rainjoyswriting: (kurt!)
[personal profile] rainjoyswriting
Talking to Strangers at Parties, a men in hats fic set in the stupid exorcist AU. Apparently this is where my brain is now, which makes sense because my health gets worse by the day and clearly I'd rather not face the affinityverse right now, yeah -_-;

Rating: R?? I don't know, it's not for kids but hell neither is the real world.

Disclaimer: While this election's at it they could nationalise creative property, then we wouldn't have to write disclaimers anymore. Alas.

Warnings/spoilers: Always refer to part one, but everything to do with vampires in this universe is to do with *vampires*, and the metaphors we use them for; violence, sex, sexual violence, consent and the lack of it, addiction, some generally pretty nasty stuff. There is in this part a description of a past violent sexual assault, but not enormously graphic.

Summary: Around the walls, all around the room, are little huddles of people with drinks, talking, eyeing the two of them as they walk in, ascertaining whether they're predator or prey.


Note: I do have an affinityverse piece stashed away for posting, when I've the arms. For now my mind is very much on the undead, for reasons unknown. Also I might have got my diagnosis today, entirely by accident, because I requested a GP appointment after not hearing anything for months and it turns out my consultant sent them a letter saying 'can't find anything probs ME' and no-one thought it mattered in the slightest that *I* was told about that. So. Yes. Great.









Outside the door, dirty white plastic and nondescript, Aramis puts an arm around d'Artagnan's neck, drawing him into one of those hugs to the side he's so fond of particularly when he knows they've a chance of annoying, and murmurs to d'Artagnan's ear, "Break a leg." before he knocks, loud enough to be heard even over the pulse of music and voices getting out through the door. D'Artagnan himself, wishing they were further away so he had more chance to fiddle with getting the wire comfortable without the possibility of being seen - the earpiece feels like it's about to fall out - says only, lowly, "Behave."

In his ear, Porthos gives a low breath of amusement, just a little strained, crackled through the wire. Athos, also listening in, is silent. Beside d'Artagnan Aramis' laughter ripples, and as the door opens on a chain and a suspicious face peers out, he grins a grin the wrong side of manic, squeezing d'Artagnan in closer again. "Good evening," he says smoothly, but with a little too much need to it. "We were told we might find some - some particular company here. Some very particular company."

The face, a youngish woman, looks at him for some time, then takes d'Artagnan in just as slowly - god, he hopes the wire's not showing - and nods, once, before the door pushes in once more so the chain can be removed, and as Aramis squeezes d'Artagnan's arm, they're allowed inside.

D'Artagnan's legs don't want to take the step. But Aramis is pulling him, there's no getting out of it now, his reluctance just looks like the part he's supposed to play and how the hell can he back out now, after he's the one who demanded he be put in this position anyway . . . ?

The house is dark, coloured cloths draped over the few lamps lit, so the wallpaper and carpet can't really be made out; dark, oppressive, and in d'Artagnan's low nerves - manifesting primarily as low anger - he assumes ugly enough to be better hidden. The hallway leads past a dining room, where people sit at the table with drinks, talking too low to be heard over the sullen, dreamy pulsing of the music too loud; on the other side of the hall there's a living room the pale girl who let them in gestures them to enter, so Aramis - still grinning too much, d'Artagnan hopes to god this is Aramis acting and not the sleep deprivation making itself known - swings d'Artagnan in, pulling him into the larger room where on one sofa a man and woman are kissing deeply - d'Artagnan's eye takes in the particular way the woman is squeezing the man's wrist in her grip - and in an armchair a girl is laying with her legs slung over the arm, head lolling, long hair cascading almost to the carpet, eyes closed in something like bliss. Around the walls, all around the room, are little huddles of people with drinks, talking, eyeing the two of them as they walk in, ascertaining whether they're predator or prey.

In d'Artagnan's ear - he knows in Aramis' as well - he hears Porthos' voice say, "Anyone even looks at you like it's gonna be trouble, yell."

D'Artagnan looks over the people watching them from the edges of the room, the back of his neck gone cold, and tries to ascertain which of those greedy, assessing eyes belongs to a vampire.

*

Often enough bodies are found with obvious bite marks on them and little way of telling who the guilty vampire is; many of them have, after all, had centuries to get good at getting away with killing humans. But three of those bodies, recently, Treville has passed particularly on to the four of them - the three of them, officially, but d'Artagnan in his training is as attached to them as if the fourth member of their team. Three bodies dumped within a fairly small area of Paris, bite marks clean on the throat with no sign of any fight on them, though every human would claw and scrabble to get free, wouldn't they?

"No sign of any restraints," Aramis says, flipping through photographs from the autopsies, holding one up contemplatively. "It's like they didn't even want to get away."

D'Artagnan, leaning back against Aramis' desk - he has to share, in the department, he doesn't get his own station (yet) - says, "So they didn't fight back."

"You fight back." Aramis says, dropping the folder of photographs on his desk. He says it like he's just said you don't put bleach in coffee; the alternative has never even been contemplated, it simply isn't applicable. He rubs his face with both hands. "Okay, unless you're me. But that was different. I fight all the rest of them."

"Good." Athos says without humour from his own station, glaring at a map of Paris with the locations where the bodies were found on his own computer screen.

D'Artagnan says slowly, "Maybe they . . . you didn't fight back." Aramis glances at d'Artagnan, confirming and denying nothing, waiting only to see where d'Artagnan's going with this. "What if it was like it was with you? Or at least -" As Athos' head lurches up, and Aramis makes an immediate calming humming noise in the back of his throat, placating his vampire even before he's snapped the obvious point that with three dead bodies in the morgue, it clearly was not like it was between them. "- at least they thought it was like it was between the two of you. They thought - they were helping? You were injured when Aramis offered it, right? Or . . ."

Porthos says, "A vampire says they need a hand an' a human just offers 'em their neck? Yeah, sounds like somethin' anyone'd try at least once."

"He has a point, though." Aramis says. "If you thought the vampire was only going to take a little blood and you were willing to let that happen, by the time it had got so far that you realised they weren't going to stop, you wouldn't be able to fight back anymore. So they might have gone willingly, except, yes," Hands raised in surrender at Porthos' drawing his breath in to start, "who the hell would volunteer to 'lend' a vampire some blood? Apart . . . apart from me. Yes." He tugs on his beard, looking rueful, now his own past dubious behaviour has had quite so much attention drawn to it. "But that was Athos. I . . . if it had been another department vampire even, I don't know I'd . . . I don't know what I would have done."

Athos says, "Don't offer your blood to another department vampire."

"Well, of course not. I hardly want someone else in my head when we're-"

"So they thought they were volunteering for less than every drop of blood in their body," d'Artagnan cuts him off with, because Aramis is relatively unembarrassable as far as d'Artagnan's ever been able to work out, and the thought of what activities he really doesn't want another vampire 'overhearing' in his head doesn't bear thinking of. "It - doesn't explain why they'd volunteer in the first place though."

"Speculation," Athos murmurs to his computer screen, clicking his mouse. D'Artagnan rolls his eyes, and thinks about how Athos seemed to still, somehow, when Aramis said that 'by the time it had got so far that you realised they weren't going to stop' . . .

On their way to lunch in the cafeteria, Aramis catches Athos' wrist to stop his stride and hold him close, and for one second, lays his cheek to Athos', eyes closed, as if offering or taking strength. Then he's off after Porthos as if nothing has happened, and d'Artagnan, who notices things, thinks that if he saw Athos still - what did Aramis feel?

