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It was a hard day at work, even though Claude could argue that he did not do much at work himself, except stand and wait for the danger that probably would not come.

Claude was told to stand still at his post until the masquerade ended, since there were enough guardsmen to keep the palace thoroughly flanked and secure. He would only be allowed to leave his post had he spotted any kind of strange occurrence within the vicinity.

So far, he had not seen any. He was getting sleepy, and the moon was already high in the sky.

He would listen to the party inside, and could only imagine the fun all the guests were having. Being a member of the Royal Guard does not leave you with much time to have fun. Except if you are the Captain.

Bernardo Mancini, the newly assigned Captain of the Royal Guards had been situated within the ballroom, so he could watch over the king himself in close proximity. It was a masquerade party, and yet he did not wear anything that could masquerade him, even with a mask on hand.

Despite being the Captain for months, Claude had initially seen Bernardo as this spoiled nephew who wanted to milk the most out of his uncle's influence. He was a boy who was not much smaller than Claude, although Claude was the tallest of the Royal Guardsmen. He was always at Mazarin's side, sometimes sneering with him, sometimes standing silent as his older brother Philippe schmoozed his way to Mazarin's favor. To Claude, Bernardo faded into the background.

There were whispers among the guardsmen, that Bernardo had cheated his way to the top by getting a free pass from Cardinal Mazarin, his uncle. Just some luck on his part, they say, snickering to themselves. Most of the guardsmen did not think Bernardo was capable of leading them, he was a little boy after all.

Bernardo choose the new set of guardsmen himself. There were a group of men that Mazarin had scouted from across Italy and France, and he had Bernardo choose some. Claude was the first to be chosen, possibly because he was the tallest among the men, then afterwards, Claude’s best friend, Robert. Every other guardsman was chosen afterwards.

They were handpicked by Bernardo, and yet none of them actually believed in his capabilities of being the Captain of Mazarin’s Royal Guards.

Until, Bernardo finished the Musketeers.

It was then that Claude realized that the boy had wit in him, ambition, and that he deserved his position in as Captain, no matter what the means of that would be. Bernardo had to bribe some disloyal musketeers to get what he wanted, but that only led him to exactly what his goals were and it further proved his claim of the Musketeers being rebellious heathens.

Claude was the first to see the glint in his eye at the tavern, when he held the sacrilegious Cardinal Mazarin doll made out of a broomstick in his hands. Bernardo arrived with the rest of the guardsmen, his cape swooping behind him as he strode into the room.

"Claude," he asked, round dark eyes piercing right through him, "what do you have in your hands?"

Taken aback, Claude felt the words get caught in his throat, but he answered, "This is the Cardinal Mazarin," before handing it over to him.

He felt his knees tremble ever so slightly. He was not the incompetent rich boy that the rest of the guardsmen thought, but he was someone different. Someone who would do anything for the people he is loyal to. Someone who would never want to disappoint the family he is a part of.

Then, Claude's impression of him shifted as well when he saw him clash swords with d'Artagnan. Mazarin paraded Bernardo as the best swordsman in all of Italy, but d'Artagnan was known to be the best swordsman, period. That man knew how to wield a sword with ease and expertise, which was why he was chosen to be the king's fencing tutor. What surprised him was Bernardo was able to hold his own. Claude thought that Bernardo could outmatch every single guardsman in battle: that is how much Mazarin trusts him.

He was a force to be reckoned with, Claude mused.

"Claude!"

Then his inner musings were put to a halt when suddenly the person of his thoughts stood right before him. In the flesh, a young man clad in all black, with a feathered hat on his head. Bernardo was breathing heavily, as though he had been chasing something. Claude noticed that the music and the chandeliers had been put out; the party was over.

"Sir?"

"Where is he?"

"...Who, sir?"

"The man! The man who is dressed in the Spanish Guard's attire."

Claude had seen many men like those through the night, but the guardsmen had been told that they were hired by the Queen of Spain — they were no threat, as far as he knew. He had been so deep into his thoughts, he could not notice the different, possibly suspicious, people passing by.

"No, Captain..." Claude murmured, his head bowed.

"Claude," he stepped closer, voice in a whisper, "You were distracted."

Claude answers Bernardo in confirmation, there was no use to deny anymore. He had been caught, after all.

"He ran so fast, like a thief in the night, he must have been hiding something. He could have been a musketeer!" Bernardo wondered out loud, "and you let him get away, Claude."

He gulped, fists clenched. "...My apologizes, Captain. I will accept any punishment you deem fit."

"There is no lazing around among my guardsmen, do you hear me, Claude?"

Bernardo spoke with so much authority, that even a man like Claude, who must be more than a decade older than him, would feel small. It did not help that they were standing only three feet apart, and Bernardo was making absolutely sure that Claude was hearing every single word.

"I hear you, sir," Claude answered, powerless against him.

"And what if it was that wretched d'Artagnan!? I swear I could smell the sun and earth on that guard–"

Ah, d'Artagnan. That was a name that would never leave Bernardo's mouth. D'Artagnan, d'Artagnan. Always him. Claude thought that Bernardo's sole purpose in life was to defeat him and gain the title of being the best swordsman in Italy and in France, but d'Artagnan was a big hurdle he would have to jump, if he wanted to get there. One time, he heard Bernardo describing his scent, which no other guardsman noticed.

Claude had started to believe that Bernardo was a little obsessed with the boy, his only aim was to defeat him. But then, there was also something that Claude noticed the more he listened to his captain speak about d'Artagnan, it was almost as if he was jealous of the King. He heard one comment about d'Artagnan's lips, claiming they would be too rough to kiss.

