The vicarage was easy enough to find, even without the corpulent figure of a shrill-voiced man chasing children away as if they were a flock of wild chickens.
“Monsieur!” The servant of Aramis had stumbled backwards and nearly upended himself into an open trough. The Resurrected Christ would not have produced such an effect upon him as beholding Athos had appeared to render.
“Well? Are you going to make me guess, you imbecile, or are you going to tell me where your master is?”
“Monsieur le Vicaire-général?”
“No, your other master: Monsieur Jesus Christ!”
“A thousand pardons, Monsieur,” the trembling man had finally begun to get his bearings. “But Monsieur d’Herblay is hearing confession at this hour.”
“Confession?” Athos paused. This was working out more perfectly than he had anticipated. “Thank you, Bazin, you have rendered me a great service.”
And with a smile on his lips, le comte de La Fère headed towards the church, heedless of the mutely outstretched hand of M. Bazin in his vain attempt to stop him.
Kneeling on the prie-dieu in the confessional booth, Athos pressed his forehead against the lattice and spoke the requisite words, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It’s been five years since my last confession.”
On the inside of the confessional, Athos could almost hear the priest halt his breath, and then he heard the sound of the sliding screen snapping shut across the other grille and a key turn locking the booth from the inside.
“And why, my son, has it taken you so long to come to Christ,” the priest asked softly.
“It was not Christ I had been staying away from, father,” Athos replied, his cheek sliding along the cool lattice, his ear strained towards the muffled voice from within.
“Then, why come now?”
“I wish to make an act of contrition and confess my sins to you.”
“You mean to God,” the voice corrected him, coolly.
“I know what I mean, father,” Athos smiled to himself and glanced past the lattice, however, the prelate had been leaning so far back in the confessional that the only thing Athos could see was his hands, nervously clutching something in the darkness.
“You may begin by reciting your mortal sins,” the priest proceeded.
“My mortal sins… yes… I think I remember what those are,” Athos chuckled and bit his lip. His fingers gently traced the outlines of the grille as his spoke. “Well, to begin with… I abuse myself constantly.”
“Athos!” the priest exclaimed to the extent that he could convey his outrage without actually raising his voice.
“Father? That is a mortal sin, is it not?”
“Yes, yes, very good. Five Ave Marias for you - now get out.”
“I’m not done confessing, father,” Athos was grinning despite himself, again biting down on his lower lip to punish himself, but to hear Aramis speak to him in that pedantic tone always sent shivers of pleasure down his spine.
“It would take me a full month to hear the length and breadth of all your mortal sins, no doubt, which is unfortunately excess time I do not currently possess.” Aramis sighed, and Athos could have sworn he heard a softly murmured prayer escape his lips.
“And yet, it is the onus of your office to hear me out.”
“Perhaps you’d like to move on to your more venial sins?”
Resigned, Athos figured, Aramis made the sign of the cross. “Proceed,” he said, and leaned back in the confessional.
“To continue, I have committed adultery with the mother of my son.”
“Two things,” Aramis interrupted.
“First of all, this is old news, isn’t it? Your son is nearly twenty.”
“I’m only recounting the sins I have committed since my last confession, father,” Athos corrected him. He allowed the pause for the stunned silence on the other side of the lattice. “You said – two things. What is the second?”
“The term ‘adultery’ is only used for married individuals.”
“But I am married, father.” Athos leaned against the lattice again and closed his eyes, his lips forming that involuntary smile that came upon him whenever he remembered the evening in the chapel in Château de La Fère. “I have taken a vow that has tethered my heart and soul to another person for all eternity.”
“Your heart and soul?”
“But not my body, father. That part was never explicitly specified.”
“How peculiar,” Aramis mumbled, whipping the thin sheen of sweat that was appearing on his brow off with the sleeve of his robe. “Also, rather blasphemous. Only Our Lord can tether one’s soul for all eternity and only to Himself.”
“Then, I confess to blaspheming ceaselessly, father.”
“And inaccurate, if memory serves. You only promised to love until your last dying breath. There was nothing at all about soul-tethering.”
“Then I confess that too. I confess that my soul is tethered for all eternity, tethered by bonds I have not the strength to break, no matter how hard I’ve tried. And I’ve tried, you know I have.”
“God knows you’ve done everything in your power to break them,” Aramis whispered.