He doesn't like to think about the blood between Aramis and Athos, he doesn't know how he feels about it, so he ignores it, mostly, like he ignores all the things the three of them do that can make him feel a bit uncomfortable trying to sleep in one of their old beds. He's still picking through the things he's always known - always 'known' - and the things he's now learning to be true, about vampires and werewolves and exorcists. He knew that a vampire drinking from a human was doing something monstrous and could never again be trusted and anyway it did some kind of weird zombification thing to the human so the vampire would have to be killed just to free them. Now he knows that it's complicated, but he thinks only in this situation. Aramis is utterly uncowed by Athos, but then, Athos is Athos. It's not about Aramis' resilience or stubbornness, he could no more bull through what blood does than he could bull through a broken neck. But Athos won't allow it to hurt Aramis, so it's alright. It's such a profoundly one-way power transfer, the drinking of blood, and Aramis is entirely dependent on Athos' good will to survive it intact. And that's what makes no sense to him that day, following them on to the department cafeteria. Of course Aramis offered Athos his blood to save his life. But what other reason could a human have for offering their neck to a vampire?

He thinks about Athos. He likes Athos, mostly. Well, when Athos isn't telling him what he's not allowed to do, yeah, he likes Athos, a lot. So if Athos were dying - if it were just a little blood or he'd be gone forever, after however many centuries he's been used to living through -

Athos walks, eyes not on Aramis but d'Artagnan just knows that his attention is, it always is, as Aramis strolls beside Porthos having one of their ridiculous poker-faced back-and-forth teasing matches. It's not just the blood. It's all of the after, for the rest of his life. It's the way d'Artagnan has seen Aramis' body sink to Athos' hand on his shoulder, when he's tired his muscles seem to roll to the sound of Athos' voice. It's not just a little blood. It's the rest of his life, and d'Artagnan takes a little breath, and can only be grateful that there's an exorcist who already has nothing to lose in offering Athos a drink if he's ever in desperate need of it.

*

"So you're supposed to be nervous," Aramis whispers to d'Artagnan underneath his ear, as low as he can with the music so diaphragm-bouncing loud. "And I'm talking you into this, yes? So it's perfectly legitimate, my nervous little friend, for you to take a good long look around the room. They'll all expect that I'm waiting for a particular vampire. They know I don't need to look."

D'Artagnan glances at him, then flicks his glance around the room, taking in each face either focused on someone else or else very noticeably eyeing him up. He murmurs, "I'm not your 'little' friend."

Aramis pats his shoulder as if it isn't even worth replying to - he's impossible to win against in any competition - and murmurs, "Is anyone looking at you over-aggressively? Looking at anyone else over-aggressively?"

"You mean, does anyone look like a murderer."

"Alas that they don't wear a uniform."

"They're vampires. Aren't they? Some of them." He shifts against the wall, looks quickly down to avoid the stare of a woman, he knows he's meant to be acting shy and uneasy. "How can I spot the vampires without - checking the temperature of their skin, or -"

Porthos' voice says in his ear, "The older ones never dress right, not in modern clothes. You c'n just sort of - tell."

Athos' voice says, "We don't know that it's one of the older ones. Watch their chests, see if they're breathing."

D'Artagnan ducks his head a little so his hair falls forwards as a shield, and looks up at the other occupants of the room through that. "What about the paler ones?"

"'Pale' is relative," Aramis murmurs.

"And humans who have been drunk from are likely to be just as pale." Athos says, and adds, "I own some very good suits, actually."

Porthos huffs amused. Aramis squeezes d'Artagnan's shoulder, says more loudly as a woman walks close past them for the hallway, "It's scary at first but you'd never believe, once they've-" His eye flits to her back safely far away, and his eye catches d'Artagnan's close. "I'm sorry to do this," he says, "but you're the only bait we've got, they only seem to go for those who haven't been bitten previously. So you need to get a vampire interested in you. I really, really would do it for you if I could."

D'Artagnan hisses the breath out through his teeth, and nods. Their murderer only takes 'virgins', it seems - there's no sign on any of the bodies that they'd been bitten before the time that killed them - so Aramis is here for back-up, here to act out the part of someone already bitten and convincing a nervous friend that he really wants to try it too. Athos and Porthos are in the van on the street outside, ready to race in as soon as required. Because, if this fishing expedition goes well, they will be required; if d'Artagnan manages to pull aside a vampire for a bite and then 'change his mind' and the vampire refuses to stop as the murderer they're looking for presumably would, they really are going to need those two; the guns Aramis and d'Artagnan are discreetly wearing are very far from certain insurance in this situation.

All of this because it turns out that there really are some humans dumb enough to try anything once, even if it does mean giving their neck to a vampire. D'Artagnan doesn't understand how he feels about this. Because it makes no sense, obviously - his own father murdered by a vampire, he knows you don't just let a vampire drink from you, you don't want it, and yet -

Here they are. Surrounded by people, by humans, willing to give away something d'Artagnan thought could only be taken. Can they know what they're doing? Can it be consent, when it can never, never be taken back?

He's standing beside Aramis right now. He gave it, knowing entirely what he was giving, the forever of it. But that was different.

Wasn't it?

D'Artagnan steels himself, visibly for the watching eyes all around them, and swallows, and lifts his head.

A woman who looks no older than him is watching him from the darkest corner of the room. She smiles, slow and dangerous in one corner of her mouth, and d'Artagnan draws his breath in slow; but Aramis is gripping his arm so tight, and d'Artagnan knows how much he meant that he would do it for him if he could. Aramis cluckingly fusses if d'Artagnan burns a finger cooking, d'Artagnan has hardly failed to notice that when danger really rears, Aramis is always between him and it. And, of course, his werewolf and vampire are between him and it.

The vampire looks at him, and d'Artagnan thinks, He never was bitten. Aramis told d'Artagnan himself; he slit his own wrist, and offered it for the drinking. Aramis has never been bitten. And that woman stares at him, and d'Artagnan draws his breath in slow.

Aramis squeezes his shoulder, and whispers, "If we hiccup they will hear it."

D'Artagnan can tell from the tone of his voice how much he hates this, even down to his own relative uselessness as defence for d'Artagnan, and having to put the burden of that onto Athos and Porthos listening in. It's not his fault. He's very far from the only person who hates this situation.

*

Back at their desks d'Artagnan thinks that he's going to start making lunch for them to bring in; there's nothing wrong with the cafeteria food as such, it just . . . lacks something. "Should have been a chef," Aramis commented once, corner of his mouth wry with regret because both of them knew that being an exorcist meant being nothing else. D'Artagnan just gave his own strained smile back, because it was one of the career paths his father used to suggest, not knowing where d'Artagnan's true talents turned out to lie.

Aramis, turning an apple underneath his nose and glaring past his computer screen, kicked back in his seat with his boots on the desk as he seems to prefer to digest, says, "We're thinking about this all wrong."

"Clearly," Athos says, lowering his coffee cup, "or we'd have solved it."

Aramis sits up a little better, letting the apple roll in a palm to rest at his belly. "We've been asking why they might be like me, the people who offered a vampire some of their blood. But they're not like me. I did it for Athos, but most humans wouldn't even think about doing that for a vampire. But there are - some - who'll offer a vampire blood for their own sake . . ."

D'Artagnan looks confused between them, as Athos' face is as stonily blank as it ever is, and Porthos rubs his own face with a palm, groans through it, "Fuckin' feeders . . . yeah, if they took advantage . . ."

D'Artagnan says, "What's a 'feeder'?"

Aramis opens his mouth and - hesitates. He doesn't look at Athos, but d'Artagnan still knows that his hesitation is about Athos, because there are things that Aramis finds it awkward to say in front of Athos; any negative aspect of being drunk from by a vampire, and obviously there are plenty of those, is rather delicate territory between the two of them. He says, "They . . . it's not exactly a 'high', it . . ."

Athos says, bluntly and without particular inflection, "There are humans who like being drunk from by vampires."

D'Artagnan says, "How can you like it? Doesn't it hurt?" and Aramis looks, d'Artagnan thinks, as close to embarrassed as he's ever seen him.

"Of course it hurts, but tattoos hurt and that never stops people. It - it feels -" Aramis describes circles in the air with both hands, and the apple. "It's the most complete surrender you can imagine. You are utterly in their hands, to the very soul of you. There are people who seek that out." He rubs his nose and finally raises the apple for a bite. "They never live long."