Then he would go on and on about walls.

Word had spread in the palace that the king was not interested in women, and was having an affair with d’Artagnan. Bernardo did not like this one bit, calling d’Artagnan a whore for seducing the king. One time Claude heard that Bernardo had attempted to kiss the king, to make d’Artagnan’s conquest his, and the  king rejected him, for the “lack if a wall.” Claude did not easily believe rumors for he thought they were foolish, but Bernardo would go on and on about walls, asking his uncle if more walls could be built around the palace.

Claude would never know what exactly had happened, and it was none of his business, whatever affairs his captain would want to involve himself in.

"If it was d'Artagnan, Captain," Claude spoke coldly after Bernardo was finished with his rant, "surely you would find him. But then again, Captain, he might just end up getting away, like always."

He glanced at Bernardo, frightened that he had just made his position worse by speaking out of turn. Bernardo narrowed his eyes, and stepped closer than what was considered to be respectful of personal space.

"What did you just say?" He asks, his voice laced with venom.

"N-nothi-"

"You doubt my capabilities, Claude? May I remind you who the Captain of the Royal Guard is?"

"No, Captain, I never doubted you—"

"There is nothing I hate more than a rude imbecile, Claude, and you are close to that."

"Yes, Captain. My sincerest apologies."

Bernardo crossed his arms on his chest, hiding most of his face with the hat. Claude caught a small dimple forming on his captain's right cheek, which disappeared quite as quickly as it came. "An apology might not be enough."

"...Sir?" Claude wondered if he was going to be thrown out of the guardsmen just because of a stray comment about d'Artagnan, but he hoped the punishment would not be as harsh.

Bernardo glanced at the wall of concrete right behind Claude, then shifted his weight from one foot to another. Claude could tell that Bernardo was deep in thought, staring right at the wall, then his attention turned to Claude. A strong breeze blew.

"Tell me, Claude, do kisses require walls?"

And there he was with the walls again.

"...I have kissed without a wall before, sir." Because kisses certainly do not require walls and whoever planted that thought into Bernardo's head needs to take it back, for all their sanities.

Bernardo's eyes lit up. "Oh, you have... I had thought all this time that kisses required walls."

"Sometimes, Captain, kisses against walls feel better..." Claude tried desperately not to stare into his eyes, which were reflecting moonlight, much like a cat's.

"And why is that?"

"I believe it is to have something to lean on when your knees grow weak from the kiss..."

"Kisses... make you weak...?" Bernardo held his chin with between two fingers, deep in thought.

"Well, sometimes, Captain... it really depends on the kiss."

Bernardo swiped his tongue across his lower lip, still thinking as hard as he can. The action made Claude blush ever so slightly, and he tries to look at something else rather than his superior's plump lips.

"What does a good kiss feel like, Claude?" His captain looks up at him, then his eyes shift to his mouth.

Does he want ... Claude does not dare to finish that. Bernardo cannot possibly want to kiss him of all people! His mind is occupied with d'Artagnan, and the King and walls and –

"Claude," Bernardo sharply interrupts his thinking, "I asked you... what does a good kiss feel like?" His voice is soft, almost like he was cooing.

Without an answer that he could ever be eloquent enough to verbalize, Claude stepped forward and lifted Bernardo's chin ever so slightly, before leaning down to make their lips touch. Bernardo made a soft sound in response. Claude quickly removed himself from his Captain, afraid he had done something absolutely terrible.

"Sir, I-"

Instead of listening to him, Bernardo was patting his lips, baffled. " That's what a good kiss is...? It felt a bit disappointing. Maybe that's why you need a wall."

Claude, still a little dazed over what had occured just seconds ago, did not really have any time to process his thoughts before Bernardo told him he would let his little mishap slide, turned on his heel to leave him.

"Oh, and you are not to speak of this to anyone, do you understand?" Bernardo told him, barely looking at him over his shoulder.

"Understood, Captain," was all Claude could muster after that.

Perhaps he did need a wall.

Claude took a short detour from his usual route to the barracks to shake off and at the same time try to process whatever the hell happened with his captain earlier. He needed a breath of fresh air, and possibly a bucket of ice cold water splashed on his face as well. He also hopes he does not come across the captain in his little trip around the guardmen's area.

When he finally decided to go back to his room, which was shared with Robert, the man stirred awake as soon as the door creaked open. Robert squinted, eyes unaccustomed to the sudden lamplight streaming into the room.

"What took you so long, Claude? We've been dismissed hours ago," Robert groans, sitting up from his bed.

"I..." Claude recalls his promise to Bernardo, and he would rather not risk his head being sliced off. "I wanted some fresh air."

"Fresh air? As if you didn't get enough, standing outside all the while."

"R-right... so I needed to clear my head, from all the standing."

Robert squinted again, unconvinced. He threw half of his blanket away from his body, and gestures Claude to sit down on his own bed. Claude found his way to his bed before putting off his oil lamp. He kicked off his boots, exhausted.

"What really happened?" Robert asked.

"I am not permitted to speak of it," Claude told him, as the feeling of Bernardo's lips flooded into his mind. He closes his eyes, in an attempt to mentally swat it away.

"The captain spoke to you earlier, didn't he? What did he say?"

Well that, Claude could tell. "Called me incompetent for letting the suspicious Spanish Guard get away, and then it was all about d'Artagnan again. And walls."

