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Musketeers fic: The Spirit is Willing

December 28th, 2017 (05:39 am)
curious

feeling: curious

Title: The Spirit is Willing

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: Unbeta’ed. Set before S3. Fills eating disorder for my hc_bingo card.

Summary: Aramis’ decision to fast for God’s forgiveness goes about as well as the rest of his plans.



-o-

It was a simple life.

That had been its appeal. Aramis had always thought that if he could just clear his mind, rid himself of all distractions, focus solely on God, then he could be a better man, the man God intended him to be. He had believed, wholeheartedly and ever-earnest, that offering himself as a living sacrifice to God would provide his soul with the peace that eluded him.

He called it penance, a necessary token back to the God he sinned against. He was not fit to be amongst his friends; he did not deserve any luxuries in life. He was no good to stand with them, for his judgment had been badly compromised.

Aramis, after all, had learned his lesson.

God help him, he hoped he’d learned his lesson.

Crossing himself, he kissed his crucifix and felt his lips go cold. Because he remembered who gave him this crucifix.

Closing his eyes, he squeezed it in his hand, feeling the edges bite into his skin.

He’d let go of everything else, but not even God could ask him to leave behind the memories.

Tucking the crucifix back beneath his robes, Aramis got to his feet. Back to it, then.

His simple life.

-o-

It had been just over a month. Aramis had always had an acute sense of time, but the passage of days seemed more clear here than ever. After all, what else was there to do but cross the days off, one by one?

He chided himself on the vicar’s behalf. Real service wasn’t about him; it was about God.

Aramis knew this to be true, but he was a man who had indulged many carnal sins. The penance of nothingness was something he still had to learn how to control.

Among other things.

In life, as a Musketeer, Aramis had always been a quick study. He had quickly mastered skills that it took others years to refine. His swordsmanship was second only to Athos, and no one could beat him with a pistol.

Even social situations had always come naturally to him. He was easy to like, and he endeared himself to a multitude of company without hardly even trying. Men trusted him, and women fawned over him -- it was just part of who he was.

His instincts in battle were also good. He’d shown a keen sense of awareness under pressure, and his ability to understand his orders and take his opponents into consideration had always made him a good choice for action.

None of that did him much good here, though.

Here, his instincts were stifled. Here, he struggled to gain traction with the other men. His jokes were either off color or ill conceived for men of the cloth. While they meditated throughout the morning, Aramis found his own mind wandering. His prayers were always awkward and short, and his knowledge of God’s word, which had always seemed advanced around his fellow soldiers, seemed trite.

The only thing he was good at was confession, and he did that as often as he could. He apologized to the vicar, and he made public statements to hold himself accountable to the men around him. In this, they prayed over him staunchly, calling for power and wisdom to keep him resolved.

“Lord, forgive our brother, Aramis,” they said, laying hands on his head and back. “Forgive him.”

Aramis had once believed that God would answer the prayers of a pious man, since he had not answered those of a sinner.

Another week passed, however, and Aramis could not assuage his doubts.

-o-

“You should not compare so much,” the vicar lectured him. “God does not judge us in relationship to one another. He judges you on your heart.”

“Which is why I’ve tried to confess,” Aramis implored him during a counseling session. The other men had them from time to time; Aramis had them nearly daily. “But I never feel the burden lifted.”

“You are too emotional, Aramis,” he replied. “It is not about how you feel. Isn’t that what caused so many of your problems in the first place.”

Aramis appropriately blushed. “But how am I supposed to know I’ve been forgiven?”

The vicar chuffed a kind laugh. “I believe it’s called faith.”

The obvious answer made Aramis groan. “I’m trying to do the right thing here, Father.”

“Try less,” the vicar advised. He patted Aramis gently on the head. “Do more.”

Aramis twisted his lips in barely concealed frustration. “Tell me what to do, then.”

Rising to his feet, the older man smiled. “Focus on yourself, and not what others think of you. Concern yourself not with how you compare to others. Rather, regard who God has made you to be, and who he still wants you to become,” he advised. “Keep God first, far above yourself, and you’ll do just fine, my son.”

-o-

Fine, Abbot said.

As if everything could be fine.

He’d committed adultery. He’d committed treason. He’d nearly got the woman he loved killed, and he nearly forfeited his own life in the process. Moreover, his antics had forced his friends to put themselves in jeopardy, and Aramis had nearly taken down the whole damn monarchy.

So, indeed, fine was not exactly the most appropriate designation Aramis could think up.

All the same, his own judgment had been proven questionable. Now, he had to submit himself to the vicar’s guidance and hope -- most earnestly -- that God would finally hear him.

He prayed through morning meditation. He came late to lunch after spending more time alone with himself in the wood. He requested absences from his chores to immerse himself more fully into God. He kept himself up, while the others were sleeping, and he repeated the prayers, again and again and again until he heard them in his dreams.

He delineated every sin. He confessed every shortcoming. He apologized for the affair; he confessed of his vanity in trying to see the child. He admitted to using Marguerite, even to her peril, even to her death. He made note of every lie, every risk, every hardship he created. He apologized to Anne, his son, his brothers, his captain. He even apologized to the king.

When he finished, he started again.

He would pray with this kind of devotion until God heard him.

He squeezed his eyes shut in lamentation.

Until God’s word came back to him once more.

-o-

After several days with no effect, Aramis decided that his prayers were too limited. Words, after all, were vanity in the wind. He needed to take more straightforward action.

Meditation, then. He lit the candles and burned the incense. He drew the curtains and immersed himself in the dark. He meditated, morning, afternoon, night, stopping only for a short dinner.

Then, he was back at it again.

-o-

When none of that proved sufficient, Aramis gave away whatever possessions he had left. He gave his clothes away to the poor, and let a child ride off with his hat. He sold the weapons to a smithy in the closest village, and he poured all of his scant earnings into the offering plate.

It wasn’t enough.

Inside, he felt unchanged, and all the bleaker for his failed sacrifices.

“Lord,” he cried out on a prayer walk one night. “What do you want from me?”

There was no answer, of course.

God showed no favor on sinners.

-o-

“Fasting,” Aramis said, coming enthusiastically down to breakfast the next morning.

The vicar was cleaning up. Aramis was late, but his portion was still on the table. “What?”