"Then why would they-"

"Never stopped drug users." Porthos says. "Never stopped feeders either. Human beings, fuck."

D'Artagnan feels nettled. "Because werewolves are entirely rational creatures."

"We don't go around askin' vampires to bite us at least, yeah." Porthos growls, and Aramis hesitates in his chewing and then continues, eyes trained carefully to the corner of the room.

"People have their reasons for self-destruction." Athos says, which - surprises d'Artagnan, who didn't expect to hear him defending this, before he turns to his computer and starts clicking into their database. "We need to look for known feeders from the same area the bodies were found in, and ask if they know anything."

D'Artagnan tries to imagine being held and bitten by a vampire, and liking it: the most complete surrender . . . but Aramis is eating his apple in silence, looking sad as much as anything else, and Porthos has started grumpily looking through old case files on the system, cross-referencing for similarities. It's easy to forget that Porthos isn't quite human in the same way that Athos isn't, because Athos' skin is always cool, he doesn't feel changes in temperature as troubling, he barely sleeps, he never eats; but Porthos seems just like them, except for a strong sense of smell, until the moon gets full. And d'Artagnan doesn't like feeling like Porthos thinks of them as less. He doesn't think he does, he tells himself, still a little sullenly mulish about it but trying to be fair. Porthos just didn't think before he spoke. It's fine. The two of them probably do much the same to him all the time.

Aramis swings his apple core a little left and right by the stalk, looking at it gloomily.

They find a girl, d'Artagnan's age, brought into the hospital that morning from blood loss, fainted on the street, with a bandage on her neck and a very vague focus to her gaze. They visit her hospital bed, one fingertip in a clamp measuring her quick nervous pulse and she apparently feeling no cold in her flimsy gown even though she's slim as a paperknife, pale skin barely more than paper over the bone. She smiles at them as if somewhere else entirely, nirvana itself by the look of it, how content she is in her dying. Aramis looks very troubled as he sits down beside her, and Porthos looks angry, arms folded, and doesn't sit. Athos goes to stand behind Aramis, barely a hand's-breadth from touching him. D'Artagnan himself hangs back as well, uneasy of this, as Aramis puts a smile on, and takes out his badge for her.

"We're from the DPI," he says. "We just have a few questions, it's no problem if you don't know the answers, we just hoped you might be able to help us. How are you feeling?"

"Mmm," she says, a hum of pleasure, and scratches at the hollow of her throat, eyes slitted blissful in their deep purple bruises like she hasn't slept in a month. D'Artagnan shuffles uncomfortable on his heels.

"So you have a friend, I take it," Aramis says, watching her eyes very carefully. "A very particular friend, who does something for you."

She presses her lips together, like a child determined not to talk, and then starts giggling. D'Artagnan is mostly aware of how all of Porthos' muscles have hunched, the rage of a wolf ready to pounce, and he checks his face and looks away again quickly at the thundercloud fury of his expression.

Aramis hesitates, tongue poised on his next question, then his smile strains, and he says, "I have a friend too." and he looks up at Athos, and back at the girl again, and she takes some time, a few struggling glances, Athos, Aramis, Athos, Aramis, and then she smiles, broad and dreamily joyous, and touches Aramis' hand.

"Isn't it special," she breathes.

Aramis says, "I am very, very grateful for him.", still watching her eyes. "We wondered if you knew, in the area where you were found, if there were any others - who chose this kind of bond. We're looking for someone in particular."

"Mm?"

"Is there somewhere that you go? To find a vampire?"

"I have a vampire."

"Where did you meet them?"

She whispers, "It's a secret," and slips a finger over her mouth, shaky and thin as bone. Aramis just smiles, and leans closer, and whispers, "Just between us, then."

She bites her lip, that strange mellow-manic-elsewhere light in her eyes, and leans drunkenly closer to him - she can't measure the distance properly, he has to catch her shoulder as she almost sways herself to fall - and her hair hangs forward, ragged long brown. She brushes it back in one of her frail arms, and whispers to him, "They host parties for us. In Montreuil."

"Montreuil?"

"On the Rue Mirabeau."

"Would they let me in, do you think?"

She nods, grave and childlike. "They're very kind. They're so kind."

Aramis gets the address out of her, gentle and smiling, and the moment their goodbyes have been made - he takes some time to get a blanket around her thin shoulders during the course of his thanking her - the smile is gone, and he walks stonily for the door, which Porthos stamps out of first. Athos has barely closed the door behind them before Porthos explodes, "She hasn't got six months left in her-"

"I'd give her less than one," Athos says, walking down the corridor for the exit. "Her heart was already too overstrained."

Aramis touches Porthos' arm. "We can't make everyone's decisions for them, Porthos."

"Why isn't he like that?" d'Artagnan asks, mostly to distract Porthos from this particular direction of his rage, he at least needs to be quieter while they're still in the hospital. "She looked ill."

"She is ill." Athos says. "She's dying."

Aramis looks at him like he didn't want anyone to say that out loud, then draws his breath in and says, as smoothly as he can to d'Artagnan, "There are three options when a vampire drinks from you but leaves you alive. They may intend to torment and torture you to death; that tended to be the way in the old days. Or they might simply not give a crap about you - that poor girl's situation - which won't kill you quickly, but it will let you die over a period of months as they ignore you and your body works itself to death with wanting them. Or they could be Athos." His brow wrinkles, this clearly a difficult situation to assess what he's actually feeling in; d'Artagnan often gets the impression that Aramis thinks he knows what he's feeling when really, he doesn't have a clue. "He cares about me. We care about each other, all the feeling is real, it's not imposed on either of us. It's the only way to survive it."

D'Artagnan remembers that girl, she looked younger than him, eyes so huge in her starved face. "Is it legal?"

". . . none of it wasn't consensual."

"It's a fucked up law." Porthos spits.

"It's not going to change." Aramis says. "Lots of people are concerned that if they got seriously ill then maybe they'd like to be changed, so they don't like the law to change. Biting's fine if the bitee said yes."

"It is a stupid law." Athos says. "You know that half the fucking judiciary are from the old vampire families, that's why it doesn't change."

". . . that's really fucked up."

"So!" Aramis says, because Porthos is emitting a continuous low growl, and the subject clearly needs changing in a hurry. "We have an address on the Rue Mirabeau to visit. The only problem is -"

Athos opens the door for the staircase, holding it for a nurse before they can head down, "No-one at a party of feeders is going to talk to musketeers."

"When people are getting killed?"

"Nice food source for the vampires, they don't want us in there." Porthos says, stamping down the stairs. "We always can fuck up their good thing. If we find drink or drugs, we c'n say it wasn't consent an' lock the bastards up."

"And the humans won't talk," Aramis says. "Not just so they don't upset the vampires, it's - I mean, it's a cultural thing, they don't like us. If you believe in free blood between vampires and humans, you're hardly going to be a big fan of the DPI."

D'Artagnan hurries down the staircase after them - it's Porthos who's dictating the fast pace of their descent, still very obviously very angry, and Aramis is walking quick to stay at his heels, and Athos, as if on a string, is moving subtly faster to keep up with Aramis. D'Artagnan says, "They might talk to me. I'm not DPI, not really, not yet."

Aramis takes a deep breath. Athos says, "You can't talk to anyone without backup, an exorcist in this city."

Aramis says, "We could-"

Porthos turns on his heel - Aramis almost trips on the last step not walking right into him - and holds his finger hard in Aramis' face. "No."

"What else can we-"

Porthos is already striding off through the open space of the main entrance of the hospital, across the rubbery, very clean floor, for the doors. Aramis is still for one second and then strides fast after him again, and Athos walks silently after the two of them. D'Artagnan keeps at his side, says very low, "Why's Porthos - ?"

Athos just stops and scowls, eyes screwed up, in the sunlight outside the automatic doors. "Do you remember where we parked?"