"It's always walls!" Robert exclaimed, exasperated.

Claude thought this was a good place to end the conversation, he slipped into his blanket, ready for a peaceful slumber. Robert followed suit, after the long silence. Claude wrapped the thin blanket around him, then he turned from one side. Then another. He threw the blanket over his head, but found that suffocating, and threw it off. He tried sleeping on his stomach, on his side, on his back, but to no avail. All that roamed in his mind was the same soft lips that he had kissed just hours before.

"...Robert?" Claude asked, facing the wall.

"Please go to sleep," Robert deadpanned.

"I have a question."

"Yes?"

"If a person lets someone kiss them, does that mean they are interested in you?"

Robert turned to him, silent for a moment as the thinks of an answer. "Kisses can mean absolutely nothing sometimes. Why?"

"...Nothing." Claude heart sunk. "Goodnight, Robert."

Robert gives a small hum in reply and then goes back to sleep, wrapped warmly in his blanket.

Right, he had forgotten. In the court, many husbands kissed many women who weren't their wives at all, and their wives would do the same. Sometimes a kiss could mean nothing at all, it did not mean anything special. Perhaps that was how Bernardo perceived him, no one special. Perhaps he had drunk too much champagne that evening and thought for a second he was d'Artagnan, and that was why he asked.

But he wasn't d'Artagnan. He was just Claude, just another nameless guardsman who might have a terrible attraction to his captain.

Claude woke up in the morning wishing he would not have to see his captain again, unless it was for something official, but it was another day of celebration, so long as the Queen of Spain was in the palace. He swiftly dressed himself up for the day, ready for another busy day of protecting the king.

Fate must have been laughing at him then, because Bernardo had called for all the guardsmen to gather at the main hall of the barracks, for there was big news. All of the guardsmen started flooding into the hallways, some of them half-dressed, running towards the main hall.

Bernardo was there, standing tall, waiting for his men to come and gather. He was not wearing a feathered hat this time, and his hair was a little unkempt. Perhaps he had woken up a bit earlier than he planned. There were dark circles under his eyes, from lack of sleep. Bernardo watched as all his guardsmen lined up into an arranged formation, Claude made sure that he was situated right in the back, so he did not have to be so close to his captain.

“The king has gone missing,” Bernardo announced, without any premise or beating around the bush. “I want you to search every part of the city, every house, every market stall. The Musketeers are on the move with their little rebellion, and we will not allow that. Understood?”

The guardsmen responded in unison. Bernardo told them that the guardsmen would split into groups, much like the musketeer search party and would reconvene at the square. Claude and Robert, who were arguably the highest ranked guardsmen, would be searching with Bernardo, much to Claude’s dismay. He wished he didn’t have to look at his captain’s lips from up close, but Bernardo seemed to have already forgotten about last night.

“Get to work, then.” Bernardo turned with his signature cape swish and gestured Claude and Robert to come with him.

On the ride outside the palace, Bernardo had already told them he had a clue where the musketeers would be, which is the tavern from before. The owners could have been allies of the musketeers, thus they could use that as a hideout, but Bernardo wanted to be more thorough and search elsewhere, after all he could be wrong, or too early.

So Bernardo bade his time, searching every corner of the village that was theirs to cover. Robert was set to survey one side, and he and Bernardo went another. Claude wondered why Bernardo did not let them split into threes instead, but he dared not to question his captain’s decisions. Bernardo led them to an alley with a dead end.

“Nothing here,” Bernardo told him.

He was about to walk past Claude when suddenly Claude took him by the wrist, stopping him in his tracks.

Understandably, Bernardo was shocked. “Claude?!”

“Captain,” Claude breathed, his words lost, “look.”

He tilted his head downwards, at the ground. There were bootprints, made just before Bernardo stepped on them earlier. They made a trail down the alleyway, to perhaps a secret door hidden by a brick. Bernardo followed the trail, and searches the bricks lining the wall for the one that looked odder than the others.

“Claude, this could be a trap,” Bernardo warned him.

“Then I’ll go before you, sir.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Bernardo started tilting bricks, to see which one would open the secret door. Claude stepped in, to help him, checking each and every one to see which one would open.

“This could be the secret door to the tavern you spoke of, Captain,” Claude said, as his hands were busy checking the bricks.

“Or this could just be another waste of time,” snapped Bernardo, “let’s go back to the square and head to the tavern at once before we let those stupid Musketeers get away --”

“Wait, maybe we need to tilt two of them, sir.”

“And then three, and four and five and we will never be able to figure this out,” snapped Bernardo, impatiently.

“Let me try, sir. Hold the one on your left while I tilt the right?”

They place their hands in bricks parallel to one another, then as Claude’s hand stays stationary, Bernardo was tilting away the first row of bricks to Claude’s side. Then, it was Claude’s turn to do the same, Bernardo holding his first brick and Claude checking if any combination of two bricks being titled was the right key.

“Should we try from here, to the center, sir?” Claude asked.

“Alright.”

Their hands went from the side to the center of the wall, until Claude could feel Bernardo’s hand brush against his. Claude resisted the rush of emotions he felt, trying to focus on the task at hand. They were at the last combination of bricks, if this does not work then they have wasted their time, but if it does …

“On the count of three,” commanded Bernardo.

Then at three, the wall of bricks toppled. Claude was not sure if it worked, or if they had destroyed the brick wall entirely. Before them stood a long, dark tunnel, which could lead to where they wanted to be, or something even more dangerous.

“I’ll go on ahead first, sir,” Claude said before he unsheathed his sword.