“A friend of mine had the other day accused me of never saying what I mean to the person I have ever loved the most in this world. I wished to rectify that. For I have wronged him, and even though I could not make amends to him for all the things I’ve done, I wished to speak nothing but the truth to him. This once.”
“I am, as ever, powerless to stop you,” Aramis sighed and Athos could see that he had also rested his head on the lattice, just a breath away from his own head.
Athos continued to speak in a heated but hushed tone. “I confess I have loved you insanely, blasphemously, as you point out. I have spent most of my life torn between the pursuit of you and the pursuit of pushing you away from me. I confess that I have never given you much choice. Ever fearful of giving you the ability to walk away from me yourself, I repelled you with all my might. Oh, of course, I told myself it was for your own benefit; that you had put your career on hold for me long enough; that I had no right to stand between you and your ambitions. And look at how well you’ve done without me – a mere step away from a bishopric!” Athos could see that Aramis was about to speak. “Wait, I’m not done confessing yet.”
Aramis nodded, “I’m listening.”
“It was a lie that I had told myself,” he continued, an earnest sadness creeping into his voice. “I did not push you away for your own sake. I did it to punish you, for the love that you instilled in me, for rendering me paralyzed with it, for the pain it caused me to love you and to know that I could never really have you, not the way I wanted to have you: with me, forever, always. But even having pushed you away, I was not rid of you. Your face still haunts all my waking dreams, and you know it, you know you are the first thing I think of when I awaken, and the last of my thoughts as I fall asleep.” He paused to take a long overdue breath. “Forgive me, Aramis. Forgive me for everything.”
The confessional was filled with a sort of sepulchral stillness. Outside the church, Athos could hear the annoying drone of Bazin telling off some child for running too quickly, or speaking too loudly, or both.
“I hate you for this, you know,” Aramis finally spoke, his voice strained even in its muffled state, so that Athos could hear the notes breaking as he spoke. “I hate that even now you do not have the strength to say all of this to my face. That you had to come here, to hide with me in this box, with this damn lattice,” Aramis had slammed his fist against the thin wooden partition, “which separates us! You cannot even give me the satisfaction of seeing your eyes when you tell me these things!”
“Aramis, your face, it might as well be the Gorgon’s head, you know how it petrifies me,” Athos sighed and pulled back a bit from the lattice, peering through the insufficiently numerous orifices.
“Have you come here to make an act of contrition or to make excuses?” the priest asked, coldly.
“There are no sufficient excuses that I can make for my cowardice.”
“So then, here you are – having made your act of contrition and confessed. But you forget that our Holy Mother, the Catholic Church, requires three acts from the penitent.”
“I have not forgotten.”
“And I will tell you what it will be, but not here. You’ve done enough here, you moral derelict.”
Athos smiled and rocked back on his knees in the prie-dieu. He had been kneeling there far too long for a man his age.
“Whatever you say, father.”
“Go. I will receive you tonight.”
“In my bedroom, you eternal curse upon my existence,” Aramis whispered heatedly, but with an underlying warmth that shot right through the wooden partition and into the pit of Athos’s stomach. “Bazin will show you in.”
“If he doesn’t assassinate me first.”
Aramis laughed in his usual clandestine way.
“But then he would have to confess this sin to me, you realize. And I would be merciless.”
The bedroom of l’Abbé d’Herblay in Melun was decorated much in the same grandiose style as his old room at Noisy-Le-Sec, with the exception of a small painting of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom hanging over his bed. An ever-widening smile spread across the face of Athos: it was his own gift, made to his lover as a memento of a joke shared between the two of them. The room was dim but for a few flickering candles on the small table at which Aramis was seated, engrossed in contemplation of the remnants of supper before him, wearing what, much to Athos’s disappointment, was certainly still his priestly vestments.
Aramis raised his head, his eyes softly focusing on his guest.
“Where exactly do you keep hidden the chain with which you constantly pull me back towards you?” he finally said, slowly getting out of his chair, although not making any movements to come closer.
“The chain?” Athos decided it was for him to take the advancing step. “That is, indeed, how you see yourself. Sanctus Renatus in vinculis.”
Aramis inclined his head to the side, observing Athos with a mixture of apprehension, amusement, and disbelief.
“Oh, Athos, you never disappoint. You never fail to appear, and always, when I least expect you – Et in Arcadia ego!”