Outside the car Aramis nervously touches Porthos' arm, and Porthos jerks his arm away, not looking at him. Aramis' face goes carefully blank in a way that's so obviously so crestfallen that d'Artagnan doesn't like to look at it, and then Aramis says very evenly, "Is it me that you're mad at? Because if I've done something stupid and I just didn't notice it -"

Porthos' jaw tightens in a way that flexes all the way down the muscle in the side of his neck, then relaxes with a forcible, growling breath. "No," he says, very low and rough. "S'not you I'm mad at. Get in the fucking car."

In that fucking car, after they've all pulled their seatbelts on and Athos has reversed them from the parking space, Aramis says, "You know it would work. He and I could go in there with you two outside-"

"You don't go anywhere out of our sight outside of the garrison or our apartment." Athos says. "That is the rule. It is not negotiable."

"You know that's not true, we're always negotiating rules, that's what we do. It would work. You could have wires on us, you'd know exactly what we were-"

"No."

"Athos -"

"You don't go undercover." Porthos says, that awful low rumbling quality to it, it gets at the guts when he gets this angry, like music playing too loud. "End of discussion."

"What is this discussion exactly?" d'Artagnan says.

"You and I could go to one of those parties," Aramis says. "All the vampires there can tell that I've already been bitten, it would look like I was - initiating you. And then we could talk to people. We can't talk to them otherwise, it's not just that they won't talk, if they get wind that we know the address they'll move the address. This is the only chance we have."

Porthos snarls back, "You don't go undercover. That's it."

D'Artagnan says, "Why can't you go undercover? What did you do?"

Aramis puts a wounded hand to his breast, but his heart's only half in it. "There was an incident once, but I didn't actually die and other people actually will. That girl - two of the victims were hardly any older, people will die, they will continue dying until we find the bastard who's doing it. So I am taking this plan to Treville for authorisation and either you mind our backs while we're doing it or some other agents will. If you want to do it. Sorry." to d'Artagnan, the latter sentences, polite and clipped because Aramis isn't very good at being angry.

"I'm fine with it." d'Artagnan says, shrugging. "Couldn't Athos come with us, if it's safety you're worried about?"

Athos says, "No." and d'Artagnan looks at the back of his head, frowning.

"We can get out unbitten," Aramis says. "They'll understand if I only want my vampire, and if you act out a change of heart, we can walk out without a drop of blood spilt. Or if you 'change your mind' and the vampire ignores that, we can at least make sure that only that vampire's blood gets spilt. But if Athos goes and a human wants him, they would think it was too strange if Athos turned them down. Why would a vampire turn down a free meal? It would be too hard for him to get away without going through with it."

Athos hits the indicator to turn back for the department. "I already have quite enough inane prattle in my head as it is."

Aramis smiles, thinly, and settles back in his head, finally something like relaxed again. "This can work," he says. "Someone in there will know something about people going missing, about a vampire who goes too far. They might even be there."

Porthos growls, "That's exactly what we're worried about."

Aramis leans forward, puts his hand on his shoulder. "You can be right outside, listening in. We'll be wearing guns, I'll carry holy water, we'll be fine. It won't be Bondy again, you'll know what's happening, we'll be alright."

D'Artagnan says, "What happened in Bondy?"

Porthos says, "You're not going."

"Porthos . . ."

"He's not." Porthos says, to Athos. "He's not."

Athos just drives, until he eventually says, "The boy can't go alone either."

"Neither of 'em are -"

"It was years ago, Porthos, this is different. We have each other for back up, and you two, and as many other agents as you want to pile into a van to wait for us but this time -"

"S'not happening."

"Well, if Treville approves it, either you can be our back up or someone else can do it but it is happening. People are dying. They might be making a stupid bloody decision but they don't deserve to get murdered for it, and I can't unmake their stupid decisions for them but I can catch the vampire who'll outright kill them, alright? It's better than nothing, it's all we've got."

Silence, angry and full of low electricity, fills the car for half the next street.

D'Artagnan says, "What did happen in Bondy?"

Aramis rubs his eyes with a hand, says, "Don't ask about Bondy." and Porthos looks back, looks hard at Aramis, breathing slow, eyes too focused. Then he says, "'course I'm your fucking back up." and looks forwards through the windshield again, and Athos says nothing, and Aramis hesitates before he grins, and d'Artagnan starts to face the fact that this plan of theirs really might have to happen, and he is going to have to walk into a party where people go to get bitten to find the vampire who does more than merely bite, and the bait in this situation is his own throat.

*

In one of the bedrooms, lit by candles and another lamp draped in a silk scarf turning the room a moody purple, d'Artagnan walks so nervous he could vomit - he's pretty certain he's not going to vomit, but his guts are still debating the point - with the cool hand of a vampire on his back, leading him on. Behind him on the stairs Aramis is chatting as if not afraid in the slightest to another vampire, male, both as casual as if this is nothing different to any other party.

That hand on his back feels like it's pulsing through his skin. It's only gentle, it's not forcing, and in theory d'Artagnan can stop this any second he wants to, but he knows his own relative strength against that vampire and all the power between the two of them lies with her. He can say no; but he's dependent entirely on her accepting that no. That's exactly why he and Aramis are here, because of three dead bodies of people whose 'no' meant nothing. If d'Artagnan says no, he's still dependent on her decision to allow him his 'no'. She could force him, if she wanted, he couldn't stop her. She could hurt him; what real use is his voice against her strength?

Maybe he will vomit. It might get him out of doing this.

The vampire gives him a very gentle sort of push towards the bed, and d'Artagnan's mouth is sickly dry, as he stands there, swallows, then very carefully sits on the edge of the bed, hands fisting like rocks beside his thighs. The beat of the music, muffled, shakes the floor. The female vampire sits beside him, and draws a finger along the ends of his hair, brushing it back behind his shoulder - giving her, every single one of his nerve endings is rigidly aware of, a better view of his neck. "Aren't you a pretty one," the vampire murmurs, eyes all sparkling amusement at him, and d'Artagnan's body is stone he feels so little able to move but he wants to shake, this is -

He is a matter of seconds away from knowing how his father died.

"I can hear your heart," she whispers. "You're so scared."

"It's his first time," Aramis says, lounging in a lean against the wall beside the male vampire like this is nothing. "Just let him settle down and relax, it's so much better after you relax. You mustn't fight it, just - relax."

His smile is so encouraging, and d'Artagnan knows they have to act this out and only now realises that all the difficult acting has to be on Aramis' part, d'Artagnan's doesn't have to try to look not at all okay with this situation. "It's nice here," Aramis says, casual small talk, filling the silence. "Lovely atmosphere."

"It's so good to be amongst the like-minded," the male vampire says, and draws the backs of his fingers up the side of Aramis' arm, making Aramis glance to him with a relaxed sort of curiosity. "Are you purposefully exclusive?"

Aramis smiles, shaking his head. "Mine doesn't like to share more than he already does."

They can smell Aramis' attachment to Porthos, d'Artagnan knows, just as much as his attachment to Athos. In the earpiece, mercifully hidden under the hair at the other side of his head to the vampire he's sitting beside - though he doesn't know if she'd spot it anyway, she seems to only have eyes for his neck - d'Artagnan hears a shifting sound. Either Athos, or Porthos in response to Athos' response. Either way, he knows the meaning of it: No, Aramis' vampire does not, does not, intend to share his human with any other vampire, and he'll kill any fucker that tries.

The male vampire stroking Aramis' arm just laughs softly, and says, "We'd all understand that." and looks back to d'Artagnan. "It's the natural way of things," he says. "You'll understand once it's happened. He can tell you. You'll understand, you'll feel right."

"I'm a - bit -" d'Artagnan says, and swallows, and wishes like hell that that vampire would stop staring at his neck. He trusts that Aramis could get a bullet in her head even in a panicked hurry, but he would really rather not face that situation. "Could we get another drink first? I feel a bit -"

"I was just the same," Aramis says. "It's better when you ease into it. You don't mind, do you? We'll just take some more time, in an hour or so he might be -"

"No, that's fine," the vampire at d'Artagnan's side says, and her cold fingertips at the side of his neck make him jump. She grins, and everything about this is very suddenly so repellent he can't bear it, how often does she do this, does she care even slightly that she destroys the people she does this to? What the fuck does it matter if they say yes? How can you say yes to this? "I'll find you again in a little while, little mouse. When you're ready for me."