“Don’t be an idiot, Claude.” Bernardo did the same. “I’m coming with you.”

They carefully tread the long, dark tunnel to see if there was fruit to their little experiment. The tunnel smelled of rodents and dirty water, and Bernardo was already pinching his nose, ready to gag.

“What have you gotten me into, Claude,” his captain complained, his voice muffled.

“We can turn back,” he replied.

Then, before Bernardo could speak, he saw what looked like a wooden door just a few feet away from them. He carefully sneaked his way up to the door, but he was not careful enough. Bernardo trips on a rock, falling forward, but not before Claude could catch him by the back. Bernardo looked at him with big, frightened eyes.

“Captain, be careful,” Claude scolded him.

“Shut up, Claude,” Bernardo tried to get ahold of his balance again, and went to the door as planned. Claude could see his knees shaking ever so slightly. The fall may not have been fatal, but Claude would not want his captain’s face to be stained with whatever was on the ground.

Bernardo pressed his ear to the door while making shushing noises at Claude, even though Claude was not making any sounds. Bernardo kept listening diligently to the door at something … he waited. Then, his eyes lit up.

“I hear laughter,” Bernardo muttered, “...someone calling a boy the real Louis XIV… Beaufort!”

Then, Bernardo jolts up in excitement. “Claude! We go back out the tunnel and gather all my guardsmen, I will follow.”

Without question, Claude followed his commands, rushing out of the tunnel as quietly as possible. In the square, he met with Robert and the others, who were already gathered. They told them that there were no signs of the musketeers anywhere, but Claude told them the Captain already had a plan, with a proud smile on his lips.

Bernardo shortly returned to the square, face expressionless. Then, he turned to the guards and began shouting commands at them. Half of them were to gather at the entrance of the Musketeers’ favorite tavern, and half would enter through the secret passage. That way, if the Musketeers were to escape, they would be trapped from both sides. Genius, Claude thought.

Afterwards, they were deployed. Guardsmen donning black marching in an arranged formation to where they were told. Claude stood right behind Bernardo, following him back inside the tunnel as they navigated just a few minutes ago. Bernardo stood right in front of the door that was at the end of the tunnel. He said that it might need three men to kick the door open, and so two men volunteered: Claude, Robert, and Bernardo would be the third. On three counts, the weak door busted open and they were met with lines of barrels, and a pathway downstairs to where the Musketeers should be.

“This way,” Bernardo told them, emanating confidence within himself.

All the guardsmen went his way, and then as they got closer to the stairs, the chattering could be heard better. A multitude of voices, mostly men, were talking over each other as if they were scheming something.

“That’s Aramis, alright,” Jean, a former Musketeer, piped up, after listening to the chatter.

A loud crash is heard.

“And that’s definitely Porthos,” Paul added.

Bernardo told them to hush as they finally approached the stairs. He told the first men to go ahead. The owner of the shop had seen them, and immediately alerted the Musketeers and their allies that the Royal Guard was in their premises. They had them trapped.

There were four knocks on the door, before the guardsmen strode in stylishly. Claude was among the first to climb up the stairs and see that the tavern was normal, with people sitting on chairs, pretending to chat. Of course, they would not easily be so fooled. After all, Bernardo came here and was determined to get to the bottom of whatever was occuring. The guardsmen started searching the people, to see if they resembled the lost girl King.  

“The downstairs is full,” says the lady of the tavern.

“A pretty girl entered this tavern a while ago,” Bernardo said, ignoring her. He walked around. “The escaped from the palace, and we followed her here.”

He takes the hair of a woman from behind and pulls it back, mistaking her for the King. Then he continued his stroll around the chaotic tavern, towards a group of people suspiciously gathered around one corner. He shoved a man away, until he found what he was looking for, exactly.

“Oh my,” Bernardo smiled, “d’Artagnan is here!”

Claude and two other guardsmen reveal the rest of the musketeers, who were badly hidden. There was no way for them to escape anymore, they had them surrounded. Conspirators. Rebels. They were against the Cardinal Mazarin, who had been nothing but good to the people of France.

Bernardo readied his sword, prepared to fight, and so did every other guardsman and musketeer, but suddenly a woman’s voice tells them to stop.

It was His Majesty, but Claude did not see anyone bowing to her. “Louise”, they call her now, without any respect. Claude watched Bernardo, handling himself gracefully against the brash d’Artagnan who was just about ready to attack him if he laid a finger on the King. But Bernardo would never attack the king.

The King ordered Bernardo to leave them be, and Bernardo had no choice but to obey. Ah, so she was siding with the Musketeers now, Claude thought. Now that she had fallen in love with d’Artagnan, all of a sudden the Musketeers were good people. Claude wanted to laugh, but he would be reprimanded if he were to chuckle at nothing in the presence of the King.

Being the Captain that he was, he commanded his men to retreat to the palace, but not before closing the shop down and having all the doors sealed. Bernardo was just about ready to exit, when suddenly d’Artagnan steps in.

“Louise! I will come get you,” he said, wistfully.

“You would have to get past me first,” Bernardo interjected, piercing d’Artagnan’s words sharply.

Claude saw how his eyes burned with passion, with hatred, and with jealousy at the same time. Surely, that d’Artagnan was handsome, especially when one is standing close to him. But Bernardo did not seem like he was looking at the King at all, but at d’Artagnan. Maybe it was d’Artagnan he wanted after all. The thought made Claude’s head hurt.

