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Title: Novena (a.k.a. Et In Arcadia Ego)
Pairing: Aramis/Porthos
Summary: Nine prayers; one miracle.
A fusion with Martine Leavitt's Keturah and Lord Death. Off-screen character death, I guess, but I don't think it counts, since they're still hanging around, functioning in the fic like a living person. 9,000 words, PG.

Novena (a.k.a. Et In Arcadia Ego)


Later, Aramis will remember that it was late summer when he first saw his angel. He will remember the relentless frantic droning of insects, the humid, oppressive air, heavy from an unseasonal storm, the pall over the whole town, winter stores waterlogged, planting cycles thrown awry. He will remember the steaming, intemperate heat, how every breath was an undignified labor, and he will wonder if he should have seen it all coming. He will wonder if he should have been able to look up from his feet and see his future, then, bearing down on him.

(Porthos rolls his eyes and scoffs, but puts his hand lightly over Aramis' where it rests between them.)

 

The child was gone nearly as soon as he'd come, a perfectly innocent soul, unaware that there could be anything worth staying for. In a few hours, the child's grandfather will thank God that his daughter did not go the same way, and she will pray instead for respite from her shame and her grief. Death has no intention of staying long enough to watch it unfold.

The heat doesn't get to him the way it used to -- nothing does. But days like this, he feels older than even he has any right to. It's the nature of the work, perhaps. Not that he would ever choose anything else, but some days are harder than others.

This is a rich house, built up around a courtyard garden, not quite sophisticated enough to warrant a fountain, but well-tended and clean. Death takes a moment to stand still. The household is quiet now, out of respect, out of pity, and silence fills the spaces between the neatly laid paths. Out in the fields, the unseasonable summer storm has turned some of the winter stores to rot, a future promise of work that he feels against his skin, like the steam coming off the flagstones since the sun has finally shown its face. He can smell the ripeness of it, rich now, soon past its prime. He breathes it in and lets the sunlight wash over him, savoring the moment of rest before he moves on.

Movement catches his eye. There's a figure kneeling in the courtyard, head bowed and hands clenched in supplication before a crucifix mounted over a bench on an exterior wall. The knees of his breeches are soaked through, even though the rain stopped some time ago. His litany sounds more akin to outright begging than prayer.

Death steps closer, drawn in by the intensity of him. A youth, not more than sixteen, already good-looking, still growing into his long limbs, attractiveness as much in the promise of things to come as the way he looks now.

The way he looks now is destroyed. He's been crying, though it seems, like the rain, the worst has passed. All that remains is the shadowed redness of his eyes, an exhausted, sorrowful twist to his mouth.

He looks up at Death's footstep and breathes in, a soft gasp of surprise.

It is the first time since his predecessor went back to the river from whence he rose, that anyone has looked at Death and seen him.

"An angel?" breathes the youth. He meets Death's eyes without hesitation. There is hope there, and desperation -- two things Death knows well.

"I'm just a messenger," says Death, spreading his hands in apology, and shaking his head once. He knows what he came to this house for. It does not take much imagination to know what this hope is for.

His face falls. "I understand. I deserve no miracles," he murmurs bowing his head again, pressing his lips against his knuckles hard enough to whiten the flesh for an instant.

"But surely Isabelle-," he says, his words halting and somewhat muffled by the fact that he is speaking directly into his clasped hands. "She has never done anything to be visited with such grief! She does not deserve this. She should not have to suffer this. Please, do not let this happen."

"It is already done," says Death. He has plenty of practice with gentleness, but there's nothing that could gentle this wound, the way the boy flinches as if the words are a physical blow. Death notices the fine polished wood of his rosary, well-cared for, but not yet old. "I'm sorry," Death says. This much is true. "Know that she is loved. Know that you are loved."

It's a poor consolation, in this moment. Death clasps the boy's shoulder, feeling it shake under his hand -- it's as much kindness as he can offer.

"The midwife chased me out of the room," the boy says, not raising his head, tears choking his voice again. "I've been waiting out here, can you understand that? Listening to her screaming. I've been praying for her."

"All prayers are heard," Death tells him. "Not all can be answered." He gives in to the impulse to smooth the boy's unruly hair away from his face, a familiar gesture of comfort.

He's thinking about the prayers that so often come to him. He's thinking about his own prayers, full of his own hope and desperation, long past. He's thinking about the prayers he cannot answer.

There are duties that Death must see to, but he settles down on the flagstones next to the boy, close enough to feel the life coming off him, so much of it still, and sits with him.

The sun moves down from full noon to stretch the shadows long, and Death remains, sitting with him in silence until the sun begins to set, and he feels a pull that he can't ignore or resist.

The youth looks at him again when he rises, already recovering, his brown eyes clear now, still without hesitation. It's strange, Death thinks, to be seen without resignation or fear. He thinks he will miss it. He nods a goodbye, and goes to attend to his duties elsewhere.

"Will Isabelle live, messenger?"

Death turns around, thoughtlessly looking back. The youth is illuminated by the last rays of the sun, suddenly, breathtakingly beautiful, full of life, full of hope.

Death pauses over his answer, taken aback. He has little insight to the future, but Isabelle is strong and determined -- it's not hard to see the next few years.

"She will, for a time," says Death, as he is finally pulled away. "But no one can live forever."

 

____________________

 

The city of Montauban was impressively fortified to begin with, and the current campaign less than well-prepared. This may be the last push before they have to concede; there are talks of lifting the siege already.