D'Artagnan stands up in a hurry, and Aramis laughs softly, reaching for his arm looking almost only amused; d'Artagnan knows his eyes, and knows how close to sick with fear Aramis is himself, having put his apprentice into this room with two strange and hungry vampires. "This is the best place to go for it if you're going to do it, I've seen these places - but I'm really glad we found out about this one, it's so nice here. Do you always use spotters?"

The second vampire, there to pull the first off d'Artagnan had she not been able to stop; the very fact of the potential necessity of it added an extra frisson of nauseating horror to proceedings. And the vampires -

Look at each other. Then the woman says, "It's just courtesy, really, being respectful. Unless -" Eyeing Aramis up with some interest - "you're into edging?"

D'Artagnan doesn't know what 'edging' is but can hazard a guess, as Aramis shakes his head, grinning ruefully, gripping d'Artagnan's arm just a little too tight. "Mine would not be happy if I risked that. I'll get him another drink. Get you geared up." He pats d'Artagnan's back, leading him out of the room and once out of the sight of those two vampires more quickly downstairs, somewhere even halfway safe again.

In d'Artagnan's ear, Athos' voice says, "They know there are vampires there who don't take a spotter into the room."

"If we don't find that vampire here," Aramis says, through a too-bright grin in a low sing-song to keep his tone light, nodding at a very interested-looking woman as she passes them just too far away for her to hear the actual words, "we need to just raid the place, they clearly know something, ooh look, snacks."

Porthos' voice says, "You can't be hungry. In that situation."

D'Artagnan says under his breath, "I'm going to be sick."

"There's only some nuts. Most of us aren't big on eating, I suppose. I'm famished." He tosses a couple of peanuts into the air and catches them in his mouth, and d'Artagnan knows that by most of us he means those drunk from by vampires, and Aramis is looking rather more robust than the generally more waif-like humans drifting needily from room to room. Even the all-nighter he pulled last night and a thirty-odd-hour fast, though it's given a convincing hollowness to the skin under his eyes, doesn't come close to mimicking how frail some of the faces they've seen are. "Scanning the room," he murmurs. "We need to look for a vampire taking a human out unaccompanied, if spotters are the norm."

"I don't like this." Athos says. "You've got another hour, then we're raiding whatever you've found."

Aramis pats d'Artagnan's back again, says soothingly, "Don't mind them, they're only jealous because they know that we have nuts and they don't."

D'Artagnan remembers what Aramis told him about Bondy, and looks at him, and wonders if he's afraid. He knows Aramis isn't a great actor - he gets by through distracting people, he isn't good at dissembling in any traditional way - and the only fear d'Artagnan thinks he's holding is that of what might happen to d'Artagnan himself, on Aramis' watch. But he remembers Bondy, and any vampire here might do the same, and . . .

It's his own fear he needs to manage, because he doesn't think of himself as easily spooked and maybe he's doing better than most eighteen year olds would, but when he was sitting beside that vampire ready for his neck and he knew how helpless he was against her, the fear thrilled, rose up like a shocking wave ready to crash and shatter, because -

He doesn't want to die the way his father died. He knows his father wouldn't have wanted that. And he knows his own horrible curiosity about it, the more he always wants to know, that isn't worth dying over. And he has to do this. He has to do this. He was the one who wanted to do this, Aramis said they could bring in another human DPI agent, it didn't have to be him. It was d'Artagnan who chose this, and now he just has to get it right.

But it's the humans who are freaking him out the most, not the vampires. Not the half-dead humans already bitten, because those poor bastards are doomed already, and understandable in that, pitiable in that. The blood will drag them to their deaths, haul them on a tight leash after their vampires, they gave away all autonomy with that first bite. But the ones who haven't been bitten yet, they're getting d'Artagnan close to a panic when he focuses on them. The ones willing to try it, knowing . . . maybe not knowing it will kill them sooner or later, because d'Artagnan didn't really know what a vampire's bite meant until he became an exorcist - he had some vague idea about the psychic slavery and sex thing, mostly from films - but they know they're giving their neck to a vampire who could kill them in a moment if they only wanted to, and that should be enough to scare them off it. D'Artagnan never intends to risk that.

More, and worse, they know they're giving their blood in a permanent pact, even if they don't know the true nature of that pact. D'Artagnan gets that they consent to the act. What he's struggling with is whether you can consent to that kind of act, when you don't know what happens next, when all you know that what happens next is permanent. It's not like getting a tattoo. It's not. That's only skin. This is your mind, your autonomy, your life. Can you consent to give your future consent away? Can you choose to have all your choices made for you? Why the fuck don't they run screaming -

Aramis puts an arm around his neck as d'Artagnan scans the room, low through his hair, and Aramis shakes him companionably, sings through a smile, "Talking you into it, apparently talking you into it for any watching eyes, eleven o' clock, he has not stopped staring at you for about forty-five seconds now . . ."

D'Artagnan glances in the direction indicated and into the eyes of the man standing against the wall, and he feels the cold inside clench.

*

Treville does clear the mission, squeezing the bridge of his nose and obviously reluctant, but yes, it all makes sense, and as little as they like putting exorcists into any more danger than they're already in, it has to be Aramis. Aramis is the only human in the department already drunk from by a vampire, the most likely to be trusted not only by other humans at the party but by the vampires there as well. It's d'Artagnan who has to argue for his place in the scheme, and he thinks he only ever does get it through simply exhausting the captain, who glances to Athos for a fraction of a second as if checking something before waving an irritated hand, fine, he can go.

In bed that night d'Artagnan stares through the dark and wonders what the hell he's just volunteered himself for - more than that, kicked and elbowed his way to the front of the queue for.

In their apartment the following morning he finds Aramis in front of the television, one ankle folded up over the other knee which he's drumming a rapid rhythm on with both hands, and Athos is sitting beside him propping his head on his palm, his elbow on the sofa's arm, looking weary. Aramis looks up and says, "Good morning, d'Artagnan!" and there's something a bit too much to his smile, as d'Artagnan gives him a wary wide berth, and heads into the kitchen for coffee.

"How'd you- did you sleep?"

"Not one wink." Aramis says, both hands still thudathudaduddaing off his ankle bone. "Haven't eaten since yesterday lunchtime. Hungry. Wired. Twelve hours to go. Do I look vampired?"

He looks too manic in the eye and he's been scrunching at his hair, it goes all frizzy when he does it, but he looks nothing like that girl in the hospital bed yesterday, halfway to a cold dead body already. "You look deranged," d'Artagnan offers, and pours himself a cup of coffee.

"Looking forward to this?" Aramis says, still grinning too much, and d'Artagnan looks up at him, frowning, no idea how to respond to that. "Yes," Aramis says, nodding his head slightly with odd inflected beats of the rhythm he's still drumming off his own ankle, "me too."

The rest of the day is for prep, sorting the squad to wait in a van down the street, running through plans and contingency plans and contingency contingencies. They both get fitted with wires, little earpieces in so they can hear Athos and Porthos listening in. They strap on concealed guns, and a couple of knives because Aramis has great faith in always having a knife to hand as well, and in the changing rooms d'Artagnan is just pulling his hoodie on over his t-shirt to see if it hides the bulletproof vest when Aramis' voice says from the doorway, "It was a mission just like this one. Bondy. Just like this, and no-one did die."