All of the guardsmen marched back to the the palace, hiding the girl King, who still wore her long blonde wig with the ribbons. From this angle, it was really clear to see that the king was indeed a girl. Claude glanced at Bernardo, who was right in front of him. He was keeping a close eye on the King, just in case she planned to run.

“D’Artagnan will get me, you know,” she muttered to Bernardo, “he’ll save me.”

With that, Claude could almost feel the rage that was emanating from Bernardo. If he wasn’t the King, he would have already yelled at her. Still, he tried to keep his composure, dimples poking out of his fabricated smile.

“We’ll see about that,” Bernardo uttered, voice low and menacing.

He then turned to his guardsmen, and told them to guard the palace doors and windows so that the Musketeers, and her musketeer lover, will not be able to infiltrate the palace. They answered in unison, but Claude looked at the King, and saw that she was not afraid. This made him worry, slightly.

Once they had arrived at the palace, Bernardo escorted the king to her chambers. Then, the guardsmen were told their assignments as to where they would stand on guard for the next few days of the celebration.

“Dismissed,” Bernardo said, and the guardsmen disperse. Only Claude was left behind with his captain in the main hall of the barracks. The walls would echo with every shuffle of a foot.   

Claude stepped toward him, hands positioned on his back. “Sir, I heard intel that the Queen of Spain is inviting a street theatre troupe.”

Bernardo raised an eyebrow. “And?”

“We have to be particularly on our guard, they could be musketeers in disguise, sir.”

“...Do you think it could be d’Artagnan?”

“It is quite possible, sir.” Claude spoke as calmly as he could, devoid of emotion.

Bernardo growled, his fists clenched in frustration. “Then, I leave you in charge of finding any man who has the same physique as d’Artagnan.”

“...His physique, sir?”

“Wide shoulders, big cheeks!”

“There are plenty of soldiers with that type of physique, sir.”

Bernardo clicked his tongue, then turned away from Claude, his cape swishing with the wind. The tips of his boot tapped repeatedly on the wooden floor, and Bernardo was touching his chin as well, eyes closed, deep in thought.

“That wretched d’Artagnan!” He finally exclaimed, stomping his foot on the ground, like a child who was not given his toy. “He is nothing but muscle and no brain! He seriously thought he could best me, me , at swordsmanship!”

“I’ve seen no one as good as handling the sword as you, sir,” Claude interjected, which perhaps then he thought it might have been better if he had shut up.

“Stop patronizing me, Claude!” He turned back to Claude, face red. “I do not need your pity.”

“It is not pity, sir,” Claude answered calmly, “d’Artagnan is all talent, but you have combined hard work and talent. You were taught by the greatest swordsmanship tutors in Italy.”

“And when I am defeated by him, you will laugh. You will laugh like every single guardsman here. I will be the laughing stock of the palace.”

Claude shook his head, sincerely. “I will not laugh, Captain.”

“...Oh? Prove it, then.”

Amidst the rare silence, Claude took a few steps forward, and led Bernardo to a wall. Claude held his arm over Bernardo, trapping him against the wall. He could feel his own heart ready to leap out, but still, Claude kept his composure. Bernardo put a hand on his chest, stopping him.

“Is this your proof, trapping me against a wall?” His face was red across the cheeks.

Claude leaned forward, so that it was only the space of a breath between them.

“Stop,” whispered Bernardo, “we might get caught.”

And Claude did exactly as he was told. Then, Bernardo circled his fingers around his wrist and suddenly pulled him towards the hallway. He asked where his captain was taking him, and Bernardo answered, “My chambers.”

The Captain’s chambers looked almost tidy, with books strewn from place to place, but mostly the room was well-kept. It was decent in size, definitely bigger than his and Robert’s, but there was no need for the captain of the Royal Guard to have a lavishly extravagant room, after all. Claude did not waste any time gawking however, for as soon as Bernardo closed the door, the captain was against the wall again, as they were in the main hall.

“I still don’t understand how this will prove that you won’t laugh,” Bernardo murmured, face slightly obscured by his hat.

“This is an oath, Captain,” Claude said, his free hand warming Bernardo’s waist, “without any words.”

“I don’t unders–”

Claude quickly interrupted him by pressing their lips together, to which Bernardo let out a small squeak. He hid a small smile, before separating. All words seemed to have left Bernardo, and instead of saying anything, he grabbed Claude by the front of his shirt, and kissed him again.

Claude ran his fingers through Bernardo’s locks, wanting to do so much more than kissing. A sigh left Bernardo’s lips as Claude pressed their bodies closer against the wall. Then, Claude buried his face in Bernardo’s neck, licking the base and slowly going up.

“Claude!” Bernardo gasped, “is this part of the oath as well?”   

“Yes,” Claude replied, breathless. He bit a part of the skin on Bernardo’s neck, sucking on it so he could leave a temporary mark. With every kiss, he worshipped Bernardo. He could never laugh at him. He would never.

“Do you like me, Claude,” Bernardo began, as he threw his head back and his hands were buried in his hair, “do you like me more than everyone likes d’Artagnan?”

“I do not even like that d’Artagnan,” Claude replied, lips on his jaw.

“And what about me…?”

Claude chose not to answer and instead returned to kissing his lips. Bernardo spoke repeatedly against his mouth, asking him to answer. But Claude did not feel qualified to, after all, he was just a lowly guardsman. Bernardo could be married to a beautiful noblewoman or take the most handsome Count as a lover, and then Claude would be immediately forgotten.