“Did you just compare me to Death?”
“You do have a similarly reliable constancy, do you not find?” Aramis took his own advancing step towards his guest.
“I am here to learn what my penance for my sins is, from your own lips, and face to face, just as you requested.” Athos stopped, separated from the man standing before him by a mere step.
“Always, always, I would have done whatever you asked of me. And you..,” Aramis sounded choked up. “You… made me feel so… dismissed.” He averted his eyes and fixated them on some distant point on the table. “Like some harlot you would have thrown out of your bed.”
“Christ, Aramis… I never intended…”
Athos shook his head.
“Why do you come now? What’s changed?”
“I have grown weary of myself.” It was the best and most honest reply Athos could think of.
“A likely answer, but still no answer at all. Are you dying?” For a moment, fear flashed in the vicar’s eyes.
“No! Well… I… how boring.”
“Is it because of Fouquet then?”
“Aramis, you’ve always had free reign to pick your particular bedfellows,” Athos sneered at the thought.
“You think I’ve taken him as a lover?”
“You’re the one who brought him up – not I.”
“I don’t see you for five years…”
“I’m sorry! I really don’t have any more excuses for you – only this. Whatever this is.” He spread his arms and gazed into the vast emptiness between them. “Aramis, forgive me. I was wrong to deny you your choice. But whatever penance you dictate for me – that will be your choice alone.”
“Look me in my eyes when you ask my forgiveness!” Aramis took the final step that separated them and grabbed onto his friend’s doublet with both his hands, shaking him and pulling him so close to himself that Athos could once again feel the sweetness of his familiar breath on his lips.
“René,” Athos whispered, unable to control his hands at such close proximity and reaching towards the many layers of robe separating him from his beloved, “Forgive me. Please, forgive me.”
Aramis’s fingers clutched tighter upon his clothes, his lips were so close to Athos’s own, all he had to do would be to crane his neck to taste them. Athos felt his throat become suddenly parched.
“It is too late!” Aramis whispered, so hotly, so intimately, that Athos thought his brain might explode.
“No, don’t say that. It’s never too late to forgive.” Athos swallowed, his throat still tightening despite his increased salivation.
“Perhaps that is the only punishment suited for your sins?” Aramis’s eyes narrowed and he drew even closer. Athos’s hands had by then managed to travel around the other man and had clutched tightly at his lower back, that place where in the years of old he would always find a way of soothing the serpent rising up within Aramis. “Perhaps your penance should be that I send you away, never to see you again?”
“Why, Aramis, would you cut off the nose to spite the face?”
Aramis growled, and brought the entire force of his anger to bear upon the other man’s lips. Not even a thousand of Marie de Rohan’s kisses could have ever compared to this, this heat, this furnace. Athos groaned and pressed his hands into his lover’s back more firmly, each one of his fingers suddenly alive with joy again.
“I hate you,” Aramis whispered, raining kisses now all over Athos’s face, his eyes, his nose, even the tip of his chin. “Hate. Hate you so much.”
“I hate what you’re wearing,” Athos moaned, his fingers anxiously pulling on his friend’s damned collar. “Really, it’s incredibly unbecoming.”
“Shut up, shut up!”
Athos felt teeth on the crook of his neck, another moan escaping his lips.
“I swore after England that you would not do this to me again!” Athos could feel the heated waves of anger emanating off his lover’s body. “That I wouldn’t let you manipulate me!” Aramis’s hands were make quick work of Athos’s doublet and accoutrements. The Count’s sword fell to the floor with a loud clang. “How dare you come armed into the presence of the Lord?”
“Aramis…” This was a familiar state of incoherency that he was descending into again, and Athos welcomed it.
“Chirst, Athos! It’s not that difficult to figure out how to take this thing off!” Aramis slapped the other man’s hands away as the latter had been fumbling hopelessly with his vestments. “You’d think you’ve never done it before!”
“I’m sorry,” Athos mumbled again, certain that his entire brain function had been diverted elsewhere. His neck was attacked again, careless of leaving marks on his skin, the kind that in the past they would have avoided with a sort of religiosity of its own.
“Are you sorry?”
“Yes!” This exclamation was likely elicited more by what Aramis’s hand was suddenly enacting inside his trousers than by any real feeling of contrition, but it did appear to be the appropriate response since Aramis roughly pushed Athos onto the bed and climbed on top of him.
