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Musketeers fic: Forbidden Fruits (3/3)

November 30th, 2017 (08:33 pm)
thoughtful

feeling: thoughtful

Continued from Part One and Part Two.



It was all quite impressive, indeed. Within a week, he realized that his new lifestyle would leave him wanting for nothing. Fine clothes, fine food, upscale conversation about topics that mattered -- it was beyond his wildest, wildest dreams. When he’d set out on his own, determined to make a name for himself -- he’d never even dreamed of this.

Yet, that wasn’t what really mattered.

For as much as he loved those elements of the job, it was the fact that he got to see the queen, counsel her son.

That was what made it perfect.

-o-

More than that, Aramis was good at it.

True, he had a lot to learn about the finer dynamics of court and politics, but he had always been good at that sort of thing. Inexperienced in politics as he was, he found his time in service of the musketeers made him respected, and his natural charm and charisma made it easy to win the others to his side quickly. The other ministers liked him genuinely, and foreign dignitaries seemed to listen to him, and it did not take long before he made quite the name for himself on the international political scene.

It wasn’t that strange, really. Aramis had known when he left the abbey that he’d been born to be a fighter. But he hadn’t realized then just how many battlefields there were in life, and how many ways there was to win without a sword or gun.

At least, after all these years of searching, he’d found his calling.

-o-

That should have been that.

To find his purpose, to have every indulgence.

Except one.

Aramis was not a man who knew contentment.

Not when a beautiful woman was involved.

-o-

He was dutiful, though.

And repentant.

He had made his promises, and he had resolved to abide by them.

That was his resolve, at least, until he was alone in the room with her.

-o-

He hadn’t meant for it to happen, whatever that was worth. After the daily council meeting, he’d stayed to amend his notes for an upcoming visit from a British ambassador. He was intent on his work, when the queen’s voice broke into his thoughts.

“Business as usual, then,” she mused.

He looked up, smiling politely. It was then that he realized that the other advisors had all gone, and the queen’s personal entourage was nowhere in sight. He considered this, briefly, in terms of the security risk.

But then he looked at her. Standing alone in the doorway, her disposition was listless and her face was creased with what could only be described as a pained, desperate smile.

This was her choice; this was no coincidence.

His mind raced with reasons why, and he did his best to dismiss them all. “I apologize, your highness,” he said, gathering his things. “I should not take up any more of your valuable time.”

This did nothing to alleviate the discontent on her features.

If anything, it made it worse.

On his feet, Aramis could not bring his legs to move. “Is everything all right?” he asked.

The air between them was thick, ripe with the possibility. He nearly choked on it, working to keep himself steady, to keep himself sure.

Her composure wavered, exposing what looked like agony for a brief second before she drew her eyebrows together in censure. “Is this all it is, then?”

He looked at her, willfully at a loss. “Is this all what, then?”

“A job,” she said, more forcefully than she probably intended do.

His hands started to sweat; his mouth went dry. “Well, you asked me to be First Minister,” he said, somewhat slowly. “I’m doing my best to fulfill the obligation.”

Her jaw worked, and she shook her head as her eyes gleamed. “I thought you understood.”

Carefully, he took a step closer to her. “Understood what, exactly?”

“That it was more than a job offer,” she said, her chest starting to rise and fall rapidly.

He took another step toward her. “I would never want to presume…”

She huffed, blinking her eyes rapidly. “Why would you insist on becoming a prude now? Of all times, after all we’ve been through, now?”

With another step, he was almost close enough to touch her. “I’ve made too many mistakes, repeated too many mistakes,” he said. “I would do nothing to jeopardize you or your son.”

This time, she couldn’t keep the emotions back. She half choked, brushing a rough tear from her cheek before it fell. “You jeopardize nothing but my happiness.”

Somehow, he inched closer, feeling his own heart flutter almost uncontrollably in his chest. “What would you have me do, then?” he asked. He wet his lips, the desire burning through him with an intensity that he could scarcely contain. It was one thing to pass the forbidden fruit each day; it was another to have it dripping with juice in front of him. “I am forever at your service.”

“Then, kiss me,” she demanded.

“Your majesty?” he asked, duly taken aback.

She rolled her eyes, and she crossed the final distance between them, grabbing him by his robes and pulling him closer for a kiss.

Stiff at first, he thought to resist.

God said that no temptation would ever be too much to handle.

Kissing her back, Aramis reflected for the first time in his life that God might be wrong.

“There,” she said when they parted. She smiled, breaths coming in heaving gasps. “That’s better.”