In the midst of Claude ravishing every bit of exposed skin there was on him, Bernardo asked, “will you give yourself to me?”

“I am all I have to give,” Claude admitted, which was perhaps the only thing he will ever admit.

Bernardo touched his cheek, then smiled ever so slightly. “Then, give me everything.”

With that, Claude raised him carefully, Bernardo’s legs locked around him as he carried him to the bed. Bernardo’s eyes were glowing that night, like a cat in heat. He pressed as close as he could to Claude, whenever he would be given the chance. Soon, their clothes were on the floor. Sweat against sweat, body against body. Claude was stiff at first, but a single touch from Bernardo made him unravel. Often cold as marble statue, Claude did not think that this boy would be his weakness.   

As promised, Claude gave himself to Bernardo that night, and he relished every sound, every expression and every mark Bernardo made for him. He had turned his Captain around, ravishing him gently and clumsily. They fell in each other’s arms afterwards.

“I want to pause time,” Bernardo told him, chin resting on his naked chest.

“So do I, Captain,” Claude said. His fingers raked through Bernardo’s hair, which was damp with sweat. “I have something to ask.”

“Hm…?” Bernardo’s eyes were already closed.

“When you kissed me in the garden a few nights ago,” Claude asked, “what did it mean?”

A sleepy Bernardo smiled. “I just wanted to kiss my favorite guardsman.”

And before they knew it, they were asleep, bodies pressed against one another.

Dawn was breaking, and they woke, just as the sun was peeping from the horizon. Bernardo had moved in his sleep and was on his side, his one arm across Claude’s chest. They were both bare from last night, with only a blanket to cover them up.

Claude sat up immediately as soon as he woke, worried they would get caught. He looked around for his clothes, as he had already forgotten where he had thrown them last night. Last night… Claude gazed at Bernardo, who was already stirring awake from all the rustling Claude was doing.

“Claude…? You’re up already?” He murmured, rubbing his eyes.

“We cannot get caught, sir,” Claude told him, hopping out of the beddings and searching the pile of clothes below Bernardo’s side of the bed.

“...Forget about formalities,” Bernardo told him. He leaned over to help Claude sort through the rummage, “when we are alone, I want you to call me by my given name.”

Claude thought Bernardo was being delusional. They cannot be together, and last night had only been a sweet dream. “Sir, I am simply a lowly guardsman.”

“You’re the guardsman that slept with me.” Bernardo stared up at him with big eyes, “so you can call me Bernardo.”

He lost himself for a moment, and whispered Bernardo’s name before taking him by the hair into another passionate kiss. He was kneeling on the floor, pressing against the bed as he pulled Bernardo towards him. He kept repeatedly whispering his name against his lips, over and over and over, relishing it. He could feel Bernardo smiling, as well. Then, he felt a palm on his shoulder, pushing him away.

“You must go to your post now,” said Bernardo, his voice forlorn. “We must protect the King, after all.”

Claude nodded. He quickly donned his clothes, albeit messily. He would sometimes occasionally glance at Bernardo whenever he had the chance, and every time his eyes would land, Bernardo was gazing at him. They shared one last look at each other, before he left Bernardo to himself in the chambers.    

After freshening up, he met Robert at his post by the entrance of the King’s saloon, and his friend immediately asking him why he did not sleep at the quarters that night. Claude chose not to say a word to him. After all, there were more important matters at hand, and he would never want to reveal his little escapade with the captain.

The King was nowhere to be found again, thus the Queen of Spain’s favorite swordsmen’s troupe was told to come first. A group of men entered, faces obscured by masks and costumes. Claude kept a sharp eye, for these could easily be Musketeers in disguise. He watched out for Bernardo’s tell-tale signs for d’Artagnan: wide shoulders and big cheeks, then maybe he could alert his Captain… but there was no way he could, since Bernardo was inside.  

He knew Bernardo was quick to jump into action, so if there was any threat from the Musketeers, he would do anything in his power to defend those he had to. The troupe had to pass through the entrance of the saloon to get inside, and Claude had to man the door so that no suspicious people would get inside.

“Let us in,” the leader of the troupe said, “the Queen of Spain wants us there.”

“We will have to ask you to take off your masks, sir,” Claude told them, eyeing the men in silver shirts and masks.

“But they are a part of the costume,” the leader pleaded. “We worked hard to put them in that.”

Claude and Robert looked at each other and narrowed their eyes. There was nothing that was not suspicious about this. He watched the leader of the troupe whisper some things to his wife, who then started pleading to them, about how long it took them to sew the costumes and if they had to take them off, everything would be undone. As she was talking, however, Claude was looking at the men’s shoulders and cheeks. (Which was a strange thing to look at.) Before he could finish his survey, the troupe were called into the room to set their things up. As they entered, Claude thought he saw a familiar shade of chestnut hair on shoulders that fit Bernardo’s description well but he could not catch him anymore. Instead, Claude decided to focus, since he knew that a battle was to occur if these men were the Musketeers.

After moments of silence, Claude could finally hear music playing from the inside. Their play was something about two knights being separated at birth, and then finding each other with a broken pendant. What a stupid story, thought Claude. But then the music stopped abruptly. Then, silence. People conversed inside the room, in differing volumes. Something about the Real King? Cardinal Mazarin spoke, then … Beaufort ? And then, Bernardo finally called for the guardsmen to spring into action. Robert pushed the door to the entrance open and they ran towards the front, swords ready.