In either case, Aramis won't be joining them unless he can find someone to stitch up this gash in his side. It's hardly life-threatening, but the angle is far too awkward to even attempt it by himself, and there aren't enough medical staff to begin with. He has found a place to sit outside, leaning against a tree, near the medical tent, but not inside of it. Inside is a close hell smelling of stale blood and sweat. He isn't the only soldier who preferred to wait outside. This is hardly what he had in mind, when he joined the army, though he truthfully hadn't been thinking so much about what lay ahead as escaping what was behind.

A figure emerges from the tent, and pauses at Aramis' feet. "What're you doing out here?"

Aramis looks up, surprised out of making a joke about meeting under better circumstances. "Waiting my turn for the sawbones." He's been holding his last clean shirt on the wound to stem the blood, and he lifts it off carefully. He'd thought he saw the angel on the battlefield, but he was more focused on the fight in front of him than the possibility of divine intervention.

The angel kneels down and peers doubtfully at Aramis' wound. "It's just a few stitches. I could do it, if you don't mind that I'm out of practice."

The offer makes Aramis raise his eyebrows, but the angel isn’t watching. "I'd settle for anyone conscious, at this point," Aramis admits, instead of asking any of the questions crowding on the tip of his tongue.

Despite his claims, the angel's touch is deft against Aramis' skin, and it isn't any worse than the doctors might have done for him.

"I would have thought you were too busy for me today," Aramis says, made dizzy and reckless from exhaustion and pain. "I had not thought to see my angel here."

For years, he thought he'd dreamed the man who sat next to him on that terrible day when he'd lost Isabelle and their child, lost all hope of building a future with her. But now Aramis has seen the angel among the wounded and the dying, his hands careful, his voice low and kind, and he knows that if it was a dream, it is one he has yet to wake from.

"I am only a messenger," says the angel, again, but there's a tilt to his mouth that looks like amusement, agreement.

"Of course," says Aramis, smiling faintly. "I should have guessed from the start. An angel should be fearsome, to put the fear of God into a man. They spoke to us at the seminary of eyes and wings, of voices that shake the very earth and blades alight with flame."

Truth be told, the angel is a fearsome figure by any mortal measure. His height alone is remarkable; along with the breadth of his shoulders, he is imposing. There's a scar across the right side of his dark-skinned face, from his brow down over the top of his cheek. Despite the casual air of his tousled curls, his dark eyes are clear and deep, capable of seeing right to your very soul.

He is, Aramis thinks, startlingly handsome. "A messenger of God, then," he amends.

"Oh, I've got all the finery," says the angel, with a sudden, rakish smile. Aramis' breath catches, and not from the pull of the needle in his flesh. "But that's more for special occasions. Prophecy and proclamation, like."

He holds up one hand, showing Aramis his work-roughened fingers, his broad, callused palm.

"These are my everyday clothes," the angel says. "No trumpet at my mouth, no all-seeing eyes at my hands and heart and back. No wings." He laughs lightly. "No flaming sword."

He ties off the last stitch, cutting the thread with a small knife that fairly glows silver with sharpness. It was a simple matter, after all. Aramis half expects the angel to cross himself, but he merely inclines his head, eyes closed, and breathes in a long breath, face intent and reverent in prayer.

Aramis knows -- and of course he believes -- that God is in all things, but he has never before seen it demonstrated quite like this, as if holy serenity could be found so simply in breath and thought.

"I didn't expect to see you here, either," says the angel, looking down at his hands framing his needlework. He seems rueful for a moment, but he smiles at Aramis as he moves back.

"There was a duel," Aramis mutters. Then, defensively, "Only to first blood -- I didn't kill anyone!"

"Yeah," says the angel of death drily, as he stands to go. "That much I could've guessed.”

 

____________________

 

The woods are cold. Snow sifts down between the twisted black branches, the occasional creak and crack the only competition with the sound of crows in the shadows of the trees.

On the way to the Savoy border, it had started to snow, but only in the night had the snow started to stick, instead of melting as soon as it hit the ground.

Aramis has seen his angel only a handful of times since Montauban, perhaps not as often as he would have expected when he first took up a soldier's life; the angel of death has his own business to attend to. But today his business is already complete.

Any romantic notion Aramis might have harbored of the angel being above the dirty business of slaughter, above the violence and the gore, has been handily dashed. He has seen up close now, the angel of death wading among the dying, bloody mud caked on his boots, laying men to rest in their last moments, gentle and efficient.

Long after Marsac has disappeared into the woods, after all his prayers have run out and proven inadequate, after the corbies have descended on the fallen, the angel finds him.

Aramis looks up, asks, "Are you here for me?"

He doesn't know what he wants the answer to be.

It is a fitting picture, the angel of death standing in the cold under the soft relentless snow, though he soon ruins it by bending down, kneeling in the icy dirt beside Aramis.

"No," says the angel of death, light as the brush of his fingertips over the bloodstained bandage on Aramis' brow, "and yes."

Aramis can't help turning his face into the touch. The angel's hand is firm and cool, warmer than the winter air, more like horn or bone than marble, something that remembers life.

"You were going to become a priest," the angel murmurs, but there is no censure in it, no disappointment. His thumb sweeps across the curve Aramis' cheekbone.

The cold air is sharp in his lungs as Aramis breathes in, too cold to smell of anything in particular. He closes his eyes and remembers vividly the way that the angel had prayed over him in Montauban, just breath and faith.

"Are you always so kind?" Aramis asks, opening his eyes.