That was all there was to it, all that there was to his resolve, his penance, his promise.

Aramis took one last step, gathering her up in his arms and kissed her back with passion he’d held back through the years.

-o-

A single kiss.

Years of deferred passion.

Aramis prayed fervently that night for forgiveness.

It would have been more convincing, perhaps, were he not mentally planning to sin again the next time he saw her.

-o-

If the mistake was one of impetuousness, they both did their best to minimize the risk. Anne was a widow, this much was true, but she was still Queen Regent, and there were still ample political factions waiting for her to fail. She had to now, more than ever before, be above reproach, and a dalliance with her First Minister hardly seemed like the best way to start things off.

There was nothing they could do, however, when in the alone together. The attraction was simply too much; the draw of the years too hard to resist. The kisses were short; the moments were stolen, and Aramis thought that would be enough.

That only went to show.

Aramis didn’t know himself very well at all.

-o-

“Yes, I do believe it is an issue we need to discuss further,” the queen announced in a council meeting. “First Minister, I would appreciate your insight.”

Before Aramis could respond positively, another minister chimed in. “I can also stay, your majesty. My expertise on trade with Spain may be useful.”

Undoubtedly, it would be useful if that was what the topic of discussion was actually going to be.

To be fair, Aramis wasn’t sure there was going to be any discussion at all.

The queen, to her credit, retained her composure with unparalleled poise. “I wouldn’t want to detain you from your other, very important duties,” she said. “I will, of course, discuss our findings with you tomorrow. Until then, I suggest we all adjourn.”

Her suggestion was never that. Aramis had known that from the beginning, and it was marginally gratifying to know that others complied with her instantaneously as well. When the ministers had left, the queen dismissed her servants and had the doors locked.

“For the sensitive nature of these matters,” she explained.

Aramis arched his eyebrows at her.

She shrugged.

Sitting back, he didn’t hide his smile. “He had a point,” he said. “Jacques is much better regarding trade with Spain.”

Rolling her eyes, she crossed over to him, looking at him playfully down the tip of her nose. “That is not the expertise I crave right now.”

“Oh?” Aramis asked.

She bent down, consuming him with a kiss as she ran her hands precariously close to his most sensitive parts.

Pulling back for air, he grinned wider than before. “Oh.”

-o-

Eventually, of course, the stolen moments weren’t enough. She slipped a key into his hand, whispering into his ear. “This will get you through the secure corridors on the back side of my chambers,” she said.

He did his best not to look too quizzical, aware that they were not alone.

She demurred politely to the crowd about them. “I trust you know how to use it.”

-o-

Aramis was a man with many lovers, and many of whom he had no business being with. He had snuck in and out of many rooms, and he had jumped from more than one window in his exploits. He knew what this key was.

It was easy to think it would be the answer, that it would give him everything he wanted.

He knew better, though.

This was just another step down the slippery slope. Falling would take down his career, it would endanger his son’s future and it would put the woman he loved above all else at risk. It would be smart to stop now, before things got out of hand.

As First Minister, his judgment was impeccable.

As a man in love with a forbidden woman, it was the same mistake over and over again.

-o-

He found her there, in her dressing down, laying on top of the covers of her bed. She looked up in the dim candlelight, smiling at him.

“I thought you might not come.”

He smiled back, a paler version of her own. “I considered against it.”

Her bemusement turned to concern. “Why? Is this not what we both want?”

Crossing over to her, he sat gingerly on the edge of her bed. “We’ve been here before, and what we both wanted nearly destroyed us.”

She sighed. “This is different.”

“Is it?” he asked.

Gently, she sat forward, inching closer to him. Her fingers were soft on the skin of his hand, and it was all he could do not to take her in his arms right then and there. “Aramis, when we were at the convent together that first time, why do you think I propositioned you?”

“You were lonely,” he said. “It was only natural to seek out companionship.”

“And you think you were my only opportunity?” she asked.

He tilted his head. “What?”

She smiled patiently. “I could have found comfort with countless men, right here in the palace. Many of whom I could have maintained easily dalliances without ever leaving these walls.”

Furrowing his brow, he was almost ashamed to admit that this hadn’t occurred to him.

“But I didn’t because I didn’t want them,” she said. She almost laughed. “I didn’t merely want comfort, Aramis. I wanted you.”

He had always thought of her as his forbidden fruit, impossible to resist.

He had never thought that he might be hers.

“See,” she said, draping an arm around him as she nestled her head against his. “If this is a mistake, then it is one that we are making together.”