Then, appearing from the back were the infamous four Musketeers. D’Artagnan, Aramis, Athos, and Porthos. D’Artagnan, who was indeed the most insufferable one, was talking about how they would let no one hurt the King. How idiotic could this d’Artagnan be, Claude thought. The Mazarin family and the guardsmen would never, in a million years, hurt the King. Such delusions were planted in their heads by Beaufort, who perhaps wanted to seize the throne for himself.

“A bold declaration, you Gascon peasant,” Bernardo exclaimed, stepping forward to grab the King, “but I will not hand the King over to you!”

The some of the guardsmen immediately formed a line in front of the Musketeers, swords drawn and ready to fight. Claude was at the side, waiting for the attack. He did not want to fight first, for he knew he would easily be defeated, so he took to defending the Mazarins. He attempted to run after Bernardo, but the boy had already disappeared with the King, so he went for the remaining Mazarins instead. Soon, swords were clashing and numerous guardsmen were being stabbed by rapiers. To make matters worse, more Musketeers entered the premises for reinforcements.

“Go hide, Your Excellency” Claude told the Cardinal, “it is dangerous here.”

The Mazarinettes were covering their eyes, shivering in fright — they did not have to see such carnage before their eyes. The usual jolly Philippe was speechless. Mazarin quickly told them to look away and follow him. Claude assigned himself in front of them to see if the path was clear and while four other guardsmen were right behind them, watching their backs for any surprise attacks. Mazarin told Claude to lead them to the back of the garden, where there was a secret path for them to escape.

“I can hear the screams of the people outside the window,” a worried Philippe said, hands shaking as he held his rapier in hand, “they were yelling at us, wanting us to go home.”

“Is if even safe to go out?” added Marie Louise.

The always calm Mazarin told them not to worry. “I saved up enough money for us to go back to Italy. If France does not welcome us anymore, then it is time for us to go home.”

A look of relief washed over the Mazarinettes’ faces for only a second, when a rough voice emerged from the shadows. It was the Comte de Beaufort, backed by some unnamed peasants. Claude stood his ground, he put an arm behind him, protecting the otherwise defenseless Mazarins.

“If you come home now, you will never be able to atone for the sins you’ve committed against France,” Beaufort claimed, face full of pride, as if he had already won.

“What was that!” Mazarin, offended, turned to Philippe to fight against Beaufort, whose skills were rusty from spending his days in prison.

Philippe, suddenly bright with energy again, gladly said yes. Claude took to the side with Robert. Philippe’s stance was flimsy, as he was never raised to be a swordsman like Bernardo was. It was more than likely that Philippe would need help, because Beaufort, despite having no practice in years, would be ten times more skilled than Philippe. The flamboyant Mazarin fell to the floor out of balance and Beaufort was about to charge with his rapier when Claude blocked him with his sword and shoved him to the floor. Philippe took pride in it, however, thinking he had defeated the traitorous Comte.

“So what say you, Beaufort,” Mazarin gloated, “are you going back to Loches?”

“Who would ever want to!” Beaufort yelled back.

“The Duchess of Montpensier is waiting for you there now.”

“And who is waiting there, exactly?” The voice of a familiar woman suddenly re-entered the scene. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, the Duchess of Montpensier reappeared, fresh out of Loches. She seemed well, and just as energetic as ever, as if she was never imprisoned. She was accompanied by Aramis and a few other musketeers who had broken her out of prison.

“I know a thing or two about swords,” she announced, taking a rapier of her own and challenging Philippe with it.

This will not end well, Claude thought. Montpensier chased Philippe around the room with her sword, and suddenly everyone was running. Another Musketeer showed up from nowhere, the drunkard Porthos, who tried to sneak up on Mazarin and his nieces. The girls screamed and ran around, panicked, but Robert led them where they would find cover. Montpensier fell Philippe, since the boy had atrocious balance. Luckily, he happened to regain his stance and chased after Montpensier. Claude quickly told the other guardsmen to handle Aramis and Porthos, while he went on to look for Bernardo.  

He searched through different hallways trying to find Bernardo and avoid combat with more Musketeers. He was with Robert, Jean and Paul. He heard the voice of a woman struggling, and with that, he assumed it could only be the King. He ran towards the voice, and the others followed him. There, he found Bernardo, trying to get the King to a safe place. They exchanged glances briefly, and Bernardo’s eyes told him to focus. Well, how could he, Claude thought. He was glad, at least, that Bernardo was unharmed.

“Let go of me!” She cried, trying desperately to get Bernardo’s hand off her wrist.

Bernardo finally stopped on the staircase in the middle of the palace. Claude stood behind him, staying alert for he could hear a mass of boots running towards them. The infamous and insufferable d’Artagnan finally appeared at the top of the staircase, rapier in hand and sweat on his forehead -- he was ready to fight for his love.  Jean charged from behind d’Artagnan, but being the excellent swordsman that he was, immediately sensed the attack and deflected it. Robert was next to strike with his sword, and d’Artagnan swiftly parried.

“You insolent Gascon,” Bernardo roared, “I’ll show you what happens when a boor like you thinks too highly of himself!”

He gave the King over to Robert, and prepares himself. D’Artagnan slashed Paul on the shoulder and the guardsman fell over. Next, it was Bernardo versus d’Artagnan, the much-awaited battle between the two best swordsmen in the land. Claude watched the battle with his guard up, as the two bade their time, measuring each other up. Their swords were pointed at each other, ready to strike at any moment.

“D’Artagnan!” The King cried, “no matter what happens, I will never regret loving you!”