“I need to fast,” Aramis said.

The old man made a face. “We fast from time to time, when we feel it is appropriate or there is a time of great need.”

“I have both right now,” Aramis said. “Fasting is a sign of submission. It’s a way to get closer to God.”

“When employed under the conditions,” the vicar warned. “And with the right heart.”

“I want to be redeemed,” Aramis supplied readily.

“You want validation,” the vicar said, shaking his head. “They’re not the same thing.”

“Fine,” Aramis replied. “That’s another reason to fast. To learn the humility I so badly need.”

The vicar rolled his eyes. “Just ask yourself, who are you doing this for? God? Or yourself?”

“Why can’t it be both?” Aramis asked with a shrug.

“Aramis, if you can’t honestly see the distinction--”

“I know, I know,” Aramis said, doing his best to keep the repetition from driving him mad. “I just need to know that the things I’m doing matter.”

Wearily, the vicar sighed. “I will permit this, but only under my supervision.”

Aramis grinned, getting excitedly to his feet. “Thank you, Father!”

He was rushing out, when the man called after him. “But what about your chores? These dishes are yours to do!”

Aramis waved heartily. “I really wanted to spend some time with God, make sure I’m making the right choice,” he said. “You understand, don’t you, Father?”

Aramis didn’t wait for the answer.

-o-

In truth, Aramis wasn’t sure what God thought of fasting. He knew it was used biblically, and he knew that Jesus himself had gone for 40 days without food or water. It had always been a good guideline to believe that living as Jesus lived would pay dividends.

He could only reason, however, that Jesus had fasted as a sign of devotion. Jesus, as a man, had come to exemplify sacrifice, and Aramis had to take that very seriously, given his sins.

That said, he was also suddenly aware of how being stripped down to his most basic need made his senses attuned differently. He no longer harbored the thoughts of a soldier or a hedonist. Instead, he became aware of the innerworkings of his body.

Indeed, he could only hope, eventually his heart.

Even with this revelation, Aramis was uncertain what God was trying to tell him. The message seemed acute yet hard to discern.

“Time, time,” Abbot coached him. “Have patience.”

Resolved, Aramis politely pushed his dinner plate away and excused himself for a night of early prayer. He fell asleep, on his knees, and woke up stiff and sore.

More than that, he woke up with a gnawing hunger in his stomach. A need, a thirst. More than food, however.

Much more.

Aramis nodded politely at the brothers after breakfast, and went for a walk in the garden instead. He had to pause frequently, quelling the pain that ate at the pit of his stomach. Each grimace, however, was its own kind of pleasure. Hunger was a certain, simple thing. The only thing of which Aramis could be sure.

When he skipped lunch and dinner as well, he went to bed starving and smiling all the same.

In his pain and discomfort, it finally felt like he was getting somewhere.

-o-

“You should eat, Aramis,” Abbot said, slightly stern the next morning.

Aramis, demurred. “I am fasting.”

The man made a small sound of discontent. “I can hear your stomach grumbling all the way over here.”

Aramis gave him an apologetic smile. “It was Jesus who said that we should cut off the offending parts of our bodies rather than risk sin.”

“And what has your stomach done in Satan’s name lately?” Abbot asked.

To this, Aramis smiled politely on his way out the door. “I am still searching for my penance,” he said. “And I haven’t yet heard God’s voice.”

On his way out, he did not hesitate to look back. All the same, he heard Abbot’s voice echo after him. “Probably because your stomach is too loud!”


-o-

While Aramis knew Abbot meant well, he also knew a man like that could never understand. The others here, they were pious. They had earned their place.

Aramis had survived on grace far, far too long.

He had thought, in some way, that grace would allow him to indulge his pleasures. And indulge, Aramis had, right up to sleeping with the Queen of France.

Even with all that, had he ever been satisfied? Had he ever found contentment or clarity or peace?

His pleasures were idle and devoid of passion.

His discomforts, on the other hand.

They seemed promising.

He would die to his old self.

And pray that God saw fit to raise him up again.

-o-

At first, it seemed to help.

A week went by in a flash, and Aramis found his fasting to be a relief. However, even though the physical pain made him feel like he was making tangible gains in his journey of repentance, he was no closer to understanding what God wanted from him.

He needed to delve deeper. He needed to deprive himself of more. He needed to fast until his hunger quieted his senses and God’s revelation was the only thing remaining.

Aramis had to keep going.

-o-

In the garden, when the others were at the breakfast table, Aramis found himself weak. Usually, he liked to wander down to the river, listening to the quiet babble while he contemplated his own sinful mortality.

No more than a half a mile into the woods, however, and Aramis needed to sit. Sinking against a tree, he pressed his palm to his forehead, feeling foolish for not remembering to pack water. Most of the time, he drank from the stream, but he was no sure he could get there now.

Wearily, he rubbed at his eyes.

He wasn’t sure he could get back, either.

He wasn’t even sure he could get up.

Lightheaded, Aramis focused on his breathing and his lips started moving in silent prayer. Just when he thought his prayers would be unanswered again, there was a voice.

“Aramis, my son,” it echoed in alarm. “Look at me.”

Aramis, dazedly, looked up, half expecting to see the hand of his savior.

Abbot stood there instead.

He looked concerned.

And a little angry.

“You are a foolish, boy,” the man muttered, huffing as he sat down in front of Aramis. With gruffness, he reached up, lifting Aramis’ chin and pushing his hair out of his eyes. “When did you last eat?”

“I have not hidden it from you,” Aramis said. “My fast is not complete.”

Abbot looked perturbed. “Fasting is for God,” he lectured. “Starving yourself is an expression of vanity.”

“That’s not what’s happening here,” Aramis protested.

Abbot chuckled mirthlessly. “Then, eat,” he said plaintively. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a half loaf of bread, holding it at Aramis.

Aramis could feel his stomach lurch as his mouth watered. For the first time in his life, he thought he might understand what his Lord had experienced, if only for a second in that desert. 40 days without, Aramis no longer had to imagine the temptation.

“Come on,” Abbot said, thrusting it at him.

Aramis felt himself break. His needs were too great; his hunger was too encompassing. For as little as he understood his savior, he could emulate him even less. Here was the devil, offering him respite, and Aramis was going to say yes.