His defenses gone, Aramis surrendered once more.

-o-

Sometimes, Aramis was profoundly happy in his new life, in a way he never had before. He liked the work; he liked the people. His son started to call him by name and sought out his advice on important issues. Being near the queen was downright intoxicating.

“You are happy, then,” D’Artagnan observed when he came to the palace on official business one day.

“Hm?” Aramis asked, looking up distractedly from his desk.

D’Artagnan chuckled. “I was worried that you wouldn’t take to this, but look at you.”

Aramis gestured to the work on his desk. “Buried in paperwork?”

“Happy,” D’Artagnan said. He adjusted his stance, eyeing Aramis coyly. “Anything you want to tell me?”

“Yes,” Aramis said, shuffling the papers into piles and dropping his quill on the desk. “We need a few musketeers at the palace next week when the Swedish delegation is in town, and you can tell Constance that I very much appreciated her scones. The palace may have the most revered chefs, but no one makes a pastry like your wife.”

D’Artagnan looked vaguely perturbed. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know,” Aramis said. He smiled. “But that’s what I said. You can infer the rest as you see fit.”

By the grin on D’Artagnan’s face, it was clear that he did.

-o-

It would all have been perfect if not for this simple fact: Aramis was taking the forbidden fruit. He was taking it, day after day after day, and when he tried to make his confessions in church, he knew the Lord saw through him and into the heart of who he was.

The same man he always had been.

The fruit could taste sweet and it could satisfy the craving in his belly but that didn’t make it right.

Aramis feared, down to his very depths, that nothing would.

-o-

In the throne room, Anne dismissed her servants and half pinned him to the floor.

“Wait,” he protested.

She moaned. “Why?”

He backed up from her, pathetically trying to save what appeared to be his dignity. “This is too brash.”

“They won’t enter,” Anne assured him.

“But surely they’ll know,” he said.

She looked amused at that. “Of course they know.”

“But that’s too risky,” he said. Gently, he clasped her hands in his. “What will people say of the rumors?”

“What rumors?” she asked.

“About you,” he said. “Taking a lover.”

At that, she laughed. “I would imagine most of them are thinking it’s about time.”

“What?”

She pulled back, shaking her head with almost motherly concern. “Do you know how long it’s been since Louis died?”

“Over a year,” Aramis said.

“Exactly, over a year,” she said. “My period of mourning has passed. I am free of any obligations, and I know that Louis would have taken a bride by now were our positions reversed.”

All he could do was stare at her.

“I am free, Aramis,” she said again, more emphatically now. “I have waited a year in mourning, and how long has it been since we were at the convent?”

“Almost a decade,” Aramis replied.

This time, she clasped his fingers in hers. “Almost a decade,” she repeated, gazing at him intently. “We’ve waited long enough.”

Her points made sense.

But even if they didn’t, Aramis had never had any defense against her.

There wasn’t much point in trying to have one now.

-o-

Aramis still struggled with the morality of it, naturally.

To make matters easier, he simply went to church less.

And instead of kissing his crucifix, he kissed her.

Not all things were created equal, but Aramis had never exactly been a righteous man.

-o-

As consuming as his relationship with Anne was, Aramis still had other interests and obligations.

Well, that was not entirely true. His interests consisted of council meetings, being with his son and stealing moments with his lover under the noses of the palace staff. When he found a few spare moments, he managed to spend time with D’Artagnan on and off, though mostly on official visits.

Not this time, however. The invitation had been formal, and D’Artagnan had been most excitable regarding it. Aramis didn’t dare say no.

Still, when he was seated for dinner at D’Artagnan’s humble quarters back at the garrison, he found himself wondering what he’d missed. He kept up on the status of the musketeers, of course, and he always politely enquired as to Constance’s well being, but watching his old friend, it was clear to him that he’d been so invested in his own issues that he’d forgotten that other people had lives.

“Tell me,” Aramis said, smiling as Constance heaped a pile of food on his plate. Across from him, D’Artagnan was practically squirming in his seat. “What is the reason for this occasion?”

Constance clucked her tongue at him as she passed the bowl to D’Artagnan and took her seat. “It shouldn’t take a special occasion to bring you around!”

Aramis blushed good naturedly. “I do apologize,” he said, gathering his fork to start eating. “The job of First Minister has rather taken a hold of me.”

“I’m sure,” Constance said. She pursed her lips suggestively. “The Queen says you are quite dedicated.”

