramis rolled his eyes with a groan. “That does not suddenly make it easy!”

“But it also does not make it hard,” Athos insisted. “Aramis, listen to me. I spent years of my life trying to deaden my senses so I didn’t have to feel anything. My struggle was long and full of self indulgence. Worst of all, it was in vain. Some things are not meant to be, this is true. Some things, though? Some things are ours if we choose to take them.”

Aramis offered him a watery smile, trying to keep the burning from overtaking his eyes. “And take it, you should,” he said, gripping Athos resolutely on the arm. “For if anyone deserves a second chance in this life, Athos, it’s you.”

He turned to start down the street again, hoping that the unshed tears weren’t visible in his eyes.

-o-

The promotion for Porthos was a bit of a to-do, and Aramis quite enjoyed the celebration. When it was over, Porthos was still surprisingly sober, and Aramis saluted him as he headed back to his quarters for the night.

Porthos, however, had different plans. “Hey,” he said, jerking his head toward the stables. “Is your horse rested?”

“Should be, yes,” Aramis said with an indifferent shrug. “Do we have an assignment already?”

“No, no,” Porthos said, adjusting the saddle on his own horse. “I just. I don’t know.”

Aramis waited, arching his eyebrows.

Porthos broke easier than normal. “There’s just something I have to do first,” he said.

Aramis frowned. “I thought you were set to move out by next week.”

“Next week, sure,” Porthos replied. “But that’s a week away.”

His voice trailed off, and he bit his lip.

Aramis blinked in surprise. “Elodie?” he realized.

Porthos’ face broadened with the widest grin imaginable. “It’s only two day’s ride,” he said. “I can go and be back before the week’s over.”

“That’s not much of a honeymoon,” Aramis observed.

“I don’t need a honeymoon,” Porthos said. “I just need her.”

There it was, then. Athos and now Porthos, happy and settled in a family way. It was a certain kind of penance, he figured, to watch his best friends get the happy ending he so desired.

It was one thing to endure it.

It was another to embrace it with a smile.

“Very well,” he said, starting toward the stables.

“Where are you going?” Porthos asked.

“To retrieve my horse, of course,” Aramis said. He turned back, grinning widely himself. “I presume you need a witness?”

“Or a babysitter,” Porthos returned salaciously.

Aramis chuckled, saluting again. “I am here to serve.”

-o-

Aramis hated the idea of being alone, but he found he could not begrudge them this chance. They had given to him -- more than he had ever deserved -- and he wanted this for them.

He did.

So he took Athos out for drinks and debated the general trends in naming babies. He helped Elodie set up house and bounced the baby while Porthos chopped wood to prepare then for his absence. He smiled every minute he was with them, not because he was happy but because he wanted them so badly to be.

That was what it was to put yourself second.

For Aramis, such a novel, novel idea.

-o-

When the day finally arrived, he bid them adieu with restrained emotions. They hugged, they commended each other for the very best, and that was that. Athos had a home to set up; Porthos had an army to lead.

All that was left was him and D’artagnan, side by side in the charred courtyard of what remained of the garrison.

He smiled, looking fondly at the younger man. He wasn’t so young anymore, and he wasn’t so green. As captain of the guard, he would have a difficult task ahead of him.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Constance. She was watching earnestly, but keeping a polite distance. She was a good woman; she understood that sometimes the right thing was also the hardest thing of all. And for men like D’Artagnan, the choices would just get harder.

Smiling, he clapped D’Artagnan on the shoulder, disturbing his reverie. “What?”

“Nothing,” Aramis said.

D’Artagnan flustered ever so slightly, distracting himself with the ruins about them. “I can’t believe how much there is to do.”

“In all our years, when has that not been true?” Aramis asked.

“Still,” D’Artagnan said. “We have to start cleaning this place up.”

“In good time,” Aramis said. He nodded toward Constance. “You have other things to preoccupy yourself.”

D’Artagnan, bless his dedication, scoffed without a glance toward his wife. “If I’m captain, I have to focus.”

“As captain, you will,” Aramis assured him. “As a husband, however…”

This time, D’Artagnan did glance, reddening as he did so.

“Come now,” Aramis prodded. “Enjoy yourself; enjoy your wife. All the rest will still be here in the morning.”

D’Artagnan was tempted, that much was plain. But he had not worked his way into the musketeers for being distractable. “But I’m captain,” he said.

“Which means I am at your disposal,” Aramis reminded him.

This time, D’Artagnan hesitated.

Leaning forward, Aramis dropped his voice. “When life gives you the chance to be happy, take it,” he advised. “Besides, look at her before you refuse again.”

D’Artagnan complied, and with a long, good look, Aramis knew he had won his point. Glancing boyishly at Aramis, D’Artagnan grinned. Aramis nodded once more for encouragement and watched as the other man scuttled off into the waiting arms of his wife.