“Abbot, please I--” he said, haltingly, blood draining from his head rapidly as his heart skipped in his chest. “Please--”

“Eat,” Abbot said more firmly, putting it in Aramis’ lethargic hand and wrapping the wooden fingers around it.

And Aramis, God help him, did.

-o-

In his hunger, Aramis hardly tasted the food. Once he gave in, his hunger flooded over him, and the bread was gone in seconds. The binge left him breathless and trembling, and he had no further resistance when Abbot took him by the arm back to the abbey.

When Abbot put him to bed, telling him to rest until lunch, Aramis turned away as his stomach churned anxiously.

Gritting his teeth, he squeezed his eyes shut, looking for some kind of reprieve.

Hot tears tracked down his face.

Any kind of reprieve.

-o-

Lunch was misery.

Dinner was hell.

Feeling utterly unsociable, Aramis excused himself back to his room in a fit of melancholy. Sleep evaded him, though, and Aramis took to the gardens to pray away his grief.

“I need a sign, Lord,” he begged. “Any kind of sign to let me know what you want from me.”

No sooner had the prayer left his lips when his stomach rumbled. But it was not hunger, this time.

No, Aramis barely had time to understand it, the twisting, horrible pain, wrenching through his gut with the ferocity of a bullet and the stab of a blade. He hit his knees, barely catching himself when the first convulsion swept over him.

He was vomiting now, half digestive food spilling over his lips. The next convulsion shook him down to his core, and he continued until all that was left was bile.

When it was over, Aramis was left shaky and breathless.

He flopped onto his back, looking up at the stars winking through the trees.

He grinned.

He was shaky and breathless, yes.

And so much better.

After all this time, God had answered him.

Bitter and harsh, Aramis could still taste it on his tongue, burning like acid in his throat.

This was what repentance was, then.

He closed his eyes and listened to the tormented growl his innards made.

This.

-o-

That night, at bedtime, Aramis prayed his most earnest. He thanked God, and sought continued guidance for his repentance.

In bed, he slept better than he had in ages, better than he had since coming to the abbey.

His grumbling stomach, as it turned out, was the best possible lullaby.

-o-

“My son,” Abbot said, voice cutting harshly into Aramis’ slumber. “You have missed the morning prayers.”

Aramis turned, squinting upward. It was lighter than it normally was; sunlight poured through the windows.

Huffing, Abbot tended the windows, pulling back the curtains to let in even more light. “And if you do not hurry, you will miss breakfast.”

Aramis sat up, rolling his sore neck. He opened his mouth to speak.

Abbot tutted, holding a stern finger up. “I will not have any complaints,” he said. “You’re skin and bone as it is.”

Aramis held his tongue, watching as his mentor briskly strode out of the room once more. Abbot had been kind to Aramis, taking him in and treating him like a brother since he showed up on the abbey’s doorstep those months ago. He had listened without judgment to Aramis’ exploits, and he offered counsel beyond even the typical confession. He had practiced scripture with Ararmis quite devotedly, taking special interest in Aramis’ spiritual growth. In truth, Aramis owed him a great deal.

And yet.

Aramis hesitated, chewing his lip.

He knew what God had showed him last night. He knew the path that was laid before him. It was one of repentance. Only then could Aramis be a worthy pupil.

Abbot meant well, but he was not infallible. Jesus himself cast Peter, his most devoted follower, behind him, deriding Peter’s good intentions as Satan’s influence. Good people could make the wrong choices; moreover, pious followers could inadvertently lead the sheep astray.

This was not Abbot’s penance.

It was Aramis.

Abbot had always said, this was between Aramis and God.

Aramis would cling to that, wholeheartedly. Abbot would understand, and Aramis would tell him.

When the time was right.

When Aramis was right.

Aramis’ stomach groaned heartily, and Aramis patted it gently.

He knew what he had to do.

-o-

He had often been accused of vanity during his time at the abbey, but Aramis could be discreet when he so chose.

Case in point: breakfast.

He sat and took a heaping portion, graciously thanking the day’s servers. He laughed and made jokes, breaking up the bits of food and spreading them across his plate. When the others were not looking, he put the whole chunk of bread into his sleeve and tucked the block of cheese into his belt.

Excusing himself, he made his way into the gardens, slipping through to the main gate where the beggars gathered. He disseminated the food stuff quickly, hushing them along their way with a blessing.

“Thank you! Thank you!” the old man said, hobbling down the forest road. “You do God’s work, for truth!”

Aramis took heart for the first time in weeks.

-o-

And so it went. Aramis continued on, fasting intently with only water throughout the day. In order to avoid suspicion, he took an interest in kitchen work, giving him easier means to remove his portions without attracting attention. The beggar grew stronger and more able.

Aramis grew more devote.

His prayers had clarity.

His repentance had focus.

God’s voice spoke in the gnawing pit of his stomach.

Your will, Lord. Not mine.

-o-

“Aramis.”

Balancing the plates, Aramis ducked back toward the kitchen, willfully oblivious. He had sought to make himself less during his time at the abbey, and although he was naturally effervescent, he had schooled himself in being reticent.

This was, of course, part of his devotion and study.

It also conveniently obscured his more private declarations.

His stomach twinged, and he quelled it. This wasn’t deception; Aramis had not lied. It was a private matter; the omission was for his personal relationships with Christ.

“Aramis,” Abbot implored him again, following him straight into the kitchen.

Aramis did his best not to redden, placing the plates onto the countertop. Hurrying himself, he reached for the pail of water. “Can I help you with something?” he asked, pausing only to flash his most brilliant smile.

It was not effective, at least not like it used to be. Abbot narrowed his eyes. “I fear you have been keeping secrets, Aramis.”

Aramis feigned the mildest of indignance. “I have confessed all my sins to you.”

Abbot flattened his lips into a line. “Even the part where you are stealing food?”

“Stealing?” Aramis said, now feeling somewhat incredulous. He turned. “I wouldn’t do that.”

The man raised his eyebrows. “Then show me the sleeves of your robes,” he said.

Aramis opened his mouth to protest.

And lift the folds of your robe about the belt,” Abbot ordered.