This time, Aramis’ blush was deeper still.

D’Artagnan cleared his throat, as if unable to control himself any longer. “There’s no sense pretending,” he announced. “This is a special occasion.”

Constance rolled her eyes. “Honestly, we agreed--”

“I know you said wait until after dinner, but I can’t wait,” D’Artagnan said.

“We were going to have conversation first!” Constance said.

“We did!”

“For two minutes!”

Aramis lifted his hand to intervene. He’d waded into numerous political disputes; a little domestic unrest seemed quaint. “Tell me now, and we will converse after,” he said diplomatically. “I cannot imagine any news that would deter us from a pleasant evening together.”

D’Artagnan looked somewhat triumphant as he beamed. “Constance is with child.”

Constance gaped. “You said I could tell him!”

“I know!” D’Artagnan said. “But if I waited for you, we would have been here for hours!”

“That was the plan!” Constance said. “I made scones!”

“Wait,” Aramis interjected, trying to mentally catch up. “Constance is…”

D’Artagnan looked downright exuberant as he nodded eagerly.

Aramis looked at Constance.

She bit her lip shyly, but nodded, too.

“You’re going to be parents?” Aramis asked, the smile spreading across his face.

“Yes!” D’Artagnan said.

“Yes,” Constance said at the same time.

Aramis, despite himself, laughed. “That’s wonderful!”

“I’ve been anxious about it for awhile,” D’Artagnan gushed.

“I was more hesitant,” Constance admitted. “But with the war over, I don’t know. The timing seemed right.”

D’Artagnan grasped her hand in his. “The timing is perfect.”

“And it couldn’t happen to a more perfect couple,” Aramis assured them. “Honestly, I cannot express how happy I am for you.”

“And you’ll be the godfather,” D’Artagnan continued, turning his eager eyes to Aramis again. “Won’t you?”

“That was why we made the scones!” Constance said, swiping her hand at D’Artagnan. “For the captain of the musketeers, your strategy leaves something to be lacking!”

“Godfather?” Aramis repeated. “Surely there’s a more suitable choice -- Athos or Porthos.”

“They’re not in Paris,” D’Artagnan said. “Porthos travels so much with the army, and Athos is almost impossible to get ahold of--”

“And we think you’d be great at it,” Constance said. “We’ve seen how good you are -- with Louis.”

“Please,” D’Artagnan said. “Please, be the godfather of our child.”

Aramis looked from one to the other, soaking it in again. This was what it was, then. This was what joy was. This was contentment.

This was a blessing from God, the kind that Aramis himself would never enjoy because of his own weaknesses.

He had but a moment of envy, panging deep inside him.

It was overcome, though. Their joy was enough to cover him, and his pleasure in their contentment was strong enough.

“Of course,” Aramis pledged, for even a man with as little honor as he could be held accountable for this much. For D’Artagnan and Constance. For the innocence life they would bring into this world. “It will be the greatest honor of my life.”

-o-

The greatest honor, Aramis reminded himself that night when he let himself into Anne’s room.

He kissed her, slipping her fingers under her bodice.

The greatest honor that he did not squander, at any rate.

-o-

D’Artagnan’s news was thrilling.

Porthos’ was practically old hat by now.

“We figure it’ll be a spring baby,” Porthos explained.

He was staying at the palace a night on a royal duty, honoring him for his service maintaining the borders. It was a short trip, but Aramis had determined to make the most of it with a private dinner.

Porthos drank deeply from a glass of wine and reached to fill his cup again. “It’s a bit sooner than we’d hope, given that Adele isn’t weaned and Beau is a terror, but I figure what the hell. We’ve already got three. What’s one more?”

Aramis refilled his own glass with a note of reservation. “And Elodie agrees with your mentality?”

“She loves it!” Porthos said. “I swear, that woman wants as many children as we can possibly pop out. If it were up to her, we’d have a dozen or more.”

Taking a sip, Aramis found himself laughing. “Five years ago, I never would have imagined that for you,” he said. “But looking at you now, it does seem right.”

Porthos broad grin was a sign of agreement. “Funny how the right woman can turn all of that around,” he said. “I mean, not just me. D’Artagnan. Even Athos! Now we’re all just waiting on you.”

At this, Aramis nearly choked on his drink. He would think that Porthos was joking, but…

Porthos cocked his head at him expectantly.

Swallowing, Aramis regained his composure. “I do hope you’re not too serious,” he said. “Because I’ve disappointed you all enough for one lifetime.”