The angel gives him a bemused frown. "I've rarely been called that," he says. There is a measure of doubt in his tone, almost exasperation, as if he is unused to explaining himself, unused to any kind of conversation, unused to being evaluated by another person.

"I've been watching you all along," Aramis says, in lieu of describing what he's seen, the way the angel moves at the moment of death, with perfect precision, but attentive rather than ruthless. "You are kind."

A small smile appears on the angel's face, the most honest one that Aramis has seen him wear yet, and it illuminates his expression despite its reluctance. "Every death deserves care," the angel tells him, looking away, as if it is too high praise.

In the silence that falls between them, the crows call out, and Aramis debates simply sitting here, letting the cold seep into him, and going to sleep. The only thing that stops him is that he doubts that he can sleep ever again without being haunted by the killing ground, by the faces of his brothers who died today.

"Why?" Aramis finds himself asking. "Why not me, too?"

"You mean, did I spare you?"

Aramis nods, wordlessly.

The angel shifts and settles next to Aramis so that their sides are pressed together, and they are facing the same direction. "You were spared because it wasn't your time. I've no say in that."

God has a plan. Aramis already knew the answer that the angel would give, knew that a messenger of God could give him no other. Mostly, he wonders that he isn't disappointed by it.

"I'm sorry," murmurs the angel. He reaches up, and the last thing that Aramis remembers is the touch of the angel's fingers to his brow, until the woods are behind him, and his wounds are being seen to by a capable doctor, while his head pounds, filled with the horror of everything he's seen.

 

It's not until he returns to Paris that Aramis finds the trio of feathers tucked into the pocket of his coat, coverts, by the shape, each as long as his hand, much too large to belong to any bird he knows. They seem at first to be as plain and black as crow's feathers, but in sunlight they are sable brown, iridescing a steely blue when he tilts them this way and that in the light. The faint smell of woodsmoke and rain clings to them.

They have somehow survived the journey unscathed despite being crushed in his pocket all the way from Savoy. For a time, they remain on the mantle in Aramis' quarters in the Musketeers' garrison, as he cannot bring himself to hang them under the crucifix mounted on the wall, but can think of no better place to put them. In the end, he binds the vanes and hangs them from his bedpost, a constant reminder that his time is already determined by God.

 

Aramis becomes used to seeing his angel haunting the streets of Paris, standing watch in windows, sighted in disreputable alleys, passing unremarked among the rush of the rest of the city. Aramis becomes inured to the angel's careful expression, his brief nod of acknowledgement as he moves on to his next order of business, never lingering. The city is never entirely still, and in the city, the angel of death is never without another place to be.

Aramis fills his life with friends and lovers, finding brotherhood among his fellow musketeers, chasing any beauty that catches his eye, whether in another person, or the act of worship, much the same.

(He does not ever become habituated to the angel's countenance, the perfection of his face, the dignity of his bearing, and the way his heart lifts whenever he catches sight of those exuberant curls.)

 

____________________

 

"How drunk was I when I agreed to this?" Athos mutters, absently crossing himself as he slumps next to Aramis in a pew.

Aramis ignores him -- the fact that Athos came at all is a concession he did not expect. He does not point out that Athos agreed to it just an hour ago, not so much drunk as hungover.

Last night, Aramis dreamed of his angel. Dreamed of him saying, I've all the finery, revealing his true and awful form.

He dreamed of the woods in winter, of riding through the trees, searching, though he can't say for what.

All around him, the smell of snow and woodsmoke, and his breath fogged the air. There was hardly any color, just an endless stretch of white and dark brown of the bare trees. His horse's hooves crunched through the frost, but there was no other living thing, no birds, no distant creak of boughs under the weight of winter, under the push of the wind.

He rode day and night, his mount tireless and good natured, but the forest and the snow stretched on, and on. He sought the edge of the woods, but the trees stretched on forever, and when he looked around, there was no other path, no sign that anyone else had ever been this way.

When he looked back, though, his angel was there, standing beside the path, dressed in his workaday aspect, worn leather and a steady, watchful gaze.

Aramis dismounted and went to him as if in a trance, hands lax at his sides, transfixed by the angel's presence.

As he approached, his angel's aspect fell away, slowly, first the wings, broad and dark as the feathers that Aramis had kept, gleaming with every shift, then a suggestion of golden light limning his form, then a brilliance that Aramis' eyes could not comprehend, a shift in form that sent Aramis' to his knees, his heart pounding with exhilaration like joy.

He woke, shaking, and almost ran into Athos as he hastened to church.

The rituals of the Sunday Mass are comforting, and Aramis is thankful for comfort wherever he can find it today.

They linger after the service, and Athos slants an irritated look at him, as if he suspects some ulterior motive.

Aramis is not unaware that most of the reason that Athos agreed to come in the first place is to make sure that he wasn't going to sneak off and see Adele again, their lives being complicated enough without any more close calls with the Cardinal's mistress.

Despite the fact that his last close call has been an endless source of entertainment at the garrison, Athos knows better than most how dire it would be if Aramis were ever actually caught.

Athos needn't have worried, though.

Today, Aramis stays until they are alone at the back of the church, shaking his head lightly at the Father who looks askance at them.

He can't recall the details of his dream, only that it left him shaking when he woke, only that he touched the coverts hung from his bedpost with a new sense of familiarity. He remembers that he dreamed of his angel, of the sweep of massive wings, of a voice that shook him to his bones.