Wetting his lips, Aramis weighed his options. The lie was tempting, but Aramis was here for forgiveness. Finally, he sighed, removing the bread and cheese. “I’m not stealing it,” he said, placing them on the counter. “I give them to the beggar at the gait.”

“I would never dissuade you from charity,” Abbot said coolly. “But God does not ask us to give up everything so as to make ourselves in need. Where is the logic?”

“I have plenty to spare here,” Aramis said.

“Plenty?” Abbot asked with a scoff. “Aramis, you are wasting away. The robes do not hide it as much as you think it does.”

Aramis looked down, trying to figure out if the generous folds seemed bigger than they used to. The robes had always been generically formed -- that was part of their modesty -- but he had cinched his belt tighter recently.

No matter, he thought as he clenched his jaw. Dutifully, he went back to the dishes. “Man does not live on bread alone,” he replied instead. “Is that not what our Lord tells us?

“Perhaps, but man also does not live without it,” Abbot said, scolding Aramis. “Is that what you think God wants from you? Are your sins deserving of death?”

“All sins are,” Aramis pointed out.

“And that is why we live in grace,” Abbot said.

Aramis sighed again, wheeling around plaintively. “Honestly, I don’t know what God wants for me,” he admitted. “I have prayed most vigorously, but the answer remains unclear.”

“Because your stomach is deafening your ears,” Abbot quipped.

Aramis rolled his eyes. “But what is clear to me is that the fasting helps,” he said. “It is the only act that seems to make any difference.”

“You only think that because of its physical effects,” Abbot said. “The change must come within.”

“But how can I see what’s within until I strip away what is outside?” Aramis asked. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Father, but this is part of my penance. I must continue until I know I have earned God’s grace.”

Abbot took a step forward, face softening. “Grace is not earned,” he said. “And God forgives, without question or recompense. It is man who cannot forget.”

“But what if God has called me to this?” Aramis asked with a wide gesture.

“Then he has called you to die,” Abbot countered.

Aramis stiffened. “And maybe I’m okay with that.”

Abbot took another step forward, eyes flashing sharply. “And maybe I’m not.”

Defensively, Aramis lifted his chin. “You cannot stop me.”

“I can only counsel you,” Abbot agreed. “So listen when I tell you this: your sins have not changed, Aramis. Pride still rules you, with every bite you keep from your lips. Pride nearly destroyed your life once, and if you are not careful, you will let it do so again, even unto your death.”

The warning was stark, and Aramis knew well enough that it was couched in concern. For a holy man, Abbot was steeped with compassion. It was why Aramis had found it so easy to settle here in the first place.

But this wasn’t supposed to be easy. No matter how good the intentions, Aramis needed to feel the change inside him. Aramis needed to maintained his devotion. He left the Musketeers; he turned his back on his friends in the shadow of war.

It had to be for something.

“Pray for me, Father,” Aramis requested, turning back to do the dishes.

“Indeed,” Abbot said, lingering for a moment longer. “I will do so more fervently than before.”

-o-

At the gait, Aramis fed the beggar and watched him go. The contentment was gone; the act had grown monotonous. Even the beggar showed less joy, less gratitude.

It had become routine.

It had become meaningless.

Abbot would tell him that that was a sign from God to stop, but Aramis had quit too many things in life to quit this now. He would see this through.

God spoke to him in his need and sallow desperation. Those had been the only times Aramis had found clarity and purpose.

Therefore, it was not time to sacrifice less.

It was time to sacrifice more.

And Aramis knew just where to start.

-o-

Aramis borrowed heavier robes, sometimes layering one on top of the other to make himself sweat. He shunned the shade, standing instead in the plain daylight until it baked through the material set heavily across his skin. And when his throat screamed for thirst, he refused. When he walked to the stream, he forced himself to sit on its edge, close enough to touch it.

But he would not indulge.

True, he could not avoid the water at meals, but he found solace after dinner, sneaking away to his corner of the gardens to make himself vomit until his throat was dry once more.

The harshness of the lifestyle had immediate effect. Aramis felt it, tingling through his fingers and toes, and strapping him of any vitality he might have had left. When he saw his reflection, he barely noticed himself for the hollow cheeks and stringy hair.

This was pleasing to him. He was a far cry from the robust musketeer who wooed women and slept with the queen. If Anne were in front of him, she would not want him now. Indeed, his friends would not even ask him to battle at the moment.

Everything that was Aramis had wasted away, and he burned the last embers from his mind with the relentless pursuit.

At night, he no longer slept. He stared, dry eyed up at the night until the stars blurred together and Aramis swallowed his prayers to keep his pain at bay.

Father, forgive me.

Maybe the answer would come, in the morning.

After the breakfast he would again give back to God.

Either that, or there’d be no morning.

Aramis would make do either way.

-o-

The only answer was: a little more.

A little longer.

Aramis skipped meals altogether, praying instead within the comforts of his own room.

The fact that his legs were too weak to carry him mattered not at all.

-o-

“This has gone on long enough,” Abbot said, trying to sound stern. He sounded terrified instead. “You need to eat.”

Aramis turned his head away, hardly mustering up enough strength for a protest. “Not quite long enough,” he mused.

“Suicide is a mortal sin,” Abbot chided, fiddling with the blankets on Aramis’ bed.

“I have not harmed myself,” Aramis said, unable to stop the fussing. It had been at least a day since he’d last risen. He furrowed his brow, trying to remember if he had laid here for one morning or two. Maybe three. “I have given up all violence.”

“Look at yourself,” Abbot said, throwing his arm up. “If this is not violence, then I don’t know what is.”

“I have done nothing,” Aramis said tiredly.

“And you think slothfulness is not a sin?” Abbot said.

“Well, at least I cannot be held for gluttony anymore,” Aramis joked meagerly.

Abbot was unamused. “A glutton for punishment, then.”

Aramis huffed lightly. “Every virtue can be a sin in its own time.”

“And every vice has its virtue,” Abbot said, almost pleading now. “You must eat, Aramis. Or you will die.”

Aramis gave him a long, pained look. It took work just to keep his eyes open, to focus them on the wearied face above him. He wanted to make the effort, though. He wanted to remember certain things, certain people. Before it was all lost to him. “You have been very kind to me.”

“And you have repaid it very ill,” Abbot said. He sat down on the bed next to him. “Watching you wither away is like a punishment for a sin I cannot recall.”

