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i thought it doesn't get better than this

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A smack is delivered, open-palmed. The initial movement is instinctive, but the aftermath fumbling, as thought embarrassed by its own instinct.

Constance flutters her hand in the air and waits for an opening to bluster, to cover this embarrassment.

Const -- in God’s name, what --” 

Perfect; she seizes it.

“You do not chop vegetables with a main gauche , for heaven’s sake!”

Aramis, who had indeed up until a moment before been chopping carrots on her kitchen table with his long, sharp soldier’s dagger, holds up his hands in a supplicating gesture and straightens out. Somewhat to Constance’s satisfaction, he takes a step away from her as though genuinely afraid she might do something dangerous. 

Fling a bit of carrot at his face, perhaps, or demand to know whether he washed his hands before taking up the arduous task of vegetable-chopping in her kitchen at four in the afternoon. 

He has --

(“I have ,” he says, giving her an exaggeratedly offended look that Constance realizes d’Artagnan must have adopted into his own arsenal of ridiculous expressions sometime in the past month, heaven help her --)

-- because he’s not a barbarian , he reminds Constance, and Constance says, “You’re chopping vegetables with an instrument that has been in people’s bodies ,” and Aramis, in a terribly affected voice, says, “Well I cleaned it first, Madame.”

“I gave you a perfectly useable non-weaponly knife two moments ago.”

“All knives can be weapons, dear Constance,” says Aramis without missing a beat. “And it was blunt.”

Constance is not one to tolerate being told that her kitchen knives are blunt, so she narrows her eyes at him and picks up the knife from its place discarded on the table. She presses her thumb gently along the edge.

“It’s blunt, isn’t it,” says Porthos, pausing in the middle of setting the table.

It is not blunt, Constance wants to say with all the righteousness in the world.

“It’s blunt,” repeats Aramis. Constance is sure the note of earnestness in his voice is deliberate; his eyes are twinkling except his expression is perfectly serene. Infuriating, thinks Constance, only it makes the gradual ebbing away of her initial embarrassment all the more easy. 

She can’t seem to escape that embarrassment, it seems, that little nasal voice in the back of her mind smothering her instincts like a weak splash of lukewarm water -- the one that sounds like her husband. I apologize for my wife, Monsieur . Improper, imprudent Constance, possessed by something entirely unacceptable at odd intervals. Smacking King’s Musketeers with so little premeditation is a practice that would horrify Jacques, not for the risk of injury (his soured-milk expression every time he encounters their intrepid lodger’s new friends speaks for itself) but for its implications for Constance’s character -- speaking of a streak of something fundamentally inappropriate, that Constance feels, at the end of the day, scares Jacques a little bit. 

Aramis is still looking at her serenely, as though Constance is not holding a blunt knife in her hand and pointing it at him.

“It is not blunt,” says Constance in her loftiest voice.

(It is, indeed, a little blunt.)

“Madame,” says d’Artagnan from behind her, and she turns to see him bowing slightly, his eyebrows twitching like he’s trying very hard not to laugh at her. Like an utter fool . “Would you like me to sharpen your kitchen knife for you?”

D’Artagnan’s arm is still done up in its sling, which is the lynchpin upon which this entire invitation of Constance’s hinged, initially. A dislocated arm is a bother on good days and worst when you’re d’Artagnan, and unable to sit still or be peaceful for longer than half a day. 

Also, it was so terribly obvious that he missed his friends. 

Their friends, thinks Constance, suddenly and somewhat traitorously. She pushes the thought to the side and flings the bit of carrot at d’Artagnan instead, and then rues the hour her impulsiveness got the better of her and she decided to invite four Musketeers into her house for lunch.  

It’s not wholly unprecedented -- they’ve been in her home before, as a collective, more often than not without formal invitation. This time the invitation has been extended not so much with formality but certainly with premeditation. She wonders if perhaps this is wholly against the laws of the land, having half a regiment of soldiers in her home whilst her husband’s away.