Midmorning sunlight shines brightly through the stained glass of the windows, casting brilliantly colored lights across the pews, down the aisle, and the smell of incense fills the air. Aramis breathes in, ignoring Athos shifting impatiently beside him, and prays for guidance.

 

____________________

 

Athos' stricken expression lingers in Aramis' thoughts as he stitches d'Artagnan's wound.

Aramis prays silently and lets the movement of his hands be his rosary, even though d'Artagnan curses the whole way through.

The parlor is large enough that d'Artagnan's voice nearly echoes, and full of furniture draped with sheets, dusty with disuse. What pieces that they have uncovered to use are richly upholstered, well-crafted and elegant. Even in his travel-stained uniform, Athos looks like he belongs here. Bonnaire is rather less suited to this setting, though he makes himself comfortable regardless, sprawling across a low couch as soon as they arrive, spending time poring over his maps.

The privateer attempts to draw them into conversation, but Aramis does not look up from his work. His angel stands just outside the doorway, looking on in his workaday aspect, saying nothing.

All prayers are heard, but not all can be answered, Aramis thinks, unbidden. He scowls and concentrates on the curved path of his needle. D'artagnan's wound is hardly mortal. How will the angel take to being denied?

Aramis is more attentive than he might otherwise be -- though there is no question that d'Artagnan is an honorable young man who deserves his loyalty. The promise of death weighs on his every action.

But it is not d'Artagnan's death that the angel heralds. The Spanish spies are taken with customary care, and Maria as well. Athos all but drags Bonnaire back to the house, fury in every movement. They'll bury his wife here tomorrow, but the man hardly seems to care.

That night, Athos locks himself in the cellars, presumably to drink himself insensible. Aramis would usually make some kind of protest, but his angel lingers, and he choses to watch over d'Artagnan and keep an eye on Bonnaire instead.

D'Artagnan falls asleep almost in defense rather than listen to Bonnaire spinning tales of his own grandeur, and thankfully the privateer himself soon dozes off in front of the fire. Aramis sits in one of the plush chairs, dividing his attention between his companions and the angel.

He is tempted to ask why the angel is still here. Before he can form the question, there is the rustle of parchment and a soft exclamation from the desk, where the angel is looking at some of Bonnaire's maps.

"What is it?" Aramis asks, turning in his seat.

The angel is bent over the table, hands pressed flat against what Aramis had taken to be maps. "Come and see," says the angel, his mouth twisting in a mockery of a smile. There's a wealth of banked anger in his tone that makes Aramis shudder. He approaches cautiously, until he is standing at the angel's shoulder.

"Slaver," the angel of death murmurs, his voice low and harder than Aramis has ever heard it. There's something vengeful there, well-controlled but clear. He lingers over Bonnaire's plans, running his gentle fingertips over the human figures lined up three deep.

"I am wherever there is death," the angel murmurs. "I've seen the opulent palaces of kings and the innermost chambers of the holiest temples, but I'm here more often than most places." He jabs at the center of the ink-and-parchment ship as though the gesture could sink the thing before it is ever built. "There's no slaver ship I can't trace inside and out."

Aramis lets out a breath, says, "Pity we managed to save him after all."

The sound that the angel makes in response is rough with scorn, and inelegant, surely beneath a holy creature. Aramis stares at him.

If Aramis had thought the angel fearsome before, this is far worse. His expression is carved in implacable angles, his dark eyes gleaming with righteous fury. His jaw is set, his mouth a thin, hard line.

"All prayers are heard," the angel says, in that same low voice, "but I'm rarely so relieved as when I answer these. And I'm never sorrier than when I have to refuse them."

Aramis is at a loss in the face of his angel's intensity. The light of the dying fire and the burnt-down candle flicker across his face, as if lit by the fires of vengeance.

"I've got to leave," the angel tells him, eventually. "I've duties to attend to."

The thought that he will leave like this, battling this anger, bearing it with him, is unbearable. Impulsively, Aramis puts his hand on his, just for a moment.

"Nothing that suffers," Aramis murmurs, falling back on an old lesson, "can pass without merit in the eyes of God."

This makes the angel shake his head, though his expression softens, which was all Aramis was aiming for.

"I know for a fact that's not how the prayer goes," he says. "But I like your version better. It's more fitting."

"I must have misremembered," Aramis says, sheepishly.

"It isn't wrong," the angel of death tells him, his anger is gone now, leaving only a resigned smile, a sadness that Aramis can't quite understand. "It's what should be true." And then he is gone.

 

The angel's words follow Aramis back to Paris. It isn't wrong. It's what should be true.

Aramis should be surprised when the Cardinal offers patronage instead of punishment. D'Artagnan starts to protest, and Athos' scowl goes deeper than usual, and he makes little effort to quell d'Artagnan.

The correct lesson is, Nothing, no matter how small, if suffered in His name, can pass without merit in the sight of God. Aramis thinks on his angel, and sets his jaw.

He says nothing, but arranges quietly for the last of the Spanish spies to find Bonnaire, alone, just for one inattentive minute on the pier.

Athos gives him a disapproving glare when he sets down next to him and proposes to match him drink for drink. Still, he says nothing, so Aramis knows that, this time, least said is soonest mended.

My God is love, Aramis has often said to his lovers, to his friends, to anyone who asks about the strength of his belief.

But justice plays no small part in his faith, and if love is the same as forgiveness, then he can trust that he will be forgiven for this, too.

 

____________________

 

When his angel alights behind the Cardinal's chair, Aramis is afraid. But the angel of death is only near to watch the Cardinal seize in the grip of a mysterious force, witchcraft or poison.