“Aw, come on,” Porthos cajoled. “It’s not about disappointing us. It’s about finally opening yourself up to the new possibilities!”

“Well, I am First Minister now,” Aramis reminded him. “That possibility may not seem too new anymore, but that doesn’t make it less demanding.”

Porthos rolled his eyes. “That’s not the way you used to talk,” he said. “What about taking time for yourself?”

“I have indulged that enough for one lifetime,” Aramis said, studiously minding his drink again. “My duty is to France now.”

Unconvinced, Porthos stared him down across the table. “You make it sound like you can’t do both.”

“If past experience serves, maybe I can’t,” Aramis said.

Ever resolute, Porthos shook his head. “You’ve changed. I know you have.”

Sighing, Aramis deposited his drink on the table. “I know you mean well, my friend,” he said. “But it’s not that simple, not for me.”

Porthos sat back, giving a diffident shrug. “If you say so,” he said. He took a quick swig. “But I’ll you this. My life isn’t exactly simple either. The difference, though? Mine’s happy.”

Aramis lifted his drink. “Then here’s to that happiness,” he said, doing his best to change the conversation definitively. “And all the complicated happiness yet to come.”

Porthos raised his glass in turn, smirking. “For both of us.”

-o-

Funny how people had always thought of Aramis as a man of faith.

Even now, they respected him for his commitment to God.

They didn’t understand, though. Aramis was truly a man of doubt.

And he trailed after God trying to lay those doubts to rest.

When that didn’t work, however, he laid with a beautiful woman instead.

That was how one became a man of faith.

Without ever entertaining the promise of eternal peace.

-o-

Seeing Porthos was always a treat, but when Athos came to town -- well, now that was an actual occasion. They always made a big to-do, all four of them if Porthos was nearby. D’Artagnan spent most of Athos’ time parading him about the garrison and talking over the nuance of being captain. Aramis hosted them for a meal when he could. For all of his regrets, he did not miss his simple life for its simplicity.

For its camaraderie, perhaps. But they were brothers no matter where they were, what they were doing.

Even Athos, for all that he had changed, kept that much constant.

“This really isn’t necessary,” Athos said for the third time as Aramis showed him to his quarters in the palace.

“No, but I do so enjoy seeing you be uncomfortable,” Aramis teased. “For all that you’ve changed, you’re still not comfortable with wealth or power are you.”

“I no longer even have the status of a musketeer; I am a common farmer,” Athos said. “I have no place here.”

Aramis snorted. “You are my friend,” he said. “That always assures you a place here.”

Athos inclined his head slightly. “You have taken to this life well.”

“It is more invigorating than I might have imagined,” Aramis admitted. He spared a glance at Athos. “And how are you enjoying your life as a common farmer?”

A smile played on Athos’ lips. “More than I would have expected,” he admitted. “All this years, and I find myself as content as the day I left -- maybe more.”

“It is remarkable, the change in you,” Aramis observed. “I wish I knew your secret.”

Athos shrugged. “There is no secret,” he replied. “The work is unimportant; I have everything I want.”

Aramis allowed himself several paces down a busy corridor to hold back his scoff. “And that’s it?”

“That’s it,” Athos said, following as they turned a corner. He came to a stop, beckoning Aramis to stop with him. “Men like us--”

“Soldiers?” Aramis asked.

Athos shook his head. “You and me, men of discontent,” he said. “We live that way not because God willed it or fate decided it. We live that way because we end up punishing ourselves longer than we deserve.”

It was all that Aramis could do not to look away. He smiled, somewhat feebly, thinking of the only reasonable thing to say. “I am glad you put it all behind you, what happened with Milady and your brother and all that,” he said. “Contentment suits you, Athos. It truly does.”

“I know,” Athos agreed. “That is why I do implore you to try it.”

“Life as a common farmer?” Aramis quipped.

Athos did not indulge his poor attempt at humor. “Letting go,” he clarified. “Your past is behind you just as much as mine is.”

“Do you think?” Aramis asked. “I would not dare mention the young king.”

“I know,” Athos said flatly. “And I agree that it is important not to forget the past, because we both need that part of us. But these last few years have shown me, more than anything else, that the future is just as important. The past can be good or bad or whatever. But the future, Aramis. The future is still whatever we choose to make it.”

His smile wavered; his composure nearly broke. “Maybe,” he said. “For some of us.”

Athos held his gaze. “For all of us.”

This time, Aramis could not maintain the eye contact.

Taking pity on him, Athos clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “I’m a common farmer now; all this excitement has worn me out.”