But her husband is away -- and Constance craves friends.

Their friends .

Or perhaps. What those friends bring with them. But no, friends , ones that make it so easy for her to forget herself, ones that a respectable married woman in the middle class of Parisian society should not crave. That’s exactly it -- they make forgetting that she should not crave them easy, because they make it so easy for her to be , just as she is, as herself, as what she finds herself to be without stiffening effort. 

She’s still getting used to it. She’s still struggling with that nasally little voice. She’s trying to think of what to feed the four unwashed soldiers helping her out in the kitchen on this fine September afternoon.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Madame Bonacieux,” says Athos with very little inflection in his voice, when she voices this concern. He is sitting on the other side of the table where he is trying to choose between two bottles of wine. “Porthos takes his personal hygiene very seriously.”

Only Porthos?” says Aramis, sounding even more affronted than before. “I resent that statement. Everyone knows d’Artagnan’s the only one who never washes behind his ears.”

D’Artagnan splutters; Aramis turns, and gives Constance a most exaggerated wink over his shoulder, and then goes back to chopping vegetables with his entirely inappropriate dagger. Constance starts laughing and doesn’t stop for the rest of the day, and the evening, and well into the next morning up until her husband returns from his trip, self-aggrandizing from having sold some things and peevish from not having sold enough.

There’s a moment in the evening interval, in which d’Artagnan has fallen asleep (his arm is still sore, even though he pretends it’s not) slumped comfortably against an amenable Porthos, and Aramis is humming lightly as he wipes down the table, likely mostly just to appease her but done with an overwrought air of politeness, as though to prove that he is indeed a most well-mannered sort. Also because she is sure he has noticed, with those sharp eyes of his, how her feet have begun to hurt at the end of the long day, and inserted himself smoothly into the completion of daily rituals that she’d feel badly missing.

Constance sits beside Athos at the far end of the kitchen table. He had brought the wine -- expensive, something he certainly took the time to find, and that thought makes her flush a little bit with something that isn’t entirely embarrassment -- and now pours its final portion into her and his own cups, comradely and welcoming. The movement’s quite delicate, given how he usually is with drink. Constance plays her fingers along the edge of the table and watches the gentle rise and fall of d’Artagnan’s lean chest, half-illuminated in the dying firelight. 

She wonders at this feeling, the thrum in her fingers every time she sees him. At the heedless something that fills her lungs with air each time he drags her, whirlwind, into another adventure. She’s sure if asked he’d swear up and down he doesn’t mean to do it.

She’s not sure if she herself would believe him -- nor is she sure that the filled-lung feeling, the thrum, is because of d’Artagnan or the whirlwind or the adventure.

Constance doesn’t voice any of this. Instead she turns to Athos, and blushes a bit to find him looking at her, a little too knowingly behind his drooping eyelids and moppish hair that he somehow manages to make look aristocratic despite himself. She searches about, half-heartedly, for an alibi. When she finds it she’s not so much hesitating as she is quiet, and unthinking. Perhaps this is a function of the flickering light of her kitchen, so different now than it is in the harsh light of daytime, with Jacques present. Or perhaps it is because she is tired, here at the end of the evening, but the sort of tired that comes out of a long, happy day.

“Thank you,” she says. “For coming today. It did him some good, to have the company.” She looks sidelong at Athos, and doesn’t notice the odd note in her own voice when she adds, “he’s come to be quite fond of you all, you know.”

Athos, drink halfway to his lips, pauses. For a moment his neutral expression flickers, and there is something curious in his gaze, an added layer to the earlier knowing. Then he tips his glass, silently, to her, and says with a minute, inviting curl to his lips,

“That’s what friends are for, Constance.”

She looks at him for a moment, warm with a sort of uncertain understanding that she’d not dared to have earlier. And then d’Artagnan snuffles in his sleep, and Constance falls back into quiet laughter, harmonizing with all the others, as easily as slipping into a well-used blanket.