He did not look back as she led him to their quarters. Before she disappeared, however, Constance glanced back with a grin as she mouthed thank you.

A slim consolation by some standards, but more than Aramis deserved.

So much more.

Sighing, he turned back to the task at hand. Reaching for a piece of ruined wood, he let thoughts of the others leave him as he got to work.

-o-

In his years with the church, Aramis had struggled to find contentment. Peace had eluded him, and the discontented yearn to return to a life of action had plagued him until he heeded all available signs and resumed his commission. Since then, he’d been too busy to contemplate the meaning of his existence or how he felt about said meaning.

With Athos and Porthos gone, however, Aramis had more time on his hands.

And far more solitude to appreciate his situation.

Sure, he his friends were moving on, but they were happy. Athos and Porthos would be far away, but D’Artagnan would remain as his brothers in arms. And life as a soldier, it was as much as he could figure in terms of God’s will for his life.

He could not be a father to his son, but he could see him from time to time. He could watch him grow and learn, even if from afar. And God help anyone who threatened that child’s well being.

True, it was difficult to be so close to the queen, but he had found that time and distance had never mattered in this regard.

For she would always be his forbidden fruit.

He would not fight that, but neither would he indulge it.

Contentment, Aramis finally concluded.

The only blessing he would ever deserve.

-o-

That was all well and good until he was summoned to the palace and brought before the queen herself. She was smiling, almost glowing, even as she was clad in black. Aramis’ stomach churned uneasily while he bowed before her.

She hastily summoned him up. “I have a proposition for you.”

Aramis was aware of himself, doing what he could not to flinch at the implications. “Your majesty?”

Her lips played in a small, tight smile -- one she was clearly trying not to fully indulge. “Due to the unfortunate events as of late, my personal council has been left badly depleted. I’ve worked hard to surround myself and the future king with the best and most trusted advisors in all of France.”

“A noble pursuit,” he replied blandly, still unsure what this had to do with him.

She inclined her head, indulgent. “While I have filled many of the positions, there is one that remains vacant,” she continued. “First Minister.”

This time, he did flinch at the memory of Treville. “Those will be especially hard boots to fill.”

“Indeed,” Anne said. “I asked Athos, but he had already decided to leave the service. Naturally, your new captain came up, but it is clear to me that his talents are best served in the field.”

Aramis nodded. “I’m sure there are other fine candidates--”

“I have only one,” she interjected, lifting her head primly. She was beaming now, and her smile was impossible to hide. “Will you accept?”

For a moment, Aramis’ mind reeled. Smart as he was, he could not make her words parse and her meaning eluded him. From the way she phrased it, it sounded like she was offering him the position of First Minister.

Then, her smile widened and her eyes brightened expectantly.

Aramis stopped, his head feeling light.

She was offering him the position.

First Minister. It was power and politics, sure, but it was more than that.

It was life at the palace.

It was life.

She held out her hand, the invitation plainer still. “Will you please join me?”

This was more than a job, what she was offering him.

So much more.

Hastily, he crossed toward her, embracing her smooth fingers as he bowed before her once more and pressed his lips to her soft flesh. He looked up, heart swelling in his chest.

No one could refuse the Queen of France.

And he could never refuse her.

“My service, my loyalty, my life,” he pledged, eyes meeting hers, “are at your discretion.”

-o-

That night, he went to church but the prayers wouldn’t come. Miserably, he found his way to a bar instead. When D’Artagnan found him there several hours later, half drowned and forlorn, he helped him up and out the door.

In the street, Aramis stumbled against him. “Careful,” he advised, to himself, to D’Artagnan, he had no idea. “This is France’s First Minister.”

D’Artagnan looked somewhat surprised. “So she has offered,” he said. Then, he frowned. “Why aren’t you happy about it?”

Aramis made an exaggeration scoff. “I’m First Minister,” he said. “After I committed treason and nearly destroyed the entire regiment.”

D’Artagnan raised his eyebrows, looking vaguely concerned. “We’ve all committed treason a time or two. We had good reasons.”

“I did it by sleeping with the queen,” he slurred, almost failing to keep his feet. “I don’t exactly have sound judgement.”

Adjusting his grip around Aramis’ waist, D’Artagnan appeared to consider that. “We can’t be defined by our worst mistake,” he said thoughtfully.

“You can’t actually say that,” Aramis said.

“I do,” D’Artagnan replied. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have recommended you for the position.”

This time, Aramis’ legs did fail him and it was only D’Artagnan’s quick reflexes that kept him from hitting the pavement. When the younger man had him upright again, Aramis was gaping. “You?”