D'Artagnan looks over at the man he's learning his craft from, who leans against the doorway with one shoulder, arms loosely folded, his whole body an easy slouch as if nothing in this situation discomfits him in the slightest. He shrugs his folded arms. "Really just like this one. A few young men had been found dead, after it turned out they'd all gone for a night out at the same club before they died. They'd been violently sexually assaulted and bitten in the throats, and their bodies dumped. So the plan was to go to the club, where Athos and Porthos would hang by the bar watching while I went out and discreetly asked around if anyone had seen anything, and drew some attention to myself in the process on the off chance of drawing out our murderer. What we didn't know," he says more slowly, eyes rolling to the ceiling with some level of regret, "was that it was the owner of the club who was responsible. So he had security try to hassle Athos and Porthos out of the bar, which meant they were distracted and lost track of me on the dance floor, while I felt a hand on my arm that I couldn't fight off and a promise was made to my ear that if I didn't come quietly, he'd kill the next nearest person to us. And we were surrounded by people having the time of their lives and no idea what was really going on."

Aramis pushes off from the doorframe with his shoulder, strolls over and sits, with a little contented sigh, on the bench d'Artagnan is standing beside. "He dragged me down to the basement, concrete floor, all these boxes of bottles, and tossed me on the ground, and I shot him a couple of times as I was falling but I didn't get the head - jarred my arm really badly in the fall, knocked my own aim off - and he smacked the gun out of my hands and hit me hard, and then I remember laying on the concrete and how cold it was, too stunned to move, when he climbed on top of me. He told me I could enjoy it more than I thought I would, he was going to make me enjoy it, and he didn't even bother pinning my hands, why would a vampire bother to pin our hands? So I stabbed him in the side of the neck. That was when he hit me really hard. I think he banged my head off the concrete a few times, that's not very clear, there was blood, I know that, I couldn't tell where from, I'd obviously - I was concussed by then, and he was angry. He pinned me down by my throat and called me a bitch and told me he would have made it nice and I would have enjoyed it but now he was going to make sure I got what I deserved - and he pulled the buckle clean off my belt, snapped the metal and leather, I could hear clothing tearing, I couldn't really tell what was going on with any coherency anymore, everything hurt, I couldn't breathe and it just felt like everything hurt. And that was when Athos and Porthos came bursting into the room, Porthos had already turned, I remember the sound of him savaging that vampire to death. I remember Athos holding me and telling me it was alright. I remember that. But it's all a bit vague and distant."

He looks at d'Artagnan, and his gaze is perfectly steady, and it's so strange - he's a tall man, Aramis, broad-shouldered, d'Artagnan has seen how lethal with a gun and a blade and even his fists and elbows he can be, but he knows, he does know and it's so strange a thought, that against strength like a vampire Aramis can't do a thing, and neither can he.

"It upset them more than me," Aramis says. "It really did upset them. I know it must have been bad to walk in on, I know I looked a mess, I couldn't even tell where all the blood had come from. But it always has to be us, we always have to be the bait, and they hate it. We have to be strong for them. We can't make it harder for them than it already is. But that's what happened in Bondy, and I ended up in the hospital and having to talk to psych for weeks to convince them that I wasn't traumatised and, d'Artagnan," He looks him close in the eye, urgent for him to understand, "that could be tonight. That could be your evening, or worse, and once it's happened it has happened, forever, whatever that means. And no-one thinks anything if you don't want to do this." He watches d'Artagnan's face so closely, and he tuts and fusses - half a joke but only half - when d'Artagnan cuts himself chopping vegetables, and now there's this. "There are other agents. It never has to be you. It doesn't mean anything if you don't want it to be you, it's the rational thing to want."

D'Artagnan just looks at him, for a long moment. Aramis has odd scars - the others don't, can't, but Aramis has a fine line across his forehead, another on one cheek, signs of where life went wrong and he's survived one way or another but he's certainly been through something he's had to survive. And yes, d'Artagnan has some image in his head of that basement under a club in Bondy, and a vampire smashing his head off the concrete floor, and Aramis unable to do a thing when it started tearing his clothes open to get them off him. It's a sick giddy cold-hot thing inside, that image, the horror of exactly what that image is. It's far too easy to understand himself under those hands, himself or anyone else he cares about who is, helplessly, only human.

What that image tells him, more than anything else, is exactly what his father's death told him: as long as there are vampires who do these things, there have to be humans who do these things. So he holds his arms out, says, "Can you see the weapons?"

Aramis watches his face for a moment longer, to be certain, then looks down at his clothes, stands up and pats the sides of the hoodie to feel for the vest, and nods. "You look perfectly acceptable. Are you ready?"

No. "Yes."

"Come on then. And smile." He grins back at d'Artagnan, strolling for the doorway already. "We're going to a party."

*

D'Artagnan really doesn't like the stare of the vampire at eleven o' clock, but he doesn't want to say that out loud because he is aware that Athos and Porthos will immediately burst in and ruin everything, and if that vampire flees - or simply denies everything - what the hell can they prove? But if he does decide he wants d'Artagnan, even after d'Artagnan has told him to stop, they can take him in whatever other evidence they have, they have to try . . .

His mouth is dry, and in the middle of the insane calculation he's making in his head - how far do I go along with the vampire I suspect will murder me before I protest to find out if he won't murder me, with the secret hope that he will keep trying so we can bring the bastard down? - he thinks he finally understands some of Aramis' crazier behaviour.

Aramis is standing subtly between the two of them, somehow he's folded his shoulder in front of d'Artagnan's, and he's eyeing that vampire in a far too alert way. "What now?" d'Artagnan breathes, as low as he can under the music, and he can see in Aramis' eye the utter distrust of that vampire, and his indecision over aborting the entire mission here and now. And if they do it's all for nothing, so d'Artagnan pushes his hair back in both hands, and lifts his head, and looks clean back at the vampire, who immediately pushes off from the wall and walks towards them.

"What's happening?" Athos' voice says in d'Artagnan's ear. "Report."

"Upstairs," the vampire says to d'Artagnan, takes his arm and starts to pull him. It's like being pulled by a car, d'Artagnan's surprised by the way he flies forward under no effort of his own.

"Hey," Aramis says, hurrying to catch up. "He's new, it's his first time, he's not ready yet to-"

The vampire swings d'Artagnan ahead of him on the stairs and he stumbles, catches himself after a few clattering steps on the banister, and the vampire turns to Aramis - he's as tall as he is, there's not much in them there but a couple of steps above him he really does loom and beside all of that he's a vampire and he says, leaned far too aggressively close to Aramis' face, "Fuck off."

A couple of girls hurry down the stairs past d'Artagnan, looking carefully away from their little tableaux. D'Artagnan hesitates but Aramis isn't backing down, is looking that vampire in the eye from a close enough distance to share breath, if the vampire did breathe, and he says, "He doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to do."

In d'Artagnan's ear Porthos says, "Should we be gettin' in there?"

"No," d'Artagnan says. "No, it's fine, I'll just - we can talk. I might - it's fine."

The vampire is still glaring Aramis down, and Aramis still isn't backing down, and all of the party is ignoring them like it's better to pretend they don't exist. "He doesn't go into a room alone with you. We get another vampire -"

The vampire says, "Don't make me shut you up." in a tone of voice that should unsteady the knees, but all Aramis is doing is glaring as the vampire turns and nods d'Artagnan on. "Keep walking."

Aramis takes the stairs behind the vampire as they climb, d'Artagnan now on wobbling ankles. "I'm coming in with you. I told you it's his first time, I really think," in a louder voice, not only for the benefit of those at the party but those listening in as well, "that someone should be in there with you -"

The vampire gives no warning, just turns and swings an arm, clubbing Aramis like a wrecking ball into the banister which - snaps, d'Artagnan hears the crashing and Aramis disappears sideways without even a yelp, and d'Artagnan screams, "Ara-"

The vampire has his arm, forcing him upstairs, he can hear curses and hurry on the earpiece and panic downstairs and d'Artagnan twists and fights but shit fuck it's like - it's like fighting a building, he can't move its fucking hands. "I've changed my mind, I have definitely changed my-"

What can consent mean when the power discrepancy is an ocean's breadth? The vampire shoves him through the doorway into a bedroom and d'Artagnan stumbles to his knees, whacks his chin off the edge of the mattress, lurches around with a gun in his hands and shoots until he's out of bullets. The vampire just takes the gun off him and throws it somewhere, something smashes, d'Artagnan's scrabbling to get up off his arse but he's trapped between the bed and the vampire and shit fuck he wasn't thinking cleanly enough to aim for the head -

The vampire lurches him up by the neck of his hoodie, eye to eye and his hand is cold and this is how his father died this is how his father died and in the doorway another gun cocks, and Aramis huffs out on broken breaths, "Get your hands - off my fucking apprentice."