“I could kill you,” Aramis whispered, looking suddenly soothed as he straddled the other man’s hips. A twitch underneath him informed him that such a threat was a surprisingly welcome turn of the conversation. Aramis pulled his robe over his head and tossed it aside.
“Layers, damn layers, always so many damn layers,” Athos muttered angrily, pulling at his lover’s long undershirt.
“Apparently never enough of them,” Aramis smirked and moved the hands of Athos away. “No. I’ll tell you when you’re allowed to touch me.”
“Now?” Athos bucked his hips upwards.
Aramis slapped Athos’s face, neither firmly nor particularly gently, and lowered his mouth again to bite at the Count’s collarbone. Athos shut his eyes, blissfully aware of strong fingers tangling roughly in his hair, the evidence of his lover’s own arousal angrily stabbing him in the stomach.
“Now?” he asked tentatively, trying vainly to catch Aramis’s ear with his teeth.
“Do you remember what you said to me all those years ago at Noisy-Le-Sec?” Aramis’s face hovered like a painted angel above Athos, who wanted desperately to be allowed to reach up and put his lips all over it.
“Which one of all the things?”
“You told me that your cock forgave me, but that you did not,” Aramis arched one of his eyebrows.
“Ah, Monsieur l’Abbé has an excellent memory!”
“Yes, indeed, I never forget a thing. Especially not words. I am very good at remembering words.”
“I have already admitted to having sinned gravely and repeatedly against you…”
“You are the one who has cut off the nose to spite the face!”
“I know! Damn it, I admitted as much!” Athos bucked up against the other man again. This conversation, at this particular moment, was worse than had Aramis simply flogged him for an hour.
“Say you love me. Say you’re mine.”
“You don’t get to hide in a confessional. Not after having tormented me my whole life. Not anymore. Not now.”
“Tell me what I need to hear,” Aramis’s lips hung a mere breath away from his own again, his hands digging fingernails into Athos’s wrists as he held his friend’s arms over his head. “Tell me… and I will absolve you.”
Athos could feel a stinging in his eyes.
“You already know that…”
“Say the words. It is the words I want right now.”
“Porthos says that half of what we say to each other means the opposite of what it means.”
“And the other half?” Aramis had not loosened his hold on the Count’s wrists.
“The other half, apparently, is insults.”
Aramis laughed, laughed despite himself, and dropped his face into the crook of the other man’s neck, inhaling his familiarly warm scent. Athos could not move his hands, but the top of his lover’s ear was finally within the reach of his teeth, and he gently took it in his mouth, causing a small shiver to run down Aramis’s upturned back.
“Aramis,” he whispered.
“Yes?” Aramis lifted his face from Athos’s chest and looked into his lust-clouded eyes again.
“I love you. I am yours.”
“Which half was that? The lies or the insults?” Aramis smiled and tentatively mouthed at Athos’s kiss-swollen lower lip.
“Now you shut up,” Athos whispered.
Aramis rocked back against his hips and made a quick sign of the cross across Athos’s face.
“Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”
“Thank you, St. René, patron of perpetual self-denial.”
Aramis let go of the other man’s hands so that he could shed the rest of his undergarments.
“There will be no perpetual self-denial tonight,” he said, carelessly tossing aside the vestiges of his coverings. “That’s not part of your penance.”
The ivory gleam of Aramis’s skin in the dimly lit room beckoned Athos.
“You may touch me now,” the priest said and lowered his mouth again to press against Athos’s eagerly awaiting lips.
“Et in Arcadia ego,” Athos mumbled, his body suddenly alive with a youthful fervor, and clutching his lover’s behind with both his liberated hands. Aramis gasped against his mouth, but did not push his hands away, grinding his hips back into Athos’s strained abdomen.
“Come to me, my beautiful death,” Aramis wrapped his arms around Athos and pulled the two of them impossibly close together.
There wasn’t a part of Aramis’s body that Athos not tasted hundreds upon hundreds of times before, and yet, it was almost worth the years of abstaining to be reunited with each part again, as if for the first time. There were times in their lives, Athos thought as nails raked long scratches along his back, when they had come so close to perfect happiness, but it always reached the apex of perfection at moments like these. He smiled to himself and proceeded to draw his mouth, slowly and deliberately, over the exposed skin, savoring it like the long awaited meal that it was: the neck, the chest, the stomach, the hips, the thighs, right down to the soles of his lover’s feet.