For a moment, it seems as if the Cardinal looks directly, steadily over Aramis' shoulder, his face a rictus of terror, to where the angel stands by. Aramis barely spares a thought to wonder if Richelieu has seen the angel's full finery, for him to look so stricken. Perhaps not. After all, for the man to see the face of his own death is certainly horrifying enough.

Once they have seen the Cardinal to a natural, if fitful, sleep, Aramis finally unbends enough to look at his angel.

"Thank you," he says, quietly, so as not to disturb the patient.

"Do not thank me. Please." After all, this must be God's plan. Not all prayers can be answered.

"Of course," says Aramis, purposely light. "It is your fault we still have the Cardinal to contend with."

His angel grants him a smile that makes his breath catch. "If anything," the angel says, "I should thank you." He does not look at the Cardinal any longer.

"Bonnaire's sins would have caught up with him sooner or later," Aramis says, dissembling. "A man in his line of work lives a dangerous life."

"And yet," says the angel, his lingering smile bright in the dim light. "Thank you."

"I'd almost expected you to be angry with me," Aramis admits. He wants to look away, to incline his head in remorse or humility, but he can't quite tear his eyes away from his angel. "For playing judge and executioner, or for taking over your duties, if nothing else."

The angel huffs a quiet sigh, says, "I shouldn't have said as much as I did to you. Wrath is a luxury I can ill-afford."

"Wrath?" Aramis asks. He can well imagine that a wrathful messenger of death would be disastrous on all counts, but though he remembers the intensity of the angel's rage, he does not think it was intemperate in any way. "Or was it righteous anger?"

"Both," the angel says with a nod. "But perhaps you are right, and it was justice, as well."

 

Aramis gives away the Queen's token, because he cannot imagine what prayer he can make, for one woman's life. There can be no bargaining, a life for a life, that is not how it works, he knows, but kindness, caring, sacrifice, these things can never go amiss.

The Comtesse Ninon De LaRoque does not place much stock in God's mercy, and even less in the unlooked-for kindness of a well-known libertine, but she accepts his gift and words of support graciously.

It is only when the Queen finds him, challenges him to explain his actions, that Aramis understands what it must look like.

"She is a good woman facing a hideous death," Aramis says. He has never witnessed burnings before, never stood by powerless to stop such a barbaric form of execution, but he has read of them, and he has seen enough of violence to understand how horrific it will be.

The Queen looks at him closely for long enough that he begins to wonder if he has made a mistake, then she smiles. "Forgive me," she says, "Your compassion does you credit."

Aramis feels as though a weight is lifted from his shoulders, and he understands only then that she had meant it to be a token of her affection as well as her thanks. He nods as gracefully as he can, feeling as though he should fall to his knees instead, overcome with gratitude and wonder for the simple fact of her approval.

 

It's Athos that bargains for Ninon's life in the end, and he even succeeds, though the Cardinal is in an odd mood after his brush with death, at once more generous and more arrogant than ever before.

The Comtesse returns the Queen's token to Aramis and he clutches it as he watches her leave, all elegance and dignity even as she goes to a life of exile. He lingers after the rest of them as well, a moment with his angel, and looks down at the jewel in his hand.

"If you could have anything in the world, what would you ask for?" Aramis asks. He replaces the cross around his neck before he looks at the angel again.

The angel of death raises a skeptical brow. "What do you imagine could tempt an agent of the Lord?" he asks, but he is amused, wry, rather than offended.

After all, they have just listened to the Cardinal himself say that God will not stand in the way of his ambition.

"There must be something," Aramis insists, unable, unwilling to imagine an existence without desire. "Anything."

The angel of death is silent for a long time, long enough that Aramis wonders if he will answer at all. He looks up at the light streaming in through the window, at the crucifix mounted on the wall, and under the eyes of God, he looks back at Aramis. He says, "What I have now is all I want."

Aramis thinks of the angel's shock when Aramis had called him kind, and he has a moment of cruel clarity. "A partner, then," he says, watching closely for the flinch. He is not disappointed.

A momentary tic, a too-long blink. The angel of death shakes his head as if to shake off a chill, says flatly, "There isn't anyone else who can do this job, Aramis, not anymore."

Everything about the angel's words is a surprise. Aramis swallows his own disappointment at the first mention of his name in the angel's mouth in such a tone of censure. "What do you mean, 'not anymore'? Did another shepherd the souls of the dead before you? What did they do wrong?"

The angel of death looks away. "See to your friends," he says. "I've got duties to take care of elsewhere."

Aramis would argue, but the angel is already gone. He wonders what he will have to do to be forgiven this time.

 

____________________

 

In the convent, the angel of death smooths his fingertips over Isabelle's brow, and traces the gritty streak of gunpowder at the corner of Aramis' mouth, left over from ripping plugs open with his teeth, a filthy, ashy gray. He asks for no confession, no repentance, even with Isabelle's limp body lolling in Aramis' arms.

"Please," Aramis begs, an echo of that first day that they met, "whatever she did, she doesn't deserve this!" He tastes sulfur and does not wince away. If this is his fate, he means to face it head-on.

"Doesn't she?" says Death. "She prayed, she paid, and she was forgiven."

"What?"

"She prayed for strength and for relief," Death tells Aramis. "From her grief, from her shame, from the censure of her peers."

"But not like this!" Aramis says. "She didn't deserve to die for it." Not in my place.