The vampire's lip curls, and it sneers to d'Artagnan, "You I'm drinking from. Him I'm killing just to shut him up." and he stands and turns, and Aramis - is holding a gun in one hand and - and a tiny spray bottle in the other, and before d'Artagnan can even be confused it's the spray he goes for first. Liquid hisses; the vampire screams, both hands clapping to his eyes, and then Aramis fires cleanly twice, and the vampire falls like a body onto d'Artagnan, heavy and cold.

D'Artagnan shoves him off, breathing far too fast, and can hear shrieking crashing bedlam downstairs as he stares at Aramis, breathing hard with blood streaked horizontal across his forehead and his hair in disarray, covered in dust and gesturing at him urgently with the gun, "Get away from him, they don't stay down long -"

"You - that's -" He drags himself up from beside the vampire, stumbles to Aramis' side. "You sprayed it with holy water."

"Aim for the eyes." Aramis says grimly.

"Can I have some?"

"Do you believe that water can be blessed?"

"I do now."

Aramis, gun still aimed on the vampire, glances to him and grins, and racing up the stairs behind them comes Athos, Porthos pounding up behind him, and d'Artagnan just starts nodding before they can even ask the question. "Fine, we're fine. He pushed Aramis off the stairs."

Athos strides into the room and takes in the still vampire, and the two of them, Aramis quite closely. "Down the stairs?"

"Off the stairs." Aramis confirms. "I took the banister with me. I'm bruised, I'm fine. I assume we got our vampire, unless there's more than one of them."

"There's always more than one of them." Athos says bitterly, and nudges its body with his shoe tip as if annoyed that it won't wake so that he can violently knock it down again. He says, without looking back up at Aramis, "You're bleeding."

"Am I?" Aramis says vaguely, and smiles at Porthos in the doorway. Porthos looks at him closely, looks at Athos glaring at the fallen vampire, and seems to assume that Athos would be worrying more if he felt something worryingly injured in Aramis. So he says, "On the plus side, we've got all the exits blocked an' everyone here gets put away as accessory to murder if they knew what was goin' on."

"Half of them need fucking rehab." d'Artagnan says, screwing his hair up in a hand. "Hell." He puts a hand over his heart, how madly it beats. "Hell."

Aramis still has his gun aimed at that vampire - he acts like he doesn't give a fuck about a thing but every now and then d'Artagnan does see how suspicious he can be, when the people he loves are at stake - but he looks to d'Artagnan at that, and nudges him with an elbow. "Alright?"

"I didn't just get shoved off a staircase."

Some awareness of that clicks on in Aramis' eyes again. "Where am I bleeding?"

"You can't feel it?"

"Adrenaline," Aramis says, and lifts d'Artagnan's arm, as Porthos steps between them and the vampire on the floor, and he slides d'Artagnan's sleeve back; the bruising is already purple-black, astonishing where that vampire's hand bit into the flesh. "I imagine you're just the same."

"You're both seeing a medic." Athos says, but his attention is on the vampire on the floor, who's beginning to twitch and shift a little. Aramis has the gun back on him, and d'Artagnan hangs by his side behind Porthos and wishes he still had his own.

"Keep him alive," Aramis says. "We have questions for that bastard."

Downstairs, d'Artagnan can hear confusion and panic as the music cuts off, and DPI agents are moving through the building, shepherding vampires and humans apart for interviewing. Up here they stand poised over a vampire rallying itself to wake and potentially attack, the four of them waiting to see if they can bring him in alive or not, given what it might take to subdue him again.

All those people downstairs. The walking dead, the bitten humans, it's far too late for them already. The vampires can be taken in and hopefully charged with something so they can't keep getting away with it. But the others, that last group, the as-yet unbitten humans willing to do this - what the hell can anyone do for them? What in their lives or their minds can make them see this as an option, let alone a good one? After all of this evening d'Artagnan doesn't understand it any more than he did yesterday, he doesn't understand how anyone could do this, he doesn't understand -

Surely Aramis didn't know he'd be okay before he let Athos drink from him . . . ? But that was different; but not the blood. The matter of the blood and the permanency of blood was a gamble Aramis made just as these people do, blindfolded stepping around the corner and praying there wouldn't be an oncoming train.

He doesn't understand, but it hardly matters if he does. He remembers the catacombs, his horror at their horror, all that pain he was no more than a pebble facing down an ocean in front of. Whatever makes some people want to offer their artery to a vampire, he hasn't the capacity to stop them. What he can do is what he has done, here, tonight. He hopes there are other people to stop and help with the rest of it. What he can do is this, and even though he feels like lead with the exhaustion of the adrenaline running out, he did it, it's done, and now he can go home . . .

Aramis catches d'Artagnan's eye, and his eyes are too amused underneath the sticky dribble of blood across his forehead. "Smile," he says. "It's a party."

*

Aramis' first duty when they eventually get home - three in the morning, thank the Lord they're on nights tomorrow - is the boy, and making sure he's alright. Last night was very little to them, but it may have meant a lot to d'Artagnan, who hasn't previously had many vampires put their hands on him with every intention of killing him.

But his apprentice seems fine, as pumped full of adrenaline as anyone would be but not especially ruffled, and very angrily glad to see that vampire chained in the back of a reinforced van just as they were. Aramis doesn't like that d'Artagnan has been dragged into their dark and violent and dangerous world, and certainly doesn't like the circumstances that dragged him here, but if it had to happen to anyone, he does feel a certain level of content that it's him. Sometimes he gets little glimpses of the Lord's plans. He doesn't like the circumstances, but he does like d'Artagnan, a great deal, and he's glad to have him in his life, despite everything. Last night was little to them but could have been life-defining to someone else. D'Artagnan seems willing to mark it up as just another night survived, which is what Aramis has always been grateful to see his own close scrapes as.

Last night was very little to them; truly, last night was very little to him. His lovers . . .

He checks himself over in the bathroom mirror before he showers the dust off, but while some of the bruises are pretty spectacular, he hardly looks battered at all compared to some of the things he's picked himself up from. The blood on his head was from a splinter, a long shallow scrape in need of no more than cleaning, and he's got one busted knuckle from the fall but there's no wound deep enough to upset Athos - sucking his breath in and dousing the affected areas in antiseptic helps to smother the scent of blood to his poor vampire a little, who already puts up with enough from him before Aramis has to go around smelling enticingly and offensively of his own blood - and the bruises will heal. It's not like that time a werewolf got its teeth into his leg, or the time a ghoul shot him. It's not a patch on Bondy, he hardly had an unbruised patch of flesh after that. And Porthos and Athos bear Bondy this horrible close way in their souls, he knows, but honestly those men: he's seen Athos with one arm blown clean off, carrying it in an absent way for when he'd have the time to hold it in place to heal, while Aramis' heart pumped sick in his throat; he's seen Porthos hit by a car, his face a mess of blood that healed to pristine again in two days as Aramis tried not to whimper to see him so hurt. And he's not supposed to get upset, because they 'heal', while they fuss and panic if Aramis scrapes an elbow as if his body has no capacity to mend itself at all . . .

He runs a finger over the line on his cheek, that old scar, split open when a vampire punched his head into the concrete floor of a club's basement, and he knows what Bondy meant to them. Bondy was the final straw, for them, he still remembers the way they approached him about it afterwards, clearly tag-teaming, ganging up on him over coffee in their own kitchen once they were home from the hospital. They were the ones who outnumbered him over the threat of his own mortality, and they did extract from him the promise that he'd think about it but hell, what is there to think about? He has to be human. He has to be an exorcist. And yes, he feels guilty as cold shit that one day he'll die and leave them alone, but he can't be a werewolf, he can't be a vampire. There are things he can't give up even for them, it doesn't feel like a choice, it's just how the world is. And even if it came to it, how the hell would he choose between them?