At some point, Athos was vaguely aware of the last flickering of the dying candles as their wicks extinguished themselves in the molten wax, but it mattered little since the heat he was feeling from the press of Aramis’s thighs around his waist, from the way their chests slid past each other in that pool of sweat that their bodies had created, was more than making up for any of the darkness into which they had descended. The guttural cry he was finally able to tear from Aramis’s throat sent new waves of desire down his spinal column, until it exploded out of him, and sent them both into a helpless heap of limbs till the breaking of dawn.
His internal clock, coupled with the persistent crowing of cocks, was telling Athos it was time to leave, but all of Aramis’s appendages were wrapped so tightly around him that not even the Devil himself would have been able to drag him out of that bed. Instead, he leaned in closer, his lips drawing sleepy trails down his lover’s cheeks. Aramis wrinkled his forehead, the lines on it deepening, changing shape in the light of day. Athos traced the fine creases around his sleeping lover’s eyes with the tip of his tongue, thinking him no less beautiful for all these signs of age, which he had spent his life watching form, like canyons cutting up the landscape of their bodies.
“Tell me you’re not planning to leave,” Aramis stirred and pressed closer.
“I can’t very well stay here at the vicarage with you, can I?”
“I meant Melun,” Aramis shifted and gave Athos an insolent grin.
“And leave you here, alone? With Nicholas Fouquet out and about? Not on your life!”
Aramis laughed and slid down to rest his head on Athos’s shoulder.
“I told you – we’re not lovers! Good Lord, that man chases so many skirts, one loses count!”
“This, coming from the connoisseur of the female form that you are?”
“Athos! I swear! Not that I am not flattered by this unexpected display of jealousy.” He stretched his neck to place a kiss on Athos’s face.
“I don’t trust him,” Athos mumbled.
“Athos, you don’t even trust your own shadow.”
“And neither should you,” Athos ran his fingers through his lover’s tangled hair.
“That man is going to make me a bishop some day, perhaps a cardinal even,” Aramis stretched languidly.
“Are there available bishoprics then in the vicinity?”
“No,” Aramis rewrapped a thigh around Athos. “But bishops too are mortal.”
The two men stared at each other momentarily, each one trying to plunder the depths of the other’s mind, before finally breaking out in a small, shared outburst of mirth.
“I don’t want to move yet,” Athos announced, pulling Aramis’s face in for a morning nibble.
“You’re not going anywhere until you’ve been thoroughly fucked,” Aramis replied with a tinge of threat in his voice. “I do not think the entire breadth of your sins has been quite expiated yet, my friend.”
“Will I need to be five years worth of fucked?”
Aramis squinted and contemplated Athos with a serene expression.
“Maybe ten years worth. I know you and your excuses. Might as well take advantage of the opportunity while it presents its ass.”
“Carpe diem, as it were?” Athos asked with an amused look.
“When have I ever failed to carpe that diem? Hmm?”
“Never, my love.”
Suddenly assuming a rather sober expression, Aramis hovered briefly above his friend’s face. “I need to ask you something, and I need you to tell me the truth,” he said in a quiet and composed voice.
“Yes – anything.”
“You said you loved me. That you’ve loved me these past five years, even as your pride and obstinacy kept us apart. Today, right now, you love me – is that so?”
Athos knitted his eyebrows, but the clear-eyed, serious look on his lover’s face left no room in that bed for a sarcastic remark. “Yes. That is very much so.”
“And will you love me tomorrow? And the day after that?”
Athos knew at that moment, as certainly as he knew it the night before, that he would say all the right words, as many times as Aramis needed to hear them.
“And to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure of your visit?” Porthos asked once he let Athos out of the gargantuan grip of his welcoming hug.
“Do I really need a reason to visit you, other than the one I gave you last time?” Athos laughed and took Porthos under the arm, strolling with him towards the château.
“That you wanted to see me? No, no, that reason is always sufficient! Although…” Porthos looked at his friend slyly.
“You do look… Well… Rejuvenated, almost?”
“All right – you caught me.” Athos gave Porthos a friendly shoulder slap. “I did have an ulterior motive for visiting you again.”
Porthos gave his friend a curious look.
“I came here to thank you.”