That made Claude want to puke, and judging from Bernardo’s expression, him as well. D’Artagnan replied that there was no one else in the world that could make her happy. This made Bernardo boil with rage. Or jealousy? Claude could not tell.

“Shut up!” Bernardo yelled, seething, “there isn’t even a wall here!”

With that, he thrust at d’Artagnan, not wasting a second. D’Artagnan was quick, even quicker than Bernardo, but the latter was agile. He had years and years of training on his belt, and he knew more techniques. Claude was confident that Bernardo could hold his own. Bernardo slashed twice, but d’Artagnan was able to dodge the attacks. The King wanted to come between them, but Robert held her back.

He climbed up the flight of stairs, and their swords met again in a clash of metal. Jean smote at d’Artagnan, but he was quickly stabbed in the stomach and sent to the side. D’Artagnan was led up the stairs, and their swords were pointed against each other.

Claude was restless. His Captain was there, and he was not doing anything to help. He felt a fatal attack coming.

“Captain!” He ran towards the both of them without thinking, trying to disarm d’Artagnan. This was a terrible idea, however, because the second his sword touched theirs, the Gascon peasant swiftly thrust the sword on his side.

“Claude!” He heard Robert cry. Claude glanced at Bernardo for a second, and saw a look of worry in his face, but he knew that his Captain would not falter or show any weakness. Claude fell to the floor, trying to stop the bleeding from the stab wound. The pain was excruciating, he could barely think anymore. It took all of his strength to keep watching Bernardo, who was almost lethargic at this point.

Fight through it, he wanted to say. D’Artagnan had him cornered, sword pointed at him. Bernardo went for the last resort. He asked Robert for his rapier, and now he was holding two swords. D’Artagnan did not falter, however. He kept in his stance, strong and mighty, being the “hero” he was.

It was all too fast. Within two dodged thrusts, d’Artagnan had disarmed Bernardo’s right hand sword. Bernardo tried to fight back, but before he knew it, d’Artagnan had already taken the one on his left. D’Artagnan sidestepped, making Bernardo lose his balance.

“Captain!” Claude yelled, with the last of his strength, watching Bernardo fall.

Claude always knew that d’Artagnan was the best in the land, but he did not think Bernardo could have been so easily defeated by this man. No, the Captain he knew was better than this. Bernardo was not giving his all. Before Claude went unconscious, the last thing he heard Bernardo admitting defeat.

Everything was blurry after that. He remembered being lifted, and taken immediately to the Mazarin’s physician to get treated. Almost all of the guardsmen were injured by the battle, but Claude had been stabbed close to his vital organs. He would survive, perhaps, but the pain was excruciating.

Claude woke after what seemed like days of slumber. His eyes adjusted to where he was, but he could not tell at first glance. He saw a window above him, and sleeping in a wooden bed of sorts. An torturous pain shot up his whole body when he tried to sit up. Then, he remembered that he was stabbed by the Musketeer from Gascony. There were bandages surrounding his wound, and he could only assume his skin was sewed tight to close the wound and stop the bleeding. Claude looked to his side, and saw that he wasn’t alone.

He saw a familiar visage of a curly haired boy clad in all black, only this time he had thrown away the Royal Guard uniform, and instead, was wearing a simple shirt and breeches. Bernardo was on the floor, resting his head in his arms on the side of the bed. Claude could not help but smile when he saw him. He put a hand on his head, to caress it, when suddenly the boy jolted awake.

“Son of a bitch,” Bernardo sighed out, eyes wide like a cat, “you’re finally awake.”

“How long was I asleep…?”

“Weeks. I couldn’t count the days anymore —”

Claude blinked, trying to hide a smile. “You waited for me, Captain?”

“...I am not a Captain anymore. The Queen Regent had exiled the Mazarins and their allies out of France. We are  on our way back to Italy,” Bernardo spoke. There was an unusual coolness to his tone.

“Capt-...Bernardo…?”

“I am resisting the very urge to punch you right now, Claude,” said Bernardo through his teeth. “You made me worried sick!”

Before Claude could respond, Bernardo continued, rage filling in his throat. “What you did was stupid and unnecessary and dumb and I cannot believe you!”

He could only watch, speechless.

“Ca…Bernardo, I did not want to just stand there,” he explained, “and we was going to kill you. He was going to stab you in the gut like he did to everyone else.”

“...But he didn’t,” Bernardo said, showing his sides that had no bandages or damages, “he only made the biggest fool out of me, but he did not kill me.”

“I made you worry…” Claude echoed, slowly.

“You did, you damned idiot…”

Bernardo raised himself slightly, so he could reach Claude easier. He cupped his face, careful not to strain his wound, and kissed him full on the lips. Claude did not waste a second, opening his mouth immediately to meet Bernardo’s tongue. He wanted to do so much more, but his wound would not permit it.

“I’d lay down my life for you,” Claude told him, when they parted for breath.

“You threw me off,” Bernardo said, hands still on his face, “I could have defeated d’Artagnan if I was not so full of worry…”

“I know,” his eyes met Bernardo’s, “will you ever forgive me?”

With that, Bernardo smirked, his dimple appearing on his cheek. “Only once you fully heal.”

“That, I swear.”

Then, one of Bernardo’s hands went over to Claude’s fingers, caressing them. Afterwards, Bernardo carefully put his head on Claude’s chest, and the ex-guardsman never felt more at peace.

“You really didn’t laugh, did you?” murmured Bernardo.

“I told you,” Claude gazed at him, with the first genuine smile he had given in years, “I would never.”