“This isn’t about you,” Aramis said. He tried -- failing -- to wet his lip. He was parched. The water he’d permitted himself was still barely touched on the bedside table.

“Then, what, Aramis?” Abbot said. “Is this still your penance?”

Aramis sighed, for the answers eluded him still. “I want absolution.”

“And you think you will find it in the grave?” Abbot asked.


Shaking his head, Aramis took a breath that trembled in his frail chest. “I cannot say I have found it in this life.”

Abbot sat forward, taking Aramis’ wrists in his hands. “I can only tell you that you will not find it at the gates of hell.”

“So I am still damned?” Aramis asked, feeling deflated.

Shoulders slumped, Abbot sat back. “Only if you refuse food another day.”

Aramis looked away, struggling with his emotions. It seemed silly, the way he put it, but Aramis was no scholar. He was no theologian. He was just a sinful man who needed to make amends. His pride, his indulgence, had cost so much.

Whatever sacrifice he could give was little in recompense for what he’d done. To Anne. To his son. To the king. To his brothers and his captain. To the whole of France.

All the same, Aramis knew this was unsustainable. He would die like this, and with no clarity as to the state of his soul. His penitent heart was well intentioned, but God had kept his revelation from him. God had withheld his absolution, and the only comfort was in the pain of sacrifice. It was, in the end, the only visible mark that signified his desires.

He had wanted to be a new man.

If it was not to be in this life, then who was he to complain.

“Come,” Abbot said, trying to pull him up. “We are going to the kitchen.”

Aramis grimaced in pain, and he found himself unable to help. Weak limbed, Abbot fumbled, and Aramis dropped back to the pillows with a groan.

Abbot sighed, standing up while he smoothed his hands down the front of his robes. “Very well,” he said. “I will bring your meal here. And I will sit here with you, watching you eat and swallow every bite.”

Aramis felt his soul lurched. “Abbot--”

Abbot held up his hand. “I will not accept your excuses, Aramis,” he said. “And if God wishes wrath on you for this, I will accept the punishment gladly.”

Weak as he was, Aramis could not protest. He could not fight.

Still, he implored Abbot one last time. “But, my penance--”

“Is served, as far as I’m concerned,” Abbot he said. “Stay here, and we can talk about it over breakfast.”

Aramis shook his head.

But Abbot was firm. “You’ll see sense once you get your strength back,” he said, making his way to the door. He turned. “There are still things worth living for, and you just need to hold on long enough to remember it for yourself.”

The arguments; the logic; the emotion. Aramis had no strength left for any of it. All he could do was lie there, paralyzed in fear.

Father, what is your will?

What is your will?

-o-

The prayer was fast, fumbled and furious. It was all he had left, the one last hope for an answer before it all came tumbling down.

On that bed, starving to death and desperate, Aramis did not plead for his life.

Instead, he prayed, one last time for an answer.

What was God’s will for him?

What was God’s forgiveness to a sinner to be?

What was the worth of Aramis’ soul?

In this, Aramis lost all account of himself. He had no sense of time; minutes were hours were years. For all he knew, he had spent a lifetime at the abbey and the memories of his friends and lovers were nothing but faded, worn memories.

Even more, as his figure deteriorated, he found himself at a loss to remember his vices. Without the allure of food, he had no craving for drink or sweets. His well groomed appearance took too much effort to keep up, and he found his idle fancies to be dwindling along with his energy.

He would find it like this.

That was what he told himself.

He had promised that all his effort, all his sacrifice would be worth while once he discovered what truly lay beneath.

The stark reality, however, was that maybe there was nothing there. That maybe Aramis was nothing but a vain and sinful man. God’s redemption was not far from him.

It was simply never his to grasp.

In that case, Aramis knew there was only one way to peace.

Heaving, Aramis sat himself up. Upright on the bed, he felt lightheaded, and his bones creaked as he sat himself up over the edge of the bed. Gritting his teeth, he went to stand, finding his legs as unsteady as a newborn foal.

Just when he was about to fall, however, he found his footing. He took a moment, steadied himself, and willed himself to take a step forward.

Then another.

What was God’s will for him?

Not to lie in that bed.

What was God’s forgiveness to a sinner?

It wasn’t a hot meal and a good friend.

What was the worth of Aramis’ soul?

Aramis hobbled to the door, not sparing the energy it would take to look back.

It wasn’t Aramis’ body that was starving; it was his soul. The first would kill him sooner rather than later.

He could only hope that it would finally feed that insatiable need inside him once and for all.

-o-

The journey was slow and hard. True, he had accomplished more impressive feats in his life, but none had seemed as arduous or uncertain as this. His body was failing him, and he held no delusions about his fate, but he merely sought justification that his commitment was right.

God’s blessing, just this one last time.

Nearly falling, Aramis girded himself and kept going. At the door, he nearly fell, catching himself against the doorframe. There, he panted for breath, but it did nothing to ease the aching in his starving and over-exerted lungs.

The next steps were ugly and uneven, and he barely kept his feet as he stumbled forward. No one heard him, though; no one came near at all.

At this time of the morning, the brothers should have been milling about. Most of the time, he would have seen half a dozen at least.

But the halls were empty, silent except for Aramis’ persistent labor.

When he got to the door, his heart was hammering so loud that he feared he might die right on the spot. Still, he could feel the warmth of the sun, and the solace of the gardens called to him for his final confession.

He stole one last glance back, but no one was there. Abbot had not returned, probably in no rush thinking Aramis to be bed ridden.

Here he was, though. Standing on his own two legs, moving under his own power, even as his body failed him.

If this wasn’t God’s work, then Aramis didn’t know what was.

Determined, he pushed the door all the way open and slipped outside.

-o-

The victory, as impressive as it was, petered quickly. His reservoir of strength abated quickly, and he struggled to make his way out into the grounds. God’s will had been for him to make it outside and find this solitude.

It was to be his final benediction.

Staggering now, he barely made it to the gardens. He dragged himself forward, half pulling himself on the trees and shrubbery as he made his way past the outskirts and deeper into the brush. He could not risk being too close to the abbey, not if he wanted his privacy.

This was between him and God, after all.

Thus determined, he made it to a familiar alcove. He had prayed here often. True, he would have liked to see the water one last time, but this would do.