"I know that," the angel says, kindly. "But no one does."

Aramis breathes in, and the cellar is musty, new dust from the caved in walls filling the air along with the gunsmoke, over the cloying, sweet smell of spilled liquor. He is remembering, though, a wet summer, a different quality of weight in the air, the smell of mud, and the sound of insects.

Then Athos arrives, drawn by the sounds of gunfire, closely followed by the Queen and the Mother Superior. The musketeers must turn their attention to shoring up the wall, back to strengthening their defenses, while the nuns see to the dead. The angel disappears, leaving them to their business.

The Queen catches Aramis' eye when he looks up. She's wide-eyed and clearly frightened, but her posture is steady, ready to take any action needed. Her unbound hair falls in soft waves across her bare shoulders, echoed by the easy lines of her pale shift, and Aramis thinks suddenly that he's never seen anyone so divinely alive, a saint come to earth.

She smiles at him, and he feels a wild gratitude take root in his heart.

 

Anne is exactly as beautiful as Aramis has always believed, and she is unexpectedly generous. She allows Aramis to worship her as he wants to, to lavish all his attentions on her, to take comfort in her words and sounds of approval, desire.

Only once does she stop him, when he forgets himself, breathes out Ana, and she places her fingertips over his lips, says, "Please don't," barely more than a whisper, but gravely serious all the same, her accent too precise.

He kisses her palm in contrition, and is forgiven by her smile. She clings to him, urges him on with quiet words, lets him know that he is wanted.

Aramis sleeps beside her, and he does not dream of the angel telling him, She prayed, she paid, she was forgiven.

 

The angel haunts him, standing by while he stares down at the distant figures in the treeline, watching for the next attack.

"Your queen," the angel murmurs, during a lull, the morning sun shining painfully bright off the pale stones outside.

"That is between me and God," Aramis snaps. "And Athos," he adds sourly after a moment. Aramis should be eating the food that one of the sisters has left for him, to be prepared as he can be for another attack. He clenches his jaw and does not turn his attention from the window.

"She's not an icon," Death says, in that same low and steady tone. "She's only a queen."

She is only mortal, Aramis hears, and it surprises him, disappointment hitting him broadside, transmuting into sudden, clear rage, to hear it like censure, as though mortal should mean less than.

"Jealous?" Aramis snipes, without thinking. What can you imagine that would tempt an agent of the Lord?

But the angel surprises him, says, "Yeah. A little. It'll pass."

"Really?" Aramis turns to stare at him.

The angel shrugs. "Why should I lie?"

"I didn't expect you to be familiar with the sentiment," Aramis says, thoughtfully. "A messenger of God would be above jealousy, I'd think."

"Good and evil -- they're not in who you are," says the angel, "but in what you do, even for us."

The angel leans against the casement and peers out at the forest, invisible to mortals but one. "How could we become worthy if we were above anything?"

There's something in the way he says it, rueful or longing, that reminds Aramis that his angel isn't the first to hold this position. Aramis is beginning to suspect that it's some kind of penance, if there is such a thing in the holy host.

"Then please forgive me," Aramis says, after a beat. He had thought to hold on to this flaw, as a sort of armor against the way that he felt in the angel's presence, desperate for his attention, but he finds that he doesn't have the heart for it.

"I did not intend to hurt you." It comes out more stiffly formal than he'd like, but Aramis can think of no other way to say it.

"I know," says Death, steady and sincere. "You are already forgiven."

The silence barely lasts a handful of breaths -- Aramis' curiosity must be satisfied.

"Is what you do so terrible?"

"Not terrible. I was made to do this. It's part of who I am. It's part of what I am." Death's expression twists, wry. "Like a retriever dog with a soft mouth."

That makes a knot tighten and ache in Aramis' chest, the way the angel says it, as if it is nothing but the truth, as if, despite his earlier words about worthiness, he is nothing more than a pet at his master's beck and call.

He isn't sure what shows on his face, but some part of it must. The angel touches his fingertips briefly to the pulse at Aramis' wrists, says, "I chose this, Aramis. Because I'm good at it. The best. And you deserve no less."

"You love them," Aramis realizes. He means the dead. The way the angel speaks of his duty, it is clear that he must care deeply about those souls that he takes.

The angel's expression is open, as serene as Aramis has ever seen it. "I wouldn't know how not to."

 

The reckoning with Athos is just as excoriating as Aramis had anticipated.

He is overreaching his position. He has not a jot of sense or an ounce of self preservation in him. He will never stop to think in the pursuit of his next conquest, and it will be the death of him. And good riddance, as Athos won't have to worry about him any longer.

Aramis wonders if it is worse, knowing that the Queen has finally managed to conceive, and it is likely not the King's child.

"Nothing stand in the way of love," Aramis says, and it is exactly the wrong thing to say.

Athos throws up his hands and snaps, "You wouldn't know love if it didn't end in someone's bed!"

Aramis flinches at that, and Athos sighs, as close to an apology as he can offer, in his frustration.

He collects himself in a moment and he leans in close, says, "Aramis, I know you aren't as witless as your actions might otherwise suggest. You know that the consequences of this ever being found out are larger than just you, larger than just a bit of scandal."

"I know", says Aramis. He does know. It was ill-considered. He'd been in turmoil after Isabelle's death.

But he can't bring himself to regret it not after seeing the Queen so happy, not after the way she'd held his eyes, happier than she'd been in months, hopeful. Aramis can't regret it, being responsible for the life they created, for offering what love he could give when they were surrounded on all sides by death and fear.