“Yes,” D’Artagnan said. “You’ll be great at it. You understand the politics, and you have practical experience that most of the council lacks. I could definitely use an ally at the palace. There’s no one better to serve France.”

Aramis continued gaping, the sluggish thoughts failing to coalesce in his mind. Finally, he shook his head. “What?”

D’Artagnan let out a short laugh and rolled his eyes. Cajoling Aramis forward, he shook his head. “Besides, all the rest of us have our happy endings,” he said. “I thought this might help you get yours.”

Aramis was going to protest, quite vehemently, but instead of words, all he managed to do was vomit before he passed out entirely.

-o-

In the morning, Constance was there. She clucked at him, like a mother hen, and readied him for the day in the most matter of fact fashion possible.

“What’s the point?” he lamented.

“The point is that you’re expected at the palace,” she said. “Being hungover isn’t the best start of things, but it’s better than not showing up at all.”

“You were in on this too,” he muttered reproachfully. “Weren’t you?”

“Of course I was!” Constance said. “And you should be grateful!”

“I like being a musketeer just fine!” he insisted.

“Don’t be dumb!” she said, ladling some porridge into a bowl for him. “This isn’t just about the position.”

“You know what happened the last time I was given any time with the queen,” he reminded her.

“Yes,” she said, throwing his best, clean shirt at him. “You made her very happy.”

He tilted his head.

She rolled her eyes and tutted again. “Honestly,” she said. “Not everything is about you!”

-o-

Aramis wasn’t late. In fact, he was the first one there, and he shuffled uncomfortably while the others were brought into the room. There was some polite small talk, some political gerrymandering, and Aramis shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot as he tried to feel like he actually belonged.

That was a tall order, consider who he was and what his background was.

It didn’t help that he felt sick to his stomach and light in the head. He could only hope that his appearance wasn’t as ghastly as he felt.

Still, when she entered the room in her full royal attire, none of it mattered.

Not in the slightest.

She smiled at him.

He smiled back.

“Come now,” she said, rubbing her hands together as she gathered the council to her. “We must get to business.”

-o-

After his first council meeting, he could still scarcely believe that he was the First Minister of France. He was reeling from that revelation, when one of the queen’s assistants came up to him after the meeting and pulled him aside.

He half expected some kind of condemnation. Perhaps some critical analysis on his failure. At this point, quite honestly, he wouldn’t be surprised to have the man tell him to get out and never return, that there was no way a common musketeer could hold the sway of France’s future.

Instead, the man bowed politely. “Sir, if you could come this way.”

Aramis found himself hesitating. “What for?”

The man blinked, as if in surprise. “Well, you are First Minister, are you not?”

It seemed like a trick question, and Aramis narrowed his eyes. “Yes.”

The man smiled politely. “Then it is time to look the part.”

Aramis faltered even worse than before.

The man raised his eyebrows, seemingly bemused. “This post isn’t merely about politics,” he said. “Now, sir, if you’ll come this way.”

This time, Aramis followed.

After all, he’d come so far.

Why would he stop now?

-o-

It was, to be modest, more than he’d expected.

A lot more.

He met with the royal tailor, who measured him and showed him elegant swatches of fabric for his consideration. He was allowed to pick the latest styles, and the hat maker had several ideas for new head wear. The servant who ran the kitchens came to enquire as to Aramis’ dietary preferences, checking off a list of popular dishes that would be available consistently when he dined alone or at the Queen’s table.

Then, as if all that were not enough, he was shown his private quarters. This included the large office that Aramis had been in before as well as a residential living quarters within the palace walls.

“Is this normal?” Aramis asked, a little taken aback. The room was larger than anything he’d lived in before, even on his father’s estate. It was opulently adorned with as many luxuries as practicalities. “I thought previous ministers stayed within their homes off the grounds.”

“In some cases, this is true,” the man said. “But it has been suggested by the queen that you have no other accommodations at this time since resigning your commission to join the council. She also thought, with full support of the council, that you would best serve the needs of our young king if you had an immediate place on the palace.”

Aramis nodded slowly, trying to find the flaw in the rationale. “That….makes sense.”

“Very good, sir,” the man said. “That just leaves the matter of your payment?”

Aramis startled just slightly, unable to hide his surprise. “Pay?”

“Of course,” the man said. “As a high ranking official, you draw an official paycheck from the royal vaults. The terms are open to some debate, but the queen has asked me to leave an advance on your first month’s work here.”

He nodded to the table, where an envelope was sealed with the queen’s mark. Aramis picked it up, running his finger under the seal to lift it up and peek inside.

When he saw the amount, he nearly laughed.

“Is that sufficient, then, sir?” the man asked.

Aramis put the envelope down, nodding effusively. “Yes,” he said, surveying the newfound reality of his life once more. “It is more than certainly enough.”

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