His knees gave way and he didn’t have the strength to catch himself this time as he hit his knees. Squeezing his eyes closed, he started to whisper his prayer.

This would have to do.

-o-

In his prayers, though, his thoughts roiled with uncertainty. How was it that after all his dedication, all his commitment, he still had doubts? What more did he have to give? What more did he have to let go of?

Aramis had surrendered it, all of it. He’d given up the woman he loved and the child he’d fathered. He’d given up his commission, and he’d given up his friends, his brothers. He’d given up his purpose, his identity, his freedom, his pleasures, his food.

And he’d done so willingly without reservations. He’d done it with such hope and penitence, and after all this, he expected the clarity of conscience that his lifestyle had denied him over the years. Yet, when it was stripped away, there was no clarity.

There was only fear.

Because Aramis did not want to die, not for vanity, not for irrelevance. What was the purpose of this sacrifice? What would be the meaning of his life? Would there even be value in his death or would he be nothing more than dust?

Even now, as his life ebbed away, he couldn’t even be confident that in the state of his soul. Living at an abbey, fasting and abstaining, and God’s forgiveness was still a mystery that evaded him.

This, more than anything else, was what finally broke him.

Bowing to the ground, he laid himself prostrate. A sob caught in his throat, but he had not the energy to wrench it free. The futility made the gnawing hunger acute again, more insistent than ever.

All he’d done, and it wasn’t enough.

All he’d done, and he would never be clean.

His body, no matter how little was left, was tarnished.

These weeks, these months that he’d prayed for forgiveness, and God had not replied. Now, in the fleeting moments of his life, Aramis did not pray for forgiveness.

Only peace.

As his essence faded, he thought that not even God could deny him that in this moment.

-o-

Heart lurching, Aramis felt his self control give way, and he began to fall.

He remembered belatedly there was no place left to fall.

No place except the pits of hell.

-o-

But then, as he descended toward the eternal dark, something pulled him back. He was being lifted, pulled upward, until his face turned toward the warmest, purest light he had ever felt. Inside, he felt his soul swell.

Was it possible?

Could God have finally taken pity and answered his prayers?

Had his soul finally been saved?

Was absolution within his grasp?

Cracking his eyes open, he expected to see the face of his God and Savior, welcoming him home.

Instead, in a halo of light, he saw Athos above him. His lips were moving, but Aramis couldn’t hear him. He didn’t understand.

No matter.

Aramis was fading, and whether it was God or Athos, he reckoned he had to be in good hands now.

-o-

The afterlife wasn’t quite was Aramis had expected.

Given his complete lack of virtue, however, the fault was probably his.

He wondered if it was punishment or reward that he could still remember everything, the scent of Anne on his lips, the sound of Porthos’ laugh and the feel of D’Artagnan’s blade as it clashed against his in practice.

And Athos’ presence, calm and steadying, always by his side.

It didn’t feel exactly like heaven.

But Aramis knew it wasn’t hell.

-o-

When Athos lifted his head, pushing a cold cup of water against his lips, Aramis was too weak to fight him. When it was lukewarm broth, Aramis felt his hackles raise. This wasn’t what he’d promised; his body wasn’t even used to the taste of food, and he felt himself recoil.

Athos stood steady, however. Shushing him, he held Aramis higher. “You must drink,” he ordered firmly.

Aramis shuddered, but even at his best, he could never beat Athos.

At this point, he didn’t even want to try anymore.

So Aramis didn’t try.

He didn’t fight.

He just opened his mouth and swallowed.

One bite at a time.

-o-

This was what it was now, his existence. He slept, lingering in a dimension of haze and confusion. When he roused, cold water was trickled in before warm spoonfuls of broth followed. This recycled and repeated, and Aramis took to the routine with surprising alacrity.

It wasn’t his will, after all.

He had once hoped it was God’s.

For now, however, he’d settle for Athos.

-o-

After several days, Aramis came to the not-so-stunning conclusion that he had not, in fact, died.

In fact, as his coherency returned to him, he was faced with the uncomfortable truth that he had broken the fast.

Rather, the fast had broken him.

Beyond that, the details were still hard for him to understand, and Athos’ constant companionship made little sense. They were still at the abbey; the other brothers visited, and Abbot held vigil alongside Athos after bringing meals four times a day. He had been saved -- or condemned, he could not be rightly sure.

And he had no idea rightly why.

Athos was unhelpful as ever, offering neither explanations or questions. He seemed to be waiting on Aramis, so Aramis finally surrendered to the inevitable and asked the question.

“Why are you here?”

His voice was rough with disuse, and he could feel the weakness still reverberating through the hollow space in his chest.

Athos, for his part, looked at him, devoid of surprise. “Does it matter?” he asked, tilting his head to the side. “I imagine you didn’t expect to see anyone, given what you’d been doing.”

Aramis was too weak to be shamed. He grimaced, trying to swallow to bring more saliva to his throat. “But you should be on the battlefield,” he said, trying to breathe deeply. His stamina had been badly diminished, however. Weariness dogged him. “And yet here you are.”

Athos inclined his head. “Here I am.”

“There is a war, is there not?” Aramis pressed.

“There is.”

Aramis drew a tremulous breath, feeling the emotion rise in him shakily. “So why are you here.”

This time, Athos seemed to consider the question. He sat back, chewing his lip. “I was asked to come.”

Aramis narrowed his eyes, skeptical. “So you left the battlefield without compunction to come?”

“The timing was fortuitous, I will admit that. We’re between campaigns; the others are doing scouting to the south, and I had been in Paris checking in with First Minister Treville,” Athos explained.

Aramis did what he could to ignore the burning behind his eyes. “You haven’t answered the question.”

Athos sighed this time, something of resignation in his expression. “You assume that there is only one battlefield that matters,” he said gently. He gestured toward the door. “Abbot sent for me. Said you were trying to kill yourself. You’re lucky I believed him, or I might not have arrived in time.”

Aramis blinked hard, feeling a lump harden in his throat. “I wasn’t.”

“I found you more dead than alive in the garden,” Athos reminded him. “It’s been a week, and I imagine you cannot account for more than a day of that.”

This time, Aramis did flush red. “It wasn’t suicide,” he said tautly. “I was sacrifice, something I owed to God.”