"And I know you will keep quiet," Athos says, with quiet confidence over his exasperation, "because you never do lie about love, and you'd never bring that scandal down on her head."

Athos claps him on the shoulder and takes his leave.

Aramis watches him go, grateful and chagrined, and more afraid than he has been in years.

She will live for a time, Death had said to him, about Isabelle, and Aramis only remembered it after the fact. But no one can live forever.

He may have brought the Queen joy as well as peril, but every time he sees the coverts tied to his bedpost, now, Aramis thinks about his approaching day, when he will not be spared, about the angel admitting, I wouldn't know how not to love them.

 

____________________

 

Perhaps Athos was right.

The air in the crypt is dim and cool and damp, it smells green, like the moss growing in the corners, of the ivy that will one day overgrow every wall. It is very quiet, except for the sound of their boots on the flagstones, the soft chime of their various accoutrements. Aramis stares at the epitaph and tries to understand it.

Adele Bessette, died for love

The messenger that brought them here has delivered his warning and made himself scarce. Athos had stayed, shifting uneasily -- clearly wanting to say, I told you so, but unwilling to intrude on his brother's grief, however unearned -- until Aramis asked him to leave.

Aramis recognizes the soft tread at his side, is unsurprised to see his angel there, as he stares at the dates carved under Adelle's name.

"I begin to wonder," says Aramis, barely a breath of sound behind it, "If this is my fault."

"No more than it was hers," the angel murmurs.

"I fear for the Queen," Aramis says, still looking at the headstone. 'Maybe you were right. Now I worry that my touch could make her less holy.'

"I didn't mean it like that," the angel tells Aramis. He is standing with his back to the the niches, his arms at his sides. 'God didn't choose you; she did. To believe anything else is to do her a great disservice.'

"What do you mean?"

The angel's words are bordering on sedition, but of course, he answers to a higher power than the King of France.

'God does not speak to her more often or more clearly than any other. You've seen enough of the king to know; she carries the weight of this country, every day, alone. She is a good queen; France is lucky.'

This is sedition, for all that it is tempered by approval, and Aramis has to check his reflexive protest in defense of the crown. Who would know better than an agent of God, after all?

Aramis looks at his angel, at the loose readiness of his posture, his open hands, all the hallmarks of a soldier, though his only weapon is a small knife, and thinks abruptly that he has no proof that this is an agent of God in the first place.

Then he thinks of the angel's face, admitting to jealousy, to love, and to sacrifice. What more proof does Aramis require?

He stares at the angel, taking in every feature and committing it to memory. The angel has not changed since Aramis first saw him. He is still a powerful figure, embodying the grace and strength of Heaven. But now, Aramis finds himself drawn most to the depthless kindness in his eyes, the light of his smile, and his ready wit. Aramis finds himself overcome by the desire to give his angel anything that might chase away the ever-present pain lingering in his eyes.

"What is it?" the angel of death asks him, expectant.

Aramis opens his mouth, closes it again. How can he say that he has been in love for years, and only just noticed it at this moment. Athos was so very wrong, Aramis thinks, briefly, though the thoughts that follow -- of the angel's broad, careful hands, the coiled strength evident even in his workaday aspect -- prove Athos nearly right. Aramis quickly averts his eyes, and changes the subject.

"You never did tell me," says Aramis, "who did this before you." He tries to keep his tone light, to make it clear that the angel need not answer, mindful of the response it drew the last time.

"There were two of them," the angel says. "They were not unkind -- they understood love -- but they were careless. And every death deserves care."

There's a quirk to his mouth, fond and a little sharp, that forcefully reminds him of Athos, and Aramis finds himself asking, "Friends of yours?"

"Yeah," says the angel of death, "I guess you could call it that." But he doesn't say anything more.

 

Before he leaves, Aramis bows his head and brushes his palm over the epitaph, and offers up a prayer for Adele's soul, that she not be judged too harshly for a mistake that was at least half his fault. He thinks about the decisions that have led him here, about the people who have suffered for his impulsive judgment. Not just Adele and the Queen, but people he has fought, people he has killed.

"I should have become a priest after all," he says, still looking down, echoing, imperfectly, the words that Death spoke to him years ago, when they first began to know each other.

"No," says the angel. He reaches out and cups his hand against Aramis' jaw, gently raising his head back up. "You might have, but no more than that."

Aramis looks at him, leans into his touch, meets his steady dark gaze, and breathes in warmth and love like sunlight.

"You never pray for yourself," the angel observes, fondness clear on his face. "Even on the battlefield, you've never asked for yourself."

Because I am in love, Aramis does not say, recognizing that it would be an unconscionable cruelty to taunt his angel -- who wants a happiness that he may never have -- with that, all the worse because it is true.

Instead, Aramis says, less precise though just as true, "Because I have faith in what comes next."

If he'd known then that it would be the last time in his life that he ever saw his angel, Aramis might have chosen differently.

 

____________________

 

After, there's the empty, endless plain, frost and dirt underfoot. The sky is light without sun, a pale, cloudless blue that simply arcs to the horizon, smoothly meeting the land in every direction. Aramis is standing alone, staring at the horizon.

He is as lovely as Death remembers -- he is exactly as he remembers himself in life. Without his body to contain it, his soul is radiant. Despite all the years that have passed, all the things he has been, lord and father and man of God, he is dressed like a Musketeer, the familiar leather uniform crossed by a slash of blue, sword at his side, pistols tucked into his belt, still a soldier, after all. The rosary looped around his hand is dark hardwood, polished and well-used, old. With a start, Death recognizes it as the same rosary he'd had when they first met. Hung beside the crucifix, there are three feathers.