“Right,” Aramis said, blinking rapidly as he turned back down the hall. “This way, then.”

-o-

Aramis could hear the voices of his friends, but none of those words made any sense. He could no longer hear the voice of God, but that was probably because he had long since given up prayer. The voice of his lover overrode the rest, but there was one other voice to contend with.

One other voice he loved more than the rest.

One other voice that he could never acknowledge but would never deny.

At nearly eleven years of age, Louis was quickly approaching manhood, and there were moments when he looked very much like a king who could lead the nation.

Other times, though, Aramis could see him as he was.

Just a boy.

Just his boy.

“I don’t even know if this is what I want,” the child confessed one day. He’d just sent away his tutors for the afternoon, taken by utter frustration of their lackluster lesson plans.

“An education is important for you,” Aramis advised. He’d been called in by the governess, who was at her wits end with the child. Discontented, she had called him. It made Aramis chest ache. “They are trying to help you.”

Louis sighed, slumping dejectedly. “I mean being king,” he said. “No one ever asked me about it. And I know, I’m supposed to want to do it, because everyone wants to be king, don’t they? But I keep thinking -- what if there’s something else?”

Typical, probably, for his age. Louis had a strict educational schedule, and as he was growing, he was expected to maintain more royal engagements. They had started to bring him in on council meetings on a regular basis, preparing him for all the demands of kingship when he finally did come of age.

But this wasn’t just his age.

This was Louis, being his father’s son.

Discontent had destroyed Aramis’ life.

He would be damned -- well and truly damned -- if he let it destroy his son’s.

Sitting down, he made himself at eye level with the child. “There is always something else,” he said. “And it is true, you will deny yourself many opportunities in life to do the right thing, but that’s okay?”

Vexed, Louis looked up at him. “It’s okay?”

“It’s okay to doubt; it’s okay to want,” Aramis said. “The trick is to remember that what you have, what you’ve been given -- that’s worth something, too. It’s easy to miss out on the valuable things you have right here and now when you pine for something else.”

“But this isn’t some little thing,” Louis said. “This is about being king. For the rest of my life! How am I supposed to know that’s what I want?”

“Some call it God’s will,” Aramis said.

The boy made a face. “Please, no more advice on the divine right of kings.”

Aramis smiled slightly. “Then why not call it contentment,” he said.

To this, Louis looked uncertain.

“If you always think what’s coming is better, then you’ll never be pleased with what you have right now,” Aramis said.

“But what if the future’s not better?” Louis asked.

“But you must remember,” Aramis said. “It’s not about what you lack; it’s about what you have?”

“And what do I have?” Louis asked.

“Then you have your mother,” he said. “And you have me.”

Chewing his lip, Louis looked thoughtful for a moment. “Did you know my father?”

The question -- the word father -- made Aramis’ stomach do a flip. It was all he could do not to let the boy see. “Yes,” he said. “Your father was a good man and a good king.”

“I try to remember what he was like,” Louis admitted with a shake of his head. “But it’s hard now.”

If it hurt to see his son call another man father, it nearly broke him to realize how much the boy missed him. How much he loved him. That was a love Aramis would never have; a love he would never be able to claim.

But that didn’t matter.

There was no other place he’d be but here.

Even if it meant reaffirming the most painful truths possible. “He’s with you with every decision you make,” Aramis said. He pointed to Louis’ head. “He’s up here, but most importantly--” He tapped the boy’s chest. “He’s in here. Don’t you ever doubt that.”

Louis looked mildly desperate. “But that doesn’t make it any easier. I’m going to be king. How am I going to make decisions that affect people’s lives? How am I possibly going to lead a country?”

Aramis smiled fondly. “That’s why I told you, you’ll never be alone, no matter what the future brings. Your mother loves you dearly, and she would do anything for you,” he said.

Looking up, Louis’ eye brightened hopefully. “And you?”

At that, Aramis’ chest nearly burst. “You have my word,” he said. “That I will never leave you. My service to you is the thing that defines me; it is the only thing that I will never compromise on. I assure you of that.”

Aramis had spoken man words to many people in his life. He had convinced many beautiful women to love him; he had encouraged many men to call him friend. He had talked queens into bed, and he had convinced ambassadors to change their plans. There was no doubt that Aramis’ words were effective.

The genuineness, however, could be in question more often than not.

But not now.

Not this.

Not here.

Aramis was a man of doubt, but he found one resolve, one inalienable fact that.

This was his son.