Athos blew out a breath, shaking his head. “I have never understood your faith, Aramis, but I have done what I could to respect it. But this…”

Aramis knitted his brows imploringly. “I don’t expect you to believe like I do.”

“I know, and I’ve always been a man to leave well enough alone, especially when I could see what your faith offered you -- and what you offered it,” Athos continued. “Your faith has always been pure; it was always a force for good in you. Respecting that was easy.”

“Not all my actions, though,” Aramis corrected him. He smiled weakly. “You chided me even more than the others.”

“For mistakes, Aramis,” Athos said. “You are not defined by your worst mistakes.”

“Aren’t we, though?” Aramis ventured. “What I did -- it cost lives. Real lives.”

“Yes,” Athos agreed. “And you were the one who always talked about man’s fallen nature and the essence of a forgiving God. You were the one offering comfort to the desperate and granting peace to murderers.”

Aramis found himself looking away, too shaken to look his friend in the eye. “I’ve done you a disservice,” he joked, voice wavering. “I can’t believe you listened to all that.”

“And I can’t believe you forgot all that,” Athos countered.

Aramis looked up again, anxiously. He fiddled his fingers together in the thin blanket covering his emaciated body.

Athos sat forward now, looking at Aramis intently. “You come all the way out here, give up everything you love, and here I find you,” he said, words drenched in incredulity. “Trying to kill yourself so you can escape your guilt and shame.”

It wasn’t so much that it was a surprise; it was that Aramis was too tired to explain it again. Yet, Athos had made the journey here, and Aramis didn’t want him to think that he’d actually needed help.

Well, of course Aramis had needed help.

But Athos wasn’t exactly primed to offer divine intervention.

“It’s penance,” Aramis explained wearily. He hated how the words sounded, almost false to his own ears after so many protestations. It had been easier to believe when he’d been too hungry to think straight. “I swear to you, that’s all it was.”

“Penance is leaving Paris, leaving your friends and putting aside your duty when it commands you most,” Athos told him pointedly. “Penance is walking away from the woman you love and resigning yourself to a son who calls another man father.”

The twisting in his gut was no longer from hunger. That didn’t make it any less acute.

Athos pursed his lips for a moment. “Aramis,” he said. “I know the others made you doubt it, made you feel selfish even, but your reasons for leaving were for us, and not because we’d lost faith in you, but because you lost faith in yourself.”

“My decisions had too great of consequences,” Aramis told him. “It needed to be rectified.”

“We all made decisions, and all of those decisions have had consequences for better and for worse over the last few years,” Athos said. “We are more than our worst mistakes. We have to be. Or how have I managed to go on after hanging my wife for murder and walking away from all my responsibilities?”

“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Aramis implored. “You atoned; you made it right. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

“You’re running away,” Athos contradicted him. “I know, because that’s how I started, too, but while I had the sense to at least stop just short of killing myself, I find you have no such restraint.”

Miserably, Aramis slumped further down into the bed. “I just don’t know what else to do.”

It wasn’t an admission he made easily; it was hardly one he had admitted to himself. But his defenses had been starved right out of him, and he had no pride left.

“You needn’t make it so hard,” Athos said, almost chiding him now.

“So you have the answer?” Aramis asked.

Athos nodded, more earnest than ever. “You live,” he said. “You live with the memory of what you’ve done, and keep it in the forefront of your mind so you remember to do better next time. I mean, what greater penance could there be? No escapes. No denials. No quick-fixes. Just time, energy and effort. That’s the only sacrifice I can think of that actually matters.”

There was a horrible sort of truth to it. He’d always thought of this as a short-term project. His penance, he’d hoped, would have a definitive end. To think of never getting true release, of simply learning to move on with the full weight of his mistakes -- well, it made him almost wish Athos had not showed up at all.

As if sensing Aramis’ uncertainty, Athos continued softly. “And then you take that penance, which is so hard at the start, and you turn it into something more,” he said. “You take that penance and you turn it into a blessing. Take it and rebuild yourself piece by piece from the ashes. Isn’t that more important to your God? Does he actually want your penance? Or does he really want your duty? Your faith?”

Aramis could not take it, not so plainly, not so truthfully. He looked down, desperately blinking away the tears. He laughed, a sound half choked with the cry he refused to indulge. “And here I thought you weren’t a religious man.”

“And here I thought you were,” Athos replied.

Aramis looked up, and Athos had tilted his head at him knowingly. Brokenly, Aramis laughed hoarsely again with a shake of his head. “I don’t know what I am anymore.”

Leaning forward, Athos patted him on the shoulder. “And that, more than anything else, is why you’re really here. You need to find that out,” he said resolutely. “Please, don’t kill yourself before you have that chance.”

The problem was, of course, that Aramis wasn’t sure he wanted to know who he was. In fact, he was fairly certain that he wouldn’t like the answer. Studying Athos, Aramis could offer no promises. “I’d like to go back someday.”

“But you’re not ready yet,” Athos told him.

“Then why did you come? Really, though?” Aramis asked.

“Your value is more than your utility to me,” Athos said. “You cannot judge our friendship so meaningless, can you?”

“I just…,” Aramis started, but he found himself at a los. He shrugged. “I just can’t imagine why else I’d be worth the effort.”

Athos sighed readily, sitting back and adjusting himself in the chair. “Something to ponder while you convalesce.”

“Athos,” Aramis said, his voice wavering. “I can’t -- I can’t repay you, for this. This is a favor I cannot possibly reciprocate.”

This time, Athos’ disposition did flicker. He drew a breath, looking at Aramis kindly. “The only thing I ask in return is that you keep eating this bread,” he said, nodding to the plate by the bed. “Eat the bread, drink the broth. Get better. Then, and only then, is our account settled.”

“You make it too easy,” Aramis said, throat tightening.

“And you make it too hard,” Athos reminded him. “Besides, isn’t that called grace?”

Aramis nodded, and he couldn’t quite blink away the tears this time. He wiped an errant one off his cheek, feeling the emotions rise to fill his chest. “Yes,” he said, nodding again as he swallowed. “Yes, I do believe it is.”