He washes himself thoroughly, lathering and rinsing until the grit is gone from his hair. He towels his hair, moisturises, brushes his teeth.

In his bedroom Porthos is laying on his back on the bed, looking so big and solid and comfortable. Aramis nudges the side of his chest with his knuckles and says, "Alright?"

Porthos grunts, arms folded behind his head, gaze sleepy on the ceiling. Aramis nudges at his chest again, says, "Comfy?"

Porthos sighs, and unfolds his arms to hold them up for him. "Come on, then."

Aramis climbs on the bed, slides a leg over Porthos' waist, sinks his weight down nuzzling comfortable until he can lay on top of his body, his chest for a pillow, Porthos laying one arm over his back, the other hand stroking through his shower-damp hair. It took Aramis some time to realise that neither of his lovers minded his weight on them at all - Aramis' entire body is no more than a blanket, really, to them - and it took him longer to check with them that they didn't mind Aramis' weight, which is a different matter entirely to how heavy it actually seemed. Once that was confirmed, they both accept that in the winter Aramis likes a werewolf mattress, and in the summer a vampire one. Porthos is so lovely and warm, he thinks, burrowing his cheek comfortable to Porthos' chest. Athos is so sweetly cool when Paris feels unbearably hot. It's so perfect, having both of them.

Porthos' fingers tug in a gently unknotting rhythm through his hair. "Aramis?" he says.

Porthos is usually too warm in himself to sleep in a shirt, which is always nice, and Aramis nudges his nose into his chest hair, mumbles, "Mm?"

Porthos' thumb runs over his scalp. "'ve you been thinking 'bout it any more?"

Aramis opens his eyes, and stares across the lamplit bedroom, and thinks, Fuck Bondy.

He can't be a werewolf, can't be a vampire. Exorcism is given to humans alone, and Aramis has to be an exorcist. There's the boy to teach now but it's more than that, of course it is, they know why, they know what happens when they let Aramis sleep alone, they know he needs this. Only humans can be exorcists. Aramis thinks of it as the true vulnerability of humans against the supernatural taken only to its proper conclusion, the utter openness he feels to death, the way their voices and their touch presses right through his skin. He's been living arm to arm with the dead for years, now. Do they really think he'd want to close himself up, close a shell around himself, untouchable behind glass when he knows souls beat against it howling the misery that no-one else can hear and help?

He kisses Porthos' chest, rubs at his side. "Not tonight," he says, and Porthos is silent, and Aramis knows he doesn't like that, but he hopes that he'll accept it anyway. Tonight was far too much to have to sit here afterwards and argue through why Aramis doesn't want one of them to put his teeth in him.

Porthos says, low to the ceiling, "You're gonna have to stop dicking us around an' pick sooner or later."

Aramis looks up at him feeling - in that second - cornered, misunderstood and cornered, a fox with his back to the wall and the hounds circled, because he isn't - he doesn't mean by it dicking them around, it's - "Not tonight," he says again, kissing Porthos' chest, feeling unsettled that that's what Porthos - what both of them? - see it as. Aramis isn't trying to delay them or fuck around with them or wield some weird power over them, they know exactly where he stands on it, they know how reluctantly he said he'd think about it just to get them to stop talking about it, don't . . . ?

It really is too much to have to face tonight, after he's been strung out with worry for his apprentice all evening and he hasn't slept in two days, he feels queasy with needing to sleep. Instead he props his chin off Porthos' chest, and looks up at his face for some time, then says sleepily, "God, I wish I could have your babies."

Porthos digs his chin to his chest to squint at him, then says, "Don't change the subject. An' not to such a weird fuckin' subject."

Aramis rubs his arm. "But Porthos, we'd have such pretty, pretty pups," and he can feel Porthos trying not to laugh underneath him, grins and rubs at his arm faster, it's no different to how he does when Porthos is in his wolf form, before there's a knock at the door - Aramis was anticipating it anyway, given what he can always feel - and Athos lets himself in.

He looks at the two of them, sighs, walks over and sits on the edge of the mattress at their sides. Aramis settles his cheek back to Porthos' chest, looks at his back. "It's still early, for you." he says.

Athos, looking gloomily at the wall opposite, says, "I was up all last night trying to keep you amused to keep you awake. An early night wouldn't be utter hell."

Aramis strokes circles on Porthos' chest with his fingertips. "I think that's as close as he gets to 'I like spending time with you'."

"Lay down then." Porthos says to Athos. "He'll start whining about bein' too hot any minute."

Aramis yawns, because two days of sleeplessness are catching up with him like great lead weights on his eyes and his mind, and Athos shuffles his body onto the bed and lays himself out beside Porthos in the pyjamas and dressing gown kept for this alone, the only thing he wears besides his suits. Aramis slithers his weight off Porthos and into the valley between the two of them, allowing their sturdier bodies to prop him up. Warm at one side, cool at the other. He'll spend the whole night rolling one way and the other to settle his temperature somehow between them, and he knows he never will learn until too late every time that the bruises are still too tender on one side to lie on.

He closes his eyes, his nose pressing into Athos' upper arm. Two arms settle around him, a warm one stroking at his belly, a cool one curled around his shoulders.

He has no intention of dying. His life is perfect in a way he's frightened by, he knows he doesn't deserve it, but here it is and all he can ever offer is gratitude like nausea for it. And time is limited, he knows that, he accepts that, he has no intention of dying but at some point in the next few decades it will come for him however he chooses to spend his time until then. He accepts that. That is the lesson he took from Bondy. Some day he will die, and he doesn't get to choose the means of his own passing. All he takes from that is to be grateful for what he has, for as long as he has it. He hopes they don't fixate on the passing so much that they miss the life before it.

But it's been a long night, a long two nights, and he is tired, tired . . . Athos' knuckles play on the back of his neck, Porthos' palm is warm over his stomach. Eyes closed, balanced between them, he listens to the rain touching off the window, a little stronger now than when they first climbed into the car, weary and ready for home outside that house now empty of humans and vampires, the last comb-over of agents done. It's almost like the rain was waiting for them to get home before it started, like it knew they were doing the work of the angels.

The rain taps like a typist at the window, and it is a very nice night to spend safe between the bodies of the men he loves, warm and dry in a lamplit room; there are so many things to be grateful for. Another night survived, and he is grateful, and tired, and glad.

Date: 2017-05-25 05:13 pm (UTC)
scribe: very old pencil sketch of me with the word "scribe" (Default)
From: [personal profile] scribe
Ooh boy, I just tore through everything you'd posted in this 'verse- somewhat unwisely, as it kept me up until three in the morning, but I just couldn't stop reading! I really love the supernatural world you've created and how all of their various identities are just so right and perfect for the characters. Can't wait to see what happens!

Date: 2017-05-28 09:14 pm (UTC)
sevenall: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sevenall
What a beautiful and terrifying story. Heart-baring, heart-breaking and yet somehow comforting. Thank you so much for writing it!

I am so sorry to hear about your health problems. Thinking of you and hoping things improve, soon.

Date: 2017-05-29 07:52 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] writeincolour
I am always delighted with whatever 'verse you grace us with, and this was a great instalment. I loved seeing how protective Aramis is of d'Artagnan, and the way the four of them fit together in their missions. I am always a fan of your way of flashing back and forth in order to build the story up.

I am a bit concerned by the conflict that is clearly brewing around Aramis not wanting to turn. It seems like Porthos does not get this at all in the last bit, which is a bit worrying. I trust that they will be fine but it's clear that Aramis needs to set them both straight on this, because in a 'verse that discusses consent a lot, this should really be his choice.

Anyway, I look forward to literally anything else you write! :)

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