And in a world of discontent, that would always be the one thing he would never regret.

This time, Aramis knew it was more than words.

This time, the only time, Aramis knew truth.

Louis smiled, tentative at first, but at Aramis’ solidarity, it blossomed. He reached up, throwing his arms around Aramis. He might have been too old for such displays of affection, but Aramis wasn’t about to stop him.

Not when he craved the contact so purely.

Pulling away, the boy looked changed. “Thank you, Aramis,” he said. He lifted his head primly. “As always, your counsel is invaluable.”

“Good,” Aramis said. “Now, shall I call back your tutors?”

Louis hesitated, his eyes glinting mischievously. “I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. “Not when I have an afternoon of private studies with my most trusted advisor.”

Aramis pretended to consider this, as though he wasn’t going to say yes. “We could probably brush up on your sword technique,” he said. “While casually going over the important names of court.”

“Yes!” the boy said, forgetting his noble bearing for a moment. He quickly gathered himself. “I mean, ahem. I could definitely use some refinement in my technique. D’Artagnan has been teaching me, but I think I’m feinting to the left too often.”

“Because he favors his left ridiculously!” Aramis said. “No, come. We must remedy that immediately.”

Louis scrambled to his feet. “Yes, Aramis! Let me just get my rapier!”

The boy scampered off, Aramis trailing after him.

For all that Aramis had done wrong in his life, that boy was something he’d done right.

He might never know the Father’s contentment.

But he would enjoy this contentment whenever it was presented to him.

-o-

And yet.

That was the story of Aramis’ life.

They all lived happily ever after.

And yet.

-o-

It was always a woman.

It would always be a woman.

In bed with her, he breathed her in and folded her as close as he could against himself. In the tangle beneath the sheets, he could feel her heart beat and he closed his eyes, listening to the rhythm until his own matched it.

Two hearts, one destiny.

If only.

He opened his eyes, only to find her looking at him.

“You’re not quite happy,” she said.

He wanted to be surprised, for her sake.

He was not.

“That has nothing to do with you,” he assured her.

“It does, though,” she said. “Doesn’t it?”

She would have to know by now. How could she not? How could all that had passed between them not laid bare the truth. Still, he would not hurt her. Never. Gently, he smiled, lifting his hand to brush the hair out of her face. “I am not a man who is given easily to contentment,” he said.

Pulling back, this was clearly not the answer she wanted. “Do I make you discontent?”

“No,” he said. “No, no -- you misunderstand. I am a man who wants what I do not have.”

She stared at him, nearly incredulous. “And what is it that you don’t have that you want?”

“You,” he said. “It’s always been you since the day I met you.”

Now, she laughed, as if in disbelief. “But that’s ridiculous.”

It was his turn to be hurt. “But why?”

“Because you have me,” she said, firmly now. She toyed with his hair for a moment, shaking her head fondly. “You’ve had me all along.”

“But you are the queen--”

She rolled her eyes with a scoff to cut him off. “And you are the only man in my heart,” she said. “I know it; most of court knows it.”

His cheeks reddened.

“The only question left is what your intentions are,” she said.

At this, he frowned. “Whatever you wish them to be, of course,” he replied.

“I thought my intentions were clear,” she said. “Yet, you let the rumors persist -- the very rumors you yourself warned against.”

Pulling away, Aramis’ throat felt tight. “I told you, I can hide this better,” he said. “If you want, we can break it off entirely--”

She grabbed hold of him before he could slip out of bed. “Aramis! You miss my point so plainly!”

He stopped short, but knew not what to say.

She stared at him, gathering a long, weary breath. “Your intentions,” she said again. “Surely, you do not expect me to be your mistress.”

Now, he was flustered. “It’s not my place. Who am I to ask for the hand of the queen of France?”

“You’re the one the Queen of France loves,” she said, lifting her chin with a royal air. “And there’s no one else in this world that I want but you.”

He swallowed -- hard. “Court will frown,” he said. “France will question it, and there are countless other matches with more strategic gain.”

“Strategy is for a First Minister,” she said, pausing to wet her lips. “Love, however….”

He shook his head, heart fluttering anxiously. “Our love is forbidden.”

“Forbidden?” she asked, and this time her laugh sounded near hysterical. “Aramis, I am regent to a blossoming king, and you are First Minister of France,” she said. “More than that, I am a widow, and you are a loyal friend who has never failed to be there for me.”

She drew him closer again, tracing her fingers down the scarred planes of his chest. He did not trust himself to speak; nay, he barely trusted himself to breathe.