-o-

For a week, Athos stayed. He helped Aramis eat, tedious bite after bite, until Aramis could finally feed himself. He stayed while Aramis’ body adjusted to food again, staying through the periods of physical illness as his contracted stomach started to expand once more. He walked Aramis outside to relieve himself, and he was the one who helped Aramis get dressed and trim his hair for the first time in what felt like ages.

In this, Athos said nothing of Aramis weakness, and they did not talk of the events that led them here. Athos did not mention the war, and Aramis did not ask about the others. Neither of them mentioned Paris or the Queen or the dauphin.

For a week, instead, they simply were.

In this, Aramis was grateful. Existence in and of itself was enough of a hardship for him. He did not think he could endure life on a whole, not yet.

Athos, for his part, knew it implicitly. He offered no shame, no pressure; just the constancy of friendship to keep Aramis grounded when his thoughts turned morose. No one talked of leaving; no one talked of staying. For a week, they simply were.

It was not a blessing Aramis deserved.

Which was why Aramis knew he had no right to refuse it, either.

-o-

Aramis heard it in the night, the sounds of rustling. The brothers were often quiet at night -- they were often quiet most of the time -- and life as a monk gave them little reason to rouse in the dark.

Naturally, it wasn’t the brothers.

Aramis opened his eyes in the dimness, and he was not surprised to see Athos hastily packing his bag. Sitting up a little, Aramis blinked the sleep from his eyes. “Is everything okay?”

Athos looked at him. The placid nature he’d adopted over the last week had gone; in its place, the face of the soldier remained. “Word from the front,” he said. “The others are marching to battle.”

Aramis squinted out at the stars. “Word? At this time of night?”

“I met the messenger out front,” Athos said.

“What were you doing out there?” Aramis asked.

Athos paused, giving Aramis a quizzical look. “Others here have taken vows of purity,” he said. “I am not among them, and Abbot has been quite generous with his supply of wine.”

“You don’t need to drink away from me,” Aramis told him.

“You assume I’m doing it to protect you,” Athos said, pushing the last of his items into his bag. He offered up a wry smile. “You forget that there are still things I need atoned.”

Aramis chuckled. “Where is the battle to be?”

“Not too far from here,” Athos replied. “It shouldn’t bother the brothers or the villagers, but if I ride now, I can meet up with them before the day’s out.”

Aramis nodded. “Then you should go,” he said, and then he hesitated. “How is the war? Really?”

Athos stopped, giving Aramis a careful look. Slowly, he shrugged with affectation. “Not good,” he said. “Our numbers are low, and our reserves are spread thin.”

Aramis sobered quickly. “And the others?”

Athos inclined his head. “We survive. Some battles are more dire than others.”

For some reason, it hurt to hear. It was as Aramis had suspected, though he supposed it had been a while since he’d let himself truly think about it. In his determination to find absolution, he’d forgotten his loyalty to them, and his cheeks burned in the darkness. “Athos--”

Athos held up a hand to stop him. “I said it before: you’ll come when you’re ready,” he said with finality. “Right now, you’d be too frail to do anything useful for us anyway.”

It was no worthwhile to mention how that was his fault, too. If he’d not indulged his fasting, he would have been fit and able. The option to return would have at least been viable.

Now, though, he had no choice but to acquiesce. No choice but to stay here and fight the war within him while the others fought a far more dangerous battle.

He sighed. “I can’t repay you for what you’ve done for me,” he said. “Any of you, for that matter.”

“Keep eating, then,” Athos said, picking up his pack and slinging it over his shoulder. “We are all fighting our battles right now. When you win yours, then you will be ready to help us with ours.”

He’d sought absolution from God.

But here was Athos, giving it to him so freely that it hurt.

God worked in mysterious ways, indeed.

“Of course,” Aramis said, voice thick with emotions. “Thank you, Athos. Thank you so much.”

Athos nodded. “Take care of yourself, Aramis.”

“You, too,” Aramis returned.

That was all there was between them, all that was left to say before Athos made his way to the door and into the night.

Fortunately, for once, Aramis knew that was all that was needed.

Laying back down, he looked up at the ceiling and listened to the stillness of his quarters. He had not prayed much, not since he’d woken up and found Athos by his side. Part of him had been afraid, as though his pleas to God would lead him back into the same direction as before.

But Aramis had made a promise.

To God, and to Athos.

God’s voice was hard to hear, but Athos’ still echoed in his mind. It would have to do, for now.

Closing his eyes, he whispered a prayer, thanking God for his friends and praying for their safety in the weeks and months to come.

As he drifted back to sleep, there was no clear answer. There was no definitive reprieve.

There was only peace.

God’s will had never seemed so clear.

-o-

When he rose a few short hours later, the dawn was breaking. The sun was barely peeking out on the horizon, and Aramis watched the first hint of color as it flooded across the sky.

Groaning, he got out of bed. Recovering as he was, he was still sore with his weakened muscles. The short walk to the dining area still wore him out, and he had to brace himself at the table in order to catch his breath.

In the early hour, the others had not yet risen. He knew it was only a matter of time. Abbot and many of the others were early risers, and Aramis knew they would be flocking down to start the morning meal in no time.

Lifting his head, Aramis glanced to the door. He still had time to sneak out, disappear before the meal. They would hardly miss him; for the last week, he’d taken his meals in private, so it wasn’t as if they were expecting him.

The notion was appealing.

Maybe he could do it properly this time. Maybe he could do it within reason. More than that, it was possible that God would reward him for his persistence.

All he had to do was walk out that door and skip breakfast.

Although he’d been eating regularly, food still did not appeal to him. He had to force himself to swallow each bite, and he often found himself nauseated no matter what was on the menu. And he craved the feeling of closeness it had brought him; somewhere, he could still feel the faint conviction, that it had been God’s will.

But God had also sent him Athos.

God had saved his life.

Why, Aramis could not determined.

All the same, it was probably his obligation to find out.

Sighing, he shuffled to the kitchen and retrieve the plates. Carefully, he kept his balance while he came back out, placing the stack on the wooden surface. With care, he laid each one out, ready for his brothers. At the last place setting, he counted again, to make sure he had his number right.

He hesitated, one last time.

Then he laid out the last setting for himself and settled himself down to wait for breakfast. His simple life wasn’t so simple, but as far as Aramis was concerned, that was probably for the best.