Death's mount is strong and swift, light footed, but its hoofbeats ring shockingly loud in the still air.

Aramis turns to look up at him, but says nothing. There's a new cast to his handsome face, a steadiness that wasn't there before, a hard-won calm.

"I looked for you," says Aramis, not stepping forward, though Death can see the tremor of effort that it costs him. "I looked for you for decades."

"I'm sorry," says Death. It comes out quiet and weak. The cold here doesn't reach him, any more than heat, but the flat, lonely plain chills his soul.

"I became a priest after all," Aramis says, with a rueful twist to his mouth. "I thought I could find you in prayer, but you never came." His voice is steady, not accusing, but he does not reach out.

"Forgive me."

"Have you no excuse?" Aramis asks, expectantly, a kindness, an offering.

War in Heaven, Death could say, and that would be the truth, after a fashion. He was called away to fight, and his duties were returned to his predecessors for a time. He had no time to see to anyone's death, let alone linger. But he made time for this.

Death dismounts. "I have none," he says, though he can see Aramis cataloguing the change in his aspect, his half-furled wings, the sword hanging at his hip, beside his usual knife. The scuffed and dirty leather of his doublet, needing care before another battle.

"I don't really have the time to be here now. But I missed you," he says. This doesn't come close to describing the way he thought about Aramis, about the light in his eyes, about the ache that he knew he couldn't bargain away.

"I am no stranger to war," Aramis says quietly, but he looks away before Death can make a reply.

Death can see that the decades he's spent fighting have cost him. Aramis has changed, again. He has become patient, and even more sharp-eyed than he was before.

"Do you know," says Aramis, looking out at the horizon. "That you taught me to pray? All those years I spent preparing for the seminary and I didn't learn how to really pray until you found me in Montauban." He shakes his head and smiles, though still he doesn't turn to look at Death. "Who would believe that the angel of death knew so much about hope and holiness?"

He thinks back to the first time he saw Aramis, a nameless youth, desperation and hope and not much else. Certainly not this self-possessed soul, who is still not afraid to meet Death's eyes, but perfectly aware of the power in the gesture itself.

"I dreamed of you, once," Aramis says. "I dreamed of a place not unlike this -- cold and quiet, only a winter-dead forest instead of the horizon." He does not describe the rest of the dream. He only crosses his arms over his chest, says, "You looked... different."

We take this form because there's merit to it, mirrored after God. Death could tell him, There are things inherent in this shape. Love, justice, faith. It doesn't matter. Death holds his tongue.

"I thought that it was a blessing, one that I couldn't fully understand, being mortal." Aramis breathes out, steady and warm, the shape of his mouth half-reflex, focused breath on a slow match. "But that was many years ago. Since then, it has occurred to me to wonder if you were lonely, waiting in all that silence, alone."

Death exhales then, surprised to be seen, recognized, even like this, without Aramis watching him, just a memory, and an acknowledgement of vulnerability.

"Surely you must have a name?" Aramis asks, sharpness and kindness together.

Porthos finds that he does. It feels strange on his tongue, his name all but forgotten when he took up Death's mantle, but at the sound of it Aramis relents, turning in towards him.

Aramis says, "I didn't miss you," and he says, "I didn't long for you."

He says, "I felt like a man on a familiar staircase, missing a step that had always been there." His callused, clever hands describe the shape of a feeling that is more absence than anything else. "Shock, fear, shame. I was afraid I had lost your favor for good," he admits.

"Never that," says Porthos, stepping closer. "I was called away. Forgive me."

Aramis spreads his hands and smiles, small and sweet, says, "Of course. I understand being a soldier. I'd do far greater things for you if you would but ask."

"Greater things, huh?" Porthos dares to smile.

"For you, anything." The way Aramis says it is as plain as a vow, tilting his chin forward, gaze steady, voice firm.

"Will you come with me?" Porthos asks, holding out his hand. "Stay with me."

"You would take me to wife?" Aramis laughs in disbelief, but there's joy there, too. "Don't you know? I won't settle down. I was never made for marriage."

Porthos takes a chance, reaches for Aramis and touches his face, curling his fingers around the curve of his jaw, running his thumb over the soft bow of his mouth. "I would," Porthos murmurs, utterly serious, "If you would have me."

He thrills to hear the way Aramis' breath catches as he pulls back. "I don't need to see you settle," he says, "I can't offer you peace, anyway. I can only offer you a place by my side, all the war and work that goes with it."

Aramis' answering grin is blinding as he takes Porthos' hand and steps into the circle of his embrace, on to the next great adventure.

 

 

 

NOTES:

I wrote the bulk of this fic in April 2015, having experienced S2 only through critical meta and screencaps on tumblr. I've never watched S2 and probably never will.

I saw a few Aramis/Porthos fics that were summarized as the author's love letter to Aramis (both explicitly and not). Which seemed odd to me, since Aramis is kind of a dickhead, even though he tries to do the right thing. So here's my love letter to Porthos, who is also kind of a dickhead (less than Aramis, tho), but who does the right thing, always, because that is who he is.

I did find out during what little research I did, that the actual Novena practice didn’t come about until about a century after the Musketeers is set. Honestly, I don’t care. If it bothers you, just pretend that this fic is called after the more contemporaneous painting(s), Et In Arcadia Ego.

 

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