“There is no scandal here,” she said, the smile on her lips making her look more beautiful than he’d ever seen her before. “Except for the fact that you bed the queen with no promise of a future.”

“It’s yours, of course,” he said, the words tumbling over his lips in a rush. “My past, my present, my future -- they have been yours since the first time I laid eyes upon you. I pledge myself to you, you and your child and all of France, however you will have me.”

She was pressed against him now, and the rest of the world melted away. “Then I will have it as an honest woman when you stand in church and make me the happiest bride in all of France.”

Against her, he had no defense.

Surrender, he knew, had never tasted quite this sweet before.

“Very well, then,” he said, resting his forehead against hers. “Let it be as you wish.”

-o-

There was no delay; the announcement was made with great pomp and circumstance. To Aramis’ surprise, court was delighted, and the people approved. Louis himself was overjoyed at the notion, even if they were all surprised.

D’Artagnan, Porthos and Athos, however, they weren’t surprised.

“I knew it,” D’Artagnan said as they readied in the church. “I told you all, didn’t I? I told you they’d be married before the end of the year!”

Aramis, dressed in the finest suit he would ever own, twitched anxiously, fixing his mustache compulsively. “Please don’t tell me you were taking bets on my love life,” he said.

“Bets, no,” D’Artagnan said. “But I still said it.”

Porthos grunted, swatting at the younger man. “I knew you’d get there eventually, but I mean, I know you,” he said. “You have to make everything all dramatic.”

“Well, I am marrying the queen of France,” he reminded them, adjusting his outfit again. “Dramatic is inevitable.”

Porthos straightened the hat on top of Aramis’ head. “Exactly,” he said. “You’re never going to do things the easy way.”

“But even Aramis couldn’t fight it forever,” D’Artagnan said. “I mean, I’ve seen them together. Aramis and the Queen -- they’re meant to be.” He looked at Aramis, shaking his head. “I don’t know how you held out this long.”

“Drama,” Porthos chimed in, taking time to smooth out the wrinkles in his own outfit.

Athos crossed over, making sure Aramis’ sword was straight. “No matter,” he said. “We’re here now, hm?”

Aramis nodded, swallowing hard. He was nervous, though he wasn’t quite sure why. It wasn’t that this was a mistake, but he just wasn’t sure it was the right thing. For him, that is. With all the pieces falling into place, he had to still wonder if he deserved it?

If it would finally, finally, teach him what it meant to be happy.

“Don’t worry,” Athos said, more quietly now while D’Artagnan and Porthos bickered on. “This day, this ceremony -- that’s not what it’s about?”

“Oh?” Aramis asked. “Better not tell that to the full delegation of royal representatives who have traveled from the whole region to watch.”

Athos was nonplussed. “Marriage won’t make you happy,” he said. “But realizing you have everything you need? That will make all the difference.”

Aramis drew a breath, letting it out. It did little to alleviate his nerves.

“Hey, come on!” Porthos called back. “It’s going to start soon!”

D’Artagnan scurried back, directing Aramis to the door. “You’re going to be late!”

Athos drew alongside him, giving him one last reassuring look as they exited to the chapel. “Better late than never,” he said. He held out his arm, gesturing for Aramis to make the first move out it the church. “We’ll be right behind you, every step of the way.”

That was all there was, then. He had no doubt about was behind him.

And it was finally time to embrace what came next.

For better or worse.

-o-

The church was full, and the streets beyond were packed with people. Kings and queens, princes and princesses, ambassadors and ministers -- they all came, one and all, to witness the glorious event.

Even the people came out, pouring in from the countryside, just to catch a glimpse of this momentous occasion.

The finest musicians, the best florists, the most talented chefs. There was no expense spared, and no limitations set. It was a grand ceremony, to be sure. Perhaps the most expansive France had ever seen.

None of that mattered, though.

Not to Aramis.

He was a vain man, and a man of wayward wants and desires. He was easily distracted, and his whims were wanton.

At least, those things had been true.

But not today.

Today, Aramis’ focus was paramount, and all that mattered were the three men by his side, and the young man who proudly gave his mother away.

Anne said yes, and the minister ordained it as holy.

“What he has joined,” the priest proclaimed. “Let no man tear asunder.”

Anne looked at him, as brilliant as the morning sun.

The fruit wasn’t forbidden anymore.

With a gracious hand, the priest added. “You may kiss the bride.”

It was funny, as Aramis compiled.

It tasted sweeter than ever.